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Exploring the Top Fly Fishing Rivers in Colorado

Fed by the Continental Divide

Colorado is home to some of the best fly fishing rivers in the country. With its rivers fed by the snow from high atop the Continental Divide, the state offers a diverse range of trout streams. As the water flows east towards the Atlantic Ocean, it crosses arid slopes and short grass prairies, while the water flowing west meanders through greener terrain on the western slope. Each winding path of Rocky Mountain water provides a unique fly-fishing experience that is unparalleled. While it is impossible to narrow down the top ten rivers, the following list guarantees some of the best fly fishing experiences, with most of them being designated as gold medal stream sections by the state of Colorado.

The South Platte River

One of the most popular fly fishing rivers in Colorado is the South Platte River. Its gold medal status and proximity to Denver make it an easy choice for both locals and visitors. Within a little over an hour from Denver International Airport, anglers can be casting to rising rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout on the North Fork of the South Platte. The dream stream section of the South Platte, located 3.8 miles below Spinney Reservoir and above Elevenmile Reservoir, offers an ideal tailwater fishery. The public access on both banks makes it a busy spot, but the quality of fishing makes it well worth the trip.

The Gunnison River

The Gunnison River flows west from its tributaries along the Continental Divide before joining the Colorado River in Grand Junction. The gold medal section of the Gunnison stretches from Crystal Dam to the confluence of the North Fork of the Gunnison River. This section includes the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, known for its thousand-foot walls, crags, spires, and fast-moving water. Fishing in this section requires the expertise of an experienced guide or outfitter due to its difficult access. However, the pristine water and low fishing pressure result in trophy browns and rainbow trout. Additionally, the upper Gunnison River above Blue Mesa Reservoir offers a kokanee salmon run in late summer and fall.

The Blue River

The Blue River, located on the western side of the divide, offers exceptional tailwater fishing. While it lost its gold medal designation in 2016, the Silverthorne section of the Blue was redesignated as a gold medal stream for 2017. This change in status led to better management strategies, resulting in impressive trout populations. Below Lake Dillon, the river flows through the city of Silverthorne, offering a mix of trophy trout fishing and tourist-packed outlet malls. Despite being a popular spot, anglers can still enjoy a productive day with the potential to catch 20 fish on any drift.

The Animas River

Despite concerns after the mining waste spill in 2015, the Animas River remains a gold medal river with strong fishing opportunities. The section from Lightner Creek to the Rivera Crossing Bridge, immediately downstream of downtown Durango, continues to produce world-class trout fishing. This free-flowing river is home to big trout that thrive on the abundant invertebrates. The Animas River is a historical landmark as well, with a past state-record-holding 20-pound brown trout caught in the 1950s.

The Arkansas River

Stretching 1,469 miles from Leadville to the Mississippi River, the Arkansas River is a big river that deserves its gold medal stream designation. About a third of its river miles flow through Colorado, with 102 miles designated as gold medal water. The Arkansas offers cascading and tumbling sections, with deep pockets and crystal-clear runs that hold trout. Whitewater rafting and kayaking are popular activities on the river, so anglers may need to adjust their fishing plans during high water conditions. Overall, the Arkansas River provides exceptional trout fishing opportunities.

The Upper Colorado River

One of the newest additions to Colorado’s gold medal rivers is a section of the Upper Colorado, located between Canyon Creek and Rock Creek. This stretch offers some of the best trout fishing on the west slope of Colorado, making it a great destination for anglers looking to combine fishing with sightseeing or hiking in neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park. With easy wading access, anglers can enjoy fishing from grassy banks and have a memorable experience.

The Fryingpan River

The Fryingpan River, from below Ruedi Reservoir dam to the confluence of the Roaring Fork River, is known for holding trophy brown and rainbow trout. With its gold medal stream status, this river offers deep pools that provide ample cover for trout. Anglers can witness trout shooting up from the bottom to take an emerging blue-winged olive. For a unique experience, venturing above the reservoir offers small pocket water fishing.

The Roaring Fork River

The Roaring Fork River, joined by the Fryingpan River in the town of Basalt, offers over 30 miles of continuous gold medal fishing. Anglers can enjoy wade fishing or opt for a guided float trip to access more difficult-to-reach water. The Roaring Fork River is home to big brown trout that can be found huddled up against the bank. Catching a late summer green drake hatch on this river is an experience that anglers cherish.

The Rio Grande

The Rio Grande emerges from the mountains of Rio Grande National Forest and gains its gold medal status in the town of South Fork. For the next 17 miles, anglers can expect aggressive populations of quality brown and rainbow trout. While the gold medal section attracts most anglers, the headwaters in the national forest are worth exploring. Here, anglers can find Rio Grande cutthroat, a native species that is protected from interbreeding with nonnative trout downstream.

High Country Pocket Water

Colorado’s high country is filled with sparkling clear, cold water streams teeming with small wild trout. While not known for trophy-sized fish, these high-elevation streams offer an adventure of solitude and the opportunity to catch truly wild native fish. Exploring these mountain streams requires either experience or the guidance of a knowledgeable friend or guide who can lead you to the highest populations of trout. A day spent in the boulder-strewn pocket water high in the Rockies is a unique and rewarding experience for any angler.

In conclusion, Colorado’s rivers offer some of the best fly fishing experiences in the country. Each river has its own distinct characteristics and challenges, making it difficult to narrow down a definitive list. However, the ten rivers mentioned in this article, with their gold medal stream status and exceptional fishing opportunities, are certainly worth exploring. Whether you’re a local angler or a visitor to Colorado, these rivers will provide unforgettable fly fishing adventures. So grab your gear and head to the rivers for an experience of a lifetime.

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