The 15 Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Colorado: Expert Guide

Colorado fly fishing is as renowned as the state’s craft beer scene or perhaps the Denver Broncos (not the past couple of years, though). Fly fishing Colorado’s numerous rivers is …

Colorado fly fishing is as renowned as the state’s craft beer scene or perhaps the Denver Broncos (not the past couple of years, though). Fly fishing Colorado’s numerous rivers is part of our DNA and a bucket list experience for all those who find themselves in the Western United States, but with so much water to explore, let this be the definitive list for your ultimate Colorado fly fishing trip plan.

The Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Colorado

Colorado River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Colorado River
Colorado River’s substantial size makes it popular for float fishing and a range of fly fishing techniques.

There is no better river to start our journey through the best fly fishing in Colorado than the largest river and one that shares the state’s name. It’s hard to imagine that a river so critical to the entire Western United States—supplying 40 Million with drinking water across four states—starts as a skinny brook trout creek high in the Rocky Mountains. As the Mighty Colorado River carves its way through Colorado, it offers fly fishers the opportunity to catch wild trout in various settings.

Numerous public parking and pull-offs parallel the river from the Upper Colorado, which includes Rocky Mountain National Park, until it leaves the state after passing through Glenwood Canyon. There are numerous tributaries to fish along the way, including the Williams Fork River, Roaring Fork River, and Eagle River.

The sheer size makes float fishing a popular way to fish nymphs under an indicator, drift streamers, or cast large dries, particularly in the spring during the famed salmon fly hatch or in late summer with foam-backed terrestrial patterns.

Eagle River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Eagle River
Eagle River is a freestone stream known for its cuttbows, rainbows, and brown trout.

The Eagle River is a tributary of the Colorado, meeting it near Dotsero. The river offers cuttbows, rainbows, and brown trout. This true freestone produces hatches of small stoneflies and caddis during the spring and summer to supplement the trouts’ diet of midges.

Popular access stretches from the town of Eagle to Wolcott. The Colorado Division of Wildlife manages the ladders sections and offers several runs and plunge pools to cast to feeding trout.

As a freestone, the Eagle can freeze in the winter, and anglers must contend with run-off come spring. The best time to fish is post-run-off and again in the fall, as water temperatures invigorate the healthy population of trout.

Cache La Poudre River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Cache La Poudre River
Poudre Canyon offers a classic pocket-water fishing experience characterized by technical drifts and swift strikes.

Northern Colorado offers some of the state’s best fly fishing destinations. The town of Fort Collins is a perfect base camp to explore this trout haven. Popular with rock climbers, rafters, and live music fans, Poudre Canyon is also a beautiful place to catch trout.

The wild trout in this river will take standard trout flies, particularly copper johns, pheasant tails, Barr’s Emergers, and bushy hopper patterns in the summer months. This is classic pocket water action, so prepare for technical drifts and quick strikes.

Big Thompson

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Big Thompson River
Big Thompson River is an attractive weekend retreat for catching wild trout due to its proximity to the Denver Metro.

Joining Colorado and Poudre with headwaters within the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park, the Big Thompson River flows through the famous tourist town of Estes Park. Compared to the other two rivers, the river’s proximity to the Denver Metro makes the Big T an appealing weekend getaway to try and fool wild trout.

The tailwater below Estes Lake remains thawed through the winter months and requires stealth and extra-long leaders to present tiny nymph patterns, like buckskins or RS2s, to small brown and rainbow trout. Despite the challenge, winter offers solitude that the rest of the year may not, as tourists and locals take advantage of the river’s bounty and proximity to the park.

Blue River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Blue River
Blue River’s tailwater section offers a unique fly fishing opportunity to catch trophy rainbow trout.

Fly fishing in ski country? You bet! World-class fly fishing meets world-class skiing and snowboarding in Summit County, home to the Blue River. The Blue takes on many personalities as it travels to the Colorado River near Gore Canyon. The Blue is a wild trout river in the town of Blue River; the river snakes through Breckenridge before spilling into Dillon Reservoir. 

The tailwater section offers trophy trout fishing in one of the most unique fly fishing settings. Where else can you hook a massive rainbow trout just below a 7-11 or the Silverthorne Outlet stores? You may hook up with a Mysis shrimp-fed beast as holiday shoppers stop to watch on the bridge to the Coach or Nike outlet stores.

Farther down, the river picks up speed out of Green Mountain Reservoir before entering Jurassic Park, the private property known to have Dino-sized trout. Float fishing is allowed in this stretch, but take care not to touch the bank because the owner of this stretch will prosecute. Yikes!

