The Best Fly Fishing Destinations in Colorado

The Best Fly Fishing Destinations in Colorado

An Anglers Guide to Colorado’s Best Trout Fishing

No other state in the Union has more fishy topography than the state of Colorado.  When it comes to the American West, the state of Colorado has a lot to offer fly fishermen when seeking a destination to fish some of the country’s best trout streams. High alpine lakes, rapid adorned rivers, mountain streams, urban rivers, and just about everything in between make up the beautiful state of Colorado. The state’s amount of gold medal water is stunning. All five species of trout in North America can be found in the state: brown trout, rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, brook trout, and cuttbow hybrids, as well as landlocked kokanee salmon. It would be difficult to cover every wild trout river in the state of Colorado, choosing the best place to fly fish is a difficult task. One that will surely start arguments, and possibly end friendships. 

Years ago when I was exploring a career as a fly fishing guide. I chose Colorado as the place to start that adventure.  The reason that I chose Colorado, was because after looking at other areas of the country, it became evident that the advantage to fly fishing in Colorado is that there are centralized groups of rivers spread out throughout the state.  Whether you are trying to make a living as a guide or just in search of the best trout streams and gold medal waters, once you are in an area, there are endless options for fly fishers to fish different spots with a relatively short travel time between rivers.

From our experience guiding, living, and exploring the state of Colorado, our goal is to bring you an overall picture of some of the state’s best gold medal waters.  We will do our best to break the state into several distinct fly-fishing areas, and provide some order when discussing each section’s best trout rivers to fly fish(and a few lakes too) when traveling to colorful Colorado.

Here are some of the best fly fishing destinations in Colorado based on region.

Our Angling Areas:

Fly Fishing The Front Range: Denver And Fort Collins Metro Area

Front Range Bass

Colorado’s front range is often overlooked when it comes to fly fishing. After all, most people come to Colorado to go trout fishing.   In addition, the population has exploded over the last two decades in the Denver and Ft. Collins metro plex making solitude a little harder to find, but anglers shouldn’t be discouraged. There are some great urban fly fishing opportunities for both bass and carp right in the middle of it all.  The front range has tons of lakes and stocked ponds that are all easy to access.  While these fish are not as big as their cousins in Texas and California, it’s possible to catch bass in the 3-4 lbs range.  Oftentimes, you will have the water all to yourself as these fish are overlooked.

Some of the best fly fishing bass ponds in the state are located right in the heart of Denver and Ft. Collins. Cherry Creek Reservoir, Aurora Reservoir, and McCay Lake are options that are close to Denver.  St. Vrain state park is located right outside Ft. Collins, and there are smaller ponds within the park that offer fly fishers the chance at bass. St. Vrain is a great option if you are heading north on I-25. All of these locations are public and access is easy with a float tube, kayak, or small boat.  Depending on the time of the fishing season, bass will eagerly eat poppers on the top, and can almost always be taken by fishing streamers with sinking fly lines. 

Urban Carp

The front range also offers fly fishermen the chance to chase carp in an urban environment.  The South Platte River runs right through the heart of downtown Denver. Although this section of the Platte is not a gold medal stream. When most people think of the South Platte River they think of the dream stream, or of catching large brown trout in the technical water of Eleven Mile Canyon.  Don’t be fooled, the South Platter River below Chatfield Reservoir offers fly fishermen ample opportunities to catch huge carp that forage after crawfish.  Much like a freshwater bonefish or permit, these fish are super challenging and offer a great option on the angling menu for something other than trout. 

Parks with ponds and small lakes scatter the metro areas that offer banks lined with carp in the early summer breeding season. Clement Park of Littleton is one such place that offers easy access and plenty of fish from the banks. During the summer heat, you can even find panfish and crappie on the fly.

Front Range Trout Fishing

If fly fishing for trout is what you are after, then there are some excellent options that are not too far from the Denver Metroplex area. 

Clear Creek and Bear Creek are two of our favorite places for quick easy access from Littleton and Denver. Trout are quite dense throughout these streams and even do well during the winter months. Clear Creek has plenty of parks and public access points that follow the stream up past Golden. Bear Creek is much the same with parks and public access up past Morrison. You’ll be able to hook into some decent-sized fish with many looking up to dry flies from April all the way into late October. Most of the fish are small brown trout until you get to higher altitudes towards to the headwaters, then it transitions to brook trout and some cutthroat trout.

The Cache La Poudre River in Ft. Collins is a great one to try for brown trout as well as rainbow trout, cutthroat trout, and cuttbows. The Big Thompson River outside of Estes Park is not that far of a drive. If you like steeper and faster water characterized by boulders and pocket water, this is the area for you. 

