At the very mention of Colorado, most fly fishers see images of high mountain streams, winding rivers, snow covered mountains like the one left, and trout. They are all abundant out west. On this trip, I focused on fishing the front range in and near to Ft. Collins, Colorado, and probed the cool waters for smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and bluegills. A wasted trip? Not at all. It was a revelation!
Because so many fly fishers seek trout exclusively, most of the wonderful warmwater ponds and lakes in Colorado are left to a VERY few fly fishers. The payoff for a savvy warmwater fly fisher in Colorado can be awesome! The scenery is always breathtaking. The fish are strong and willing.
My excuse for my trip out west -- my son who had graduated from the University of Georgia moved to Ft. Collins to get his masters at Colorado State, a beautiful college located in Ft. Collins. I drove from Atlanta with him to Ft. Collins to help him get set up, and made some wonderful friends at the local fly shop the day after he and I arrived.
My fly fishing host in northern Colorado was native Fort Collins resident Steve Solano (right), at that time owner/operator of Rocky Mountain Fly Shop in Fort Collins. Since this trip, the fly shop closed but Steve's knowledge and skill in fly fishing still remain. Steve has fly fished this area of Colorado all of his life. In addition to really being an accomplished fly fisher, he was a wonderful resource for information about the incredible trout fisheries in the area, plus warmwater fisheries as well. Steve estimated that "...only five to ten per cent of fly fishing in Colorado is in warm water. Warmwater fly fishing is beginning to see a surge, more people are beginning to do it, but it is not so popular as trout fishing."
Horsetooth Reservoir, a seven mile long, narrow mountain reservoir, lies just west of Fort Collins. It is known for smallmouth bass along with wipers and trout that are readily catchable on the fly, and many warmwater fly fishers consistently catch fish in this beautiful reservoir.
When can a fly fisher best pursue warmwater species in Colorado? Steve suggests "...usually beginning in May, when the ice has been off for a little while and the water temperature starts to warm in these lower ponds...in May and June when the fish begin to spawn, but throughout the summer - July, August and September, warmwater is very fishable..."
As I discovered, gravel mining is alive and well in Colorado. Yes, it leaves ugly holes in the ground, but some smart Coloradoans have created beautiful, productive fisheries by recycling these spent gravel mine pits.
Fish are stocked by Colorado Department of Wildlife, grasses grow, cattails and brush appear on the banks, and nature even helps to create the fishery. Then a host of wildlife and aquatic life takes advantage of the wet resource. By stocking and managing them, and by opening them to the public, Colorado's Department of Wildlife working with municipalities like Fort Collins has provided many wonderful warmwater fishing opportunities.
Larry Rogstad, then District Wildlife Manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, told me he would rate Colorado's warmwater fly fishery as "...fair to good..." compared to southeastern fisheries. He continued "...our fish's growth rate is slower and our growing season is a whole lot slower, but we do have a lot of water along the front range." Rogstad continued "...in Fort Collins there are a good seven or eight different warmwater pond systems that are open for public pond fishing." According to Rogstad, one real problem for proper pond management is underfishing. These ponds just don't get enough fishing pressure for the most prolific species -- crappies, bream, and bass. What an opportunity!
Although many nice smallmouths are caught on the fly in Horsetooth reservoir, Steve drove me to some small, imtimate ponds very close to town, so I explored much of that water for bluegills, green sunfish, smallmouths, and largemouths. There are several bike riding trails and public parks in Ft. Collins, that wind around the ponds and connect them across the city.
The selection of flies that we fished included deep and suspending subsurface streamers plus small poppers for surface action. Given the water temperatures it was the small black streamers that attracted the fish. In the image above right, they are perched on a Sage SPL 1 weight that I fished on the trip. Nearby the Cache la Poudre River known for its beautiful trout runs right through Ft. Collins, but I decided to fish that river on a later trip, and stick to my warmwater pursuits on this trip.
Smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieu, prefer cool clear waters and rocky lakes. Before stocking programs in suitable waters nationwide, these very game and exciting members of the sunfish family were found mostly in Southern Canada, the Great Lakes region, plus the Ohio River and Upper Mississippi River areas. Fortunately these days a fly fisher can pursue these wonderful fish over most of the nation, so when in Colorado, don't forget the smallmouths.
Smallmouths prefer gravel, boulders, and rock strewn pools. These gravel pit ponds are full of rock and plenty of cool, gin clear water. In addition, the weed lines, cattails, grasses, blowdowns, overhanging brush and aquatic plants provide smallie magnets in these pristine waters. In waters like these providing there is ample forage, smallmouths can become quite fat and strong. I caught several smallies and largemouth bass in one of Ft. Collins' public ponds located in a beautiful public park while casting a black streamer from the bank, counting it down, and stripping it back.
In addition I found the old familiar bluegill plus green sunfish and crappies in these cool waters. The scenery was different, and the fun of catching western but familiar fish on ultralight tackle was great! I spent hours chasing these great Front Range warmwater fish around Ft. Collins in the public waters alone.
I have spent several days over multiple trips catching the warmwater stepchildren species of the front range. At the right time of year these fish species offer wonderful light to ultralight fly fishing in some of the world's most beautiful waters. When you venture out west to fish for trout -- make plans to meet some of the warmwater sunfishes, smallies, and largemouths while you are there. You won't be disappointed!
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