Time: 12:00PM – 4:00PM
Location: Between Salida and Wellsville
A fly fishing adage claims that blue winged olives love weather that is miserable for fly fishermen. Wednesday, April 14 certainly reinforced this belief.
The long range weather forecast for Denver and the front range called for at least seven days with high temperatures in the upper forties to low fifties. Highs in this range translate to thirties and forties in the mountains and foothills, and this angler is not a fan of fishing in cold temperatures. I braved some rather challenging conditions on Monday, April 12, and I was hoping to avoid a repeat. Some of the best fishing of the year occurrs in the pre-runoff time period of mid-March through mid-May, and the colder than normal weather of April was causing me to miss some potentially excellent fishing.
I normally study the DWR stream flows before planning any fishing trip; however, for April 14 my main focus was the weather. I reviewed the towns and cities near potential destinations, and as expected the high temperatures were ten to fifteen degrees lower than Denver and accompanied by high wind to make the fishing option even more forbidding. Finally I checked the Arkansas River near Salida, and the small river town displayed a Weather Underground forecast high of 54 degrees with single digit wind velocity. The Arkansas River is sometimes called the banana belt, because it is far enough south to experience different weather patterns. The forecast also predicted afternoon cloud cover, so I jumped at the opportunity and made the trip on Wednesday.
Because of the cold temperatures I decided to take my time, and I departed Denver at 8:15AM for a three hour drive. As I climbed from Denver on US 285 and traveled through the small towns of Aspen Park and Conifer, snow swept across the highway from low hanging clouds. These driving conditions continued, until I advanced to the southern side of South Park beyond Fairplay, where the fog lifted, and the snow tapered off. The dashboard thermometer did not change, however, and the temperature remained in the upper twenties to just below freezing. Could the Weather Underground forecast be wrong, and was I embarking on a six hour joy ride?
I arrived at the wide pullout next to Lunch Rock (my name for it) a bit after 11:00AM, and, frankly, I was reluctant to fish. The banks of the river were covered with an inch or two of snow, the dashboard registered a balmy 32 degrees, and strong gusts of wind rushed up the canyon. I checked Weather Underground to determine whether they modified their forecast, but that was not the case. In fact, the weather application showed a current temperature of 40 degrees, while my car displayed 32. I was baffled by this significant disparity in temperature readings.
I decided to eat my lunch in the warmth of the car at 11:30 to delay my fishing start time and to allow more time for a warming trend. The ploy worked to some degree, and the temperature climbed to 35 degrees, as I began the process of preparing to fish. I pulled on my UnderArmour long sleeved undershirt and topped it with a fishing shirt. The next layer was my fleece hoodie, and then I sealed my body heat in with my windbreaker raincoat, and the final addition was my Northface light down parka. Once again I tugged on my New Zealand billed hat, and then I pulled the fleece hood over the hat to protect my ears and neck even more. I reached in my Fishpond fishing bag and pulled out my fingerless wool gloves, and then I ripped the ends off my packet of handwarmers and stuffed them in the pockets of my light down outer layer. My Sage One five weight became the fishing tool of choice, as I planned to deal with wind throughout the day, or as long as I could endure the frigid conditions.
The river looked spectacular, as it rushed down the canyon at 330 CFS and carried a deep green color with plenty of visibility. I decided to rig my line with an indicator nymphing set up at the car in order to take advantage of some additional warmth and protection from the wind. I applied my New Zealand strike indicator and crimped a split shot above the last surgeon’s knot. For my starting flies I attached an iron sally and classic RS2. When I was ready, my fingers were stinging, so I pulled out my handwarmers and sat in the backseat to regain a level of comfort. How was I going to fish for more than a few minutes, if my fingers grew stiff and numb after ten minutes of configuring my line?
I found a short steep path to the river in front of Lunch Rock, and I began to sling casts to the edge of a foam pocket next to the bank and to a nice deep trough behind a submerged boulder a bit farther out but still above the massive boulder, that I christened Lunch Rock. Miraculously on the tenth cast the indicator dipped at the downstream end of the deep slick, and I set the hook and felt the rod vibrate. Was I snagged? Absolutely not. I fought and landed a gorgeous brown trout that snatched the iron sally, and I was on the scoreboard early in the day. Needless to say my focus on the chilling weather diminished for a bit. Once the thrashing brown trout was in my net, I removed my gloves and tossed them on the bank where they would not get wet. I accurately determined that keeping my gloves dry was the key to a longer day of fishing. I removed my camera from its case and snapped a pair of photos, and then I carefully removed the hook from the lip of the trout. I released the fish and then pulled a blue cloth from my wader bibs and dried my hands thoroughly. Next I stuffed my hands in my Northface pockets and tightly clutched the handwarmers to restore feeling and warmth to my fingers, and then I finished off the routine by slipping my hands back into the dry fingerless gloves.
