13 Best Fly Fishing Rivers & Lakes in Colorado (+Top Flies)

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Fly fishing the rivers and lakes of Colorado does something to anglers. It starts out with a craving to go back, which quickly grows into a need. 

Colorado is synonymous with the Wild West. When you picture historic towns full of saloons and old-school casinos, Colorado is what you see. 

The thing about Colorado is that the streams, creeks and rivers flowing through these little towns are full of trout. Big trout.

The best rivers and lakes for fly fishing in Colorado are hard to narrow down, but we’ll give it a try. Whether you fish near Fort Collins or Glenwood Springs, you are sure to fall in love with the serenity and beauty of the state.

Before we unveil the very best places to go fly fishing in Colorado, let’s spend a little time making sure you bring the right gear and best flies along as you explore the variety this state has to offer to anglers.

We not only provide a list of dry and wet flies that will serve you well across the state, but with each river and lake in this list, we also have a specially curated list of patterns that will serve you well on that specific water.

Gear and Flies

The fly fishing gear you’ll need for Colorado waters varies by destination, but a good 5wt will handle most situations. Fishing in alpine creeks may warrant a 3wt. 

A 4x or 5x tippet works well, though you’ll want to go lighter if the water is especially clear. Several of the best rivers start as mountain streams that are clear and shallow. Choose the best tippet for the situation.

There are certain flies that will work in most situations across the state. It’s essential to be prepared for when they flip the switch and the hatch changes. 

Dry Flies

Colorado offers world-class dry fly rivers. A fly box should have a few of these for almost any scenario:

  • Parachute Adams in #14-#18. It does a great job mimicking almost everything.
  • PMD, the Pale Morning Dun in #14-#18.
  • Royal Wulff in #16-#20. These are a go-to for searching out new waters and finding reluctant trout.  
  • Elk Hair Caddis in #14-#18
  • Hoppers in #4-#14. Rig a hopper/dropper set up with a copper John or BH Prince.

Wet Flies

Nymphs, emergers, and midges are perfect for a dropper rig. Streamers are great for bringing in those big browns.

  • BH Hares Ear in #14-#20. 
  • Prince Nymph or BH Prince in #14-#18. Tie it as a hopper dropper in the late summer and fall.
  • Rainbow Warrior in #16-#20. These are a go-to in waters with finicky trout.
  • Pheasant Tail in #14-#20. These follow along with the hare’s ear. Use them when nothing else is working.
  • BH Flashback Pheasant Tail #14-#20. Perfect for tying below an elk hare caddis or yellow humpy.
  • Copper John in #14-#18. 
  • Barrs Emerger in #14-#18. Incredible BWO emerger pattern.
  • Wooley Bugger in #4-#12. Still one of the best.
  • Crawfish imitations in #2-#10. 
  • Leech patterns in #2-#10. Because who doesn’t love a good leech?

The Best Fly Fishing Rivers in Colorado

There are so many options in Colorado that choosing just a few is difficult. The CPW has created a rating system to help find the right water for you. 

The “Gold-Medal” standard has so far added over 300 miles of water to its ranks. Colorado has well over 9,000 miles of fishable waters, so limiting it to just over 300 miles shows these rivers and lakes are hands down the best fishing in the state.

In this section, we’ll look specifically at the best fly fishing in Colorado’s rivers. Down below, you’ll find the ideal fly fishing lakes in the state.

Animas River

The Animas River is one of the best fly fishing rivers in the country. With its headwaters near Telluride and flowing through Durango on its way to Farmington, New Mexico, this river delivers everything you could want in a fishing trip.

The Animus is a six-hour drive from Denver. Durango is the main hub in the southwestern portion of Colorado and offers all the comforts and food you might need.

Big browns, rainbows and cutthroats are everywhere. While the average size catch is between 10 to 15 inches, bringing a 10+-pound trout to the net is possible at any time.

The easiest access to the river is in or near Durango. The river at this point can be over 100 feet wide, meaning it’s big water. You’ll be fishing over a gravel and stone bed with deep holes and plenty of riffles, and some great stretches of pocket water. 

Caddis start hatching in June, which turns the rainbows into voracious eaters. If you’re targeting the bigger fish, go with a sculpin imitation. The big ones love sculpin, and the river has them in abundance.

Several miles of the river are easily accessed throughout Durango, though below the Rivera Bridge, it runs across private lands before entering the Southern Ute Reservation. Check with the reservation for a license if planning to target that section.

