Alpine Angler: Fall fly-fishing on the Arkansas and Colorado rivers
There’s one simple reason why autumn in the High Country is prime time for fly-fishing: The fish are ravenous.
“Just like all animals, fish are looking to pack on calories before the cold winter,” said Andrew Peterson, owner of The Colorado Angler in Silverthorne. “When you combine that with the fact that fish are spawning and there are fewer people around, fewer people out on the water, it makes September and early October fantastic times to fish.”
It’s no secret that fall is made for fishing — it’s why The America Cup International Fly Fishing Tournament is in Vail until Sept. 14 — but you still have to know where to look. Peterson boasts more than two decades as a local fishing guide, and, while he enjoys Summit County waterways during the heat of summer, come fall, he suggests going north to the Colorado River or south to the Arkansas.
Again, there’s a simple reason for it: Both brook and brown trout are preparing to spawn, which not only makes them hungry — it also makes them aggressive.
“Those two species spawn in the fall, so they’re looking to boost their caloric intake for spawning season,” Peterson said. “Brown trout get pretty aggressive during the spawning season, they get territorial, so they tend to chase other fish down.”
That means browns on the Colorado are ready and willing to bite almost any type of lure, from blue-winged olives and other mayflies to streamers (lures shaped like crayfish and other mobile animals) and grasshoppers.
“Those large streamers represent higher caloric intake, and that’s what the fish are looking for right now,” Peterson said. “Trout are opportunistic eaters. You get a windy afternoon with lots of bugs blown of the bank, they will chase after most anything.”
Upper Colorado River
Unlike Tenmile Creek and the Upper Blue River, the Upper Colorado has one major advantage late in the fly-fishing season: It’s dam fed, meaning the waters stay consistently high, and the fish stay consistently happy. The best holes are found along the 150-mile stretch between Rocky Mountain National Park and the west side of Glenwood Springs. Kremmling, Wolcott, Eagle and Gypsum are go-to areas for wade and float fishing.
The fish: Brown trout. Peterson says the Upper Colorado has a strong brown population throughout the year, and the combination of spawning with pre-winter feeding makes them more active in autumn than any other season.
Pro tip: Fine-tune your streamer patterns. Streamers work best in the fall because browns are looking for large, calorie-laden prey.
Best bait: Blue-winged olive, streamers, grasshoppers, terrestrial patterns
The Arkansas River isn’t dam-fed like the Colorado, but it has another major advantage: Whitewater rafting. The whitewater season in Brown’s Canyon and The Numbers wrapped up in August, but, for the majority of the summer, fish in both areas were free to roam at will.
“They just haven’t been seeing much pressure for that past three or four months,” Peterson said. “Those populations tend to thrive in rafting season, when fishermen don’t really go there.”
The fish: Brown and brook trout
Pro tip: Stick to the canyons. The brown population on the Arkansas isn’t as strong as on the Colorado, but Peterson says anglers can find plenty hiding in stretches popular with summer rafters.
Best bait: Blue-winged olive, any mayfly
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