I won’t be the first to admit this. And I definitely won’t be the last. But I love the Frying Pan River. It’s not because the fishing is easy (most would agree it’s far from that). It’s not because there are thousands of trout, some of which are trophy specimens (although that fact does provide some incentive). And it’s not because the Frying Pan is remote and uninhabited (during fair-weather weekends, the upper stretches have less elbow room than a Mini Cooper loaded with four NFL linebackers). I love the Frying Pan because it is iconic. From its boulder-rimmed pools and long, glassy flat stretches to its red canyon backdrop and unhurried ambiance, the Frying Pan is the kind of river that comes to mind when I think of fly fishing. An angler with his tools, wading in perfect waters, engulfed in an immaculate natural setting….
Yes, the Frying Pan is a tailwater river. And I know that some anglers prefer to avoid such fisheries, similar to how there are purist out there who think that fishing a worm or egg pattern is faux pas. But you won’t find that type of discrimination from this fly fisherman. I do, however, acknowledge that the Ruedi Dam creates an abnormal ecosystem for the waters below, an aquatic environment that would not exist without its enormous manmade counterpart. But I actually appreciate the year-round, virtually homogeneous conditions it provides. For it is those conditions, found in most tailwaters, that sustain monumental trout populations with average sizes well above normal. And those two selling points have been known to convert the most adamant naysayers.
But the goal of this article is not to convince but to inform (and hopefully entertain as well). So without further ado, here’s the skinny on the Frying Pan River.
Background & Basics
For many Coloradan anglers, the Frying Pan’s notoriety runs in the same family as rivers like the South Platte, the Animas and the Gunnison. But beyond this regional recognition, the Frying Pan attracts both national and international attention. For instance, the famous fly fishing author John Gierach was spending a week at a luxurious fishing lodge in Scotland when two aristocratic patrons asked if he’d ever heard of the Frying Pan river in Colorado. And as a personal example, this past winter I met two Armenian gentlemen from LA who had found out about the Frying Pan from their Californian angling buddies. Amazing fisheries rarely remain a secret.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Frying Pan, it is a major tributary of the Roaring Fork River (which stretches from the Aspen area to its confluence with the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs). And although it runs roughly 42 miles, the 14 mile stretch from the Ruedi Dam to the town of Basalt is by far the most popular with anglers. Since the dam controls the water levels, regular flows range between 50 and 150 cfs. Considering its size and natural design, these typical flows create ideal fishing conditions. But some years (usually in late spring), the Bureau of Reclamation releases a significant amount of water, making it virtually unfishable. So, before heading down there, be sure to check the current water levels here.
As for fishing access, the river below Ruedi Reservoir (all of which is designated as Gold Medal) contains a healthy amount of public water. I’d say more than half is fair game to all anglers. But don’t worry about not knowing where private water meets public. The landowners and fishing club proprietors have posted a ridiculous amount of signage providing such information.
The Toilet Bowl
I have been making regular pilgrimages to the Pan for years now. But it wasn’t until this past fall that I put some serious time in at the Toilet Bowl. Aptly named, the Toilet Bowl is a deep, circular pool at the base of the dam where the spillway flushes into the river. It is loud, somewhat chaotic, usually crowded and very entertaining. Monstrous trout feed night and day on a steady supply of food (mainly Mysis shrimp). And anglers often stand inches from each other hoping to put one in their net. If you’re not into fishing in a social setting, either skip the Toilet Bowl entirely or opt for pre-dawn or late evening. But be warned, others have that same idea. And you will sometimes find fishermen there around the clock.
Nymphing is the name of the game in the Toilet Bowl. And in my opinion, it’s a great place to try/practice Euro (indicatorless) nymphing. Now, there are countless resources about mastering this technique. But I really appreciate author James Babb’s curt insights into the topic. In River Music, he writes that “the fly fisher’s favorite multipurpose greeting/benediction, Tight Lines, is more curse than blessing. A tight line is the last thing you want if you would connect with all those fish that take your underwater flies unseen. What you want is a line just loose enough to allow free movement of the fly and just tight enough to transmit the slightest change in tension.”
