Fine Fishing and a Funky Town on the Front Range
(c) Jack Ballard
“Controversial” is a term bandied about in relation to political and military actions, social agendas and officials’ calls at supremely important contests like junior high basketball games and pee-wee wrestling matches. It’s not a word commonly used in relation to a city. But there’s at least one exception. Boulder, Colorado is about as controversial a town as exists in the United States. Proponents laud it as a bastion and model of progressive social living, a pattern for the rest of the nation. Detractors view Boulder as an enclave of deluded left-wingers, stale hippies and environmentalist college students, most with an activist lifestyle fueled by a trust fund.
Ahh, Boulder. It’s regularly tagged in the polls of various publications. It’s been ranked among “The Top 10 Healthiest Places to Live and Retire”, “The Most Educated City in America” and “The Best Green Places to Live in America.” Contrast that with a couple of descriptions of Boulder on the edgy, Urban Dictionary online. “A Town in Colorado consisting of 8 miles surrounded by reality where the residents are more concerned about the voting rights of their pets than the common good..” Another reads, “The ‘cereal bowl’ of Colorado, because it has all the FRUITS, the FLAKES, and the NUTS.”
Quite frankly, I don’t want to live in Boulder. Despite being touted as one of the most bicycle-friendly communities in the world, traffic can be horrible and hundreds of cyclists randomly weaving between cars doesn’t enhance the driving experience. Sales taxes abound, with a basic rate of over 8%. The city will even tack a 5% tax on your concert ticket. Ignore the sometimes bizarre social scene, though, and Boulder is a supremely intriguing place to visit. Backpacker Magazine once heralded it as “The Best Place to Raise an Outdoor Kid” and it was recently touted as “America’s Foodiest Town” by Bon Appetit Magazine. Forget politics and social prejudices. Any community that has the breadth and quality of Boulder’s outdoor recreational opportunities, fly fishing included, and a myriad of unique dining establishments and brew pubs is a wonderful place to plunk your waders for a few days.
My introduction to the Boulder angling and eating scene came on a warm weekend in early October. Arriving too late for dinner, we plopped gratefully into a comfortable bed at the delightful Alps Boulder Canyon Inn, an easy distance from town. A dawn departure waylaid a normal breakfast, but the accommodating innkeeper plied us with four scrumptious pastries to-go and steaming coffee on our departure. We grabbed a refill of nutty, fresh java at The Cup, a local coffee nook before wandering into a hip fly down the street, the Front Range Anglers. After a morning tour of the local warm-water and carp scene, we arrived back at the shop at mid-afternoon, stomachs growling. With an hour to spare before being handed off to another guide to sample the trout in Boulder Creek, I asked the shop manager if there was a place we might grab a sandwich nearby.
“You might hit Mountain Sun Brewing down the way. Awesome beer and really good food.”
Turns out he was right. After a pint of smooth, amber brew and a hearty beef sandwich, I began to question the wisdom of sending anglers to a thriving brew pub. It might be great at day’s end, but clients who wander inside for lunch may never reappear to fish.
For sheer variety in fly fishing, the Boulder area is tough to top. Warm-water ponds abound with bass and panfish. There’s a local carp cult as well, anglers as strange as hippies, toting ridiculously heavy rods who love to slog through sewer-smelling muck along shallow reservoirs to sight-fish for carp. The payoff? Heart-raising battles with tough, strong fish that are as challenging to land as they are to hook. Trout buffs find rainbows and browns in area streams. The latter can be also be caught in Boulder Creek, literally in town. Motor a bit over an hour’s drive into Rocky Mountain National Park and you can also cast for greenback cutthroats, the Colorado State Fish. No, you won’t find me moving to Boulder, but I’m happy to count myself among the regular visitors who come for the food and the fishing. Here’s a short list of the angling alternatives.
Lagerman Reservoir – Lagerman is a 116 acre reservoir located in a swath of designated open space. The reservoir is administered by the Boulder County Parks and Recreation Department. A walking path winds around the lake making it easy for wading anglers to move around its perimeter. The lake also boasts restroom and a very nice picnic shelter.
Peruse the online postings at various Colorado fishing sites on the internet, and you’ll find a markedly mixed review on Lagerman. A now defunct poultry farm up the watershed evidently still leaches significant amounts of phosphorous into the water, limiting the productivity of certain fish species. However, there’s one strain that undoubtedly thrives in Lagerman, carp.
The shallows on the west and northwest portions of the reservoir are prime spots to locate these rough, hard-fighting. However, that portion of the reservoir is also productive habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds, and is closed seasonally (until late summer) to protect nesting birds.
