There Is A Season, Turn Turn Turn…
It’s the middle of April, and the seasons are changing from winter to spring. I’ve come to love these overlapping periods in which one can fish, ski, play golf or do just about anything on a given day. The golf courses in the lower parts of the Eagle Valley have opened, the Colorado River has been in nice shape for fishing for the past two weeks, and Beaver Creek ski area is still open for a few more days.
This winter has been one of the best I can remember in my 33 years of living in Colorado. The snow came early and often, and there’s even more on the way to finish the season with. All that plentiful white stuff made for great skiing, but the flip side was that my work driving a propane truck was quite a bit tougher this year. After only having to put my tire chains on twice over the previous winter, this year I often chained up twice a day. The deep snow also buried many of the underground tanks I that have to access, some so deep that even the fiberglass poles we marked them with were also hidden. It feels like I shoveled more snow this year than I have since I was thirteen years old.
But now as the days grow longer and warmer, the time has come to focus on the spring and summer ahead. The deep snowpack covering the Rockies should make for a banner water year. In addition to being good news for fishermen and farmers, we should also see something this spring that’s been in short supply the last few years – white water! Travelling down the river in my big cataraft is a wonderful experience in all but the worst weather, (and if the weather promises to be bad we generally don’t go). But add some big waves into the equation and now you can really have a memorable day. The beauty of the section of Colorado I float is that the river canyon was carved in part by big spring flows that used to come roaring down each spring before the dams were built upriver. Though the original purpose of those dams were to collect water on the west side of the Continental Divide to be sent east to where the big population centers are, they’ve had the incidental unintended consequence of creating a fine trout fishery below them. This also means that even in a “big” water year like we have on tap, peak flows are still only half of what the river’s natural channel can accommodate. Smaller rivers like the Eagle, the Arkansas and Clear Creek can be quite dangerous in high water, due to the boulders in the middle of the river and the strainers along the edges caused by trees and other flotsam. But on the Colorado, big water means huge wavetrains that are fun and safe to ride, almost like being on a cantering horse. The only obstacles worth noting on my regular stretch are the two bridges that must be avoided, and one of those was recently replaced by a much more rafter-friendly design.
Another positive aspect of the coming big water is the effect it has on the fishing. Many float fishermen look at the period of runoff as being a great time to go fish in a lake, and will avoid rivers until the flows come down. But a little appreciated aspect of high water is that it tends to concentrate the fish into fewer areas of the river, namely the big eddies that the Colorado is noted for. As the river begins its rise in early May, the heavy current goes up into the willows along the bank and deprives fish of good holding water. The rising water also tends to be carrying a lot of sediment which makes the water almost opaque. Those few weeks of rising water are a difficult time to be a Colorado River trout. But once the waters begin to recede, for a couple of weeks the river becomes a great spot to float for the fun of the big waves and for catching fish. Since the water is still high, the fish are still in the eddies, sometimes stacked like cord wood. But the water clears as the level drops, the fish can now see well enough to hunt and feed and they’re extra hungry, since they may not have much to eat over the previous few weeks. The water temperatures also tend to rise during this period, which tends to increase their metabolism. And since many fishermen are still avoiding rivers during this time, people in my boat tend to be the only ones holding fishing rods.
Four years ago I began offering a river shuttle service for the other commercial and private boaters who come out here. This year, I was hoping to wait to start doing shuttles until the ski lifts stopped running, but the river was ready before I was. After a ski season as perfect as this one has been, I’ve been reluctant to flip the switch in my brain from “ski” to “fish”. The snow is deep and soft and I want to keep making turns in it until the brown earth beneath begins to show. There will be opportunities this spring at Breckenridge and A Basin to get that skier’s high, but they are a longer drive away and getting there and back devours a whole day. So for the next two months, the rocket box on my car will be stuffed full of ski and fishing gear, ready for any adventure that Colorado has to offer.