The best flies for the Animus River

  • Prince Nymph #18
  • Elk Wing Caddis in dark #14
  • Goddard Caddis in #14-#16
  • PMD patterns in #16-#20
  • Pheasant Tail Nymph in #18-#22
  • Dry Muddler in #6-#14

These flies should bring in the fish, though it’s always good to check in at the fly shop for current conditions.

South Platte River

The South Platte River has several world-class sections to target trophy browns, rainbows, and cutthroat trout. The best part is the ease of access from Denver. Part of the river flows through the middle of the city. 

The best fly fishing locations are within an hour or two drive from Denver, making them the perfect quick escape for anglers.

The Upper South Platte River headwaters are near South Park, high in the Rockies. Three sections stand out above the others.

Starting above Spinney Mountain Reservoir, you’ll find epic fishing in the world-renowned river. Begin your search just outside Hartsel.

Below Spinney Mountain Reservoir and above Eleven Miles Reservoir is a four-mile section nicknamed “The Dream Stream.” This section is easily accessed and has some monster trout throughout. 

Rig a San Juan worm or an egg pattern above a #20-#24 Juju Baetis, and you’ll find them.

Head to Deckers, start at the Wigwam Club, and work your way to Scraggy View Picnic Ground. There are some of the best holes and pocket water scattered through this area. Big fish happily wait for your fly.

Find this and other great waters in our run-down of the best fly fishing near Denver and Boulder.

The best flies for the South Platte River

  • Loop Wing Emerger
  • San Juan Worm in #10-#14
  • Barr’s Emerger BWO #16-#20
  • Chartreuse Copper John #16-#20
  • Juju Baetis #16-#22
  • Buckskin #14-#18
  • Zebra Midge in black/silver #20-#22
  • Pure Midge Larva in black or black/red #18-#22
  • Disco Midge #18-#22

Midges and emergers are the go-to here. Have several on hand for your trip.

Arkansas River

The Arkansas River (the Ark) has buckets of trout. In fact, it has so many trout and such excellent access that it’s one of the most popular rivers in Colorado. 

You’ll find Leadville a short 1 ½ hours south of Colorado Springs. The river runs to the Royal Gorge Bridge Park and is over 100 miles of Gold Medal fishing. 

Special regulations are in place along the river, with most being catch and release using artificial flies and lures.

The bugs along the Ark are predictable. Hatches occur throughout the year, with a Pseudocoelom (think tiny BWO) hatch mid-winter. That means dry flies are effective year-round. 

The upper section is an incredible fishery and makes up about a third of the total Gold-Medal water in Colorado. The freestone river dives over 4,000 feet between Leadville and Cañon City, meaning little pocket water and many riffle sections.

The Arkansas River is referred to as the “100-mile riffle.” It’s not just a fly fishing mecca, either. It might draw in more river rafting thrill-seekers than any other river in the world.

The best flies for the Arkansas River

  • Juju Baetis #16-#22
  • Buckskin #14-#18
  • Zebra Midge in black/silver #20-#22
  • Pure Midge Larva in black or black/red #18-#22
  • Disco Midge #18-#22
  • Tricos in #18-#26
  • Baetis BWO in #14-#18

Dry fly/dropper rigs are the way on the Ark. 

Roaring Fork River

The Roaring Fork River (the Fork) is just southeast of Glenwood Springs or a 2 ½ hour drive from Denver. 

Vast numbers of mountain whitefish, rainbows and browns lurk in the river below Aspen. Above you’ll find rainbows and brookies. 

Wild Trout Waters run between Hallum Lake in Aspen to Upper Woody Creek Bridge. It’s also Gold-Medal water through this section.

The Fryingpan River confluence in Basalt helps the flow, and below the Crystal River confluence in Carbondale, it becomes floatable. From Carbondale to Glenwood Springs is another Gold-Medal section.

There are special restrictions in place for most of the river. Parts are catch and release, while other parts allow two trout over 16 inches. Be sure to check current regulations.

The best flies for the Roaring Fork River

  • FPA Sparkle Baetis in #18-#24
  • FPA Thorax Emerger in #16-#22. 
  • RS2 in black or gray #14-#20
  • Sparkle Wing RS2 in #14-#20
  • Bubble Back BWO in #16-#20

The fishing here can be fast, so have a few extra flies in the box.

Blue River

Running from Dillon Reservoir outside Silverthorne until it joins the Colorado River near Kremmling, the Blue River is a renowned fishery for trout.

The tailwater through Silverthorne offers good numbers, and just downstream, it changes into a freestone river. 

