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What Can Brown Do For You?

An Introduction to Fly-Fishing for Brown Trout in Colorado by Will Rice


Having your ass handed to you “Getting completely, utterly and totally beaten, defeated, and crushed at a game or challenge.” – Urban Dictionary

Who’s itching for a fight? If you like to cast flies at fish that will give you a run for your money and quite possibly leave you on the losing end of a bare-knuckle brawl, step into the ring with a Colorado brown trout.

The brown trout (Salmo trutta) is an anadromous fish that naturally reproduces in rivers across the state of Colorado. Although not native to the state or North America, it is one of the pinnacle species for fly-fishing enthusiasts. There is a reason why they wear this crown, says Kirk Deeter, editor in chief of Trout magazine, editor at large for Field and Stream, and author of an upcoming book simply titled Brown Trout.

“There’s something about the moxie of a brown trout—they fight dirty,” Deeter said in a recent interview. “And they fight hard. You catch a rainbow in a Colorado stream and it might sip your dry fly, then run a bit and jump and shake. But a brown trout is going to grab your bug, and the instant it feels fooled, it’s going to play offense. It’s going to bulldoze down toward the bottom of the river and try to wrap you on the stumps. I love the way brown trout pull. Brown trout play offense better than any other trout or salmon species does.”

Brown trout are especially accessible in Colorado. They exist in just about every major river drainage and many smaller tributaries. You can target browns on your own or take walk-wade or float trips via raft or hard boat with an outfitting service.

In addition to having aggressive feeding and fighting tactics, brown trout eat a wide range of food sources. They’ll eat some of the largest insects that hatch in or near a river, as well as crawfish, other fish, mice and even small birds. This aggressiveness, in combination with their potential willingness to eat big fly patterns, makes brown trout one of the most entertaining sport fish in the state.

To get you started, here are three options for fly-fishing for brown trout in central Colorado. All three are within a two-hour drive of Denver, with substantial public access.

Clear Creek
Denver’s closest and most accessible brown trout fishery is Clear Creek. Approximately 66 miles long, Clear Creek is a tributary of the South Platte River and can be reached from the Mile High City in less than 40 minutes. Clear Creek begins near the Continental Divide near Loveland Pass, northwest of Grays Peak in western Clear Creek County. It descends eastward through Clear Creek Canyon past the towns of Silver Plume, Georgetown, and Idaho Springs—all of which have abundant public access that is fairly well marked. Within the canyon it shares with I-70, it receives numerous smaller tributary creeks that descend from the rugged mountains on either side. Brown trout are the predominant species in Clear Creek, but don’t be surprised if you hook a rainbow, brook, or the occasional cutthroat trout as well. If you are new to fly-fishing, Clear Creek is a great place to get your feet wet. You’re not likely to see a state record being pulled from this river, but the fish are plentiful.

The Arkansas River
The Arkansas River is home to an array of trout species, but the most predominant and aggressive is Mr. Brown. In addition to the river being a robust brown trout fishery, in early 2014, 102 miles of the Ark was designated Gold Medal Trout Waters by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. These Gold Medal Waters stretch roughly from the confluence with the Lake Fork of the Arkansas, near Leadville, all the way downstream to Parkdale at the U.S. 50 bridge crossing above Royal Gorge. This is quite a milestone for a river that was once a victim of mining pollution and other developmental impacts along its banks.

The most productive and accessible section of the Arkansas River runs roughly 117 miles (depending on who’s counting) beginning high in the mountains just above the historic mining town of Leadville, situated at an elevation of 10,152 feet. The river can be broken down into two general sections—the freestone portion of the river and the tailwater section. The freestone section begins just below Leadville and runs through Buena Vista, Salida, and Pueblo. The Pueblo Reservoir is the dividing line. Below the Pueblo Dam is a fantastic year-round fishery, if you want to explore the river in December, January or February, when many other rivers are locked up with ice.

The Upper Colorado River
The Colorado River starts high in Rocky Mountain National Park and is Colorado’s largest river drainage. The Colorado is also quite dynamic, changing considerably as it makes its way west through the state toward the border of Utah. It is, however, an amazingly consistent place to experience all the beauty that Colorado has to offer—including great opportunities to target big brown trout.

From steep canyons to wide-open meadows to jaw-dropping peaks, the Colorado is a great river to explore. The river traverses from Windy Gap Reservoir, just west of the town of Granby, to the confluence of the Blue River near Kremmling. This section is also designated Gold Metal Waters and closely follows Highway 40—making it a fairly easy road trip from Denver.

Lower down in the system, the river becomes virtually unfishable through Gore Canyon, due to its steep grade, cliff drops, and whitewater. Once the canyon slows its decent, the river opens up and provides great public access to those willing to hike. Farther downstream the river offers great floating access if you have a driftboat or raft. Wading access is also available.

In the fall and spring, midges, baetis, egg patterns, and scuds can all be effective; in the summer, grasshoppers and other large stimulator patterns on the surface can be a great way to target fish. But if you are looking to trigger the wrath of a big brown, don’t underestimate streamers and mouse patterns, especially at dusk.

“The cool thing about brown trout is that they set the agenda,” said Deeter. “The only thing you can hope for is to educate yourself enough to show up at the right place at the right time, with the right bug. And then, maybe, you’ll get a chance to dance.”

There are other Colorado fisheries where you’ll find brown trout that are worth exploring, including the Roaring Fork River, the Yampa River, and the Gunnison River—and that’s just for starters. If you have an abundance of time and an appetite to explore and learn about brown trout, the options in Colorado are limitless.

Will Rice is the Director of Marketing for Trouts Fly Fishing, in Denver, Colorado. He is a freelance journalist and a contributing editor at The Drake. He has written for the Denver Post, Salt Water Fly Fishing, FlyFish Journal, Pulp Fly, and Fly Rod & Reel, and is a regular contributor to Angling Trade Magazine. 

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Take this tip from a brown trout expert: If you want to get into the serious brown trout game, this fish more than any other in fly-fishing is going to force you to adapt and think. And that’s why the brown trout ultimately cultivates better fly anglers than all the rainbows, cutthroats, brookies, salmon, bonefish, tarpon, and even permit combined. If you become a great brown trout fisherman, and you can catch big browns anywhere, there shouldn’t be any other trout, or even any bonefish, tarpon, or even permit, that intimidates you in the least.” —Kirk Deeter

If you want to fish the Colorado River with a guide service, contact Vail Valley Anglers:

To explore Clear Creek or the main stem of the South Platter River system, get in touch with Trout’s Fly Fishing:

To get started on the Arkansas River, contact Royal Gorge Anglers:

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