Tag Archives: brown trout

Fly fishing the Colorado River at the Kemp-Breeze State Wildlife Park

It was 45 degrees with blue skies, white puffy clouds and a 25 mph wind blowing up the Colorado River near Parshall.  At noon it looked lovely out the windshield, but I immediately added a coat once outside. With no cars in the parking lot on the mid March day, I was ready to endure a little misery for the sake of fun. Moments later another car pulled up and the driver gave a “Hello” wave. We chatted briefly while booting up and rigging up our fly rods. Then I left the other fellow and headed to my favorite spot by the ranch bridge which has four deep holes divided on both sides of the bridge and river.  The south facing bank had a ribbon of exposed grass in the melting snow while the opposite side had ice and snow to the river’s edge.  Both provided an easy step into the water for wading.

I started below the bridge on the sunny side and used the wind to cast upstream. Comfortably numb, the first hour passed without a strike. Honking geese flew passed and a bald eagle sat on a tree limb just watching. I had rotated through the four holes and was standing on the icy edge in the shade when I saw the first subtle rise, another rise and then a more violent splash. An armada of adult midges quickly appeared floating and swirling on the surface. My brother-in-law a week earlier mentioned he liked to put the weighted nymph on the bottom of the leader and the upper fly on a loop. I figured why not and proceed to tie a bead head black zebra midge on the end of my 6x tippet and make a loop for the RS2. Gloves off, my cold fingers slowly completed the task while trout began to boil the surface. With the first cast a brown was hooked, leaped wildly in the air and disappeared with my nymph as a trophy. Damn, a bad knot.

Numb fingers picked out a replacement midge and fumbled through a new knot while watching the fish pummel the sub-surface. My frustration was followed by fear that I was going to miss this fishing opportunity. Finally I was ready to cast, landed a 14 inch rainbow immediately and promptly hooked my glove with the fly while releasing the fish. Does this happen to all anglers or just me? With gloves tucked neatly in the top of my chest waders, I caught and released a dozen fish in the next 45 minutes with wet fingers in the chilling wind. No longer comfortably numb, my feet and hands were just plain frozen.

P1010257Looking down river I noticed the other fellow had appeared and was catching a fish just below the bridge. With one more cast producing one more trout; I was done and walked across the bridge. Although fighting another fish, he shouted up, “You were really hammering them. Anything big?”

“No, all under 16 inches,” I replied.

“I don’t how much longer I can take this,” he said while releasing the rainbow.

I laughed and walked to my car. Misery loves company.

Lunch Stop

A Green Winter: Utah Winter Fly Fishing

I landed in Salt Lake City in late March. Although skiing was on my agenda, I pointed the rental car toward something even more enticing – the Green River downstream of Flaming Gorge dam. 12,000 trout per mile, with a reputation of feeding hard year ‘round, were calling my name.

It was dark when I got to my room at Trout Creek Flies in Dutch John.   Motel rooms – no matter how spartan – are so much more welcoming with a fly shop attached and a river nearby.  Before retiring, I did some visiting with the group beside me; they convinced me to book a guided drift boat trip for one of my two days on the river. At about 9 AM the next morning, I wandered over to the fly shop for the requisite fly recommendations.  I also booked my guide for the next day. Therein lies the beauty of winter fly fishing:  leisurely, late morning starts and no need for reservations.

By 10 AM I was on the river.  It was cloudy and about 38 degrees.  But with a fly rod in my hand and moving water beside me, it felt absolutely tropical. My 5 mm neoprene waders weren’t hurting, either.  The river looked completely gorgeous – perfectly clear water slicing through red rocks dusted by white snow.  I hiked along a well-trodden path and fished as I went. However, the 12,000 trout per mile remained remarkably well hidden.  Eventually, in a side eddy alongside a faster chute, I spotted some trout finning.  They had a penchant for zebra midges and orange scuds under an indicator – not a desperate hunger, mind you – but a definite penchant that kept me busy for a couple hours.

