Why Aspen Delivers Such Good Fishing
Catching Too Many Fish Made One Guide Call Uncle
“I was guiding on the Fryingpan one winter day about 12 years ago. It was very cold, maybe 10 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit with a breeze. But we were on the Bend Pool, about 100 yards down from the outlet of the dam, and the fishing was very good. My client was catching fish on every other cast, and for nearly an hour, I was handling and releasing a lot of fish for him. My hands got so brutally cold that I didn’t want him to catch fish anymore. So I moved him up to a spot where he wasn’t likely to catch anything. He realized what I was doing, though he didn’t tell me that until the end of the day, once we were back at the shop. But he didn’t seem to mind. It’s just such an incredible winter fishery.”
—Tim Heng, longtime fishing guide and fly designer
Ribbons and Medals
Fourteen miles of the Fryingpan River (below Ruedi Dam) and 24.7 miles of the Roaring Fork have earned Gold Medal status, a designation bestowed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife to recognize streams that support lots of trout—including big’uns. Gold Medal water must contain 60 pounds of trout per acre, and at least 12 of those fish must measure 14 inches or more. The Roaring Fork was the longest stretch of Gold Medal water in the state until 2014, when a 102-mile portion of the Upper Arkansas River nudged it out of top place.
Additionally, 7 miles of the Roaring Fork from Hallam Lake in Aspen downstream to the Upper Woody Creek Bridge are also designated as Wild Trout Water, meaning they contain healthy populations of wild fish and aren’t typically stocked with hatchery fingerlings.
Blue Ribbon streams are designations issued by the federal government and other states (such as Utah and Montana) to celebrate outstanding fisheries—so nationwide, you’ll hear about Blue Ribbon rivers, while Colorado prefers the Gold Medal terminology.
Nighttime Is the Right Time
Fishing the green drake hatch on the Roaring Fork
“The green drakes are the best-known hatch in our valley, and they’re one of my favorites. They’re big mayflies, almost an inch long, and when they hatch, they just cover the water and the whole river wakes up, with trout rising all over the place. Most of the year, these fish feed on teeny-tiny little midges, so when that big bug hatch happens, trout just go crazy for them. Most of the time, though, the hatch happens in the evening, right as it’s getting dark. So not only is the green drake a unique bug, but it also requires a unique way of fishing.
One time, I brought my friend Frany. It was in July, when the hatch was hitting Basalt. We headed to Gerbaz Bridge, and even though there were already a few other anglers there, everyone was friendly. That’s the way it is with the green drakes. People stop being grumpy and territorial and just get excited about the hatch. They share fly patterns and talk about what’s been working well. It’s a fun vibe.
It was getting darker and darker as we waited for the hatch to start, and Frany kept asking, ‘You sure this is actually going to happen?’ Finally, around 9 or so, the ‘power hour’ turned on. But by then it was almost too dark to see, so you have to listen for the take and set the hook by sound, not by sight. Fifty percent of the time, you get a fish.
But Frany just couldn’t figure it out. She kept missing fish and missing fish, until eventually it clicked, and when she heard a splash, she set the hook. The fish shot across the river and she was screaming that she needed help, so I threw my rod in the bushes and ran 30 or 40 feet downriver. I didn’t have a headlamp, so I stumbled a lot in the dark, but I got there in time and netted her gorgeous brown trout. We laughed hysterically at how strange it is to catch a fish when you can’t see anything. Then suddenly the fish stopped rising. The hatch quieted down. The game was over.”
—Shannon Outing, fishing guide, Taylor Creek Fly Shop
Heli-fishing (Note: not offered Summer 2020)
Bar ZX Ranch sprawls beneath the Ragged Mountains, which prove that wrinkles can, indeed, be beautiful. Their chiseled flanks rise above a chain of mountain lakes that grow monster-size trout. Here, a 5-pound rainbow occupies the small end of the spectrum, while 20-pounders fight like sharks and bend fishing rods into horseshoes.
But the property sits some distance from Aspen—90 minutes by truck—so The Little Nell offers heli-fishing trips that trim the commute to 15 minutes. They also showcase the nest of glorious peaks that separate Bar ZX from Aspen—the Raggeds and the Elk Mountains, all dotted with lakes that look like blue opals when viewed from above.
Once the bird lands beside one of Bar ZX’s trout ponds, you’ll meet your guide and sip coffee while everyone is outfitted with rods. Experts can target fatties, while kids can shoot at gullible stockers that guarantee fast action (the 2:1 or 3:1 guest-to-guide ratio ensures plenty of support for all). Lunch is a gourmet picnic, including the likes of liver pâté and chocolate pastries prepared by the Nell’s kitchen and served at a lakeside gazebo. Then it’s more trophy-hunting and the return flight home, admiring mighty Mount Sopris in the late-afternoon light and watching herds of elk chomp down their dinner in the mountain meadows. From $10,000 for four people
A passion for fly-fishing drew John Hollinger to Aspen in 1968, and the following year he launched Aspen Outfitting Company, which started leasing exclusive fishing access from local landowners on the Roaring Fork River upstream of Basalt. Now, Hollinger’s son Jared runs the guided fishing and hunting business, and maintains many of the same relationships that Hollinger first forged back in the ’60s and ’70s.
Jared Hollinger helps landowners manage their riparian zones to promote ideal trout habitat. And because the fish see very little angling pressure (only guests of Aspen Outfitting Company are permitted to cast from these banks), they’re more easily fooled than the seen-it-all specimens that inhabit public waters. Best of all, though, is the chance to wade in total solitude. Although drift boats occasionally cruise downstream during peak runoff (the only time this steep, boulder-strewn section of the Roaring Fork is navigable), anglers generally see no one but themselves—making for a true wilderness feel just 10 minutes from downtown Aspen. From $325
Sometimes, miracles happen.
“It was spring, and I was fishing the middle section of the Fryingpan at Folkstad Spring. A lot of anglers avoid that faster pocket water, but I love it.
I saw a fish on the other side of the stream, in front of a big boulder. It was almost porpoising, rolling onto its side and sipping bugs. So I tied on an RS2 behind a small 18 Adams and high-sticked my rod over the current. That fish took it and just sunk to the bottom. Next he made a big jump upstream, into faster current, then downstream. Following him took lots of tricky maneuvering, because there isn’t much of a bank. The river is narrow there and full of boulders, and I had him on light 6X tippet.
I’m sure I fell, but I don’t remember it—I was just so focused on getting my fish, I didn’t even care if I cracked my shin. Eventually I caught up with him, lifted my rod, and scooped him up just as the tippet was about to snap.
He must’ve been 21 inches or so—he barely fit in my net—and maybe four pounds. On the Pan, you have to do a lot of things right in order to be successful. This was a technical catch, and a technical fight, in fast water and light tippet. Such a good fish.”
—Glenn Smith, fishing guide, chef, and artist