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Fishing Guide at Hartsel Springs Ranch

The fishing at Hartsel Springs Ranch is nothing short of "world class".  With over 26 miles of fishable water, we offer a tremendous opportunity for fishermen of all levels.  The open meadows provide easy access to the streams and also provide the best possible environment for flyfishing.  Because the streams run through the highland basin of South Park, almost all of our water is easily accessible.  You won’t have to negotiate canyons, cliffs or steep inclines to reach the stream.  Instead, you’ll find open, grass filled meadows with gentle meandering streams. 

Additionally, the valley in which the streams run are relatively flat providing fishermen with slower water conditions.  The absence of trees and bush make backcasting that much easier as you don’t have to worry as much about getting your line caught in a tree on a long back cast. 

These highly desirable fishing conditions lend themselves perfectly for novice to expert fishermen.  Because the Colorado Division of Wildlife has classified our fishing waters as Gold Medal with a Wild Trout designation, fishing is restricted to artificial flies and lures.  This guide will focus on giving you relevant information to increase your odds of landing a trout at Hartsel Springs Ranch. 

But before we get into the fishing aspect of this guide we encourage people to be familiar with Colorado high country conditions.  We also remind everyone that the Ranch is still in a very pristine environmental state and we aim to keep it that way.  Please remove all litter, even litter that you didn’t deposit and dispose of it properly. 

You will find volumes of information about how to fish some of the South Platte’s famous public sections of the river such as the 3.8 miles of “Dream Stream” between Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile Reservoir downstream to the infamous Cheeseman Canyon.  These are public sections of river that are so heavily fished that trout are deemed educated due to their learned ability to immediately detect all but the best presented flies and lures. 

But, this guide will be specific to the waters of Hartsel Springs Ranch.  Fishing at Hartsel Springs Ranch can be quite exciting.  While trout are feeding on insects and other terrestrials, it is not always that easy to determine what specific “fly” you should tie on.  Multiple hatches, different feeding patterns, insect life cycles, water clarity, water flow, air temperature and water temperature, time of day and season of the year are some of the many factors a successful fishermen will need to take into account to land a trout. 

Fishing, and flyfishing in particular, can be quite complex, yet there is nothing as pure and tranquil as fishing these high basin waters. 

Our guide offers some basic flyfishing tips that will help you in your quest for trout: 

1)      When the fishing is slow, fish fast.  If the fishing is fast, fish slow.  In other words, if you don’t see a lot of action you may want to get more aggressive with your fishing techniques.  For instance, try stripping a big Wooly Bugger with a strip and flick technique to create a lot of action in the hopes of attracting trout when not seeing any action.  Another trick is to cast down stream and retrieve your fly upstream.  While this technique isn’t going to fool a large brown, you will often find it very effective for catching smaller trout.  On the other hand, when you see the fish actively feeding you know that they are going for particular bugs.  You are best trying to match the hatch with a similar sized fly and color and carefully presenting it by casting up and quarterly allowing for a drag free or dead drift presentation.

2)      Fish during feeding times.  Early morning and dusk are prime fishing times during summer months, early morning hours are good in spring, and mid day fishing is best in fall.  This doesn’t mean that you won’t catch fish outside these times, but you will certainly be more likely to get a strike when you know the fish are feeding.  And remember, trout like to snack as well.  Even if the fish aren’t biting, it doesn’t mean that a tasty looking pattern might not yield a trout.

3)       Take advantage of cloud cover and passing thunderstorms.  As a dark cloud approaches, you may want to consider putting on your favorite dry fly.  Often times trout rise and insects suddenly appear when the sun ducks under a cloud.  The light conditions often mimic that of dawn or dusk and help encourage feeding behavior.  After rainstorms is an excellent time to fish as well.  Bugs have been washed into the river and the trout are going to be taking advantage of it as well so be ready to fish.  While this strategy is mainly geared for summer months it can work in other seasons as well.  Keep in mind that Colorado high country is also known as “lightning country” so make sure to obey nature’s signs and retreat to safety if lightning risk is eminent.

4)      Fish transitions.  In other words, fish anywhere there are opposite characteristics.  Fish the seams where fast water meets slow water, where dark water meets lighter water, and where shallow water meets deeper water.  Trout love these habitats and you’ll increase your odds of hooking a fish by fishing them.

5)      Don’t be afraid to bottom fish.  Also known as tight lining or nymphing, fishing so your fly drifts about 8-18” above the bottom of the streambed is one of the deadliest techniques you can use.  Trout spend 90 percent of their time feeding on the bottom, although most people think of classic dry fly fishing in which the fly is on the surface of the water.  If the trout aren’t rising for natural insects, you may want to consider fishing below the waters surface.

