Written by: Ryan McSparran, Peak Outfitter Marketing
In part one of this series, we looked at the types of water found in Colorado’s high country wilderness areas. From small streams to beaver ponds and alpine lakes, there is a variety of waters, each with its own set of challenges and opportunities. Here we’ll discuss wilderness access, so let’s jump in.
With only a few exceptions, wilderness areas are open to the public, offering priceless opportunities to visitors. Access to most wilderness areas in Colorado is as easy as finding a trailhead. Wilderness units can border private land, so access may not be available everywhere along the boundary. But from any public access point, including state or federal lands, established trailheads, or public campgrounds, visitors are free to explore. Always carry a map and compass and/or GPS. It is your responsibility to know where private-land boundaries exist, and to avoid trespassing.
Fly-fishing opportunities can exist from wilderness boundaries to the remote interiors. As a general rule, the harder an area is to reach, the less fishing pressure it receives. In our home waters in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, we find that the most remote lakes and streams can be the most rewarding. With very little pressure, trout tend to be less wary and eager to take a fly. In some remote locations, we also find opportunities for larger native cutthroat and brook trout.
Reaching these waters leaves anglers with a couple of options. Travel in wilderness areas is restricted to foot or horseback only. No motorized vehicles or bicycles are allowed. While car camping along the wilderness boundary might be convenient, day hikes will limit your distance from the trailhead.
Instead, anglers can either backpack into more remote areas on foot, or travel on horseback. Of course this is where we’d offer our shameless self-promotion for horseback expeditions to some of Colorado’s most spectacular streams and Lakes.
But however you choose to travel, staying mobile is the best strategy. Mark trails on your maps and then mark the bodies of water that you’re most interested in fishing. Planning a loop that passes a variety of waters will make for a memorable adventure.
Most wilderness areas in Colorado are accessible by mid-June. Immediately after ice-off can be a great time to land large fish as they scour shorelines for drowned insects and worms from the runoff. By the second week in July, dry-fly fishing will have turned on in the high country and will remain active through early September, or the first hard freeze.
One of the advantages of early-season wilderness fishing is even less pressure than normal. Trails receive their heaviest use between the 4th of July and Labor Day. Exploring these waters in June gives you the first crack at hungry trout. The downsides, however, are higher water levels from runoff and the potential for a muddy experience. Before leaving, you may want to contact the nearest Forest Service office to check the condition of roads and trails you intend to travel.
As temperatures rise and runoff levels subside in early to mid-July, insect activity will begin to peak. Although wilderness traffic is highest during midsummer, even a busy day inside a wilderness boundary will look uninhabited compared to an urban state park or a popular campground. And the period from mid-July until at least Labor Day is arguably the best fishing of the year.
Fall in Colorado can be an excellent time to fish, but the weather can be unpredictable and access more difficult. Depending on early snowfall and temperatures, the fishing will often remain steady well into October. However, by that time most campgrounds are closed and unmaintained Forest Service roads can become impassable with snow. If you plan a fall fishing trip, bring a good set of tire chains and be prepared for any weather. A dry road on the way to the trailhead could be a mess before you leave.
Fly-fishing Colorado’s wild backcountry is a wonderful opportunity that’s easy to do. Our nation’s wilderness areas are treasures that we should enjoy and share with our children. The only hard part is getting from the trailhead to the beautiful waters of the remote wilderness interior. But that’s half of the adventure!
Ryan McSparran operates Peak Outfitter Marketing, in Colorado.