The Pinball boat ramp is located about five miles downstream from the town of Burns and is best accessed from Vail by taking I-70 west to Dotsero and following the Colorado River Road upstream (north) for twenty miles. New construction at the ramp has made boat launching easy, with plenty of room to turn around and load/unload gear. There are no amenities at the ramp, but there are restrooms half a mile upstream at the Pinball campsite. The Horse Creek boat ramp is a new addition as of 2013 and is a part of Eagle County Open Space. The new Horse Creek ramp has restrooms and plenty of parking. Launch and parking fees are not required at either ramp.
The first three miles of this float can be challenging for the beginner oarsman. Numerous class II rapids run together. The two most difficult obstacles in this stretch are Pinball rapid and the Twin Bridges rapid, both of which are easily scouted. The railroad bridge at Pinball should be scouted for those new to this section. Take a look at Pinball rapid from the road before arriving at the boat ramp and scout the Twin Bridges from the slow moving water just above it.
In winter, this section is locked in ice and during spring it often runs muddy. By mid-summer, however, the great fishing for large wild trout makes this remote float worth the effort. These unpressured browns and rainbows will eagerly eat a variety of flies. Clear flows and decent hatches keep the fish feeding. They tend to be less selective than the more educated trout on the more popular upstream floats. Because of the numerous tributaries and dry washes above this stretch of river. Many summer thunderstorms can push muddy water into the Colorado and temporarily slow the fly fishing. This section fishes best after a few days without rain. Terrestrials, streamers, and small mayflies like tricos and blue winged olives are the bugs of choice here.
Late summer through late fall is when this section fishes the best. Hopper-dropper fishing is predictably good in July, August and September while autumn streamer fishing can be exciting and productive with flies in the brown and yellow color scheme. The fall blue-winged olive hatch brings fish to the surface along slower banks and eddies.
Camping and Shuttles
If you are planning on an overnight trip here, try to select your campsite from the road before launching. Several free unmaintained campsites exist on both sides of the river for the first two and a half miles, but much of the second half of the float is private property with no camping opportunities. A good stop for a campsite is on river left at Jack Flats in a grove of large Ponderosa pines. As always, practice Leave No Trace Ethics while on the river, and pack out all trash. Rancho Del Rio provides shuttles for float trips from Pumphouse to Dotsero but the shuttles on this stretch are an investment and do-it-yourself float fishermen are better off bring two vehicles and running their own shuttles. Update Jack Bombardier at Confluence Casting offers shuttles on this section and can be reached at 970-524-2775.
This trip is a favorite among fishing guides because of the incredible canyon scenery and low fishing pressure. If you want to see this section of river from a drift boat or raft on a guided fly fishing trip, give Vail Valley Anglers a call at (970) 926-0900, request your favorite float guide, and take the journey from Pinball Rapid to Horse Creek.
Andy “Otter” Smith, Guide and Content Writer