I always thought ‘tight lines’ referred to having a fish on rather than a high sticking technique. Nevertheless, Babb’s thoughts on Euro nymphing are spot on. Additionally, I would encourage using adequate split shot to get your flies down quickly. With patience and focus, you’ll land one of those river pigs.
Below the Bowl
Directly below the Toilet Bowl, the river flows into a shallow, flat and wide section known as, you guessed it, the Flats. This can be a very technical stretch of water as trout are often hard to spot, their numbers aren’t as high and a perfect presentation is absolutely everything. A lethal combination of sight fishing with Euro nymphing will be your most productive approach. And tying on 6-8x fluorocarbon tippet is highly recommended. Most anglers won’t use anything bigger than #22 patterns. I think you get the picture. Small tackle, stealth and precision will be your true allies here.
After the 200ish yards of the Flats, the Frying Pan quickly tapers into the Bend Pool. This short but worthy section is more or less a large natural aquarium. It is common to see dozens of trout (mainly browns) stacked on either bank. They are either waiting for bugs to drift directly into their mouths or just killing time between feeding sessions. And this is a key point to fishing the Bend Pool. Don’t frustrate yourself trying to catch a trout that isn’t eating. Look for the ones that are moving around in the water column. Or cue in on flashing sides and active jaws. Fish to those trout using similar methods mentioned above. If you prefer to use an indicator at this point, I’d suggest going with a clear Air-Lock or the white sticky foam option.
At the head of the Bend Pool, hatches often produce some excellent dry fly action, even in the dead of winter. And if you’re there in the early morning or late evening, strip a small but heavy streamer through the length of its depths. The big boys are known to respond. And you’ll be stoked when they do.
Exploring The River
During any given day on the Pan, the bulk of the crowds will confine themselves to the areas described above. This can be rather comical as there is plenty of inviting water throughout the rest of the river. I often start my early mornings in the upper stretches. And then work my way downriver as the day progresses and the crowds thicken. Regardless of your itinerary, I highly encourage all anglers to explore the middle and lower areas of the Pan. There are plenty of gravel parking areas and pull-outs strategically placed in public access stretches. And the variety of water entices every anglers’ preferences. From shallow riffles perfect for nymphing emerger patterns to roomy pocket water offering top-water opportunities, the adventurous fly fisher will no doubt find what they’re looking for by choosing the road less traveled.
Without revealing all of my favorite spots (although I’m sure you could figure them out on your own), I will allude to one. Snoop around the stretch of water close to mile marker 8. In particular, there is one deep pool where my friends and I have had tremendous success with dries, streamers and nymphs. There’s usually a dense population of trout holding in this area. And we’ve caught both browns and rainbows over 20” there. It’s definitely worth a gander.
Tips & Tactics
In general, the trout that call the Frying Pan River their home see a lot of fisherman and their tackle. Essentially, each angler who frequents these waters has instructed the fish on what to be wary of and what NOT to eat. For centuries, the joke about smart fish has played tricks on the minds of fly fisherman. And the Frying Pan trout perpetuate that paradox ten-fold. But everyday, fish are caught. And some days, loads of fish are landed. Below, I’ve outlined a list of tips and tactics that aim to increase your hook-ups on the Pan.
-Want to avoid the crowds? Fish the Pan on weekdays, during the winter or days when the weather is foul. Planning to fish in the mile stretch below the dam? Get there in the early mornings or late afternoons. And as mentioned above, you can always find some solitude if you seek out areas that aren’t as easy to get to.
-Hatches can be thick in some sections and sparse in others. If you feel like the conditions are right for, let’s say, a midge or BWO hatch but you’re not seeing any bugs, move to another area.
-Precise presentation with tiny tackle is paramount. Although they don’t spook easily, the trout will deny a sloppy cast or drift all day long. And typically, patterns with lots of flash or bright colors get refused. Small, dull flies are usually more successful.
-There are stretches of the Pan that provide great canyon conditions, namely shadows and shade. If you time your day out appropriately, you can use that low light to your advantage.
Be sure to stop into Vail Valley Anglers and talk to their knowledgeable staff. They will outfit you with the perfect flies, tackle and gear to get the job done.