Want to avoid crowded rivers? Want to catch BIG fish? The lakes and ponds of Colorado’s Front Range see fewer anglers and hold trophy trout. Here’s where to go and the flies you will need.
By Al Ritt
MOST ANGLERS ASSOCIATE WESTERN TROUT FISHING WITH BRAWLING RIVERS, freestone streams, spring creeks, tailwaters, and high-mountain headwater drainages. Moving water has been integral to the development and history of fly fishing. Much of the romance of fly fishing revolves around flowing water. There may be no better illustration of this than the closing paragraphs from Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It:
Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. . . . Then in the . . . half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.
Flowing water haunted Norman Maclean. And is it any wonder we love many of our moving waters nearly to death? When I began fly fishing, common etiquette dictated if you could see another angler, you were too close and should move on. As much as I like clinging to that practice, in today’s world there are far more fishermen on far less water. Water is diverted for municipal and agricultural purposes, much of the West has undergone drought conditions in recent years, and private property is trickier to access. We do, however, have alternatives for finding good fishing.
The Stillwater Alternative
Near where I live in Colorado, I can enjoy fishing headwater streams, canyon rivers, and tailwaters. There are also a large number of top-notch still waters containing trout. Many are small to mid-size ponds or lakes on private lands that receive little attention, but you can also find excellent public still waters. Northern Colorado has three areas featuring stillwater fisheries that are considered world class. These provide terrific fishing opportunities when the rivers and streams are too crowded with other anglers.
Several factors result in a productive stillwater fishery. Before anything else comes into play, the recruitment of juvenile fish is essential. The challenge most still waters face is spawning habitat. If you’ve fished lakes or ponds in the spring for rainbow and cutthroat trout, or in the fall for brown trout, you may have seen concentrations of fish going through their spawning rituals. Unfortunately, trout recruitment is poor without moving water to oxygenate the eggs and keep water temperatures within a certain range. Water currents also keep silt from accumulating on and smothering the eggs. Some lakes and ponds are stream fed, and adult fish are able to access quality spawning habitat. In many cases, however, still waters are spring fed, supplied with water through irrigation pipes or canals, or there may simply not be enough spawning habitat in the tributaries that feed and drain them to rear a viable number of young trout. Fisheries departments consider many factors before stocking a lake or pond with trout.
They might, for example, stock slightly larger trout to create a put-and-take fishery to give people an opportunity to catch a fish or two for dinner. If the still waters have the right habitat and food resources to grow healthy fish populations, they might stock fingerlings, creating what is called a put-and-grow fishery.
Put-and-grow fisheries are frequently established in still waters with habitat that gives fish the best chance at longer term survival. Put-and-grow fisheries often have regulations limiting the number of fish that may be kept. These regulations keep the maximum number of fish in the lake for the longest time possible, resulting in larger populations and larger trout. Most fly fishermen limit the number of fish they keep or always practice catch-and-release, so they concentrate on put-and-grow still waters to increase their chances of catching trophy-size trout.
What factors make a quality stillwater fishery? Not surprisingly, they are the same factors that result in any quality fishery.
Clean, well-oxygenated water of the appropriate temperatures is essential. Without quality water, fish simply will not live. In the Rocky Mountains, our altitude has a major impact on water temperature. At higher elevations, the air is less dense and does not hold heat as well, which is why temperatures in the mountains are lower, and lower air temperatures lead to lower water temperatures.
Deeper lakes also tend to stay colder because there is less surface area influenced by the warming effects of the sun and daytime air temperatures. Stream- or spring-fed lakes typically have cleaner water; at lower elevations, where agricultural activities occur, irrigation water may have high concentrations of fertilizer, herbicides, or insecticides. This has less impact on trout fisheries because these still waters are normally used to hold water until it’s needed for irrigation. Oxygen in almost all these lakes and ponds is supplied by feeder streams and wind-induced wave action.
Our First Stop for Good Fishing: South Park
The Front Range of the Rocky Mountains features three areas containing productive still waters. Many other regions are exceptionally productive, but these three produce large numbers of trophy fish. Farthest south is an area known as South Park. (Historically, relatively flat areas in the mountains were called parks.) South Park is home to the upper stretches of the South Platte River and its tributaries. The primary stillwater fisheries are Eleven Mile Reservoir, Spinney Mountain Reservoir, Antero Reservoir, and Tarryall Reservoir.
Eleven Mile Reservoir is the largest and deepest of these lakes, so fly fishers do not use this reservoir as heavily as the others. Near-shore areas do have shelves containing productive weedbeds and rocky bottoms that are rich in food. The inlet to the reservoir also attracts good numbers of fish, especially when they stage to make spawning runs up the South Platte River. Eleven Mile Reservoir is home to large populations of rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout, and kokanee salmon are also common. Kokanees are difficult for fly fishers to access during much of the year, but in the autumn they stage in the inlet and are caught using a variety of small nymph and egg imitations.
Don’t be completely surprised to lose an occasional fish to another predator common in the lake: northern pike. These fish were introduced to and now thrive in Eleven Mile, and adventuresome anglers catch some very large specimens.
Spinney Mountain Reservoir is not far from Eleven Mile. Spinney is shallower than Eleven Mile and has expansive weedbeds both near shore and in water as deep as 12 to 15 feet. In the summer, it is not uncommon to see flotillas of float tubes fishing these deeper weedbeds with suspended or slowly stripped nymphs and leeches. Heavy hatches of Callibaetis, midges, and caddises come off frequently, and fish feed heavily on these adult insects.
My favorite time to fish Spinney Mountain Reservoir is in the spring when the fish are cruising close to the banks and feeding on midges, scuds, leeches, eggs, annelids, nymphs, crayfish, and minnows. I find it easier to present my flies and move around the lake on foot than in a float tube. Spinney used to have large numbers of cutthroat trout, but today the fishery is primarily rainbow and some brown trout. The state record kokanee is from Spinney, but those are no longer stocked in the lake.
And as in Eleven Mile, northern pike are firmly established in Spinney.
Tarryall is the smallest of the well-known South Park lakes. Its water supply is Tarryall Creek, a tributary of the South Platte. Tarryall has good populations of trout and northern pike, but the trout are not so large as those you will find in Eleven Mile and Spinney.
The trout grow fastest in Antero Reservoir. Antero is not as large as Spinney, and it is even shallower. Because the depth allows the sun to penetrate so much of the lake all the way to the bottom, weedbeds and trout foods are prolific almost everywhere. While this promotes rapid growth, it also leaves the lake susceptible to winterkill. The combination of deep snows that sometimes cover the ice and the dense weedbeds decaying over the winter can lead to low oxygen levels and fish kills. To add to the problem, the dam is an earthen structure that has needed much repair in recent years, requiring a drawdown of water levels. Suckers, which compete with the trout, are prolific in the lake. The fisheries department periodically drains the reservoir to kill the suckers. To its credit, though, when water is put back in the lake, Antero spits out trout weighing in excess of five pounds within just a few years.