man in winter jacket holding trout

Winter Fly Fishing in Colorado

Winter fly-fishing in Colorado offers unique challenges for the adventurous angler, and it can offer great rewards for those who really want to up their game and hone their skills. Certainly, winter fly-fishing is not for everyone but it is perfect for the patient angler willing to wear a few extra layers while enjoying a spectacular day on the river. Take a day off from the bustling ski slopes to cast a line into the frosty waters of Colorado.


See Also: Winter Fly-Fishing Essentials


Winter Fly Fishing in Colorado


Why Go Winter Fly-Fishing?


No Restrictions

Winter is a great time to go fly-fishing, which seems counter intuitive since most people come to Colorado to fly-fish during the summer, but keep this in mind. During most of the summer in and around Vail Colorado, water temperatures can become dangerously warm and low for trout. From mid-July to late September river temperatures in Eagle, Gypsum, Glenwood Springs, and Rifle can reach as high as the upper sixties and low seventies. When water temperatures get this warm, it is time to avoid the river for the sake and heath of the fish population. This means that for a big portion of summer you may not be able to fish due to high temperature restrictions. This problem does not exist during the winter.

During the cold, winter months, those places that are typically too warm during summer to fish become havens for insects and large trout. Lower elevations and warmer temperatures mean that anglers can fish for trout that are, for most of the summer, “off limits”.


No Crowds

Another wonderful aspect of winter fly-fishing is that you have the river all to yourself, without another angler in sight. This is refreshing especially since in the spring and summer months the rivers can fill up with wade fisherman and float operators making the river a very lively, busy place. Enjoy the solitude.


Late Starts

During the winter, fish aren’t very active until mid morning, or around 10 or 11am. Look for sunlit areas where the sun warms the water more quickly. An increase in water temps of just a couple degrees can trigger hatches, encouraging hungry fish to come and feed. Within those warmer, sunnier areas, fish will often hold in the slower /deeper channels to conserve energy. Their metabolism slows down when water temps are cold, and so trout will feed much less in the winter. But they still need to eat, so there will be enough hungry fish on any given day to keep anglers happy and successful. But, keep in mind that colder, slower moving fish translates into fewer strikes.


Stay Warm

Make sure you dress for winter conditions, wear lots of layers, as Colorado is notorious for having weather conditions that change on a dime. Bring chemical hand warmers, a thermos of hot coffee, wear warm Smartwool socks and bring extra layers as something will ultimately get wet.

If you wear gloves to keep your hands warm don’t forget to take your glove off before handling the fish, as a dry glove (or hand) will remove the important, protective slime that covers the trouts body.

Also, move often while wading, but move slowly and deliberately as to not spook fish in the clearer waters of winter. Move your legs and your feet will not become uncomfortably cold.


Bring Your Back Up Rod

If the temperature outside is below freezing, do not bring your best fly fishing rod. Freezing temperatures can freeze and break the guides and reel if you try to forcefully break through the ice instead of patiently thawing everything out. If you break your beautiful new, expensive fly rod you are definitely NOT going to like winter fly-fishing. You can also use Stanley’s Ice Off Paste, designed for the sole purpose to keep ice off fly rod guides.


Still a Lot of Hatches, even in Winter

Hatches still happen in the winter, but mostly it’s just midges. Midges can make up to as much as 50% of a fish’s winter diet. Midges, are in the same family as mosquitoes (Diptera), and can complete an entire life cycle in winter conditions.

Midges have four stages of life:

  • egg
  • larva
  • pupa
  • adult

In regards to fishing, it is the last two stages, midge pupa with trailing shucks that make an easy meal for most Colorado trout.

So knowing this, the most likely chance for catching dry-fly action in winter will be with midges. When water temps are below 40 degrees, plan on hatch midges size 20 and smaller. Check for midge color and size in eddies or foam along the bank of the river, which is where hatching insects will collect. Good winter midge fly options are red, black, cream and small varieties of rs2 emergers. Consult local fly shops to get an idea of likely fly patterns for the day you are fishing.


Where are the Fish?

Cold water means slow, lethargic fish. They are usually tucked along the bottom where there is less current. They are also going to be less likely to actively go to your fly so you need to make sure your flies get to them. Get your flies down to the fish by adding enough weight to your rig and/or raise your indicator. You will need to keep adjusting this with varying water depths and in response to any insect activity to keep your flies in the right ‘zone.’ for hungry, sedentary fish.


Clear Water

Winter waters means clear water and spookier fish. Keep your movements slow and deliberate as fish will be able to see you much better in clearer waters. Use as small of a bobber as possible. A smaller indicator allows you to be more stealthy when fishing in low clear, cold waters


Local Guides for Winter Fly-Fishing

For the best shot at a successful day of catching fish it is recommended to go fly-fishing with a knowledgeable guide, especially in the winter because there is less room for error in the winter and guides can put your flies pretty much right where the fish are. These local guides know their stuff and know where to go to find the fish. If you are in the Vail area and looking for a local fly-fishing guide here are some of the top outfitters.