Near the end of those couple hours, the temperature dropped below freezing and the snow started.  Although the flakes were big and friendly, my hands felt like blocks of ice.  Fingerless neoprene gloves, it seems, have a threshold of effectiveness that I was trying to cross.  I started the hike back to the car. About 5 minutes from the car, I stumbled onto the weirdest, most beautiful winter scene imaginable.  (For me, anyway.)  Trout were poking their noses into the snowstorm.  Nothing de-ices fingers, or at least enables the mind to work with icy fingers, like rising trout.  Out came the 6 X tippet and a Griffith’s Gnat.  And then a tiny emerger.  And then another tiny emerger.  And then another…  After several numb-fingered fly changes, I gave up and headed back to the car.  I should have been frustrated but mostly I was stoked with just the idea of casting to rising fish in a snowstorm.

I slept well that night, looking forward to the guide’s drift boat the next day…

During the next morning’s leisurely start, as I shuffled off to the fly shop to meet the guide, the air had a biting cold.  Being from the Canadian prairies, it was not unfamiliar. The strong wind pushing fresh snow along the ground was something else my prairie brain immediately recognized.  Back home, it’s the kind of wind that makes you sprint from your house to your car and from your car to your final destination, minimizing time outdoors at all costs.  I was thinking that this is not fishing weather, my neoprenes won’t even keep me warm, and my trip is going to get cancelled.

Nevertheless, the guide was in the shop, ready to go and perfectly optimistic, even confident.  I bought a pair of Simms fishing mitts and officially relegated the fingerless neoprene gloves to back-up duty.  I made a quick stop to throw on all the clothes I brought, including ski pants underneath my waders.  Then we set off for the river.Once on the river, I quickly forgot about the cold.  The 12,000 trout per mile were definitely showing themselves.  Through the clear water, as we slid down runs, I spotted schools that were quite content to let the boat drift right over their heads.

The guide had me throwing a heavily weighted, green Woolly Bugger with an 8 weight floating line and a 10 foot leader.  The drill was to let it sink as deep as possible.  In the deeper, slower water it sometimes pulled the last few feet of line under.  The fish certainly liked it.The action wasn’t non-stop but it was certainly steady.  Every five minutes or so I dipped my rod in the water to melt the ice in the guides.  After every third or fourth dip, I seemed to have a fish on.

They didn’t seem to prefer any particular location.  Some were in deep eddies, some were along steep banks amongst boulders, some were at the base of riffles and rapids, and some were right in the riffles and rapids.As the day wore on, around 2:30 PM, the sun came out and the air lost its bite.  (Notice I didn’t say it got warm.) A long, shallow run in full sunlight had some regular risers.  We were almost at the take-out point but the guide rigged up a BWO dry on my 5 weight. It was time to exact some revenge on the picky risers from the day before…

On my third or fourth cast, a 12” brown slurped down the fly.  It was not a huge fish, but definitely special, considering I had woke that morning to the remnants of a winter storm.  I unhooked it with great care – maybe even reverence – just as the guide beached the boat. Later that evening, as I drove away from the river and toward the ski hill, I was already planning my next winter trip and thinking about replacing the skis with an extra fly rod…

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There Are A Few Things That Really Rattle Me

There are few things that really rattle me.  I have found myself in a standoff against a Yellowstone Black Bear, been bumped by a shark, went headfirst into a sweeper on a raging river.  Part and parcel of the sport I suppose.  All those things happened so fast that I really had no time to be afraid…I just reacted.  While all of those events made for interesting adventures, panic filled memories, and a good story or two, nothing…and I do mean nothing, creeped me out more than an occurrence in The Great Smoky Mountains a couple of weeks ago.

I am standing on the bank, little more than the toes of my boots in the water, roll casting flies into a seam that had trout stacked up in an amazing feeding line.  They moved very little and I could see the yawn of their mouths, food was plentiful and it appeared that they were not being very particular as to what they would eat which was good for me.

I rolled out a tandem rig. Neversink Caddis and below it I had on a Green Weenie.  Without a doubt, these two flies are the top producers for me.  Tons of trout, flies you trust, no one in sight…yep, I was in the zone.  The cast rolled out much better than usual and landed upstream from the aquatic congregation, just far enough for the GW to sink down into the feeding land.  It was a slow motion display in front of me as I watched the fly twirl in the current; the slightest of movement from a willing rainbow, the take…fish on.

