I often get asked by my clients when is the best time to come to Vail, Colorado to fly fish. The answer is, although some months are more consistent than others, trout can be caught every month of the year. Even in the cold of January, good fishing can be found on rivers in the mountains of the Centennial State. Timing is important and cold snaps can adversely affect feeding activity but winter fly fishing can be a rewarding experience for those anglers willing to give it a try.
January Hatches and Flies
Insect activity is at a minimum during this month. Cold water and short days limits hatches and dry fly fishing for rising trout is a rare opportunity. This lack of insect emergence is not necessarily a handicap, however. During July, when several species of bugs can be hatching at the same time, fly choice can sometimes be a challenge. In January, fly choice is usually pretty straight forward when only a few different patterns are necessary.
The only bugs an angler will regularly see hatching are tiny midges and the trout tend to focus on these small bugs throughout the month. A selection of simple midge larvae and emergers in black, red, olive, gray and cream in sizes #18-22 cover these hatches. Black beauties, Miracle Nymphs, Disco Midges , RS-2s and WD-40s are all good choices. For those special days when trout are rising, a tiny Parachute Adams, Renegade or Griffith’s Gnat will rarely be refused.
Other important food sources include stoneflies, eggs, and various caddis and mayfly larvae that will not hatch for months. Golden stonefly imitations like a Twenty Incher do well as a point fly above your midge patterns. Attractors like a prince nymph or copper john also will get eaten when midges are not hatching as will San Juan Worms and Glo-bugs. Big meaty streamers swung very slowly or even dead drifted is a little used but effective January fly fishing tactic for targeting very large trout looking for a lethargic and easy meal.
Good January Rivers
Not all trout streams are created equal in January. Ice and slush is a challenge on some rivers. Some good choices near Vail, Colorado include Gore Creek below Lionshead, which stays open all winter. The lower Eagle near Gypsum holds large browns and rainbows and can be a good destination this month. The Roaring Fork River is one of Colorado’s best fisheries early in the new year and has lots of good, deep wintering holes where trout congregate to feed in the winter. For anglers looking to float this month, the lower Colorado is a big river below Glenwood Springs that is much easier to fish from a boat than wading. It is the best bet for float trips and is home to larger than average trout that tend to eat very well in the winter.
Tips and Tactics for January Trout
As mentioned earlier, dry fishing is not to be expected this month. Nymphing deep holes accounts for 90% of the trout landed in January. The good news is it can be more common to land larger trout in the winter.
- Weighted rigs that drag bottom will do the most damage.
- Thoroughly cover holes rather than constantly moving from one spot to another.
- If you catch one trout, there are more there. Keep at it because trout are more concentrated in the low water of winter than any other time of year.
- Start at the slow tail of a hole and work towards the faster water at the head. Most trout will be in the deepest gut of the hole in the middle.
- Early morning starts are unnecessary. The best fishing is from late morning through late afternoon.
- Don’t be afraid to fish while it is snowing. In fact, seek out those days. Due to warmer temps and increased insect and trout activity, darker, cloudy days tend to fish better than sunny bluebird days after a storm.
- Hire a guide. They know where the best winter holes are and will save visiting anglers time and frustration.
- Airlocs or Thingamabobbers are the best choice for strike indicators in the winter. They float well, detect subtle unaggressive strikes and will not ice up.
- Rubber soled wading boots make life much easier when it is cold and snow blankets the riverbanks. They do not collect snow like felt soles and have superior traction.
- Approach January fly fishing with proper expectations. A few trout landed on a beautiful winter afternoon with no other anglers around is a special treat but expecting twenty huge fish on dry flies is simply unrealistic.
At Vail Valley Anglers we’re getting started by hitting the rivers now when pressure is low. Here’s to a New Year of chasing trout in Colorado!
Brody Henderson, Senior Guide and Web Content Writer