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Fly Fishing The Roaring Fork River (Colorado)

The Roaring Fork River is a fast, clear, swift trout river that runs from Independence Pass to Glenwood Springs, CO. It is a very healthy river with an abundance of Rainbow, Brown, Cutbow, and Cutthroat Trout. It also contains a healthy population of Mountain Whitefish – which are actually native to these waters. All trout anglers should fish the Roaring Fork at least once.

This river is about 70 miles long, and there are lots of trout in each mile. The elevation drop in this river is pretty incredible: 6,000 vertical feet from Indy Pass to Glenwood Springs! This elevation drop is what accounts for the swift water and rapids throughout the Roaring Fork.

The Roaring Fork is a very popular trout fishing destination, and anglers come from all over the world to experience it. It can be wade fished, but fishing out of a raft or drift boat is also popular.

In the upper stretches near Aspen, the Roaring Fork is a narrower river with lots of whitewater. As it gets closer to Glenwood Springs, it widens out and has less whitewater. However, anglers should be careful on all stretches of this river, as it takes lives every year. The water is fast and cold, and can be quite dangerous.

The Roaring Fork has become one of my favorite trout rivers, and I actually live about 200 yards from it. Not only is it fishable year round, but you can float it for most of the year as well.

Upper Roaring Fork – Aspen To Basalt

In this upper stretch, the fish are smaller and the river is narrower. Focusing on pocket water is a great way to target these trout. Behind rocks and logs you will find fish in the slower water.

The Jaffee Park area is a great place to wade fish on the upper Fork. From Jaffee, you can walk upstream for several miles towards Aspen – this can offer some great solitude.

 

For float fisherman, Jaffee Park is a great place to put in a raft. However, this is also the most dangerous section of the Roaring Fork. There is lots of whitewater and hazards along the way. Only expert rowers should consider doing this – and you must have a raft! Drift boats cannot make it down this section.

I like to float from Jaffee all the way to Basalt. There is a short window on this stretch, since the flows need to be high enough. I like to run it anywhere from 400-800 cfs, which usually means mid-June to mid-July. The dry fly bite can be amazing – with Drakes, Caddis, PMDs, and Yellow Sallies hatching.

You can also wade fish closer to Basalt. Wheatley open space has some good fishing, as well as off 2 Rivers Road downstream of Basalt. Off of 2 Rivers Road, there are several dirt pull-offs which offer public water.

 

Middle Roaring Fork – Basalt To Carbondale

Roaring Fork Rainbow Trout

 

This is a wonderful stretch of the Roaring Fork River. The river is still fast and steep, but it does get a bit wider and more open. Anglers like fishing near the Catherine’s store bridge and throughout Crown Mountain Park. However, there is lots of private water from Basalt to Carbondale, so it is best to fish it from a raft. Landowners in Colorado can actually own the riverbed and prosecute fly fishers – this is much stricter than other states like Montana.

For floating this stretch, putting in at Hooks is a good option. This is a small, dirt ramp where you can launch a raft. I like to float all the way down to Carbondale, which is about 10 miles. Although this stretch isn’t as tedious as Jaffee Park, it is still reserved for expert rowers only. There are lots of hazards, weirs and boulders which must be avoided. It is also mostly private water, so you can’t anchor or stop a lot. The landowners have been known to prosecute rafters that stop along this section.

For float fishing Hooks, I like to see between 400-1000 cfs. Anywhere below 400 is too boney, and above 1000 just means less fishable water. Depending on the water year, June and July are usually the best months.

 

Lower Roaring Fork – Carbondale To Glenwood Springs

Roaring Fork Cutbow

 

This is the most popular stretch of the Roaring Fork River. On this stretch, you will see the most amount of boat traffic – especially in the summertime.

There is some good wade fishing in this stretch, but a lot of water is still private (notice a theme here?). For wading spots, there is public water below the Glenwood Airport. This is a long piece of water that is easy to wade. There is also Burry’s ranch which is located below Carbondale. This is a private ranch that allows fly fishers. There is also some good stretches throughout Glenwood Springs. These are the 27th st bridge, and Veltus Park.

Float fishing is the most popular on this part of the river. You can easily navigate a raft or a drift boat down the lower Fork, as long as you have some rowing experience.

The lower Roaring Fork is pretty much floatable year round. As long as it’s about 400 cfs or higher, it can be floated. Prime summer flows are between 1500-3000 cfs. This is usually when the trout are very active and have started feeding heavily, after runoff has ended.

Carbondale to West Bank (Iron Bridge) is the top section, and it is about 7 miles long. There is lots of fishy water in here, and it’s pretty easy to row. If you are newer to rowing and want to get a feel for it, I would do Carbondale to West Bank.

 

West Bank to 2 Rivers Park (Glenwood Springs) is the other stretch of the lower Roaring Fork. This also fishes well, but it is harder to row. Cemetery Rapid can be dangerous, and the boulder garden above it can claim boats. It is best to go on this section with someone who has done it previously. This stretch is about 6 miles long.

 

You can also float the full 13 miles from Carbondale to Glenwood. This is more of a full day float, especially at lower flows. However, you will get to see the whole lower Fork if you run it.

Keep in mind that the lower Roaring Fork gets lots of commercial traffic, especially in the summer. Fishing guides and raft guides will be all over the place, so be warned. This is why I like to do the lower Fork in the spring and fall. The summertime can get too crowded for my liking.

Insect Life (Flies) On The Roaring Fork

The Roaring Fork River is known for its prolific bug life. There are healthy hatches of most river bugs throughout the year, which keeps the trout well fed.

