From the desk of Mike Kruse:
I thought it might be helpful to those of you planning, or thinking about, going on the Colorado trip to have a bit more detailed information to assist you with planning. I'll cover some basics of logistics here and provide more details on fishing later in the post.
We're headed to "western Colorado" but in case you are just hearing about this, we're taking a trip to the northeast side of the Flat Tops area. Much of it is in the White River National Forest, but some is part of the Medicine-Bow/Routt National Forest. To the south and west of our campground is designated wilderness, but the combination of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management ownership provides fishing opportunities that radiate in essentially all directions. How far is it? Punch in Yampa, Colorado in Google or your GPS. A very long day's drive, but a day and a half or two is a better choice (see below).
The area we're headed to is the Bear River valley in the headwaters of the Yampa River (Medicine-Bow/Routt National Forest). There are developed and dispersed camping areas all up and down the valley, but none are reservable. Our intention is to stay in the Bear Lake Campground (https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/mbr/recarea/?recid=23030). This is a nice, developed camping area with potable water, "long drop" toilets, tables, bear proof storage boxes and trash containers. It is adjacent to "Bear Lake" (shown as Upper Stillwater Reservoir or Yampa Reservoir on some maps). It's a trout filled body of water. If you are easily amused, you could spend days fishing the lake, or the stretch of Bear River adjacent to the campground.
Bear Lake campground is located at approximately 9,700'. It's a pleasant place to get away from the late summer heat of Missouri, but it is typical mountain weather: highly changeable. Typically, summer mornings begin clear and cool (if not cold). Warming progresses into comfortable late morning conditions. After lunch, thunderstorms often develop and brief squalls of thunderstorms are common in the afternoon. Keep raingear and a warm jacket handy. Sleeping bags rated to 40 are fine for warm sleepers. Others may want a heavier bag or extra clothes.
If you have not spent time at high elevation, plan on taking it easy for the first 2-3 days. Don't push yourself too hard, stay hydrated and listen to your body. Elevation sickness isn't usually serious, but it can be very unpleasant. Spend your first night in Limon, CO or Denver (both about 5,300'). It breaks up the drive nicely and helps ease you into elevation. Those Colorado craft beers are awesome, but they hit alot harder on flat landers that aren't acclimated, so beware.
Bear Lake campground is 11 miles southwest of Yampa, CO. Yampa is a funky little place that retains a little of the old west flavor that "ski resort Colorado" has erased. Main street isn't paved and the bases of the light poles bear the brand marks of local ranches. Montgomery's General Mercantile is my favorite place in town. It's an authentic general store where you can get pretty much anything you need. The Antler is a cool bar and restaurant on main street. There's gas, a liquor store, a diner, a motel, a post office and a Forest Service office. If you need something major like a new tent, a Sage rod, or a new catalytic converter, you'll need to drive to Steamboat Springs, another 40 minutes up the road where there are fly shops, the Big Agnes headquarters, a Wal-Mart and all the bars, restaurants, motels etc. you could ever need.
Much of the 11 miles between Yampa and Bear Lake Campground is on Forest Road 600. It's a maintained gravel road, but due to rather heavy use, can be extensively washboarded. You can drive it in any vehicle, but the less rugged your ride, the slower you'll go. In addition, some of the places you'll want to fish require some ground clearance. If you drive a Corolla, by all means, load up the tent and head west. Just take your time on FR 600 and bum a ride in my Tacoma to Lost Anchor Lake.
Pretty much every kind of trout habitat you can name is found within an hour's drive of Yampa. Next month I'll get more specific about the fishing spots and spill a few beans on where to go.
We really have too many potential fishing options to list here, but I'll provide some brief descriptions of the major ones. Some of the names have been changed to protect a few spots from too much attention. But I promise, if you show up and want to fish any of them, I will help you find them and give you some ideas on how to proceed. Keep in mind I am writing this months in advance, so weather, water levels and who knows what else could make some areas unfishable by the time we arrive.
