Updated: Dec 26, 2021
Fly fishing for trout on the South Platte River
I have had only one previous experience of fly-fishing for trout in Colorado and that was in 2012. Off the back of a conference in Denver, I booked a half-day guided fishing trip to a stretch of the South Platte just a few miles southwest of Denver. The guide took me to two popular sections – Deckers and Willow Springs. I remember it as having been a good fishing day on a very picturesque stretch of water.
A friend organizes a couple of trips for the Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers to the Western US every year, and this year I was invited to join on the Colorado leg of the trip, encompassing Fairplay and Estes Park during the third week in July. At the time, there were record high temperatures and wildfires throughout the northwestern and western states, so the prospect for disruptions, or even outright closures, was likely for some of the areas where we would fish. My host was monitoring the situation regularly and had a few contingency plans in place in the event we had to pivot on our planned itinerary.
Fly fishing for trout near Fairplay, Colorado
Our trip started in Fairplay, about 90 minutes southwest of Denver. Fairplay is a popular destination for hunters, anglers and hikers, all of whom could be seen in town for dinner in the evening. Our target waters in Fairplay were the South Platte River as well as the Middle Fork of the South Platte, each only a half hour drive from town.
Fishing for trout on the Middle Fork of the South Platte River at Badger Basin SWA
On the first morning we went to the Badger Basin State Wildlife Area (SWA) to fish the Middle Fork of the South Platte. This location is relatively close to Hartsel and ample parking is available in several dirt lots along the river. The landscape is breathtaking, characterized by a broad, nearly treeless valley bifurcated by a meandering river that is neither wide nor very deep. This morning was on the chilly side (45 degrees) and the sun was bright, so a stealthy approach while moving upstream was critical to hooking up. The mosquitos were also relentless, so I was thankful for the head-to-toe spray of repellent before heading out on the water.
We did very well in netting quite a few brown trout mostly on elk hair caddis, its close cousin the x-caddis and smallish nymphs (pheasant tail) and midges (zebra midge). But the highlight was repeated takes by a large cutbow that was insistent on striking our fly and yet somehow avoided getting hooked up. Although the fish never made it into the net, it was fun trying to outsmart it.
The "Dream Stream" section of the South Platte River
That afternoon we entered the Charlie Meyers SWA to fish the iconic “Dream Stream”, which is a section of the South Platte between the Spinney Mountain and Elevenmile reservoirs. According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website, this water is so named because of the large fish that migrate up from the Elevenmile reservoir. There are parking options on both C.R. 59 and Spinney Mountain Access Road – and we chose the latter to set out on our excursion.
Both the surrounding landscape and the valley at Badger Basin SWA were even more vast and impressive, but the fishing was much more technical and challenging. I have nicknamed this water the “in your dreams stream” for reasons I am certain my readers can easily figure out. Clearly this is a stream where you come to test your skills versus expecting to catch fish!
Fishing for trout on the Middle Fork of the South Platte River at Tomahawk SWA
The next morning we returned to the Middle Fork of the South Platte within the Tomahawk SWA, for which access is signposted off Hwy 9 about 5 miles north of Hartsel. The conditions were very good, with mild temperatures in the mid-50s and partly cloudy skies to begin the day. The fishing proved to be outstanding with multiple brown trout (a few in the 10 – 16” range) caught on hopper/dropper set ups comprising a large parachute hopper trailing a pheasant tail nymph and elk hair caddis trailing an unweighted caddis pupa.
In short, Fairplay is a nice headquarter location to fish some very interesting trout water.