Family Matters

Family Matters

A Family Fly-Fishing Vacation

  • By: Chad Mason

When my wife and I were planning our annual summer family vacation, the Rocky Mountains came up as a possibility. I did not suggest the Rockies to sneak fly-fishing into our schedule. The mountains were totally her idea. For a family of Iowans, the very thought of snow-capped mountains in July is more than enough inspiration to load up the car, even if you don’t fish.

But because we were headed toward great trout rivers, I queried this magazine’s editor about story ideas—you know, just to write off the mileage. When I pitched a destination article he replied, “No, write a story about combining fly-fishing with a family vacation.”

If you have a family of fly fishers, planning a vacation is no problem. But I’m the only one in our family who fishes, and I suspect many of you are in the same boat. Satisfying everyone can be trickier than fooling a spring creek brown during a midge hatch. This is a day-by-day chronicle of a family on the road, including a father with a fly rod, and the lessons I learned.

We chose central Colorado because it has mountains that can be reached in a single day, by minivan, from our Iowa home. Yellowstone, a quintessential destination for road-tripping families, may have offered better fishing, but would have required an additional travel day in each direction, and has fewer urban attractions for people who are not “outdoorsy.” We left Des Moines at 6 a.m. and drove all day, reaching Colorado Springs by supper. We stayed at a franchised motel that first night and ate supper at an Old Chicago pizza joint where mom and dad enjoyed the locally brewed Bristol Laughing Lab Ale.

After a motel breakfast, we drove up to Garden of the Gods ( for a hike in the warm sunshine. We lingered for awhile, marveling at its peculiar geology, before heading to the historic Old Colorado City district ( for an excellent lunch and old fashioned ice cream. At the south edge of the district, I stopped at The Angler’s Covey ( to buy a few flies and get some tips, ever hopeful I would sneak in some fishing during this family vacation.

In the early afternoon, we drove west toward a rental office in Woodland Park to pick up our cabin key and some groceries. On the way we stopped at the fascinating Manitou Cliff Dwellings ( Based on an extensive online perusal, we opted for a cabin instead of hotel rooms for several reasons. Chief among them is what I like to call the “price-to-experience ratio.” During summer tourist season a double hotel room costs at least $120 for anything better than a roach farm. By comparison, some private vacation homes rent for as low as $150 a day.

We rented from Colorado Mountain Cabins ( and got a beautifully decorated, immaculately clean, 900-square-foot cabin with four beds, a full kitchen, laundry, front porch and hot tub on rural acreage near Florissant, Colorado, for $160 a night.

We viewed Pike’s Peak from the living room, and watched mule deer grazing from our bedroom windows. The deal was made sweeter because we cooked our own meals, which proved to be one of the most enjoyable activities of our trip. It’s amazing how much fun cooking and eating can be when you’re not cramming that task between work and volleyball games. In fact, that night we made supper, ate it slowly, retired to the hot tub, and watched the sun go down.

After sleeping in, we cooked a big breakfast and then spent the midday hours at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument ( The afternoon was spent exploring the property around our cabin and nearby national forest lands, looking at maps for the days ahead, lounging and taking it easy.

At this point, you may have noticed that three days have passed with no fishing. I realized before we left Des Moines that in order for our combination fly-fishing/family vacation to have any hope of success, I would need a proper sense of proportion. So I did not take my family on a fly fishing-trip; instead I looked for windows of angling opportunity while satisfying the family. Believe me, setting reasonable expectations makes all the difference.
The first opportunity came after supper on Day 3. While my wife and kids read, relaxed and did beadwork in the rental cabin, I drove to Deckers for the last hour of daylight.

The Deckers stretch of the South Platte River is the water where I first learned to fly fish more than 20 years ago. Though severely influenced by the 2002 Hayman Fire, Deckers and nearby Cheesman Canyon appear to be on the rebound. During my visit, heavy snowpack led to an unusually long runoff, so flows were abnormally high for the second week of July. The river was clear but torrential, making wading difficult at best and dangerous at worst. After some futile, high-speed drifts with a nymph that never got close to bottom, I decided to beat the bank with a hopper pattern, even though hoppers weren’t visible.

A few bends downstream from the Deckers store, I saw a fish rise to something—perhaps a caddis—less than an arm’s length from the near bank. Moving into position 40 feet below the rise, I placed a size 10 Stream Bank Hopper in its vicinity. The big foam bug disappeared in a swirl and I tightened on a large fish. When all the thrashing ended, a 20-inch rainbow lay in the net.

Farther upstream, a second fish took the hopper. This was a bright, 17-inch cuttbow, with faint orange slashes under its cheeks. It would be the last fish of the day, but 37 inches of trout is not too shabby for an hour. Sometimes we get more than we expect in our brief opportunity, just like 12 years ago when my wife and I welcomed unexpected twins.

On Day 4 we got up early and drove west to Nathrop, where we had booked a half-day whitewater trip on the Arkansas River with Four Corners Rafting (

Our guide was a plucky girl in her 20s named Maggie. Smiling, she held up a PFD and warned us, “This is not a ‘life jacket,’ it is a flotation device—it will not save your life, it will only float your body.” Since we were traveling with three daughters, we were delighted to get a young, female guide. Maggie was competent, gracious, professional and good humored—a great role model. We enjoyed a thrilling trip down the river, spotting bighorn sheep in the quiet stretches between the river’s rapids.