Within a 2 hour drive of Denver, you can even find old beaver ponds that back up massive areas of land that are full of brook trout and cutthroat trout.

Rocky Mountain National Park Greenbacks

When fly fishing in Colorado, one must make a stop in Estes Park, Estes park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. In terms of Colorado Parks, Rocky Mountain National Park is a special place. Not only will anglers have abundant opportunities to fly fish native brook trout, but they will also have the rare opportunity to catch the native greenback cutthroat trout.

In order to access these points you’ll likely need a National Park pass so be prepared to spend some money. But, it’s well worth it for the fish density, roaming elk, and views from the valley streams.

Other Options

The lower section of the South Platte River below Eleven Mile Reservoir is called Eleven Mile Canyon, this section of water is beautiful and a lot of fun to fish.  Pocket water and deep pools characterize this section of the river.

Within 30 minutes of Denver, you’ll have easy access to Waterton Canyon, which is the mid-section of the South Platte River. Experience fishing alongside herds of mountain goats with breathtaking views of the river weaving its way up through the mountains and around large boulders. Brown trout and rainbow trout make up most of the population in this section. You can hike into some decent spots right from the parking lot, but we recommend anglers bring a bike to peddle up to more remote pocket water and pools.

Within 45 minutes of Littleton, you can drive around Waterton Canyon to the north end for easy access to the South Platte River right from the road. Few anglers make it up to this end so trout fishing proved a bit easier.

Remember when fly fishing front range trout streams, bring light 5x to 7x tippet, midge patterns, and B.W.O. patterns and prepare for trout fishing characterized by heavily pressured and wary rainbow and brown trout. Stealthy leaders and small flies are the names of the game here. Knowing how to tight-line nymphing is an advantage through the fast runs and pocket water that make up this river. At the very least, familiarize yourself with what’s called a “hopper-dropper” setup and how to fish it.

Breckenridge, Silverthorne, and the Central I-70 Corridor

Silverthorne is the first real town that a traveler will arrive at, once they clear Loveland Pass and the Western divide.  This is a great jumping-off point for fly fishing various rivers which are all within a short distance from one another. Gold medal water is not hard to find.  Rivers that should be fished in this area include The Blue River, The South Platte River a.k.a the Dream Stream, The Williams Fork River, The Colorado River, The Eagle River, and the Arkansas River.

Outlet Mall Trout Fishing

The Blue River starts in the town of Silverthorne by the outlet malls.  This is an opportunity to let non-anglers shop while anglers are able to put in some quality fly fishing for some absolutely massive brown and rainbow trout in small urban water.  The water coming out of Dillon Reservoir is bone-chillingly cold and there isn’t a ton of food in the water. This is a highly technical fishery that requires small midge patterns and a very light line in the 5x-6x range.  To get away from the urban fishing environment, North towards Kremmling Colorado to explore more remote sections of the Blue River. This is a good opportunity to fish in the upper section of the mighty Colorado River. 

The Mighty Colorado River

The Upper Colorado River at the Pump House boat launch just South West of Kremmling is a great wade fishing spot. It also serves as the put-in for anglers who wish to float fish down to the Radium takeout.  Fly fishers will have a chance to fish a larger body of water with bigger bugs.  Nymphing and dry dropper rigs work well here and it is a little further off the beaten path, so the pressure is less when compared to the Blue River.

The upper Colorado River offers good fishing for both brown and rainbow trout. Occasionally, Pike have been spotted in the Upper Colorado River watershed, but they are rare. The Salmon Fly hatch in early summer can give anglers a chance at large brown trout on foam dry flies. Check river flows before making the drive and wade with caution. A drift boat or raft is a huge advantage here and the Pumphouse to Radium float through the Colorado River Canyon is an excellent float. 

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The Dream Stream

The Dream Stream portion of the South Platte River offers anglers excellent wading opportunities with large brown trout and rainbow trout that can be sight casted to. This is the section of water located between Spinney Mountain Reservoir and Eleven Mile Reservoir.  In addition, the P.M.D., Trico, B.W.O., and Midge hatches all make this a fun river to fly fish.  Anglers constantly have to change techniques and be keyed into what hatch is happening to be successful. The fishing can be tough here, but the rewards can be huge. The South Platte River is a gold medal water, and offers those close to Denver a chance at world class fly fishing with a shorter drive.

