If you’re an angler, there’s no better time to fish Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs than early spring. Not only is it a great time of year to shake off your cabin fever, but many trophy sized rainbow, cutthroat, cutbow and brown trout are caught in those first days and weeks after ice-out. If those weren’t enough reasons to make you want to grab your fishing rod and tackle box, spring is also the best time to catch lake trout (aka Mackinaw) — a species that can reach upwards of 50 pounds in Colorado.
Although many of Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs offer excellent fishing, the following waters provide exceptional fishing opportunities this spring:
NOTE: Some of these locations have slot limits and catch-and-release restrictions. Be sure to read the Colorado Fishing Regulations brochure before fishing any of these waters. Depending on weather conditions, ice-melt varies at high-altitude lakes and reservoirs. Call Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s area offices for the latest conditions. Always play it safe and never venture out on late-season ice.
Delaney Buttes Lakes
Nestled in the sagebrush flats of North Park, 10 miles west of Walden, the Delaney Buttes State Wildlife Area is a sure bet for ice-out trout. The area consists of three separate lakes—North Delaney, South Delaney and East Delaney. The south and east lakes boast large rainbows, Snake River cutthroat and hybrid cutbows. North Delaney, the largest of the three lakes, is managed as a trophy brown trout fishery. It’s the most challenging of the three lakes to fish and can humble even the most skilled anglers. However, the rewards can be great for those willing to put in the time and dedication. Bruiser browns in the double-digit weight class roam this Gold Medal Water. All three Delaney Buttes Lakes are restricted to fishing with flies and lures only. Woolly Buggers, olive scuds and chironomids are excellent fly choices here. Kastmasters and Rapalas (in various colors) and crayfish imitation jigs/lures are always good bets to tempt North Delaney’s browns.
Located just north of the Delaney Buttes, Lake John has a long history of producing exceptionally large fish. In the 1960s, Lake John was arguably the state’s premier fishery for trophy-sized trout. For the better part of a decade, the lake yielded specimens that monopolized the weekly “Big Fish” contests hosted by Dave Cook Sporting Goods and The Denver Post. Since then, the lake’s productivity has fluctuated over the years, primarily because of occasional winter-kills and an overabundance of white suckers that have impacted trout populations. As part of an ongoing reclamation effort, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) biologists performed a complete fish-kill at Lake John in 2011. In the last four years, the lake has been heavily restocked with rainbows and Snake River cutthroats, including large broodfish to help kick-start the rebuilding process. The lake has a rich forage base and fish grow rapidly (upwards of an inch per month). With the recent stockings, Lake John is a great option for anglers who are looking to target large trout this spring.
Taylor Park Reservoir
Taylor Park Reservoir is located 35 miles northeast of Gunnison at the foot of Cottonwood Pass. At 2,000 surface acres, the large reservoir provides good opportunities for catching big rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout. At ice-out, Taylor’s resident lake trout leave the depths of the lake and begin cruising the shorelines, creating a prime opportunity for bank fisherman to score big. Mackinaw surpassing the 20-pound mark have been taken here. Trolling with lures and spoons or casting Rapalas and Kastmasters are effective. Gitzit jigs tipped with sucker meat or bait fishing from shore are also productive methods to catch early season fish.
Located 6 miles northeast of the town of Granby, Lake Granby is the second largest cold-water reservoir in the state (7,000 surface acres when full). It offers excellent fishing for rainbow, cutbow and large brown trout. Lake Granby also is one of the top Mackinaw fisheries in the entire country, producing fish in the 20- to 40-pound range. In recent years, however, Granby’s lake trout have fared a little too well, and the predatory macks have impacted the lake’s Kokanee salmon population. In order to maintain a better balance between the two species, CPW has encouraged anglers to harvest smaller-sized lake trout (fish under 19 inches). Anglers can expect fast action for the abundant smaller lakers and also have a good chance of catching the fish of a lifetime. Trolling with lures or casting Rapalas and Kastmasters from shore, using Gitzit jigs tipped with sucker meat and bait fishing with night crawlers and sucker meat, are all good methods to take fish at ice out. Check out this blog piece for more information about fishing Lake Granby in early spring.
Spinney Mountain State Park
Arguably Colorado’s most famous trout fishery, Spinney Mountain Reservoir is located in South Park east of Hartsel. The 2,450-acre reservoir offers fishing for large rainbow, cutbow and the occasional brown trout. Each spring, the reservoir’s annual opening is one of the most highly anticipated events among Colorado anglers. The fishing faithful line up at the park’s entrance before dawn on opening morning, hoping to be the first to cast a lure or fly to fish that have not seen a line nor hook since the previous fall (ice fishing is not permitted here). In the mid-80s and early 90s, Spinney was one of the premier trout fisheries in the western U.S., producing enormous rainbow trout and Snake River cutthroats. Today, the reservoir’s trout population is recovering after being impacted by predation from northern pike. Nevertheless, trout in excess of 10 pounds are still caught regularly here, making Spinney a top destination for springtime fishing. Spinney Mountain is restricted to flies and lures only and is a Gold Medal Water. Trolling with lures or fly fishing with Woolly Buggers, scuds, egg patterns and large streamers are all excellent methods in early spring. Anglers are encouraged to harvest all pike caught at Spinney Mountain.