6)      When in doubt select the smaller and darker fly (exception: apply the opposite in high, murky water conditions).  Because of the incredibly diverse hatches that occur at the Ranch, there will be many times when you simply don’t have the exact fly, size and color that represent the naturals the fish are feeding on.  Let’s say you catch a bug and it is a size 20 and tan in color.  The problem is that you only have size 18 and 22 and only black and green bodied flies to choose from.  Select the smaller size 22 and the darker black when in doubt.

7)      The bigger the splash the bigger the bug.  Watch the fish feed.  If you just see small rings in the water it means that the fish are feeding off small bugs on the surface or just under the surface.  A big splash would indicate a bigger bug.  This will help you determine what insect and what size of insect the fish are feeding on.

8)      Remember the effort /reward principal.  When feeding off small insects the trout will not venture far from its position to eat a small bug.  Simply putting the effort needed to get the bug is not worth the calories the fish will get from consuming it.  Therefore, the smaller your fly the more accurate you will need to be to successfully land a trout.  Bigger bugs offer greater reward so the placement of your cast is not as critical.

9)      Don’t spook the fish.  If you want to catch fish you better not scare them away before making your first cast.  Despite the obvious suggestion in using stealth and walking quietly, here are some other hints.  The clearer, the shallower, and the slower the water, the more easily the fish will be spooked.  If you are fishing a clear section of shallow, slow moving water with sun overhead, just the slight shadow or ripple caused by your fly hitting the surface of the water is enough to send the fish swimming for cover.  However, the deeper, the murkier, and the faster the water, the more difficult it is for the fish to detect you.  Cloud cover and time of day are also important components to consider. 

10)     Watch the stream flow. The fishing streams on the Ranch do not flow immediately below a dam-controlled reservoir so they are subject to greater fluctuation in water flow, known as CFS (cubic feet per second).  CFS will often increase during daytime hours in the spring and after summertime showers.  You’ll certainly want to adjust your fishing accordingly.

11)     What’s in the environment?  Observe and watch the natural surroundings.  You know the fish are eating something in this environment and the trick is to figure out what.  One way to start is to catch the bugs.  If you’re quick you can catch a bug by hand.  If not, try using a small net or even mosquito screen and skim the surface of the water and catch the bugs floating on the surface.  And don’t be afraid to grab a stone in the stream bed and turn it over to see what’s living under it.  With careful observation you will soon at least be able to know what is in the trout’s environment and make a more intelligent selection of fly pattern.


While most people think of fishing as a summertime activity, fishing at Hartsel Springs Ranch is an almost year-round adventure.  In fact some of the best fishing actually occurs in late winter.  Here are some seasonal tips for you to consider. 

Spring – Early spring, particularly March and April offer some of the year’s best fishing.  You will want to have adequate clothing and neoprene gloves and may have to periodically break ice from your fishing rod guides, but these inconveniences will often be rewarded with a great catch.  With the water cool and clear the trout have great visibility.  There can be good surface action and you just have to pay attention to what hatches are occurring to match the hatch.  Because there are less insects flying around this time of year, it is often easier to determine what the fish are eating.  You’ll find the odd blue winged olive hatch and more frequent midge hatches.  If you do match the hatch don’t be surprised to catch 20 fish in a day!  Fishing with small nymphs and shrimp imitations can also be productive.  Just turn over a stone and see what’s in the water.  And with the Rainbows and Cutthroats spawning during the spring and heading upstream from Spinney Mountain Reservoir through the Ranch, you’ll have exceptional opportunity to land massive trout during this time of year.

As you fish, remember that the trout are coming out of the winter so they may appear lethargic.  Don’t expect great fighting and you’ll want to watch your strike indicator very carefully and lift your rod upon even the slightest hesitation.  Strikes tend be more like a nudge than an aggressive hit.

As the weather warms and the sun begins to melt the snow the run off starts to increase and in May and June the streams are at their highest levels of the year.  The water runs faster and is often quite murky.  Water temperature actually gets colder as the ambient temperature rises causing snow to melt from the high country and work its way downstream.  This is the time of year that separates the men from the boys so to speak.

The fair weather fisherman will be discouraged and will simply retreat downstream and join the general public and fish the 3.8 miles of river below the dam-controlled Spinney Mountain Reservoir; however, the experienced fisherman will use the conditions to his advantage and keep miles of stream to himself.

For one, the smart fishermen will be fishing during the early morning hours from 6 to 9 am while the temperature is still below freezing.  The water will be clearer and the fish will be feeding during these hours before the sun melts the snow and creates murkier water.  But even if you fish in late morning and early afternoon there are some other tricks of the trade.  With water running so fast and murky, trout are forced to the sides of the currents and into calm water thereby confining them to select sections of the stream.  Fish will hold in concentrated pockets and if you can find them you should be in for an exciting day of fishing.

Additionally, because the water clarity is not good, the trout cannot see as well and must make a much quicker decision to strike.  Again this knowledge can be used to your advantage.  You do not have to be as precise in your selection of flies and you run far less chance of spooking the trout.  You can relax a little on your presentation and your gauge of tippet; however, you will still need to get your fly over the fish because the fish isn’t going to see it if you don’t place it right over him.

