When I pried myself from the familiar East Coast to attend college in Colorado, my parents were worried that I’d never return home. My lacrosse coach told them, “He’ll love it here; once they come west, they never go back!” I was sold! I hadn’t even bought my first fly rod, but I already felt as though the Rocky Mountains had stolen my heart from the piedmont region back East. And, once I caught the fly fishing bug, I struggled to pry myself from Colorado whenever the holidays forced me to put Pikes Peak in the rear view mirror and head east across the Great Plains.
I remained in Colorado for a couple years after college before playing my hand at adulting. I was living on the banks of the Animas River, guiding trips, and enjoying my early 20’s, and although I have since moved back to the East, I’m always looking for an opportunity to get my Colorado fishing fix. Nowadays, with the busy life of work and children, I don’t stray too far from the Denver airport, so the Vail Valley is about as far as I’ll drive; it’s just so convenient from Denver. Fortunately, this is not a bad thing because this easily accessible strip of Colorado might be home to the best fishery in the state.
After driving west from Denver into the mountains on I-70 for a couple hours, you’ll drive over Vail Pass and descend upon the ski towns of Vail and Beaver Creek. Soon, if you dare divert your attention from the high speed traffic, you’ll notice a burly river paralleling I-70 – one of best, yet underrated fisheries in the state: The Eagle River.
The Eagle is a freestone stream that begins high in the mountains southeast of Vail. These headwaters mostly hold smaller brown trout as the pollution from mining has pushed out the rainbows, brookies, and cutthroats, which are more sensitive to pollution than brown trout.
As the river passes Minturn and meets the trophy trout water of Gore Creek, the Eagle’s water quality improves and so does the fishing. In this stretch, from the confluence with Gore Creek through the town of Avon, the river is fast with some narrow rapids, but it’s still a relatively small river and generally isn’t big and/or slow enough to float fish effectively. Rainbows begin to populate the river, providing good variety, and there are a number of good public access spots that put you on productive water – mostly pocket water, fast riffles, and short pools. The Eagle gets more water from a number of feeder creeks through here, and soon after it moves past Edwards, it’s a good sized river with a nice balance of rainbows and browns, many of which are 20″ or larger.
At this point, just downstream from Edwards, more rainbows begin to inhabit the river as the pollution from the mines becomes more diluted and the water quality further improves. I even have a theory that the effects from all the development in the valley might actually be providing the river with added nutrients and warmth, which is increasing the insect life and helping the trout. Of course, the development can eventually lead to a river that’s too warm with too many nutrients, which will cut off the dissolved oxygen and kill the trout, so we need to protect this resource! At least right now, the Eagle is prime!
At the western, downstream end of Edwards is a long flat pool home to a popular boat launch and is the beginning of my favorite section of the Eagle. Here I find the best combination of quantity and quality fish. Unfortunately for most, public access is tricky from here down to the town of Wolcott (access is kinda tricky the whole length of river really), so wading anglers may struggle to find a good stretch of water to themselves on summer weekends.
Fortunately for me, I have access to the best private section of river in the vicinity – Eagle Springs Golf Club. Known throughout Colorado as perhaps the best, most exclusive golf club in the state, Eagle Springs Golf Club not only provides a relaxed, breathtaking golfing experience, but also provides its members with some of the best trout fishing in the state. Truth be told, I really have no business strutting through one of Colorado’s most exclusive private clubs, and I certainly have no business on a golf course, but my parents are golf fanatics and have finally decided to treat themseelves to a membership at the best golf club – Eagle Springs Golf Club. Good for them! And, good for me! I now have private, pampered access to awesome trout!
As exclusive as this golf club is, the staff and other members are surprisingly friendly and casual. You enter the club by crossing the river on a classically designed, red covered bridge with large windows providing a framed view of an enticing section of river. Then, the driveway meanders through the open valley and golf course until you arrive at the rather humble, yet distinguished club house. It’s never crowded and no one’s a stranger; it’s all smiles at Eagle Springs!
A section of the parking lot is designated for fishermen, and the caddies ensure that you’ll have a fully charged cart waiting for you, complete with cold water bottles. Then, you’re free to drive up and down the property paralleling the river, easily accessing the best runs and pools found on their 1.5 miles of super fishy water. I’ve been to the club dozens of times and have never been rubbed the wrong way by arrogance, entitlement, and superiority, which you might assume accompanies members of exclusive clubs. This place must have some sort of interview process or something that weeds out the bad vibes!
