Fishing at North Sterling State Park
The 2011 Fishing Survey and Management Data Report for North Sterling Reservoir is now available! Click here for more detailed information.
Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, North Sterling is a popular warm-water fishery by shore or boat. Although best known for the excellent wiper, walleye, and catfish in the reservoir, North Sterling is also home to rainbow trout, smallmouth and largemouth bass, yellow perch, bluegill, crappie, northern pike, tiger muskie, drum, and carp.
Since North Sterling is an irrigation reservoir, the water levels can fluctuate up to 40 vertical feet during the irrigation season from April to September. The Inlet and Outlet water flows are controlled by the North Sterling Irrigation District, not the state park. Water storage and usage depends on weather and regional agriculture needs. You can check the current inlet and outlet flow rates at the NSID website. The most recent water level gauge reading from the South Boat Ramp and most recent water temperature measurement can be found on the Conditions page. The reservoir water level and flow rates can greatly affect where, when, and what fish are being caught.
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Note: The descriptions below are general guidelines for fishermen unfamiliar with the reservoir. Exact conditions vary according to weather, temperature, and actual water level. Some years, the reservoir is at Low Water by the end of July – other years, the reservoir is still at Medium-High Water in September.
Fishing Laws & Regulations
All fishing laws and regulations are strictly enforced at North Sterling, whether stated below or not. See the 2012 - 2013 Fishing Brochure for further details and information.
All fishermen age 16 and older are required to have a current fishing license. Licenses are not sold at the state park.
Fishing with kids? Children under 16 do not need a fishing license, but they do need a second-rod stamp for a second fishing pole, and all other regulations and possession limits apply. Children must attend thier own lines. Parents and other adults without a fishing license may assist small children, but may not cast out lines alone or fish for an uninvolved child.
Fish on a stringer, in a cooler, in a live well, in a creel basket, or otherwise in possession must be within the daily bag limit and size limitations for that species.
In accordance with ANS (aquatic nuisance species) regulations and Division of Wildlife laws, all live bait must be purchased from an authorized Colorado bait dealer and must be accompanied by a receipt dated within the last seven days. It is also unlawful to transport live bait across state lines without an import permit.
Fishermen who are actively attending their lines by boat or on shore may fish throughout the day and night. Fishermen who are sleeping or otherwise not actively attending their own lines may receive citations for leaving fishing rods unattended.
Fishing is not permitted from the South or Elks Boat Ramps, or from the courtesy docks located at each ramp. Fishing is permitted from the shoreline on either side of the boat ramps, as long as the lines are not cast into the boat ramp area. Boats need to be able to freely access the boat ramps.
The first full weekend in June is Free Fishing Weekend in Colorado (Saturday and Sunday only). A fishing license is not required. All other fishing laws and regulations apply. Second-rod stamps are still required for those fishing with two poles.
Statewide bag and possession limits apply. The following are the daily bag limits for the most popular sportfish at North Sterling:
There are certain regulations specific to North Sterling Reservoir, which are intended to help keep our fish populations healthy. At North Sterling:
Shoreline Fishing Access
Fishing is not permitted in the swim beach, the ski beach, the South or Elks Boat Ramps, or the Inlet Footbridge. Boaters must obey buoy restrictions, and fishermen are not allowed on the marina slips unless they have a signed marina slip contract. Otherwise, fishing is allowed anywhere else along the shoreline or on the water on state park property. See the North Sterling Area Map for the park’s property boundaries.
The most common fishing areas include the following:
Balanced Rock & the Dam Outlet
This area is at the north end of the park, near the Elks Entrance. When the outlet is flowing, several species of fish are drawn to the current, including wiper, yellow perch, bluegill, and crappie. This excellent fishing area can be accessed from the shoreline below Balanced Rock or from the top of the dam. One preferred method of fishing in this area uses worm harnesses on the bottom, or other kinds of live bait (minnows, crawdads, etc).
The old boat ramp at Balanced Rock is closed to all boating access, and fishermen may park vehicles on the ramp or on the shoreline below the ramp once water levels drop (at your own risk). This area is popular with fishermen who have limited mobility and have difficulty walking long distances. Please be courteous and leave space for your fellow fishermen.
