Autumn in Moraine Park is a ‘Rocky Mountain High’ for Fly Fishers
There are some locations that perfectly depict the beauty and grandeur of Colorado’s backcountry. In these unique landscapes, bugles of bull elk echo across serene mountain valleys, hungry trout populate cold, gin-clear streams and the scenery is so sublime that it’s like it was conjured up from lyrics in some John Denver song. For fly fishers, autumn in Rocky Mountain National Park epitomizes this perfect setting.
In mid-September, I had the opportunity to spend a few hours exploring a small section of this remarkable area with local fishing guide Iolanthe Culjak. Iolanthe or “IO,” as her friends call her, lives just minutes from RMNP, which she proudly refers to as her “backyard.” That description is apropos, as Culjak’s fish-sense and knowledge of local waters are impeccable.
On a chilly, wet afternoon, Culjak took me on a short drive from her Estes Park home through RMNP’s main entrance to Moraine Park. Here, the headwaters of the Big Thompson River meander through grassy, high-mountain meadows. Moraine Park is center stage for RMNP’s annual elk-rut spectacle, but it also plays host to spectacular fall fly fishing. This area is one of Culjak’s favorite places to take clients.
“I love fishing in the park because it represents everything that fly fishing is to me,” said Culjak. “Fishing here is about the overall experience—the serenity, adventure and amazing scenery. Many of my clients are new to fly fishing and have only a vision of what fly fishing is and where it takes place. They have seen photos on calendars and in magazines, but I want them to experience fly fishing as if they walked into the pictures they have seen.”
Within minutes of our arrival at the river, the rain stopped, the temperature warmed and the sun emerged through the ominous, gray veil. Culjak quickly went to work and landed two browns and one brook trout on a Zebra Midge dropped below a yellow Stimulator.
Although most fish in Moraine Park rarely exceed 14 inches, this stretch of water offers anglers enormous variety. Rainbow, brown, brook and native cutthroat trout all thrive here, giving anglers the rare opportunity to score a fly-fishing “grand slam” by catching all four species in the same day.
The river also spawns abundant insect life. Depending on autumn weather conditions, midges, caddis, mayflies and yellow stoneflies all skim the water’s surface. Grasshoppers also inhabit the river’s green, lush banks. A two-fly “hopper/dropper” setup is an effective approach to take fish on or below the water’s surface.
“Fish are more likely to hit dry flies on a regular basis here because of the variety of insects available,” said Culjak. “I generally love fishing Stimulators anywhere in the park in fall. There are always tons of yellow sallies flying around then. Of course, if there are mayfly hatches, I will switch to a Parachute Adams, or being a bit old fashioned, I’ll tie on a Royal Wolf. I will drop either a Flashback Pheasant Tail or any small black midge from the dry fly, as I see appropriate.”
In addition to excellent fishing, there is something almost magical about the surroundings here. Despite the well-traveled, national-park atmosphere, it’s still relatively easy to find a segment of river where you can immerse yourself in the solitude of autumn—just you, the fish and the occasional bull elk sipping water from your section of stream. After spending an afternoon in RMNP, you’ll be reminded of Colorado’s magnificence. And you just might even feel compelled to listen to a little “Rocky Mountain High” on your ride home.
If you go:
September in RMNP is a busy place with voyeuristic tourists and photographers eying the mating activity of the rutting elk. Plan your trip midweek to avoid the wildlife paparazzi. A $20 parks pass (good for seven consecutive days) or a $40 annual pass are required to enter the park.
Bring a good selection of foam hoppers, Stimulators, Elk Hair Caddis, Zebra Midges, Copper Johns, WD-40s and bead-head Pheasant Tail nymphs. Hatches vary widely and variety is the key to tempt finicky trout. This popular area sees considerable fishing pressure, so lighter-weight (5x or 6x), fluorocarbon tippets are in order to help conceal line from angler-savvy fish. The clear water also requires fly fishers to adopt a stealthy approach. Sneaking up to the river’s edge and casting from a crouched position are recommended, if not absolutely necessary, to avoid spooking feeding trout.
Staying warm and dry is critical, as fall weather conditions can deteriorate rapidly. A good pair of breathable chest waders and warm clothing are must-have items.
Anglers should use extreme caution around rutting elk. Like all wildlife, elk are highly unpredictable but bull elk become especially aggressive during mating season. Fending off an agitated bull with a 5-weight fly rod is a losing proposition. Give these animals plenty of space and enjoy them from a safe distance.
Story, photos and video by Jerry Neal. Neal is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a public information specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.