Time: 10:30AM – 11:30AM; 11:45AM-2:45PM
Location: Above Bear Lake; One mile below Yamcolo Reservoir
Fish Landed: 12
When Steve originally contacted me with the proposal to spend three days fishing in the vicinity of Steamboat Springs, one place he mentioned was the Bear River. I read a small amount of information about this fishery, so I was quite intrigued to see what it might have to offer. We chose Wednesday as our day to explore Bear River. I read that Yampa means bear in the native tongue, and the Bear River is actually the main headwater for the Yampa River. I’m not sure where the name changes, nor do I know why they used the Native American name at lower elevations and then converted to the English word in the headwaters.
The Bear River begins in the southeastern section of the Flattops Wilderness and flows in a northeasterly direction through the town of Yampa, CO and then continues as the Yampa River until it fills Stagecoach Reservoir and then bends northwest through Steamboat Springs until it merges with the White River. Steve and I departed Steamboat Springs on Wednesday morning and stopped at Steamboat Flyfisher to gather information about the Bear River area, and we asked questions about public vs. private access and of course suggestions on productive stretches to fish. Armed with this info, we were on our way on a roughly 45 minute drive to explore new water southwest of Yampa, CO.
We drove seven miles on a route 7 southwest of Yampa, CO until we reached the national forest boundary. The folks at Steamboat Flyfisher suggested that we could fish anywhere on national forest land. They mentioned three lakes in the area and suggested that the stream between the lakes was also productive, so Steve and I continued along the road until we reached the first stillwater, Yamcolo Reservoir. After Yamcolo there was a short stretch of stream, but it was not very close to the road, so we traveled along the road to Bear Lake. Quite a few rings appeared in the smooth surface of Bear Lake indicating feeding fish, but we were more interested in exploring the moving water, so we continued to the stream above Bear Lake.
The stream in this area meandered through a wide meadow, and the water appeared to be quite clear and smooth, but there was a section just above the lake that exhibited a higher gradient with pockets and runs. We decided to begin our quest for Bear River trout here and pulled into a pullout on a bluff high above the meadow. I was prepared to fish first, so I carefully negotiated my way down a steep bank, crossed a small tributary stream on the breast of a beaver dam, and then intersected with Bear River. I crossed to a small knoll on the other side and then crashed my way through some bushes until I was quite a distance below the smooth meadow water. Traces of snow remained in the shadow of the hill and the air temperature hovered in the low 50’s as I made my first cast.
I chose my Loomis five weight and began fishing with a light olive stimulator. The stream at my starting point was quite narrow and fast and offered few desirable deep pockets to test with my high floating imitation. I worked upstream for ten minutes with no sign of a fish; not even the flash of a disturbed bank hugger. With this disappointing turn of events I removed the stimulator and tied on a Chernobyl ant with a hares ear dropper. Over time I have discovered that if there are fish in a stream, these flies will always provoke at least a refusal.
Unfortunately Bear River is apparently an outlier when it comes to this Dave Weller law of flyfishing, because I fished upstream for another twenty minutes until I met Steve, and I had yet to see any evidence of trout in Bear River. I skipped around Steve who was having an equally disappointing experience, and I arrived at the tail of the meandering smooth water that looked like a very long winding beaver pond. I scared one nice fish that was resting near the bank just in front of me, and then I shot a long cast to the middle of the pool approximately thirty feet upstream. The instant the Chernobyl and beadhead hit the water, I saw three or four fish in the 12-14 inch range scatter downstream. There may have been even more that streaked upstream, but I could not see into the water that far ahead.