Clearly, people here pay big bucks to escape stress and stressful people so they can relax, enjoy the surroundings, and focus on their golf game unencumbered by strict rules and annoying arrogance. And, the general atmosphere of the club reflects this desire for a chill yet pampered golfing or fishing experience. It’s low-key luxury at its finest!
Of course, the grounds are immaculate, and the scenery is outstanding! Better yet, the club never seems crowded and I rarely run into golfers while fishing or driving along the banks in the cart.
Although this luxurious access to the Eagle Springs stretch is private, the river itself is public; anyone can float through this water and partake in its numerous, large colorful trout, but the the river bottom is considered private land belonging to Eagle Springs Golf Club. This means that the public cannot wade or anchor their boats; they can touch the water and the fish but the banks and the stream bottom are off limits. They basically have to keep it moving as they float fish through the property. And, many boats do float through. This is the ever popular Vail Valley, so crowds go without saying.
Most guided trips begin around 9:00 AM, so from about 10:00 to 2:00 during peak summer, you can expect a guided float trip to pass by you every 15 minutes or so. But, before and after those times the boat traffic is far less. Fortunately, the trout don’t seem deterred by the rafts floating by. The floaters may disturb your sense of serenity, and sometimes guides feel obligated to paddle over and annoy you with small talk, unwarranted advice, or worse – warnings that you’re fishing on private water. No duh dumbass! But, generally guides are experienced and focused enough on their clients and the river that they leave you alone.
So, what makes this river so underrated? The answer is simple; it holds high numbers of large trout that fight like hell in the fast deep current, but many fly fishermen simply ignore the Eagle as they travel to the more fabled fisheries. People see the Eagle River as they speed along I-70 and assume that it probably has some brown trout, maybe even decent numbers, but that the pollution and development and busy roads surrounding and even overshadowing the river make the Eagle a marginal trout fishery not worth fishing, especially when you have the Frying Pan and Colorado rivers so close by.
The Eagle River probably is most frequented by tourists and novice anglers visiting the Vail Valley, but experienced anglers who fish the river know that it rivals or surpasses any river in the state for numbers of hard fighting large trout!
The countless guides in the Vail Valley will gladly drive you a couple hours to fish other, more famous rivers, but they’ll also gladly show you pictures of the behemoth trout caught from the river, especially from the Eagle Springs Golf Club section. And when I say behemoth, I’m not talking about your standard 18-22 inch trophies; I’m talking truly huge hogs!
Rainbow Pig taken from the Eagle Springs Golf Club private water. Photo courtesy of Dave Budniakiewicz & Minturn Anglers.
Unfortunately for me, these monsters have evaded me and my little flies. Even if I was able to get one to eat my nymph or dry fly, a trout that size in fast current would break my 4x tippet in seconds. I definitely prefer fishing nymphs and dries, but the best chance you have at one of the Eagle River behemoths is to cast big streamers with 0x tippet.
Traveling downstream past Eagle Springs, you’ll encounter a mix of private and public water as the river rushes past Wolcott, carves it’s way through scenic red cliffs, and glides past the town of Eagle on its way to join the Colorado River at the town of Dotsero. Besides the Eagle Springs Golf Club stretch, your best bet at landing a 20+ inch trout is probably downstream from Wolcott closer to Eagle and Gypsum. Here the river slows a bit, making it easier to float fish, and the pollution from mines at the headwaters has basically disappeared by the time you get this far downstream, so both rainbows and brown trout thrive. As you approach Gypsum and travel toward Dotsero, the river slows even more, and you’ll find more sand and silt making up the river bed than gravel and rocks. Rainbows aren’t fans of silt and sand, so the far lower section of the Eagle becomes dominated by brown trout again.
So, what flies work on the Eagle? I’ve only fished the stream from late June through mid August, with few exceptions, so my first-hand knowledge is rather limited. But, I have fished the Eagle every year for the past 25 years, so I’m pretty dialed into summertime on The Eagle!
By late June, the icy water from run-off subsides and gives way to the warm Colorado sun. The river heats up and all kinds of bugs decide to come out and play. You’ll find caddis in all sizes, PMD’s, green drakes, golden stoneflies, midges, and yellow sallies. Without a doubt, the 3 bugs to focus on during the peak summer period are the caddis, PMD, and yellow sally.
