Time: 9:30AM – 3:30PM
Location: Downstream from parking area at river crossing
An axiom of fly fishing posits that the more difficult a stream is to access; the better the fishing. Wednesday would be a test of this theorem.
After two days on the upper Arkansas River I was ready for a change. I packed all my camping gear in the Santa Fe on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning I bypassed the normal hot tea and oatmeal in order to avoid the necessity of firing up the camp stove. Instead I downed a slice of zucchini bread and ate a cup of yogurt and then brushed my teeth. I took down the tent in record time, and consequently I was on the road by 6:30AM. A 1.5-hour drive delivered me to Vail, and then I bounced over the rocky Red Sandstone Road for nine miles, until I reached a dirt parking area and the trailhead for the Piney River.
It was 8:20 when I departed on the trail in my waders carrying my Orvis Access four weight. I considered the option of wading wet, but the air temperature was fifty degrees, and I surmised that the waders offered more protection against bruises and thorns, since I knew I would be scrambling over numerous large rocks and slashing through dense vegetation.
I hiked for forty-five minutes and then angled down a steep slope to a meadow section of the Piney River. Normally I skipped this placid section of the small stream in the Eagles Nest Wilderness; however, on Wednesday I decided to test the willingness of high elevation trout to partake of my flies in challenging conditions. I tied a size 14 gray stimulator to my line and shot some long casts to the middle of the pond-like water in front of me. In a short amount of time a missile of a fish charged to the surface and inhaled my dry fly. Was it going to be this easy? The first landed fish was actually a stunning ten-inch brook trout, and I later learned that it represented one of only two of the char species landed on the day.
I continued prospecting the slow-moving meadow area for an hour and landed five additional trout, all smaller than the opening brook trout. Several of the early catches were brown trout, and the others were cutbows and rainbows. While this may seem like fast action, it was not. I fired out numerous very long casts, and scattering fish represented the predominant scenario. As I moved closer to the faster water at the entrance to the meadow, I actually grew bored with the lake-like nature of the fishing and skipped the final thirty-yard section.
The abuse delivered by the small fish in the meadow caused the palmered brown hackle on the stimulator to unravel, so I replaced it with a near replica, as I entered the fast canyon section of Piney River. I began popping the stimulator in all the pockets, large and small, and the ravenous trout in the lower end of the canyon responded by crushing the high floating attractor. The fish count doubled in short order to twelve, and my day was off to a promising start.
Again the durability of my fly was challenged by the hungry trout, and the collar hackle unraveled on gray stimulator number two. I considered switching to a foam fly that would offer improved durability, improved buoyancy and better visibility. The advantages seemed obvious, and I swapped the damaged stimulator for a red hippy stomper. The body on this fly was flash red, and a layer of red foam served as the underbody. The new menu item seemed to please the resident trout, although perhaps the catch rate diminished, but the size of the fish improved. As I progressed farther from the meadow section, the species diversity expanded, and I began to encounter cutbows, rainbows, and cutthroats in addition to the ever present brown trout.
Life was good, and I landed four trout on the hippy stomper design, but of course the fishing gods decided to introduce some adversity. For some unknown reason the hippy stomper began to land upside down with the flashy red body on top, and the white poly indicator faced down. The stream dwellers did not like this presentation. I began to dip the fly in the dry shake to absorb the water that soaked into the poly tuft, and this helped for a while, but then I grew weary of this repetitive maintenance. I stopped for lunch on a wide flat rock, and as I downed my sandwich, I considered alternatives. Might a small Chernobyl ant appeal to the trout and avoid the repeated dry shake cycle?
This is exactly the direction I took, after I took the final bite from my honey crisp apple. I knotted a size 14 Chernobyl ant to my line, and I began to toss the buoyant attractor to the same promising locales that occupied my efforts in the morning. Voila! The monster ant was dessert to the hungry Piney River residents, and amazingly the catch rate accelerated. The fish counter swiftly climbed through the twenties, and I enjoyed my afternoon immensely. This period coincided with my migration through the middle part of the canyon, and the stream was characterized by steep walls and deep plunge pools. The steeper gradient and boulder strewn stream bed translated to a change in the predominant species, and my net was visited by a preponderance of colorful cutbows and rainbows. A twelve-inch fish was a rarity, but the vivid colors and unique spot patterns more than made up for a slight deficiency in size.
Good things do not last forever, and after an hour of hectic catch and release action, I sensed a slowing in my success rate. My failure to generate even a look in an extremely attractive pool caused me to reassess, and the net result of my evaluation was the addition of a salvation nymph dropper to my offering. This proved to be another fortuitous action, as the fish counter once again surged. The presence of the size 14 Chernobyl ant and salvation nymph created a halcyon period on Wednesday afternoon. Sixty percent of the time, the trout crushed the Chernobyl on the surface, but the rest of the time aggressive feeders could not resist the trailing nymph. Several times a trout attacked the salvation as soon as it plunked in the water, and I am always amazed by this phenomenon. Are fish lying in wait for random food to splash down and sink below the surface?
As was the case earlier, the torrid action subsided a bit, and then I created a tangle between the Chernobyl and the salvation. In the process of undoing the snarl, I somehow pulled out the rubber legs on one side of the foam ant. Past experience taught me that a handicapped fly is more of a problem for the fisherman than the fish, but in this instance it seemed that a disfigured Chernobyl ant lost some of its appeal. I eventually recognized this deficiency, and I exchanged the lopsided ant for a fresh version that was a size twelve. I continued with the salvation nymph dropper, and the new combination enabled me to increment the fish tally albeit at a somewhat slower pace.
As the afternoon wore on, the canyon widened a bit, and the gradient was reduced, and this shift in terrain coincided with the return of brown trout as a more significant part of the landed fish ratio. For some reason I switched the salvation for a beadhead pheasant tail, and this normally dependable fly fooled a few fish. Some dark clouds moved in from the southwest, and a few distant claps of thunder caused me a bit of concern, although the density and size of the clouds assuaged my fears a bit.
As 3:30 neared I approached a spot where the severity of the grade of the canyon wall tapered down a bit, and I recognized the area as my normal exit point. The edge of the dark cloud hovered overhead, and a few random large drops of rain reminded me that a small storm was imminent. The fish count was perched on forty-nine, and I desperately wanted to achieve a fifty fish day. I cannot explain this compulsion for round numbers and goal setting that burdens my personality. For some reason the fish stopped favoring my Chernobyl ant, and I spotted several yellow sallies throughout the day, so I removed the two-fly dry/dropper rig and tied a size 14 yellow stimulator to my line. Success. Not only did I quickly notch number fifty, but I was drawn to a very nice large pocket, where I cast the stimmy, and a final brown trout slashed the fraud.
I was very weary and faced a forty-five minute return hike, and the rain was intensifying, so I decided to begin my outbound trek. I once again gazed at the clouds and assessed that the rainstorm would be brief, so I did not extract my raincoat. A very brief shower ensued, and my shirt absorbed a decent amount of moisture, but in actuality it felt cool and refreshing.
What a day! I spent six hours on a small mountain stream and landed in excess of fifty fish. The fish were small, with the largest perhaps reaching twelve inches, but they were wild and spectacular in their colorful splendor. I achieved a Colorado grand slam that included rainbow, brown, brook, cutthroat and cutbow species. The outing necessitated a rough drive over rocks and potholes, and the forty-five minute hike each way tested my stamina, but the action was fast and furious. The fish were hungry, and I was totally absorbed with fooling them, and I enjoyed the magnificent beauty of my surroundings. Wednesday certainly proved the axiom outlined at the outset of this blog post.
Fish Landed: 51