Just in time for autumn
It’s a great time to be fishing, and it’s only going to get better. We’re heading into a transition period, when the temperature cools, the leaves start falling off the trees, and (happily) when fish either head into spawning mode and/or start bulking up for winter. In my humble opinion, there is no better place to be during this time than on one of Colorado’s designated gold medal waters (notwithstanding that those who fish with me will quickly debate the ‘humble’ part). On that note, I thought I’d summarize what ‘gold medal’ means, and where to find them besides the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife says there are more than 6,000 miles of streams and more than 2,000 lakes and reservoirs in the state. Of those precious natural resources, just 168 miles of streams (and 3 stillwater locations) have been officially designated “Gold Medal water.” This award is given to those fisheries that represent the best opportunities for anglers to catch trophies, and are specially managed to ensure their excellence. Most are catch and release, artificial lure and fly only, and those that do allow taking fish usually limit the bag to two (one of which can be greater that 20 inches, and one that must be less than 12 inches – essentially limiting the take to one ‘trophy’ since nobody really wants to keep a 12 inch fish). The best part is most people memorialize in picture, and the “report poachers” warnings that usually reside near the entrances to these waters are enough to deter those sans camera.
Where do I find the medals?
Gold medal waters are spread throughout the state – some are within an hour or two of major metropolitan areas (think Denver and Colorado Springs), and some are far enough away to virtually guarantee minimal pressure. You can expect that the waters close at hand will be chock full of anglers, hence the fish are handed their Ph.D.’s in entomology early. Those far off may hold less educated aquatica, but you may find yourself carrying your shelter if you decide to stick around for more than a day. Here’s a list, as compiled by the department and organized alphabetically, which includes links to satellite imagery (and links to maps) of the described sections…
The Animas resides in the southwestern portion of the state, near Durango. It is the state’s newest gold medal designee, and holds plenty of brown and rainbow trout in the 14 to 18 inch range. Keep restrictions in mind when fishing the water close to Durango – there is also some private land you should watch out for. The best time to hit the Animas is post-snowmelt (i.e April to June). To get there, take Highway 160 to Highway 550 to a stretch near Durango.
This water flows out of Dillon Reservoir and boasts fantastic rainbow and brown trout fishing. The waters meander through the town of Silverthorne, right past a number of outlet shops; after moving into the Green Mountain Reservoir, the tailwater continues north until it meets the Colorado River near Kremmling. Note – it is fly and lure fishing only; the majority of the water exiting Green Mountain Canyon is private land, although there are still several federally-owned chunks of land you can fish from (all you have to you is find them). Get there via Highway 9 at the Frisco-Silverthorne Exit off Interstate 70.
FRYINGPAN, CRYSTAL AND ROARING FORK RIVERS
These rivers are reknown for some of the best fly and lure fishing for trout in the United States, thanks in no small part to the abundant food sources available for the fish. The section of the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir is catch-and-release water, and trophy rainbow trout up to 10 pounds are not a generational occurence. The Roaring Fork “offers the best mountain whitefish angling in the state,” but few will forget the summer green drake hatches that send trout into a frenzy either. The Crystal River is stocked, thereby appealing to the casual angler. Get there taking Interstate 70 to Glenwood Springs, then Highway 82 to Basalt and Aspen.
The Gunnison River, with particular emphasis on the Black Canyon, is well known for its trophy brown and rainbow trout fishing. A number of fish over 16 inches can be caught, and days of frequent 20+ inch hauls are not uncommon. The middle stretch of the river, between Crystal Creek and the confluence with North Fork, is most popular for trophy hunters, but the section is accessible only by foot. To get there take Highway 92, 15 miles east from Delta to the Pleasure Forks turn-off. Trail access is available on the Duncan, Ute, Chukar and Bobcat footpaths.