Since the water is so clean and clear, it provides a great environment for insects to thrive. The trout in the Roaring Fork really key in on certain bugs throughout the year. If there is a good hatch going on, you’ll need the correct imitation in order to catch fish. This is especially true for the big Green Drake and Caddis hatches. Make sure to have the right fly patterns so you don’t get skunked.

Spring Insects

Rs2’s Make A Great BWO Imitation

 

In the spring, we focus on larger midges and Blue Winged Olives. The midges get larger in the spring, so I like sizes #16 and #18. For the Blue Winged Olive hatch, I usually throw an #18.

Once late April rolls around, the Roaring Fork gets a big Caddis hatch which can be very fun to fish. This goes through May and into runoff – some of the best Caddis fishing is around Mothers Day in mid May.

Having an array of Midges, BWO’s and Caddis will keep you covered through spring. The Rs2’s pictured above are one of my favorite flies for spring time on the Roaring Fork. They can be sunken as a nymph or fished in the surface film.

Summer Insects

Lower Roaring Fork Brown Trout (Green Drake Hatch)

 

When it comes to summer fishing on the Roaring Fork, lots of bugs are on the table. After the Caddis start to come out, Green Drakes are the next big hatch. Usually in late June (summer solstice) you will see Green Drakes start to hatch in the evenings. They start on the lower Roaring Fork and work their way up. Most Green Drake adults hatch during twilight and into the darkness, so make sure to stay on the river late.

PMD’s and Yellow Sallies are also abundant in the summertime. Both nymphs and adult imitations will fish quite well. Barr’s PMD Emergers work great, as well as Melon Quills for the adult PMD imitation. For Sallies, I like to fish an Iron Sally Nymph or a Kyles Sally Nymph. For Sally dry flies, I like to fish a yellow Foam Stone or a Chubby Sally.

There are also lots of Stoneflies around in the summertime. For Stonefly nymphs, a Pats Rubber Legs usually does the trick. For dries, I really like fishing a Chubby Chernobyl or a Stimulator. Below these, I will put a nymph (or two) to fish a dry-dropper setup.

Later in the summer, Tricos can become quite prolific as well. This is usually when the water has dropped and the fish are getting picker.

The hopper bite can also pick up later into the summer. A Morrish Hopper or a Parachute Hopper can fish well near the banks. However, during recent low water years, the hopper bite hasn’t been as good.

Fall Insects

Fall fishing on the Roaring Fork is pretty simple. Blue Winged Olives come back into play, so be sure to have some in your fly box. There are also Midges around, and some Caddis as well. There can still be some stray PMD’s around as well.

However, as fall progresses into winter, Midges become the #1 food source.

Winter Insects

Midge Patterns

 

The main winter insects on the Fork are Midges and winter Stoneflies. I like to lead with a smaller Pats Rubber Leg and trail a Zebra Midge behind it. This 2 fly nymph rig works quite well throughout the winter.

 

On overcast days, there can be prolific Midge hatches, and the dry fly action can be great. A Sprout Midge or a Griffiths Gnat can work well for these hatches in sizes #20 and #22.

The nice thing about winter on the Fork is the simplicity of rigging. You don’t have to worry about matching the hatch like you do in the summer. Small Stones and Midge patterns will catch fish all winter long.

Gear You’ll Need For The Roaring Fork

Sage Foundation 5 Weight

 

I like to fish the Roaring Fork with a fast action 5 weight rod. With this setup you can nymph, throw dries, and dry dropper rigs with ease. For streamer fishing on the Fork, I like a 7 weight rod with a sink tip fly line. We throw a lot of articulated streamers, and a 7 weight rod has enough backbone for that.

In the winter, I will fish a lot of 5x and 6x fluorocarbon tippet. In the summer, you can get away with 3x and 4x most of the time. Once the river drops after runoff, we start sizing down our tippet throughout the summer.

Wading vs. Floating

Wading is the easiest option, and it is more accessible for most anglers. As long as you are accessing public water, you can wade fish all day long. This offers an opportunity to get to know the Roaring Fork and how it fishes. You can really dial in your rig when wading, and make adjustments as needed.

It is nice to hop around the Roaring Fork and wade fish different spots. Wading through Glenwood Springs has a much different feel than wading through Aspen. The river changes a lot as it goes down valley, with more flow and a wider basin.

Floating the Roaring Fork is a great way to fish it. However, you’ll need access to a raft or a drift boat, and some friends to go with. You can’t rent fishing boats anywhere in the valley, so you’ll need to bring your own.

If you have a drift boat, then floating the lower stretch is your best option. Navigating the upper stretches in a drift boat is a bad idea, and only a few seasoned guides attempt it.

If you have a fishing raft, then you can (in theory) do any stretch of the Roaring Fork River. However, the upper stretches are extremely technical, and I don’t recommend that beginners attempt them.

For raft sizing, 13 feet or smaller is best. Boats 14 feet and longer are much less nimble and can be a hassle. This is why you’ll see most guides running a 13 foot raft, or a 12 foot raft.

If you don’t have access to a boat, then hiring a guide is an awesome way to experience the Fork. There are many great shops in the valley who would be happy to take you out for a fishing float.

Conclusion

The Roaring Fork River is an amazing fishery that attracts fly anglers from all over. We don’t have a fishing season here, so you can fish it year round. The spring and fall months are my favorites, as there is less anglers and less guides out on the water.

Since the river is 70 miles long, there is tons of water to explore. For anglers who like smaller stream action, I would recommend the upper Roaring Fork. For anglers who like big water and want to float, I would recommend the lower Roaring Fork. The middle Fork can be waded or floated, as mentioned previously – I would recommend checking it out.