The Upper Gunnison Valley is a well-known Colorado summer trout fishing destination for its amazing angling opportunities such as float fishing the Gunnison River, or walk-wade fishing backcountry streams and lakes. Winter in Gunnison Country is generally not often thought of as fishing season, since most anglers trade in their waders and rods for skis and snowboards. But for some intrepid anglers, this magic season affords us peaceful waters, pristine riparian beauty, and the chance at amazing trout. The pandemic has caused people to seek out socially distant winter activities, and fly fishing in Gunnison checks all the boxes. Keep reading to learn tips and tricks to make Colorado winter fly fishing a fun and rewarding part of your winter 2020 or 2021 trip to Crested Butte and Gunnison.
Words and photos by Patrick Blackdale
Winter Fly-Fishing Gear and Outerwear
A typical day of winter fly-fishing begins with a late start, allowing time for the air and water temperatures to rise, and for trout to become metabolically active. The lazy departure schedule is pleasant, allowing for a hot breakfast with the family and time to rig rods in the warm comfort of home before braving the elements. Gearing up for a day of winter angling involves multiple synthetic or wool layers underneath waders and an insulated winter jacket, as well as hand warmers, latex gloves, fleece hat, neck gaiter and a chamois to quickly dry hands after handling trout. Extra snacks in wader pockets are also advised, as frequent snacking keeps your body warm throughout the day. As always when fly fishing, be sure to have a pair of polarized sunglasses both for eye protection and to spot trout in sunny or flat light conditions.
Colorado Winter Fishing Experience
Once at the river, one can begin to truly appreciate the peace and tranquility of the magic season. The soothing sounds of flowing water contrast with silent a landscape. Stoic evergreens cover hilltops overlooking the river. Steam slowly rises from the water. Bighorn sheep navigate a ridgeline above. Quiet, rugged and beautiful, this setting is worth experiencing.
Flies for Gunnison Winter Fishing
Since water temperatures are the lowest of the year during winter, insect hatches are sparse and consist mostly of midges and blue-winged olives. These aquatic insects are small, ranging in hook size from 18 down to size 24. Although one may need reading glasses to tie on such small flies, confusing guesswork of “matching the hatch” is not necessary. Experienced winter anglers will cycle through a few “confidence” patterns in a day, if they even change flies at all. Here are several effective winter patterns for the Upper Gunnison watershed:
- Pheasant Tail Natural 20-24
- D-Midge purple 18-20
- Brassie 18-22
- Mole Fly brown 18-22
- Parachute Adams 18-22
Rigging a Rod for Gunnison Winter Fishing
Rigging a couple rods with confidence patterns will ensure you don’t waste time riverside tying knots and risking cold fingers. Instead, set your backup rod down on the bank while fishing, and switch rods as needed. A common practice is to rig one rod with a tandem nymph rig under an indicator, and the other rod with a single dry fly such as a Parachute Adams. No need to overthink tippet either: 5x fluorocarbon to your flies will work great whether nymphing or dry fly fishing. Simplicity will minimize the amount of gear you need to carry on the water, saving precious time when you do need to re-rig.
Trout Behavior in Winter Water
Finding trout holding water during the magic season is a pleasantly simple endeavor. Since flows are low and water temps are cool, trout tend to congregate in the deep, slow pools. These areas are often referred to as “winter water.” Nymphing is the primary tactic used to fish winter water. Adjusting weight will be the ticket to finding the correct depth. Once you’ve hooked one fish, you can almost count on there being more in the same area. As air and water temps rise in the afternoon, some trout will move into faster riffles to feed on midges and blue-winged olives (BWOs). These fish are usually more eager to eat a well-presented fly than their lazy deep-water friends. Typically a slight adjustment of weight is all that is needed to change from fishing deep slow water to fishing faster riffles.
Landing and Handling Fish in Winter
Hooking and landing fish in wintertime is all about playing the fish quickly and efficiently. Using low rod-angles, and applying maximum pressure to the fish will result in a short fight, and healthy release. Handling of trout should be without gloves (latex is OK), with wet hands to protect the fish’s important slime layer. Photos should be quick before returning the trout back to the water to revive it facing upstream. The most important element of a safe release is minimizing “air time.” Keep trout submerged underwater as much as possible while removing the fly and reviving. Trout should swim away under their own power if revived correctly.
Gunnison County Fly Shop and Fishing Guides
If you’d like to learn more about winter angling, stop by a local fly shop, or even better, hire a professional fly fishing guide to teach you the intricacies of winter angling. Winter is the slowest season for fly shops and outfitters, meaning they will have time and availability to explain topics like rigging, fly selection and specific fishing techniques. Overall, fishing the magic season can be wonderfully rewarding. A laid-back schedule, peace and quiet, and the opportunity at beautiful fish are just a few reasons to consider winter fly fishing in the Gunnison area.Find a Fishing Guide
Other Gunnison and Crested Butte Winter Activities
Fishing can be a great complement to other winter outdoor activities in Gunnison and Crested Butte. The most popular winter sport in the Gunnison Valley is the exciting and challenging downhill skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort. Another option is nordic skiing, which lets you soak in the peace and quiet of the mountains while getting a great workout. Or try fat biking, the quintessential Gunnison Valley activity.
Lodging in Crested Butte and Gunnison
If you want to be as close as possible to the best fly fishing in the Gunnison Valley, consider staying in charming Gunnison or tranquil Almont. For proximity to the ski area, Mt. Crested Butte and Crested Butte have many lodging options, too. For a full list of Gunnison Valley hotels, vacation rentals and more, click the button below.Lodging Partners
Patrick is a fly-fishing guide and fly shop operator in Almont, CO.