From Dillon Reservoir to Kremmling provides the most access to one of the state’s best trout streams.

The Dillon dam area is known for its trophy rainbows, including brood stock from the hatchery. With the abundance of clean water and plethora of bugs, trout get big fast.

The Blue River has an abundant population of Mysis Shrimp as well, and trout love them.

The upper section stays pretty shallow, so bring your waders.

Several parking turnouts are available along HWY 9, and this stretch is primarily public land. 

The best flies for the Blue River

  • Mysis Shrimp in white #18-#20
  • TH Zebra Midge in black #20-#24
  • WD-40 in black or brown #20-#24
  • Bead Head Wooly Bugger in black #10            
  • Prince Nymph in olive/black #16-#20
  • RS2 in olive or gray #20-#24
  • Disco Midge Larva in red #18-#22
  • Two Bit Hooker in red/black #14-#18
  • San Juan Worm in pink or red #12

Be sure to spend some quality time on the Blue. It’s an incredible fishery with even more striking scenery.

Colorado River (Upper)

The upper Colorado River is a trout angler’s paradise.

This incredible river runs through central Colorado near Kremmling until the Fraser River confluence by Granby changes the river’s makeup.

The upper sections are much more in line with other Colorado rivers than the giant river the Colorado becomes. 

Dry flies throughout the summer will keep the action going. Watch for a possible salmon fly hatch in the late spring.

The best flies for the upper Colorado River

  • Mercury Black Beauty in #18-#20
  • Top Secret in #18-#20
  • RS2 in #18-#20
  • Darth Baetis in #18-#20
  • Green Drake in #10-#12
  • Red Quill in #14-#16
  • Resting Caddis in #12-#16
  • Chubby Chernobyl in #12-#14
  • Slump Busters in #4-6
  • Sculpzilla in #4 or #8

The fishing is pretty good if you can stop staring at the mountain peaks surrounding the river.

Gunnison River

The Gunnison flows through Black Canyon in Gunnison National Park before taking a more meandering approach through the Lower Gunnison River. Located between Grand Junction and Durango, there’s plenty of ground to cover.

The upper “Gunny” flows through some of Colorado’s most rugged, beautiful areas. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park has trout in the 20-inch-plus range, with fish over 30 inches turning up every now and then.

All rainbows through the canyon must be released, though browns can be kept. Check out the current regulations to be sure.

The Gunny can be a prolific fishery. Records of 40-inch and bigger rainbows have been recorded here. A 6wt rod might be a good idea through this river.

The best flies for the Gunnison River

  • Salmon Fly in #8-#14
  • Green Drake in #10-#16 
  • Sofa Pillow in #6-#10
  • Birds Stone in #6-#10
  • Bitch Creek in #8-#12
  • Pat’s Rubberlegs in #6-#12
  • Slump Busters in #4-6

These flies should help conquer the Gunny. 

North Platte River

Located right next to the border with Wyoming, this river isn’t for the faint-hearted. The upper North Platte is a freestone river with big bugs and bigger fish. 

Access to the river can be difficult due to the canyons, but a hike will pay off. 

Giant bugs are on order for these trout. Stoneflies and big nymphs are a must. An epic day on the water chucking terrestrials and big nymphs is a day well spent.

The difficulty of accessing the river means these fish are lightly pressured. Bring along a big dry fly with a nymph dropper and be ready. The bigger dry will keep the bug on the surface throughout the rapids and riffles.

Be aware of any moose in the area. You’re in prime moose land along the river, so give these big animals some space.

The best flies for the North Platte River

  • Western Ginger Quill in #10-#16
  • Gray Drake in #14-#18
  • Stimulators

Use the dry/dropper rig and have a great time on this remote river.

Rio Grande River

The upper Rio Grande River runs from high in the San Juan Mountains for 25 miles before leaving forest land and moving across patches of private property. 

Denver is a long four-hour trip, though Durango is a much closer two-hour drive. In the end, you’ll find Creede. Today the old mining town is a mix of old-time buildings and unique fly shops. 

The river, from its headwaters to Creede, is an excellent dry fly fishery throughout the summer. Several hatches keep things interesting, but the one to watch for is the stonefly hatch.

Salmonflies only pop up for a few days, but if you catch that hatch, you’re in for the most magical fishing experience of your life. The biggest fish in the river will take over runs and gorge themselves on the abundance.

Below Creede, there are public access points here and there until you hit South Fork.

