Big Thompson River – 04/21/2016

Time: 11:00AM – 3:30PM

Location: A couple miles below Estes Lake before lunch and then below the first bridge after Noel’s Draw in the afternoon.

Fish Landed: 3

Big Thompson River 04/21/2016 Photo Album

After a surprisingly productive day on Boulder Creek on Wednesday, I was quite enthusiastic about the prospect of making another trip on Thursday. Based on my success on a recent visit to the Big Thompson and flows running at 35 cfs, I chose this fine Front Range stream as my destination. I did not bother to remove my fishing gear from the Santa Fe, so I saved the time of unpacking and packing before my back to back trips.

Thursday was forecast to be warmer than Wednesday, although high temperatures in Estes Park were projected to remain in the low sixties. I was prepared to depart by 9AM, but I decided to make one last minute check of the stream flow data. I was disappointed to discover that the flows spiked from 33 cfs to 49 cfs on Thursday morning. Based on history, I typically avoid fishing in rivers and streams immediately after significant change in water levels, and a 48% increase fit this criteria. Nevertheless, I rationalized that 49 cfs remained at a manageable level, and since the water is discharged from a dam, clarity would not be an issue.

I rolled into a wide paved pullout approximately two miles below the dam at 10:45AM, and I pulled on my waders and rigged my Loomis five weight rod, so that I was ready to step into the river by 11:00. I knotted a medium olive size 14 stimulator to my line, and beneath it I attached a salad spinner. This combination produced nicely on my previous trip, but on Thursday the trout showed no interest. I did observe a couple refusals to the stimulator, but then I was surprised to notice quite a few subtle rises in the beautiful run and riffles ahead of me. What could these fish be feeding on? I scanned the surface of the river, but no obvious food morsels were evident. I gazed at the air above the river, and all I saw were minuscule midges, but even this possible food source was quite sparse.

I snipped off the salad spinner and replaced it with a beadhead RS2. The fish were having none of my offerings, and they continued to feed fairly regularly. Perhaps they were attacking emerging caddis that spent minimal time on the surface? I swapped the stimulator for a size 16 olive brown caddis dry fly, and this once again elicited a pair of refusals. The behavior of these fish was maddening. Was a blue winged olive spinner fall in progress? I replaced the RS2 with a beadless size 20 soft hackle emerger, and I applied floatant to the body. Charlie Craven claims that the soft hackle emerger is often taken as a spinner cripple, so I was applying his theory to my current situation. Nothing. The fish continued to rise right next to my double dry fly combination.

In a fit of despair I stretched my seine across the opening of my net and held it in the water for a minute. When I raised the mesh cloth to examine the sample results, I witnessed ten to fifteen minute empty worm cases. I assumed these were midge larva or pupa, and the fish were eating emerging or adult midges. The cases were segmented so I opted to test a black zebra midge, as it approximated the correct size and presented a similar segmented appearance.

I resumed casting the size 16 caddis with the tiny zebra midge dropper, and finally after twenty casts, a small brown trout darted to the right and grabbed the trailing midge. Perhaps I unlocked the code? I resumed spraying casts throughout the attractive area in front of me, but I only succeeded in registering another fifteen minutes of arm exercise. Finally I decided to abandon the jaded fish in the pool in front of me, and I moved farther upstream. The small dry and dropper seemed futile in the absence of rising fish, so I made the switch to a fat Albert trailing a bright green caddis larva and zebra midge.

I progressed at a faster pace, but the fish again ignored my presentations, so I exchanged the zebra midge for a beadhead hares ear. As I sat on a midstream boulder to make the change, I spied some caddis, so I plucked one and observed a gray-olive body. This color reminded me that these adults typically emerge from a caddis worm that displays an emerald color, so I elected to exchange the bright green caddis for an emerald version. Alas, all these experiments failed, and as I reeled up my line, I remained mired at a fish count of one. In addition another fisherman arrived and assumed a position forty yards above me. With my upstream migration blocked, I concluded it was a perfect time to return to the car for a lunch break.

I stashed my gear and drove another couple miles downstream until I reached a favorite pullout just before the first bridge below Noel’s Draw. Here I quickly devoured my lunch, and then I grabbed my rod and hiked across the bridge and downstream for another .2 miles. I was unable to solve the hatch, and my favored dry/dropper technique was not producing. The only flies that produced interest were the stimulator and caddis, albeit refusals. Since I captured three adult caddis on the rock, I decided to experiment with a single caddis dry fly. I removed the three fly ensemble and tied a single size 16 olive brown adult caddis to my line.

[peg-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”A Brown Trout Sipped a Caddis from This Area” type=”image” alt=”P4210001.JPG” image_size=”2048×1536″ ]

It was 1:30 as I began prospecting likely slow moving eddies and seams with the solitary caddis. The change in strategy was partially successful, as I landed two small trout on the caddis within the next hour. One was a small brown, and the other was a brightly colored rainbow. Both darted to the surface and smashed my small caddis in riffles that were two feet deep. I was confident I now knew the type of water that would produce more fish, and I had a winning fly on the end of my line.

Unfortunately I did not have the answers. I moved along popping the caddis to likely trout lairs, but the fish count remained locked at three. Admittedly I found it difficult to find similar moderate riffle water, as I encountered deep plunge pools and shelf pools, and these spots seemed barren of fish. Finally by 3:30 I was weary, and I lost all confidence, so I hooked the caddis to my hook keep and called it a day.

Perhaps the weather was too nice with virtually no clouds in the sky and bright sunshine during my entire visit to the Big Thompson River. A sudden spike in flows may have disrupted the feeding rhythm of the resident fish. More likely this fisherman was unable to find the key to unlock the feeding preferences of the trout of the Big Thompson River. Just when I thought I had fly fishing figured out, I was given a rude awakening. Once again I learned that change is constant in fishing, and success is a momentary state.


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