Landing a fish on the Yampa River

Destination Trout: Yampa River Headwaters

Many of us, especially in winter, find ourselves drawn to tailwater fisheries. And for good reasons. Consistent water temperatures and flows nearly year round. Easily accessible pools, runs and pockets of pristine trout habitat. And of course, enormous fish populations touting trophy size specimens. Typically, when we discuss tailwaters, the big players immediately pop into our heads: the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir, Cheesman Canyon, the Frying Pan below Ruedi Reservoir, etc. But I want to talk about a lesser known, albeit equally amazing, tailwater fishery; the Yampa River headwaters (aka the Stagecoach tailwaters).

The Where and the Why

Being a local, I was pretty disappointed in myself for realizing only a few short months ago that this relatively local water even existed. You, on the other hand, can forgo any self prescribed pity by reading this handy and informative blog right now.

The Yampa River headwaters, located in Stagecoach State Park, is a quick and beautiful jaunt of approximately 63 miles from the Vail Valley Anglers fly shop in Edwards, CO. From the Wolcott exit off I-70, head north on CO Highway 131 to County Rd 14 just past Phippsburg, making a mental note of the uninterrupted (no stop lights or signs) and scenic drive you just completed. Follow the well-marked signs to Stagecoach State Park and upon entrance, take your first left onto County Rd 18 (don’t forget to stop at the kiosk and purchase your $7 day pass). This dirt road meanders along the northside of Stagecoach reservoir for roughly 1.25 miles before descending into the tailwaters (for more information, check out

***Important note*** From January 1st through April 1st each year, the gate to County Rd 18 is closed and locked for wintering elk habitat and migration protection. For those of you who don’t mind a little hike-to-fish adventuring, this proves to be quite advantageous. The crowds during this timeframe are significantly diminished, leaving the .6 miles of prime trout waters mainly to yourself. Not only will you have free reign over the most desirable runs and pools, but you will also experience some well deserved solitude.  Exchange the noise of vehicles clambering down the road and car doors slamming with the sound of water rolling and your reel humming.

The Trout and the Tactics

Although the Yampa headwaters also hold brown and brook trout, this fishery is known for its large and abundant population of rainbows.  The rainbows below Stagecoach Reservoir boast an uncanny brilliance in their colors and patterns. And they are out stalking the water in numbers, often stacked shoulder to shoulder everywhere you look. These rainbows, similar to the ones found in other tailwaters, are accustomed to anglers. They are therefore not easily spooked but on the other hand, much more selective in their feeding habits.

Now, if you are like me and get a little antsy when first wetting your line on new waters, I would suggest getting there early and heading to the spillway pool. Tie on a weighted yet smaller streamer like the tungsten Thin Mint or Sparkle Minnow and cast far up into the pool. I have found that streamers are very effective, especially in tailwaters, in the early mornings (as well as on overcast days). Get a couple trout in the net right off the bat so you won’t feel as much pressure to hook up immediately when fishing the more technical and discriminating waters downriver.

Once you get your quick fix, walk back downstream and choose one of the numerous runs to set up shop at. I would opt for a stretch that is relatively eddy-free, alleviating the need for more complex mending. As mentioned before, the trout are very particular about how they feed. It took me the better part of a morning to figure out the correct rigging and drifts before landing trout more consistently. Patience, as any angler will admit, is the key to success.

Rigging up with 5x or 6x fluorocarbon tippet is a must, especially when the water is low and clear. And switching from an Air-lock or Thingamabobber strike indicator to a wool or sticky foam (use two pieces of foam if you rig is on the heavy side) indicator made all the difference when laying down a gentle cast. I also discovered that a longer dead drift stemming from a longer cast produced more strikes and hook-ups when compared to those generated from shorter casts. If you need a little extra weight to get your flies down to where the trout are feeding in deeper pools, micro split shot is the way to go, starting with very light and adding weight as needed.

As for fly selection, small and nondescript works the best. While doing research for my trip to the Yampa headwaters, several veteran fly fisherman suggested throwing a brightly colored Squirmy Wormy. I tried. No strikes. But when I tied on a size 22 tungsten black Zebra Midge below a size 8 black Pat’s Rubber Leg, the results were more than favorable. Gray and black RS2’s also garnered strikes. I’d say the rule of thumb is this: leave the flashy bugs at home and be sure to bring you small, dull, earth tone and dark flies with. And although there wasn’t any top water action the day I fished there, matching the hatch for dry flies rarely fails.

Final Thoughts

With a straightforward and scenic drive, a gorgeous river setting, and a bountiful fishery holding energetic trout, the Yampa headwaters are more than worth spending some quality time at. I know I will be back there soon. Casting, stripping, mending, setting and hopefully netting the always elusive river pig. Keep em wet, handle them sparingly, and always appreciate where you are.

Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers Content Writer, @sticks2snow