The mines are closed; the hatches are back and the trout are thriving in Colorado's Eagle River.
The first time I visited Vail, Colorado, I met a fly-fishing guide who pulled up his sleeve, exposing a 6-inch cut on his forearm just above the wrist. He had been guiding earlier that week, and while he was on a bridge spotting fish for his client, an out-of-control skier ran over him. It took a bunch of stitches to sew the guide back together.
That's not a story you're likely to hear on many trout streams, but it illustrates how the great fishing on Colorado's Eagle River and its tributary Gore Creek is intertwined with the state's most popular ski resort community. The high-mountain snowpack that provides moguls and powder for skiers creates a cold, clear wild-trout fishery with good fishing year-round.
While swank hotels and multi-million-dollar homes along the river don't provide a wilderness setting, they're a big step up from the mining industries of a few decades ago that scarred the upper Eagle River's landscape and leaked heavy metals and toxins into the river. The Vail area is thriving now, and the trout fishing keeps getting better. Despite rapid growth in the river valley over the last decade, fish populations and sizes have increased steadily.
Vail, Colorado, and the surrounding area may seem like a haven for the rich and famous, but there are plenty of public access areas, campgrounds, and fast-food joints for the rest of us. The Eagle River is a patchwork of public, private, and what I call "de facto" public and private water. I call some sections "de facto" public because, while the river there is privately owned, the owners don't mind if you fish it, or they don't regulate access. Some local golf courses, timeshare properties with river frontage, and other angler-friendly properties are examples. These areas are not marked on maps, but the local guides know where they are. Do not go on private property unless you know you are welcome. If you are unsure, fish somewhere else.
The "de facto" private land is public land that is difficult to access because adjacent landowners sometimes cause trouble for anglers and others trying to use the land. Local fly shops can identify these spots for you. My advice is to avoid trouble in all instances and go somewhere else if you anticipate a conflict. There is plenty of good water around.
You can float the Eagle River from Avon down to the confluence of the Colorado River, when there's enough water (late May-July), but don't try it without an experienced oarsman and a white-water self-bailing raft. The Eagle has fast white-water chutes, boulder gardens, and Class II to IV rapids. Do not attempt to float the Eagle with a fiberglass drift boat or a one-man pontoon boat.
The Best Fishing
Areas of the upper Eagle River (above Gore Creek) were once nearly barren of trout due to mine pollution. The sources of contamination have been cleaned up, but heavy metals and other pollutants still remain in the river. While this stretch is slowly healing, the best trout fishing is downstream, from Gore Creek to the Colorado River near Gypsum.
From Gore Creek down to Avon, the river is mostly a brown-trout fishery, with a small number of rainbows and a few cutthroats, cuttbows, and brook trout (mostly near small tributaries). Between the towns of Avon and Wolcott, browns and rainbows are an even mix, and downstream from there, it's rainbow city.
It's interesting that the highest concentrations of brown trout are close to the mine contamination in lower Gore Creek and the upper Eagle. Rainbows are more prevalent away from the Superfund site, in upper Gore Creek, and the lower Eagle. Maybe it's because brown trout have a higher resistance to pollutants than rainbow trout.
The average Eagle trout is 12 to 14 inches long, but you can regularly hook bigger fish in the prime feeding stations. Trout up to 16 inches are common, and you may see the occasional 18-incher, but that's about as big as they get. I think these are the perfect trout--perfectly sized, perfectly spotted, strong, and each one as beautiful as the mountainous backdrop.
The Eagle River is an undammed, free-flowing river, with flows ranging from 140 cubic feet per second (cfs) to more than 3,000 cfs at Gypsum during runoff. Anglers who can find fish can catch them during any season, but certain seasons are better than others. Para-Lime Coachman
During ski season, the river is usually low and the fish stack up in the deep water. During winter cold spells, some parts of the river freeze, but open water remains in predictable places--riffles, pocketwater, and fast runs. The fly shops do a booming guide business in winter. Air temperatures generally range from 25-40 degrees and fishing is easy with a strike indicator, a pair of small nymphs, and some split-shot. Midges hatch during the warmest parts of the day, and afternoons usually provide the best fishing. Flies
Eagle River trout live in a fast, bouldery river. When something passes overhead, they have precious little time for inspection. Your dry-fly selection should include a mix of upwing and downwing patterns that imitate but don't exactly match caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies.
For some reason, Eagle River trout prefer flies with green in them. Peacock-body #14-#16 Elk-hair Caddis, #12-#16 Lime Trudes, #16-#18 Royal Wulffs, #18 Renegades, and #8-#16 Olive Stimulators will cover most summer situations.
My favorite searching pattern is the Para-Lime Coachman, a mostly green pattern with a white parachute post for easy visibility. Bill Perry of Fly Fishing Outfitters in Avon showed me the fly. I've found it works great during spring and summer caddis hatches.
In spring and fall use #18-#20 Blue-winged Olives and #18-#20 Griffith's Gnats. Anything with peacock herl is a killer. Size #6-#16 Prince Nymphs, #12-#18 Pheasant Tail Nymphs, and #12-#18 Olive WD-40s are especially effective. When the trout are spawning in spring (rainbows) and fall (browns), a chartreuse micro-egg can provide outstanding fishing. It doesn't match the natural eggs, but the fish jump all over it.
Before and after the ski season, the tourist traffic wanes. October/November and March/April are probably the best times to fish the Eagle. In spring, midge hatches intensify and the trout begin to eat dry flies. The water is still low and clear, and the fish are spooky, so it takes an overcast day to bring them up on top. Snow or light drizzle can help.