winter float fishing

Winter Float Trips in Vail, Colorado: Everything You Need to Know

The ski resorts attract most people to the Vail area during the winter months, but the local rivers should be on your list to check out. There can be days out on the water with 50+ plus fish caught and not another angler in sight. Typically the easiest way to fly fish in the winter is by bank fishing or wade fishing the Eagle River and Gore Creek, a full day adventure floating the Roaring Fork River or Colorado River can be a very productive way to fly fish during this time of year. If you are an angler that is seeking a little more adventure, the full day winter float fishing trip is the way to go. Below you will find some key information about our guided winter float fishing trips as well as a couple tips and techniques to get you prepared.

What is a float fishing trip?

Many of our rivers here in Colorado are private and inaccessible on foot, but one way to fish these waters without trespassing is by floating through them. Making float fishing a great way to access under pressured waters. The float trip also allows you to cover a lot of productive water in a short period of time. There is no time wasted getting in the vehicle to find more fishable water.

Most of the time in the winter our fly fishing guides operate out of 14-foot rubber rafts with custom fishing frames that fit two anglers, one up front and one in the back. Each raft has a seat, a floor to stand on, and a lean bar. Making casting, comfortable and easy. At times, our fly fishing guides will also use hard bottomed drift boats. In the winter the float trips are full day adventures as the drive time to get to the rivers is typically around one hour there and one hour back. Giving the anglers around 6 hours of fishing time. Which is plenty of time to be out on the water during the colder months.

A float fishing trip can be enjoyed by beginner or never-ever anglers. However, the anglers going should be prepared for a full day out on the water in the winter elements. Weather can impact the availability of these trips. During big cold fronts where temps may be in single digits, a wade fishing trip may be a better option. But most of the time, when the temps are around 32 degrees a winter float trip is doable. Our fly fishing guides know best and will make the call on what to do and what to expect. If you are interested in a float trip you can find more information here.

How to Prepare for a Winter Float Trip?

winter weather fly fishing

What to wear:

Being properly dressed for a full day on the water is key to enjoying the experience. As the weather in the Rockies is always changing we recommend dressing in layers. Just like you would on the ski hill. Baselayers, mid-layers, some sort of insulation (down works well), and a rain jacket or ski jacket. We outfit you in our breathable waders to keep you dry while out on the water. So typically mid or base layers on your bottom will suffice and warm socks like ski socks are perfect. We do not recommend wearing jeans or cotton sweatpants. Synthetic or wool layers will keep you warmest and regulate properly.

As for accessories, polarized sunglasses are a must, a beanie or warm hat and buff or gaiter, as well as fishing gloves (hand warmers can be a game changer). We have a variety of fly fishing gloves for sale at the shop from Simms Fishing and Patagonia. The Simms Gortex Extream Foldover Mitt is a favorite among our guides. It is also not a bad idea to bring a change of clothing just in case you do end up getting wet for some reason. Check out this previous blog to understand exactly what to wear on the water in the winter.

Check the Weather:

The weather in the Vail area is always changing, be sure to check the weather to see what the weather is doing. If snow is coming, have no fear this may actually turn on the bite. It is the strong cold fronts that can turn off the fishing and make the full day less enjoyable due to the cold temperatures. We try to focus our day on fishing during the warmest part. As this is when the fish are most active. Check the weather near Glenwood Spring, Colorado as this is the central town of where we take our winter float trips.

Fly Fishing Tips and Techniques for Winter Float Fishing:

Now that you are properly prepared for a winter float trip in Vail, Colorado, here are some fly fishing tips and techniques that will help you have more success out on the water.

Preparation is Key to Staying Warm:

If you are headed out on a guided trip with one of our professional fly fishing guides, be sure to be prepared before heading out into the winter elements. All of our fishing guides provide flies and fly rods, but if for some reason you are bringing your own gear, be sure to have this rigged up before heading outside. Rigging at home in the winter can save you from getting cold hands before even stepping foot outside. Bring extra clothing if you are unsure of what to wear, we can always leave it in the car if we don’t need it. A warm beverage like coffee or tea can also be a good idea when heading out on the water.