The top of the dam is now permanently closed to all public vehicle traffic due to changes from the recent construction project. The dam access road is now less than one lane wide and is too narrow for parking. Fishermen and other visitors may access the dam by foot or bicycle. Parking is available at Balanced Rock.
From the top of the dam, trout are primarily caught with a suspended minnow and bobber. Wiper, walleye, crappie, and perch respond well to small jigs and crankbaits.
Marina Point & Elks Bay
This area is accessible from the Elks Boat Ramp and a footpath just north of the Visitor Center. Elks Bay typically has excellent walleye fishing by boat, and Marina Point is a great spot for wiper, walleye, and whatever else comes your way. Early in the season, rainbow trout are active in these waters, and the wiper fishing here is often best when the wind blows from the south. Once again, the primary tactics in this area include jigs, suspended minnows, and crankbaits.
The South Boat Ramp
Although fishing is not permitted directly on the boat ramp or courtesy dock, the shoreline to the left and right of the ramp can provide excellent fishing opportunities. The west side of the boat ramp generally has good walleye and wiper fishing with primary baits being jigs and nightcrawlers on the bottom. Large boulders on the west side may be below waterline, or may allow handy seating. Try the east side of the boat ramp in the cove for good catfishing due to the large gently-sloping flat.
North of Inlet Grove Campground and west of Cottonwood Cove Swim Beach, Sunset Point offers possibly the best catfishing on the reservoir. Fishing access is limited when the water is extremely high, but as the water levels go down, just park in the small dirt lot near the vault restroom, and a short walk through the trees brings you to the rocky point.
Fishing is not permitted from the footbridge itself, but this area allows great access to the deep inlet channel. Catfish are often found in the area, and when the water is flowing, wiper chase gizzard shad up the inlet canal.
The Catfish Flats are on the south side of the inlet canal. In fall of 2009 and 2010, the Flats were planted with rye grass when the water levels were low, and we expect this area to be an excellent spawning ground for gizzard shad, and an excellent feeding ground for wiper and catfish.
The West Trailhead
The West Trailhead of the South Shoreline Trail can be accessed by driving south on County Road 33 (turn right when exiting either entrance) onto the dirt road, then turn right onto CR-44 and right again onto CR-29. CR-29 ends at an access road to the parking lot for the West Trailhead. This parking lot marks the southwestern boundary of state park land – please respect the private landowners and do not trespass west of the parking lot.
The shoreline near this parking lot has a gradual shallow slope, and the cove west of the parking lot is a prime area for catfish and frequently a good area for wiper and walleye. The large flats make a wonderful foraging ground for channel cats near dark or shortly after dark. When the wind picks up from the north, however, it can be difficult to fish, because the wind carries your lures and lines right back at you. Also, as the water level drops, the mud makes it very difficult or messy to access the flats.
Fishing Access from the Water
Water level fluctuations at North Sterling constantly change the ideal fishing locations throughout the reservoir. A depth-finder is highly recommended for fishermen trying the Flats near Inlet Grove Campground or the Darby and Cunningham Arms. Watch buoys closely for shallow-area warnings at Darby Point, Rookery Point, and Goose Island in the Cunningham Arm.
Darby Arm offers excellent walleye and wiper fishing, particularly along the edges of the mouth and the first few curves. However, don’t count out the catfish – the largest channel cat of 2009 was caught in Darby – 24 pounds and 33 ½ inches!
Primary methods in this area include trolling rapalas or worm harnesses for wiper and walleye. Catfish are primarily caught in the upper arm with high water levels and where cover is available.
Goose Island and Rookery Point are the best areas to try here for walleye in the early part of the season. Walleye are generally caught by trolling bottom bouncers or crankbaits along the island and the point, or you may try throwing jigs and crankbaits to work the slope of Goose Island and the rocks of Rookery Point. The flats by the West Trailhead is a good area for beginning fishermen to troll worm harnesses for walleye and wiper.
Trolling Along the Dam
Fishermen trolling along the dam often bring in wiper, crappie, bluegill, and yellow perch. Be wary of the rocky shoreline at the dam, especially in high winds.
Frequently-Asked Fishing Questions
Why was the fishing at North Sterling so poor in the last few years? Is it starting to come back yet?
