Time: 10:00AM – 3:00PM
Location: Town of Steamboat Springs
On Wednesday, June 17, 2020 I experienced one of the heaviest pale morning dun hatches that I ever encountered. Did the trout notice as well, and did I enjoy one of my best outings ever? I will answer these questions later, but first I need to describe the circumstances.
If you read my posts of June 15 and 16, you know that I camped at Stagecoach State Park on Monday and Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning I consumed my simple breakfast and then took down the tent and stowed my camping gear. The ferocious wind maintained a perfect record, and whipped across the McKindley Loop at Stagecoach in relentless fashion for the third straight day. Have you ever tried to build a sandwich, when a paperweight is required to keep the ingredients in place? That was one of my challenges on Wednesday morning. I made the mistake of removing the stakes to the tent, before I collapsed it, and this misstep nearly earned me my first hang gliding trip. I normally keep the two person tent up, so I can flip it and shake out the dirt, but I learned to forego this tactic during high winds.
The extra steps associated with breaking camp caused me to arrive at the Howelsen Hill parking lot by 9:30AM, and along the way I stopped at Steamboat Flyfishers to purchase a tube of floatant and gather information. The young man that answered my questions was polite, but he did not add much incremental intelligence to what I gleaned on my own during five hours of fishing on Tuesday. I assembled my Sage One five weight with the hope of tangling with larger than average fish, and I decided to work upstream from my ending point the previous day. This section of the Yampa is significantly harder to fish at high flows, because a thick and wide area of vegetation borders the south side of the river. An inability to wade the edge forces one to repeatedly bash through thick brush to gain access to the more attractive fish holding locales. The flows dropped to the 900 – 1000 cfs level for Wednesday, so I was hopeful that this would make covering the stretch above the Howelsen Hill bridge more manageable.
I began my Wednesday adventure just above the footbridge, and I tied a yellow body size 8 pool toy hopper to my line as the top fly. Beneath the hopper I added a 20 incher and salvation nymph. The two subsurface flies were productive morning options on Tuesday. Within the first thirty minutes I landed a ten inch brown trout, but much of my time was spent busting through wild shrubs and bushes, as I paralleled the river along the railroad tracks and then cut at a ninety degree angle back to the river in hopes of finding quality holding water. Approximately an hour of valuable stream time unfolded, as I repeated the stream access ordeal, and I was not rewarded for my persistence.
By 11AM I approached a spot that delivered nice action in a prior season. A small side channel braided through some willows, and the main river spilled over some large submerged stream improvement boulders. The spill over created a deep frothy hole, and much of the main current flowed directly downstream and fanned out into a wide run. The outflow on my side, however, angled toward me and met with another secondary current to create a deep seam. For some reason I swapped the salvation nymph for a super nova nymph, and I flipped the three fly combination to the left of the seam and allowed the pool toy to bop along the bumpy current. On the eighth such pass the hopper dipped, and I reacted with a firm hook set and found myself attached to a large angry rainbow trout. I held tight and after a few dashes up and down the pool, I slid my net beneath a beauty in the fifteen inch range. I finally received a payout for my persistence, and it was well worth it. The super nova was responsible for the much appreciated rainbow in my net.
For some reason this section of the river seems to be a sanctuary for resident trout during high water, so I was certain that more fish remained. I executed another series of casts, and once again the hopper sank, and I raised the rod tip. This time the animated creature on the end of my line behaved like a bulldog, as it dove and shook its head relentlessly. Combating these tactics placed a significant strain on my shoulder and elbow, but eventually a fantastic black spotted brown trout flopped over the edge of my net with the 20 incher firmly embedded in its lip. My elation ticked up several notches, as this doubleheader of good fortune unfolded across from an Italian restaurant on Yampa Street.
If the honey hole had ceased producing at this point, I would have been more than pleased. But it did not. I extracted seven additional trout from the deceiving habitat, and several more fell in the fifteen inch range. The angled current and confluence seam yielded a few, but when I focused on the main current flowing directly downstream, I discovered another cache of feeders just beyond the churning bubble zone. By noon the fish count rested on ten, and nine were concentrated in one place. I was in a state of euphoria and amazement, as I proceeded upstream with my bash out and bash in cycle. The flies responsible for my morning success were split evenly between the super nova and 20 incher.
The area between the hot spot and Fifth Street failed to yield additional action, and I arrived at the bridge by noon. My lunch remained in the car with the assumption that I would return, but when I arrived on the east side of Fifth Street, I noticed a few small mayflies, as they attempted to get airborne and in many cases tumbled along the surface as a result of gusts of wind. Again, from past experience I knew that the right side of the pool just above the bridge was the sweet spot. During lower flows the main river was a nice wide pool, but the center of the river was deep and flowing rapidly, so I concentrated on the right margin, where a nice narrow riffle emerged beneath some overhanging branches. By now the intensity of the hatch elevated, and a few larger size 16’s were among the more prevalent size 18 mayflies. On Tuesday I was uncertain that these insects were pale morning duns, but the presence of larger bugs with light gray and light yellow bodies convinced me that PMD’s were, in fact, making an appearance.
