One of the delights of my life as a peripatetic angler is fishing with my three-year old granddaughter Aly who lives in Denver. She loves to catch the finny creatures, having netted her first last year in Beaver Creek (See my blog Leave It To Beaver (Creek) from June 2018.). She is a true waterbug who likes to fish, explore creeks, build dams, make mud pies…anything that has to do with water. It’s been rewarding to see her embrace nature instead of being fearful of the outdoors and to teach her how handle worms, bugs, and other critters safely.
I visit her and her Daddy Matthew frequently in Denver, so am always on the lookout for a new fishing spot with fast action to satisfy a toddler. Preferably, it will be one that features easy access and other après angling outdoor activities and entertainment given the normal one-hour attention span of a three-year old. I have found three that fill the bill in the Denver area: Davis Ponds in Staunton State Park about 45 minutes west of the city, Lake Mary in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Denver, and what I call the Kid’s Pond in Bear Creek Park on the west side of the metro area in Lakewood. They satisfy my criteria above and offer a variety of fish from trout to sunfish to bass….and lots of them!
In addition to providing direction to the best fishing spots on these waters, I first offer some tips and advice on tackle, techniques, baits/lures as well as other activities when the youthful angler’s ardor wanes.
When it comes to tackle, Rule #1 is to keep it simple. Too often I have seen young kids struggling with a spinning reel/rod combo that is too heavy for them to handle, too hard to retrieve left-handed, and too difficult to cast when they graduate to that level. I was 12-years old when my Dad bought me my first spincast outfit to replace the-then standard level wind bait-cast reel that could produce monumental birds nest tangles at the drop of a hat. It was a revolution!! I was hooked!
That’s not to say go out and buy one of those cute cheapo plastic spincast sets with two-foot rods featuring the latest Disney character. My favorite is a reasonably priced Zebco 33 Micro outfit that includes a small quality reel that kids can crank easily with little hands and a five-foot rod that’s just the right length—all for around $25. Another good choice is a Zebco 404 combo that goes for about $20.
These outfits will deliver a better experience for your young child and will still be eminently serviceable when they grow and become more serious anglers—not to mention Dad/Mom and Grandpa/Grandma can use them for ultralight fishing fun when the kids are not looking.
Most of these sets come with six-to-ten pound test line which can be a bit heavy and visible, especially when fishing for wary trout and smaller sunfish or using flies. I usually tie a three-foot length of lighter, less visible 5X leader material to the heavier line. For these three ponds, keep the hooks small—sizes 8 and 10 are the best. I often crimped the barb down to avoid the eager fish from swallowing the hook, which makes it difficult to extract without injuring the critter. If using bait like worms, use bait-holder hooks that have little barbs on the upper part of the hook to help keep the bait on. Do NOT use treble hooks that are proven fish killers.
To be successful, you won’t need a tackle box full of exotic tools, but there are three essentials. First, get a decent quality nipper to cut the fishing line when you tie on a hook or lure. You can always use a fingernail clipper in a pinch. You’ll also need a good hook extractor. While needle-nose pliers will work, they are generally too big for the small mouths of trout and sunfish. A better choice is an inexpensive pair of curved fishing forceps that can be bought at Wal-Mart for about $5. Finally, and most overlooked, is a hook hone. Many packaged hooks need sharpening before use and usually will after a few fish. I have lost more fish in my life due to a dull hook than practically any other defect in my tackle (never mind defects in my fishing ability). All it takes is a quick zip with the hone on both sides and the bottom of the tip to get the hook in tip-top sharp shape.
Regarding technique, for beginners like Aly, I prefer starting them with a pencil bobber below which is dangled 2-3 feet of line sporting a BB split shot or two to sink the bait, usually a red wiggler worm (night crawlers are too big) or a ball of Berkley Powerbait. Using a bobber that will disappear under the water when a fish bites is not only exciting for young anglers, but a good way to learn visually when to set the hook. At this stage, Grandpa and Daddy are doing the casting.
Once the bobber is mastered, the young angler can graduate to fishing the bait directly on the bottom. They will then learn to hold the rod patiently until they feel a nibble. The next level is to try a spinning bubble trailing an artificial fly or a lure like a spinner alone. The clear bubble provides enough weight to cast a fly. This technique will require the kiddo to reel in the fly/lure and be ready to set the hook when a fish strikes. I expect Aly to be ready to try this on her own when she is four, along with practicing casting. I look forward to introducing her to the more challenging art of fly casting when she is six or seven.
Some of the best flies for trout and sunfish in these lakes are easy-to-see attractor dry fly patterns like an elk hair caddis, royal wulff, and parachute adams plus terrestrials like small foam ants and beetles. Tiny cork or foam popping bugs with rubber legs can be good for sunfish and bass. My favorite lake and pond nymphs are red/black zebra midges, red/green copper johns, and beadhead caddis patterns. Small sizes in #16-20 usually work best. I don’t use lures very often, but small yellow spinners and purple marabou lead-head jigs are old reliable lures.
There are other useful miscellaneous items to take with you. Your young angler will appreciate a small folding chair (as does Grandpa), but if the shoreline does not allow, take a plastic bag or something else waterproof to sit on. You will also find that an umbrella will come in handy if it rains or to provide shade for the little nipper on a bright Colorado sunshine day. Don’t forget towels and hankies to dry off little hands as well as water shoes when the tykes want to wade, which most will. Other useful accoutrements include rubber balls for playing catch, small plastic shovel….well, you get the picture.
