Roaring Fork River
The Roaring Fork can be accessed by taking I-70 from Denver to Glenwood Springs. Highway 82 then follows the river for its entire course up to its origination on Independence Pass. The river can easily be seen for its entire length along the highway, and there are numerous points for public access. The Roaring Fork River begins in the snowfields and high alpine lakes of one of Colorado's highest and most picturesque mountain ranges, then tumbles 70 miles to the northwest, where it joins the Colorado River on its way to the Pacific. The Ute Indians called it Thunder River, and the Roaring Fork's rapid, uncontrolled descent makes it one of the steepest rivers in Colorado. Against a backdrop of craggy snow-covered peaks, the river plunges from pool to pool through a scenic ranchland river valley where it soaks up the fertility of the land and the sun, and becomes one of Colorado's finest freestone rivers, with year-round fishing and heavy summer hatches that provide spectacular dry-fly fishing for wild brown and rainbow trout.
In its upper reaches, the Roaring Fork is a pleasant mountain stream, with small brook trout in the headwater tributaries and a healthy population of rainbow and brown trout in the main stem. The section from McFarlane Creek downstream through Aspen to the Upper Woody Creek Bridge was the first designated wild-trout water in the state. Although the trout are not as large here as in the lower river, it's hard to complain about a place where you can scramble from pool to pool and catch spunky 10- to 14- inch trout on high-riding attractor patterns.
Public access to the upper river is unlimited in the White River National Forest from the Difficult Creek Access on Highway 82 to the top of Independence Pass.
The middle river--from Aspen down to Carbondale--is the most popular stretch for wading anglers. Small enough to wade across in places but big enough to hold large trout in its rocky pockets and dark green pools, the river is a perfect match for the fly rod. A few intrepid fishermen float this section by raft, pinballing down the river from rock to rock, but in my opinion, it's too small and rocky to float, and not worth the effort. The river is easily accessed from a number of points, and when it's fishing well, a few hundred yards of river can keep you occupied for several hours.
There are many large whitefish (above) on the Roaring Fork River. Some anglers see them as a nuisance, others see them as the native component of an otherwise exotic fish population. They can save the day when the trout fishing is tough, and when fishing is good, you sometimes can't keep them off your hook.
The Rio Grande Trail is a public walking/biking trail that follows the river and provides 5.5 miles of public access on the north side of the river starting at Wilton Jaffe Park near the Upper Woody Creek Bridge. The river here is a cascading staircase of riffles, pools, and boulder gardens, set in a densely forested canyon. The fishing can be fantastic, and sometimes it seems every rock has a fish behind it. There are heavy caddis and mayfly hatches in the middle river, and the water is often clearer than down below. For the best fishing, walk up the canyon 10 to 20 minutes before you get in the water. The Frying Pan River adds its volume and nutrients to the Roaring Fork at the town of Basalt, and from Basalt downstream along Two River Road to the Lower Bypass Bridge there is excellent public access (look for the pullouts). I've witnessed some incredible caddis hatches along this stretch, and several times have left the world-famous Frying Pan to find better fishing on this section of the Fork. The wading here can be treacherous, and it's best not to attempt a river crossing except during low flows. Because of the flows from the Frying Pan, this section of water is ice-free all winter long and can produce good midge hatches in the spring and fall.
The lower river--from the confluence of the Crystal River at Carbondale down to the meeting of the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs--is a big, brawling river best suited for float fishing. While the misnamed Crystal River can cloud the lower river for a month or more in the spring, most of the guide trips in the valley occur here, on what some guides call the "bread and butter" stretch. Unlike the transparent waters of the upper reaches, the water here is a rich green, and the mossy river bottom harbors the most abundant insect life on the river. There are large trout here--browns up to 10 pounds have been taken--and the deeper holes are crammed with Rocky Mountain whitefish. Some people call them trash fish, but when the trouting gets slow, I like to put on a couple of small nymphs, a few extra split-shot, and spend a few hours tussling with the biggest whitefish in the state. Despite misconceptions, these native fish are not a threat to the introduced trout population in this river. In fact, I see whitefish as an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. I've never seen a good whitefish river that isn't also a good trout stream. If you like to keep a few fish for the barbecue, try a fresh whitefish. They taste wonderful cooked over coals, and smoked whitefish is a delicacy the world over.
The lower river is the place to go to catch the beginning of a hatch. Green Drakes generally start on the lower river and move upstream as the season progresses. The Mother's Day Caddis hatch works the same way. The lower valley is at a much different elevation than Basalt or Aspen and is often much warmer than the upper valley. During the fall, winter, and spring this can be important when looking for the first or last hatches of the season, or searching for a February midge hatch.
If you are floating the lower river, you can launch a boat right at Carbondale under the Highway 133 bridge and take out either at the Westbank Bridge Access or at Two Rivers Park on the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs. Novices should not attempt to float this stretch, as the river is swift and rocky, and there are rapids that could easily damage or capsize a drift boat or raft. This river is dangerous and deserves respect. Always wear a life jacket.
If you are on foot, there are public accesses on the lower river, the best of which are the Burry Access at mile marker 9 on Highway 82 and the Aspen Glen Access just downstream and across the river. The access points discussed in this article are only a sample of the dozens of public access points along the entire length of the Roaring Fork.