Salomone: Top to bottom, the Eagle River is showing many faces

Michael Salomone
Vail Valley Anglers
uide Andy Otter Smith shows off a recent catch.
Vail Valley Anglers/Courtesy photo

From the upper reaches above 9,200 feet in elevation to the confluence with the Colorado River some 60 miles away, the Eagle River is showing many different faces. Up high near the headwaters ice develops over slow water, around boulders and along riverbanks. But down near Dotsero the river still holds hopes for dry flies in the afternoon. Depending on where an angler wets their boots the approach is drastically different.

The fish are stocking up for the leaner winter months ahead. Anglers using different techniques will encounter fish eating the whole way. Insect activity, whether subsurface, emerging or adult is prevalent in the Eagle River. The ability to throw insects in different stages of development is the key.

All smiles for some fall fishing on the Eagle River.
Vail Valley Anglers/Courtesy photo

An angler with the ability to decipher the cold currents found in the upper Eagle River will achieve success utilizing smaller scale nymphs like size 18-20 zebra midges, miracle nymphs and sparse RS-2 patterns. Winter feeding is primarily midges and trout are showing their affinity for the miniscule morsels.

Focus on the little things like appropriate tippet, nymphs in a variety of colors and clean, trimmed knots. Heavy tippet dredges a nymph through the water while lighter tippet possesses the illusion of disconnect. Slower water currents, lower water levels and clear conditions necessitate a thinner diameter tippet. Nymphs in a wide selection of colors provide additional attraction to skittish trout. Unnatural tones like chartreuse, vermillion or white give a different look to an angler’s nymph rig.

Blue Wing Olives emerge sporadically, but the trout on the upper Eagle River don’t seem to care. Midges claim to be the flavor of the day. Having an early stage BWO nymph tied to your line is still a good idea. Whether as attraction or attention gathering a BWO nymph fished in tandem with midge nymphs holds appeal.

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The best approach to the Eagle River above Edwards and Avon is low and slow. Setting your rig to fish deep to mid column in the afternoon targets the fish triggered by increased early stage insect activity. Zebra midges, teeny RS-2s and performance jig nymphs in smaller sizes hold high appeal.

Performance jig nymphs sink quicker, hold depth better and attract attention. Despite their unnatural appearance, performance jig nymphs like the Perdigon catch fish in difficult conditions.

Brown trout head at waterline.
Michael Salomone/Courtesy photo

Let it swing on up at the end of your drift. This lackadaisical drift is part of the slow presentation. Pause and contemplate the clouds, whatever it is, but wait for a few seconds with the flies pulled taunt in the current.

Cover a variety of water as the day progresses. Target the shallow water above a riffle where the current picks up pace and the depth has diminished. Fish in this area are transitioning into feeding mode as insect activity increases with the warmth of the daylight sun. Deep drops below riffles hold trout in an easy, cruise mode waiting for opportunity to wash down. Adjusting weights to control depth is key. Don’t pinch on an AB sinker in the parking lot and think you are good for the day. Weight adjustment dials in your flies to the appropriate depth and current speed.

On the lower Eagle River, trout will be looking to exploit slow rising emergers and eating adults in the waning light of day. The sun is key for action and bug activity. Warmth comes from the sun in shallow waters triggering insect movement and activity. It’s a solar warmth the trout wait to take advantage of daily. Anglers who follow the sun as the Eagle River flows westward enhance their chances for increased action.

Angler Drew Musser working the Eagle River in Wolcott.
Michael Salomone/Courtesy photo

A happy hour occurs on the lower Eagle River daily. Trout come to the surface and gobble down midge clusters skittering across the surface. The setting sun focuses light on the water and gives anglers an enhanced look at the small dry flies that often get lost in the glare. Position the sunlight behind you if possible, concentrate on any unnatural disturbance in the vicinity of your flies and set the hook with confidence.

From the top to the bottom the Eagle River is transitioning toward winter conditions. Anglers refusing to accept the approaching cold improve their chances for success the farther west they drive. Sizing down on your nymphs, targeting shallow warming water and presenting different stages of midge flies is the way to negotiate the differing conditions found on the Eagle River.

Michael Salomone moved to the Eagle River valley in 1992. He began guiding fly-fishing professionally in 2002. His freelance writing has been published in magazines and websites including, Southwest Fly Fishing, Fly Rod & Reel, Eastern Fly Fishing, On the Fly, FlyLords, the Pointing Dog Journal, Upland Almanac, the Echo website, Vail Valley Anglers and more. He lives on the bank of the Eagle River with his wife, Lori; two daughters, Emily and Ella; and a brace of yellow Labrador retrievers.

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