High Angling, Aspen Sojourner, Midsummer/Fall 2018

FISHeWith four trout-choked rivers and a host of high-alpine lakes, Aspen is one of America's finest fishing destinations.

Some towns are famous for their fishing. Ennis, for example, is synonymous with Montana’s legendary Madison River, and Saratoga, on the North Platte River in Wyoming, bills itself as the town “where the fish jump in Main Street.” Such spots are lucky to offer access to one great river—but here in Aspen, we claim four.

The Roaring Fork, the Fryingpan, the Crystal, and the Colorado rivers all hold staggering numbers of trout, including many supersized specimens that have grown fat as footballs on the rivers’ abundant aquatic insects. “From the Catherine Store, you can reach two different Gold Medal streams, plus the Colorado River, all within a 20-minute drive,” explains Hutch Hutchinson, a Basalt angler and Southwest business manager for Orvis fishing gear. “We are blessed—I mean really, truly blessed—when it comes to angling.”

And it’s only improving, says Tim Heng, who founded Roaring Fork Anglers (Glenwood Springs’s first fly shop) in 1981. Great fishing lured the former Denverite to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1978, when residual pollution from area mines had obliterated fish populations in the Crystal River and periodically fouled the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers as well. Now, thanks to cleanups and conservation efforts, “the fishing is much better today than it was back then,” says Heng.

The valley’s rivers are impressively healthy, supporting thriving populations of fish and other wildlife. On the Roaring Fork below Carbondale one evening, Heng heard a strange commotion, then rounded a riverbend to see a herd of about 30 elk crossing the water. “It just goes to show you that even with all the development that’s going on in the valley, you can still find wildness right on the river,” he says.

In fact, the blend of untamed nature and civilized comfort is one of Aspen’s most appealing qualities. Visitors can bookend their fishing exploits with fine dining, supremely comfortable beds, and spa treatments. And the fishing is fine year-round, too: In winter, dedicated anglers spend mornings logging vertical at the ski areas before migrating to the Fryingpan (a revered tailwater that enjoys relatively constant water temperatures below Ruedi Dam) in the afternoon.

If fishing were the only attraction, people would still flock here from around the world for bucket-list angling that rivals any other river in the Rockies. Yet it’s just one facet to the gem that is Aspen—making this quite possibly the most fun fishing spot in the US.

 

LAKES

Kiddie Pond
Old Pond Park, Basalt
Rimmed with grass and boulders, this lake’s annual influx of stocker trout makes it the perfect place for kids—and only kids—to wet a line. Regulations limit fishing to ages 16 and under, and the drive-up access in downtown Basalt makes it easy for tykes (and cane-wielding elders) to reach the shoreline—no hiking required.

Spring Fling
Maroon Lake
Most visitors focus on Pyramid Peak and the Maroon Bells, those mesmerizingly beautiful twin summits slicing into the sky beyond the lake. But anglers have good reason to train their eyes beneath the surface. Maroon Lake holds sizable populations of stocked rainbow and brook trout. They’re hungriest in late spring, when receding ice restores their access to insects and other food from the water’s surface.

Visit as soon as Maroon Creek Road opens (generally in mid-May) to cast streamers and fuzzy stimulator patterns at big trout cruising the shallow shorelines. Trophy-size fish are harder to catch come midsummer, but smaller trout remain willing (often eager) to munch anglers’ lures.

Picnic Perfect
Anderson Lake
Getting to this idyllic high-mountain lake involves a rough road but an easy hike. The 3.4 miles between Portal Campground and the trailhead require a high-clearance 4WD vehicle that can handle loose, rocky tracks. (The driving isn’t technical, but it exceeds the clearance and climbing capability of, say, your standard Subaru Outback.) Yet the eye-popping scenery is well worth the bumpy ride.

Half the hiking route crosses alpine tundra, affording views of the snaggly Collegiate Range, and the trail gains just 500 feet of elevation over 1.2 miles (one way), making it suitable for most kids and anyone still acclimatizing to higher altitude. Spread out a picnic lunch, drink in the views, and cast for Anderson Lake’s plus-size cutthroat trout. To reach Portal Campground, take Highway 82 to Lincoln Creek Road and follow it for 6.5 miles.

High-Alpine Gem
Grizzly Lake
Colorado’s native cutthroat trout inhabit this mountain-framed lake, which sits at a lofty 12,520 feet. At such high elevations, food is scarce for more than half the year, so fish eagerly gobble what anglers offer—provided you don’t spook them with your approach.