According to Colorado Division of Wildlife publications, Lagerman holds crappie, bluegills, tiger muskie, walleye and largemouth bass along with its carp, although reports of anglers catching them are spotty. Other than carp, the best bet here is for largemouth bass which prefer the rocky structure toward the southeastern side of the lake. Boats are allowed on Lagerman, but there are 7.5 horsepower and no-wake restrictions, making it an appealing location for float tubes and hand-powered crafts.
Pella Crossing – Query directions to Pella Crossing, and you might be directed to Hygiene, Colorado. Based on the name, this could be an even quirkier community than Boulder. As a bit of historical trivia, Hygiene is named for a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients established by the Church of the Brethren in 1882, not for a modern-day cult of germaphobes wearing respiratory masks and wielding anti-bacterial wet wipes. Hygiene still resides in Boulder County but is a technically an unincorporated town.
However, if Hygiene facilitates your finding of Pella Crossing, it’s a waypoint worth remembering for more than its odd moniker. Pella Crossing consists not of a single water body, but a collection of five ponds (Poplar, Dragonfly, Clearwater, Sunset and Webster) and one lake (Heron). Wading is prohibited at Pella, but float tubes are allowed. Walking trails connect the ponds and lake, making it easy to hike from one to another, though it’s more than a mile between some of the ponds. The area receives heavy use from joggers, walkers, birders and other recreationists as well as anglers, especially on weekends.
Despite its popularity, the waters of Pella Crossing have a great reputation with local anglers. Fishing can pick up as early as March, depending on spring temperatures and may persist into October. An impressive array of warm water fish fin the ponds and Heron Lake. Bluegill, yellow perch, smallmouth and largemouth bass are all targets for fly anglers. Catch and release regulations support the growth of some very nice bass. Largemouths exceeding four pounds prowl the structure of some of the ponds. Pella is also known for better than average bluegills and some positively large yellow perch. Fishing from a float tube gives the best access to the cover favored by bass and the ability to cast to numerous locations impossible to reach by shore-bound anglers.
Boulder Creek – Tumbling from its headwaters on the Continental Divide, Boulder Creek descends from the mountains, then wanders through the modest municipality of Nederland before its flow is captured in Barker Meadow Reservoir which supplies water for the city of Boulder. The reservoir lends predictability to the water levels below it in the summer months, a boon to trout in an area where dry spells and severe thunderstorms can create wild swings in stream flow and clarity.
As its name implies, Boulder Creek isn’t a large stream. Summer flows usually stabilize somewhere around the 30 cubic feet per second range. However, it is extremely productive. Caddis abound along with a host of other bugs. The primary species in the lower portion of Boulder Creek is brown trout, fish that ordinarily retain a length of a foot or less, but are perhaps more brightly colored and vigorous than those I’ve seen anywhere in the nation. In the canyon above town, rainbows jostle with the browns for position in the current. Throw in some brook trout around Nederland and a few cutthroats, and Boulder Creek represents an outstanding and diverse fishery.
The real gem of Boulder Creek, however, is its exceptional in-town fishing. On a warm, late afternoon in early autumn, I once hit the creek with Russell Miller of Front Range Anglers and a friend on a stretch of the stream adjacent the University of Colorado campus. Standing in its clear waters, shaded by a canopy of mature trees overarching the banks, it felt rural and remote, save for the cyclists passing over a bridge and a trio of co-eds, smoking and recreating on a large log in the tradition of true hippies. Caddis were hatching, winging from the surface at random intervals. In the space of an hour we caught a dozen brown trout on dry flies, a delightful experience anywhere, doubly magic for the urban setting and the feeling of playing hooky while others were working or in school.
Flanders Park/McIntosh Lake – McIntosh Lake is an urban impoundment in the city of Longmont, in Boulder County. Flanders Park, a city park, borders the lake and provides angling access. It also has a unique history. Named for Frederick Walter Flanders, the park commemorates his civic contribution to the area when he captured the office of mayor from an incumbent supported by the Ku Klux Klan.
McIntosh Lake supports stocked populations of walleye, along with channel catfish, black crappie and carp. The Colorado Division of Wildlife intends to increase crappie numbers in future years, making this a potentially good fishery for these plucky little panfish in late spring and early summer. Crappie congregate along the dam area at this time of year, putting them in range of shorebound anglers and those utilizing a float tube. Although walleye tend to grow well in McIntosh Lake, future management calls for fairly low stocking numbers in order to limit their predation on the crappie.