By July, The Eagle usually enters its summer phase. And the transition from run-off to low summer flow is accompanied by intense caddis activity. You can find caddis flies in sizes 18-12 hatching during the day, but the action really turns on at dusk when the bugs fly off the bushes to mate, lay eggs, and die. It’s at this time when big trout throw caution to the wind and feast on the many bugs dancing, diving, and drifting on the river. I like to tie on a tan-bodied, size 14 deer-hair caddis, and carry black, green, and yellow permanent markers so I can color the body to better match the hatch. Usually, however, the tan body works just fine. In terms of nymphs, I’ve found both yellow and green caddis larva in a variety of sizes work well, so just experiment and see what works.
Trout love sipping small mayflies, and sometimes they prefer a dainty PMD over a clumsy caddis. There’s actually a good reason for this: pale morning duns and many other mayflies emerge rather slowly and often ride in the surface film as floating nymphs for great distances before slowly transitioning into duns, which also ride down the river for great distances. This makes a mayflies much more accessible and vulnerable than caddis flies, which emerge and fly off rather quickly. The PMD’s on the Eagle are small, size 18, yellowish pink and hatch sporadically throughout the day. Since I live in Maryland, I tie a ton of sulphur imitations, and some of these are a good match for the PMD’s. Many anglers fish 2 flies: a buoyant elk-hair caddis as the point fly, and a small parachute or PMD emerger as the dropper. This is an excellent way to prospect for rising trout during the day. If the trout aren’t cooperating on top, nothing beats a small pheasant tail or copper john to imitate the nymphs.
This PMD parachute sees serious action on the Eagle.
Over the past few years, I have found that the trout on the Eagle often deny my caddis and PMD offerings and instead hone in on the yellow sallies. These small yellow stoneflies are unlike most stoneflies. Generally, stoneflies swim to shore as nymphs then crawl up rocks and logs to emerge into adults, but yellow sallies behave more like mayflies, emerging and hatching in the water.
Yellow biot body stimulator
And, like the PMD’s, yellow sally nymphs are a brownish amber color and easily imitated by a pheasant tail or copper john. Also like the PMD’s, yellow sallies are yellow, so you can’t go wrong with some type of small yellow dry fly. I’ve tried a variety of patterns to imitate the yellow sallies, but I always go back to a size 14, yellow bodied stimulator dry fly and a size 16 bead head pheasant tail or Frenchie as the dropper. This past summer of 2019 was the summer of the cdc frenchie – a good imitation of yellow sally nymphs as well as mayflies.
Many of the big, brutish trout feeding on yellow sally nymphs and dries can be found in shallow water close to the banks, so don’t go stomping out toward the deep fast water! Also, use the thickest tippet you can; I generally use 4x or 3x tied to my stimulator then 16″ of 4x tippet tied to a small bead head nymph as a dropper. My 10’6″ 3 wt. Euro nymphing rod protects light tippet insanely well, so I do venture into 5x and even 6x on the Eagle but with so many fish over 16″ and such a strong, deep current, you’re better off with 4x or thicker.
Without access to the Eagle Springs private water, the best way to fish the river is to float it with a guide who knows the water and can put you in the best position to target trophy trout. No doubt the guide will be all business as you approach the Eagle Springs Golf Club stretch! The guide knows that this might be your best shot at a monster, but he also knows that this is private water so you gotta keep it moving – no anchoring or wading!
Don’t underestimate how difficult the wading is; you’ll find it very tough to wade more than 25 yards of river at a time without wanting to get out and use the banks. Not only is the current strong but the rocks are big, loose, and slippery as snot! With steep banks and thick jungles of willow, you won’t want to get out of the river either. This is where Eagle Springs Golf Club comes in. I just need to slip up the bank and back to the golf cart, which then safely transports me to the next prime holding water, and there are lots of prime runs, riffles, pools and pocket water!
Basically, the entire stretch of private water running through the the Eagle Springs property looks enticing, and the best way to thoroughly work the prime water is to have private access to Eagle Springs Golf Club. While the guided float trips can only make a cast or 2 in a nice run, a member of the club can spend as much time as he wants covering every inch of every pocket and pool. But the best part is definitely the golf cart! After covering a stretch of river I can safely cruise up and down the banks overlooking the river and can access any of the prime spots in style! I can keep a cooler, extra rods and gear, or whatever I might need just a short walk away in the golf cart.
So next time you’re in the Vail Valley, spend some time wetting a line on the Eagle River! And, if you’re lucky enough to have access to the Eagle Springs Golf Club’s private water like I do, you’re guaranteed to have the best access on the river and probably the best chance at quality trout over 20″.