Scan the banks for fish before stomping right up to the water, then toss out a Griffith’s gnat or Royal Wulff, maybe with a bead-head hare’s ear nymph tied on as a subsurface dropper. With overcast skies and a slight breeze ruffling the water, you stand a better chance of hooking these wary wild residents.

Should action be slow, the views supply plenty of excitement. Nearby Grizzly Peak is just a few notches shy of Fourteener status, at 13,988 feet. Get there by driving your high-clearance vehicle up Lincoln Creek Road to the trailhead at Grizzly Reservoir, then hike 3.6 ever-steepening miles to Grizzly Lake’s tundra-covered shoreline.

Shuttle Hike
Lost Man Lake Loop

The 8.8-mile Lost Man Trail visits not just one high-elevation lake, but three—all containing trout, and all surrounded by wildflower meadows and steely peaks. About 4 miles of Highway 82 connect the trail’s two ends, so turn the hike into a loop by parking one car at the lower trailhead (14 miles east of Aspen) and leaving the other 4.5 miles farther east, at the last switchback before Independence Pass.

Starting at the upper trailhead, hike uphill along the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River to Independence Lake, 2.5 miles from the start. Big, 15-inch brook trout live here; cast for them in the deeper water along the west shore. Then hike up and over Lost Man Pass (the hike’s high point at 12,800 feet) before descending through thickets of wildflowers to Lost Man Lake. Wiggle a streamer or lure beneath the boulders protruding from this lake’s northern and eastern banks, then continue for 5 more miles on a gradual descent to your final shot at trout in Lost Man Reservoir—a good place for bait-fishing. Target the brookies feeding by the lake’s inlet.

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Local Knowledge: Trouty Field Trip
Ogle native cutthroat trout at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Its Hallam Lake facility includes a glass-walled indoor stream that gives visitors an up-close look at these beautiful golden fish with black spots and a ruby-red “necklace.” 

 

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Lunkerville
Fryingpan River below Ruedi Dam
Colorado’s fattest brown trout inhabit the two miles of the Fryingpan below the dam. Some reach 8 pounds or more by hoovering the Mysis shrimp spilling out of Ruedi Reservoir. Scan the calm, clear waters of the Flats below the dam, and you’ll see stacks of arm-length fish: A recent Colorado Parks and Wildlife survey found 84 browns and 47 rainbows measuring more than 14 inches—so this fishery still deserves its legendary reputation. And with the rich red cliffs of the Maroon Formation rising above the banks, it’s pretty, to boot.

But hooking these fish—let alone landing one—is notoriously difficult. They’re extremely leader-shy and will avoid any kind of visible flash from the line. Increase your odds by using superfine, 6X fluorocarbon tippet. Overcast skies or pre-dawn mornings make it harder for fish to spot your rig—and easier to fool them. Cast midge nymphs into the Toilet Bowl, where food-rich water swirls out of the dam and attracts the river’s biggest specimens. Or, if midges or blue-winged olive mayflies are hatching, head just downstream to Baetis Bridge to tempt a fatty to the surface.

No Name Fun
Colorado River above Glenwood Springs
Most anglers opt to float the Colorado River, since its big water makes wading difficult. The 11 miles between Grizzly Creek and South Canyon (a popular all-day float) hold plenty of rainbow and brown trout, as well as mountain whitefish—and because they see less angling pressure than the Fryingpan and Roaring Fork rivers, these fish are more gullible.

No boat? Park at No Name Rest Area (off I-70, 2 miles east of Glenwood Springs), and walk upstream along the paved Glenwood Canyon Bike Path, which parallels the river and visits several swirling eddies where you can toss in a stonefly nymph or drag a streamer through the current. Productive streamer patterns include wooly buggers, sculpin, and autumn splendors—invented by Roaring Fork guide Tim Heng, this never-fail lure looks like a wooly bugger but has wiggly rubber legs that look irresistible to area trout. And with the canyon’s striated stone spires for a backdrop, trophy photos look particularly dazzling from the Colorado River. 

Aspen’s Wild Backyard
Rio Grande Trail along the Upper Roaring Fork River
You don’t have to drive far from Aspen to find stellar fishing. The Roaring Fork rolls right alongside Aspen’s homes and parks, and provides outstanding Wild Trout Water within walking distance of downtown. Start at the John Denver Sanctuary and cast into the pools behind this stretch’s big boulders. Then walk downstream on the paved Rio Grande Trail to access more pocket water.

