Fly Fishing the Roaring Fork River
The Roaring Fork River is a freestone stream in the Roaring Fork Valley. The “Fork” as it’s commonly known, starts outside of Aspen in the White River National Forest and makes its way north for 70 miles where it meets the Colorado River in the town of Glenwood Springs. The Roaring Fork starts as small water in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness area and continues to grow in size and volume with help from major tributaries like the Crystal and Frying Pan Rivers. Also great fisheries! Along it’s 70 mile path, the Fork drops over 5,000 feet of elevation eventually joining the Colorado River on its quest for the Gulf of California in northwest Mexico. Though you are reading this for intel on fly fishing the Roaring Fork, this mighty river and the valley it rests in is also popular for rafting, hiking, hunting, biking and of course skiing.
The Fork can be fished from top to bottom with generous public access along its entirety. Please respect private property otherwise. Most every fishing location is a short drive off of Highway 82 which is the main way in and out of the Roaring Fork Valley from Interstate 70 in Glenwood Spring. From its headwaters outside of Aspen to the town of Basalt, the upper Roaring Fork is known for its high gradient pocket pools, nice sized browns and rainbows and small stream approach. This section is ideal wading and extremely scenic thanks to the surrounding peaks and abundance of aspen, pine and fir trees. The Woody Creek area is an Element Flies favorite especially with our friends Aspen Outfitting located in Woody Creek proper. Stop by in the warm months for up-to-date fishing reports and flies!
The Roaring Fork grows in stature by the town of Basalt thanks to an influx of water from a famous Colorado tailwater, the Frying Pan River. Here is where you can start thinking about putting in a raft when snowmelt begins in the Spring when the Frying Pan swells from releases of large quantities of H2O from Ruedi Reservoir. This can be as early as March and normally ends in around late April or early May. The Basalt to Carbondale stretch of the Roaring Fork is also a four season fishery with ample opportunities for fishing all three ways (dry, nymph, streamer) any month of the year.
Probably the most popular stretch of the Roaring Fork is from Carbondale to Glenwood Springs. This area is accessible by bank or by boat and has many public stretches to launch your boat or walk and wade. The float season is longer on this stretch as the river grows even further in size with help from a local tributary, the Crystal River. The trout numbers increase as does the native whitefish and bug activity can be solid any day of the year. The lower elevation boasts warmer air temps than it’s upper reaches making for more comfortable fishing on Winter days. Summer months are probably the most popular though as bug activity through this stretch is optimal. The shoulder seasons should not be ignored though, especially the Fall when the Aspens are their brightest shades of yellow, normally the third week of September.
Speaking of the different seasons on the Roaring Fork, all four can be fished and the Fork is a great place to do so. Whether upper or lower on the river, there are fly fishing opportunities all year round. In the Winter, less people fly fish the upper stretches because the main activity is skiing at this point. The steeper sections also don’t see as much direct sun so the feeding window can be small. Because of surface and anchor ice, spots can be hard to come by during the coldest months but a warm week will have open water, especially towards Basalt. Below Basalt, warmer flows from the Frying Pan helps keep too much ice off the surface and bugs active. The lower stretch from Carbondale to Glenwood is the most promising for open water and active bugs. Any day can bring solid Blue Winged Olive activity and the trout are never late for a meal of midges if BWOs don’t want to show that day.
The Aspen to Basalt stretch is best left alone in the Spring when snow is melting and the flows are cranking. There are a few longer stretches that aren’t as high gradient and the clarity is always best by the headwaters but these stretches are few and far between. Early Spring is great for the top most stretch from March to April. Basalt and down has bountiful midge hatches in early Spring and great worm and stonefly fishing when the water gets dirty in May and June. There are enough long runs with soft inside and outside bends from Basalt to the Colorado River to dedicate time. Bigger, flashier patterns and streamers are a fun choice during Springtime.
Summer fishing kicks off with the most anticipated hatch of the season, the Green Drakes. Even with higher flows, Roaring Fork trout will move out of their lies for a tasty top water morsel. These big bugs are a high caloric meal that fish toss all caution to the wind for. No matter where you fish on the RF, green drakes are present with the dry fly activity mostly at dusk. Fish the day with drake nymphs and swung flies to whet your appetite until it’s time for foam and floatant. The river flow descends as Summer progresses and many more bugs show up on the surface including Pale Morning Duns, Yellow Sallys and many varieties of Caddis. Terrestrials are always an option in July, August and early September. A smattering of Golden Stones, Salmonflies, Red Quills and Tricos round out the mix and prove the health of this stream with it’s cornucopia of bug life. Top to bottom, the Roaring Fork fishes wonderfully in the Summer.
Autumn on the Fork should not be overlooked. Besides the phenomenal scenery of changing Aspen trees and Scrub Oak, most river recreation has ceased and a number of the fly fishing population is hiking in the woods with rifle or bow. Though the leaves can be a nuisance on windy days, streamer season has opened and fish eat well to fatten for the coming cold months. As the diet thins, the bugs turn back to tiny midges and BWOs. Eggs join the menu as the brown trout spawn. Please respect our spawning trout by avoiding redds while wading and not fishing to spawning fish. Weather is spotty this time of year so keep your eyes on the forecast. Changes in weather can mess with the bite so call your local fly shop in advance like Hookers in Glenwood Springs. Chances are, if the fishing is hit or miss on the Roaring Fork, the Frying Pan or Colorado River is fishing great and nobody knows better than our friends at Hookers.
If you are visiting from afar and can only bring one fly rod, a 9’0” five weight will suffice with a reel to match. Floating line is all that’s needed, preferably one that roll casts and mends well with accuracy in the wind. If you have the option, you can fish a 3 or 4 weight rod in the upper stretches or a 6-7 weight for chucking streamers and heavy nymph rigs in the lower. You can wet wade in the warmest months, especially in the Aspen vicinity, but are recommended otherwise. If you aren’t as stable as others a wading staff would be worth considering as the exposed rocky substrate can be slippery especially at higher flows.
Enjoy the fly fishing seasons on the Roaring Fork River and take in the different characteristics that define this gorgeous body of water. From the high gradient upper to the expansive lower, take in the beauty of the valley and the many fly fishing options the Fork has to offer. If you find yourself in Aspen or Woody Creek, make sure to pop into Aspen Outfitters for the best options of the upper river. If you are dedicated to the lower Roaring Fork, Hookers will certainly take care of all your needs for the bottom stretches of the Fork to the Colorado River. If you know what you need or would like our professional options, check out our Custom Fly Packages or order your go-to Roaring Fork patterns online.