Monday, June 8, 2015

Fishing The Peak

                                                                Fishing The Peak
Its June 7th 2015, and river flows (and the snowpack that create them) are looking good on the Upper Colorado
River Basin.  The river is at or near its peak right now, flowing at about 7,500 cfs past (and into) my backyard right now. The flows this spring are much higher than I would have expected only a few weeks ago, but that's what five weeks of almost daily moisture will do for a watershed.  In my last email, I promised to let everyone know when I thought we were at peak, and when that peak might start to drop.  I think that moment is nigh at hand.  The fishing still isn't great, but the river looks good and it should be fishing great very soon. 

   One thing that's different with this email than past ones I've sent is that I'm going start putting in links to stories that might be of interest.  There's a blog I read by a sportswriter who does a lot of that, and I've noticed that I really like to take those internet side trips sometimes.  For example, the day I ran across a story about Arctic Char being stocked in Dillon Reservoir, and instead of just telling you about it I can just do this.... .  How fun is that?

  More good news is that the clarity of the river is better than you expect for this time of year and for this high a flow, its much clearer.  Although the visibility is still under a foot, it looks like water and not coffee.  The main reason for this is that upstream reservoir operators are coordinating dam releases to provide flushing flows for endangered fish near Grand Junction.  These impoundments include Green Mountain, Williams Fork, Lake Granby and Wolford Mountain.  (To learn more about that, check this link at "  ). Since the water that's flowing my way is coming out of the bottom of these reservoirs and not from surface runoff, its colder and clearer that we typically see in June.  These releases are supposed to end during the middle of the next week, which means that the river should drop quite a bit, clear, and warm up.  This is turn should also increase bug hatches, and the metabolism of the trout.  By next weekend, the fishing here on the Lower Upper should be ON.

  I've done three floats this week, two of them just to enjoy the whitewater with friends and one to fish.  The fishing trip was one we scheduled over a month ago, when the timing of the runoff was more uncertain.  As our date drew nearer, I let my client know via email that it was looking like the river would still be high, and the fishing poor.  But then on my second whitewater float we saw rising fish and decent caddis hatches, and I realized that it might be possible to catch a trout in this big water after all. My customer still wanted to come despite sub-par conditions, for he had heard about my stretch of river from a good friend and wanted to experience it himself, good fishing or bad. I priced the float as if we were doing a scenic float instead of a fishing one, and in our email exchanges I kept downplaying the likelihood of catching anything.  Even worse, in the three days between my second whitewater float and the day of the fishing trip on Friday, the river kept on inching up even more.  On my last email to him, I wrote him that I couldn't promise him great fishing on Friday, but that I could promise him a great time.

  My customer showed up on Friday morning eager to go, and after a quick primer on fly casting we set off up the river.  Along the way, I showed him some of the big wave holes you can see from the road.  We stopped at Pinball Rapid so I could show him the line we'd be taking, which would be to the right of the bridge pylon.  In normal flows, going left of the bridge is the only feasible option in a raft, but above 3,500 cfs or so the right side is in play.  The slot is fairly narrow going right, but the reward is a nice set of big waves to run through that can make a raft feel like a cantering horse.  When we got up to Derby Junction, I took him to the top of the mesa to check out the overlook on top.  Its only a mile from the road and river below, but you gain almost a thousand feet in elevation and its one of my favorite views in Colorado.  From that vantage point, you can see downriver for five miles, or the entire first half of the float we do. 

  When we got back to the river, instead of going to my put in which is just across the River Road at the mouth of Derby Creek, I drove him up to Rodeo Rapid, aka Burns Hole.  Rodeo was formed by a rock slide almost thirty years ago that created a Class III  feature in the river.  At most fishing levels, its a nasty piece of work, for at the bottom of the rapid is a shark tooth-like snag that the fast current tries to push anything in the water up into. The first time I ran it twelve years ago, I got stuck on that rock for over an hour, until some campers downriver saw me and walked up to see if they could be of assistance.  I ended up throwing them my bow line, and the four of them pulled and pulled until my big cataraft finally came free. Over the next few years, I got the rapid pretty dialed in to where I could get through it without any other issues, but I never enjoyed it. I've witnessed several boats flip in it, including one rowed by a guide working for me who put two eighty year-olds into the river.  Now my river access is below Rodeo and I don't miss having to deal with it, but when the river rises it gets easier to run, since the rocks that might otherwise cause difficulties are well under water.  At the 7,300 cfs level or so it was running Friday, it becomes almost easy, and so I showed my customer what it looked like to give him the option of whether he wanted to run it or not.  Being a former Marine, he was not only up to the challenge but looking forward to it. 

  We launched from Burns, rowed through the flat water above the Rapid, and then ran it just left of center without incident.  The waves were huge and rolling but my big cataraft just bombed right on through.  As we made our way past Derby Junction, we began to focus on fishing, and how to "read" water to determine where the fish were.  My client had done mostly still water fishing on lakes and oceans, where fish are on the prowl looking for food. I explained that in a river, the fish like to hold in feeding lies and let the food come to them, a very different scenario.  These feeding lies can often be located by determining where the seams between the moving and still water are, and those are usually delineated by bubble lines. During this whole description to him of what we were looking for, I kept interjecting that given our current high water conditions, it might be difficult to actually catch anything, but in theory at least this was where we would try to locate feeding trout.  I was trying to keep his expectations low, but in our first big eddy, Echo Hole, he caught a fine fifteen inch rainbow right out of a spot I told him to cast into!  Over the next hour, he caught two more rainbows as well, and it looked as though we would have to start raising our expectations a little!