Other Options

The Williams Fork River, The Eagle River, and the Arkansas Rivers should be considered as well and are all great wading options.  The Arkansas River also offers excellent float trips with the added bonus of white water adventure in the I-IV class range. The Arkansas River is characterized by fast water with non-stop dry dropper action for eager brown trout.  Salida and Buena Vista are too great towns on the banks of the Arkansas River, and are great places base camp out of when not fishing. Breweries, restaurants, and and milder climate make it a great family destination. Brook trout can be found on the creeks around the town of South Park. This is an easy stop on your way from Breckenridge to the South Platte or Arkansas Rivers.

Glenwood Springs and The I-70 West Corridor

Heading West down the I-70 corridor, you arrive at the working-class town or Glenwood Springs.  Glenwood Springs sits at the intersection of the Colorado River and the Roaring Fork River. Glenwood is a central point that allows anglers the ability to take advantage of the area’s old medal trout streams but avoids the glitz and glam of Aspen. Glenwood is a real working Colorado town with character and beauty. You’ll see lots of bumper stickers on cars in Glenwood Springs that say, “Let the assholes in Aspen clean their own toilets!”.  There are some great fly shops in the area as well.  Access, to the Frying Pan River, Crystal River, Lower Colorado River, and Roaring Fork River are all within a short distance of one another.

The Roaring Fork River

One could argue that the Roaring Fork River is the finest trout stream in the state of Colorado and maybe the nation.  Large fly-eating trout inhabit this 70-mile freestone stream.  The river can be waded, but it is best floated early in the summer.  The Roaring Fork River is the longest gold medal stream in the state.  The hatches are prolific.  When timed correctly, the Green Drake hatch is something to be experienced and can offer a once-in-a-lifetime shot at catching large rainbow trout and brown trout on large dry flies with a fly rod.

The Crystal River

The Crystal River is a tributary of the Roaring Fork River and intersects with the Roaring Fork near the town of Carbondale.  There are tremendous opportunities to take both rainbow and brown trout with a fly rod on the Crystal River. Characterized by pocket water, riffles, and deep runs.  Rainbow trout are stocked here each year and migrate from the Roaring Fork River up this beautiful tributary during the spring and fall.  Sections of the Crystal River run exclusively through private property, but the section through the town of Carbondale is public water. The Crystal is often overlooked but offers anglers some outstanding opportunities when fly fishing in Colorado. 

The Frying Pan River and Lower Colorado

The Fryingpan River and The Colorado River are accessible options as well.  The Fryingpan River offers 14 miles of gold medal fishing with an abundant amount of native fish.  Wading and public access opportunities are plentiful.  The Fryingpan River, or the Pan, as the locals call it intersects with the Roaring Fork around Basalt.  Prolific hatches and beautiful scenery below the Ruedi Reservoir Dam make this a great year-round fishery. Mysis shrimp, midges and assortment of mayfly patterns are the standard mix here. Nymphing deeps holes and ledges produce nice fish.

The Colorado River below the town of Glenwood Springs offers decent fishing and is a great spot for float fishing in a drift boat. This section of the river is ok, but we recommend going higher up towards the town of Kremmling.

Gunnison and South Central Colorado

Directly South of Aspen beyond the Maroon Bell Wilderness lies the towns of Gunnison and Crested Butte.  This is our favorite area in all of Colorado.  Perhaps it’s the distance from Denver and Colorado Springs, or maybe it just a little too hard for most to travel to, but the area retains much of it’s authentic Colorado charm.  Large ranches, open mountain views and some of the best trout streams in America make this Gunnison River Valley a must-do for fly fisherman when fly fishing Colorado.

Taylor Rainbows

The Taylor River and the East River join to form the Gunnison River.  The Taylor flows out of Taylor Park Reservoir, and the first 325 yards is catch and release only.  In this section you can stare down into the water and see some of the biggest rainbow and brown trout in the state of Colorado.  Crowds are thicker up by the dam. As you descend down stream, you will find plenty of open water, pocket water, and basalt boulders breaking the swift current.  If you enjoy some challenging wading and dry dropper pocket water, then the Taylor is for you! 

East River Kokanee Run

The East River, a high alpine river running through cattle country, is a wild and scenic river with lots of native fish.   Despite there being a hatchery on the banks of the East of River, the trout in the East River are wild, the hatchery fish are used to stock area lakes.  The freestone East River is easier to wade than its Basalt strewn cousin the Taylor River. Being a freestone river, river flows depend on the time of the year. The hi-lite of the East River is the annual fall migration of Kokanee Salmon from Blue Mesa Reservoir up the Gunnison River and into the East. Anglers have an excellent fall fishing spot to catch landlocked salmon with a fly rod.