The river grows significantly at that junction and becomes accessible by those willing to float the section. If you have the chance, you should take it. It’s lightly fished and has some true trophies in the riffles and pools along this stretch until Del Norte.

After Del Norte, it succumbs to irrigation and doesn’t become a good fishery again until it crosses into New Mexico.

The best flies for the Rio Grande River

  • Sofa Pillow in #6-#10
  • Birds Stone in #6-#10
  • Bitch Creek in #8-#12
  • Pat’s Rubberlegs in #6-#12

These patterns should do the trick during the stonefly hatches.

The Best Fly Fishing Lakes in Colorado

Colorado has some fantastic trout lakes, and the following handful are particularly excellent when it comes to fly fishing.

The state’s stillwater fishing holes are readily accessible, from alpine lakes with brookies and cutthroats to large reservoirs with giant rainbows and browns. 

Delaney Butte Lakes

Located three hours from Denver in the North Park region, the Delaney Butte Lakes are known for massive browns, rainbows and cutthroats.

The CPW suggests catches 25 to 30 inches and up to 10 pounds are common enough in these lakes to get your attention.

Fishing at North Delaney can be fantastic. Its remote location means it receives less pressure than other waters.

Mornings will find hatches from ice-off until freeze. Big trout cruise just under the surface throughout the summer, so casting from shore or a boat with dry flies can be effective. 

Streamers in the afternoon and evening will boost your odds of netting a big rainbow or cutthroat.

The regulations are artificial and lure only. All browns between 14 and 20 inches need to be released. Check out the current regulations for any updates.

The best flies for Delaney Butte Lakes

  • Wooly Buggers in blood red, brown, and olive in # 4-#12
  • Dragonfly imitation in #4-#12
  • Crawfish imitation in #2-#10

Be sure to stock up on midges and streamers.

Spinney Mountain Reservoir

South Park holds one of the best reservoirs around. Spinney Mountain Reservoir has a leg up on the competition since it’s on the South Platte River.

This is a great lake to test your skills on northern pike along with the usual trout suspects.

Toss a mouse or duckling pattern early, and you might find a toothy pike on the other end.

Mornings are the best time to fish Spinney. It gets super windy in the afternoons. 

Time spent at Spinney is time well spent. It’s one of the best alpine lake experiences in the nation. Averaging a 3-pound catch weight is common, meaning real monsters are hiding out.

Check out the current regulations before hitting the water.

Spinney Mountain Reservoir also earned a spot on our listing of Colorado’s best all-around fishing lakes for big trout.

The best flies for Spinney Mountain Reservoir

  • Poxyback Calebaetis #14-#16,
  • Candyshop callebaetis in #14-#16,
  • Zebra midges-black in #10-#14 
  • Leeches, black, brown in #8-#16
  • Mayers Radiant Jig Leech in black, brown, olive in #14-#16  
  • Morrish May in #14
  • Amy’s Ants-all colors in #12-#14  

Steamboat Lake

Here’s your chance to catch Snake River Cutthroat. Steamboat Lake is a long four hours from Denver, meaning it’s lightly pressured. 

Rainbows, tigers, browns, cutthroats and brookies can all be caught throughout the year. Historically the brookies aren’t very common, though the CPW has been planting them in recent years.

The conditions at Steamboat Lake are ideal for growing big trout. Bugs and crayfish keep the fish well fed.

That said, fish near the dam with crayfish imitations in #4-#8. There are always a few beasts holding near the dam.

Steamboat Lake holds some of the biggest trout in Colorado. It’s a long drive, but it’ll pay off with giant fish.

The best flies for Steamboat Lake

  • RS2 in olive or gray #20-#24
  • Wooly Buggers – Olive, Black in #4-#12
  • Chernobyl Ant in #8-#14
  • Griffith’s Gnat White in #18-#22

Mouse patterns should be with you if fishing ice-off.

Lake John

Lake John is a short drive from Walden, in north-central Colorado. The access to the lake is fantastic, with plenty of opportunities for camping and lodging. 

Rainbows, cutthroats, and browns thrive in this fishery. Targeting them with streamers will be productive. 

Toss some crayfish imitations, leech patterns, and Wooly Buggers. Early and late might call for a dry fly. The trout tend to come up for an evening snack.

This lake would make for a good combo trip with the North Platte River listed among the best streams above.

The best flies for Lake John

  • Woolly Bugger in #4-#12
  • RS II in #12-#20
  • Stimulator in #6-#12

These will bring in some of the more wary trout in the lake.