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Fly Fishing Paradise In The Colorado Rockies
by Mike Burgess

When you work as hard as people have to nowadays, playing just as hard becomes pretty important. One of the things I try to do at least once a year to relax and get away from the rat race is fly fishing in the Rocky Mountains. I think over the years I've been fishing in every western state and most of the major fishing resorts and for my money, Colorado has the best around. Spending a week or two at one of the state's wonderful resorts or just hitting a river recharges the batteries like nothing else.

I'm going to give a few suggestions of some of the best (in my opinion) places to go and some cool and essential gear to take with you, along with some tips and tricks and maybe some information you didn't know, to help make your Rocky Mountain fly fishing experience the best it can be. I'm writing this more for the novice to advanced beginning anglers, but there is information here for everyone else, too.

First, we'll discuss a few basics for those who may need it. There are a few things to keep in mind if you do go fly fishing, either on a local river or at a fishing resort, especially if you're a newcomer to the sport. If you're an old hand, maybe you're like me and a refresher might come in handy too. After that we'll get into equipment, locations and references.


Safety Note: Before attempting to fish in any rushing river, lake or stream, particularly in a wilderness setting, always make sure you are physically fit enough to do so. Stretch and limber yourself up, even to just walk short distances on a flat, paved road. Be sure you have all of your equipment and that it is harnessed and not leaking. Hypothermia can be a gradual menace as well as instant, and it poses the same risk to your health and safety, no matter its onset. Check with your doctor if you have medical problems and let him/her know where you are going and when, and give him/her as much of a description of the activity as you can.

Never, never, never fish alone. Always take at least one companion with you. Always tell other people EXACTLY where you're going, how long you expect to be gone and emergency contact information just in case. Wear good, strong, durable protective clothing and gear which is in good repair. I always suggest wearing long pants in the hiking stage if you have to walk a ways to your fishing area. You never know what lurks in the weeds along the way. Always, always wear waders in the water, no matter how warm the water feels.

I HIGHLY suggest always wearing a hat while fishing, especially if you're going out overnight. The head is the number one place the body loses heat from, so always keep a hat at hand. Also bring plenty of sun block, at least SPF 30, a first aid kit, plenty of water, plenty of food, and if you take prescription medications be sure to bring at least two days supply of medication beyond what you might need.

Walkie talkies, GPS, a sharp folding knife, matches and a flashlight are also basic gear to bring. If you're fishing in a location that has cell reception, a cell phone could be a lifeline in an accident. Maps and a compass can help tremendously as well. If you're doing overnighters, tents and sleeping bags are important. An extra set of clothing and weather protection like a warm jacket or rain gear can be useful. Now all of these things may or may not be necessary, depending on the length of your hike, but it's a good list just to be sure. Obviously you won't be carrying these on your back while fishing, but having this safety gear nearby is a very good idea.


The Basics

The first thing to keep in mind is that fly fishing is different from the kind of fishing done on the banks of the hometown river or from a boat out on the lake. In fly fishing, it is the weight of the line that actually propels the lure to the fish, whereas in the standard fishing most people do it's the weight of the sinkers and the lure that delivers the line to the fish. Fly fishing is tailor made for fast-moving water, although it works well on certain lakes and even in the winter (if you're hardy enough for it--or just a die-hard). But for the purposes of this article we're going to stick to the faster moving rivers and streams that seem to provide such a bonanza during spring and summer. The other assumption we'll make here is that we're all using 5-weight line, which is a really good line weight, especially for larger trout and other fish of any size.

The action you're looking for is a whipping motion. By whipping the line to and fro and slapping the water with the line, the lure is delivered to the fish and in a very enticing way. The idea behind flipping the line through the air back and forth is that when the fish sees the lure he generally believes it's an active, living insect that fate has just landed in front of him, and it's typically irresistible. Mayfly a la mode.