The eight-mile section between Aspen and Woody Creek is chockablock with trout, so to cover more ground, try stashing your fishing gear in a backpack and pedaling a bike between tempting holes. The gentle gradients create calm pools and reasonably easy wading in most spots, and arcing tree branches along the stream provide shady places to snack—or enjoy a riverside siesta.

Float the Fork
Lower Roaring Fork River
By the time the freestone Roaring Fork River reaches Basalt, it’s become big water, hitting 5,900 cubic feet per second during average spring runoff in May and June—the only time that the technical section between Basalt and Carbondale is floatable. The stretch from Carbondale to Westbank (8 miles) or Glenwood Springs (14 miles) is more reliable and is the summer’s go-to run for many local anglers. Put in at the boat ramp just downvalley of where Highways 82 and 133 meet; turn left on the frontage road (County Rd 106) about 1 mile past the intersection to access the ramp.

The appeal? Variety. Everything from green drake nymphs to streamers to dry flies to terrestrials can tempt this river’s trout. In June, once runoff subsides, fish gobble big, meaty caddis and other large imitations floated on the surface, and heavy hatches of yellow sallies and pale morning duns offer opportunities to watch a big, hook-jawed brown trout gobble a dry fly off the surface. On July evenings during this river’s beloved green drake hatch, fishing guides float this section for an after-hours party that doesn’t dwindle until dark.

Undiscovered Gem
Crystal River above Carbondale
Few of the valley’s visitors ever make their way to the Crystal River, a freestone stream that tumbles out of the Elk Mountains to join the Roaring Fork at Carbondale. Its fish are fewer (and smaller) than the ones anglers pursue on the other, more famous rivers of the Roaring Fork region. But they’re lively eaters—which explains why, on many summer afternoons, you’ll see locals from Carbondale and other area towns parking at the Crystal River Hatchery off Highway 133 after work and fishing up- and downstream of the bridge.

For a more backcountry feel, drive upstream beyond Redstone and park in one of the pull-offs to fish this river’s glimmering riffles and undercut banks. Gravel beaches along the stream make fine picnic sites. And although the fish here only measure 6 to 12 inches, on average, they’re diverse. Aim for a Colorado grand slam of cutthroat, brown, rainbow, and brook trout.

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Ice, Out
Catching Too Many Fish Made One Guide Call Uncle
“I was guiding on the Fryingpan one winter day about 12 years ago. It was very cold, maybe 10 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a breeze. But we were on the Bend Pool, about 100 yards down from the outlet of the dam, and the fishing was very good. My client was catching fish on every other cast, and for nearly an hour, I was handling and releasing a lot of fish for him. My hands got so brutally cold that I didn’t want him to catch fish anymore. So I moved him up to a spot where he wasn’t likely to catch anything. He realized what I was doing, though he didn’t tell me that until the end of the day, once we were back at the shop. But he didn’t seem to mind. It’s just such an incredible winter fishery.”
—Tim Heng, longtime fishing guide and fly designer

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Nighttime Is the Right Time
Fishing the green drake hatch on the Roaring Fork
“The green drakes are the best-known hatch in our valley, and they’re one of my favorites. They’re big mayflies, almost an inch long, and when they hatch, they just cover the water and the whole river wakes up, with trout rising all over the place. Most of the year, these fish feed on teeny-tiny little midges, so when that big bug hatch happens, trout just go crazy for them. Most of the time, though, the hatch happens in the evening, right as it’s getting dark. So not only is the green drake a unique bug, but it also requires a unique way of fishing.

One time, I brought my friend Frany. It was in July, when the hatch was hitting Basalt. We headed to Gerbaz Bridge, and even though there were already a few other anglers there, everyone was friendly. That’s the way it is with the green drakes. People stop being grumpy and territorial and just get excited about the hatch. They share fly patterns and talk about what’s been working well. It’s a fun vibe.

It was getting darker and darker as we waited for the hatch to start, and Frany kept asking, ‘You sure this is actually going to happen?’ Finally, around 9 or so, the ‘power hour’ turned on. But by then it was almost too dark to see, so you have to listen for the take and set the hook by sound, not by sight. Fifty percent of the time, you get a fish.