In the winter of 2003, the reservoir water levels were extremely low. The freezing conditions caused a winter-kill of gizzard shad, a primary food source for wiper, the major sport-fish in the reservoir. Wiper fishing was excellent in the summer of 2004, because the wiper had very little to eat. In the following years, the wiper population crashed, and State Parks has worked closely with the Division of Wildlife to restock and encourage the growth of the wiper population. Efforts include the stocking of tens of thousands of bluegill and gizzard shad, two excellent food sources for the wiper; the stocking of tens of thousands of wiper themselves; closely monitoring species growth via gill-net surveys; strict enforcement of keeper-size regulations; and in 2009, the fall planting of several dozen acres of rye grass in the southern flats of the reservoir when the water levels were low. In 2010, the Division of Wildlife extended the rye grass planting to all accessible parts of the shore when the water levels were low in the fall, including parts of Elks Bay, Darby Arm, Darby Point, Rookery Point, and Cunningham Arm.
The wiper population is producing larger and healthier fish each year. From 2005 to 2008, most wiper being caught were less than 15 inches, although a dozen or so large fish were caught each year. Avid fishermen struggled to catch two or three barely keeper-size fish. In 2009, we finally saw many keeper-sized wiper being caught, with many fishermen reaching their limit of 10 wiper a day, and the average fish size seemed to be around 18 inches. The wiper fishing only improved in 2010, with many more keeper-size wiper being caught.
Park staff also saw several other positive indicators of fishery health in 2010. The October gill-net survey by the Division of Wildlife found incredible numbers of gizzard shad - 67% of the fish caught in the survey. Gizzard shad are the primary prey base of wiper and walleye, so a large and healthy shad population means large and healthy wiper and walleye. Even more exciting, bald eagles have had a strong presence on the reservoir in the last year. A mated pair built a new nest on private property nearby last spring, and nearly two dozen eagles spent the winter at the reservoir. Eagles follow their favorite food source - fish - and can be found in numbers where the fishery is healthy.
What is a wiper?
Wiper are a hybrid bass species – a cross between the fast-growing white bass and the large striped bass. They cannot reproduce, and must be grown and stocked by a fish hatchery to maintain a population. Even small wiper fight hard on a fisherman’s line, making this a popular sport-fish.
What is the best lure and bait to use?
The best lures and bait vary by season, water levels, and water temperature. Gizzard shad and green mussels are often excellent bait for wiper and catfish, but many fishermen find that worms, crawdads, and shrimp work just as well. Different fishermen have their own “magic bait”, from hot dogs soaked in cherry kool-aid to canned corn kernels (on hooks – chumming is unlawful). Productive lures are ones that try to duplicate the prey fish of choice. For wipers and walleyes, the prey fish is primarily shad, so lures that mimic shad in color and swim pattern are highly recommended.
Fish of the Month
26-inch 14-pound wiper caught while fishing with grandfather Phillip on August 09, 2012
27-inch, 11-pound wiper caught from a boat in mid-May
April 21, 2012
26-inch, 8.5lb Wiper caught by Austin Gardner in the cove between the Ski Beach and Swim Beach, using worms on the bottom
October 29, 2011
Scott Rutherford with a 41-inch Northern Pike caught off the West Trailhead when the duck hunting was a little slow
June 15, 2011
Three large wiper bass (one not shown) caught by boat in Cunningham Arm
May 25, 2011
A 22-inch 7lb Wiper Bass caught in the shallows up Cunningham Arm using an imitation shad lure
August 16, 2008
Brad Hahn with a 30" Northern Pike (picture recently rediscovered)
August 15, 2010
The Bloomfield family with nine keeper-size wiper, caught with mussels from a pontoon near Sunset Point
June 18, 2010
Four catfish caught by Ewitt & Calvin White by boat overnight
May 21, 2010
Nine Wiper on a Stringer
At the Balanced Rock
Shoreline on green mussels
April 25, 2010
Unknown location by boat
April 17, 2010 - Ben Meis
18" Rainbow Trout
Caught with powerbait in
Elks Bay from shore
Cut shad is the bait of choice
among catfish in the
Cunningham Arm by boat
and the inlet by shore.