CMC's Denver Fly Fishing Section
Fly Fishing the Colorado Backcountry

Page One - How, When & Where

Article by Jorge Dominguez
CMC Trip Leader

Many men go fishing their entire lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.   Henry David Thoreau

It's a joy to leave the crowds
and noise of popular waters to fish in solitude. Quiet, majestic surroundings are what the Rockies are about.
Many anglers avoid the backcountry, however, because they believe the trout to be small and gullible.

While backcountry fish are typically easier to catch, many are not. Those include well-fed, wary trout keyed to specific foods. Are there big trout in the backcountry? You bet there are.

In Colorado, what is considered backcountry?
For this article, a backcountry trip is at least a fifty minute hike into land that is undeveloped except for trails and trail markings. Fifty minutes should transport you a couple of miles from the hustle and bustle of civilization.


Choose your mode of travel. Many people deem backcountry travel to be a strenuous activity fit only for the young or robust. While that's a plus, there are options to strapping a big backpack and hoofing it on your own. In Colorado, one can travel into wilderness on foot, horseback, train or raft.

Pack animals can be used to carry loads. One has a choice of horses, mules, llamas, burros and goats for beasts of burden. Each has their pluses and minuses. Pack goats are especially intriguing.

The Durango-Silverton Railway is a popular tourist route for many who access the Weminuche Wilderness in southwest Colorado. This narrow-gauge tourist train travels the Animas River Valley. The railway stops along the way to let off and pick up passengers. The nearby Wilderness holds many lakes and streams as well as several fourteeners.

Raft the Gunnison Gorge's Gold Medal waters for trophy trout. The renowned Giant Salmonfly hatch starts in early June. During the short window, one can cast size 6 flies to eager browns and rainbows. Located near Montrose, the scenic gorge lies downstream of a national park.

Guides and outfitters are options. Most guides have an intimate knowledge of fishing waters and the lands around it. Outfitters can supply all the necessities and "do the dirty work" while you enjoy the experience. Consult the appropriate Forest Service office for a list of authorized guides and outfitters. Costs may be shared among a group.

If prices are prohibitive, consider drop camps. For normally much lower cost, an outfitter will transport provisions to and from the backcountry. They "drop off" the equipment at an agreed-on site. Clients have only to hike in and out with a light pack.

When to Go in Colorado

The seasons are different here. Snow, snow-melt and frozen lakes are factors into mid-summer in Colorado's high country. In addition, spawning trout may not be receptive to fishing. At normal elevations, Cutthroats and rainbows breed during the spring while brookies and browns spawn in fall.

Above timberline however, spring can run into August. A few weeks later, fall begins. In this confusing scenario, look for waters that offer both brookies and cutts. Otherwise, target late-breeding species early in the season and vice versa to avoid disinterested trout.

Altitude is the main consideration. If you schedule an alpine lake trip well in advance, aim for mid-to-late summer. Snowy winters and cool springs usually mean that snow persists at 11,000 feet on Independence Day. Although trails may be passable in June, streams and stream crossings run high into July.

Colorado snow levels normally start at 9000' on Memorial Day weekend. The snow recedes to 10,000' by June 15th and 11,000' by July 4th. Going higher entails ice, snow banks and soggy camps. Snow levels depend on precipitation and terrain as well as weather. Open, park-like areas thaw quicker as do south-facing slopes.

Ice-out and ice-in of alpine lakes are factors for fly fishers. They are discussed later in this article.

Lightning and Monsoon weather
July and August are the most intense lightning periods in Colorado. Plan to be off ridges and peaks by 1 PM. In addition, the southwestern mountains receive a daily abundance of precipitation beginning late July.

Where to Go?

It depends on the species of trout, snow levels, weather and food conditions. If fishing alpine lakes, the life cycle of stocked fish must be considered for quantity and size. Below are three good choices.

The Flat Tops Wilderness
in northwestern Colorado is crisscrossed by 100 miles of streams, plus 110 lakes and ponds. No other Colorado Wilderness offers such an abundance of loop hikes. The Flat Tops is noted for an open, park-like setting and towering cliffs. Many trails are passable in early June.

The Weminuche Wilderness
in the southwestern section is Colorado's largest. More than sixty lakes are situated here. Its great size encompasses diverse landscapes. The Animas River Gorge defines the western edge. Ragged volcanic ridges and cliffs lie to the east. Many streams and several rivers, including the Rio Grande flow through the Weminuche.

The Gunnison Gorge is an impressive place to fly fish in western Colorado. These Gold Medal waters of the Gunnison River are reputed to support the richest biomass of any Colorado stream. It's considered the state's best fly fishing stream by many anglers.

One can day-hike, backpack and float the Gunnison Gorge. When high-country waters are inaccessible due to snow or ice, this area is usually open. The gorge is an alpine desert tailwater. Guides and outfitters are licensed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Next - Planning

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