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Yampa Sweet Tea: Keeping Colorado's Last Wild River Free

The winding, natural course through ranch lands, emerald subalpine meadows, and sandstone cliffs creates one of the West's most scenic and wild experiences.

Yampa Sweet Tea: Keeping Colorado's Last Wild River Free

The natural hydrology of the Yampa creates bends, back eddies, and S-turns that create holding habitat. The surrounding landscape doesn’t offer much shade on the upper areas of the river. An overhanging bush on the outside of a bend near the head or tailout of a pool is a prime area to find trout. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

I waded toward an upstream lie, picking my steps carefully under the high afternoon sun. The reflection on the river’s surface was a blinding mirror that danced to the rhythm of the river. A small seam created from submerged rocks compressed the water into a nervous riffle and foam line that lazily swirled downstream in the shade of an overhanging cottonwood.

The tree offered some respite from the sun’s wrath as Charles B. Smith Outfitters guide Torre Saterstrom, coached my approach. “That’s the spot, do you see the seam from the rocks along the edge of the shade line?” said the wiry, and easygoing Norwegian. The Colorado sun in July at 6,700 feet above sea level is a force to contend with for a lowland angler like myself, let alone the thin  and dry air that makes you suck water like a camel at an oasis.

“I feel like I’m too close, Torre,” I lamented. My Eastern mindset told me if I was home in Pennsylvania, a wild trout would spook if I got this close. I cast my hopper/dropper rig of a yellow-bellied Chubby Chernobyl with a trailing Yellow Sally nymph upstream of the cottonwood, crossing the foam line with slack in my fly line. Saterstrom whispered “That’s the ticket right there,” as a broad-shouldered brown emerged from the shade to suck the fly into its maw.

After we released what Saterstrom called a “healthy, but average fish,” a sweet, cool breeze with notes of wild mint and sagebrush lifted from the river. The cottonwoods released their seeds in a false snowstorm above the Yampa’s tea-stained water. The smell reminded me of the mint sun tea my mother made when I was a child. Home. The word eased into my mind via nostalgia. Saterstrom gently slid the brown out of the net as its tail splashed with vigor, the sweet tea of the Yampa splashing onto my face. Certain people and places have a special way of making you feel connected, like you’ve been there before and are just now returning.

A brown trout held on the water's surface.
An abundance of food sources throughout the year such as worms, leeches, and nymphs feed the Yampa’s trout. Subsurface flies can produce fish when hatches are light. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

Valley History

Since 7,000 BCE indigenous peoples have inhabited the Yampa Valley. Evidence can be found in Yampa River Canyon’s petroglyphs. The Fremont people, also known as the Desert Archaic people, named after explorer John C. Frémont, began living in the valley in 800 CE, yet mysteriously disappeared for unknown reasons during the 1400s. A branch of the Ute tribe, the White River Utes, then migrated into the valley. Other related tribes, such as the Paiute gave the White River Utes the name Yamparika or Yapudttka Utes.

The Utes diverged into separate bands and tribes consisting of the Hopi, Paiute, Shoshone, and Chemehuevi tribes. The Yamparika band, sometimes known as Yampatika, summered in the valley for its abundant food, water, and health benefits from mineral hot springs. Arapaho, and other tribes, also visited here for the same reason. Yamparika/Yampatika is a Paiute word meaning “yampa eaters,” with Yampa or Yampah, being the name given to the plentiful Perideridia plant’s edible root. In 1843, explorer John C. Frémont first recorded “Yampah” in his journal entries referring to the valley.

During the 1800s fur trappers frequented the valley. In 1875, James Harvey Crawford became the first permanent resident in Steamboat Springs, and shortly thereafter miners, trappers, homesteaders, traders, and developers began settling. The early 1900s saw rapid growth and development as skiing became a popular activity.

The Yampa is the last free-flowing river with a natural hydrograph in Colorado. It flows unregulated to the west for 250 miles where it meets the Green River at Echo Park at the base of Steamboat Rock within Dinosaur National Monument. The Green meanders south through Utah joining with the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park. The winding, natural course of the Yampa through ranch lands, emerald subalpine meadows, and sandstone cliffs creates one of the West’s most scenic, and wild experiences.

The northwest corner of Colorado lacks major metropolitan areas reliant on massive water stores. Towns are spread across ranch lands and wilderness within the valley hills. This sparsity kept the Yampa off the radar for industrial-scale development in the early 1900s.

