Colorado Fly Fishing 3 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Elk River in Colorado

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

May 23, 2024

man fly fishing Elk River in Routt county Colorado

Running from Routt National Forest down to the Christina Wildlife Refuge Area, the Elk River is one of the major tributaries of the Yampa River. Though the length of the Elk is about average for a Colorado fishery, the variety of fishing is as varied as the landscape itself.

Spruce lined river banks along the headwaters give way to box canyons and granite gorges before the river levels out towards the middle run and tailwaters of the Elk.

Along the way are numerous sections of pocket water and rifles that are rife with almost every species of trout found in the west.

About Elk river

Fly fishing on the Elk River and Yampa River near Steamboat Springs, CO

The Elk River is not the most popular fishing spot due to its proximity to the Yampa and driving distance from Denver. If you are a fan of fast fishing waters and isolated surroundings though, the Elk can yield some fantastic catches without worrying about traffic or crowds even during peak season.

The drawback to this solitude is that a long stretch of the Elk River runs through privately owned ranches, and you need permission from the owners to access the best fishing waters.

Otherwise, your only access to the Elk River is from the public parking areas and pull-offs in Routt National Forest and the Christina Wildlife Refuge Area. 

Elk River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots on the Elk River in Colorado

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Elk River

Without contacting ranch owners in advance, you are going to be very limited as to where you can access the Elk River without trespassing on private land.

Public access is concentrated around the headwaters in Routt National Forest, or to the south in the Christina Wildlife Refuge Area.

Depending on the season you can land some larger trout in both locations, but the tailwaters yield larger catches consistently even in the winter time when many larger trout tend to get careless.The best fishing along the Elk is definitely in the ranch country where the river levels out into meadow country, well past the canyons and steeper stretches. It should be noted with great emphasis that you should not attempt to fish on private property without explicit permission from the owner.

Trespassing is a huge deal, and not just in fly fishing circles either. Respect private property lines, and be respectful should you accidentally stray onto someone’s private land.

The good news about private ranch land is that many owners are fine with one or two anglers visiting their waters periodically throughout the year, provided they know about your visit in advance.

Other ranches offer fly fishing as part of a stay at their ranch/resort. You get prime access and a comfortable place to stay the night or several nights for a package price.

Stream Flow and Current Conditions

USGSReal-time water flow data from USGS 09242500 ELK RIVER NEAR MILNER, CO.

Best Time to Fish the Elk River

Yielding good catches during winter and the runoff is tough. That being said, it’s not impossible, and the season runs year round for those who don’t mind braving the fast, muddy water or the frigid high altitude temperatures.

Runoff season can vary widely depending on the prevailing weather that year, and prime fishing can run from June to November or April to October. Either way, you want to visit during the BWO hatches in early spring and late summer/early fall. As with most fisheries in Colorado, the Elk fishes best in the mid-to-late summer and early fall.

You also want to keep in mind that the Elk is a true freestone stream, which means that nature controls the flow year round. Rainfall, snowpack, and runoff are all key factors affecting the season and fishing conditions.

Make sure you read up on how the year has been shaping up before making the trek to the Elk for a fly fishing expedition, as there may be some seasons that jump off much later depending on the weather that year.

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and nymphs on the Elk River. For streamers a 9-foot 6-wt makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Best Flies for Elk River

Recommended fly patterns for the Elk River include:

  • Blue Winged Olive (#20-24)
  • RS2 (grey/olive #20-24)
  • Sparkle Dun (brown/dark olive #14-16)
  • Micro Egg (orange #16-18)
  • Orvis CJ Nymph (sculpin #6)
  • Phlamin Pheasant Tail (natural #12-18)
  • Pseudo BWO (olive #20-28)
  • FB Pheasant Tail (natural #14-18)
  • Leeches (black/brown/olive #8-12)
  • Double Dirty Hippy (black/rainbow)

Fishing Regulations

Fishing regulations are standard Colorado Division of Wildlife along the Elk River: four trout of any species per person per day, and possession limit is also four trout.

Trip Planning Tips

There are two options for visitors to the Elk River: fly into Denver and drive 3.5 hours to Steamboat Springs, or hop a connecting flight to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport and be a 15-20 minute drive from the Elk River itself.

Steamboat Springs has numerous resorts, bed, and breakfasts, and traditional accommodations to suit any budget or taste. Better still, you can stay at a ranch resort or bed and breakfast that includes access to the Elk, making your stay comfortable and convenient. 

Don’t forget to check out local ski and stay accommodations for off-season bargains, and always check local vacation rentals if you are looking to save a little extra on your stay.

Looking for more places to fish? Visit our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Colorado.

Feature image by Jeffrey Beall