The Roaring Fork River begins in the snowfields and high alpine lakes of one of Colorado's most picturesque mountain ranges, tumbles 70 miles to the northwest and joins the Colorado River. Ross Purnell of FlyFisherman.com (published by Registered Rep.'s parent company, Primedia) lays out what you need to know about a fly fishing vacation in one of the American West's most fertile rivers.
If you're like most financial professionals, you're tired of being pummeled by the equity market, day after day. It's time to plan a trip, preferably somewhere that will take you far away from computer screens and CNBC. What you need is an accessible, picturesque place to fish for trout — the Roaring Fork River. Running through the heart of ski country in western Colorado, the Roaring Fork is one of the most underappreciated fly fishing rivers in the United States (of course, that might be because of its proximity to the world-famous Frying Pan River). The Colorado Wildlife Commission has conferred its “Gold Medal” designation on one 12-mile stretch of Roaring Fork, placing it among the top 2 percent of river-fishing locations in the state.
In its upper reaches, the Roaring Fork is a pleasant mountain stream, with small brook trout in the headwater tributaries and a healthy population of rainbows and browns in the main stem. One section (from McFarlane Creek downstream through Aspen to the Upper Woody Creek Bridge) was the first designated wild trout water in the state. Although the fish are not as large here as in the lower river, it's hard to complain about a place where you can scramble from pool to pool and catch spunky 10- to 14-inch trout using only high-riding attractor fly patterns. Public access to the upper river is unlimited in the White River National Forest from the Difficult Creek Access on Highway 82 to the top of Independence Pass.
The middle river — from Aspen down to Carbondale — is the most popular stretch for wading anglers. Small enough to wade across in places but big enough to hold large trout in its rocky pockets and dark green pools, the river is a perfect match for the fly rod. The river is easily accessed from a number of points, and when it's fishing well, a few hundred yards of river can keep you occupied for several hours.
The Frying Pan River adds its volume and nutrients to the Roaring Fork at the town of Basalt. From Basalt downstream along Two River Road to the Lower Bypass Bridge, there is excellent public access. I've witnessed some incredible caddis hatches along this stretch, and several times have left the world-famous Frying Pan to find better fishing on this section of the Fork. The wading here can be treacherous, and it's best not to attempt a river crossing except during low flows. If you are in the area for several days, be sure to book a day of wade-fishing on the Frying Pan.
The lower river — from the confluence of the Crystal River at Carbondale down to the meeting of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs — is an expanse best suited for float fishing. Most of the guide trips in the valley occur here. Unlike the transparent waters of the upper reaches, the water here is a rich green, and the mossy river bottom harbors the most abundant insect life on the river. There are large trout here — browns up to 10 pounds have been taken. Green Drakes (a favored trout snack food) generally start on the lower river and move upstream as the season progresses. The Mother's Day Caddis hatch works the same way.
To float the lower river, you can launch a boat at Carbondale under the Highway 133 bridge and take yourself out either at the Westbank Bridge Access or at Two Rivers Park on the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Novices should not attempt to float this stretch, as the river is swift and rocky, and there are rapids that could easily damage or capsize a drift boat or raft.
The marquis event on the Roaring Fork is the Western Green Drake hatch beginning in early July, and while it draws quite a few anglers, the big water and drift-boat fishing in the lower river spreads the pressure, so you don't get the kind of traffic you see on other famous Green Drake waters like the nearby Frying Pan or the Henry's Fork. And while the Green Drake hatch on other Rocky Mountain streams is mainly a cloudy afternoon affair, Green Drakes on the Fork have a peculiar habit of hatching in the late evening or right at dark.
Roy Palm, owner of Frying Pan Anglers, has developed some of the best Green Drake tie patterns in the West. Roy's Biot Henwing tie is his Green Drake of choice, and it has fooled many finicky trout over the years. The guides fish with oversized Royal Wulffs and H&L Variants because the contrasting wing colors make the fly easy to see at dusk.
The Roaring Fork has a good population of stoneflies as well. Small (#10-12 hook size) dark ones hatch in April and May, and a few big salmonflies (#6-8) emerge in late May and early June when the river is normally peaking from snowmelt. Golden Stones hatch sporadically on cloudy days in June, July and August. You can see them buzzing around in the mornings almost any day of the summer, and a #8-12 Yellow Stimulator thrown tight to the bank from a boat is always a good way to start the day. If you drop a small Prince Nymph below your dry fly, you'll be covering all the bases.
The Yellow Sally might not be the biggest stonefly on the river, but it's certainly the most prolific. Sometimes the afternoon and evening hatches in late June and early July can be so thick novices mistake Yellow Sallies for caddisflies. A light-colored X-Caddis (no hackle) will catch trout during this hatch, but the secret weapon for this hatch is a #16-18 Flint's Stone.
If all of this technical talk sounds intimidating, fear not. The Roaring Fork area is home to dozens of guides who are perfectly willing to show a novice the ropes. A small sampling of these guides appears in the accompanying graphic.
Planning Your Fishin' Mission
A quick reference guide for a fly fishing trip on the Roaring Fork
Mount Sopris Inn, Carbondale, Colo., (970) 963-2209, www.mtsoprisinn.com Best Western Aspenalt Lodge, Basalt, Colo. (970) 927-3191, www.toski.com/aspenalt Shenandoah Inn, Basalt, Colo. (970) 927-4991, www.shenandoahinn.com
Frying Pan Anglers, Basalt Colo, (970) 927-3441, www.fryingpananglers.com Taylor Creek Fly Shop, Basalt, Colo., (970) 927-4374, www.taylorcreek.com Alpine Angling, Carbondale, Colo., (970) 963-9245, www.alpineangling.com
Guidebook: The Roaring Fork Valley Fly Fishing Guide, by Michael D. Shook. Order at www.flyfishguides.com or (800) 324-6898. (Mr. Shook also authored The Complete Idiot's Guide to Fly Fishing.)