He wasn’t particularly large by most standards, maybe ten inches, which is a pretty good size for a mountain bow.  I pulled him away quickly from his friends so that they would miss the fact that one of their kindred had been attacked by a bug puppet and was losing.  I had him maybe ten feet from where I stood, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something move from underneath a rock just to the right of where I stood.  Most of the rock was under water so I quickly determined that it was perhaps a brown trout that I had spooked away from its lie.  Then the line went crazy.  The trout began to struggle in a way that just didn’t seem right…then all I felt was the weight of the fish.

Confused, I reeled in the line, my rod tip dipping with each turn as it pulled against the weight of the fish.  Finally the head of the trout came into view.  Its eyes were stark white; the color you would associate with a wild rainbow had grown ashen.  And, just above its tail, holding for all its worth was a snake; the one common creature in God’s vast zoo that absolutely freaks me out.

The snake was maybe three feet in length with a dark cream colored body with deep rust colored bands which is the coloration of our local low country viper…the copperhead.   This snake had sunk its teeth deep into this trout and would not let go.  The trouble was…I couldn’t let go either…until I cut the leader, which I did with a swiftness that would have impressed Zorro as I pulled my knife from its sheath and with one pass cut through the mono.  It should also be noted that I did not cut until I was absolutely certain that the distance of my hand from the snake was safe.

Having rescued what remained of my leader, I expected to see my Neversink moving across the water to some remote location for this vile serpent to devour its/my catch.  However, in a manner reserved for only slapstick anglers such as myself, I saw that my lovely Neversink was floating inches from my right foot…and two feet beyond that lay the snake and the trout.  Perhaps in a moment of mutual clarity, both the snake and I decided that being exposed on the riverbank was not the best of ideas.  I left for higher ground and he took his lunch elsewhere.

Before swiftly extricating myself from the scene, I managed two photos.  Sadly these pictures turned out much like those of a Bigfoot sighting or perhaps the Zapruder film.  Shaky and dark.  I will leave it to the folks at Fishwest to determine if the evidence captured in a digital format are worthy of print.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later as I relayed the story to a friend that I learned the truth about the snake.  A copperhead it was not.  The fish met its demise at the mouth of a Northern Water Snake, which was no more comforting than being shot with hollow points instead of buckshot.  A snake is a snake and though I was twice his size and outweighed him by a multitude of pounds, he was the clear winner in this one.

 

Green Grass and Dry Flies

Fly Fishing the Driftless

Over the past two years, it’s been fun to see the increasing interest in fly fishing the spring creeks of the Driftless region of the Midwest. Those of us who live here and regularly fish this area have known of its natural beauty and incredible angling for years, but as the allure of small stream fishing has taken off around the country, media has helped uncover this rich fishery in the agricultural Midwest.

The Driftless region is an area of land that encompasses Southeast Minnesota, Northeast Iowa, Southwest Wisconsin, and Northwest Illinois. It’s named for an area of land that millions of years ago, avoided a glacial drift, flattening the surrounding landscapes into fertile cropland that is stereotypically thought of when you think of the area.  The result is a pocket of land that geologists refer to as karst topography- land that is characterized by sinkholes, towering limestone bluffs, ridges, deep valleys, caves, and coldwater springs. The region is a stark contrast to the area that surrounds it, the landscape changing abruptly as one travels into the area from the flat farmland to the rolling hills then deep bluffs as you near the Mississippi River valley. Historically a farming region, the area has given way to a host of “locally-grown” tourism options, recreational opportunities, cultural and art events, organic farms, wineries and microbreweries, and unique businesses.  The cold water springs, numbering easily in the thousands throughout the region, feed streams that maintain temperatures in the low 50s, supporting a healthy environment for trout, making it a year-round destination trip for those who love fishing spring creeks.

Throughout most of the Driftless region, 3 major species (brook, brown, and rainbow) of trout are to be found. Iowa has over 50 streams in the Driftless region that sustain trout and many other “put and grow” streams where stream-raised fish grow and mature. This makes for a variety of fishing options dependent on location, physical ability, and skill level. Many of these streams rely on a stocking program with the hard work of the DNR, with an increasing number of them sustaining wild populations of trout. Groups like Trout Unlimited and other conservation organizations work to increase public awareness of these fisheries, help with project workdays, and promote conservation education. The result is world-class fishing in our own backyard.  It’s been said that skill-wise, if you can effectively fish spring creeks, you can effectively trout fish anywhere using techniques that allow the angler to break-down water, cast to difficult areas, and get a fly to where a fish is feeding on the surface or below.