Fryingpan River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Fryingpan River
The Mysis shrimp are an important food source in the Fryingpan River near Basalt, where they are swept into the river from reservoirs.

Mysis shrimp also play a significant part on the menu of the Fryingpan River, which can be accessed starting at the town of Basalt. These freshwater shrimp get swept from reservoirs into the mouths of hungry trout, which grow massive from the tiny morsels.

Nymphing the “toilet bowl,” the tailwater section below Rheudi Reservoir can yield trout weighing more than 10 pounds. With fish possible in this weight class, winter is a favored time to fish due to fewer crowds. Stop by a local fly shop and pick up the hot mysis pattern.

Roaring Fork River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Roaring Fork River
Roaring Fork River attracts anglers to its gold medal waters teeming with various trout species.

Summer on the Roaring Fork means one thing: Green Drakes. This premier hatch features one of the largest mayflies in the West. The Roaring Fork River is a gold medal water packed with large brown trout, cuttbows, and rainbow trout. The river begins high upon Independence Pass near Aspen and descends towards Glenwood Spring.

The Roaring Fork has ample access to explore by foot, but the preferred method is by drift boat. Besides the August explosions of Drakes, the river is quite productive year-round and has good hatches of BWOs, Caddis, PMDs, and Golden Stones.

Bear Creek

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Bear Creek

I grew up and learned to fly fish on Bear Creek. The stretch between Evergreen and Denver is a hidden gem within minutes of the Metro Area. What small fish exist below Evergreen Reservoir or through Lair O’ Bear make up for it with numbers and gumption. This is prime Hopper-Dropper water for a quick escape from the work week. 

Fraser River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Fraser River

The Fraser River is another small river with big rewards. Catch it in the town of Fraser or west towards Granby. The river cuts through town, where you will find a genuinely unique “urban” fly fishing experience with the chance to move large brook trout or a wiley brown trout on a dry fly in a deep pool behind the Safeway. 

Arkansas River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Arkansas River
Arkansas River offers great fly fishing opportunities, with the famous Mother’s Day Caddis hatch and consistent flows in the Pueblo tailwater.

Stretching from its headwaters in the historic mining town of Leadville to the Pueblo on the Front Range, the Arkansas River provides ample opportunity for fly anglers. The anticipated Mother’s Day Caddis hatch on the Ark never disappoints, even if a late-season snowstorm dampers the action. Hopefully, our Moms’ will forgive us if we’re a bit late to brunch, as the hatch is often thick.

Closer to Denver, the two-hour ride to the tailwater below Pueblo Reservoir receives consistent flows year-round, and BWO is a prime hatch even in the middle of winter. Fly fishers can limit ice forming on their guides with the ol’ chap stic trick.

Yampa River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Yampa River
Yampa River offers anglers the opportunity to catch prized rainbow, brown, or brook trout and even a Northern pike.

The Yampa River, near Steamboat Springs, is said to be the best wild trout river in the state, and before it meets up with the Green River, it gives anglers a chance to catch large rainbow, brown, or brook trout (as well as maybe a Northern pike) of a lifetime. This is especially true during the fall when these predators are on the hunt for large payloads of protein to survive the harsh winter.

Though the Yampa River is a very productive fishery, its remoteness allows it to remain so. In the summer, water temperatures can pressure it, so if you plan the trip from Denver, make it for the fall and pack along the meat.

Gunnison River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Gunnison River
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison is an ideal remote fly fishing destination, with the chance to catch trout and Kokanee salmon.

Speaking of remote, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison should be on any fly angler’s list for seclusion, not to mention fishing for trout that may have never seen a fly. The Gunnison River flows 180 miles from its start in Gunnison County, cutting through the deep Black Canyon on the Gunnison before meeting up with the Uncompahgre River near Delta. 

Along the way, the Gunny offers ample opportunities to cast to numerous and large trout. Like the Colorado, the Gunnison River has a remarkable Salmon Fly hatch in the spring, but it is the fall when experts say this river shines.

In addition to crisp weather, perfect for trout, the fall time allows the angler to pursue Kokanee salmon as they escape the state’s largest reservoir, Blue Mesa Reservoir, to spawn. Use brightly colored, irritating flies to induce strikes from these landlocked salmon.

Crystal River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado Crystal River

In the summer, dry fly enthusiasts will find the freestone Crystal River an inviting respite from hoards of anglers at other rivers, including the Roaring Fork River, for which the Crystal is a major tributary.

Catch the river in Carbondale near the Roaring Fork. Once there, follow the river due south to find marked fish access areas and camping spots. Though the river offers trout that average around a foot, lunkers call the river home, and you may find your reel screaming as you hook into one.