The Bear River Valley
This is the valley we are camping in In all honesty, you could never leave the valley for your entire trip and easily have plenty of options for good fishing.
Obviously, this is the Bear River watershed. No, wait. Believe it or not, when the Bear River flows through the town of Yampa, it miraculously transforms itself into the Yampa River. At any rate, there's normally alot of snow at the top of the watershed and as a result, three large lakes that store runoff for downstream uses dominate the valley.
Starting at the top is Stillwater Reservoir (129 acres), then Bear Lake (620 acres-listed acreage, but seems too big...), then Yamcola Reservoir (175 acres). Stillwater is a cutthroat fishery. You can catch 'em on dries, streamers, nymphs, dry dropper... They run about 12-16" on average. Water levels fluctuate here, so its pretty easy shoreline access in the drawdown zone. Bear is the next lake and also the lake we're camping next to, so you can grab your rod at any time and fish it from camp. Rainbow, brook, cutthroat, brown trout and supposedly mountain whitefish are found here. It's managed purely for recreation so the lake level is kept constant. There are extensive areas of aquatic vegetation and lots of invertebrates. Seems like there are often fish rising. There's decent shoreline access in a few areas, but shoreline vegetation makes access less available than Stillwater. A float tube, kayak, canoe or any small hand-launched boat turns this lake into a really fun fishery. Yamcola is the last big lake. It shoulders much of the downstream water delivery needs, so it's often very low by late summer. But it's full of fish too and you can pretty much go wherever you want in the drawdown zone. If the lake level is high enough to use it, there's a concrete boat ramp.
So what about Bear River itself? Well, it's a fine mountain trout stream with 3 distinctly different stretches. Between Stillwater Reservoir and Bear Lake is a beautiful meandering meadow reach. It's a pretty spot, casting room is abundant and so it's popular with fly anglers. Between Bear Lake and Yamcola is a shorter stretch with alot more gradient that's adjacent to the Bear Lake Campground and another easy walk-to spot from camp. Then below Yamcola is a long stretch of riffle/pool/run water all the way to the Forest boundary. It's pretty brushy, but if you can manage the casting challenges, there are good fish to be caught. Browns predominate, but all species are present.
There are a number of other fishing options in the valley. In the Cold Spring Campground, a couple miles up from Bear Lake, there is a crystal clear, spring-fed pond of a couple acres. It holds rainbows that have a PhD in midge identification. It's a fun spot with very visible fish. Gardner Park Reservoir is a short, rough, drive off Road 900 that holds rainbows and an easily accessible shoreline. The Black, Twin, Slide and Mud Mandall lakes are hike-in destinations up the hill from Bear Lake that hold brook and cutthroat trout. With backpacking gear and preparations, the Flat Tops hold too many fisheries to list. Have fun exploring!
Stagecoach Reservoir - 15 minutes north from Yampa is Stagecoach Reservoir. It's an impoundment of the Yampa, River and also the site of a State Park. At 820 acres, it hosts alot of water recreation, but large areas are "no wake" so quiet fishing is easy to find. Yes, you CAN fish from shore, but any kind of watercraft helps immensely, you just need to get beyond the weed beds. The Yampa arm is the place to start, and you don't need to go far offshore. Expect 14-20" rainbows to predominate, with the odd big brown or tippet shearing northern pike thrown in. Damselfies, chironomids, crayfish--typical lake fodder--create fast growing, hard fighting fish. 2X tippet is usually about right. The fish here are very good eating.
Crosho Lake - This interesting spot is 25 minutes west of Yampa. The road gets narrow, kinda steep, and a bit rough, so drive a vehicle with ground clearance and get out of there before the road gets wet. It's a good spot to fish on foot because there's easy walking and endless backcasting room.The fish, in my experience, are mostly cutthroats that like to cruise around picking off random insects from the surface. However, it is known as a reliable grayling spot. A recent article in the Denver Post comparing Colorado grayling fisheries had the following to say about Crosho:
"Crosho Lake, a 50-acre impoundment in the Yampa River drainage west of Yampa, fills an intermediate niche in the world of Colorado grayling – good numbers of medium-sized fish, generally 12 to 14 inches. The limit is two grayling over 16 inches, tantamount to catch-and-release." Someone needs to figure out how to catch those grayling for me.
