COLORADO DREAMING: South Park’s All-season Playground
When most anglers picture a dream fishery, they imagine clear water, prolific hatches, large populations of trout, and a smattering of trophies all wrapped into a beautiful four-season setting. Believe it or not, this fishery exists. Just an hour and a half west of Colorado Springs in the giant valley of South Park lies a section of the South Platte River aptly referred to as the Dream Stream. This tailwater winds below Spinney Mountain Reservoir for 51/2 miles before emptying into Elevenmile Reservoir, and offers some of the finest fishing in the state.
Rainbows (the most common), cuttbows, browns, and Snake River cutthroats all call the Dream Stream home. Browns, the true gems of the river, are found throughout the year in strong numbers but are especially common in the fall. These aggressive fish have breathtaking colors and markings.
Trout migrate up from the deep waters of Elevenmile Reservoir into this section of the river to spawn and find suitable habitat to feed and reside during the summer and winter months. The spring season brings up rainbows, cutthroats, and cuttbows, while the fall draws in the browns. The summer and winter months offer a variety of all four species. The Dream Stream has healthy aquatic life and great hatches that support the large migratory trout.
Because the distance between the two reservoirs is minimal, anglers can cover the water thoroughly for these magnificent trout. The river is relatively narrow, 20 to 30 feet wide in most places, and the flows rarely exceed 300 cubic feet per second (cfs), making it perfect for easy wading and challenging sight-fishing.
For years the Dream Stream had natural flows, long riffled runs, and large dry-fly eddies that provided great year-round habitat for resident river fish. However, due to severe erosion through the stream’s natural course, the Colorado Division of Wildlife erected man-made structure in 1993—immediately downstream of Spinney Dam—followed by increased instream construction through November 2004 on the upper section of the river. Today, the only stretch of the Dream Stream that flows naturally is 11/2 miles of its lower section pouring into Elevenmile Reservoir. The upper 4 miles below Spinney Mountain Reservoir contains stream restoration work including weirs, logjams, boulder structures, and willow trees lining the river. While all this is intended to stop erosion, many anglers have mixed emotions about the “improvements.” Because the bottom of the river has changed and the water surrounding the new structure is slower, most trout retreat to the reservoir when the flows are low. The remaining trout are in a handful of pocketwater areas.
These structure and flow changes have advantages and disadvantages. The downside is fish have more difficulty finding cover, oxygen, and food during low-flow periods, when the water can dip below 50 cfs as regulated by the Aurora, Colorado, water board.
The advantage is that when flows increase, regardless of the time of year, more fish are drawn into the river, where they hold around the instream structure. Added structure also provides enough cover to keep the trout in the waterway for longer periods before they retreat to the reservoir.
Timing the Migration
Flow fluctuations have opened new doors to fly fishers chasing the seasonal runs of giant trout from Elevenmile Reservoir. During the spring, summer, and fall, this section of the South Platte sees some of the highest flows of the year, creating great holding and staging water for migratory trout to find shelter, food, and spawning areas. During high flows, deep runs and the cobblestone river bottom combine to create a sanctuary for trophy trout. This occurrence brings in some of the largest trout in the country, ranging up to 10 or 15 pounds. Knowing when to be on the water is the key to success.
Migratory prime time on the Dream Stream happens two times a year: late March through early April and mid October through November. Early April is the best time for pursuing large rainbows, cutthroats, and cuttbows, while late November is ideal for trophy browns. But timing your trip for when fish are migrating in large numbers can be tough.
Trout move into the river when the water reaches a desirable temperature and flow. Temperature is important because when flows remain low, the largest trout still enter the system to reside or spawn when it warms to the right degree. Low-flow migration peaks when temperatures reach the low 40s to low 50s in spring. In the fall, temperatures in the high 40s to mid 50s are ideal. Increased water flow also encourages trout to enter the river, supplying cover, oxygen, and abundant amounts of food.
Pre- and Postspawn
When trophy trout first enter this section of the river, they normally don’t start spawning right away. Instead, they stage in deep runs waiting for the perfect water flow and temperature. During this prespawn period, the trout focus on feeding in their new environment.
After the fish spawn and rest, the postspawn period can bring a lot of activity. The trout have lost weight because they have spent energy spawning, and the females have dropped their eggs. The trout stage in the deep runs to feed before returning to Elevenmile Reservoir. These fish are extremely hungry and not particularly shy.
Summer and Winter
Summer and winter have fewer migratory trout but produce some of the most exiting and rewarding days, especially during bright sunny conditions. The main draw is the visual fishing the river offers. From May through September, dry-fly action can be mind-blowing in high-flow conditions, with 20- to 30-fish pods sipping Tricos, PMDs, midges, and Baetis. Also watch for explosions in fast riffle water, where trout aggressively smash caddis and charge struggling hoppers blown to the river’s edge.
Winter fly fishing in Colorado can be bone-chilling, but some of the most comfortable winter days I’ve had fly fishing have been on the Dream Stream. Because the fishery is at an elevation of 8,700 feet and not in a shaded canyon, the sun warms the air and water relatively quickly. The water during the winter is normally low and clear, so a stealthy approach is crucial. The real treat is the holdover spawners from the fall, as well as a fresh run of large rainbows,
cutthroats, and cuttbows from the reservoir toward the end of winter.
The secret to catching migratory trout is to match your flies to the food supply in the reservoir. Midges are the food of choice during the winter and spring. River midges are small compared to the much larger (#14-18) chironomids in the reservoir. Migratory trout enter the Dream Stream and adapt to eating the smaller midges in the river, but they still hammer super-size items they become accustomed to in the reservoir. Trophy trout are predators and target baitfish, crayfish, insects, eggs, and any other unfortunate morsels that swing across their path. These giants must eat constantly to maintain their size.