This is also the time of year where you can use brighter color and bigger flies to attract the fish.  For this reason you can choose from a variety of standard patterns including yellow stone flies as well as bead headed and gold ribbed nymphs.  

Yes, the fishing can be more difficult, but once you find the fish and the correct pattern, don’t be surprised if you have banner days. 

Summer – Summer is the most associated with fishing.  Meadows with mountain wild flower, clear water, singing birds, and rising trout are what one pictures during the summer months.  From late June to early September you can expect to see a lot of insect activity.  Trout are active and dusk and dawn fishing can be outstanding.  Through the summer you will want to have a number of patterns available as the multiple insect hatches will make it all but certain that the trout’s diet will be changing all the time.  July and early August are prime dry fly fishing months.  A variety of midge patterns, caddis, and mayfly patterns will be needed. Sizes tend to be in the 18-24 range, but if fishing is slow and you don’t feel like striping a wooly bugger or streamer, try a size 14-18 elk hair caddis or a humpy along the banks, logs, and undercuts and you’ll be surprised at the action.

If you want to bottom fish this time of year you can try standard nymphs such as small brassies, pheasant tail or hare’s ear nymphs, or even a San Juan worm.  Of course, you’ll always want to have an ugly wooly bugger ready to go.

As the summer progresses into July and August continue to rotate your dry flies and wet flies and match the odd hatches as necessary.  As you enter August you can begin experimenting with larger terrestrials such as grasshoppers and beetles.  If you get a strike on one of these larger patterns get ready for a good fight as the trout will no doubt slam the fly.

In September, you may want to go for the big browns.  Browns, especially big ones, like lakes and deep calm water.  They also are one of the few trout that will feed at night.  If you would like to try some night fishing think big.  Frog and Mouse imitations may work and you better have strong tippet and a lot of backing on your reel because if a trout hits a pattern that big, you know it’s got to have some size to it.

Fall – As fall approaches the daylight hours will dwindle.  Stream flows will vary depending on the snow melt the winter before.  If there was plenty of snow melt, the stream may fish as a continuation of the summer month with good dry fly action as well as good bottom action; however, if it has been a dry year, the water may be low.  If the water is low the fishing will be tougher and you can expect to find trout holding in the deeper water.  Nymph fishing will tend to be tough but it’s worth trying a rotation of small nymphs, a San Juan worm, and even an egg pattern.  And if that fails, go with the old reliable elk hair caddis or humpy and surface fish the deep undercuts.

You’ll need to adjust your approach as needed.  One thing to keep in mind is the fact that Browns and Brook Trout spawn in the fall.  You’ll most likely find Brown in the water around the Ranch, but in the small tributaries Brookies can be found as well.  The spawning season offers you a chance to land a sizeable catch if you can find them in a feeding mode.  Also keep in mind that breeding season is also fighting season.  Fish are very territorial and even if they are not hungry they may take a swipe at an aggressive intruder which can be mimicked using a flash tail wooly bugger or other colorful streamers.  Bright egg patterns and even a bright scud pattern can lead to productive results.

As this case with Rainbows and Cutthroat in the spring, we do encourage utmost responsibility and care in the spawning seasons.  Our waters are classified as wild trout waters and are not stocked.  The spawn is of absolute importance to the reproduction of trout in our waters and trout tend to endure physical hardship during this time period.

For these reasons we encourage the use of barbless hooks and heavier tippet.  Remember not to play the fish to exhaustion, to wet your hands before handling the fish, to keep the fish in the water as much as possible and to adequately revive the fish before setting it free by gently moving the fish forward and backwards to generate the flow of water through the gills.  Another piece of advice is to avoid walking across gravel stream bottom as these areas tend to be where trout lay eggs. And if a fish is actively spawning, don’t try catching it, leave it alone so it can reproduce so you and your grandchildren will have many more opportunities to catch these fish. 

One pattern to follow is as the daylight hours become less, the fishing becomes more difficult.  Most people aren’t fishing in late fall, but hatches still occur and you do get some good action in spurts as fish try to feed up for the winter months.  The timing of the feeds tend to be less predictable but more critical.  You’ll generally find that daytime hours have several feeding times.  Smaller nymphs and spinner patterns may be productive, but as we have found if you can’t match the hatch and aren’t getting any bites on the bottom, tie on a humpy or elk hair caddis and fish the banks and undercuts.

The streams will ice over in the winter but if you do want to brave the elements and happen to find some open water, try fishing a shrimp imitation or a buggy stone fly like a halfback.  You don't expect much of a fight, but you may get lucky and pull out a few fish.

At the Ranch, we have miles of stream that are not heavily fished so you’ll have a much better chance of landing a trout.  We hope this guide helps you in your quest for trout.  Don't be afraid to ask anyone at the Ranch for the "local knowledge" of where the fishing hot spots are as well.

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