Fishing spring creeks during spring in Iowa means some interesting water conditions and new opportunities. Like waters in other places, snow melt, run-off, and rains mean varying water levels and clarity. This can be a challenge sometimes, but carrying streamers, bwo patterns, hendricksons, adams, and some attractor nymphs is almost always the answer. Streamer fishing almost anytime the water is off-color can bring up big fish, and the flashes of yellow or silver through the cloudy water is nothing short of exciting.  Easier walking and wading without the lush grasses that make casting and negotiating streams in the summer a little more difficult makes up for the uncertainty of weather in the spring.

Summer and fall are one the best times of the year to fish due to a variety of different hatches and bugs on the water. Caddis are a staple of trout diet here throughout the summer, but as the season rolls along, terrestrials like beetles, ants, crickets, and hoppers offer some of the most exciting fishing of the year. These are sometimes simple patterns but offered in the right environment and time can mean explosive takes and beautiful fish. A personal favorite is a foam cricket pattern skittered across pocket water on some of our wooded streams. A dark seam of water comes alive when a brown trout keys in on a well-drifted terrestrial. Even mouse patterns, a fly that swept the fly fishing world after the epic fly fishing film Eastern Rises was released, fished at dusk in late summer can produce some hungry brown trout. Be warned: big fish on quiet water in near darkness is not for the faint of heart when a fish decides to eat.

Because the streams remain a constant temperature and flow, fly fishing the Driftless (in states that permit it) is possible and fruitful through the winter. Granted, telling folks that you are going fishing on an 18 degree day with windchill takes some explaining and maybe some convincing. However, fishing the streams in the winter has been some of our most productive time on the water, with brilliantly colored, eager to eat fish. During this time, nymph fishing is the way to go, with small midge nymphs and attractor patterns. When the sun pops out and temperatures warm to the 20s and 30s, some risers can be taken on small dry patterns with accurate casts and light leaders. Even on a bad day, and we’ve all had them, winter fishing with the cold and breaking ice out of the guides if for nothing else makes you appreciate the warmer weather that is inevitably ahead.

What makes fishing these places in the Driftless special isn’t always the fishing, but the scenery and sometimes journey to get there. The local charm of out-of-the-way restaurants, casting beneath towering bluffs, watching the fog roll off a cool stream or through a valley during a humid day in summer, or fishing under the watchful eye of a Holstein cow adds to the experience as much as catching fish

Epic Hatches and Other Rural Legends

Results

“The hatch is just above the bridge!” said the voice from the phone.  While this may be a rather innocuous phrase to the non-angler, in me, it induced an involuntary fist pump, a silent whoop, and a sudden onset of Steve Martin’s Happy Feet in the middle of my office cubicle.  I was calling the fly shop in Ashton for the sixth consecutive day, asking about the salmon fly hatch.  Ignoring the strange looks from my fellow office workers, minutes later my friend and I were escaping the gopher farm and racing our way across the Idaho desert toward an afternoon of casting orange bellied behemoths, more akin to miniature Goodyear blimps, than the delicate creations normally presented to Henry’s Fork trout.

The guy in the shop answering the phone each morning understood completely and likely would have had a similar reaction to mine if the roles were reversed. Surely he had been tolerating the daily inquiries, in anticipation of the fulfillment of the unspoken agreement that we would be stopping into the shop to purchase a few of his handmade creations in exchange for the information we anxiously pursued.  It is my adherence to this type of arrangement that helps to explain the many boxes of “local flies” that continue to fill every pocket, pouch, and sleeve in my fly vest.  Indeed, you can never have too many flies. You just don’t have to carry ALL of them with you everywhere you go. Last year, I consolidated some of these into boxes that would only be inserted for a trip to that specific locale.  The alternative being a vest more suited for combat training than fly fishing.

Eventually, every angler decides to target a specific hatch of insects.  Sometimes it is on local waters; sometimes great distances are traveled in hopes of fishing the often finicky, always ephemeral, and like most things in nature unpredictable, and yet potentially epic insect hatches.  I once shared a flight home to Idaho Falls with a couple from New Zealand who were targeting the Mother’s Day hatch on the Madison.  We all found it amusing that we both wanted to circumnavigate the globe to fish each other’s home waters.

