A beginner’s guide to fly-fishing in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

Summit County experts provide tips for those looking to enjoy the High Country at a slower pace

An angler displays a trout he caught.
Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo

The sun is shining and the weather is great. But amid days of traveling, barbecuing, hiking popular trails and boating on the Dillon Reservoir, it can sometimes feel like summer in Summit County lacks solitude.

For anglers, summer can offer a chance to escape the crowds, find a quiet bend in a river, wade into the cool water, relax, enjoy nature and maybe even catch a fish. Once viewed as more of an exclusive sport, the owners of local fly shops say fly-fishing is more accessible than ever and offers something for everyone.

“One of the first things people really love is just the intimacy with nature,” Ben McCormick, the owner of Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne, said. “It’s a great way to see Mother Nature up here, void of human beings. You get to see nature — all the sounds, the wildlife. It’s an excellent way to explore the mountains.”

Mountains rise in the background as an angler finds solitude while casting his line in a shallow section of the river.
Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo

Getting started with fly-fishing, though, can be a bit intimidating for new anglers, McCormick said, because there is a lot of gear and techniques to be learned. For beginners, it is best to find a friend who is already into the sport or book a fishing trip with a professional guide who can walk through the basics of how to cast a rod, manage the line, set the hook when a fish is biting, and fight and land a fish once it’s hooked.

Tim West, the owner of Breckenridge Outfitters, a gear shop and guide service in Breckenridge, noted that the complexity of fly-fishing is part of what makes it so popular. There is something for everyone.

“In our sport there are many things that people really geek out on,” West said. “Fly tying, making their own flies. There are people that tie flies 10 times more than they actually go fishing because they love the art side of it. It’s very artistic. It’s very creative. And then some people really love the entomology side of it. It’s very scientific. The science of bugs. The study of the life of an insect.”

A young angler fishes during a large insect hatch.
Breckenridge Outfitters/Courtesy photo
Must-haves for beginner fly-fishing:
  • Rod
  • Reel
  • Fly line
  • Backing
  • Leader
  • Tippet
  • Flies
  • Net
  • Forceps
  • Nippers
  • Strike indicator
  • Weight
  • Floatant

Next steps for beginners:

  • Boots
  • Waders
  • Neoprene socks
  • Fly box
  • Bug spray
  • Polarized sunglasses
  • Hat

Source: Breckenridge Outfitters

People get into the sport many different ways, West said. Some know that they will love the sport and are happy to spend a chunk of cash on mid-tier equipment right off the bat. Others, however, choose to get started with just the basics, which can be purchased for a couple hundred dollars.

“You don’t necessarily need to come in and drop $5,000 getting into a new sport,” West said. “You can get into this sport with a few hundred dollars: a fishing license, a rod, a reel, a couple flies, and some accessories.”

Some people even come into his fly shop knowing they’ll never go to fly-fishing again but just wanting to rent equipment and book a trip so they can catch a fish that one time. Most fly shops that offer fishing trips, West noted, are happy to use the outing however the customer wants — whether it’s to learn how to cast a line, heading out into the field to catch a fish or just to get an entomology class.

“We’re talking to people as we’re booking trips, and we’re starting our day on the water,” West said. “We’ll ask people: What are your goals for the day? What do you want out of your day?”

Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo
A fly-fishing guide instructs several beginner anglers on rod mechanics.
Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo

What West doesn’t recommend is learning to fly-fish from YouTube videos. Hiring a guide or going out with a friend is going to get a beginner through the steepest parts of the learning curve faster, he said.

“Do not try to watch a YouTube video and teach yourself,” West said. “It would take us twice as long to unlearn anything you think you learned just so you can learn it correctly.”

McCormick noted that the great thing about hiring a guide is they know where the fish are and can also serve as an instructor. A guide can teach different ways to cast the line, can retie lines when they get tangled and can help figure out how much tension there should be in the line when fighting to reel in a fish.

“Really one of the biggest jobs of the guide is to teach,” McCormick said. “We want people to walk away feeling like they learned something.”

Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo
A woman angler stands at the edge of the river. Women and children are among the fastest growing sector in the sport of fly-fishing.
Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo

Both West and McCormick noted that while many beginners are eager to start fishing the rivers and streams where they have seen more experienced anglers casting their lines, the best place to start is in still water such as a pond, lake or reservoir.

Ponds, lakes and reservoirs near Summit County where beginner anglers can fly-fish
  • Montgomery Reservoir
  • Columbia Reservoir
  • Dillon Reservoir
  • Mohawk Lakes
  • Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center pond
  • Fairplay Beach
  • Officers Gulch Pond

“The Blue River here in town, all things considered, is for advanced anglers,” McCormick said. “What I would tell a beginner is to try out an Alpine lake, such as Officers Gulch. Small lakes are a great place to start.”

Lakes, ponds and reservoirs tend to have less brush and fewer branches near the water’s edge, meaning there is less to get the line tangled in. There can also be more fish per square foot in these areas — and the fish in still water aren’t as used to anglers, so they can be easier to catch.

“Fish that get fished every day are very, very smart,” McCormick said. “Typically, water that has big fish, it’s highly pressured. So try to pick a small lake.”

The owners of local fly-fish shops recommended beginners start by fishing an Alpine lake, pond or reservoir where there are fewer branches and brambles for their line to get tangled.
Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo

Of course, anyone fishing in Summit County should be aware of state and local rules and regulations — and every body of water is different. One of the main rules to keep in mind is that live bait is not allowed anywhere above 7,000 feet of elevation, so it can’t be used anywhere in the county, McCormick said.

A fishing license, which can be purchased online, is also required. McCormick noted that money a person spends on a fishing license goes to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which supports stocking rivers and helping scientists to manage and maintain fisheries.

While fly-fishing used to be viewed as a prestigious sport that could feel exclusive and inaccessible to beginners, West said that perception is changing in part due to how accessible the sport really is.

“That’s not how it is anymore. We’re trying to break that,” West said, noting the fastest growing sector in fly-fishing right now is women and children. “We’re trying to make sure that everyone knows that this is so fun. Come in. Ask questions. We’re here to help.”

Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo
An angler shows off their catch to a young girl, who reacts with astonishment.
Cutthroat Anglers/Courtesy photo

McCormick agreed. He says fly-fishing can be great for all age groups, from children to those in their elder years, noting that he initially became addicted to the sport when he had a back injury and needed a lower-impact activity.

Still, both McCormick and West warned against dragging a kid on a fishing trip they don’t want to go on. For children especially, they said it is important that their first experience fly-fishing is a good one so that they’re excited to return in the future.

Ultimately, anglers say fly-fishing comes down to having fun and enjoying nature.

“It truly is therapy,” McCormick said. “In the sense that all your thoughts, worries, stressors in life — they go away when you’re fishing. That’s really all you think about.”

Breckenridge Outfitters/Courtesy photo
An angler casts a line as the sun sets.
Breckenridge Outfitters/Courtesy photo

This story was originally published in the Summer 2023 edition of Explore Summit magazine.

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