The Roaring Fork River can be considered to be one of both reward and challenge to all anglers who wade its cold waters. From its headwaters on 12,095-foot Independence Pass downstream twenty miles to its entrance into the town of Aspen, the river flows with increasing volume and contains fish primarily in the six- to twelve-inch class. The largest of these are closer to town, where the volume is greater and the holding water is deeper. Browns, rainbows and brook trout are found here and, although much of the river flows through national forest land, some private property is involved and must be respected.
From Aspen down to the Upper Woody Creek Bridge, the “Fork” flows through a canyon a distance of six miles. This stretch of river is relatively swift and boulder strewn, but holds a good population of fish and is open to the public for its entire length. This reach is designated Wild Trout water and is controlled by regulations which limit fishing to flies only and require that all fish be returned to the river. Access in Aspen is from the Slaughterhouse Bridge at the very west edge of town. To reach the river turn north on Cemetery Lane at the stoplight on Highway 82 near the golf course and drive 1.1 miles to the bridge across which you’ll find parking. Most anglers walk downstream and fish back to their car, but you can also fish upstream toward town. A former railroad bed which is currently a hiking/biking path along the river makes access to the water very convenient.
Entrance to the river at the lower end of the canyon is at the Upper Woody Creek Bridge, also known as the True Smith Bridge. The turnoff from Highway 82 is at the Woody Creek Canyon sign approximately six miles west of Aspen. There is ample parking available in an abandoned gravel pit near the bridge. Most anglers will wade/walk upstream from this access. Although close to town, this six-mile stretch of river is not over-fished. Trout are abundant here and will be taken more often on nymphs than dry flies although evening, dry-fly fishing in July and August can be outstanding. Water speed here is approximately four feet per second and there are a lot of boulders in the river making pocket fishing the order of the day. Wading can be difficult.
From the Upper Woody Creek Bridge downstream to Basalt, the river flows through a somewhat wider valley floor for several miles, then through a narrow canyon. Although shallower on the whole, the river is still fast and wading must be done with care. Access is from Highway 82 at pullouts which are numerous and apparent as one drives along the highway.
Roaring Fork River at Basalt
Stretches of private property do exist here, but public water is abundant.
The trout between Aspen and Basalt will average about twelve inches. Fish sixteen to eighteen inches are caught often especially in the canyon above the Woody Creek Bridge where they have better holding water and less fishing pressure.
Because the Frying Pan River enters the Fork at Basalt, the river here takes on larger proportions. The water is somewhat slower due to less gradient and the added volume makes the river deeper. Due to considerable private property along the river the best access to the lower twenty miles from Basalt to Glenwood Springs is by floating the river in a raft. Between Basalt and Carbondale there are only four public access points. For about one mile immediately below Basalt there is good access to the Roaring Fork. To get to this part of the river turn off Highway 82 at Basalt and follow the road which goes through town and parallels the Fork. Good runs and pools here hold a fair number of trout even with the above-average pressure they receive. One will also start to catch Rocky Mountain whitefish from Basalt downstream to the Roaring Fork’s confluence with the Colorado River at Glenwood Springs. Though not as active as trout after being hooked, whitefish do provide action to supplement the trout and will take flies just as readily as trout. To find the second access drive west 2.1 miles from the highway stoplight in Basalt and turn left on the road that angles off Highway 82. Drive .9 miles farther and park along the road or pull into the commercial development on the right. At this point, entrances to the river will be obvious.
The third access is at Catherine Store. After driving west 7.5 miles from the Basalt stoplight, turn left (south) next to the store and proceed approximately one-half mile to the river where you will be able to park south of the bridge. You can then walk upstream along the railroad tracks, but don’t fish downstream from the bridge as this is private property.
The last place to enter the river is immediately upstream from the bridge on Highway 133 at Carbondale. The parking area is reached from the eastbound (toward Aspen) lane of Highway 82 only as this is a divided highway. About fifty yards upstream from the intersection of Highway 82 and Highway 133, a small turnout will be evident. Turn off here and drive to the bottom of the hill on a rough, dirt road. Use caution if the road is wet. Wade only the north half of the river as the south half is private and no permission is granted. You can fish up past the irrigation intake for a short distance before coming to private property.
The section of the Roaring Fork Valley below Carbondale is interesting because of the series of sloping stream terraces that characterize its floor and flanks. The oldest terrace is almost eight hundred feet above the present valley floor. There are at least six steps to the level of the river, representing six ancient flood plains. Each is a remnant of a former valley floor.
The access points to the Fork between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are few and most really do not put you into good stretches of river because either the water is quite heavy or mobility along the bank is difficult. The first access is 1.2 miles west of the intersection of Highway 133 and Highway 82. Turn left onto a narrow blacktop road, cross a cattle guard and continue 0.3 miles to the Sutank Bridge over the Fork. This is an access where a boat can be launched.
Farther downstream is another access gained through a lease agreement between the land owner and the Division of Wildlife. From the Highway 133 intersection, drive west 3.8 miles to the Cattle Creek turnoff. The road sign indicates that the turnoff to the right goes to Cottonwood Pass and Gypsum. Make a U-turn on the highway so you are heading east toward Aspen. Proceed 1.2 miles and angle off the highway on a ranch access road. Almost immediately you will turn right, cross the railroad tracks and see a sign stating that the river is state-stocked, fishermen are welcome and respect your privilege. For permission to park and fish, inquire at the white house at the end of the lane. You will find some water here that is easy to get to and provides some long runs and interesting riffles.
Anglers can also gain access to the river from downtown Glenwood Springs by entering the river through Kiwanis Park on the west side of the river. This park is located within two hundred yards of the Fork’s confluence with the Colorado River and can be found by crossing over the Roaring Fork on the one-way, 7th Avenue Bridge and turning left at the first intersection.
Wading the Fork is usually difficult due to the size and roundness of riverbed rocks. Metal cleats are helpful all year, particularly in the lower river and/or late in the season. Chest waders are definitely recommended anywhere below Aspen.
Fly fishing lines are best in sizes four through six from Aspen to Basalt. Use sizes five through seven from Basalt to Glenwood Springs. Floating lines are suitable for all fishing, although sinking tips could be used in the lower river for streamer fishing.
The Roaring Fork has a wide variety of aquatic insect life in very abundant quantities. Pteronarcys californica is the dominant stonefly and it hatches from late May to early June with emergence at Carbondale usually on Memorial Day. Other smaller stoneflies emerge throughout the summer and fishing nymphal imitations is very effective. Caddis flies would head the list for sheer numbers of insects. Starting in May they hatch throughout the summer and into fall. Their size varies from #10 to #20 with #14 being most common. Colors vary from pale tan to almost black. Mayflies are also abundant in a wide range of sizes and colors and are particularly noticeable in the evenings.
Effective flies are:
Dries— Adams, Lt. Cahill, Elk Hair Caddis, Royal Wulff, Yellow Humpy, Irresistible, all in sizes #14 to #18.
Nymphs and wets—Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear, Renegade, Muskrat, Western Coachman and Rio Grande King all in sizes #10 to #16. Brown and black stonefly nymphs, Brown Hackle Peacock and assorted Woolly Worms in sizes #4 to #8.
Streamers—more effective in the lower river below Basalt than above. Muddler Minnow, Matuka (brown, black, olive, Light and Dark Spruce Fly, Sculpin, all in sizes #2 to #6.
Terrestrials—Hoppers (brown, yellow, green), ants (black and rusty in sizes #16 to #20).