Some believe that these epic hatches are nothing short of urban legends; or perhaps rural legends as it were.  My wife has yet to experience a true dry fly hatch of any kind.  Last June, in an effort to remedy this situation, I scheduled a guided trip for us in Yellowstone National Park.  The week preceding our trip it rained nonstop causing the rivers in the park to swell well beyond their banks.  I still remember the look on our guide’s face as he implored us saying “please don’t make me take you into The Park today”.  We gladly changed our plans to float the Madison and had a fantastic day throwing rubber legs.  While my wife landed countless trout that day, an insect hatch remained in the same category as our elusive friend Sasquatch.

Trout Food...I find it interesting that while trout play a critical role in this pursuit, the primary focus is on a species of insect. This change in focus allows anglers to tolerate what, under other circumstances would be considered unbearable conditions.  Combat fishing; which is normally avoided by all but the most oblivious, some might say imbecilic, of anglers, is suddenly kosher.  It seems that when the fish are eating flies as if they were a bunch of skittles that have been strewn about the floor of a day care center, an occasional tangle with another angler is abided by all.  The solitude so often sought in our sport becomes a party where proximity is only limited by the propensity to catch each other, wasting precious fishing time.

Ed and I had a blast splashing down sofa pillows that day on the Henry’s Fork.  Despite having wings, salmon flies are clearly not designed for flight, especially in the windy conditions of Eastern Idaho. I have to admit that having giant bugs crash land into your head and proceed to crawl up your body in search of who knows what, is a bit unnerving.  Eventually I discovered that the brim of my hat is their preferred vantage point.

Whether it be cicadas, green drakes, salmon flies, bikinis, stones, or sallies, chasing something that may or may not happen when and where you end up adds another dimension to an already fascinating obsession.   I just heard that the green drakes are coming off on the Middle Provo and my happy feet are shuffling toward the truck…

Map

Maps

Living in the state of Arizona, most people don’t think about trout fishing. Truth be told, there is more than rattlesnakes and saguaros in this desert state, and with a bit of work, some very respectable fish can be found.

The one key tool that any respectable fisherman needs when exploring in Arizona is a good map. A good map can take many forms, and often times, the best type is a topographical map. Topos are worth their weight in gold when trying to find an access points into the rugged canyons through which Arizona’s creeks flow. That same map that was beneficial accessing the creek can be a lifesaver when trying to get back out to the truck, as steep rock walls seem impenetrable.

Although the topographical map is arguably the most accurate, it may not be the best tool for the job. The most valuable maps are often drawn by hand and exchanged with a solemn oath to never spill their secrets. Typically, they include hastily scribbled odometer readings, forest road numbers, and notes that read “if you see burned tree next to the dinosaur-egg-rock, you’ve gone too far.” These hand drawn diagrams are treasure maps where “X” marks the spot full of hungry trout ready to gobble up a well-placed fly. Fly fishermen don’t share these readily and typically after a trip or two, they are left in a safe place at home, lest they fall into the wrong hands.

Every state and locale has their honey holes that only the locals know, but it seems in this digital age that more of these locations are being leaked.  I married an Arizona girl and will likely be here for life, and I can tell you quite easily, those hastily scrawled maps are tucked away in the safe next to car titles, birth certificates, and the rest of the other valuables only to be passed on to the next generation of Smiths.

Green Brown

Guides

When I first started fly fishing I really didn’t have much use for a guide.  Given my age at the time, my macaroni and cheese, top ramen budget would not have allowed me to hire a guide anyway.  I learned how to fly fish using the scientific method; effectively identifying almost every way NOT to catch fish.  My lack of stealth coupled with a tendency to always find myself standing in the place to which I should be casting, and using tippet heavy enough to reel in a Land Cruiser, often times left me wondering why on earth I had given up the night crawlers and Balls of Fire that were so successful in my youth.  I looked upon guides as unreachable gurus who sold the experience that I so desperately pursued.  On occasion, I would come upon a guide carefully instructing a client, and sit on the bank just within earshot hoping to poach a word of wisdom or two.  While this made me uncomfortable, a feeling likely shared by the guide and his client, I was fascinated by a person who could verbally instruct someone from snapping flies off into the bushes all the way to the point of actually landing a trout.  Typically, it only took one sharp gaze from the guide for me to get the message and move on.  A couple of years later, a brother-in-law who was always gifted at catching a lot of fish became a guide.

