Spring Float Fishing on Colorado’s Roaring Fork River

Spring Fishing on the Roaring Fork
The intense hatches and predictably excellent fly fishing of July on the Roaring Fork may be months away, but for anglers in the know, if you are willing to put up with some cooler weather, early season spring float fishing on the Roaring Fork is just as good minus the crowds. The float fishing on the Roaring Fork really gets going in late February or early March and runs through spring for several weeks, usually until late April or early May. This is when the days get longer, temperatures moderate, bug hatches become regular and the river comes alive with prespawn rainbows and more active brown trout. This is the season that our guides at Vail Valley Anglers really get excited about after a long winter and the kickoff to the fly season.

Roaring Fork Float Trip Options

For the majority of float anglers, the “Lower Fork” is where the majority of early season float trips occur. From Carbondale down to Glenwood Springs, the Fork offers twelve miles of superb fly fishing for large rainbows, browns and whitefish with the occasional cutthroat trout.

There are three boat ramps that split this Gold Medal stretch into two separate floats or one long one. Put in at Carbondale and take out halfway to Glenwood Springs at the Westbank boat ramp. This float features long riffles and several deep holes where trout congregate in the early season and gets more sun exposure. At Westbank, anglers can float down to the Two Rivers Park on the Colorado River. This section has more deep holes and less sun exposure because of a more canyon-like nature.  The long float from Carbondale to Two Rivers is best when the river flows begins to come up a little later in the spring because it takes much longer to float this stretch.

Boat Trips

Both drift boats and rafts are used on the lower Fork. We prefer rafts even on the lower river, especially during the early season when flows are low. Banging a heavy drift boat down the river usually means paying more attention to the rowing than the fishing but in a raft, shallow, rocky water does not present a problem.

For anglers with a small fishing raft and some rowing skills the Middle Fork also offers float fishing opportunities between Basalt and Carbondale. Anglers can put in at Hooks Bridge in El Jebel and float down to Carbondale. There are also unimproved launch sites at Basalt and Catherine’s Store bridge which either lengthen or shorten this float. This is narrow, skinny water with some artificial hazards so be careful rowing this stretch.

The Roaring Fork is a mix of private and public water and trespassing must be avoided. Be aware of where you are and do not drop anchor or wade fish if you are unsure of public access.

Early Season Roaring Fork Hatches

Beginning in March, the first real hatch starts with the Midgezilla. These large olive midges run about a size 16-18 and are often confused with BWO mayflies which start reliably hatching little later in March. Each of these hatches spurs the Fork’s trout into heavy feeding both under and on the surface. Some favorite flies include the Olive Biot Midge and BWO Parawulff.

Stoneflies also make an appearance at this time. Golden stonefly nymphs are very active and run from size 6 to 12. Hatching stoneflies are olive and brown much like a Skwala and average size 10-12. It’s hard to beat a Rubberleg Twenty Incher or brown Pat’s Rubberleg.

What to Use:

Because of its lower elevation and tendency to warm up early in the spring. This means caddis make an appearance here before many other rivers. In late March and early April, a size 14 Caddis will begin hatching. Later in April the full-blown Mother’s Day Caddis will hatch in clouds. Try a size 14 Black Foam Caddis, Soft-Hackle Pheasant Tail, or Barr’s Graphic Caddis.

Don’t forget the junk flies. Spring fly fishing on the Fork often sees fish that will aggressively eat eggs and worms. These flies also excel when a warm day causes the river to get colored up. The fishing can really turn on when the water goes from clear to green and may get tough when it changes again from green to brown.

Early Season Roaring Fork Fly Fishing Tactics

The early season on the Fork gives float fishermen the opportunity to catch fish using a variety of methods, usually in the same day. Nymphing is the old standby that puts a lot if fish in the net. In the morning, focus on deeper holes and runs. As the water warms and hatches begin, look for fish to slide into riffles.

It’s always encouraging when you are on an early season float on the Roaring Fork and see the first steadily rising fish of the year. In March, trout will usually begin rising around lunchtime and continue through the afternoon. You won’t see many bank risers common in the summer. Early season dry fly fish should be targeted in the shallower tailouts of long deep holes. As flows rise in April, more trout will move towards the banks where they’ll eat a dry fly.

Other Thoughts:

The first big streamer day of the year will usually happen about the same time trout are willing to actively eat on the surface and feed on emergers in faster riffles. Warm, cloudy days are best. When the switch flips, the streamer fishing can be lights out with multiple trout chasing the same bulky fast-moving fly. These aggressive trout are completely different animals than the sluggish winter fish that wouldn’t move more than a few inches to eat tiny midge larvae. Try a Vanilla Bugger or olive sculpin patterns stripped through deeper pockets and potholes near the bank.


To book a Trip or Check Fishing Reports:

Vail Valley Anglers offers Full Day Float Trips on the Roaring Fork and the fishing has been excellent.

Check our fishing reports here: http://www.vailvalleyanglers.com/fishing-conditions

Brody Henderson, Guide and Content Writer