I am pleased to report that I repeated this routine twelve more times during my day on the big river, and I fished for four hours without returning to the car for additional warmth. I was rather pleased with this accomplishment from a wimpy fair weather angler. All the trout landed during the afternoon were browns. As described, the first fish chomped the iron sally, and the next two nipped the classic RS2. Four through eight sipped a CDC BWO dry fly, and nine through eleven fell for a sparkle wing RS2 and soft hackle emerger fished as part of a dry/dropper set up. The last two fish of the day also slurped a CDC BWO.
I worked my way upstream along the left bank with the nymph rig for an hour while probing the pockets and runs with the nymph rig. In fact, I never fished more than fifteen feet away from the bank until the final hour. By 1:00PM I began to observe some fairly regular rises in a narrow shelf pool tight to the south bank. I attempted to attract their attention by lifting my RS2 near the spots of the rises, but my lifting and mending did not generate interest. I removed all the nymphing paraphernalia and knotted a size 22 CDC BWO to my line. The move paid huge dividends, as I increased the fish count to eight by duping five very fine blue winged olive sippers to my imitation. In addition, I recorded a few temporary hook ups. I was quite impressed with the number of sizeable fish within a fairly small area.
After this session the rising fish temporarily stopped, and I was unable to locate them without the visual cue of a surface disturbance. Rather than return to the time consuming steps to reprise my indicator technique, I decided to test a dry/dropper approach. I selected a size 8 fat Albert from my box and attached the iron sally as the top nymph and a sparkle wing RS2 on the bottom. Since the fish had been rising to the surface, I assumed that my dry/dropper with a three foot leader would drift deep enough for the trout especially given my casts to moderate depth pockets near the bank.
My hunch was on the mark, and the next three trout nabbed the sparkle wing RS2 on the end of my dry/dropper system. In two instances I saw a single subtle rise in relatively marginal pockets. I was skeptical that my subsurface nymph would be noticed by a rising trout, but I made some short casts, and I was surprised to land a pair of thirteen inch browns. I love catching decent fish in obscure lies that most fishermen probably pass by.
I continued my path along the left bank of the river and arrived at a wide section with a long deep center-cut run. The total length of this section was probably forty or fifty yards. I began to cast my dry/dropper and successfully hooked and landed a brown trout near the seam along the run. This was the first time all day that I actually executed some longer casts beyond the fifteen feet near the bank. I released catch number eleven, and as I scanned the area for my next move, I noticed several subtle dimples, as trout darted to the surface to grab some form of food. I watched more closely, and I spotted a few small blue winged olives fluttering on the surface and attempting to launch against the cold wind.
Initially I decided to remove the iron sally and sparkle wing RS2, and I substituted a soft hackle emerger without a bead on a six inch dropper behind the fat Albert. I made quite a few fruitless casts, until I shifted my attention to a recent rise no more than ten feet out and another ten feet below me. I dropped a cast across and dragged the two flies closer, so they drifted down a lane to the point of the surface disturbance, and it worked! I noted a swirl below the fat Albert and reacted with a quick hook set and landed another thirteen inch beauty. I persisted with this approach over several additional feeders, but I was unable to replicate the success.
With fish continuing to rise, albeit a bit more sporadically, I took the final step and cut off the fat Albert and soft hackle emerger and knotted a size 20 CDC BWO to my line. The solo olive was quite difficult to track in the glare, but I did manage to fool one final brown trout on an up and across cast.
What a day! I remain a fair weather fisherman, but the steady action and mental challenge of fooling wily Arkansas River brown trout distracted me from the adverse weather conditions on Wednesday, April 14. I was also proud of my “hand preservation” system that enabled me to endure the low temperatures and wind chill. All except one of the thirteen trout landed fell within the twelve to fourteen inch range, and they were very healthy wild fish. The Arkansas River fell out of favor for me over the last several years, but this outing spurs me to plan more trips in the near term. Perhaps my mistake was to seek pleasant conditions, when the key to success is enduring suffering? I will hopefully test this theory with some visits on warm spring days for comparison.
Fish Landed: 13