Number 1: Davis Ponds In Staunton State Park
Staunton State Park, a former 19th Century farmstead about 45 minutes west of Denver just off US Highway 285 past Conifer, is my go-to place to catch trout with Aly, and usually lots of them. Stocked the first of the month from May through September, the park’s Davis Ponds are loaded with frisky rainbow trout and some occasional nice brookies. Catching several dozen is not uncommon, although Miss Aly is usually ready for a hike or wading the feeder creek after five or ten. Then her Daddy Matthew gets to catch a bunch more—good so see my hard-working son get to relax and enjoy some piscatorial pursuits.
Staunton State Park, with over 4,000 acres is Colorado’s newest state park. It sports a wide range of beautiful environments, from the gentle meadows and Ponderosa forest on the short one-mile hike to Davis Ponds from the main parking lot, to some rugged alpine terrain and backcountry lakes higher up.
The cost is a nominal $8/day unless you have an annual state parks pass. Hours are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. A new visitor center opened in 2019. A particularly attractive feature of the park is that it offers specially built track chairs for handicapped people so they can enjoy the well-maintained gravel trails and reach the fishing ponds.
When you arrive at Davis Ponds you will find some modern facilities including restrooms, a picnic shelter, and dock on the lower pond. We prefer fishing on the upper pond, either from the shady west shoreline or from the dam.
The best time tends to be in the morning, as showers and thunderstorms often roll in during the afternoon. Worms and Powerbait under a bobber are very effective, and my go-to flies behind a spinning bubble are foam red ants and red-colored nymphs.
Fly fishing is best done from the dams on both ponds as the banks are lined with trees in most places or at the shallow inlet on the upper pond. And when the kiddies get tired of landing fish, the little feeder creek above the upper pond offers a fun place to wade and explore as do the trails around both ponds.
Number 2: Lake Mary At The Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Note: Check on the refuge website before planning your trip as portions of the Lake Mary boardwalk are under construction and there may be periodic closures.
This little lake just north of old Stapleton Airport in northeast metro Denver has a special place in my heart because my son Matthew caught his first fish here—a nice bass—along with a bunch of what he called “bluedill.”
That was some 30 years ago, and now he’s an excellent fly fisherman who sometimes at his peril outfishes Pops. The lake is managed as part of a national wildlife refuge that features a 15,000 acre prairie ecosystem, complete with bison, deer, and dozens of other animal and bird species.
It’s important to be aware of the special fishing regulations at the refuge. No worms are allowed, only barbless hooks may be used, and fishing is strictly catch and release. The refuge is open to fishing April through November, sunup to sundown, but only on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday. A three dollar fee is required for each adult angler. The permits can be obtained at boxes located near Lake Mary and Lake Ladora.
A good first stop when visiting the refuge is the excellent new visitors center. A fishing permit can be purchased there, but the real attraction is the excellent interpretive displays about the refuge ecosystem and its fascinating history. There is also a fun Discovery Center for children. The refuge was originally a war-time chemical and weapons manufacturing site—hence the name Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Parts of arsenal were seriously polluted, but after an extensive environmental cleanup in the 1980s, it became a national wildlife refuge in the mid-1990s. Today the refuge offers a quiet wildlife oasis in the midst of a booming metropolitan area.
I have found the best area for fishing on Lake Mary is on the west end where there is a small dock.
Sunfish and bass are the quarry here along with some big catfish. Because worms and other live bait aren’t allowed, scented baits like Powerbait rule, although flies and lures like plastic worms do well at times.
When the fishing fever cools for your kiddo, Lake Mary is encircled by an excellent half-mile trail that is a nature-lover’s delight including a floating boardwalk through a marsh. We also enjoyed the self-guided auto nature tour where we saw deer and bison plus many birds.
For advanced young anglers, the nearby and much larger Lake Ladora, where shoreline and wade fishing are permitted, has some big bass and toothy northern pike. Again, no live bait is allowed.
Number 3: Bear Lake Park Kid’s Pond
Bear Lake Park in Lakewood on the west edge of the metro area is a big 2,600 plus city park that easily rivals and often surpasses state parks in the Denver region in terms of amenities and maintenance. It has a big fishing lake on its east end and one of the best beaches along Big Soda Lake on the west side, but the hidden gem is in the middle—what I call the Kids’ Pond.
The pond is truly hidden, not visible from any road and not, as far as I can find, even mentioned on the park website. It is loaded with scrappy sunfish that are perpetually hungry. Catching several dozen is standard, just the recipe for young anglers who need fast action to keep them happy.
Finding the trail to the lake is a bit tricky—the map provided to visitors at the entry gate will help you figure it out. The short, one-half mile, 15-minute hike starts at the end of the paved road near the gravel parking lot and restrooms by the big lake on the east end of the park. The trailhead is not marked, but the prominent trail descends south down the hill and to the only bridge over Turkey Creek.
It then makes a hard turn to the west. It’s a nice easy walk with some shade and plenty of wildflowers in season. Whenever the trail splits, keep to the right paralleling the creek. You will soon come to the big embankment at the northeast corner of the pond.
Most of the lake is very shallow and overgrown with moss. You’ll immediately seen sunfish scurrying about along the shoreline. The best fishing areas are in the northeast corner which is deeper than the rest of the pond and in several open spots in the brush along the north shoreline. We had non-stop action here with good old bobber and worms as well as flies.
There is a well-built and convenient dock on the south shoreline, but the water offshore is so shallow and overgrown that fishing from it calls for a fly rod or a spinning bubble and fly.
After Aly had caught her share of sunnies, we walked back over to the north shore and down into the creek for more fun.
She also loves the beach at Big Soda Lake and playing what she calls “bollyball” with Grandpa as well as having ice cream from the concession stand while Grandpa downs a corn dog! What can beat that after a grand day of fishing!