Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Good Old Days Are Now

            The Good Old Days Are Now For The Colorado River

It’s tempting to think that things used to be better in the past than they are now, that if we could only step into a time machine and emerge back into 1969 or 1955 or 1928 or whenever, the world would be a much better place than it is now.  For some aspects of life, that might well be true.  But for one vital resource that’s near and dear to my heart, the Colorado River, I’ve begun to think that the Good Old Days are right now, and not in some distant past.

  This is now my thirteenth year of living beside what I like to call the “Lower Upper” Colorado River, and I’ve never seen the river in better shape than it is now.  Thanks to a wet spring, the reservoirs on the west slope are all full, as are the ones on the Front Range, so water that might have gone east under the Continental Divide are in their rightful watersheds instead.  Also, this spring we’ve been catching more rainbow trout than I’ve seen in over twenty years, due in part to Hofers that were planted upriver several years ago and above Dotsero in September of 2012.  Many of the ones we’ve been catching are either the same size as those planted or even smaller, which means these are wild fish, and not pellet-fed hatchery stock. 

  The third factor which is making me happy these days are the bugs.  In the last week or so since the runoff ended, we’ve been having caddis hatches like here like we haven’t seen since the big water of 2011.  Since that high water year, the caddis have been around but in much reduced numbers.  We might have a couple of days of hatches around in May, but would then see hardly any for the rest of the summer. Previous to 2011, the Lower Upper was wonderful caddis water.  Like most fly fisherfolk, I prefer to catch a trout on a dry fly to any other method. As much fun as it is to watch a rainbow come up and hammer a hopper pattern, or it is to see an aggressive, hormonal brown streak out of its hole to chase a streamer, there’s just nothing like seeing a trout come up out of nowhere to sip a well-drifted fly that is connected to your rod.  It is the essence of what makes fly fishing as addictive as it is.  And of all the hatches one can be on the water to witness, caddis hatches are my favorite. A fish can be fooled on a dead drift with a caddis, but sometimes its putting a little action into your fly that elicits the strike.  A caddis will sometimes work better if its dragging or skating across the seam, like a female caddis laying its eggs.   Sometimes they even work better after they’ve sunk.  Since they are so busy and float se well, even a beginner with little concept of line mending can find success fishing a caddis pattern. I’ll often recommend to clients that when they are ready to lift the fly off the water to make their next cast, they should lift it slowly and then accelerate their lift, instead of just yanking the fly out. It’s often just as they begin to pull it out that the fish moves in to strike.  And if there are small mayflies such as BWOs or Tricos hatching as well, a caddis makes a great top fly to keep track of the smaller mayfly attached to the bend of its hook.  Seeing as many caddis back on the river as we’ve had, with plenty of water to supply our needs for the rest of the year, is making me hopeful that 2016 has the makings of an epic year!

  I’m a relative newcomer to our fair State, having only moved here thirty years ago in 1986. This was just after Windy Gap Reservoir went online, and long-time locals will point to that as being the main cause of the degradation to the Upper Colorado River that followed.  The reservoir created a shallow 400 acre lake which warmed the water and cut off the connection of the river to the waters above and below.  In addition to diverting water east that should have flowed west, it also had a significant impact on the macro-invertebrates in the river and by extension, the fish who rely on them as a food source.  Windy Gap has had a negative impact on the Upper Colorado, but the good news on that front is that Northern Water has agreed in principal to build a bypass around the fetid reservoir, pending studies that show it to be viable and the money found to build it. As for the Lower Upper, that is the Colorado River below Kremmling, we’ve been somewhat immune to the compromised water that the upper river gets thanks to the added flows of the Blue, and of Muddy Creek below Wolford Mountain Reservoir.  The beneficial effects of the cold, clear water of the Blue River below Green Mountain Reservoir are well known.  Less appreciated are the positive effects that Wolford Mountain has had on the Lower Upper Colorado River.  Wolford acts as a huge sediment trap for the turbid waters of the aptly-named Muddy Creek.  Since the dam was finished in the late 1990’s, it’s had the effect of a much clearer river below than there used to be back in the “good old days”.  There’s also one more bit of good news this year related to Wolford Mountain.  A couple of years ago, it was noted that the Pritchard Dam (which created the impoundment) had shifted more than its engineers had anticipated.  A concern arose that if the dam ever failed, it could result in the greatest “natural” disaster Colorado has ever seen, as a huge wall of water would roar down the Colorado and take out everything west of Dotsero with it.  My house would probably end up somewhere in Westwater Canyon, or perhaps Lake Powell.  However, this year an independent study was done that concluded that amount of shifting the dam has done was within safe amounts, so perhaps there is one less thing to worry about after all.