A fly angler sitting in a drift boat with a fly box on his knee, tying a fly on.
Hog Island Boat Works owner John St. John changes flies to crack the code on a rising brown trout. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

However, the water in this arid region has always been very much in demand. Colorado waters are subject to a prior appropriation system as a result of the 1860s Colorado Doctrine. The doctrine allows public agencies, private persons, and subsequential agencies to use, divert, and aquifer the state’s ground and surface water for irrigation and other uses. The doctrine was drafted to differentiate the water rights from Riparian Law, which is common in more humid and wet areas of the country, as a way to manage water use effectively in the arid regions of the state. This set the stage for one of the first and most critical conservation initiatives in the nation’s history.

In 1953, the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) enacted plans to develop the 250,000 square mile Colorado River Basin, which stretches into Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming by damming the Colorado and its tributaries at various locations to aid in the development of the Southwest. The proposed Echo Park Dam was put into motion by Douglas McKay, U.S. Secretary of the Interior (1953-1956). The dam would have flooded portions of Dinosaur National Monument.

Environmentalist and Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower fought to oppose the Echo Park Dam by submitting evaporation statistics to a Congressional subcommittee proving a dam at Arizona’s Glen Canyon would have similar evaporation loss as the Echo Park Dam and could satisfy the water needs of the Lower Colorado River Basin. He was also instrumental in creating some of the first conservation media such as flyers and films to oppose the Echo Park Dam and gain public support. Congress amended the CRSP Act in 1956 denying the building of any dam within a national park or monument. Brower set an example for modern day conservationists to stay steadfast in preserving natural resources by utilizing scientific data and media. Around Steamboat Springs and throughout the Yampa Valley, organizations and funds such as the Friends of the Yampa, The Nature Conservancy, and Yampa River Fund garner public support and funding to keep the Yampa free.

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Steamboat Springs

Driving from Denver to the Yampa Valley is easy and scenic along Rt. 70 west. You’ll pass through Rocky Mountain National Park. At the ski town of Silverthorne you head northwest on Rt. 9 along the Blue River, eventually entering into scrub lands with stark sandstone formations. Rt. 9 brings you to the small town of Kremmling, where you pick up Rt. 40 west. As you travel on Rt. 40, you slowly ascend into subalpine forests and meadows. The Rabbit Ears Pass crosses the Continental Divide, with Rabbit Ears Peak soaring above. As you wind your way through the Routt National Forest you eventually descend into the sweeping emerald vistas of the Yampa Valley.

Steamboat Springs is a cultural hub known famously for its “champagne powder” skiing. Howelsen Hill, an Olympic training facility, has produced 100 Olympic athletes, more than any other town in the country. It’s an outdoor haven for skiers, rafters, mountain bikers, fly fishers, cross country skiers, hikers, golfers, and more. The vibe is positive, laid back, with a serious food and art scene. There’s not many places you can catch trout, grab a taco, a beer or margarita, and visit a fly shop all within 100 feet of each other.

Fishing the Yampa

The Bear River’s headwaters start in the Flat Tops Wilderness area and Phillips Creek’s headwaters flow from the Gore Range. The two rivers converge near the town of Yampa to form the Yampa River. Stagecoach Reservoir and Lake Catamount are the only impediments and high in the river basin.

There are many public access points for the Yampa. Below Stagecoach Reservoir in Stagecoach State Park the tailwater section provides consistent cold water. Steamboat Springs downtown is public access. It’s well known as one of the most productive, and pressured areas. From March through May the cold water keeps many rafters and tubers at bay until the summer heat settles in. Upstream of town there are pull-offs to fish the Chuck Lewis State Wildlife area, Rotary Park, and River Creek Park. Downstream the river turns west, flowing toward Utah with accesses scattered along its course. Check with a local outfitter or fly shop like Steamboat Flyfisher, owned by three-time Olympic silver medalist and Steamboat Springs native Johnny Spillane.

A large rainbow trout held just above the water's surface, over a net.
Quick catch-and-release practices like using a rubberized net and keeping fish wet will help reduce mortality rates. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

“The Yampa has a variety of fly-fishing opportunities. If it’s low and warm, there are cold alpine streams. The Elk River can fish well with higher cfs levels when the Yampa gets low in late June through July. Fishing in town is good, but can be crowded with easy access. A little legwork can get you on water with no pressure. My staff always tries to educate anglers on the fly-fishing opportunities available, as well  as the impact on fish during stressful periods,” says Spillane.

This sentiment isn’t Spillane’s alone. Hog Island Boat Works owner John St. John is an avid fly fisher, and conservationist working with the nonprofit organization Friends of the Yampa.

“Everyone considers the West to be tough and resilient, when our environments are actually quite fragile. A long-term drought can have devastating effects on our waterways, much more so than other areas that receive more annual rainfall. The sun can bake the river bottom once the dark algae grows in summer. The Yampa heats up quickly making conditions hard on the fish,” says St. John. Fishing closures in summer have happened on the Yampa in the past with 2021 being one of the worst droughts on record from high temperatures, lack of rain, and over-appropriation.

