Colorado Fly Fishing 101

Fly Fishing in the Woods, Courtesy Taylor Grote Unsplash

As someone interacting with frequent visitors of Keystone, Breckenridge, and Vail I get a lot of questions about the types of activities I recommend, specifically in the summer.  Most vacationers already have a number of activities booked, or at least in mind.  These activities tend to include the summer staples like hiking, biking, maybe some rafting or Kayaking, and then the question comes:  What else can I do when I’m worn out from hiking or biking?  My answer is always the same: Fly Fishing!

Gold Medal Waters

Boots on the Gunnison River, Courtesy Taylor Grote Unsplash

Colorado, and specifically the markets Bluebird Oxygen serves houses some of the best fly fishing in North America.  To help you maximize your time on the water, the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Commission has done a little homework and designated 320+ miles of streams (and 3 lakes) in Colorado as “Gold Medal Waters.”  These waters are classified as offering up to 60 lbs worth of trout per acre, and each acre must also include at least a dozen trout 14” in length or more.  Check out ( for more info on CO fishing and specifically the Gold Medal waters therein.  For now, just remember the Gore near Vail, the Gunnison near Crested Butte, and the Blue River in the heart of Silverthorne in Summit County was also recently a Blue Medal water (although downgraded in 2016, it’s still phenomenal).

But I don’t know how

Silhouette of a Fisherman, Courtesy Taylor Grote Unsplash

The first objection I frequently receive when recommending visitors try Fly Fishing is that they don’t know how or they’re intimidated because they’ve heard it’s hard.  Do not let the fact that you’ve never been fly fishing deter you.  Learning the basics of fly fishing, particularly with a solid guide, is not that difficult.  Children and adults of all ages still catch fish and have a blast doing it regardless of previous experience.  MASTERING fly fishing is a hard thing to do, but then, isn’t mastering just about any skill going to be hard?

First Stop: The Fly Shop

Whether an experienced fisherman, or first timer, I recommend your first stop to be the fly shop.  The local fly shop is going to be a wealth of knowledge for all comers.  They can help you book a guide, tell you what flies are working, and they may even share the best spots to hit while you’re in town…just be sure to buy something after they hook you up with that knowledge!  Beginners and Experts alike will see the value of hiring a guide.  You WILL catch more fish with a guide as opposed to going at it alone.  Locals know the waters and this knowledge will pay for itself in fish.  If you want to maximize your time stripping in fish, get a guide.

A Beautiful Outfit

Rod/Reel Combo, Courtesy Carl Heyerdahl Unsplash

If you’re anything like I was the first time, you might want to at least have a little cursory knowledge before you hit the fly shop and start with 20 questions.  So, first things first, you’ll need an outfit.  An outfit is NOT what you wear for the occasion, it’s the full rod and reel combo including fly line, backing, leader, and many times a rod tube/sock as well.  If you’re going to be buying your own gear, most beginners tend to buy a complete outfit or combo to save money, and make the process more simple.  That said, you should absolutely rent while you’re trying it out.

From Fish to Fisherman

Fish to Fisherman, Courtesy Jakob Owens Unsplash

In order to select the appropriate equipment you start with the fish and work your way back to the fisherman.  Ask yourself, what type of fish do I want to catch?  To catch the fish you want you’ll need to know what they like to eat, and within reason, the size and appearance of what they’re eating.  In Colorado, you’ll likely be targeting various species of Trout.  So start with the size of the lure/fly you’re swinging, and this will dictate the size of the fly line you need to get the fly to the fish.  Once you have the line size, you then match it to the rod.  Bottom line, you need everything to work together.  The good news is that fly shops and equipment manufacturers tend to make all this matching much easier than it sounds.


Flies, Courtesy Michael Aleo Unsplash

Flies, like many things, tend to get conflated into very complex and intimidating categories.  Bottom line, a fly in fly fishing is simply a lure/pattern meant to mimic natural food that fish eat.  For trout, their food tends to be various forms of bugs & terrestrials.  For me, the easiest way to classify these “bugs” is to consider them in relation to the water.  So, avoiding all the entomological jargon think of flies in the following categories:

  1. Nymphs-nymphs are developing insects that spend the majority of their time under water as they have yet to develop wings.  Nymphs are a staple of a trout’s diet.  They are relatively easy to catch, they are down at fish-level, and they are normally abundant.
  2. Emergers-an emerger is a bug that has developed beyond a nymph, but has not quite left the water to become airborne…picture that bug struggling just below the film of the water to take flight.  These are enticing to fish because they are exposed and struggling to get through the surface tension of the water, and until they do, they are easy to pick off.
  3. Dry Flies-As the name indicates, these are the fully formed fly.  They have emerged from the water, but sit on the water.  This is the most common type of fly folks picture in fly fishing.  That said, it’s actually the least common of the 3 types.  Typically to be fishing with a dry fly, you need bug activity on the surface of the water.  Trout actively feeding on dry flies only occurs about 10% of the time.  So don’t underestimate the value of nymphs and emergers.


The Fly Line and Rod match.  So you’ll need a certain size line/rod to toss those aforementioned bugs, and based on the size of those bugs there are common sizes/weights you’ll see in colorado.  In general, the 5 weight rod is considered the proverbial jack of all trades for CO fly fishing.  Length can also vary, but in general it’s normally 8’6” to 9’.  Smaller weight outfits, a 3 or 4-weight for example, are for throwing smaller bugs.  Larger weight combos are, you guessed it, for throwing larger lures.  I use a 9’ 5-weight almost exclusively in CO.  But, when I’m back in the midwest bass fishing I actually throw bass poppers with a 9’ 8-weight.  If this piques your interest I’ve included a great article from Orvis on sizing here: (  

Waders and the rest

Courtesy Ben Wicks Unsplash

Last thing to touch on is the rest of the equipment, all of which can be provided by your outfitter/guide service.  You DO NOT need to run out and buy everything to go fly fishing.  If you do hire a guide, there are walking/wading tours and floating tours where you fish off of a small boat.  On a boat? No waders are needed.  Walking/wading? You’ll of course wear waders.  Most then just carry a pack or sling, POLARIZED sunglasses, sun protection in the form of a quality hat/clothing, and a landing net to scoop your catch up with.  

Just try it

Just give fly fishing a go, all the technicality aside it’s still just tossing a lure to a fish.  Fly fishing will take you to amazing locations, for some of the most therapeutic moments one can have in nature.  Sometimes it’s serenity, sometimes it’s pure excitement.  Either way, it’s frequently just what you need.  

Who you gonna call?

If in Summit County check out Cutthroat Anglers, they’re perfectly located where you can literally walk out their door, tie a fly, and fish The Blue in seconds (  For Vail, checkout Vail Valley Anglers (  And in Gunnison County, checkout Willowfly Anglers at the 3riversresort in Almont for some of the best guides in the state (

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