The Black Canyon

While the Gunnison River has much to offer, in our opinion, a float fishing trip through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River Gorge should be on the top of any anglers list of lifetime must do’s.  Characterized by steep canyon walls, exciting whitewater, boat only access, and unspoiled wilderness, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River is a rare Western float trip.  Unlike most other wilderness float trips in the Western United States, floating the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River can be done in a few days and doesn’t take an entire week.  In addition, the spring salmon fly hatch is a sight to behold.  Fishing single large foam flies to hungry rainbow trout and brown trout is a true Western fly-fishing experience. The Gunnison River is not for the faint of heart, and if floating the Gunnison River isn’t for you, there are some limited opportunities to wade at the East Portal of the Gunnison River gorge.

SouthWestern Colorado – Durango

Sitting at 6,500 feet of elevation the town of Durango is one of the larger mountain towns in Colorado. Nestled in the San Juan Mountains, it’s the crown gem of Southern Colorado.  Because of it’s lower elevation the climate tends to be a bit milder which allows anglers year round trout fishing opportunities in a relatively more remote location compared to other Colorado mountain towns. 

The Animas River

The Animas River runs right through the middle of town and there are ample public access points and wading areas. The Animas River is a gold medal stream.  The difference between other mountain towns in Colorado and Durango is that the Animas’ gold medal section of river is the section in town.  This means anglers do not have to travel far to find world class shots at trout with a fly rod. While most fish in the river are 10-15 inches, there are some lunkers in this relatively river. The state record brown trout was caught in the Animas River in the 1950’s. It weighed in just over 20 lbs. Deep holes and boulder strewn runs make the Animas River a challenging river with options for anglers of all skill levels.

The Rio Grande River

The Rio Grande River flows down from the San Juan Mountains into the Rio Grande Reservoir just outside of Creede, Colorado. You can expect to catch large cutthroat trout on large open stretches of river with breathtaking views of the surrounding areas. The Rio Grande River is considered one of the best spots for fly fishing in the southwest and is Gold Medal Water ranked. High up in the mountains above the reservoir are small feeder streams and creeks that offer plenty of native trout and public access away from crowds.

Not in Colorado

If you need to stretch your legs a bit, you can jump across the New Mexico border and fish the tailwater of the San Juan.  Often ranked as one the best trout fisheries in the United States, The San Juan River has lots of big trout hanging out in deep pools.  Light lines and small flies get the job done on the San Juan River, but it is not uncommon to see quite a few rainbow trout in the 18”-22” range.

North Central Colorado – Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs sits North of I-70 and lies just beyond Rabbit Ears Pass in the picturesque Yampa River Valley. Steamboat is your quintessential Colorado mountain ski town (it looks very similar to Breckenridge). Steamboat Springs received it’s name from the geothermal hot springs. Locals refer to it as North Park. The springs are a excellent way to relax after a long day of fishing.

Yampa Tailwater

The Yampa River runs right through the middle of town and this section of water is often crowded and heavily fished. The upper river flows from its source at Stage Coach Reservoir and provides excellent wade fishing opportunities. Characterized by deep pools, riffles, and boulder-strewn pocket water the Yampa River gives fly fishing enthusiasts their choice of fishing options. Mysis shrimp, P.M.D., B.W.O., and midge patterns are all smart choices when it comes to fly selection. The Yampa River is a great river for float fishing, but the river is only floatable for a short part of the fly fishing season. Lower portions of the river toward the town of Hayden hold northern pike and you’ll even find the occasional smallmouth bass.

Off The Beaten Path

In terms of gold medal fishing, the North Platte River, which flows across the border of Colorado and into Wyoming is a true gem that holds some huge trout. The North Platte River is a freestone stream and by gold medal waters it could be argued that it is one of the best. It is also a great opportunity to find wild trout in a scenic and unspoiled area. Early summer can provide an outstanding Salmon Fly hatch.

Still Water Grandes

Don’t overlook the area’s excellent lakes when considering fishing in Colorado. If you want to catch trout that are truly large, still-water options are your best bet. Delaney Butte Lakes and Steamboat Lake hold grande trout and are great places to float fish from a float tube.

Steamboat Lake is considered gold medal water. This is rare, as there are only three lakes in the entire state of Colorado that qualifies as gold medal waters. Rainbow trout, brook trout, and cutthroat trout can all be found here. The 1,060-acre lake sits around 8,000 feet making it the ideal habitat for growing big ones. The scenery isn’t bad either. Mountain peaks create a gorgeous backdrop. There are multiple feeder creeks and drainages which feed the lake, so the topography of the lake gives anglers a variety of fishable features.

Fly Fishing Made Easy 👍

Our Quarterly Fly Club ships 1,000’s of flies to anglers all across the United States. Receive curated fly assortments selected for the season with in-depth articles on how to fish them. Great for beginners to learn and for intermediates to discover new flies.

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