Presented by Airflo.
One river comes to mind when thinking of small water winter fly fishing in the Colorado Rockies, Gore Creek. It flows through the world-famous ski resort of Vail in the middle of the Colorado Rockies. The watershed boasts a varied population of trout that anglers adore and the admirable designation bestowed by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a Gold Medal Fishery. Throughout the early 2000’s Gore Creek suffered from the negative effects of urbanization and the adverse effects of interstate traffic. In the past decade, Gore Creek has come back largely in due to the conservation efforts from the town of Vail. And the Gore remains one of the few easily accessible year-round watersheds in Colorado where anglers can catch the highly sought-after trout “Grand Slam”– Rainbow, Brown, Brook, and Cutthroat trout– all in one day.
How to Fly Fish Small Water in the Winter:
Winter fly fishing on Gore Creek is mainly a nymphing game. The stream is shallow at winter flow levels. Crystal clear water requires fine tippets for success and fluorocarbon gives anglers an added degree of invisibility. Lengthening your tippet is another variable that anglers can use to remain undetected. Nymphs drift more naturally, seemingly untethered on light tippet.
The best angling window falls between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., but clear sunny days can extend the warm feeding time another hour. Warm mid-day conditions dictate increased insect and trout activity. A few degrees of warmth increase the insect activity found in shallow water where trout gravitate to feed.
Cold overnight temperatures will form slush ice in the creek. This type of cold takes more time and sunlight to warm or a slow day of fishing is guaranteed. Chasing the pockets of sunlight that warm water and shallow river rock throughout the day is a productive winter approach.
There are deep holes throughout the Gore that anglers will discover with increased exploration. Knowledgeable fly fishers exploit these trout-holding depths. The deepest water will hold the largest trout during the winter season. Cast into the upstream riffle and allow your nymphs to sink in the water column and wash into the deeper downstream hole naturally. Mend frequently to maintain a natural drift presentation, not an actively swimming bug. Give your nymphs a few moments to swing toward the surface at the end of your drift which raises the bugs above active feeders positioned at the end of a hole.
Recommend Winter Fly Fishing Gear for Small Water:
Small in width and often canopied by treetops, Gore Creek works well with short rods for shallow water nymphing. The typical 9′ 5wt fly rod like a G.Loomis Asquith 905-4. And, longer rods work well for the line management game commonly found in winter fly fishing. The G.Loomis NRX+ 10′ 4wt (4100-4) Fly Rod is best suited for this. Long casts are not a necessity on the Gore in the winter. Proper line management is a necessity. Choose a rod that assists in presenting flies with proper technique and precision.
As for fly lines, Airflo’s new series of SuperFlo trout fly lines, the Universal taper, the Tactical Taper, and the Power Taper cover your bases for winter trout fishing. They handle the extreme cold temperatures associated with winter fly fishing quite well. The polyurethane lines from Airflo resist the coating of ice that robs fly lines of their performance. As a PVC-free fly line, Airflo has secured the designation of the most environmentally friendly fly lines on the market because it is PVC-free– A trait to be appreciated in a stressed watershed. PVC fly lines can leach dioxins, (toxic environmental pollutants) into the river.
Fly reels need to withstand the rigorous conditions wintertime fly fishing presents. Sealed drag reels provide the ultimate security for continued performance. Click-and-pawl type drag systems can freeze from exposure to dunking and bank snow. Open frame reels invite snow and ice to form and lock up. Reels like the San Miguel or Evolution LTX from Ross Reels work flawlessly providing superior drag systems while protecting the housing.
Recommend Small Water Winter Fly Patterns:
Big fish eat small bugs in Gore Creek during the winter months. Nymphs in sizes 18-22 are common. In the deep water midge larvae provide a constant food source all winter long. Trout will glide on currents like birds on thermals, making minimal movements to eat. This requires pinpoint presentations. Anglers that have already spotted a fish have turned the odds in their favor. Use the bright sun and shadows cast under fish to spot fish from high banks, bridges, and paths.
Popular winter flies for seducing lethargic trout are small, thin-bodied (think English Style) Pheasant Tails #16-20 and Zebra Midges #18-22 in a rainbow of colors with red, black, and olive as the top choices– but don’t be afraid to try something funky like orange or bright yellow. Top Secrets #18-20, Rainbow Warriors #18, BWO Larva #18, and Hare’s Ear Nymphs #16-18 become effective as the water warms throughout the day. And little, Black Stoneflies #14-16 can appear on any sunny winter day. A quick survey of the afternoon bankside ice and snow reveals the correct size of midges and stoneflies that anglers should imitate.
Small buggers with crystal flash or polar fiber to breathe life into dead-drifted flies. Minnows stunned in the harsh conditions drift and twitch near the river bottom. Jig-style flies ride easily along the bottom and imitate the struggling minnows that draw strikes from the most dominant fish.
Gore Creek has a massive amount of small gravel where large trout move up from the Eagle River to spawn. A chartreuse micro-egg fly bounced enticingly in the current draws the attention of hungry brown trout. Anglers can bulk up on tippet size when fishing an egg fly and trail a smaller nymph on lighter tippet.
Rigging for Success on Small Water:
When rigging up for Gore Creek and smaller rivers in general, anglers need to take into consideration the varied depths of the stream. In winter the water level is very low and clear, and bank ice limits fishable areas. Choosing the correct water is key but how you present your flies to shallow water targets is of more importance. There are myriad strike indicator choices. Knowing when and why to use different styles ensures success.