Suddenly, I knew “one” which seemed to make them more human.  He and a couple of other guys took me on trips to places like the Madison and the Green, etching indelible memories on my very being.  Several years later I moved to Green BrownIdaho and met a coworker who quickly became a friend.  It turned out he was married to a guide who also became a friend.  Fishing with him in his drift boat was akin to fly fishing graduate school.  I learned how to read currents while floating on them, spot and identify raptors overhead, use the wind instead of fight it, how to row, the ever important skill of making a sandwich fit for a drift boat, and the value of a good straw hat.  Slowly I began to realize that guides are not riparian leprechauns fleecing the dollars from the wallets of unsuspecting, yet all too willing Sports.  These people are Sages of hard earned knowledge; passionate protectors of the very waters from which they have been taught so many valuable lessons. I recognized that they have forged a connection with the river that only dog owners can approach in understanding.

Most start guiding for a variety of reasons; the mystique, to get girls, chasing dreams, trying to find themselves, etc.  Most only last a few seasons before they either accomplish their goals, find that there are not many girls to be gotten (re: MANtana), or just get sick of what ultimately is a lot of very  hard work.  Others find themselves watching the years blow by like exit signs on a kamikaze cross country road trip.  I guess that is the point, they find themselves.  They become part of an elite group of our species that “just get it”.  No longer encumbered by the hollow or vain pursuits which infect and distract so many of the rest of us.  They take great joy in helping their clients to feel the joys of angling; appreciate the precious resource that make the art of fly-fishing possible, and form a personal connection with those who will allow themselves to drop the firewall for a few hours.

At the end of a day with a good guide, you feel like you have made a friend; having shared something that is truly special.  Good guides seem to have achieved something that is truly God-like; the ability to enjoy the very passion that drives them, vicariously.  To laugh, cry, cuss, and rejoice with a client as if they were the ones holding the rod is something that I am only beginning to understand as I guide my family in their angling experiences while seated on the sticks of my own drift boat.

To Mark, Ed, Leslie, Brian, Monty, Mike, Jimmy, Pete, Shawn, Marc, Steve, Dustin, Dave, Brian, and Craig; I thank you for your guidance both on the river and off. My angling journey continues to be a source of strength, humor, and inspiration as I navigate the turbulent waters of life.

The Bighorn River

Better than Cutting Holes in Ice – New Year’s Trout!

 

After some skiing at Red Lodge, Montana over the holidays, we stopped in at the Bighorn River, which is not too far south of Billings.  A couple years ago, we heard rumors of great Christmas fishing and wanted to check it out.  It was January 2, the sun was shining, and the air temperature was about 39 degrees – almost tropical!  I was bundled up but it really did feel like a warm spring day.  (Perhaps because I’m from Manitoba?)

The Bighorn River is a “bottom-draw” tailwater that never freezes up. We walked and waded and drifted tiny nymphs and split shot through a lot of promising water. Although we didn’t get anything, it just felt great to be fishing. Around 4 PM  the light was getting low. I noticed some good-sized wakes moving up through a very skinny riffle in a side channel. I switched to an unweighted egg pattern, about a foot below a small indicator, and cast just upstream of the riffle. The water was maybe 8 inches deep…  Fish on!

Hello, brown trout! As darkness fell and the temperature dropped, I was on my knees, about 25 feet from the wakes pushing through the riffle. After every second cast, I dipped my rod in the water to unthaw the guides. A bad case of “rising fish” jitters made sure that my line got tangled way too often.  Nevertheless, two more browns honored me.  The last fish had to be stripped in ’cause my reel was completely frozen.  But I was feeling completely toasty.

The next day, before leaving, we could see the redds in the gravel above the riffle. The fish were spawning but aggressive. The Bighorn is about 1200 km away from my home.  Cost of gas: $250. Sight-fishing in open water on Jan. 2: priceless….

(The Bighorn Fly and Tackle Shop, located right by the river and also in Billings, was a great source of info.)