The ultimate fishing lure: solitude, ‘dumb fish’

Janet Urquhart
Aspen, CO Colorado
Mark Gianinetti stalks trout on one of the creeks that cross his family's Carbondale property. The small creek yields some surprisingly big fish, but fishing there is limited to members of the Rocky Mountain Angling Club. (Janet Urquhart/Aspen Times Weekly)

Any angler hoping to have the Gold Medal trout waters of the Fryingpan River all to himself might want to head to the river during a biting November sleet. Even then, there’s a good chance he won’t be alone.

Short of owning a stretch of multimillion-dollar river frontage, most flyfishing enthusiasts accept potential crowds and savvy trout as part of the challenge, right along with low-hanging tree branches, moss-slickened rocks and the occasional impaled finger. Those intent on finding solitude will hike for miles or battle jungle-like undergrowth to reach a favorite mountain stream ” a secret spot where the trout are big, hungry or both.

There is another option.

Colorado and the Roaring Fork Valley offer no shortage of private water that is open to those willing to pay for the privilege of casting to rising trout in an idyllic setting all their own ” where the challenge is getting the proper drift, not a parking spot.

The appeal of private water isn’t lost on the Rocky Mountain Angling Club, a Front Range-based organization that has lease arrangements with property owners around Colorado, along with a few in Wyoming, that typically give its members exclusive, though limited, access to trout streams, major rivers and ponds, including property in Carbondale. New this year, club has struck a deal to fish a private stretch of the Crystal River near Redstone where the general public can also pay to fish.

Above Basalt, a mouth-watering stretch of the Fryingpan’s Gold Medal water ” a designation given the state’s top fisheries by the Colorado Division of Wildlife ” is open to the public on a limited, pay-to-play basis, while a private stretch of the Roaring Fork River is available to a limited number of anglers per day on a first-come, first-served basis for free. A private ranch along Woody Creek promises trophy trout, not to mention a shot a landing various exotic species, in its stocked ponds, while farther afield, an Avon outfitter offers outings on a truly secluded stretch of the Piney River in Eagle County, about an hour’s drive from Glenwood Springs.

The 1,800 or so members of the Rocky Mountain Angling Club ” two-thirds of them are Colorado residents ” pay a $305 initiation fee plus $95 in annual dues and a “rod fee” at each of the 51 properties now under lease to the club.

The rod fee, generally split with the landowner, ranges from $40 to $110 and averages about $60, according to the club’s website. For the landowner, the deal provides a bit of added income off the land, whether it helps pay the property tax bill or foot the cost of stocking the waters to boost the fishing experience. Club members enjoy access to waters that are typically limited to a handful of anglers per day in a state that sold more than 860,000 fishing licenses of various types last year, about half of them annual licenses that are valid year-round for Colorado residents.

Last year, the club put about 236 flyrods on the so-called Gianinetti Lease in Carbondale, where no more than four people per day are allowed to fish the catch-and-release waters. Through June of this year, the club registered 178 visits to the property, which offers a private stretch of the Roaring Fork River. It also contains a stocked pond, but the real prize is a pair of small creeks, fed mainly by a combination of springs and irrigation water, that hold some surprisingly large trout.

Mark Gianinetti and his family still own about 100 acres of the property his grandfather purchased in the 1920s near the present-day intersection of Highways 82 and 133. The land regularly attracts interest from prospective buyers ” not developers but angling enthusiasts, according to Mark. On a balmy July evening, with lightning cutting jagged bolts across the sky, one of the creeks ” a deceptively deep, winding trench through the tall, wet grass ” proves its attraction. Hefty, eager rainbows slam a dry fly as even fatter raindrops dimple the water. Gianinetti’s earlier boast ” that he pulled a 10-pound brown from these waters last fall ” is suddenly believable.

Anglers who aren’t members of the club can fish the property through Alpine Angling in Carbondale, which is a member, though they must be accompanied by a guide. Two clients on a full-day outing would have to pay the shop’s $360 guide fee, plus the $90 rod fee per angler, plus a $5 reservation fee, according to the shop’s Jeff Dysart.

