Angling for solitude: Fryingpan, Roaring Fork lure wintertime fishing fans
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
BASALT – A dreary, indecisive sky spits the occasional snowflake into the dark, gurgling waters of the Fryingpan River. Dollops of snow cling precipitously to boulders ringed with ice in the shallows. Across the river, the current cuts close to the snowy bank, where a tangle of willows juts from the crunchy mantle, leafless and lifeless but for a bustling chickadee.
Matt Jensen of Grand Junction stands ankle deep in the river, casting methodically to a fat rainbow trout lurking beneath the surface, oblivious to a leaping fish just upstream from his position. The trout arcs gracefully from the water once, and then a second time, in a splash of outrageous color. So much for the notion that fish grow lethargic when the mercury plummets.
“When most people are hitting the slopes, I’m hitting the river,” said Jensen, his gaze locked on his quarry. In an instant, his rod bows sharply, then snaps upright as an empty line hurls skyward. “Aw!!”
A year-round angler, Jensen makes the two-plus-hour drive from his Western Slope home to the Fryingpan regularly. When it comes to fishing, he insists he’ll take a nippy afternoon in January over a balmy July day when reckless trout smack the surface of the fabled river.
“I’ve caught the biggest fish in the winter,” he explained, quickly rattling off a memorable date: Jan. 10, 2007. That’s when Jensen says he landed a 29 1/2-inch rainbow that stretched the tape to an unfathomable 24 inches around its midsection.
“The colder the better” isn’t the mantra most avid anglers espouse, but for those who bundle up and resign themselves to periodically clearing ice from the line guides on their rod, the attraction to winter fly-fishing transcends the prospect of lunker trout. They’re hooked on the solitude.
“For people who really like to find solitude, it’s one of the few times of year that you can,” said Dave Johnson, owner of Crystal Fly Shop in Carbondale.
The sale of one-day and five-day fishing licenses in Colorado – the likely choices for vacationers who intend to fish a few days during their stay – confirms the relative lack of crowds. Last year, the state Division of Wildlife recorded the sale of 1,600 one- and five-day licenses during the month of December. January’s total was 1,834 and February saw 1,953 sales of the short-term fishing licenses. The three winter months were easily the slowest of the year.
In July, on the other hand, Colorado sold 77,961 one- and five-day licenses statewide, followed by 59,995 license sales in August.
Winter fishing, by all accounts, is limited to a fraction of the locals and tourists who hit area rivers the rest of the year.
Area flyshops generally peg wintertime business at perhaps 10 percent of their annual total, though Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt puts the percentage at less than 25 percent.
“Winter is not perceived as a traditional time to go fishing. People don’t even know there is fishing in the winter,” said Will Sands, manager at Taylor Creek. “From a business standpoint, we’re always encouraging people to try it – to get that mental block out of their head. The fact that the fish have to feed every day means we can go fishing every day.”
“I always tell people when they call, we’re flexible,” said Chris Lemons at Aspen Flyfishing. “If it’s going to be 20 degrees and snowing, it’s not going to be for everyone.”
That said, anecdotes of great fishing in miserable weather are every bit as commonplace as the fish tales spawned in more pleasant conditions. Embellishments aside, fishing in the heart of January isn’t necessarily torturous.
For one thing, a few hours in the middle of the day are an angler’s best bet. There’s no need to claim a hole before the morning’s coffee has kicked in or park there until twilight. And, the fish tend to congregate in slow, deep pools where the water is warmest.
“You can have days when you make 10 casts and catch 10 fish,” Lemons said. “You can catch quite a few big fish. They’re not as spooky as they are in the summer.”
“You can have a phenomenal day in January,” Johnson agreed. “You can find a hole that nobody’s fished for a month. You can have a 20-, 30-fish day.”
On the first Wednesday in January, Andrew Belvan of Loveland has a deep bend in the Fryingpan all to himself. He has fished the river before, but never in the dead of winter. He’s bundled up in layers that finish with waders, a hooded jacket, neck gaiter and gloves that expose only the fingers of his right hand.