  So in July of 2016, there is nothing but good news to report from my perch here beside the lovely Lower Upper.  I don’t have a crystal ball, and can’t predict what kind of summer it might be in terms of weather (of course even people who are paid to do that sort of thing can’t). But I can visualize a day a long time from now in the future, when Elon Musk’s Tesla Time Machine Inc is doing a booming business, when someone steps into a little capsule with a fiber optic fishing rod and types “Summer 2016” into the control panel for a visit back to the “Good Old Days”!

                                                Jack Bombardier

The Big Bruisers Are Back


              The Big Bruisers Are Back In The Colorado

The almost-perfect summer or 2016 is winding down, and with Labor Day just around the corner the peak of fishing season awaits.  There are almost no bad places to fish anywhere in Colorado in September and October, and no where is that more true than along the Upper Colorado River.  Reservoirs are near-full,  flows are high and steady and just about ideal for floating, and will stay that way until Halloween.
There were a couple of weeks in July during the monsoon flows where the river did get too off-color for fishing, but that’s pretty normal here.  Within a day or two of those events happening, the river clears up again with extra-hungry fish waiting to annihilate your grasshopper.  And this summer, one positive aspect of those off-color days occurred to me that I had never considered. Because when a river isn’t perfectly clear, it seems to keep it a bit cooler, and less sunlight shining directly on the river bottom means less algae growth.  This summer the nearby Roaring Fork River has been plagued by rampant algae blooms, in part because its runs clearer than the Colorado does.  So even though the Fork can be a safer bet to fish if its been raining, you’ll pulling up less greenery with your dropper flies and streamers in the Colorado River.

  In September of 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocked 30,000 Hofer Rainbows in the river between Dotsero and the Roundup River Ranch. This was due in part to jumpstart the fishing after a major fish kill caused by a flood on Sweetwater Creek that July..  Ever since then, the rainbow populations have been doing great, and the fishing here might be the best it’s ever been.  When I moved to here in 1986, the Colorado River was primarily a rainbow trout fishery, with some browns mixed in. Anecdotally, the ratio seemed to be perhaps ten to one rainbows to browns.  Then in the late 1980s, whirling disease hit hard, exacerbated by the new Windy Creek reservoir, and by the late 1990s that ratio had flipped with browns now the dominant trout species.

  Parks and Wildlife (then the DOW) began stocking Hofers above Kremmling about ten years ago, and slowly those fish began making their way all the way down to the stretch I like to call the “Lower Upper”, or the river below State Bridge but above the Colorado’s confluence with the Eagle at I-70.  As of this summer, the browns still outnumber the rainbows, but by a margin of perhaps two or three to one.  What that means is that we are rapidly approaching a fishery that’s nicely balanced between the two, and which should be close to a fifty-fifty mix by next year or the perhaps the one after.  For the thirteen years I’ve lived beside the river, the fishing has literally been better every year than the year before.

  One thing the river has always had is plenty of fish, but its never been known for having lots of huge ones.  Even though the Colorado through the Lower Upper is dam-controlled, none of the dams are close enough to make the river a tailwater.  Twelve to fourteen inch browns have long been a staple in the Colorado, but it seems like this year, we’ve caught more and larger fish than ever before.  A twenty inch fish used to be rare, but this year we’ve already caught a half-dozen, with perhaps two dozen over sixteen inches being caught.

  Even my backyard has become a productive place to fish. The other night, I was fishing off my dock trying to catch one of the six-inchers shooting out of the water like Polaris missiles after caddis flies, to transplant into my wife’s new hydroponics setup. Instead, I caught a sixteen-inch brown on the size 22 Adams trailing the Elkhair caddis that I was too lazy to remove.  The week before, I was doing a float trip with a father and son from Mississippi, and were having a fairly productive day, boating a couple of fish per mile throughout.  When we got to my place, the son cast a fly toward a fence that runs into the river to keep the dogs in.  The drifting hopper suddenly stopped near the fence, and he told me later that he thought he’d snagged the fence until the line began to move.  He was using a tenkara rod, and not being able to let line out,  I suddenly had to start rowing hard because now I was the line backing! Only two days earlier, a customer had hooked a huge brown up in the fast water in the canyon using a tenkara rod, and we had lost that fish.  When that fish was hooked it ran upstream, and I rowed as hard as I could to stay with it. Then the fish turned, and came straight at my cataraft shooting between the pontoons as I leapt to the front of the boat with my net.  The fisherman grabbed the leader as the fish went under, and the tippet broke off.  This time, I was determined to not let that happen again, and we went round and round in the mellow water of my backyard until the brown finally tired and we were able to bring him to the net.  After taking a couple of pictures and releasing the fish, father and son agreed that the behemoth brown caught with a tenkara using 6X tippet was the highlight of their Colorado fishing trip. 