NORTH DELANEY BUTTE
There are three highly productive trout lakes at Delaney Buttes. North Delaney Butte Lake is periodically stocked with brown trout fingerlings, and the ample food supply allows trout to grow to 18 to 20 inches in a short time. South Delaney Butte Lake is also a productive trout lake, but produces somewhat smaller Rainbow and Snake River Cutthroat trout. East Delaney “was reclaimed in spring 1999, and since has been stocked with 15,000 5-inch rainbow trout”; 17 to 20 inch rainbow trout are now being caught. All three lakes have sanitary facilities and boat ramps, as well as special restrictions including tight bag limits. To get there from Walden, go west on Highway 14 for roughly a half mile to County Road 18, then head west for 4.5 miles on 18 to County Road 5. The lakes are just 1 mile north.
NORTH PLATTE RIVER
The North Platte is a freestone river, and offers some of the least pressured fly fishing for brown, brook and rainbow trout in the state. While much of the river winds through private land, the Colorado Division of Wildlife has leased public fishing easements on many sections of this water – the leases include portions of the North Platte River, Norris and Roaring creeks, Grizzly Creek, the North Fork of the North Platte and the Michigan and Illinois rivers. The river is accessed from the Walden area, to the west. You are best off contacting the Division of Wildlife for maps and current access leases.
The same Rio Grande you hear about ending in the Gulf of Mexico is the one that begins high in the San Juan mountain range. Excellent brown and rainbow trout fishing can be had from the Rio Grande Reservoir downstream to Del Norte, and fly fishing is “best from June through July when stonefly and mayfly hatches dominate fish diets.” The Gold Medal section extends from South Fork to Del Norte, and provides trophy brown trout. The best access is gained west of Del Norte to South Fork and north of South Fork to Creede, along highways 149 and 160 respectively. Be careful not to trespass on private lands – public access is excellent as a result of state leasing efforts.
SOUTH PLATTE RIVER (Cheesman Reservoir to Strontia Springs Reservoir)
This Gold medal portion of the South Platte starts below the Cheesman Reservoir and extends to the Strontia Springs Reservoir (with the exception of a mile or so of private water in the famed Wigwam Club), and is considered some of the best rainbow and brown trout fisheries in the nation. There is good reason for this – not only is there an ample supply of fish, but access to this portion of the river can be had within an hour or so drive of Denver. To get there, take U.S. 85 to Colorado 67, heading west. If your goal is Cheesman Canyon, you can alternatively take Highway 285, the turn left onto 126 and follow it south to the access lot – the river is about a 30 minute hike from the lot.
SOUTH PLATTE RIVER (in South Park)
The South Platte River in South Park is big trout central, and the famed “Dream Stream” tailwater section between the Spinney and Eleven Mile reservoirs is world renown. Upstream from Spinney the Middle Fork is joined by the South Fork from Antero Reservoir. The Middle Fork itself stretches to north of Fairplay, and is dotted with public access between private, including the Tomahawk State Wildlife Refuge. You can get there from Colorado Springs by traveling west on Highway 24. Or take 285 southwest from Denver, through Fairplay to County 9. There are multiple access points, so watch for the river and signs.
SPINNEY MOUNTAIN RESERVOIR
Referred to simply as Spinney by locals, the reservoir is considered ‘the place’ for picking up trophy-sized rainbows, browns and Snake River cutthroats. Access requires a state parks pass, and the stillwater is imminently fishable from shore or with a belly boat. The favored time to hit Spinney is right after April ice-out, although targeting the trophy northern pike is best in June. To get there from Colorado Springs, head east on Highway 24 for 55 miles to Country Road 23. Then go south for 2.8 miles, and then east on County Road 59 for 1 mile to the park entrance. Alternatively, from Denver you can head southwest on State Road 285 for roughly 85 miles, then south on County 9 for 18. Turn left (east) on Highway 24 through Hartsel, then pick up County Road 59 and continue east.
Steamboat Lake is located in northwestern Colorado at the base of Hahn’s Peak. It is known for its fine rainbow trout fishing. Boats are permitted, and a state parks pass is required for entry. To get there from Steamboat Springs, go west 2 miles on Highway 40 to County Road 129, then turn north for 26 miles to the park entrance.