Time: 11:30AM – 4:00PM
Location: Below Lake Estes
Combine a weather forecast featuring highs in the low sixties in Estes Park with a fine outing on Monday, 10/25/2021 and the desire of a beginning fly fisherman to squeeze in another trip before the wintry winds become prohibitive, and what do you get? The combination yielded another trip to the Big Thompson River in the canyon below Estes Park with my new fly fishing companion, Howie. Monday’s visit elevated my optimism, and I was convinced that the rainbow trout of the Big Thompson would satisfy Howie’s appetite for at least one wild Colorado trout.
I picked up Howie at 9:30AM, and this enabled us to park in a pullout four miles below Estes Park by 11:00AM. The air temperature was sixty degrees, and, much to our delight, that exceeded the forecast. The section where we began was bathed in sunlight, but I chose to wear my raincoat as a windbreaker, although I soon discovered that I was over dressed for this delightful late fall day in the Rocky Mountains. I told Howie the plan was to alternate fishing, and in this way I would remain close by for assistance, but I could also log some fly fishing time.
Unfortunately our starting point was a long slow-moving shallow pool, and we were mesmerized by a few rises and an abundant quantity of darting trout, as I stepped into the water. I immediately recognized that tossing a dry/dropper would create excessive disturbance, so I rigged Howie’s line with a size 16 olive-brown deer hair caddis. I suggested that he begin at the bottom of the pool and fire long casts directly upstream, but in retrospect, we should have skipped the entire area. The whole exercise was extremely challenging, and as if the distance casting and skittish nature of the fish were not enough, gusting crosswinds made the adventure futile. I occupied a position along the left bank and began shooting long casts with a hippie stomper and caddis, and even my many years of experience offered no advantage. I was just as unsuccessful as Howie.
We finally moved on and prospected upstream for another 75 yards, before we returned to the car for our lunches. which we grabbed and munched next to the river across from the Santa Fe. During the pre-lunch time Howie encouraged me to work ahead of him, and he voiced the goal of me catching one fish, before we would break for lunch. I decided to take him up on his offer only because I wanted to apply my rapid fire dry/dropper experience to the enterprise in hopes of discovering an approach that would yield results for both of us. When I finally reached a nice section where the canyon narrowed to create some very attractive deep runs and plunge pools, I temporarily hooked a fish tight to a rock with one of my nymphs, and then I connected with a rainbow for a half second on the hippie stomper. I knew it was a rainbow, because it immediately leaped above the water and shook free from the foam dry fly.
After lunch we drove west toward Estes Park to another spot that delivered positive results in the past. I was now tossing the hippie stomper with an ultra zug bug and beadhead hares ear, and I modified Howie’s line to include a size 16 Chernobyl ant with an orange body and a size14 2XL nymph with a tinsel abdomen. These were both in his box, and he wanted to try some his flies. I gambled that the locals might be drawn to something different from the usual offerings.
We scrambled down a steep rocky bank to a gorgeous deep pool, and we both saw quite a few nice fish cruising along both shorelines. Howie positioned himself at the bottom left tail of the pool and began lobbing casts to all the feeding lanes. Unfortunately the fish showed no interest in the Chernobyl and nymph menu items, but he persisted with the tantalizing presence of visible fish prodding him on. Meanwhile I covered the next forty yards of pocket water, and I was convinced that it would produce a hungry fish or two; but, alas, Friday was proving to be a far different day than Monday. After fifteen minutes of fruitless casting, another angler appeared twenty yards above me. He was a large man with a gray ponytail, and I was immediately angered for being high-holed. but then I reconsidered and concluded he did us a favor by driving us from unproductive water. I gave him the benefit of the doubt that we were out of sight deep in the canyon and behind some large boulders.
