Fly Fishing with a Twist

Minturn Anglers’ horseback fly fishing trips are the perfect union of two quintessential western experiences.

Photo by Jon Rose

One of the cowboys leading our train of horses into the wilderness, a young man named Jimmy, stopped suddenly. “Look,” he said. “A bear!” He lobbed the word casually, as if pointing out the weather. We all peered into the trees, and there it was: a large black bear, gnawing on the carcass of an elk calf. “Big one!” Jimmy said.

Any notion of this little adventure as “touristy,” as some fake imitation of the true backcountry, was now deader than that poor baby elk. We were really out here.

Although, to be honest, it was hard to say exactly where “out here” was. We were somewhere in the middle of the Flat Tops Wilderness, north of Glenwood Springs— we knew that much—but only Jimmy and his wrangler buddy Cliff, trotting along with us, had any real idea which direction we were headed. We had come to fish for brook trout with Minturn Anglers, a guide company with shops in Minturn and Denver, and we had entrusted ourselves more or less entirely to the expertise of these two young men, who were leading us through the woods to an unnamed lake fed by a mountain spring. Our fishing guide, Mandy, along for the trip but equally clueless about the location of the lake, had told us that the alpine waters in the Flat Tops were currently “stacked” with brookies. A fly fisherman’s dream.

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This is, essentially, what Minturn Anglers offers: a chance to get far out. The company has been running trips since 2008, and they’re regarded throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond as some of the best guides available for those who crave a little work with their play. Their trips usually involve some kind of paddling, floating, hiking, or riding. Given the quality of the fishing that results from these efforts, most of their clients agree: The rewards are well worth the labor.

Photo by Jon Rose

We pushed on for a few more hours, leaving the bear behind to finish his lunch, and picked our way along the rim of a steep, wooded canyon, emerging eventually into a high alpine valley that stretched for miles. We crossed streams swollen with fresh melt, plodded up rocky hillsides, and minced our way through thick aspen groves, with nothing in sight but the white and emerald of 10,000 identical trees. More than once, Jimmy or Cliff had to jump from his horse, pull a hatchet from his saddlebag, and hack away a tree that had fallen across the path in a recent snowstorm, sending sprays of woodchips into the air with every knock of the blade. “No prize without some sweat,” Jimmy said at one point, while Cliff chopped. To the right person—one who wants to bask in the wilds of Colorado with the promise of prodigious fishing at the end of the trail—all of this was perfect.

Photo by Jon Rose

Finally, just when we were all getting a little saddle-sore, the lake came into view. It wasn’t big, but right away we saw that Mandy was right. Dozens of shadows were moving in the clear water, and the ripples from risers were aggressive and frequent. We tied up the horses, rigged our rods with flies, and slipped into waders. “They look hungry,” Mandy said.

They started biting immediately. Nothing we pulled in was trophy-size, but all of them were beautiful—the speckled technicolor typical of brookies. The lake and surrounding meadow were completely silent except for the birds and the swish of casting. One after another, the fish took our bugs without any nibbling—just eager, open-mouthed gulps. It was all catchand- release, but the thought of tossing one of our take onto the portable grill Jimmy and Cliff had brought to cook lunch was tempting, to say the least. The day had worked up an appetite for something wild.

Photo by Jon Rose

In the end, five hours of fishing were not nearly enough. Jimmy and Cliff had to get us back down the trail by sunset, before the wilderness became truly menacing. Climbing onto our horses and trotting away from the lake, we all took one last look at the water. There were still more fish to catch. We probably could have stayed all night, and they never would have stopped biting.

“Good one today,” Jimmy said, once we’d made it a few miles down the trail. “Lotta bites.” We picked our way slowly down the mountain as some clouds rolled in. After a while, we passed a large, clawed track in the mud of the path—the same bear we saw earlier, maybe. But there was nothing around this time. The creature had already slipped away, we guessed, off to find fish of his own.

Minturn Anglers
Leads full-day and overnight horseback fly fishing trips coordinated by Flat Tops Wilderness Guides, spring through fall. One day, $450 per person; two-day overnight, $550 per person per day. Pricing based on two-person minimum.