On the one hand I was excited to finally see evidence of nice sized fish in Bear River, but at the same time I was rather intimidated by the clear smooth water and skittish fish. Clearly a dry/dropper was not the proper approach for these conditions, so I clipped the flies off and tied on a size 16 gray deer hair caddis. Steve meanwhile circled around me and moved a comfortable distance upstream, and was seeing the same challenging conditions. I began making long distance casts with the caddis and checked my cast high as though I were casting my fly toward the sky. This allowed my solitary caddis to flutter down softly to the surface, however, I did not take the time to extend my leader or convert to a 6X or 7X tippet. Despite the tantalizing flutter cast, the line and its shadow probably disturbed any trout that might have had an interest in my caddis imitation. I did make one cast within a foot of the high right bank, and as I lifted my fly to recast, I saw a large bulge on the surface behind my fly. I attempted to repeat this movement on subsequent casts, but I was never able to initiate another follow or bulge.
Steve and I conferred, and we both concluded that we could spend the entire day in this place and achieve nothing more that frustration, so we climbed back up the hill to the car and drove back downstream below Yamcolo Reservoir. As we moved downstream we stopped several times to inspect the water, but each time it was rushing downhill at a rapid pace, and the small narrow torrent was bordered by backcast-menacing willows. Finally we found a pull through where the stream opened up a bit and lacked tall trees close to the water. We agreed to give this a test, and Steve chose to walk upstream from the parking spot while I hiked down a two lane road until I reached a bridge of sorts. It was a large log that spanned the river and a stiff wire was strung between two posts to use as a handrail.
I decided that this would be my beginning point and ducked under some tree limbs to reach the rushing water. I made a few casts with the tiny gray caddis, but it was impossible to see in the frothy water, so I exchanged it for a size 12 royal stimulator. This proved to be a fortuitous move, as I landed two brown trout and a rainbow in the first fifteen minutes. One of the browns and the rainbow were nice chunky twelve inch fish. I was rather euphoric with this sudden turn in my fortunes, but the rapid catch rate would not sustain itself. As I moved upstream and away from the crude bridge, I began to experience refusals to the stimulator, and the stream offered fewer decent fish holding nooks. I replaced the stimulator with a Chernobyl ant and beadhead hares ear in hopes that the denizens of the small river would favor a subsurface morsel of food, but these flies did not perform any miracles.
The stream was running high relative to the small streambed, and this restricted the number of pockets and pools and made wading quite difficult. The current was rushing right along the bank, and the thick overhanging brush made it challenging to exit and work around troublesome passing spots. Just before returning to the car, I replaced the Chernobyl with a gray parachute hopper, but this fly did not produce any better than the previous. By 1 o’clock I covered a vast amount of stream real estate, so I climbed up the bank and discovered that I was just above Steve’s car.
I visually surveyed the area looking for Steve, as I sensed this was not the type of water that he favors, but I did not see any signs of him so I walked up the road forty yards. Since Steve was not present at his car, I assumed he was still fishing his way upstream. I turned right and cut through a thick stand of evergreen trees until I reached the stream, but I saw no signs of Steve. Oh well I thought, perhaps he found some water to his liking. I decided to resume fishing and replaced the parachute hopper with a Charlie Boy in order to create more visibility from my top fly. In addition I swapped the hares ear nymph for an ultra zug bug.
This combination of flies clicked as I landed another eight brown trout before quitting at 2:45PM, but these fish did not arrive in my net without significant effort. The wading continued to be as difficult as it was in the morning, and I covered a lot of water between locations that might yield fish. Casting to marginal small pockets was a waste of time as the swift current swept the flies into fast water before a fish could obtain half a look.
Toward the end of my time on Bear River the Charlie Boy began to produce, as I landed two or three brown trout in the 12-13 inch range. In fact the last fish of the day proved to be the best as a thirteen inch brown confidently smashed the Charlie Boy hopper. I savored this fish by taking three photographs before gently releasing it into some slow moving water along the bank.
Of the twelve trout I landed on Wednesday from the Bear River, ten were browns and two were rainbows. I returned to the car at 2:45 and discovered Steve perched on a large rock next to the road waiting for me. Apparently he had quit within thirty minutes and went searching for me, but by some stroke of misfortune we must have passed without seeing each other. It was fun to explore the Bear River, but Steve and I agreed that we would only return if the flows were reduced by 25% or more.