  But the river was not done with its surprises yet.  We continued fishing and at the other end of my property the son caught another smaller brown, (which after the twenty-incher looked pathetic).  Our trip was almost over, but just above our takeout is a curving, undercut bank, and we’ve pulled a couple of huge browns and rainbows from it this year and last.  Just above it, the father broke off his dropper fly, and I said “Let’s go without it, and just fish the hopper only along the bank.  Without a dropper fly, its much easier to get a fly close enough to the grass for a big bruiser to see it”. As I was trimming the tippet off the bend of the hopper’s hook, the son broke his off while tossing it towards the bank.  I said, “Same thing, let’s go with just a hopper. Try and get the fly as close as possible to the grass”. 

  I pulled up the anchor, and we began to drift towards the grassy undercut, and both men made their casts.  Tenkara rods are rigged with a finite amount of line, and can cast only so far and no more than that. Their first casts were short, so I moved the boat closer and they cast again.  The son’s hopper was about two feet from the bank, and he said, “How’s that?”, and I said, “Cast again, we need to get it a little closer”.  He raised the fly off the water, and as he did I gave the boat a gentle twist of my oars, rotating it slightly counter-clockwise towards the bank.  This time his fly landed about an inch off the grass.  “Perfect!” I said, “Keep it RIGHT there!” With slight adjustments to the oars, we were able to keep that fly an inch off the bank all the way down.  The son kept arm extended and steady, and together for just that moment we were fishing like a unit, as one single connected entity.  He held the rod, but I controlled the placement and drift of the fly, with the oars.  I was no longer just a guide, and he the fisherman, but we were both fishing together in that exact moment.  Watching the hopper speed along the bank was mesmerizing.  The sun was at our backs and the whole scene played out as if on stage.  The grass was as green as the Amazonian rainforest, and the hopper looked as big as a hanging curveball does to David Ortiz.  What happened next was obvious, and what should always happen in a just and right universe.  A huge olive snout came up, the hopper disappeared, and suddenly the twelve foot tenkara rod doubled over as an excited expression came over the son’s face. I pushed the boat towards the bank which relieved pressure on the rod, but now we were in the faster current closer to the bank, and we sped downriver with the son holding his rod up high trying to keep solid tension on the fish.  There was an eddy behind a big rock coming up on the left bank, so I made for that.  It was a weird balance of rowing through the current, while keeping one eye on my fisherman and his quarry.  We got the boat and the fish out of the fast water, and I jumped out of the boat with my net.  The son steered him into my net from above, and with that we’d landed our second huge brown trout in less than a mile!

People who have lived and fished the Upper C for years can tell stories of the great fishing before Windy Gap altered the balance of things.  They talk of lots of trout grown fat on the big stonefly hatches of the day.  Although that was before my time here in the Centennial State, I’ve never seen it as good as it right now, both for the quantities and now the size of the fish we catch.

    It seems like the Colorado River has more big fish in it than ever. I‘d like to think that its because after five hundred trips down the river, I’ve finally figured out where they are. But these are almost all wild fish, and keep their own counsel.  The river has a more powerful and infinite force than a mere mortal like me can ever hope to really grasp
    A river full of wild trout is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Actually, it’s better than chocolate, since its pleasures linger in the mind long after a day spent on the water is past.  Fall of 2016 is at hand, and this is usually when the fishing gets really good! If this past summer is any indication, what’s coming next should be memorable!