South of Carbondale, a pair of private landowners have created a trout haven on the Crystal River, dubbed Redstone Preserve. The 1.5-mile stretch above the tiny town belongs primarily to Redstone residents Bill Argeros and Bob McCormick; a small piece belongs to the Redstone Inn, which manages the property.

Avid anglers themselves, Argeros and McCormick began stocking the stretch about five years ago, intent on creating a fishery unlike the rest of the Crystal, where there are no catch-and-release protections to prevent anglers from taking the trout as quickly as they’re stocked by the DOW.

“What’s happened has been really cool,” said Argeros. “The fish habitat really improved markedly once people stopped taking stringers of fish out of the river and putting them in their cooler.”

An angler might record a “grand slam” at the preserve ” netting a rainbow, cutthroat, brown and brook trout from the same waters ” including some browns that stretch the tape measure to 18-plus inches, Argeros said.

No more than four flyrods a day are allowed on the water; catch-and-release regulations are in effect and anglers must use barbless hooks. The Rocky Mountain Angling Club worked out a deal for its members, new this season, at the preserve, but Argeros and McCormick declined to give the club exclusive access. Part of their goal, Argeros explained, is to boost Redstone’s fledgling angling-based tourism.

Anglers can book a day or half-day at the preserve at the Redstone Inn; it’s $65 per full day, according to general manager Debbie Strom.

“Some people think it’s reasonable, some people can’t believe it,” she said. “The key is that we limit the number of rods every day. It’ll never be a Fryingpan.”

Certainly the crowds typical of the Pan are absent where the emerald Crystal cuts a deep swath beneath the rosy rock that gives Redstone its name, just upstream of the inn. The river takes some inward bends at the preserve, giving anglers a serene setting, distanced from Highway 133. Stealthy trout strike a caddis without warning along the far bank, across a swift current ” no easy cast. Even a swift reaction comes up empty if the line’s not sufficiently taut. The trout here may not see much pressure, but they prove worthy adversaries nonetheless.

The Fryingpan River is legendary among fly-fishers, and few have driven its length without drooling at the sight of about a mile of wide, terraced ” and often vacant ” pools spilling over rocky breaks. Property owner Doug Pruessing and fishing guide Bart Chandler created the pools on the enticing stretch, named Almost Paradise. Initially open to the general public under Pruessing’s ownership, it has been posted with “No Trespassing” signs since about 1990, though it is open to anglers who book an outing there with Chandler.

Word-of-mouth alone keeps Chandler busy. The fishing is limited to catch-and-release with a maximum of two rods a day; the fee is $575 for one person for a full day and $675 for two people (lunch is not included).

“I’ve got a waiting list through the summer and I rarely get a day off until late September,” Chandler said.

Limiting public access to Colorado’s rivers ” through a permit or lottery system, for example ” isn’t a popular concept with most anglers or wildlife managers, but such a move would dramatically improve the fishing experience, Chandler contends.

“If you want quality fishing, you have to limit access,” he said. “We’re trying to offer the experience we all knew 30 years ago when you could have a mile of river to yourself.”

On average, an angler catches about 25 trout during a day in Almost Paradise, augmented with stocked trout beyond what the DOW places in the Fryingpan.

For George and Sue Dorris of St. Louis, infrequent anglers who fished the Fryingpan last month for the first time after friends recommended Almost Paradise, were apparently rendered nearly speechless by the experience.

“In one word ” wow,” was all Sue could muster during a break in the action.

“Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic,” George added. “It would be beautiful without any fish.”

But there were plenty of fish, hitting both nymphs and striking the surface as the Dorrises traded off rods ” one rigged for nymphing and the other for dry-fly fishing.

Just beyond the boundaries of Pruessing’s property, plenty of anglers typically ply the waters. They can have a pretty good day anywhere on the lower Fryingpan, noted Will Sands at Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt, though anglers regularly inquire about private opportunities.

“Our philosophy is, all waters should be open for everybody to fish,” Sands said.

Colorado law, however, allows a landowner to hold title to a river bottom. If a landowner holds both sides of a waterway, there is no access unless the owner permits it or the river is floatable. That gives anglers access to, for example, boatable, Gold Medal stretches of the Roaring Fork River where setting foot outside the boat or even dropping anchor constitutes trespassing. The Fryingpan isn’t navigable by boat, but its ample public stretches draw anglers from near and far.