I returned to check up on Howie, and he informed me that he had some good news and bad news. The good news was that he tied on two new flies himself. The bad news was that he hooked some tall grass along the opposite bank and broke off the Chernobyl ant and flash nymph. I carefully moved upstream a bit to some shallower water that fed the pool and crossed to search the tall grasses. He remembered that the break off occurred within a twelve foot section, and he also felt that the fly was at eye level. I systematically moved along the bank and visually searched for an orange Chernobyl. How hard could it be to see a size six foam attractor? Well, it was hard. I covered the entire section without success and then returned to the upstream border and began scanning the dried grass a second time, but during round two I gazed lower toward the edge of the river. Much to my surprise at the halfway point I spotted the sun reflecting off a thin section of monofilament, and I followed the line upward, until I found the oversized ant dangling from the tip of a dried stalk of grass. It was a forest from the trees situation, as the ultimate landing spot reached out over the stream, and I was looking at the dense clumps of grass that grew vertically along the bank.
We hoofed it back to the car and stashed our gear and drove west to one of the places that I fished on Monday. I knew there were fish in this spot, so failure to catch them could only be attributed to our flies or abilities. I parked above a bridge, and we walked along highway 34 for 50 yards, until we dropped down a short rocky bank to a gigantic pool with a nice center cut deep run. I converted Howie back to a dry dropper rig that featured a hopper Juan as the surface fly and an ultra zug bug on a three foot dropper. By now I was tossing the hippie stomper, ultra zug bug and a size 18 black stonefly nymph imitation.
We took both sides of the pool, and I was shocked to learn that nary a fish showed interest in our flies. I never even saw a fish or rise, and this was highly unusual for this prime pool on the Big Thompson River. Next we moved above the pool and began to prospect some deep pockets and runs. Howie hooked a branch on the bank that bordered the highway, and this misfortune morphed into a nasty tangle. I worked it for a bit, but two very tight wind knots developed, and Howie volunteered to address the mess of his own doing, so I acquiesced and handed the line off.
While Howie puzzled over the monofilament snarl, I advanced upstream at a fairly rapid pace. The river in this area was entirely covered by shadows, and the air temperature in the shade seemed to plummet ten degrees. I quickly popped three to five casts in likely fish dens, and within ten minutes a small rainbow latched on to the ultra zug bug, and I was on the scoreboard with the first fish of the day. For the next thirty minutes I worked the deep runs and pockets, and suddenly the river came to life with hungry trout. I landed four more wild finned residents, and the late afternoon catch included two brown trout and three rainbows. The last two fish were easily twelve inch gems.
A few attractive deep runs remained, and I was satisfied with my late salvage effort, so I turned my attention to Howie. He had gained ground on me, and he was positioned twenty yards downstream. I called out and motioned him to join me on the north bank. When he arrived, I examined his flies, and a triangular loop remained on the hopper Juan, so I snipped it and removed the small section of knotted line. I lengthened his dropper to three feet and knotted an ultra zug bug to the point. As I did this, I realized that I was done fishing for the day, and I could have just handed him my rod, but in hindsight, the large hopper Juan was more easily tracked than the hippie stomper in the dark shadows and fast churning current.
I switched into guide mode, and Howie showed me some much improved casting, as he prospected a pair of marginal slots in the middle of the river. Next, however, we approached a very promising deep slow moving slot that flowed along the south bank. Howie expertly tossed the hopper to the top and allowed it to drift through the prime holding water. On the third such pass with the dry/dropper, the hopper plunged, and Howie reacted with a swift hook set. Before the whoops and hollers could escape my mouth, however, the brightly colored rainbow leaped a foot above the surface and tossed the ultra zug bug back to the depths. Howie and I were sorely disappointed with this turn of events, but we persisted.
We moved through a few more deep runs in the middle of the river, and then we came to a moderately promising pocket. The current angled toward us and then sped up and churned downstream, until it reflected off a large exposed boulder. I pointed this out to Howie, and I predicted that if a trout called this pocket home, it would be in the bottom third, where the current ran past the rock. Howie was ready, and on the third drift the hopper paused, and Howie lifted the rod tip and connected with a ten inch brown trout. There was no messing around, as my fishing companion hoisted the wild thing of beauty into my net. We snapped copious quantities of photos and exchanged fist bumps and gently released the little brown trout to live another day.
What an ending to what seemed to be developing into a very disappointing day! I managed to land five trout including a pair of twelve inchers, but I was more thrilled to see the wide grin on Howie’s face, as he landed his first trout in Colorado. The rainbow that escaped along with the brown trout that he landed gave him a small taste of the fun that lies ahead, if he continues to hone his fly fishing skills.
Fish Landed: 5