After the raft trip, we gulped hamburgers at a walk-up roadside stand where you choose a celebrity name to be called for your order. (We were Nicole Kidman.) Then we drove up to the Continental Divide to look around, and back through the mountains to our cabin.

This was my day on the water. My wife and daughters dropped me off shortly before 8 a.m. in Elevenmile Canyon on the South Platte. Then they pointed the minivan toward Manitou and Colorado Springs for sight-seeing and shopping. With a daypack full of sunscreen, Clif bars and a 100-ounce Camelbak hydration bladder, I planned to stay in the canyon until the ladies picked me up sometime around 3:30 p.m. It was July and very warm, so I went sans waders. A gravel road follows the river all the way up the canyon to the dam that impounds Elevenmile Reservoir. The first two miles below the dam are designated Gold Medal water. My drop-off point was at the downstream end of this section.

Tricos fluttered over the water, and trout rose steadily. Here the river flows among house-sized boulders and vast escarpments of solid igneous rock. Tenacious little pines keep a toehold on crevices in the rocks, where scant rubble passes for soil. Meadow grasses and willows line the river, and dark timber covers the canyon walls. The place has a look of permanence. Yet its main attractions are trout that live only a few years and bugs that live only for a moment. I caught a Trico in my hat, and it literally dissolved when rubbed between my wet fingers.

I reached for a size 22 Spinner and tied it to 6X tippet. It took only a few casts to hook and land the first fish, a lovely brown of about 11 inches. I continued fooling foot-long brownies until the Tricos disappeared and the rising stopped.

Through the midday hours, the sun beat down and the fish went deep. I managed a few takers on a size 16 tan scud and a size 20 red Pheasant-tail Nymph with a tiny, clear bead head, but action was slow and the drifts were difficult in the unusually high flows. With only an hour or two remaining before pickup, I went back to the banks with the Stream Bank Hopper and took a thick and darkly colored brown of about 15 inches beside a logjam.


No matter how long I’m on the water, it always seems short. After more than seven hours of continuous fishing, I felt interrupted when the minivan rolled up behind me. But the Camelbak was empty, anyway, and I had fished until my head hurt.

On our last full day in Colorado, we went back to Old Colorado City. While the ladies perused downtown, I visited again with David Leinweber, owner of Angler’s Covey fly shop. Besides being a worldwide angler, Dave is also a very fine businessman. His shop is one of the best I’ve seen anywhere, and he did not lead me wrong with his tactical advice or fly selections. In fact, my trip may well have been saved by talking to him before I hit the water on Day 3: The Stream Bank Hopper was his suggestion and I bought it at his shop.

After lunch we visited the Olympic Training Center ( and then drove to the cabin. We spent our last evening hiking on the property, sitting in the hot tub and preparing a celebratory last supper. Looking back, I’m glad we avoided the temptation to run crazy with our sight-seeing, and instead savored plenty of downtime.

And I’m glad, too, that the years have allowed me to keep fishing in its place. These days, I see fishing as an accompaniment to other things, not necessarily the end-all goal.

Seven days after leaving Des Moines, we were home again—tired but somehow refreshed. I fished far less than I would have preferred, but I wouldn’t trade our family vacation for a fishing-only trip.

A trip like ours is surprisingly affordable. Total cost of our week-long trip, all-inclusive, was just over $1,900 and that included gasoline at more than $3.50 per gallon. One final tip is warranted: Colorado is popular. We made lodging and rafting reservations in February for a July trip, and that was not too early. Plan ahead.

Chad Mason lives in Des Moines, Iowa, with his wife and three daughters who don’t fly-fish…yet.

Family Friendly destinations

? FRONTIERS INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL: A great diversity of angling destinations can be arranged through Frontiers Travel. To explore the family connection at lodges Frontiers represents, seek guidance from Frontiers’ expert staff. Wexford, PA; 1-800-245-1950;

? YELLOW DOG FLY FISHING ADVENTURES: If your budget allows more freedom than mine, contact Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures for help planning a far-flung family trip. Bozeman, MT; 888-777-5060;

Drive-To Options
For the rest of us Griswolds, there are places you can drive an overloaded mini-van to and be guaranteed some serious fun. A couple highlights include:
? For the angler: Table Rock Dam tailwaters on the White River; nearby tributaries, 1-866-362-1928,
? For the angler: Wonderful largemouth bass fishing in the clear waters of the beautiful St. Johns River; access to bass lakes in the Disney compound, if you ask nicely or book a guided trip. ? Contact: Bass Challenger Guide Service, (407) 273-8045, ? For the non-angler: It’s a small world, after all. ? Side trip: If you tire of the lines and expense of Walt Disney World, consider the Miami or Ft. Lauderdale areas. There you’ll find great beaches and peacock bass in the freshwater lakes and canals.
? Contact:, 1-866-629-BASS; or
? For the angler: Where do I even begin? Perhaps the Lamar River. It parallels the road at the park’s northeast entrance, providing easy access—and good fishing for native cutthroats. ? Contact:, (406) 585-5321 ? For the non-angler: Sightseeing and educational opportunities galore.

All-Age Option
? The Paradise Guest Ranch at Buffalo, Wyoming, offers diverse activities for everyone from babies to baby boomers. From the ranch you can arrange a pack trip into the lakes of the Cloud Peak Wilderness. And with everything from horseback riding to crafts and nature hikes, the family should hardly miss you while you’re away;, (307) 684-7876. Go to for a list of family-friendly ranches. —Chad Mason