Fishing Colorado’s Wilderness Areas, Part 1: Knowing Where to Start

Written by: Ryan McSparran, Winterhawk Outfitters

Flat Tops Fishing
High country lakes often hold big cutthroats.
photo by photo courtesy Ryan McSparran

Each spring, we look forward to getting back to fishing here in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Fly Fishing anywhere is fun, but there’s nothing quite like fly fishing in one of Colorado’s remote wilderness areas. From the small streams to high alpine lakes, the fish are unpressured and the scenery is unbeatable.

However, for someone who has never ventured into the backcountry in search of trout, it can be hard to know where to begin. Over the next few months, we will feature a three-part series on fishing Colorado’s wilderness areas. This first article will focus on the types of water and where to start. The next installment will cover access and fishing tips. The third in the series will discuss suggested equipment and flies.

When it comes to backcountry fly fishing in Colorado, there are a multitude of options. One of the great things about our wilderness areas is a diversity of fishing options. The Flat Tops is a prime example. You can choose to focus on small stream fishing, alpine lakes, or beaver ponds. Each requires different techniques, advantages, challenges and opportunities.

Colorado’s small wilderness streams tend to be dominated by brook trout. In some places, like here in the Flat Tops, they also hold native cutthroat trout. Brookies in small streams usually remain small, growing to no more than 10 inches. Cutthroats, on the other hand, can exceed 14 inches in alpine streams. While most of the fish remain small, these narrow waters provide fast and exciting action for willing trout. Angers can test their skill in tricky drifts and casting in tight spaces. But don’t worry: there’s no need to get too hung up on technical fishing. These trout are rarely picky and on a good day it can feel like a strike per cast.

Flat Tops Fishing
The small streams in the backcountry hold willing brook trout and cutthroats.
photo by photo courtesy Ryan McSparran

Most of Colorado’s wilderness areas are also home to beaver ponds, which provide excellent trout habitat. Here, brookies and cutthroats take advantage of prolific insect hatches that occur on the still waters throughout the summer. These easy food sources often allow trout to reach larger sizes in beaver ponds. The tradeoff? The water in beaver ponds is often gin-clear, and approaching these trout can be extremely tricky. If you walk up to the water’s edge and see trout skittering to the other side of the pond, you’ve gone too far. In fact, anglers shouldn’t feel silly crawling toward the water’s edge on hands and knees, casting from behind foliage for concealment. A little cloud cover on a summer afternoon can be a big help. But whatever it takes to get your fly out there, there are few things more exciting than dropping a dry fly on a beaver pond and watching a trout crash through the surface.

Finally, many of Colorado’s high altitude wilderness areas are studded with lakes, some of them holding great populations of native cutthroat trout. The size of fish in these lakes can vary greatly, depending on diet, depth and more. However, the unpressured nature of many of these waters will often allow for larger fish. And since they rarely see an artificial fly, their willingness to strike can make for a fun day on the water. Wind and surrounding trees can often make casting difficult around wilderness lakes. But for those willing to trek to these alpine gems, the action can be extremely rewarding.

No matter what type of water you’re looking for, it might be a good idea to speak with Forest Service personnel or other local experts that know a particular area. While some alpine lakes and streams look promising, some will provide better opportunities than others. We also recommend looking at topographic maps and using Google Earth to locate bodies of water. This is especially true for beaver bonds, which can change from year to year. Google Earth can provide a more updated view than what might appear on a map.

In our next article, we will discuss access to these wilderness waters, and tips on how to most effectively fish them. Keep an eye on our News Page for more.

Ryan McSparran guides for Winterhawk Outfitters, in Collbran, Colorado.

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