The best flies for spring are #16-20 red or black midges, egg patterns (apricot 4 mm), streamers (#8-10 black, tan, olive, or natural), and small olive or brown #18-22 Baetis imitations. Drys and nymphs are effective, but imitating subsurface foods is the best approach.
During summer there is a wide variety of hatches, starting in May with caddis. Subsurface patterns include #16 green Graphic Caddis, #16-18 Buckskins, or other green caddis larva and pupa imitations. Size 18-20 dark brown and tan caddis catch fish on the surface but keep in mind, trout rarely bite if the fly is bigger than the natural food source.
There are four main insects during the summer: Pale Morning Duns, Blue-winged Olives, Tricos, and caddis. Fish these flies dry and wet for both migratory and resident river trout. Productive nymph and emerger patterns include #18-20 Johnny Flashes, Flashback Barr Emergers, Mercury Pheasant Tails, Copper Johns, and #18-22 Flashback Pheasant Tails.
In the fall, the fly selection varies because more insects are on the water and the migratory trout are mostly browns with more aggressive tendencies than the spring rainbows, cuttbows, and cutthroats. The best imitations resemble larger mayflies available in the deeper water. Two primary patterns are Copper Johns (#16-20) and tan stonefly nymphs (#16-18).
Streamers also work well on overcast days when brown trout shed their inhibitions and venture out from underwater structure to feed. Tan, natural, black, or olive streamers such as Zonkers, rabbit-strip leeches, and Slumpbusters can be deadly under cloudy skies. You should also come with egg patterns and an assortment of mayfly nymphs and scuds, which are abundant during the fall.
Winter is not as challenging on the Dream Stream as on other Colorado tailwaters. The key ingredients on these cold days are tiny midges. Matching color is also important, as they range from red and black to olive and cream. For top-water action, Griffith’s Gnats (#20-24) or dark midge drys work best when fish are rising to adults on bright warm days. While approaching these trout in clear water can be a challenge, selecting the right fly for the job is not. Midges are the only aquatic insects active year-round on the Dream Stream.
When large trout enter the river, they are wary of the new surroundings, which lack the safety and protection of the reservoir. When the trout are under or near structure, they are extremely difficult or impossible to see. In shallow, broken-water riffles it is also hard to get a clear view of what is lying on the bottom. Dream Stream trout hold in these two areas for the majority of the day but as the water temperature changes they move and become easier visual targets.
In the spring, the water temperature increases a few degrees during the last three hours of daylight. In summer, the first four hours of the morning—when the water temp is rising—are the most productive. During winter, the three midday hours around noon are best, when the sun is at its highest point, warming the river and awakening the trout’s feeding instincts.
For fall trout, fish the first two or last two hours of the day when the water has cooled a few degrees, causing the trout to move. The only exception is when cloud-filled skies cast shadows on the water. This weather provides cover for the fish as well as cover for fly fishers approaching nearby targets.
Eyeballing the Target
When trout migrate into the Dream Stream they need suitable water to reside in. This water consists of shallow riffles, deep runs, and instream structure. Because the river consists of an even flow of shallow to deep water, it’s not hard to find these areas, but it is hard to spot the fish.
Most rainbows and cuttbows entering the river are a reflective chrome with a vague hint of pink or red to their bodies, making it nearly impossible to see them in the dark, deep green runs where they reside. Dream Stream browns and cutthroats share the bright coloration of the same fish located elsewhere in the state, but this is not a big advantage to anglers because the trout blend in with the multicolored river bottom. Most of the body color is on the lower sides and belly, making them hard to notice looking down at a 45-degree angle toward the fish.
Because the fish blend in with the bottom, you need to train your eyes to decipher silhouettes and any movement of the trout. Once you have spotted the shape and shadowed outline of a trout’s body in the water, the next step is to watch for movement, which determines if the silhouette is actually a fish. Look for sideways movements, tail or fin flashes, and upward or downward motion to determine if what you are seeing is a fish or just another piece of structure on the river bottom.
Making the Adjustment
To be more effective in subsurface situations, you must adjust your tackle and technique to the water you are fishing. Two things you can control are the speed at which flies sink and their depth.
After a string of unsuccessful casts to a trout, don’t hesitate to make adjustments to your flies so they sink more quickly. Add or remove split-shot as you move from place to place, and adjust your leader length so that you reach the proper depth at the right time for as long as possible.
I use 5- and 6-weight, fast-action rods for the Dream Stream. A 5-weight is light enough for a delicate presentation and still allows you to cast in the afternoon winds. A 6-weight is best for throwing streamers, especially when the wind is strong. A quality reel is also important. Dream Stream trout are strong because of their reservoir upbringing, and are equipped with big tails that supply powerful bursts of speed. A good fly line is a simple weight-forward floating line. Because the water is no deeper than 8 to 10 feet, you can get down using split-shot and weighted flies. Use fluorocarbon leaders and tippets—no lighter than 5X for nymphs, and 3X for streamers.
To access the river go west on Highway 24 from Colorado Springs. It is an hour and 15 minutes to the South Park turnoff at County Road 59, which takes you to the river and reservoir access at Spinney. The river has four main parking areas, and three are free Division of Wildlife access sites. The parking lot directly below the reservoir costs $5 for the day. The reservoir also has a $5 day-use fee. There are three main parking lots at the north end of the reservoir, and two at the south end. There are boat launches located at the north and south ends of the reservoir.
Coming from Denver, take Highway 285 to Highway 24. This is a two-hour trip. From Summit County, connect to the west end of Highway 24.
Reprinted with permission from Fly Fisherman