Proper Casting Means Fewer Tangles and More Hook Ups

Once out on the boat, fly casting can be quite different than it is on the bank. Instead of leaning heavily on overhead casting, utilize stream loaded fly casts as well as roll casts. A lot of the time we fish heavier nymphing rigs that can more easily be roll cast than cast overhead. No need to look like Brad Pitt from the River Runs Through It with your casting, listen to your guide and keep your casting stroke short and simple.

Less Casting More Fishing

One nice thing about floating and fly fishing is that the boat is able to follow along with your drift and eliminate the need for a lot of casting. When you make a cast, it typically takes a couple seconds for your flies to drop down into the feeding zone. Every time that you recast, your flies are pulled out of the feeding zone and therefore it minimizes the time that the flies are in the strike zone. Oppose to the summer when dry fly fishing from a boat where you want to get drifts in a variety of different places along the bank.

In the winter the fish are more concentrated in the slower deeper water. So one good cast off the side of the boat can lead to a nice long drift as the boat can follow along. Get in the mindset of “less casting, more fishing” when float fishing in the winter.

Stack Mend for the Win

Again building on the mentality of “less casting, more fishing” mantra instead of recasting some proper mending might just be all you need. A stack mend in technical terms is when you cast out your fly line and put extra slack on the water to create loops of line on the water to extend your drift. The loops of the line allow your flies to float naturally without any drag. Be careful as too much line can make it challenging to set the hook if the indicator does go down. Below is a video that explains the technique:

Set That Hook!

Fish takes in the winter can be very very subtle. The fish are a lot more lethargic as the water temps are cold, and therefore they move a lot slower. When a trout eats the subsurface fly or nymph sometimes the indicator will barely move as the take is so subtle. With this in mind, if you see that your indicator has moved at all, set that hook! This will result in more hookups and always remember “hooksets are free”!

Pick Up Slow.

When you’re at the end of your drift and it is time to recast the fly line, be sure to put an emphasis on picking up slowly as you recast. A lot of times as you are picking up your flies, the trout will engage and eat the emerging fly. So be sure to take things slow and pick up your fly line slowly as if you are waiting for a trout to latch on.

Fight the Fish with Extra Care.

In the winter months, we typically have to size down our tippet as the water conditions are low and clear making the fish a lot more spooky and smarter. Therefore the lighter strength tippet means the fish is more likely to break off if not played correctly. Be prepared to fight the fish on the fly reel, keep your rod tip up in the sky and listen to your guide. Don’t horse the fish in, instead, let the fish run, and slowly work the fish in. Being in the boat allows the advantage to move around to land the fish. Take your time and let one of our professional guides, help you in landing the fish. There is nothing worse than losing a fish that was so close to being caught!

Listen To Your Guide.

Our professional fly fishing guides are professionals for a reason, do your best to your listen to your guide and your day will be one you soon won’t forget. Winter float fishing is a lot different than fishing in the warmer parts of the year and a lot different from bank fishing. So trust your guide and it will pay off!

Safety is the Priority.

Above all else, at Vail Valley Angler safety is our priority. In the winter months, there is an added element of danger out on the rivers due to the colder temperatures. We take safety seriously, all clients are required to wear life jackets or PFDs during the entirety of the trip and all our winter float guides are oar certified with the proper safety gear like throw bags. The number one rule to staying safe out on the water is to stay in the boat. All of our boats are outfitted with comfortable seats and lean bars providing anglers with ease to cast without even standing up. For all of our winter float trips, we have safety plans set in place and do stay in cell phone range just in case of emergencies.

To Conclude:

Winter float fishing can be a great way to experience winter fly fishing in #troutcountry. Hopefully, these tips and techniques will prepare you for an unforgettable experience. Be sure to check our fishing reports for updated reports on the rivers we float fish in the winter. And if you are interested in booking a winter float trip, you can find more information HERE or call the shop at 970-926-0900.

Patrick Perry, Former Fishing Guide, and Content Contributor.