Second, the weather is ultra-important. Here's a little tip that a lot of newer anglers don't consider: cloudy, rainy days are great for fly fishing. Why? Imagine you're fishing the Roaring Fork River (by far my overall favorite river to fish) and the hot Colorado sun is beating down on your neck. Wouldn't it be nice to have a more overcast day, a little rain to keep things just a bit cooler, maybe not so much sunlight to squint into? Fish think so too.

Overcast or cloudy days, a little rain--perfect weather. Fish hate to look up and squint into the sun. They don't have eyelids, remember. If the day is a little darker, less sunlight, etc., they will tend to look up more often, which is exactly what you want them to do. You want them to see the lure, right? A little rain popping on the surface near your lure and they can't tell exactly what it is, and I've gotten a lot of good hits in just that scenario. Trust me, it works.

When the water is colder or in early Spring when "dirty water" flushes into the rivers and streams from runoff, a lot of fish will tend to go inactive and just sit at the bottom of the river. You can still catch them. Use lures that ride the bottom and the middle of the river and you will have some good success on these days. Remember that all fish are predators and they are constantly thinking of eating. You just have to offer the right bait, and sometimes it has to be special delivery. Delivery is the key.


To do this, the first thing you need is the proper equipment. What you take with you is the key to either success or failure, and you can usually get good, solid equipment without spending a fortune. But it has to be the right equipment for the job.

For example, when I was a kid and my dad bought me my first rod and reel, it was a basic white nylon rod with a standard Zebco reel. We bought a variety of spinners, glow worms, spoons, etc. We would drown so many worms every summer that my dad was afraid they'd go extinct. It all worked great for bluegill, sunfish, smaller trout and catfish, smaller-sized bass, etc. It wasn't great for the larger hauls, mainly because the test on the line was so minimal and the pole would break if you hooked a fish of any size who decided he didn't like your almondine recipe. So obviously this isn't a good rig for fly fishing, because casting and reeling in fly fishing takes specialized equipment. The pole you use is super important and the test on the line determines your success or failure with certain types of fish. With the right equipment and weather you can be the king of the river.

But the fly...ah, the fly. It's all about the lure isn't it? Different areas have different lures that will be more effective, and the more authentic they look the better. Whip the right lure in the right area you can have a fish on the other end of your line before you know it. There are a ton of books available online to let you know what works where and at the end of this article I will give a list of some good equipment, suppliers, books, resorts, etc., just to make things easier. And easier is always better.


To my mind, the best way to find all the equipment you need with suggestions on everything from pricing to use is to pick up an Orvis Catalog or go to and click on their Fly Fishing link. A good beginning rod (stay away from the ultra-low priced, less than $100 rods--you'll be needing another rod in a week) is their T3 865-2 Freshwater Fly Rod. It's strong, durable, able to handle anything you can pull from a Colorado river, and at about $375 (currently on sale) it is one of the best values on the market, and depending on how often you fish and what you look for you may find it's a pretty decent rod.

For just a little more money (An additional $100) you can't go wrong with the Orvis T3 905-4 Freshwater Fly Rod. It's a four-piece, flex yip rod, 5-weight line (a good standard for most Rocky Mountain fish) and according to their website it provides "a shorter, faster casting stroke, high line speed, and tight loops. T3 technology creates smooth consistent power at any distance, suitable for all casting styles. For casting hoppers in the wind, or getting that extra distance, a high octane rod made to handle anything you encounter." Bottom line; it's also a damn good rod.

But for me, the gold standard is the ZG Helios 865-4 Tip 9.5 Fly Rod. This is a fabulous flex tip rod, and though more expensive (about $800) it is worth spending the extra cash to get this rod and just have done with the worry. I think I've probably used just about ever rod out there and I would go for this one every time and not look back . Eight and half feet long, 5-weight standard, woven graphite, super light weight--probably the best reel on the market.


I'm going to just cut to the chase and say that no matter what pole you purchase, there is only one really, really good reel you'll ever need, and it goes with just about any 5-weight standard pole. It's the Battenkill BLA III Fly Reel. It's the only reel I use, no matter what pole I may be using. It's made for trout, it easily accommodates 5-weight and higher line, depending on your goals, and at about $200 it's a great value.

