Fishing Waterton Canyon – South Platte River

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By Andre Egli

I’ve written a few posts about some decent urban fishing opportunities in the Denver Metro area; Lambertson Ponds, Mann-Nyholt Lake, and the Thornton Gravel Lakes.   As their names imply, these are all lakes or ponds, if you’re looking for good stream or river fishing near Denver the list of options shrinks substantially.  However, there are still a few great places you can check out.  I just experienced Waterton Canyon for the first time and it is a great trout fishery, away from the busy roads of the city, and surrounded by wildlife including big horn sheep, and just 22 miles from downtown Denver.


Waterton Canyon

Date: 9/10/2016

Flow: 75cfs

Rod: Redington Pursuit 8’6” 5wt

Setup: 3 Nymph rig; BH Zug Bug, BH Copper John, and San Juan Worm

Waterton Canyon is a 6.5 mile long stretch of the South Platte River which flows from the dam at Strontia Springs Reservoir to about the border of Chatfield State Park.  A dirt road follows the river from a parking lot just off of Waterton Road all the way to the dam.  This road is used by Denver Water for maintenance and is closed to civilian vehicles.  However, the road is actually the trailhead of the Colorado Trail which is a 486 mile long hiking trail the runs from Denver to Durango.  Waterton Canyon is open to bikers, horseback riders, hikers, joggers, and of course fishermen.  However, dogs are not allowed due to the abundant wildlife so leave your furry pal at home.

There is ample parking at the trail head (directions to parking lot HERE) but it does fill up fast on the weekends.  Also, be advised that the trail is sometimes closed during the week for maintenance work etc, but is typically open on the weekends year round.  To double check closures and regulations check out the Waterton Canyon website HERE.  You can also check out a map of the canyon trail HERE.

It will take you a little effort to get to the fishing since the river is not immediately accessible from the trailhead.  You will have to hike or bike up the canyon to wet your line.  I’ve ventured about 2-2.5 miles into the canyon so far but I’m sure the fishing is good all the way to the dam.  The river, in this section, holds rainbow and brown trout.  Most are in the 6-12” range but large fish from Chatfield Reservoir do venture up the river, so there is the opportunity to hook a hog in the deeper pools.  When I visited I did see a very nice rainbow (18”+) cruising up the river, so there are big fish to be had.

The river in the canyon is punctuated by small falls over manmade boulder piles which create a sequence of falls which lead to short runs with eddies, which lead to long deep pools, which lead to another set of falls.  I found fishing the eddies and pools right below the falls to be very productive.  Some of the longer deeper pools between the sets of falls also produce some excellent fishing opportunities.

In the summer months terrestrial patters will work quite well in the canyon.  A hopper-dopper rig with a Dave’s Hopper, or foam patters like a Chernobyl Ant with an attractor nymph dropper like a Zug Bug or a Prince Nymph will serve you well.  On my visit I didn’t see many rises from the trout so I stuck to nymphing the deeper pools and this also proved quite productive.

In addition to the great fishing, the canyon is home to an abundance of wildlife, most notably bighorn sheep.  The herds in the canyon are very use to humans and will walk right past you without blinking an eye.  However, they are still wild animals and can be unpredictable so try to keep your distance and don’t approach or corner them.  If you let them do their thing you can be treated to moments like this in addition to your fishing:

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Those pictures are of a herd of roughly 20 animals, mostly ewes and adolescents, which wondered across the river while I was fishing.  The herd also contained about 8 lambs and one large ram.  It was a wonderful experience to be fly fishing for trout, on a clear river, surrounded by bighorn sheep.  I nearly forgot I was just a few miles from a metropolitan area with a population of 2.8 million people.

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That being said, Waterton Canyon is not a secret and is very popular with bikers, hikers, and joggers.  You will see anglers but you won’t feel crowded.  The best part is the road is only used by Denver Water maintenance vehicles, so you won’t have to listen to traffic scream by like on Clear Creek, Boulder Creek, The Big Thompson and other rivers in the area.  The scenery isn’t perfect because there are a lot of power lines zigzagging through the canyon but they don’t completely ruin the rustic nature of the area.

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In conclusion, Waterton Canyon is a wonderful place.  Its proximity to Denver means you will never be alone on the trail.  However, the fact that such a wonderful place full of wildlife and good trout fishing exists so close to a major city is a testament to all the things the state of Colorado is doing right with its bounty of environmental riches.  The vast majority of the trout you’ll catch will be decent sized but there is an opportunity to catch some slabs in the deeper pools if you’re lucky.  Even if the fishing is slow you’re likely to be surrounded by wildlife of all kinds, but watch out for rattlesnakes as this is prime habitat for them.  So, check out Waterton Canyon, it’s easily accessible and close to Denver.  It’s also a tailwater so it will be open for fishing all year long (you can bet I’ll check in on it again in the winter months).  Waterton is a great place for anyone who loves the outdoors, but bring your hiking boots or a bike because there’s over 6 miles of river for you to explore!  Until next time, happy fishing!

  • A. Egli




Categories: Fly Fishing, Places to GoTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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