Big Thompson River – 04/29/2015

Time: 11:00AM – 3:00PM
Location: Downstream from the end of the catch and release at Waltonia Road
Fish Landed: 12

Big Thompson River 04/29/2015 Photo Album

Three hours of fishing on Tuesday were merely a tease, and I was itching for a longer stint of fly fishing with enough time to sink into a nice steady rhythm. Since I made plans for a two day excursion to the Arkansas River with Danny Ryan on Thursday and Friday, I did not wish to commit to a long drive on Wednesday. I surveyed the local options and settled on the Big Thompson River. The Big Thompson was severely impacted by the September 2013 flood, and I read that significant mileage was now devoid of fish, but electroshocking results in the eight miles below Olympus Dam actually yielded higher fish counts than prior to the high water event. I fished the Big Thompson one time in 2014 with fair results, so I decided to make a second post-flood visit.

Prior to departing I checked the CDOT web site in case significant delays continued on the main arteries to Estes Park and the Big Thompson River. Sure enough the map displayed construction cones on route 36 between Lyons and Estes Park, and when I tapped the cone, I learned that seven miles of my favorite route were reduced to one-way traffic Monday through Friday. Armed with this valuable information I chose the slightly longer but unobstructed route through Loveland and along the lower Big Thompson River. The water between Loveland and Drake was significantly stained, and I began to worry that I made a bad decision, and I would be fishing in murky conditions similar to Clear Creek on Tuesday.

I was relieved to discover however that the source of the  turbid flow was the North Fork of the Big Thompson which entered at the town of Drake, and once I traveled above this confluence, the water appeared to be nearly clear. Even though I’d driven this way in May 2014, I was still shocked by the stark scene of a stream tumbling through a wide trough covered with large boulders with virtually no vegetation along the banks. The flood apparently scoured all the trees and shrubs, and vegetation has not yet repopulated the riparian corridor. The riverbed rocks were stained an amber color, and this color bled through the stream flow to create the appearance of rusty water.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Flood Destroyed Vegetation” type=”image” alt=”P4280012.JPG” ]

When I reached the Waltonia Bridge at the extreme downstream border of the catch and release area, I pulled into a wide pullout and prepared to fish. I chose to use my Sage four weight rod for the comparatively narrow Big Thompson, and since the Chernobyl ant served me well on Clear Creek, I decided to offer it to Big Thompson fish. In fact I knotted the very same fly to my line that hooked all the Clear Creek fish. I began casting to pockets below the bridge and quickly moved to a position above the special regulation water. In a short amount of time I hooked and landed two tiny rainbow trout that were no more than three inches long. These fish caused me to suspect that the DOW stocked fingerling rainbows in an attempt to replenish the fish density after the flood. I began to have misgivings about my choice to fish so far downstream from Olympus Dam. How far downstream did the positive electroshocking results extend?

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”The One and Only Producer on Wednesday” type=”image” alt=”P4290017.JPG” ]

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Nice Beginning” type=”image” alt=”P4280008.JPG” ]

In a deep slot behind a large boulder just above the bridge, I was somewhat reassured when a nice twelve inch brown darted to the surface and slurped the Chernobyl ant. At least I knew there were some fish in the lower portion of the catch and release water. After the brown trout I covered quite a bit of water with no action and once again doubts crept into my head. Perhaps the brown was an aberrant fish, and fish density was quite low? I observed a few caddis in the air, so I decided to cover my bases and added a three foot dropper to the Chernobyl ant and then added an emerald caddis pupa as the point fly.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Nicest Fish on the Day” type=”image” alt=”P4290015.JPG” ]

For some reason the dropper caused the fish to refuse the Chernobyl, and the caddis pupa was drawing no interest, so I clipped it off and returned to the single foam attractor as my offering. With the air temperature now climbing, the fish became more active and I landed four more brown trout before breaking for lunch. I was now convinced that sufficient fish remained in this section of the Big Thompson River to keep me entertained, although I was puzzled that they were all brown trout. The Big Thompson historically yielded 60-70% rainbow trout. Were the rainbows congregated somewhere for spawning or did they not survive the flood as well as the brown trout? I could only speculate on this sudden shift in the species ratio of my catch on the Big Thompson.

After lunch I crossed to the bank away from the highway and resumed my upstream progress while adding seven more brown trout to my fish count. It was a beautiful day with mainly bright sunshine and a cloudless blue sky, and the high temperature peaked in the low 60’s. A slight breeze rushed through the canyon from time to time, but it never impacted the fishing.

[pe2-image src=”” href=”″ caption=”Nice Fish Smacked Chenobyl Next to the Foam” type=”image” alt=”P4290021.JPG” ]

The water I fished was nearly all pockets and plunge pools, and the lower catch and release area became my private domain. This allowed me to move quickly without any concern of bumping into other fishermen. I scrambled over rocks and moved from pocket to pocket while popping the Chernobyl in all the likely spots with typically three to five drifts. As I prospected in this manner, I held my rod high to keep the fly line off the water and prevent drag. The most productive locations seemed to be deep slow flows next to structure. Most of the time the structure was large bankside boulders, but occasionally a log or an irregularity in the bank served the same purpose.

After my fish count reached twelve, the fish became more tentative toward the Chernobyl, and I experienced a streak of four or five hookups that escaped before finding my net. It seemed the fish were barely nipping the fly, and my hook set consequently had minimal staying power. My son Dan texted me that he had success on Scott Creek in North Carolina with a woolly bugger below a thingamabobber, so I decided to experiment with his approach on the Big Thompson. It was a nice thought, but it failed to produce so I reversed everything and returned to a single dry, albeit a size 14 stimulator with a medium olive body. This fly failed to live up to the Chernobyl performance, and I was about to return to the black oversized ant when I checked my watch and noticed it was 3PM. I was feeling quite weary from rock climbing, so I decided to halt my quest for trout at twelve and returned to the car.

Wednesday was a fun day. Fly fishing was reduced to its simplest form as I moved frequently and often and used only a size 10 Chenobyl ant. Success was totally dependent on a stealthy approach, reading the water, and executing a drag free drift. I’ll be returning to the Big Thompson again during the 2015 season.


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