                                                          Jack Bombardier

Winter Is Tenkara Time

                                          Winter Is Tenkara Time
After a long, glorious Colorado autumn that seemed to last forever, winter is finally here.  Most anglers put their rods away once the snow starts to fall, and break out their skis or retreat to the tying bench once it does. But a new tool has emerged over the past few years which has to potential to revolutionize the way we think about fishing during the “off season”, and that is the tenkara rod. Tenkara-style rods are usually around twelve feet long, with a fixed line and leader combination of fourteen to twenty feet that comes straight off the tip of the rod. Tenkara setups use no reel whatsoever, and make fly fishing  even easier than spin fishing.  I guide float fishing trips on the Upper Colorado River, and have had days where novice anglers using tenkara rods have out-fished more experienced fishermen using conventional rods. 
 By now you’ve probably already heard about tenkara, and maybe even tried it yourself.  The rods were brought to America by Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA, but there are now several different companies selling them now at various price points and levels of quality.   For a person skilled and adept at handling a conventional fly rod setup, the notion of limiting oneself to a fixed amount of line may seem to be very constraining. What happens if the fish you are casting to is eighteen feet away, and you’ve only got a seventeen foot long tenkara rig?  It is true that there are situations in which tenkara setups aren’t optimal, and that would include wade fishing big rivers, angling for large prey, and windy days. 
  I really love fishing with my tenkara rod, but still use a conventional setup at least three-quarters of the time.  But there is one scenario where tenkara rods really shine, and that is for winter tailwater fishing. Colorado is home to many productive winter fisheries, most located below big dams.  Tailwaters include the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir, the Frying Pan below Ruedi, the Yampa below Stagecoach, and the Taylor, to name a few.   What these waters have in common is a steady flow of (relatively) warm water flowing all winter that is conducive to insect hatches, and in turn to feeding fish.  Waters like this are justifiably famous for the big trout they produce, but fishing them during the high season usually means casting right beside many others doing the same thing.  The nice thing about visiting them in the winter when everyone else is on the slopes, or inside nice and warm and dreaming of April, is that you can often have these normally busy waters all to yourself.  
  The two main obstacles to winter fishing are rod guides that ice up and freezing hands, but tenkara rods solve both problems. (Freezing feet can also be a problem, but if you stand in the forty degree water instead of the ten degree air on the bank it helps!)  Tenkara rods have no guides to accumulate ice, so that’s one problem completely eliminated.  As for your hands, a tenkara only requires the use of one to hold the rod, so the other hand can stay warm in your pocket.  The hand holding the rod can be clad in a snowmobile mitten if conditions dictate, since tenkara rods don’t need delicate hand coordination to fish with. The only time you’ll get your hand wet is when landing a fish,  but using barbless hooks can greatly reduce the amount of fish handling necessary when you do land one. 
 Flows coming out of dams are usually low, and with the slow start to our winter season so far they’ll probably remain that way all winter.  Dam operators will be loathe to release any more water than necessary until we see how big of a snowpack we end up with by next year.  But low water like that is perfect for tenkara. Tenkara rods are mostly promoted as a way to fish small streams and headwaters, and they are great for that. But the more I use them, the more other situations I realize they are good for.  Beginning fisherfolk? Check.  Kids, or the elderly who no longer have good hand to eye coordination? Check. Backpackers, or people fishing from horseback or mountain bike? Check.  Fishing from a boat, where casts are often fairly short? Check.  But of all the varied uses of tenkara rods, there is none where they give you a bigger edge than for winter fishing.  Once you’ve used a tenkara rod on your favorite tailwater, you’ll never take your regular rig out again when temperatures dip below freezing. 
  And if you do hook a big one,what if he wants to take you deep into the backing that you don’t have to give?  If you’re fishing from the bank, it might mean that you’ll have to sprint along the bank.  When we hook one from my boat, it means that now I’m the drag, and I have to row like hell to keep up. But here’s an alternative method, told to me last winter at the Fly Fishing Show by the folks at Temple Forks Outfitters.  I’ll preface this anecdote by admitting that it might be complete BS, but then aren’t most good fishing stories?  TFO builds tenkara rods for Patagonia, for its founder, Yvon Chouinard, is a long-time tenkara aficionado.  The story told to me is that Mr. Chouinard was fishing somewhere for Atlantic Salmon with a tenkara rod, and hooked a nice fish.  The salmon did what they are famous for, which was going on a long, athletic run.  He did the best he could trying to run along the bank, but the fish quickly took him to the end of his limited line. Faced with a choice of just breaking the fish off, or tossing the rod into the water, Mr. Chouinard chose the latter. With a conventional rod, throwing your rod into deep water would be a sure-fire way of losing it forever, but tenkara rods have a trick up their telescopic sleeve.  They float.  The rods are hollow, and have oversized cork handles, and thus will float almost indefinitely.  (When I tell this story to my clients, I’ll often toss the tenkara rod they’ve been using into the river to demonstrate this).   Mr. Chouinard and his partner then waited patiently alongside the river bank, hoping that another characteristic that Atlantic Salmon supposedly have is true.  That is, when an Atlantic Salmon is hooked, although they go on these long runs that take you deep into your line backing, once they throw the hook or break it off, they'll go back to the original feeding lie they were hooked in. So, after waiting for some period of time, they saw their tenkara rod slowly floating back to where the salmon was originally hooked, and were able to retrieve it.  Still attached to it was one tired Atlantic Salmon, which they were now able to land!
  I make no claims as to the veracity of that story, but am just passing along what was told to me. The storyteller’s nose did not seem to grow discernibly in the telling of it. But it hypothetically could be true, for tenkara rods do float.  So if you do happen to hook some huge rainbow in the Toilet Bowl below Ruedi Reservoir, remember that you do have an alternative to breaking him off! 

                                                          Jack Bombardier    

   Confluence Casting LLC  14503 Colorado River Road  Eagle County CO 81637   

Jack will be a featured speaker at the International Sportmens Exposition in Denver January 12-15th 2017, talking about tenkara and fly fishing the eastern Flat Top Mountains