In general, private water doesn’t always mean better, according to Sands.

“Often, the trout fishing is as good on the public stretches of water as it is on the private stretches, and in some cases, it’s better, Sands said. “Having private water doesn’t equate to better fishing. It does mean having it all to yourself.”

That said, Taylor Creek manages a quasi-private angling experience on the Roaring Fork, on the Dart Property at the bottom of Snowmass Canyon. A conservation easement established by the Dart family allows up to six anglers per day to fish the stretch extending 1.1 miles up from the Old Snowmass bridge (near the Snowmass Conoco on Highway 82). The easement covers both sides of the river, allowing fly-fishing only. There is no fee; the permits are available on a first-come, first-served basis daily at the shop but can’t be reserved in advance.

It’s an excellent stretch, but the wading can be tricky, Sands advised. “Those who enjoy climbing around ” mountain goating it ” will like it,” he said.

Seven miles of private, catch-and-release water on the Piney River outside of Wolcott in Eagle County offer all the scenic solitude an angler could want. The river tumbles some 20 miles from Piney Lake to the Colorado River, crossing through a large swath of private ranchland. Guide Gabe Kennedy, with Challenge Outfitters in Avon, picks up clients at the Wolcott Yacht Club, a popular, laid-back diner, in a rickety pickup truck and lurches down a dirt road off Highway 131, bound for Piney Valley Ranch. The property boasts a two-mile stretch along the Eagle River and seven miles of the Piney that are divided into one-mile sections for guiding purposes. An angler might fish a stretch that hasn’t been fished in a week.

For an angler, that means “real dumb fish,” Kennedy said.

The river remains something of a secret and most of the clients who fish here are repeat customers, according to Kennedy.

“We could be taking out a ton of trips and still not pressure the fish,” he said.

Some days, every fish Kennedy scoops into his net is 14 or 15 inches long, and the four-species grand slam is possible here. “We have landed some fish over 20 inches,” he added.

The Piney flows clear and wide over a stone bottom on a sunny morning in early July. Worthy browns and rainbows hit either the dry fly or nymph dropper on the rod Kennedy has rigged up in virtually every riffle and pool he suggests is worth a few casts during a slow wade upstream. Agreeing to take the rod himself, Kennedy lands a hefty brown ” the biggest catch of the day.

A single angler with a guide can have a stretch of the Piney to him or herself for a half day for $200 or a full day for $350. A half-day for two people runs $300; a full day is $475.

Truly monster fish are the stuff of legend, not reality, for most anglers, but stocked trout pounds can produce lunkers that bend a rod in half.

Beaver Run Trout Ranch in the Woody Creek Valley boasts five ponds and some big trout ” a 30-pound Donaldson rainbow hangs at the ranch, said owner Floyd Watkins. “All of our fish, or most of them, are trophy.”

The guest ranch, which plays host to large-group gatherings and corporate retreats, offers far more than just fishing, but for the angler, there’s fishing in both Woody Creek and the catch-and-release ponds, including one stocked with exotic species ” Dolly Varden and arctic char, according to the ranch’s website. There’s also a put ‘n’ take pond where anglers can catch their lunch or dinner, prepared by the ranch.

The 59-acre ranch, bordered by national forest, is listed for sale for $35 million, but for the time being, an experienced angler who brings their own equipment could fish at the ranch sans guide for $150 per day, according to Watkins.

At the Bar ZX Ranch, above Paonia Reservoir on the far side of McClure Pass, anglers must be accompanied by a guide to fish for the 18 different species of trout in its numerous small lakes, according to the ranch’s website.

Fattened with food pellets, the Bar ZX trout reach trophy size, according to Dysart at Alpine Angling in Carbondale, one of the local guide services listed on the ranch’s website, along with Taylor Creek. The rod fee is $100, added onto the guide fee.

“Almost every single person I’ve ever taken in there has caught the biggest trout of their life,” Dysart said. “You will catch a 25-inch, 8- or 9-pound trout or have one on your line at least.”