Eleven Mile State Park
Located in South Park, Eleven Mile Reservoir provides quality fishing for rainbow, brown, cutbows and Snake River cutthroat trout. The 3,400-surface-acre reservoir is noted for producing big fish and has become the go-to spot for many South Park anglers. Each spring, fisherman routinely catch browns, rainbows and cutthroats in the 5- to 12-pound class. Eleven Mile is a prominent fixture in CPW’s Master Angler program, where Colorado anglers are recognized for catching trophy sized fish. The north shore, Cross Creek and Lazy Boy areas typically offer the most consistent action for fishing early season.
Blue Mesa Reservoir
Located 5 miles west of Gunnison, Blue Mesa is Colorado’s largest reservoir (9,000 surface acres). The huge impoundment offers good fishing for rainbow and large brown trout. But, “Big Blue” is most famous for its trophy lake trout fishing. The reservoir’s seemingly bottomless underwater canyons (exceeding depths of 300 feet in places), abundant forage and cold, pristine water provide the ultimate ecosystem for lake trout to grow to enormous sizes. The state record lake trout, caught at Blue Mesa in 2007, tipped the scale at a whopping 50.35 pounds (Mackinaw in the 20- to 40-pound range are common here). Blue Mesa’s Macks typically inhabit depths of between 60 and 200 feet for most of the year. But, at ice-out, the fish briefly abandon their deep water haunts and move into the shallows to feed, bringing them within casting range of shore fisherman. Similar to Lake Granby, Blue Mesa’s lake trout populations have boomed in recent years. Therefore, CPW encourages anglers to harvest small to mid-sized fish. Trolling with lures (Rapalas, Flatfish) and vertical jigging with sucker meat are productive methods to catch big Blue’s big Macks. Anglers need to be aware that CPW implemented new regulations for lake trout at Blue Mesa in 2016.
Twin Lakes Reservoirs
Nestled at the base of Mt. Elbert and the Collegiate Peaks, Twin Lakes Reservoirs (2,700 combined surface acres) has a tradition of offering excellent fishing for brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. In recent years, however, Twin Lakes has developed a reputation as a trophy lake trout fishery, producing Mackinaw in the 40-inch class fairly regularly. Although not as well known as its bigger brothers Granby and Blue Mesa, Twin Lakes is a sleeper location that may yield some giant Mackinaw this spring. Similar to other locations, trolling with lures (Rapalas, Flatfish), vertical jigging with sucker meat and bait fishing should produce good results for Twin’s lake trout.
Located just 20 miles south of Steamboat Springs, Stagecoach Reservoir offers excellent fishing for trout and large (seriously large) northern pike. The 800-acre reservoir also offers fishing for walleye, which tends to improve once water temperatures increase in late spring and early summer. Kastmasters, Rapalas, vertical jigging and bait fishing are all effective for catching trout. Campsites are also available along the reservoir, making this an excellent weekend getaway for anglers and families alike. Plan to stay for a couple days to really explore everything this area has to offer. In addition to the reservoir, the tailwaters below the dam provide superb fly fishing for large rainbow trout. A parks pass is required to access Stagecoach State Park.
Boyd Lake State Park is located just west of Loveland in Larimer County. The 1700-acre reservoir is home to walleye, white bass, catfish and trout. Anglers may also catch the occasional smallmouth bass, crappie, bluegill and perch. Trout fishing is best in early spring, while fishing for warm-water species is best in late spring and early summer. Shad imitations like silver-colored kastmasters and Blue Fox Vibrax spinners are good choices for bass. Lindy rigs, tube jigs, Rogue crank baits and triple ripples are effective for walleye. A parks pass is required to access this area.
Located 20 miles south of Montrose, Ridgway Reservoir is a popular fishery that provides angling opportunities for rainbow trout, brown trout, kokanee salmon and yellow perch. The inlet, west shore and dam area offer good fishing for brown trout. The cove near the boat ramp and inlet areas are good locations to fish for rainbows. Black Woolly Buggers, spinners, jigs and worms are all good choices. Large streamers, minnow imitations, crankbaits and jigs are effective for brown trout. In addition to fishing, the 1,030-acre reservoir also boasts exceptional scenery and camping.
One of the great things about Colorado is there is no shortage of places to fish. The following locations also offer excellent early season fishing opportunities: Vallecito Reservoir, Mt. Elbert Forebay, Miramonte Reservoir , Road Canyon Reservoir, North Sterling Reservoir , Gypsum Ponds and Crawford Reservoir . Check out the Colorado Fishery Surveys for more information.
Buy Your Fishing License
Did you know that Colorado fishing licenses are valid from April 1 through March 31? Now is a great time to purchase your license. Also, be sure to pick up a copy of the Colorado Fishing Regulations brochure. The brochure is now available at statewide license agents and CPW offices, or may be viewed online.
Practice Catch and Release with Replica Fish Mounts
Are you a conservation-minded angler who likes to practice catch and release? Be sure to check out this great article about replica fish mounts here on Colorado Outdoors Online. Now you can release that trophy fish and still have a beautiful wall-mounted trophy to hang in your office or den.
Written by Jerry Neal. Neal is a multimedia specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is editor of Colorado Outdoors Online.