In addition to the above species, McIntosh Lake is home to a population of sizeable carp. Fishing with Jay Zimmerman of Rocky Mountain Anglers late last season, we hit the lake from Flanders Park in search of carp. It’s a mucky slog to the shallow parts of the lake preferred by the carp, but once there has a feel reminiscent of fishing saltwater flats. Thirty minutes into our excursion Jay hooked a burly carp. Crouched at a low angle to capture the desired image, I was struck by the sheer strength of the fish he was fighting, a brute that made several long runs toward the middle of the lake, the drag on his reel humming with every surge. Then I noticed the scenery. Standing in shallow water, with a uniform, horizontal shoreline behind him and shallow water ahead, he could have been battling a Florida bonefish, save for the profile of the Front Range and the soaring summit of Long’s Peak in the distance.
Gross Reservoir – Warm water reservoirs dominate the immediate Boulder area and the rolling prairies to the east. West of town, however, numerous mountain lakes offer fishing for cold water species, primarily trout. One such destination is Gross Reservoir, a sprawling impoundment on South Boulder Creek. Owned and operated by Denver Water as a storage facility, recreation plays second fiddle to water conservation at Gross Reservoir. As such float tubes and motorized boats are prohibited, making this an excellent destination to launch a canoe or fishing kayak.
The fishery in Gross Reservoir is currently dominated by white and longnose suckers, but management calls for a reduction of these by aggressive stocking of predator species such as lake and brown trout, along with smaller numbers of tiger muskie. There’s also a population of kokanee in Gross Reservoir that moves from the depths of this very deep reservoir to make a fall run into the creek. Prime time for the kokanee is October, though fish are sometimes caught into late November. Lake trout are most accessible to fly anglers just after ice-out, while browns and rainbows can be caught throughout the summer and into early autumn. Brown trout to 19 inches have been recorded during management surveys, the rainbows tend to run a bit smaller. Given the robust forage base and aggressive stocking efforts of predatory trout, angling for these coldwater fish should only improve in coming years.
Big Thompson River – The Big Thompson River originates among the high peaks and vales of Rocky Mountain National Park before descending through an extended canyon section on its journey to the plains. Along the way, it passes through Lake Estes near Estes Park, a gateway community to the national park. As such it contains two distinct sections, the wandering, freestone segment above the lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the lower portion which includes a short, classic tailwater below the dam and the canyon section of the stream.
Within the park, the Big Thompson, or “Big T” as it’s nicknamed locally, meanders through a broad mountain vale known as Moraine Park. This popular section of the river sees high angling pressure, but also boasts some of the largest trout in the Big T within the national park, rainbows and browns that occasionally stretch the tape to beyond 15 inches. For both dry flies and nymphs, small rules the day on the upper section of the Big Thompson. The trout respond most readily to small flies. A #16 Parachute Adams with an even smaller dropper is a standby rig for local anglers.
Below Lake Estes, within the short tailwater and the canyon, trout grow to more substantial sizes. The river can become unfishable in summer due to high water temperatures or low visibility from silt that enters the stream during the area’s infamous thunderstorms. The canyon segment of the Big T supports a wide array of aquatic bugs: caddis, stoneflies, tricos, PMDs, green drakes and others. Late summer and early fall add terrestrial insects such as grasshoppers and crickets to the trout buffet.
Due to its proximity to Denver and Boulder, the canyon section of the Big Thompson receives consistent angling pressure. Fortunately, access isn’t an issue. Although private land mingles with public in the canyon, there are over forty public access points for anglers. Catch and release regulations for approximately a 10-mile stretch of water protects the trout population and allows some of the browns and rainbows to achieve a length not adequately measured by the cork handle of a fly rod like those further upstream.
Though you’ll seldom find solitude here, the scenery is spectacular. Towering rock walls, rushing water and statuesque riverside evergreens and deciduous trees form a multi-hued tapestry beneath a sky that can transform from baby blue to gunmetal gray when storms are brewing along the Front Range. In autumn, the streamscape becomes even more colorful as willows and cottonwoods array themselves in the vibrant colors of autumn.
The Big Thompson is normally fishable from March through October. Spring run-off usually hits around the end of May and persists for several week, making the river nearly impossible to fish.
Urban Ponds – Scattered around the city of Boulder are a host of urban ponds, tiny puddles whose area might be best measured in square feet rather than acres. Lapping below the radar of most anglers, some of these hold robust populations of carp. Jay Zimmerman once introduced me to one of these he called “Samantha’s Pond.”
“That sounds like a pretty formal sounding name,” I replied when informed of our destination. Jay went on to explain that this unofficial name was given to the pond in commemoration of a buddy’s girlfriend, Samantha. While running on a pedestrian path, she noticed fish in the pond. When her sweetheart went to investigate, he found a puddle teeming with carp.
Sworn to secrecy, I can’t reveal its location. But I can tell you to heed your surroundings wherever you wander in Boulder. It’s a city of serendipity and surprises.