I was anxious to convert to a dry fly, but the absence of rising fish constrained my urge to switch. I caught a brief glimpse of a fish, as it elevated to grab something a foot or two below the surface, and this suggested the lack of surface action was explained by a focus on emergers. An Tuesday a light olive body juju emerger produced some fish, so I reconfigured my dry/dropper to include a salvation nymph and a juju emerger. I began flinging backhand casts along the right current seam. This was quite challenging, as I needed to sidearm the backhand, so that the flies looped under the overhanging branches that hung within five feet of the river. Miraculously I accomplished this bit of fly fishing gymnastics without snagging a branch and ultimately blowing up the hole. After fifteen dangerous casts the hopper dipped backward, and I set the hook. Initially the heavy weight on the end of my rod simply sank and held fast, and I was certain that another brown trout was on my line. I applied some pressure, and suddenly a rainbow trout in excess of fifteen inches spurted to the center of the pool. I embraced my decision to break out the five weight and prayed that the combative silver torpedo would remain above the faster water at the tail of the high water run. It did, and I maintained a deep bend in the rod, until I eventually hoisted the muscular beast into my undersized net. The juju emerger was the desired food in the lip of the bow, and once again jubilation ruled, and I smiled over my ability to land the best fish of the day.
I photographed and released my latest prize, and I returned my attention to the run along the right bank. I had not yet shot a cast deep beneath the branches, so I resolved to rectify that situation. I stripped out another five feet of line and swept the backcast low, and the hopper smacked down deep and under the branches. A two foot drift ensued, and then the hopper disappeared, as another fifteen inch trout gobbled the juju emerger. I knew this to be the case, as I eventually guided the wide body brown trout into my net for a close up view. How gratifying was it to observe subsurface feeding and select a seldom used fly that fooled two muscular fish? I can assure the reader that it was very rewarding.
The next section of the river extended from Fifth Street to the Island Bridge, and I covered this area between noon and 2:30. Once again I was forced to parallel the river in the relatively clear space along the railroad tracks with periodic whacking sessions through the brush to the river. None of these thrusts; however, led to fish, and I was locked on twelve for at least an hour. As expected much of that time was spent walking and climbing through and over thick growths of vegetation. Finally I arrived at the stretch of the river just below the confluence of two fairly equal channels, and the river spread out to create a very attractive riffle of moderate depth. I paused to observe, and finally I was treated to a series of rises. At least five trout revealed their positions, and I suspected that they were smaller and more aggressive feeders.
I removed the dry/dropper flies and tied on a size 18 light gray comparadun, and on the first and second casts I experienced long distance releases. This was not how I envisioned my long anticipated launch into dry fly fishing. I swapped the size 18 for a size 16, and this move yielded dividends in the form of three rainbow trout in the ten to twelve inch range along with another flurry of temporary hook ups. After I released number fifteen, the rises ceased, and the riffle residents exercised new found restraint in their feeding habits, so I migrated to the bike path and returned to Howelsen Hill.
My watch indicated that it was approaching three o’clock, and I was certain that the wonderful pale morning dun hatch was winding down; however, I hoped to investigate the large eddy and pool just below the Howelsen Bridge. I arrived along the south bank directly across from a stand up paddleboard maniac, who repeatedly surfed on the white water and crashed in the ice cold snow melt flows. I was momentarily distracted by this entertaining scenario, but then I turned my attention to the pool in front of me, and sure enough a few random rises emerged along the deep seam where the shelf pool met the fast main current. I stayed with the gray comparadun for a short while, but the fish were unresponsive, so I swapped it for a size 18 cinnamon comparadun. Perhaps the stragglers displayed a different body color than the earlier emergers. The tactic was successful, and I added two nice thirteen inch rainbows to the fish count along with a few more momentary hook ups.
By 3:15PM the rises ceased, and the mayfly population in the proximity of the river was mostly absent. I hoped to arrive in Denver in time for dinner with Jane, so I hooked the comparadun to my rod guide and returned to the Santa Fe. What a day Wednesday evolved into. One of the best pale morning dun hatches ever witnessed unfolded, yet surface feeding was absent until the very late stages. A rarely used juju emerger duped two spectacular fish, and I managed to land seventeen on the day. Six of the netted fish were in the fifteen inch range. and quite a few substantial trout were hooked and not landed. Five dry fly eaters in the late stage of the hatch were an enjoyable dessert. Can I figure out a way to make the three hour drive to search for the pale morning dun hatch at lower flows? Time will tell. Wednesday was most certainly my best day of 2020.
Fish Landed: 17