For an extra hundred you can get an extra spool, which any real angler knows is a GREAT idea. It is lightweight, has magnificent action, the sweetest sound ever, and according to their marketing "the smooth and reliable carbon and stainless center disc drag with a one-way rollerbearing handles those big trout." You should believe every word of that.

One thing to be aware of: when looking for reels, don't overspend. A lot of people tend to do that and it winds up unnecessarily costing them a ton extra. If you're not a "big game" fisherman, resist the temptation to go whole hog and buy the big game reels. They're pretty, have a great sound and super action, and unless you are a big gamer you'll never need power like that. And starting from $225 to 500, they're a big purchase.


Flies are both personal and regional, meaning that each person needs to decide what they are going after and obtain flies well suited to that type of fish and location. Personal preference plays a large role in fly selection. For that reason I am going to beg off of advising anyone regarding the fly, probably the most important part of the process. Instead, look for the guidebooks I'm giving below to determine your needs and what will work best for you.

Factory-made flies are readily available and there are many, many good craftsmen out there making flies for customers,one at a time. You may also want to learn to make your own, a skilled enterprise all in itself, depending on how serious you are about the sport of fly fishing.


One of the more important pieces of equipment you will need is a good pair of waders. For me, Clearwater Endura™ Breathable Bootfoot Waders are an excellent choice. They come pre-fitted with boots, they are breathable, as the name indicates, they're good for almost any body of water you might be fishing in, they're a very comfortable neoprene, and at about $200 they won't break the bank. Enduras also come on a stocking foot model if you prefer to use separate wading boots, as many people do. But no matter what brand name or style of waders you get, make sure they are indeed breathable so you don't sweat a lot and end up with cold, wet feet.

A great choice for smaller streams and more shallow water are Silver Label Hippers. These are the classic hip waders and are very durable, come in both boot foot and stocking foot models, and are made of the same materials as the full waders at a lower price and are fully adjustable to your comfort.

If you're a more seasoned angler and interested in a more deluxe wader, the Tailwaters XT series is the way to go. The Tailwaters are somewhat the Cadillac of waders. These also come in boot foot and stocking foot models, and according to the website, "five-layer fabric reinforcements in key areas, and a four-way waterproof, highly breathable stretch upper so comfortable you'll forget it's there, the Tailwaters XT Bootfoot Wader is the ideal combination of comfort and performance." 'Nuff said. At $375 they're a bit pricey and are probably not the greatest choice for the novice or casual fly angler.


Any good fly angler knows it's the vest that makes or breaks your day fishing. The vest is what distinguishes a real fly angler. The doo-dads and gizmos needed for any successful fishing trip need to be in the pockets so that you can stay in the water fishing, and not be on the shore looking for stuff. There are several available in the marketplace and most are pretty economical.

The vest is a personal item in terms of style and utility and the best advice I can give is try a few at your local retailer and see what works best for you. Things to look for are netting for breathability, loops, zippers or buttons, velcro, etc. And of course the bane of fly fishermen everywhere: sagging.

My personal favorite and the vest I recommend to anyone who asks, is Orvis' Original Super Tac-L-Pak Vest. It's made for many kinds of weather and it's light weight and breathable function makes it ideal in my book. There are so many pockets and places to put things in this vest. It's fairly light weight at about a pound and a half, and at ninety bucks it's mid-range in price.

It's the classic fisher vest and Orvis claims it has been a favorite for over 50 years. It certainly is a good, utilitarian vest, I'll say that much.

Other Equipment

The vest serves a purpose and that's to hold all your equipment. Some of that should include sinkers, floats, strike indicators, knot trimmers, collapsible insect nets, fly line, forceps, stream thermometers, and (very important) a fish net, which obviously does not fit into a vest, but that's what the accessory loops are for. In addition to the vest I also like to wear a waterproof belly pack for things I want to keep separate from the vest.

