March 26, 2022
By Ross Purnell
You don’t hear much about the White River. Or at least I didn’t, even when I lived in Colorado. I floated, walked, and waded as many of the “sure thing” tributaries on the West Slope as I could—the Roaring Fork, Eagle, Gunnison—but heard only faint rumors and rumblings about the White River in Rio Blanco County. “It’s all private.”
“Too many whitefish.”
“Too much irrigation, and the water gets low and warm.”
But all the people offering this information had never actually fished there. They’d heard it from someone who heard it from a friend who had fished there years ago. Even the Colorado guidebooks over the past 30 years seemed to ignore it or give it barely a passing mention.
With that in mind I put “Explore the White River” at the top of my hit list, and can tell you that the
original sources of those bad reports were probably deliriously happy, and justifiably jealous fly fishers who didn’t want yahoos from the Front Range (like me) fishing the White and turning Meeker into a trendy fly-fishing town. It’s that good.
White River Mythbuster
First, let me bust a few myths. Yes, there are quite a few whitefish—a great sign of a healthy ecosystem in this part of the world. If you fish with two nymphs and extra split-shot at the bottoms of the deep, slow “whitey” holes, you will catch them, and sometimes I do exactly that because Rocky Mountain whitefish are the native fish here, and the big ones can put quite a bend in the rod. Are there “too many”? Not in my opinion.
The White River starts in the snowy peaks of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, and one of its branches flows from Trappers Lake—one of Colorado’s best natural stillwater fisheries, and likely the best place in the state to catch a truly large native Colorado River cutthroat.
Trappers is at 9,600 feet above sea level, and by the time the White River gets to the valley upstream of Meeker—where the best trout fishing is—it’s still at 6,500 feet. Even in August and September when the days are dry, breezy, and 80 degrees, the water is normally icy cold. In early September 2010 with hot bluebird afternoons, we actually had slow fishing in the mornings, when after 40-degree nights the water was so cold I wished for an extra layer of fleece under my waders. The best fishing was in the afternoon when the water warmed up enough for the trout to get active, and for hoppers to really start moving.
It’s true that most of the White River flows through private property. Then again, so does most of the Roaring Fork, South Platte, and Yampa—and I haven’t crossed those blue-ribbon waters off my list yet. Private property is a fact of life on most of Colorado’s best trout streams. It just means you have to do some research, pay attention to signs, and find the water that’s right for you.
In the upper reaches, private ranches have all of the White locked up with exclusive access for the owners and their guests. You and I can’t even pay to fish most of these places. However, there are plenty of opportunities to get on good water lower down between Buford and Meeker, where you’ll also find the best fishing for big, wild trout.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife has several State Wildlife Areas (SWAs) and fishing leases for public access, including Meeker Pasture SWA, Oak Ridge SWA (several access points), and Wakara Ranch Access. For details on these accesses use the interactive map feature MapIt at wildlife.state.co.us, or just spend some time driving County Road 8 and follow the signs. The public fishing accesses are well marked, both for public parking, and on the river at the upper and lower limits of the properties. My biggest rainbow of all of 2010, a 22- or 23-inch beast that likely weighed 5 pounds, came on a short stretch of public water on the Rio Blanco.
The Rocky Mountain Angling Club (rmangling.com) has private access to 50 properties in Colorado for the blue-collar rate of a $115 annual membership plus daily rod fees. One of its properties is a half mile of river on the North Fork of the White near Mile Marker 29 that also includes access to a 2-acre, scud-filled pond with rainbows up to 7 pounds.
Another good opportunity to get on private water is at the Green Cabins 1½ miles upstream of Meeker (email@example.com, 1-970-878-4810). You can rent a cabin for $50-$80 per night, and this includes access to a half mile of beautiful winding river in a green valley. Meeker is a long way from Denver, so you’ll need to spend the night anyway, right?
The crown jewel of the White River for visiting fly fishers is the 975-acre K-T Ranch (K-bar-T), a working cattle ranch that includes almost 8 miles of river as well as two spring creeks that feed into it.
Lone Tree Spring Creek was once a minor seepage caught up in the maze of irrigation ditches and diversions that are a part of any hay-growing operation. The current owners rehabilitated the creek to give it depth, and created dozens of riffles and pools spread throughout a mile of creek to maintain adequate spawning gravel. Just months after the project was completed in 2009, there were 22-inch White River browns spawning in the newly created habitat.
In the summer, big browns and rainbows seek out the cool water of the creek, and more important, the easy access to millions of grasshoppers that think they can make it all the way across the tiny stream.
When you fish the K-T you’ll stay at one of the area’s original homesteads, a restored four-bedroom ranch house that can accommodate groups of up to eight people. Lodge managers Buzz and Rose Cox run the Orvis-endorsed program there, and offer outstanding food and professional guides who are well versed in all the local fishing.
The K-T has the biggest chunk of the best water on the White, flowing through hayfields and among beaver ponds with small herds of elk grazing at riverside. It’s an exceptional Colorado experience that can be paired with a trip to the sister ranch (same ownership), High Lonesome Ranch at De Beque, Colorado (thehighlonesomeranch.com).