  Unfortunately, those three fish would be the only ones we'd catch all day.  After those three he did fish less, and we just enjoyed the brisk float.  The nice part about fishing high water is that you don't have to fish every foot of the river the whole way down.  That's because there's not much holding water along the banks, and so the fish tend to stack up in the big eddies to wait out the high water.  This causes the fish populations to be concentrated into very small areas, making finding them easier to find.  So a trip this time of year tends to be short sections of very fun whitewater, interspersed by pulling out of the current to fish the eddies along the way.  The only caveat is that with the water clarity under a foot, you need to get your fly or lure within a small visual window close to a trout's eyeballs.  The upside to that poor clarity is that the fish aren't too spooky, and you can get the boat pretty close to them. 

  As we made our way down the river that day, the clarity seemed to worsen.  We also saw plenty of floating wood in the water, another sure sign that the water level is increasing. So whether it was due to that, or from our halfhearted attempts to catch more, we got skunked the rest of the day.  But my client didn't seem to mind, for the fun waves and the always-spectacular setting more than made up for it.  We did get several bumps and chasers, some right up to the boat, but didn't land any more of them.

  So the snowpack is looking good, and the Front Range is even wetter so their reservoirs are even fuller than ours.  If you were on top of A Basin right now, you might think that it was the middle of February.  The Snotel number for the Upper Colorado River basin is at 95% as of this morning, ( .  This means that all that beautiful water is coming west, where it belongs.  There is one place I like to look to get a feel for what the snowpack is doing melt-wise, and that's the gauge on the Piney.  The Piney River is a great window into what the snowpack is doing. (This gauge can be found at ).  The Piney begins above Vail at Piney Lake, nestled up in the Gore Range.  It has a short steep run flowing northwest to its confluence with the Colorado River at State Bridge.   Denver Water owns most of it's water rights, and if the proposed Wolcott Reservoir ever gets built, water would be pumped uphill south over the divide into the Eagle River watershed.  That water would then be stored in a reservoir for late summer releases into the Eagle, which would satisfy downstream water commitments. In low water years this would be bad news for the Colorado River, since water that currently flows past this stretch in the summer could be substituted by that Eagle water, which might mean less here and more of it going east through the Roberts Tunnel.  The only irrigation taken out of it now is at Magnus Lindholm's ranch down near the bottom, but its not that significant of a diversion.  The resulting flow number at the Piney gauge is a good real-time look at what the snowpack is doing from day to day, without the variabilities that reservoir storage or ranch diversions add to the picture. The Piney peaked on Tuesday and has begun to drop a little since, so I feel pretty confident that once the dams start releasing less water come the middle of this week, we'll see the levels begin to drop.  As you might remember from previous emails, or from personal experience, the period immediately after the peak flow when the river begins to clear can have some great fishing, and right now that looks like next weekend.  Of course weather and other variables can have a big impact on that, but for now somewhere around June 12th should be the time to get your fishing rods back out. 

  Of course, the neat thing about getting out this time of year is that river is so much damn fun at this level, and really at anything above 3,000 cfs.  The waves trains just seem to roll on and on, caused by the sheer volume of water being squeezed between canyon walls.  Whirlpool Canyon has some really big waves, whereas normally there are none at all.  Rodeo Rapid goes from being a dangerous rapid to avoid, to being a fun play spot to seek out.  The Twin Bridges can be safely run by going right down the middle, and there's a good half mile of fun, fast water below. One difficulty we did have on Friday was finding a place to stop for lunch.  All of the usual sand bars and eddies we usually stop at were under deep moving water.  We ended up at the Pinball boat ramp, which was perfect.  It's mostly under water right now, and so you can float right up to the spot you are usually maneuvering your truck, and hang out there out of the wind and current. 

  If you live on the Front Range, you've had such a wet and cold past few weeks that its probably hard to even think about doing any wet outdoor recreation.  You've probably had enough of that just walking to and from your front door each day. But out here, its a different story.  I lived in or around Denver for seventeen years, and never appreciated how much nicer and dryer it is over here on the western slope. We get way less rain and snow here at 6,200 feet of elevation on the river, as opposed to what we see often see on the Denver TV newscasts.  So the water is just where we like it - watering pastures, flowing past our wader-clad ankles, or in a frozen state crunching under our skis.  (Yes, A Basin is still open and will be until at least the 14th, maybe longer. Find out more at ).

  So if you want to experience Colorado at its best, and ski / whitewater float / fish / golf all in the same weekend, this is the time to come up and do it!  (I can help you out with two out of the three).


Jack Bombardier

www.confluencecasting.com13403 Colorado River Road
Eagle County, CO 81637
970-524-2775 - shop
303-378-2149 - cell