March through May, before the snowpack melts, is prime time to target trout with subsurface flies like worms, egg patterns, leeches, and stonefly nymphs. Golden stonefly patterns, and Pat’s Rubberlegs in sizes 8 to 12 in black, brown, and speckled variations work well. If you plan to fish in March, rainbow trout can be spawning. Browns spawn from September through November. Stay off redds and don’t target spawning fish.

“The river is always changing due to flooding. We (guides) tend to relearn the same stretches of water each year. Holes and gravel bars that were there one year, may be gone the next. It’s a challenging river to figure out and keeps us on our toes,” says Saterstrom.

Early to mid-May, the Yampa surges, and can be unfishable due to flooding. Saterstrom, and Charlie Smith, guide and owner of Charles B. Smith Outfitters, like late May after the snowpack run-off peaks. The water can be slightly off-color or clear, with heavy volume, but not much insect activity. Float season can be short, from late May to early July. They focus on worms, leeches, and streamers. The streamer fishing is good any time of the year according to Saterstrom and many patterns work. “Sometimes you just have to try something new if the standbys aren’t working.” Fish a single streamer if it’s articulated. Single-hook patterns can be fished solo or as a tandem setup with two streamers of varying sizes. This can elicit savage strikes from a trout that may have a fear of missing out on a two-for-one deal.  

“There’s also a huge biomass of crayfish in the Yampa. Orange, brown, and olive Galloup’s Sex Dungeons work by imitating multiple baitfish and crayfish. I go big on the Dungeons, the large predatory browns love them.” With streamers, 5- to 7-weight rods with weight-forward floating lines work well either from a boat or wading. For lightweight streamers use sinking tips to get down or place a split-shot 6 to 8 inches above the fly to impart a jigging motion that mimics a dying baitfish. An intermediate line isn’t a bad choice if you’re only throwing meat, but it’s not typically needed if you employ a sink tip. Both Saterstrom and Smith agree heavy tippet is a must. Nylon or fluorocarbon 1X or 2X tippet allows you to put pressure on the fish in strong currents and get them to the net as quickly as possible. Any good streamer junkie knows light tippet is a bad idea for big flies. It simply can’t hold a larger hook in a fish’s mouth, usually ending with a the fly being spit out, or breaking off.

Mid to late June brings Yellow Sally stoneflies in sizes 12 to 16, Green, Brown, and Slate Drakes in sizes 8 to 12, and Pale Morning Duns in sizes 14 to 20. Fish these flies as nymphs, emergers (Barr’s Emerger being a favorite) and drys, or as a dry/dropper setup. Caddis and caddis emergers are always on the menu as well.

July through September is when terrestrial fishing heats up. As the hay fields dry the hoppers get fat and happy. Their buzzing is a call to be fishing a hopper/dropper setup near grassy banks and in foam lines. Windy days on the Yampa push clunky airborne hoppers onto the water and into the gullets of big trout. Chubby Chernobyls in sizes 10 to 14 are a must, usually with yellow foam bellies and tan tops. Paramore’s Thunder Thighs Hopper is another popular choice. During an excursion with Steamboat Flyfisher guide Doug Garber, he cycled through various colors of hoppers trying to induce strikes in a high-grass pastoral stretch. Garber is a maestro of fly selection, he likes to keep it fresh, and with good results.

I used a Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth Infinity fly line paired with a 9-foot, 5-weight G.Loomis IMX-PRO V2 rod to punch hoppers through the wind. A weight-forward line creates enough line speed to turn over hoppers and land them with an enticing “splat!” Move the tip of your rod in short bursts to twitch the hopper during the drift. A hopper/dropper rig with a trailing Yellow Sally nymph, or weighted leech pattern like Mayer’s Mini Leech Jig fished on 4X or 5X, can be a deadly combo.

Tricos show up at the end of July, and can last through September. Trico drys in sizes 18 to 20 fished on 6X fluorocarbon tippet as single or double rigs, or dry/dropper rigs with a trailing gray or white RS2 or Barr’s Emerger in sizes 18 to 20 are a fine choice. Trico nymphs in sizes 18 to 20 can be added to trail the emerger.

Fishing the Yampa is all about adjusting for success. You might be fishing a PMD dry to a rising fish one moment, 25 yards upstream you’re switching to a nymph rig under an indicator, and shortly afterward rigging to throw a streamer. Multiple rods with different rigs are helpful if you don’t mind hauling them.

