Although not a great river, the Crystal is still a very good place to spend a day with a fly rod
The Crystal River is not my favorite river.
How’s that for an opening line? Not exactly a compelling story, huh?
But, does not being great mean one should ignore it? Absolutely not!
In order to have favorite rivers that are great, you also need to have some other rivers that are good, even if they are not great. Otherwise, what would you have to compare with to define a great river?
So it is with the Crystal River as it flows down a beautiful Colorado valley. Beginning in the high peaks above the community of Marble, the Crystal gathers size as it continues through the town of Redstone. Its last hurrah comes at Carbondale, where it joins the Roaring Fork River.
The Crystal won’t make the top 10 list of best rivers across the state, but it does make the list of worthwhile places to spend a day. Combine its proximity to the popular Glenwood Springs to Aspen Roaring Fork Valley corridor with easy access, with Highway 133 paralleling the river for almost its entire distance, and you have a recipe for a change of pace from the more heavily visited Roaring Fork and Frying Pan.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife does a fair amount of stocking of the Crystal River. There is even a fish hatchery right on the river on the outskirts of Carbondale. Not a large hatchery, but close counts for a lot when you are right on the river.
Public access is generous in the vicinity of Marble and Redstone. Plus, both towns are an interesting visit for a break from a day of fishing or for your non-fishing companions.
Marble has great history with its namesake, the marble rock that is mined in the adjacent quarry. The quarry was the source for the large marble block that makes up the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.
Redstone bustles in the summer with small shops, the Redstone Inn, and the magnificent home of Mr. Osgood, a former coal king, locally known as The Castle.
In the Marble vicinity, the smaller water is narrow and bushy in places, but easily waded. Having gathered some volume from numerous small trickling tributaries by the time it reaches Redstone, it changes character from a creek to a river. Above the town of Redstone, the Crystal bends against the beautiful redstone cliffs in a narrow canyon area, forming deep holes adjacent to the highway. Below Redstone, the valley widens and the river spreads into long runs and riffles interspersed by large rocks.
A few miles from Redstone, a hot springs emerges. If you have driven that way, there is a large dirt pulloff area where there will almost always, even in winter, be a car parked — and sometimes quite a few cars. If you’ve wondered what the attraction is, visitors of the Penny Hot Springs have handcrafted a rock pool to capture the steaming water and enjoy a natural outdoor hot tub.
Closer to Carbondale in the lower end of the valley, the river widens and even decreases in volume if it is the summer irrigating season because of water diversion to fields. Much of the lower valley is private.
I’ve discovered a plenitude of small trout, mostly rainbows of 6 to 10 inches, swimming there.
An occasional brown trout will make an appearance. In the intimate water near Marble, brook trout also show up. Although most of the fish are small because of the proximity of the hatchery, an occasional large fish is reported. I think these are not resident trout, but brood fish the CPW occasionally sprinkles in.
In the valley just below Marble at the base of McClure Pass, there is some great spin-fishing water. Meandering grassy meadows cater to sneaking up to deep holes and undercut banks. Other sections, especially the faster, broken, pocket water below Redstone, are best prospected by fly fishing. Pattern choice is not critical, but a green drake has been a consistent producer for me.
Otherwise, the usual high country attraction patterns such as a royal coachman or an elk hair caddis can also turn fish heads to the surface. Single dry flies are all that is needed in broken pocket water. For the deeper runs, such as those adjacent to the town of Redstone, try a dry and dropper combination such as the green drake on top and a hares ear nymph on bottom. For the deep pools along the road above Redstone, a nymph with weight may be necessary.
There are many beautiful drives in our mountain state. Some have more spectacular vistas and peaks than the Crystal River valley, but there is something about that view near the crest of McClure Pass that strikes me deeply.
If you can’t go now, fall is a great bonus. Many aspens dominate the hillsides and fill your vision with grand colors and topography. McClure Pass is among the best!
Now is the time to go. Few competing fishermen. Fun towns to visit for a lunch break. Low, clear water. Cool mornings and warm days.
And, oh yeah, there are some fish around, too.