Last week, I met up with some folks who are members of a group that I’m in which is developing a plan to help protect the Upper Colorado River. We met to put in three temperature loggers to track water temperatures over the course of the year. I was hoping to get done in time to go to Beaver Creek later in the afternoon and get some runs in, but we took so long making our way up the River Road that by the time we got to State Bridge, getting to the Beav in time was out of the question. And so at our last stop, when two members of our party broke out their fly rods, I did the same. Being compelled to fish instead of ski is just one of those hard decisions that a Coloradan is forced to make sometimes.
We fished the left river bank just below the confluence of the Piney, and at first things were slow. There were no obvious bugs around, so we all kept trying different patterns to see what the fish we knew were there wanted to eat. The rod I keep in my rocket box is a ten foot three weight Loomis, and since I already had a size 22 BWO dry fly rigged I started with that. I didn’t get a single strike, which wasn’t surprising since there were no bugs hatching and no fish rising. So I switched to a dry/dropper, and couldn’t move a fish with that, either. Several different nymphs all produced the same result, nothing.
When I was younger I didn’t mind getting skunked all that much, because trout usually live in beautiful places and just being in their neighborhood for awhile is justification enough for being there. If a person put on waders and stood in the middle of a cold river for a hour doing nothing, you might want to call the authorities and possibly have that person’s head examined. But put a fly rod in that person’s hand and now they are just fishing, not crazy. When the setting is pretty enough, (and where trout live it usually is), catching a fish is almost beside the point. Since my companions were also not getting much action, in the past I would have been OK with not hooking anything. But now I’m not just an average angler, but a Fishing Guide, one who is always supposed to be able figure out what it takes to make a fish eat a fly, even if they’re just sitting on the bottom not eating anything. After an hour of futility, I decided to try and chuck a streamer out there to see if that would tempt a trout. Since my rod was designed more for that size 22 dry fly I started with than for casting a much heavier fly, I shortened the leader and tied on a black unweighted Woolly Bugger, which was all that rod could handle.
I moved upriver a little to cast to the edge of some faster water, and on my third cast saw a pink flash and the line grew tight. It was a rainbow trout, and a big one. The fish spun into the heavier current and my rod bent deeply. I held the rod high and tried to give him a little line, but my line wrapped around the reel. The fish was now in the current, and while I tried to unwrap the line off the reel the fish came off. I let out a loud expletive that my friends nearby, the two guys across the river, and anyone else in a mile’s radius all heard. The angler on the other side of the river had seen my hookup and called out, “It looked like a big one!”, to which I nodded glumly. As they say, the Tug Is The Drug, and now I was like a crack addict who had fallen off the wagon hard. I’d gone from pleasantly casting flies into the river with no expectations whatsoever, to really wanting to feel that sensation of having a fish on the line again. I moved up to the next rock above and tossed the Woolly Bugger behind it, and on my second cast another rainbow bigger than the first came up and rolled in the surface film trying to eat it. Again the rod bent, but then the line went limp. 0 for 2. Working my way up the bank, I was able to get a couple more fish to flash at the fly, including a small brown trout that chased it across a pool, but didn’t hook any.
It was getting late, and I had stuff to do at home, and so I waded back to my two friends who still trying to fool fish using dry/dropper combinations. They’d had a couple of strikes, but no fish yet to hand. I told them that the Woolly Bugger seemed to be doing the trick, at least to the point of proving fish were there, if not actually hooking one. I was going to leave, but wasn’t quite ready to make the drive home smelling like a skunk, so a walked out to the end of a large log in the river to drop my fly into a bubble line I could just barely reach. On my first two casts, there were the flashes of a fish chasing my streamer, and on the third cast one feisty brown trout finally caught up to it. It was only thirteen inches long, but it was Fish Number One for 2019. I was able to drive home with my professional reputation intact, and not smelling like a polecat.
The Colorado River might be in wonderful pre-runoff condition, but putting the ski season into the rearview mirror is still hard to do. After all, there is an entire year ahead in which to go fishing, but the days left to ride a chairlift up into the heavens are numbered. And as the seasons turn, I’ll try my best to turn with them, rocket box stuffed full of wet gear.