When to Go to Colorado's White River
With no major impoundments, the White River is one of Colorado’s truest freestone streams, with naturally fluctuating water flows and moderate fertility. Instead of massive hatches of just a few insects, expect to see a little bit of everything. In the early spring and late fall the water is dependably low, and there are fishable hatches of Blue-winged Olives and midges. April is a good month to find the first hatches of the season and trout that are both hungry and relatively naïve.
The White can be a brown, floody mess anytime in May and June—it’s a bad time to plan a trip months in advance, but a great time to watch the weather and the stream flows online at the USGS site monitoring the river just below Meeker. If you live in Colorado there are times when you can find decent water conditions and massive caddis hatches (May), and both Golden Stones and Salmonflies.
By early July, flows are normally dropping, and the main event of all ranch-country fishing—whether it’s in Utah, Montana, Idaho, or anywhere else—begins. Hoppertime.
On the White you don’t need eight fly boxes containing emerging, crippled, and stuck-in-the-shuck flavors of more than a dozen major hatches. This isn’t the Henry’s Fork.
What you need from July through September—the three best fishing months—are big attractor dry flies that can do split-duty as a Golden Stones and hoppers, and a selection of good beadhead dropper nymphs.
Favorites on this river are #6-8 Chubby Chernobyls, rubber-leg Stimulators, and Charlie Boy Hoppers. Use 3X nylon tippet on the dry fly, not only to help turn the fly over, but to help avoid break-offs from savage bankside attacks.
Use 2 feet of 4X fluorocarbon for the dropper and tie on just about any tungsten beadhead nymph.
Mike Mercer’s purple Psycho Prince (#14) was a hot one for me one September day on the White, but I’ve also had great success with John Barr’s Poison Tung and plain, old-fashioned beadhead Pheasant Tails and Hare’s Ears.
Bring a selection of caddis and Pale Morning Dun drys for potential evening and afternoon hatches, respectively, but your main course should be wandering the cobbled banks and covering the water with a hopper-dropper combination. Look for big heads on the outsides of sweeping bends among the fallen sod clumps, and random deep pockets gouged by floods and winter ice. This is always likely hopper water on any river, just because it’s near the bank where the hoppers fall in.
On the White especially you also need to fish the gentler water on the insides of the same giant bends well out into the river. It may not look like big-fish water, but it is.
The White River is not a super-productive tailwater with thousands of fish per mile, but it does have an inordinate number of large fish over 20 inches that must also feed heavily on crayfish and small whitefish to maintain their weights.
Hopper fishing in and of itself tends to bring out the biggest fish in the river, as it seems many of the little fish have not learned what a hopper looks like. In prime summer conditions expect to catch from 10 to 20 fish per day—everything from little browns from 6 to 8 inches and rainbows with parr marks, up to 20- and 22-inch trout that can show you what your backing looks like.
In the end, Meeker will never be a trendy fly-fishing town like Basalt or Sun Valley. There’s no fancy ski resort to go along with the fishing, the White is not navigable for drift boats, and the flows and the fishing are at the mercy of Mother Nature. It’s “real” Colorado fishing where you work hard for the fish, but the dividends are worth the effort.
- Meeker is 70 miles northwest of Glenwood Springs on Colorado 13, or 90 miles southwest of Steamboat Springs using U.S. 40 and Colorado 13. The town has a modern general aviation airport with full-service fixed base operations and charter service. For details on the following public access sites, visit wildlife.state.co.us.
- Meeker Pasture SWA. From Meeker, go 1.5 miles north on Colorado 13 to County Road 8, then 2 miles east. The state wildlife area covers 40 acres of public land including a short section of the White River.
- Wakara Ranch Access. From Meeker, go 5 miles east on County Road 8. Take County Road 4 until it crosses the river. Access for a half mile downstream.
- Oak Ridge SWA (Sleepy Cat Ponds Access). From Meeker, go 14.5 miles east on County Road 8. This is private property with a fishing easement only. No hunting or other activities. Fishing is in Sleepy Cat Ponds and on the White River upstream for 1.5 miles.
- Oak Ridge SWA (Sleepy Cat Access). From Meeker, go 16 miles east on County Road 8. This is private property with a fishing easement only. No hunting or other activities. Fishing is downstream for 2.5 miles
- Lake Avery SWA. From Meeker go north 1.5 miles on Colorado 13 to County Road 8, then east for 9 miles. Lake Avery has camping, and good fishing for rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout in the lake. The SWA includes 1.5 miles of the White River.
- Meeker City Park. Public fishing from the 10th Street bridge upstream to Circle Park Bridge.
Flies for Colorado's White River
Chubby Chernobyl (gold)
HOOK: #4-10 2XL.
THREAD: Tan 140-denier UTC.
TAIL: Pearl Krystal Flash.
UNDERBODY: Gold dubbing.
BODY: Tan or brown Fly Foam (2 or 3mm).
LEGS: Brown/orange Speckle Flake Sili Legs or Spanflex barred with black permanent marker.
WING: White MFC Widow’s Web or poly yarn.
Charlie Boy Hopper (tan)
HOOK: #8-10 Tiemco 100 or 100SP-BL. Use Tiemco 5212 for #6 and Tiemco 5262 for #4 hooks.
THREAD: Tan Danville Monocord.
BODY: Tan Fly Foam (2mm).
LEGS: Brown round rubber.
WING: Natural deer hair.
EYES: Black permanent marker.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.