San Juan River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado San Juan River

The Southwest corner of the state offers extremely remote wilderness to explore, but the San Juan River offers world-class fishing without the hiking. The town of Pagosa Springs offers the first public fishing opportunities of the main river. The city has invested in habitat upgrades in this area, but the two forks of the river offer even more opportunities for nymph and dry fly fishing.

South Platte River

Best Fly Fishing Rivers In Colorado South Platte River
South Platte River is an iconic destination for fly fishing, providing anglers with chances to catch impressive trout.

No river is more synonymous with Colorado fly fishing than the South Platte. The river starts in the mountains of Park County before cutting west through Denver out to Nebraska and eventually reaching the Mississippi.

In Colorado, the river offers tremendous fishing, especially in Park County, where the famed Dream Stream gives anglers daily chances for a fish of a lifetime. The Dream is a small water section between Spinney Mountain Reservoir and Elevenmile Reservoir.

In the Spring and Fall, large trout leave the relative safety of Elevenmile to spawn. Anglers line up shoulder to shoulder to hook one of these beasts.

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Feisty brown trout finds its way to the net on the South Platte near Hartsel.

The South Platte reservoirs themselves offer exquisite trout and Northern Pike fishing. Opening day of Spinney is truly a sight to see and an experience when anglers show up before dawn to wait in line for the gates to open. Having not been pressured by anglers all winter, the resident trout are hungry and will eagerly blast a leech or egg pattern. 

In addition to Spinney, Antero Reservoir is known to hold large trout, and the deep Eleven Mile Reservoir makes it easy for large fish to exist without ever seeing a hook.

The Platte takes on many forms, bending oxbow-ish in vast open pastures to rocky pool fishing in Eleven Mile and Cheeseman Canyon. The popular Deckers area has easy roadside access but can get crowded in the summer. Savvy anglers know to fish it on Sundays during the football season to avoid heavy crowds.

As of writing, engineers are removing an old dam below Eleven Mile Reservoir that removes the last barrier connecting Cheesman. This will create a continuous line, allowing Kokanee salmon to run the section and large brown trout to move up the canyon to spawn. 

Colorado Fly Fishing in a Nutshell

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Trout of this size are fairly common in Colorado

A fly angler’s dream, the Centennial state offers over 100,000 miles of river to wade or float in search of multiple varieties of trout and other sport fish. Additionally, Colorado is home to thousands of lakes and reservoirs, many of which offer anyone a chance to catch a trout of a lifetime.

Colorado is a renowned fly fishing destination, but it is not immune from the same challenges that have affected other top angling destinations. Indeed, the popularity of fly fishing over time has taken a toll on the experience, as well as the destinations and environment. 

Additionally, like other states in the western United States, Colorado has had to grapple with climate change and water rights that have resulted in access issues and the continued loss of the most critical resource for fishing: water.

It is critical that anglers, outdoors lovers, and policymakers recognize how important fishing is to Colorado and the urgent need to take steps now to ensure that Colorado remains a bucket list fly fish destination for the next generation.

Colorado Fly Fishing Hatches Explained

Colorado offers abundant aquatic insects for which our trout species. No wonder the region is high on many fly anglers’ top fly fishing destinations.

Midges

Part of the common fly family, midges supply fish with a steady, albeit small, food supply year-round. Trout scarf up these tiny flies in huge volumes both on the river and in lakes where the lake midges are called chironomids.

Caddis

The clumsy flying insect you see bouncing along the surface is likely a caddis. These large winged trout snacks spend their immature stages clinging to rocks and sticks underwater before hatching to reproduce. Catching trout on a classic Elk Hair Caddis pattern is a thrill, but you can have as much fun fishing subsurface.

Mayfly

The iconic trout fly, there are many types of may fly in Colorado, all with characteristic upright wings. Blue-wing olives, Pale Morning Dun, and the large Green Drake are key species. Nymph patterns for mayflies include Pheasant tails, JuJu Baetis, Barr’s Emerger, and RS2’s

Stone Fly

Stone fly wings remain folded down when not in flight. Large species like the Salmon Fly join smaller Yellow Sallies and Golden Stones by crawling out of the water and hatching in the spring, primarily during run-off. Each species has effective dry fly options. Subsurface: you can’t go wrong with a Pat’s Rubber Leg.

Colorado Fly Fishing Gear

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Author Andy Sparhawk with a chunky Colorado rainbow

Colorado offers numerous fly fishing opportunities, too many to have a fly rod for each. Thus, the perfect Colorado fly fishing rig is highly versatile, allowing the angler to adapt to changing conditions and fish behavior.