And then there's the lake we shall call "Lost Anchor Lake." Like Crosho, you'll want a pickup or SUV to get here. You'll also have to hoof it a mile or so from the parking lot. But this spot is full of some of the biggest, hardest fighting fish in the Flat Tops. An average rainbow is 17" and 20" fish are pretty much a daily occurrence. There are cutthroats too, of similar sizes. If you are a little lucky, you'll catch one of the jumbo brook trout that can also reach the 20" mark. You CAN fish from the bank, but it is well worth the extra effort to pack in a float tube. You should definitely find time for this spot.
Rivers and Streams
Let's start with the Yampa. From our perspective there are two main sections worth discussing. First, and closest to the town of Yampa, is the Stagecoach Reservoir tailwater. There's a short, easily accessible, habitat-improved reach immediately below the dam, then down a rough road past some private land is the area known as "Sarvis" for the Sarvis Creek tributary that also hosts a popular hiking trail. The tailwater is one of the prettiest stretches of trout stream in Colorado and it holds some very nice rainbows, browns and a few brook trout. Because of the fine fish population, the scenery, and the proximity to Steamboat Springs, the tailwater sees alot of angling pressure. But if you catch it on a lighter use day when the fish are a bit more relaxed, get ready for a memorable experience.
The other important reach of the Yampa is in Steamboat Springs. There is a truly remarkable fishery here, but there are some things to know. First, much of the public water is IN TOWN or just outside of town. So, yes, there will be other anglers. The other important feature is that in low runoff years, this reach can get very warm and is closed to all recreation. When flows are good, here come the inner tubers. Lots of them. The WalMart sells cheap tubes by the semi load (I verified this). So, hopefully we will have good water and can fish here, but if so, plan on fishing early or late or on the Chuck Lewis Wildlife Area where tubing isn't allowed. But when it all comes together, there aren't many rivers in the west that can match the Yampa's fish population.
There is also floatable water downstream around Hayden where trout are in low numbers, but large size. Bring the meat rod and big streamers for that trip. Finally, there's a short stretch of public water immediately above Stagecoach Reservoir that can be worth a look.
The Colorado River. The iconic river of the American west. It's about a 30 minute drive south of Yampa. One of my personal favorites, the Colorado flows through a mid-elevation landscape of red rock canyons adorned with pinion pine and juniper. Throw in stretches of ranchland hay fields and a backdrop of snow capped peaks and you have the definition of a western fly fishing setting. It's a big river and while there are several places to "wade" fish, you usually don't venture far from shore. Floating is the preferred approach. I'll have a boat. We'll float the good banks stripping streamers or drifting a hopper dropper and waiting for a brown snout. Or take our time circling the big foam eddies to spot the careful rises of big rainbows feasting on the morning hatch. Someone else bring lunch and I'll row. Don't fight over the front seat.
If small streams are your preference, there are a couple good tributaries of the Colorado I can point you towards. The "Lion" creek is a bit of a drive, but the drive itself is a spectacular trip along the Colorado River. It's a cool, bouldery creek full of mostly willing brownies. "Cliff Creek" requires a capable 4WD vehicle, or a longish walk. It seems to provide some thermal refuge/spawning habitat for Colorado River fish, so its not unusual for 15"-18" fish to inhabit spots where you'd expect fish half that size.
Hopefully, a few spots have perked your interest here. The key to enjoying this trip will be to manage your expectations and be willing to adapt where or how you fish to the prevailing conditions. There's lots of water to explore and enjoy. I hope you can make it out!