Plan the perfect Colorado fly-fishing vacation on ‘Summit time’ |

Plan the perfect Colorado fly-fishing vacation on ‘Summit time’

A fly-fisherman casts his line as mountain goats graze in the background at a high-alpine lake outside of Breckenridge. Depending on runoff, the thick of fly-fishing season in Summit County and surrounding areas starts as early as Mother's Day with the annual caddis hatch on the Arkansas River.
Liam Doran / Breckenridge Tourism Office |

One should never complain about having too many choices of what to do on a July day in Summit County. Climb out of bed early and walk to the window, pull open the blinds, and somewhere out there are hundreds of miles of trails to hike, rivers to fish, lakes to explore and mountains to climb.

This should be the easiest decision of the day. Pick up that rod tube and a box of flies, and then step out the door. The work comes once an angler is on the water, but everything that comes before is worth appreciating as well.

Slower in Summit

“Summit time” is different than normal time: slower, more visceral somehow, each moment to be appreciated. The sun and the trout have a singular relationship so high in elevation. It is a relationship quite opposite from the streams of the lowlands, where fishing is best in the mornings and evenings. The hot afternoons there are meant for naps along the river’s edge, perhaps with a book over the face to cover the eyes.

Here, the temperatures of the rivers must be noted. It can take time for these rivers to warm, for the fish to turn on and feed. It depends on myriad variables and the fly shops know these specific variables best.

Luckily, there is one shop in every direction when leaving the county. Just remember that guided trips are going out from the moment they open their doors at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., so even though it may seem unlikely, the shop has been busy since you were still dreaming of trout.

Main Street feed

A good breakfast serves all anglers well. Again, in any direction, folks will find a hearty plate of huevos rancheros and a fine cup of coffee: Bread and Salt on Main Street in Frisco if heading West, Columbine Café in Breckenridge if heading south, The Mountain Lion Café in Silverthorne if going north. The service is fast at all three and each is a two-minute walk from a fly shop. After picking a well-informed brain in a fly shop, buying a few flies is customary in exchange for information. It also never hurts to have a few of a guide’s favorite flies in your fly box.

To the north

Beyond these Main Street fly shops and restaurants, on the banks of the Blue River, Colorado River, Eagle River and South Platte, are a half-dozen different microclimates to fish, with vistas so different it is hard to fathom they are only an hour or two apart.

To the north sit the Blue River, the Colorado and the Williams Fork, each so different in its course and personality that to hit all three in a day is to exhaust one’s notions of the High Rockies. The lush floodplain of the Blue and the deep-cut gorge of the Colorado are split by the Gore Range, which rises like a gnarled spine between the two valleys. A guide would teach fishing on these two rivers as differently as teaching two languages. On rivers, as with languages, a teacher may be truly fluent in only one.

To the west

Head west to the Eagle and the headwaters of the Arkansas for intimacy some do not expect from Colorado Rivers. They can be technical waters for technical casts — streams that require stepping back now and then to read what is being written among the seams, to hear what is spoken behind the rocks. Only then can fishing here be a dialogue.

To the south

To the south, the High Plains of the South Platte, with its often-constant wind and distant mountain ranges, can feel a world apart from Summit County. Fishing among cattle while scanning the distant ridges for coyotes makes one feel small, as if some solitary hunter in a boundless landscape. Casting from the tall grass banks, watching a trout rise to a hopper like it is the last meal on Earth can make fly-fishing seem like the easiest thing in the world.

But this is still late July, and no true litmus test of one’s skill.

The right fly

Once on the river, most fishermen search for flies in the air, on the leaves of bushes, or stuck in spider webs, hoping that it just might be a dry fly day. If there is evidence, tying on a well-chosen dry fly will make casting seem easy. Everything happens on the top of the water, so reading strikes is as simple as watching a trout rise.

It is a pure moment, but one that I often get too excited about, and so I do not wait to set my hook. Impatience can pull the fly right out of the trout’s mouth, no fault of the fish. If I have a little more self control and hesitate one second, the fish will close its mouth and begin to turn, the hook set in the corner of its mouth — a picture-perfect catch, set deep in the tissue.

It is good to know that about 90 percent of a trout’s diet is subsurface, and because of that, tying on a dropper perhaps 18 inches under the dry fly can increase chances of a strike. Using the dry fly to indicate a strike on the nymph below can be more pleasant than just using a strike indicator, but the casts must be deliberate and the loop of the cast more open to accommodate the strange physics of casting two objects at the end of the line.

Streamers, etc.

Streamers have their place in deep, fast water and even when sight fishing with the full length of the fish visible beneath the surface. Predatory trout may move long distances to take a heavy streamer — the flash and the fish running can be exhilarating.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the day might be seeing your streamer swimming time and time again in front of a trophy trout that will not move, will not open its mouth — won’t even give your streamer the time of day. This might be the time for a riverside nap in the High Rockies, if only to regain your sanity.

Back on time

What is left is to relax and enjoy Summit time: the grandeur and intimacy of Colorado, and the rivers that wrote themselves into the landscape long before anyone cared to fish them.

Deciding to go fishing should be the easiest and best decision you make that day. The rest of the choices — the location, the flies, the technique — are all simple, almost trivial, even if they produce no fish. The only choice that mattered is the one that got you out on the river.

Many may walk into the fly shops with visions of tight lines and trophy trout, and a good fly-fisherman knows well that expectations determine happiness as much as each moment on the water. I learned long ago that my only expectation should be to feel gratitude for the time spent on the water.

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