Choose a five to 6-weight, medium-action fly rod for fly fishing in Colorado. 

Ideally, the rod is nine feet long and loaded with a weight-forward floating fly line spooled to a fly reel balanced to your chosen rod. This fly rig will allow for casting on rivers and lakes all kinds of flies: dries, nymphs, and small to medium streamers.

In addition to the rig, include:

  • Medium-sized strike indicators.
  • Split-shot.
  • A few tapered leaders from 3X to 6X.
  • Spools of tippet to match.

Pack along a set of hemostats, dry fly dressing, and a net with rubber netting to help ensure a safe release.

In Colorado, fly fishermen can fish tandem rigs of up to three flies. A typical Colorado nymph rig would comprise a larger point fly followed by smaller flies that drift up in the water column. The rig’s depth can be adjusted with the placement of a strike indicator and the addition of spilt shot.

The key is to find the correct depth that the lead fly is making contact—ticking—with the bottom, allowing the lighter, smaller flies to follow near the middle and surface of the river. Trout will be attracted to the larger lead fly but may strike the smaller offering. Quickly lift your rod straight up or to the upstream side at any indication of a strike. Game on!

Colorado Fly Fishing Seasons Explained

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Summer sunsets in Colorado are spectacular

Colorado and the Intermountain West is a region that enjoys four seasons, complete with wacky and sometimes extreme weather events.

Summer

The summer brings active trout feeding on various menu items throughout the water column. Warm temperatures initiate run-off from melting snow atop mountain peaks in May and June. Many anglers use this opportunity to escape to the state’s renowned stillwater options.

Gold medal fishing is for more than just rivers. Spinney Mountain Reservoir, Steamboat Lake, and North Delaney Butte Lake (North Park) all are designated as meeting Gold Medal criteria, which is a “fishery consistently produces a trout standing stock of at least 60 pounds per acre and produces an average of at least 12 “quality trout” (14+ inches) per acre.”

Later in the season, river flows may slow, and water warms, giving anglers who enjoyed fantastic river fishing to hike into the state’s backcountry in search of cold, clear, high alpine lakes and native cutthroat trout.

Fall

Cooling water initiates feeding, and fish like brook and brown trout stage for spawning. This can be an exceptional time for fly anglers to catch fish by swinging or stripping bait fish-imitating streamers. Brown and rainbow trout will aggressively strike streamers as they prepare for limited food opportunities during the cold winter.

Fall can be a perfect time to target large brown trout from a drift boat on rivers and lakes using this technique; just be mindful of the spawn and avoid crossing redds or fishing to actively spawning brown trout.

Winter

While many anglers hang up their waders for skis in the winter, the die-hards know that world-class fly fishing is just as possible in the depths of the winter as in spring and summer. Low flows and gin-clear tailwater trout make stealth and subtlety the name of the game. Expect to primarily use midge patterns on tiny diameter tippets (6X and 7X).

Spring

Spring can be an excellent time for trout fishing in Colorado. Midges and small mayflies slowly become active, and the trout notice. Rainbow trout stage to spawn as early as February, but the spawn will be in full swing by April.

The thread flies that strained your eyes during the winter can take a back seat to slightly larger caddis larvae patterns and egg patterns. While it may still be cold and the threat of winter snow storms is never far, spring fishing in Colorado is full of optimism and rejuvenation.

Best Fly Patterns for Colorado

Pat’s Rubber Leg

The ultimate Colorado lead fly, the pattern mimics a stonefly complete with wiggly legs that drive trout bonkers—a must-have on the Colorado River, Gunnison, and Cache la Poudre Rivers.

Black Beauty

It’s a tiny midge pattern of barely more than some thread and dubbing. The Black Beauty is all I fish in the winter up in Eleven Mile Canyon.

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A small winter brown trout from Eleven Mile Canyon

Pheasant Tail Nymph

Where doesn’t a PT nymph slay? I carry a variety of sizes, mostly the bead-head version, to get down in deep pools.

Elk Hair Caddis

Nothing is more thrilling than a brown trout rising to take a dry fly. The Elk Hair caddis can be drifted or skittered across the surface for aggressive takes. In a pinch, it makes an excellent hopper imitation if fished close to the bank.

Balanced Leech

I’m a balanced leech zealot. The orientation of this fly below an indicator keeps it in the strike zone longer than similar leech patterns or streamers. Fished barbless, it is a cinch to remove, protecting the fish, and frankly, the fish love it. I tie them in black, brown, purple, and white. Don’t forget the white in the spring!

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AUTHOR
Andy is a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, he's fished it all. Andy enjoys helping other anglers catch more fish and sharing his passion for the sport.
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