Additionally I like to bring a compass, a sun visor and also a good fishing knife. The compass is just one of my own little tricks because it helps me remember where I was fishing a while back and to determine where I'm going next. I wear glasses full time so I bring wrap-around sun glasses to go over my regular glasses, but you should bring some sort of eye protection because the damage the sun can do to a person's eyes is staggering.

Once you get into the sport you're going to think of literally dozens of things to bring in your vest. If you're like me you won't have room for two quarters for a phone call. Remember - safety equipment is NEVER optional.

Resorts and Locations (NOTE: Most ranches are catch-and-release only)

The rule in real estate has always been location-location-location. The same holds true for fishing. You can't go out and toss a line just anywhere. You have to have the right place. Bar none, the best places to go are on what is known as the Eastern Slope. My personal recommendations are below, but keep in mind there are literally hundreds of great locations to go fly fishing in the state of Colorado.

Roaring Fork River - As I said before, this is one of my favorites. It's a great place for browns and all kinds of other fish. It's quick, challenging, not too cold (usually) and has a great assortment of fish. It has holes and deep channels and also shallows. I really enjoy this river.

Arkansas River - Outstanding fly fishing and on this river you could virtually fish year round. It is a larger river so caution is warranted in the heavier currents, but this is an ideal river to spend some quality time with a rod and reel. Some of the lower Arkansas River lakes are great, too.

Broadacres Ranch, Creede, CO. - This is a 900-acre ranch for fly fishing and family vacationing and it is absolutely magnificent. Pristine wilderness, some of the best fishing in Colorado, family-friendly facilities with activities for the whole family--just a great place. My favorite of the organized fishing lodges. One negative - it's a bit pricey, but if this is your annual vacation it is actually quite comparable to a lot of locations. This is an Orvis-endorsed resort.

High Lonesome Ranch, De Beque, CO. - This is a genuinely nice place. They have their own private fishing and the place is surrounded by 200 square miles of some of the most beautiful country on Earth. Browns, rainbows, cutthroats, brooks, cuttbows--they're all at High Lonesome Ranch. It's less expensive than Broadacres Ranch and they have some nifty package deals as well. Definitely worth a look.

Lake Estes - Obviously a lake, not a river, but it is one of the premier fishing spots in the Western United States. Every year they hold the annual Lake Estes Fishing Derby and the competition alone is worth the trip. Some of the best fishing you'll ever find. Some of the lower Arkansas River lakes are great, too.

Guide Books

Finally, I would like to point out some really decent guidebooks to use to help you with the sport of fly fishing. Most guides will go more in-depth into the basics and other pertinent information than I have here and of course guides regarding locations are virtually endless. One suggestion I would make to anyone is to pick up some of the AAA vacation guides, available free from any AAA Insurance office.

1. Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) - DOW puts out an annual brochure that points out laws, licenses required, habitat stamps (new since 2006), etc. Essential reading for anyone interested in fishing or hunting in the state. Make sure you have the most current one. They tend to make a lot of changes year to year. They also provide a free 40-page fishing guide when you purchase a subscription to their magazine, Colorado Outdoors.

2. Fly Fishing Rocky Mountain National Park : An Angler's Guide, by Todd Hosman

3. Fly Fishing Colorado's Front Range by Todd Hosman

4. Official Colorado Fishing Guide, 2nd Edition, by Kip Carey. Probably the most popular of the guidebooks.

5. Tying Flies for Spring Creeks and Tailwaters (**VIDEO**), by Mike Lawson

6. Colorado Atlas and Gazetteer, by Delorme Publ. Co. This is an excellent maps book.

7. Standing in a River Waving a Stick by John Gierach (A must-read funny and full of information)

8. Royal Coachmen, The Lore and Legends of Fly-Fishing by Paul Schullery. A decent book, good history and information.

Have fun and be safe!

Published: Aug 11,2008 11:44
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