With such a varied bottom in terms of depth, anglers wanting to adjust their rigging as they fish will find the Airlock strike indicators the easiest to reposition when conditions require. Small white (new style) or clear (old style) Airlocks are inconspicuous when floating through shallow water.
Pinch on foam strike indicators will not give you the flexibility to adjust for depth. However, a pair of pinch-on foam indicators placed in the middle of a nine-foot leader gives the angler a great advantage as a shallow water nymph rig. The foam indicators will float amongst the surface bubbles and are unnoticed by educated trout. Foam indicators cast easily and land without report.
A pair of indicators will detect strikes by spinning in relation to each other when a trout eats. A single strike indicator can spin undetected by the angler. The foam indicators work when drowned in deep water too. Weights and flies that lead your rig into deep water may pull the foam indicators under but still remain highly visible and effective.
Yarn-style indicators work well but do suffer from similar faults as ball-style indicators. Undetected spinning is the number one reason for missing a strike when nymph fishing. And, yarn will spin but is more easily noticed than a round-ball style that spins.
Dialing in your rig to target a specific depth is more easily achieved using microshot placed “String-of-Pearls” style on your leader. The string of small weights equals the same total amount of weight as large BB or AB sinkers. But the weights will not hinge around small boulders the way one large sinker does. Rather, the string of weights will encounter the boulder and roll more easily over the top which reduces the chance of snagging.
Guide ProTip: Marshmallow pillows pile high in the winter on midstream boulders. Use the structure of the river to hide your wading approach when angling the deep pockets behind snow-capped boulders. High sticking your flies through deep pockets is an effective approach. The broken surface water hides anglers that are fishing in this fashion. And a few inches of added depth is all it takes to hold trout.
Where are the Grand Slam fish located?
Downstream of the junction where Red Sandstone Creek joins Gore Creek holds more rainbow and brown trout. This is also the start of the Gold Medal water on Gore Creek where rainbows and browns are the predominant fish. Anglers encounter a mix of all the trout in the Gore in the middle of Vail. The water immediately under the covered bridge on Bridge Street holds all the fish needed for a Grand Slam. And the stretch under the International Bridge, where the Go-Pro games are held, is a cool place to wet a fly.
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In East Vail (pictured above), the creek is much smaller. There are some stream improvements that anglers can exploit. Brook and Cutthroat trout inhabit the upper stretches in great numbers. And Hybrid Cuttbows exist as well, a product of both fish spawning in close proximity.
Restore the Gore: A Restored Watershed Story
Despite the degraded conditions from the developmental days of Vail, the Gore is on the mend. Vail has taken an active role in protecting and restoring Gore Creek. One aspect of Vail’s deliberate focus has been the hiring of Peter Wadden as the Watershed Education Coordinator for the Town of Vail. Pete has negotiated with private landowners and professional landscape companies to eliminate the use of foliar-applied pesticides that have for years been flowing into Gore Creek with every rainstorm, snow cloud, and springtime runoff.
The town of Vail has restored bank erosion, blocked off sensitive habitat along the banks of Gore Creek, and planted over 15,000 riparian plants in the last four years. The town of Vail has “proven you can maintain beautiful native landscapes without the chemicals and excessive water.” said Pete Wadden.
Years of sand from the Colorado Department of Transportation and Interstate 70 have been removed. Which opens the flow and restores the creek bottom. Stream improvements have enhanced bug life and addressed warming water temperatures and invasive aquatics in slow, low flow sections.
“The fishing is great,” stated Pete Wadden who praised the results of focused efforts by the town of Vail. “There are still monsters if you know where to look,” said Wadden. However, a large portion of the Gold Medal section that flows from Red Sandstone Creek to the confluence with the Eagle River is closed in winter for elk migration. Some of the deepest sections of Gore Creek are within this wintertime closure.
“Microplastics and other plastic toxins like Dioxin which leeches from PVC have become a serious problem in waters across the globe. It’s great to see Airflo taking notice of this problem and creating an innovative solution with the PVC-free fly lines.” Wadden mentioned when we discussed the PVC-free fly lines from Airflo. As anglers, we need to be good stewards of the rivers and streams.
Where to Fish Gore Creek:
Walking the paved, creekside path accesses miles of Gore Creek for fly anglers. Forty percent of the stream front is owned by the town and that gives great access to the water. Vail Valley Anglers have a Bike-and-Fish guided trip where anglers ride E-bikes along the path and stop to fish the most productive sections.
Bouncing around to different locations is the key to securing a Gore Creek Grand Slam. Utilizing parking structures, public parks, and park-and-ride lots, anglers can move freely and target specific species. Approaching Gore Creek with the goal of a Grand Slam requires knowledge of the water, where to locate specific species, and technical wintertime presentations.
Maximizing the warmth of the sun is the best approach to catching trout when fly fishing on Gore Creek in winter. Mobility is the key for searching out a Grand Slam on Gore Creek. The warmth of the sun, focused efforts at watershed improvement and tremendous access all combine to make Gore Creek a wintertime Grand Slam destination that anglers will want to explore.
Article by Michael “Sal” Salomone @mikesalomone88, a fly fishing guide and writer based in the mountains of Colorado at Vail Valley Anglers. To book a trip with Mike, contact Vail Valley Anglers online here.
Photos by Jesse Packwood.
For more information on Restore the Gore and the work Pete is putting forth check out the interview below: