Tag Archives: Rainbow Trout

Ice off at Colorado High Country Lakes

An angler stands on his favorite river, swelled bank to bank with cold, turbid, fast moving, dangerous mid June runoff, and mutters, “When is there going to be some fishable water? Curses foiled again.”

Have no fear high country lakes are here! The fish are looking up, hungry and cruise the shallows.  Dead insects, formerly encrusted in ice, drift in the melted film and those alive are responding to the spring warmth. Grab your rod and get up there.

We picked three lakes above 9000’ elevation in northwest Colorado near the town of Steamboat Springs with roads close by, Steamboat, Pearl and Dumont. A short walk around drifted snow banks and we were fishing. The aspens were sucking up the snow melt and sprouting soft, tender, green leaves. Glacier lilies burst from the edge of snow banks with yellow flowers.  The mountains were alive again and soothed the soul.P1030171

At Steamboat Lake the rainbows and cutthroats hit size 8 black woolly buggers with hints of purple mixed in. A float tube was helpful to fish towards the shallow shore but cold. The possibility of hypothermia crossed our minds. Dress in layers because the skies can change from sunny to snowy quickly. While we fished, the Pleistocene era sand hill cranes soared above us uttering their strange, haunting prehistoric cries. The ancestors of this 2 million year old species, with a six foot wingspan, began migrating through North America at the end of the last Ice Age and make the lake marshes here their summer home.

Pearl Lake is only a few miles away. We aimed our casts to evening rises as the sun reflected the mountains in the cool, blue water. It was frustrating because I kept missing strikes at my Griffiths gnat dry fly. In desperation, I downsized twice and finally, with a size 18, I got a hook up. The fish darted deep, pulling my line from side to side and eventually tiring ended up in my net. It was an arctic grayling which have smaller mouths and they apparently couldn’t get their jaws around my larger flies. One of my fishing buddies said, “I never thought grayling would take a dry fly.” Typically they live deep in the lake, but in the spring move to the shallows to spawn and then disappear again.

Dumont Lake lays near the continent divide on Rabbit Ears Pass by U. S. Highway 40. We left a paved road, busy with traffic, to the serenity of a mountain lake. During the summer the lake and campground generally crawls with anglers and campers. During our spring trip we had it all to ourselves. A couple years ago the lake was drained, the brook trout removed, the dam repaired, re-filled with melted snow creeks and stocked with Hofer-Colorado River strain, whirling disease resistant, rainbow trout. The rich organic material encouraged quick growth and we encountered fat, feisty, fish. Aquatic worms were abundant. Small size 14 hooks wrapped with red floss and ribbed with copper wire worked well. Occasionally, the trout would take a larger San Juan worm or green Copper John midges too.

As always, it took a little experimentation to figure out what the fish wanted and each lake provided forage that was different, but the fish were hungry after a long winter beneath the ice. A local fly shop can offer tips to solve the riddle.

A high mountain lake awakes and waits for you. Don’t despair, get up there.

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Mothers Day and the Caddis Hatch on the Arkansas River

The Mothers Day caddis hatch on Arkansas River in Colorado is famous. Slowly the hatch creeps up steam in late April and early May dictated by the magical water temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit. A little extra snow melt cools the water and postpones the movement of cocooned caddis pupa squirming to the surface to shed their shucks and lifting airborne. But don’t worry; with 2 decades of water quality and structure improvement, the 102 miles of the Gold Medal freestone river from the Pueblo Reservoir to Leadville has a plethora of spring hatching bugs. Blue-wing-olives, caddis, golden stones, smaller dark stoneflies and midges now populate the waterway plus Colorado Parks and Wildlife recently introduced salmonflies which seem to like the Ark.

Spring Time Brown
Spring Time on the Arkansas

Dark (purple, brown or black) BWO nymphs size 20 to 26 and bright (chartreuse, orange or red) midge larva, also size 20-26, are always in the water column, moving up or down and deciding if the time is right to surface and hatch. The improvement of water quality on the river that endured a century and a half of mineral mining byproducts has changed the trout from smaller, short lived browns to a mixture of healthy rainbows and browns enjoying a longer life and growing to sixteen inches or more.

Until you see rising fish, Czech or high stick nymphing are the best techniques. Fishing with a long line and an indicator has limitations and works only in certain areas. Use a heavy attractor pattern like a golden stone, smaller dark stone or San Juan worm as the lead fly and a BWO nymph or midge larva pattern 12 to 18 inches lower. Methodically fish and try to reach all the parts of deep tail-outs below riffles, seams and deeper holding water. During the middle of a May day the trout will key into the specific hatch, either caddis, midges or BWOs. A dry fly as an indicator with the emerger of the same insect as the dropper is a good method. The sub-surface tends to be where the action occurs with so much competition with naturals on the surface. Dead drift with long leaders, good knots and fine (6x or 7x) tippets to weary trout.

Nymphing a Run
Nymphing a Run

The tailwater below Pueblo Reservoir is open to angling year round. The spring runoff captured from Arkansas River flows out of the dam at a fairly consistent temperature and generally close to gin clear. When high, discolored water surges through the freestone river section; this is the place to be. Public fishing is available for nearly all the water that meanders through the City of Pueblo. Anglers must pay a small fee in some areas. Colorado Parks and Wildlife have built structures for a decade, studied fish populations and created a first class fishery. The same techniques and fly patterns apply here as the mountainous head waters. The big difference is the city resides at a 5000 foot elevation and frequently has 50 degree air temperatures in January and February. Fly fishers feeling the effect of winter cabin fever, but hesitant to angle in cold weather will find they don’t have to wait for Mothers Day to catch big trout.

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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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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