But Frany just couldn’t figure it out. She kept missing fish and missing fish, until eventually it clicked, and when she heard a splash, she set the hook. The fish shot across the river and she was screaming that she needed help, so I threw my rod in the bushes and ran 30 or 40 feet downriver. I didn’t have a headlamp, so I stumbled a lot in the dark, but I got there in time and netted her gorgeous brown trout. We laughed hysterically at how strange it is to catch a fish when you can’t see anything. Then suddenly the fish stopped rising. The hatch quieted down. The game was over.”
—Shannon Outing, fishing guide, Taylor Creek Fly Shop

EXCLUSIVE ADVENTURES
Heli-fishing
Bar ZX Ranch sprawls beneath the Ragged Mountains, which prove that wrinkles can, indeed, be beautiful. Their chiseled flanks rise above a chain of mountain lakes that grow monster-size trout. Here, a 5-pound rainbow occupies the small end of the spectrum, while 20-pounders fight like sharks and bend fishing rods into horseshoes.

But the property sits some distance from Aspen—90 minutes by truck—so The Little Nell offers heli-fishing trips that trim the commute to 15 minutes. They also showcase the nest of glorious peaks that separate Bar ZX from Aspen—the Raggeds and the Elk Mountains, all dotted with lakes that look like blue opals when viewed from above.

Once the bird lands beside one of Bar ZX’s trout ponds, you’ll meet your guide and sip coffee while everyone is outfitted with rods. Experts can target fatties, while kids can shoot at gullible stockers that guarantee fast action (the 2:1 or 3:1 guest-to-guide ratio ensures plenty of support for all). Lunch is a gourmet picnic, including the likes of liver pâté and chocolate pastries prepared by the Nell’s kitchen and served at a lakeside gazebo. Then it’s more trophy-hunting and the return flight home, admiring mighty Mount Sopris in the late-afternoon light and watching herds of elk chomp down their dinner in the mountain meadows. From $10,000 for four people

Private water
A passion for fly-fishing drew John Hollinger to Aspen in 1968, and the following year he launched Aspen Outfitting Company, which started leasing exclusive fishing access from local landowners on the Roaring Fork River upstream of Basalt. Now, Hollinger’s son Jared runs the guided fishing and hunting business, and maintains many of the same relationships that Hollinger first forged back in the ’60s and ’70s.

Jared Hollinger helps landowners manage their riparian zones to promote ideal trout habitat. And because the fish see very little angling pressure (only guests of Aspen Outfitting Company are permitted to cast from these banks), they’re more easily fooled than the seen-it-all specimens that inhabit public waters. Best of all, though, is the chance to wade in total solitude. Although drift boats occasionally cruise downstream during peak runoff (the only time this steep, boulder-strewn section of the Roaring Fork is navigable), anglers generally see no one but themselves—making for a true wilderness feel just 10 minutes from downtown Aspen. From $325 

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Chasing Tail
Sometimes, miracles happen. 
“It was spring, and I was fishing the middle section of the Fryingpan at Folkstad Spring. A lot of anglers avoid that faster pocket water, but I love it.

I saw a fish on the other side of the stream, in front of a big boulder. It was almost porpoising, rolling onto its side and sipping bugs. So I tied on an RS2 behind a small 18 Adams and high-sticked my rod over the current. That fish took it and just sunk to the bottom. Next he made a big jump upstream, into faster current, then downstream. Following him took lots of tricky maneuvering, because there isn’t much of a bank. The river is narrow there and full of boulders, and I had him on light 6X tippet.

I’m sure I fell, but I don’t remember it—I was just so focused on getting my fish, I didn’t even care if I cracked my shin. Eventually I caught up with him, lifted my rod, and scooped him up just as the tippet was about to snap.

He must’ve been 21 inches or so—he barely fit in my net—and maybe four pounds. On the Pan, you have to do a lot of things right in order to be successful. This was a technical catch, and a technical fight, in fast water and light tippet. Such a good fish.”
—Glenn Smith, fishing guide, chef, and artist

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Ribbons and Medals
Fourteen miles of the Fryingpan River (below Ruedi Dam) and 24.7 miles of the Roaring Fork have earned Gold Medal status, a designation bestowed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to recognize streams that support lots of trout—including big’uns. Gold Medal water must contain 60 pounds of trout per acre, and at least 12 of those fish must measure 14 inches or more. The Roaring Fork was the longest stretch of Gold Medal water in the state until 2014, when a 102-mile portion of the Upper Arkansas River nudged it out of top place.

Additionally, 7 miles of the Roaring Fork from Hallam Lake in Aspen downstream to the Upper Woody Creek Bridge are also designated as Wild Trout Water, meaning they contain healthy populations of wild fish and aren’t typically stocked with hatchery fingerlings.

Blue Ribbon streams are designations issued by the federal government and other states (such as Utah and Montana) to celebrate outstanding fisheries—so nationwide, you’ll hear about Blue Ribbon rivers, while Colorado prefers the Gold Medal terminology.