A stout pair of wading boots with carbide or aluminum cleats will work. Felt soles are legal in Colorado. If you choose felt, wash them well after use, flip them over, and let the sun’s UV rays bake off any nasties. I wet waded in July wearing Simms Flyweight Access Wet Wading boots. The softer Vibram Idrogrip Flex outsole worked well on the streambed, with only heavily algae-coated rocks creating some slippery spots. I paired them with a Simms Neoprene Flyweight Wading sock to keep pebbles and debris out. When wet wading, wear quick-dry pants, and long sleeve, hooded sun shirts with insect repellent. Mosquitoes and blackflies can be thick. Copper, brown, and for low-light fishing yellow polarized sunglasses are a must. I suggest carrying an extra pair in your pack. Bring an insulated water bottle to stay hydrated, and don’t forget sunscreen.

The lifeblood of the valley is the wild,  yet fragile Yampa. It’s a fishy place, full of fishy people who care about it deeply. The sun slowly crept behind the sandstone cliffs as the drift boat rocked gently in a slow pool. We lost track of time while focusing on rising fish. I asked St. John, “How far are we from the takeout?” since we were already out much longer than expected. He laughed and said “Not far, but the weather is great and we’re getting to the magic hour. We’re hunting Dennis, let’s keep going.” I glanced at St. John, we smiled and laughed, and I knew this day was special. If you’ve shared a boat with him, you know the feeling. We floated into the quiet evening with PMDs and caddis scattering the surface. The waning sun flooded the valley with golden light illuminating the hillsides and cliffs. A soft breeze again lifted wild mint into the air as I kept casting in hopes of making another connection to the Yampa’s wild waters.

Friends of the Yampa

Logo of Friends of the Yampa River, showing an illustration of a river flowing through a canyon.
To learn more and donate to the Friends of the Yampa, or the Yampa River Fund, go to friendsoftheyampa.com or yampariverfund.org.

Founded in 1981, Friends of the Yampa (FOTY) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) group focused on the preservation, conservation, and community engagement for the Yampa River. They strive to keep the Yampa wild and available for the public and for future generations.

“A healthy river serves everyone,” said Lindsey Marlow, Executive Director. “You don’t really know a river until you float it. You have to care about it before you want to do something to protect it,” she added. 

The FOTY Yampa River Scorecard Project is a long-term health and evaluation program for the Yampa River watershed. It conducts tests on water quality, examines geomorphology, riparian ecosystems, habitat connectivity for species, and surveys the public for recreational data and education.

“We try and engage the community as much as possible. We host a variety of events throughout the year with local help and support through businesses and funding. The Yampa River Fund being an example. Some events are the youth camps, the Yampa River Stewardship Program to educate ranchers and landowners on the importance of being a steward of the Yampa, the Yampa River Headwaters Fishing & Poker Run where participants go to the headwaters to experience the river outside of the main system. Johnny and his team at Steamboat Flyfisher support this event, with proceeds going to scholarships for youth in the Yampa Valley to learn how to fly fish and experience its waters firsthand.”

FOTY and the Yampa River Fund, have had their share of struggles with the apparent changes in climate. Longer periods of drought, and higher volume snowpacks have taken their toll on the Yampa in recent years.

“You can’t plan for what the water year will look like anymore, but resiliency is built into nature. FOTY works to connect people to care about the Yampa watershed remaining public, clean, and free flowing for generations to come,” said Marlow. 

To learn more and donate to the Friends of the Yampa, or the Yampa River Fund, go to friendsoftheyampa.com or yampariverfund.org.

Alpine Mountain Ranch Club

A collage of photos of fly fishing the Yampa River and the Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club
Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club contains 63 luxury homesites on a 1,216-acre ranch bordering Steamboat Ski Resort, a private golf club, and Routt National Forest. (Photos courtesy of Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club)

A 10-minute drive from downtown brings you to a luxury ranch community with some of the West’s most stunning homes. Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club contains 63 luxury homesites on a 1,216-acre ranch bordering Steamboat Ski Resort, a private golf club, and Routt National Forest. Each homesite is five acres, and 900 acres of the ranch is a dedicated wildlife preserve. Equestrian facilities, an owners’ lodge, guest cabins, concierge services, Nordic skiing, a private backcountry cabin, and private access fly fishing on the Yampa River are just some of the amenities. There are currently 17 remaining homesites, and a finished mountain-contemporary home available for purchase.

“More than ever before, luxury buyers are viewing Steamboat as the resort community to design and build a home,” said Suzanne Schlicht, SVP and director of sales, Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club. “The ranch’s proximity to the ski area and downtown Steamboat, the tranquil setting, stunning views, and world-class fly fishing access, bring families together.”


Dennis Pastucha is the art director for Fly Fisherman. He’s a graduate of West Chester University of Pennsylvania, an avid fly fisher and fly tier. He resides in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania with his wife April, and son Jack.




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