Big Thompson River – 05/02/2014

Time: 10:30AM – 4:00PM

Location: Began above RV park at bend on Route 34 (RV park has been washed away)

Fish Landed: 10

Big Thompson River 05/02/2014 Photo Album

Unusually heavy and steady rain during September 2013 brought flooding to most of the rivers and streams that drain from the front range to the South Platte River. This included several of my favorite destinations, the Big Thompson River and St. Vrain River. I read a report on the Big Thompson River which stated that the fish population was unaffected, and in fact electroshocking surveys suggested that the eight miles below Lake Estes contained more fish than were present prior to the flood. The St. Vrain suffered more devastation than the other front range streams, and I saw a report that the North Fork below Buttonrock Reservoir would not reopen for fishing until 2015.

The greatest obstacle to fishing the Big Thompson seemed to be damage to the highways that provide access to Estes Park and the river below the dam. When I checked the stream flows on Thursday night as I considered options for a day of fishing on Friday, I noticed that the Big Thompson was actually running low at 40 cfs. Flows on other streams in the Denver area were already edging up with snow melt entering the picture. Before committing to the Big Thompson, I decided to make a phone call to Kirk’s Fly Shop in Estes Park to get information on the roads between Denver and the river. The young man that answered the phone told me that waits were consistently one half hour on route 36 from Lyons to Estes Park. He recommended taking an alternative route out of Lyons that looped south and then along the eastern boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. When I asked about route 34 from Loveland to Estes Park, he suggested this as another good option as the construction waits averaged 5-10 minutes compared to longer waits on 36.

I decided to gamble on the route through Loveland and called my friend Lonnie Maddox to let him know I would be passing near his home. Lonnie said that he and Debbie would be home in the late afternoon, so we made plans for a short visit on my return trip.

Big Thompson Was Low and Clear on Friday

Big Thompson Was Low and Clear on Friday

I got off to a reasonably early start at 8:45 and arrived at a pullout next to the river by 10:15 as I experienced a 10-15 minute wait at the entrance to the Big Thompson Canyon west of Loveland. As I drove west, I was a bit concerned because the river was chocolate covered over the first section from the canyon entrance to Drake, CO. Once I drove beyond Drake, however, the water clarity improved considerably until it became crystal clear where I stopped to begin my day. Low flows at 40 cfs and clear water suggested some skittish fish. The sky did have some high clouds off and on, so that helped a bit, but for the most part it was bright and sunny, and this added to the fishing difficulty. As always there were gusts of wind rolling down the canyon to make things more interesting.

Once I pulled on my waders and rigged my fly rod, I walked down the road twenty yards to the northern border of what used to be a RV park. The entire area that previously was filled with RV’s was now a sand beach with a few remaining platforms that were apparently solidly anchored during the flood. From the road next to my car I could see two or three fish in the clear pool below me, and I even spotted a rise or two. Because the water was so clear and low, I didn’t want to create too much surface disturbance, so I tied on a size 16 dark olive deer hair caddis and placed some long casts into the nice pool in front of me.

It wasn’t long before a brown trout smacked the caddis, and I landed my first fish of the day. Unfortunately as I cautiously moved closer to the deepest part of the pool, I could see quite a few fish in front of me, but they were showing no interest in my caddis. I turned my attention to a nice faster run that rushed by me ten feet to the right, and as my fly drifted along the inner current seam, a rainbow rose and slurped the caddis. It was a decent start to my day, but I could see a lot of remaining fish in the pool that were ignoring my offering. Perhaps they were tuned in to something subsurface such as an emerger or nymph.

Some attractive water beckoned above the pool that I dwelled in, and I didn’t want to jump to the dry/dropper method prematurely, so I moved on. I picked up the pace a bit and managed a third trout on the deer hair caddis before I looked at my watch and noticed it was noon and time to eat lunch. The car was quite close so I climbed the bank and grabbed my lunch and returned to the edge of the river to eat and observe. I didn’t really see any significant insect activity, so when I resumed I decided to try the dry/dropper method. The water that I was approaching was faster and appropriate for a nymphing method.

Pretty Big T Rainbow

Pretty Big T Rainbow

I snipped off the caddis and tied on a tan pool toy and dangled an emerald caddis pupa and below that a bright green caddis pupa. For the next two or three hours I worked this three fly combination through all the likely runs and pockets as I progressed upstream and landed another five fish including several pretty bright rainbow trout in the 12-13 inch range. I enjoy this type of fishing where I’m constantly moving and prospecting the likely holding spots. The large buoyant pool toy was a pleasure to use under these circumstances as it easily supported two beadhead flies and was readily visible in the swirling riffles and currents.

Emerald Caddis Pupa Produced Two Fish

Emerald Caddis Pupa Produced Two Fish

At 3PM I’d gone awhile without any action so I decided to make another switch. I noticed a few BWO’s fluttering about, so I downsized my top fly to a yellow size 12 stimulator and then I added a soft hackle emerger as a dropper. The soft hackle emerger is not as heavy as the larger nymphs and pupa, so I felt I could get away with the smaller top fly. I managed to land a trout on the yellow stimulator, but never had any success with the soft hackle emerger and eventually I clipped them both off and tried a Chernobyl ant with a salvation nymph. The salvation nymph proved to be a winner as I landed my tenth and last fish as I approached a forbidding barbed wire fence spanning the river with a sign that made it clear that no trespassing was allowed.

It was a beautiful spring day on the Big Thompson River, and I discovered that the trout do in fact remain despite the destructive forces of a flood. Fish apparently deal with natural disasters better than human beings. I drove back down the canyon with no construction stoppage on late Friday afternoon and then turned and drove a mile south from route 34 in Loveland and visited with Lonnie and Debbie for a half hour. Spring is finally arriving in Colorado.

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