The tiny flies – mostly nymph patterns intended to resemble small, underwater insects – are a challenge to tie onto a line for the nimble-fingered even when the temperature isn’t hovering around freezing.
“I’ve always heard that the Fryingpan is a great river to fish in winter,” said Belvan, who made the trip to see for himself.
The lower Pan, fed by Ruedi Reservoir, remains a constant 40 degrees or so for the first few miles below the dam. The relatively sunny stretch near the dam generally remains ice-free, while a string of frigid nights can lock up the lower Fryingpan and much of the nearby Roaring Fork River in ice.
“The water’s actually warmer than the air,” said Belvan, who reeled in the occasional trout for his efforts.
Mike Calcaterra, a New Castle resident and fishing guide for Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt, was fishing right below the dam on his day off.
“This is probably the best time to fish,” he said from his perch above the legendary Plunge Pool, aka “the toilet bowl,” as the swirling eddy where the Fryingpan tumbles from the spillway at the base of the dam is known. On a summer day, anglers will queue up for a chance at the pool, but on this day, Calcaterra has it to himself. “How often does that happen?” he mused.
January and February are his favorite months to fish.
“You feel like you have the whole river to yourself,” said Calcaterra, who used to ski until he decided he wasn’t crazy about the crowds. “I come out here, it’s a lot more peaceful.”
The last week of December also found him on the Fryingpan. The snow was piling up on his shoulders, but the fishing was stellar. Snow isn’t a deterrent, but when the daytime temperatures don’t inch above 10 degrees, Calcaterra draws the line.
Because the dam-fed Pan makes for consistently fishable water, the long, wide stretch below the structure – dubbed The Flats – can still draw a dozen or more anglers on a warm winter day. A fisherman (or woman) would be hard-pressed to find that many people – or even, any other people – on any given January day on the Roaring Fork.
Harry Lynk of Aspen took a break from his job making snow on Aspen Mountain to fish the Roaring Fork at the lower end of Snowmass Canyon in early January. He tries to fish a couple of times a week; on this day, he is standing in a promising hole – one he won’t bother with later in the season.
“I don’t usually fish it in the summer just because it gets so much pressure,” he explained. “There’s probably at least two or three people here every day in the summer. Now, I might be the first guy in here in two days.”
Woody Creek resident Bill Dinsmoor will step out to fish the upper Roaring Fork near his home year-round, but he says he’s more likely to catch “the big guys” in the wintertime, when the normally wary fish see far less fishing pressure.
Still, Dinsmoor is quick to put winter fishing in perspective: “It can be fricking cold out there.”
“If the fishing is good, it’s fun. Otherwise, it’s just cold feet,” agreed Jeff Dysart, a manager at Roaring Fork Anglers in Glenwood Springs.
The Roaring Fork can be virtually locked in snow and ice in the Aspen area during the coldest winter months, but the stretch below Carbondale sees enough sunshine to make midday float trips enjoyable on many winter days.
Aspen-area resident Cheryl Towning spent a couple of pleasant hours in early January hiking along the Roaring Fork as it flows into Glenwood Springs with Crystal Fly Shop’s Johnson.
“The scenery is really beautiful. That’s one of the best things about it,” she said.
The duo also landed 10 fish or so in 90 minutes of fishing.
After Towning departed, Johnson struck out on his own, encountering another oft-cited attraction to wintertime angling – wildlife. Three bull elk along the river caught Johnson by surprise.
Bald eagles flying low over the water and perched in the trees are a regular sight on both the Roaring Fork and the Fryingpan, and anglers might catch a glimpse of the bighorn sheep that call the Fryingpan Valley home.
Or, they may just see exactly what they came for – a lot of trout.
Two clients out with a Roaring Fork Anglers guide on the second weekend in January landed 23 fish between them in a few hours of fishing, Dysart reported.
“That’s as good as it gets in the summertime,” he said.
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