Despite May snowstorm, Colorado fly-fishing season is here with the Mother’s Day caddis hatch
Wondering what flys are best for spring and early-summer angling in Summit County? Local guides give their favorites.
Blue-wing olive — This mayfly variety is one of the first big hatches of the season on alpine waterways.
Caddis — The fabled Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Arkansas River marks the start of the local fly-fishing season, but it’s also one of few year-round flys.
Stonefly — When runoff turns rivers muddy, use a large stonefly with bigger patterns to attract attention. Try running caddis or small nymph behind your stonefly if the large fly alone isn’t working.
Salmon fly — This stonefly variety is the second major hatch of the alpine fly-fishing season and arrives in late May or June.
Find a guide
Get your waders wet this summer with a guided trip through a local fly-fishing outfitter. The peak season runs from now until late-October, with float trips available year-round on nearby waterways like the Upper Colorado River, Arkansas River and Roaring Fork River.
Breckenridge Outfitters — Breckenridge, 970-453-4135
Mountain Angler — Breckenridge, 970-453-4665
Blue River Anglers — Frisco, 970-668-2583
Trouts Fly Fishing — Frisco, 970-668-2583
Cutthroat Anglers — Silverthorne, 970-262-2878
The Colorado Angler — Silverthorne, 970-513-8055
Big Ed’s Fishing Ventures — Dillon, 970-389-1720
If you’ve been angling in Colorado long enough, you know all about the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Arkansas River. If you haven’t been, you’re about to learn.
Every Mother’s Day weekend, the weather and waterways south of Breckenridge in Park, Lake and Chaffee counties start warming enough for caddis pupae to hatch. When they do, local brown trout start going berserk after the long, cold, dormant winter, brought to life by the caddis flies and water temperatures in the upper 40s.
And that’s when anglers start working the water — even though peak season is still a full month (and about 16 degrees) away.
“Most people don’t understand how good the fishing can be in spring,” said Mitch Melichar, a veteran fly-fishing guide of 20 years with Cutthroat Anglers in Silverthorne. “The perception is that it’s not warm enough — the weather is too inconsistent, all of that — but the reality is that the water is warming up from near-freezing temperatures. That’s what triggers our spring hatches.”
The Mother’s Day caddis hatch isn’t exactly clockwork, but it’s close, and it marks the true beginning of summer fly-fishing season in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. From May until August, snowmelt runoff in Summit and surrounding counties filters into the area’s main waterways — the Upper Colorado, Arkansas, Eagle and Roaring Fork rivers — before tapering off in September and October, leaving local rivers almost eerily clear come autumn. Fly-fishing is a year-round sport in Summit (if you’ve got the nerve for sub-freezing temperatures), but longtime local guides like Melichar and others agree that the sweet spot is during the warm, long days between the Mother’s Day caddis hatch and the first snowstorms of October.
But what if a mid-winter snowstorm hits Breckenridge in May?
Believe it or not, the May 18 blizzard most likely won’t have a lasting impact on the fly-fishing season. It might not even bother nearby fish for longer than a few days, Melichar said, and hatches will only go dormant for a brief stretch.
“In the short term this will exacerbate runoff,” Melichar said. “You’ll see water (clarity) that is less than optimal, but for the entire season we’ll be over 100 percent snowpack for the year, and that bodes well for a great season.”
Snowpack is a decent litmus test for predicting the fly-fishing season in Colorado, Melichar said. But why? It comes down to three major elements every angler should learn to read: runoff, water temperature and food supply.
“This isn’t too big of a deal for the fish,” said Zeke Hersh, a guide of 21 years in Summit County who works for Trouts Fly Fishing in Frisco. “They’re used to weather coming though here in Colorado. I fished yesterday (May 17), and maybe they could feel this front coming. When you have low-pressure systems, you’ll see the fish getting a little slower. You just have to watch for those.”
This May, Hersh has spent most of his time on the Arkansas and Colorado rivers, taking groups to tributaries in the Buena Vista area and Spinney Mountain Reservoir south of Fairplay. He’s noticed that sections of the Colorado River are getting murky with runoff — if a fish can’t see a fly, it most likely won’t bite — but says that the Arkansas River is relatively clear, with about 3 to 4 feet of visibility. He’s also spent time near the South Platte River headwaters around Alma and Fairplay, and the south toward Buena Vista and Salida.
“This time of year you have to be strategic in your options, thinking about areas that don’t get as affected by runoff,” Hersh said. “The South Platte is high in altitude and the snow around there is sticking around longer. That makes the water clearer for longer.”
May fly-fishing in Summit might be better than you’d think, but like freak snowstorms, it can also be wildly unpredictable. Local river fish like browns, cutthroat trout and salmon varieties won’t be incredibly active until water temperatures reach the 50s, inching closer to Hersh’s “magic number” of 56 degrees. That’s when hatches of all varieties start in earnest, like the next big event: the salmon fly hatch in mid-June.
“The Mother’s Day caddis hatch already happened, but that’s an all-summer bug,” Melichar said. “The salmon fly hatch will be happening soon, usually in late-May or early June, but if I had to hazard a guess this year it might be late-June.”
Until then, how can anglers make the most of Mother Nature’s temper tantrums? Simple: with strategy. In May, Hersh likes to fish holes and other pockets of standing water, where fish tend to collect because temperatures are higher.
“You want anything that’s slower,” Hersh said. “The fish won’t be in the main, heavy current as runoff starts — they’ll hang in the banks and eddies. Hang out, take your time and wait. You could have some luck.”
Both Hersh and Melichar also like waiting until later in the day for spring and early summer fly-fishing. Instead of casting at sunrise, when the water temp might still be hovering at 40 degrees, they wait as late as 10 a.m. for warmer temps. Not only is it prime time for fish and fly activity — it’s also more comfortable for fishermen.
“Don’t let bad weather scare you off the river, because it can change so quickly,” Melichar said. “Here’s my saying: ‘You won’t know unless you go,’ and that’s how I look at spring fishing.”
And more often than not, Melichar said he’s the only person on the river — yet another perk of fly-fishing slightly outside of peak season.
“There’s just not a lot of people out there right now,” he said. “You’re not competing with a lot of anglers … we’re seeing more people than before, but it’s still not crazy in the spring.”
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