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For many flyfishers, winter is the season in which the flyrod is placed on the rack and the tying vise comes out of the closet. The long evenings of winter are spent replenishing a depleted supply of Blue-winged Olives, Woolly Buggers and Prince Nymphs, while the angler merely daydreams of open water and rising fish. There’s really nothing wrong of enjoying winter in these snug fireside terms, but the truth is, good flyfishing can be found in the Rockies throughout the winter months. You just have to be creative and a little bit adventurous.
Trout, of course, don’t go to the Bahamas and swim with bonefish in the winter months, even if they’d like to. They’re still alive and well in Rocky Mountain streams and lakes, and they still need to eat. The one issue anglers have to work around, though, is that a thick layer of ice often protects the fish from the outside world from November until March. The determined winter flyfisher, though, isn’t dissuaded by this small detail.
The truth is, more open and entirely fishable trout water is available to anglers than is commonly imagined. But for anglers to take advantage of it, they first need to do their research.
While lakes are almost never an option for flyfishers in the winter, tailwaters are. By strict definition, a tailwater is a man-regulated river that flows from the base of a dam. Because water maintains a relatively constant temperature at depth in larger reservoirs, it flows out of the dam at this temperature as well at all seasons and seldom freezes over. Sure, a tailwater may be only 40 degrees year-round, but 40 degrees is enough to keep the ice off, and feels almosst balmy to a trout in January. Another nice thing about tailwaters is that they frequently hold larger than average trout, because the regulated flows and constant temperatures combine to make excellent growing conditions. Thus, while winter tailwater fishing is often challenging, anglers may see their largest fish of the year.
Tailwater fisheries are common enough to make at least one available within a couple hours’ drive of most flyfishers who live in the Rockies. The South Platte River is blessed with three well-known tailwater sections that are ice-free all winter. The “Dream Stream” below Spinney Mountain Reservoir is exposed to South Park winds, but holds browns and rainbows to five pounds and better. The South Platte tailwater sections below Elevenmile Reservoir and Cheesman Reservoir are also worth fishing, but solitude can be hard to find, even in the winter months.
Other Colorado tailwaters worth exploring in the winter include the Fryingpan River below Reudi Reservoir, the Taylor River below Taylor Reservoir, the Yampa River below Stagecoach Reservoir and the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir. In Utah, the Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir and the Provo River below Deer Creek Reservoir are two excellent winter fisheries, as is the lesser-fished Huntington Creek below Electric Lake. The San Juan River below New Mexico’s Navajo Reservoir affords world-famous tailwater fishing year-round, as does the lesser-known Cimarron River below Eagle Nest Lake. Wyoming’s North Platte below Seminoe Reservoir (the Miracle Mile) and below Alcova Reservoir (the Gray Reef area) offer good fishing with fewer crowds but harsher weather.
In addition to tailwaters, several lower-elevation rivers enjoy mild enough winters to remain at least partially open through the winter. These rivers are usually less crowded than the tailwaters and are excellent choices for anglers who like to explore. Waters in this category include Colorado’s Arkansas River (with many miles of public water below Salida), Big Thompson River (convenient to the Denver area), Roaring Fork River (close to Aspen and skiing) and White River (near Meeker). In New Mexico, parts of the Rio Grande are worth checking out in the colder months, particularly near Pilar.
Winter flyfishing isn’t for everyone as it’s mostly nymph fishing and some days it’s just darned cold, but somehow it helps to know that if you really have the itch to cast a line while everyone else is on the ski slopes, you can. All it takes is doing a little homework and enough spunk to take on Old Man Winter for the sake of experiencing the throb of a trout on your line just when you need it the most.