  • Minturn Anglers – www.minturnanglers.com (970) 827-9500
  • Vail Valley Anglers – www.vailvalleyanglers.com (877) 926-0900
  • Fly Fishing Outfitters – www.flyfishingoutfitters.net (970) 845-8090
  • Gore Creek Outfitters – www.gorecreekflyfisherman.com

See this video with a Great Winter Fly Fishing Trick


See Also: Top-Rated Fly Rods


Comments: man in winter jacket holding trout

Have you gone winter fly-fishing in Colorado? Did you enjoy it? What was your favorite aspect of winter fly-fishing and how did it differ from fly-fishing during the rest of the year? What worked best for you and were you successful? We would love to hear your thoughts and comments.


If you enjoyed this article please subscribe and receive weekly blog posts like this one.


9 Comments

  • Judy

    Great post about winter fly fishing in Colorado. My husband goes to Colorado about once a summer with the guys for a fly fishing trip, and loves it.  I showed him this article about winter fly fishing and asked why he never went in the winter.  He said he never even knew you could fly fish in the winter in Colorado, he thought all the rivers would just be iced up.  We may try to fit a day in to fly fish on our next ski trip, just to see if it is something he would like to do.  Thanks so much for opening our eyes to a whole new experience for those willing to brave the winter chill.

    • ThinkVail

      Hi Judy, so glad you enjoyed the post about winter fly fishing in Colorado.  Yes, A LOT of people have that misconception but winter can really be a wonderful time to go fly fishing so I hope your husband enjoys it.  it is important for first-time winter fly-fisherman to be prepared, so please read the post Winter Fly Fishing Gear-How to Stay Warm till the Fish Bite because you need to dress properly and have the right gear for winter conditions.

  • charles39

    Loved this article about winter fly-fishing in Colorado, very informatie with lots of good tips.  My question is since it seems that the only real food source in the winter for Trout is midges it seems like your fly choice would be very limited.  How do you know which flies are best for winter fly fishing?

    • ThinkVail

      Hi Charles, great question.  Yes, trout food source does become very limited in the winter, as does your fly box. You are pretty much looking at nymphs, dry flies and streamers. And most flies are considerably smaller than what is used in the summer because winter insects are usually smaller as well.  The post Best Winter Flies for Trout describes 10 of the best flies and fly patterns for catching trout in the winter and why.  This post should help decide which flies to use and you can buy all the flies directly from the links on the page or try your hand at tying them yourself.  Lastly, I would always recommend going to a fly shop near the stretch of river you intend to fish and ask them what flies and patterns they recommend for success.

  • Matiss

    Your article about winter fly fishing in Colorado is spot on.  I just spent a week fly-fishing in Colorado.  My brother lives in Denver and goes all the time.  He is the one who turned me onto winter fly fishing.  Don’t get me wrong, I prefer fly-fishing in the summer and it is hundred times easier but there is something pretty amazing about being on a snowy river with no one around, all bundled up and just enjoying the moment.  And when you do hook a trout it feels like such an accomplishment, because it is much harder to catch fish in the winter.  Wear the right gear, go later in the day when its warmer and definately go with someone who is familiar with the water and what the fish are biting. 

  • Veronica

    Hello, we are new second homeowners in the Vail valley and love to spend as much time as we can here.  I love this site, as it is a perfect reference to the area with great suggestions of what to do!  Both my husband and I enjoy fly-fishing however, I believe it will just be too cold for me in the winter, what are your thoughts?

    • ThinkVail

      Hi Veronica, welcome to the neighborhood! Yes, Vail is a wonderful place to call home. Fly fishing in the winter is a cold business but you can take steps to minimize the cold and maximize the fun.  For instance, March is usually very sunny and can be quite warm with temps in the high 40’s.  The fish start moving once the temps warm up so you don’t need to hit the river till late morning, when it’s much warmer. Go on a sunny day and make sure you dress in lots of layers so you can add or remove clothing quickly and easily to match the weather. The post Winter Fly Fishing Gear-How to Stay Warm till the Fish Bite describes the best gear and clothing to stay warm while winter fly fishing, so check it out.  Also, bringing a good supply of hot coffee and/or hot soup in a thermos, snacks to keep up your energy and some hand warmers will also keep the chill at bay.

  • Rob

    Hi I am an angler from out east but I am coming to the Vail area in late March and hope to get some fly-fishing in while I am there.  My question is can you keep the fish you catch or is it catch and release? If you can keep them can you recommend a place that will prepare the fish for you?

    • ThinkVail

      Hi Rob so happy to hear you will be in our neck of the woods this spring! Yes, most of the rivers in the area including Gore Creek, the Eagle River and the Colorado River are catch and release.  However, I highly recommend the seafood restaurant Montauk, for a delicious fish dinner in Vail while you are visiting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *