3 Colorado Wilderness Fly Fishing Tips

Although fishing these high-country waters isn’t difficult, having the right fly selection can definitely make a big difference. Here are three tips to remember on your next wilderness trip
Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Photo by R.
Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Photo by R. McSparran.

The fishing season is underway in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Colorado has received a record amount of rainfall this spring and early summer, making for ideal fishing conditions as we enter the end of July.

With lakes full of clear, cold water, anglers can look forward to great, late-summer fly fishing. Water temperatures have warmed, and fish are active and hungry. The cutthroat spawn has wrapped up and fish are cruising opportunistically along the shorelines, taking advantage of worms, scuds and early mayfly hatches.

Although fishing these high-country waters isn’t difficult, having the right fly selection can definitely make a big difference. Here are three tips to remember on your next wilderness trip:

1. Hatches Come Later at High Elevations

Photo by R. McSparran.
Photo by R. McSparran.

If you haven’t fished in a high-country wilderness area before, it’s important to know that primary hatches happen later than they do on rivers at lower elevations. For example, blue winged olive hatches (BWO) are common through March and April on many of Colorado’s well-known rivers but don’t become heavy until June and July in the high country. Caddis hatches begin in May on many lower-elevation waters, but they may not hatch until the middle of July at altitude. Stoneflies may not hatch until as late as August on wilderness waters. The one consistent factor is hoppers and terrestrials. High-country cutthroat and brook trout will take hopper patterns anytime, but the terrestrial fishing typically improves later in the summer.

2. Be Prepared With Attractors and Specific Patterns

A brook trout. Photo by R. McSparran.
A brook trout. Photo by R. McSparran.

While fishing wilderness waters isn’t very technical, the fish can be surprisingly picky at times. On most days, you could fish a Yellow Humpy all day and catch plenty of fish. But being prepared to more closely match the hatch can mean the difference between having a good day and a great day.

Right now, anglers should plan on bringing small BWO patterns like Sparkle Duns, Parachute BWOs and Parachute Adams. Caddis patterns will also become effective in the next few weeks. Standard Elk Hair Caddis or Foam Caddis are good choices. I also recommend bringing a handful of attractor patterns like Stimulators, Wulffs, Humpies and Amy’s Ants. When it comes to terrestrials, Moorish Hoppers, PMX patterns and Hippie Stompers are some of my favorites.

Nymph selection is usually simple. Be sure to cover your bases on mayflies, caddis and stoneflies. Mayfly patterns like Pheasant Tails and other variations are essential. Both caddis larvae and pupae are useful (Buckskins and Graphic Caddis are two of my favorites). Small stonefly nymphs, such as Princes and Iron Sallies, are also effective. You will want to be ready with a few good attractor nymphs too. Hares Ears, Copper Johns and worm patterns are all excellent choices.

When fishing alpine lakes, Wooly Buggers, Thin Mints and other small streamers work well. Callibaetis and midges are also present on most waters. A Tungsten Thin Mint trailed by a Hare’s Ear can often be a deadly combination.

3. Don’t Hesitate to Change Your Setup

Photo by R. McSparran.
Photo by R. McSparran.

If your setup or fly selection isn’t producing fish, don’t hesitate to change things up. There’s no use pounding the same flies over and over with no results. Keep changing your rig until you find one that’s effective.

All too often, anglers have a tendency to keep covering more water rather than changing flies. Usually, the latter should be done more often. If you’ve put your flies in front of a few fish with no results, it’s time to change the bugs before you try out new fish. In addition to changing flies, don’t forget to adjust depth. Pay attention to where the fish are feeding in the water column.


One of the best things about fishing small, headwater streams and alpine lakes is that it can be very simple. Fish are usually unpressured and are willing to bite most fly patterns. But it never hurts to pay close attention to hatches and to see what the fish are eating. Sometimes, that can be the difference between a good day and an exceptional day.

Written by Ryan McSparran. McSparran is a fly-fishing guide and the in-house writer for Winterhawk Outfitters, where he manages a weekly blog and newsletter. For more information about fishing the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, visit: winterhawk.com

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