Catch the Hatch
A light blue Honda Accord veers onto the pull-out and slams on the brakes. You think to yourself, this guy doesn’t have a chance. I mean, he doesn’t even have any trout stickers on his back glass. It is true that I don’t drive a pick-up truck with a camper and, no I’m not sporting a Trout Unlimited or Sims bumper sticker but, you would be underestimating this man. I’m not saying that I know much at all about trout or fishing the Rocky Mountain rivers but, I possess a key ingredient: Determination. I do not falter in the face of failure, even repeated and costly failure. I do not give up on the DIY adventures and hire a guide. Although, there is nothing wrong with speeding up the learning curve by hiring a guide. It’s just not my style. I am too overconfident and too stubborn. Those may sound like traits that might hinder a sportsman but, in my mind, they are key traits to my success. If you actually knew that the odds of success were stacked against you, you might not get up when the alarm sounds at 4 AM. It is that simple. I am just too ignorant and dumb to know any better.
It started for me on October 31st, the first day I arrived in Denver. A quick iphone map search for fly shops turned up The Denver Fly Shop on Colorado Blvd. less than a minute off the route to our new home in Arvada, CO. The fly shop was on the second level of a strip mall next to a chiropractor office. The young guy behind the counter sold me a fishing license, a handful of flies and pointed me in the direction of Clear Creek Canyon. Off I went, headed toward the mountains for an afternoon of fishing. How hard could it be? I would pull into the turn-off on HWY 6 and fish the section of the creek that veered away from the highway as it went through the tunnel, just as guy in the fly shop had suggested. Probably catch a mess of trout and cook them up for dinner. Easy as pie.
After hours of drifting nymphs and exploration, I was faced with a challenge that wouldn’t be fulfilled for more than five months. These trout were not the eager 10” rainbows that I was used to catching below the reservoir dams in Arkansas. This water was much more clear and the trout more selective. I would need to learn the whims and habits of these mountain trout. I had been faced with similar situations before and recognized this challenge as one that would require some learning and many hours on the water. I was up to it but, with winter coming on, an empty house, a moving truck full of crap and a pregnant wife, I wouldn’t get back out on the water for another few months. I did however, find the time to research the internet and talk to trout addict co-workers to devise a strategy for the next opportunity.
That opportunity came on a warm February weekend. I loaded up the wife and headed to Cheeseman Canyon, a stretch of crystal clear water on the South Platte River below Cheeseman Reservoir. My wife, Cat, and I made our way down the twisting roads South to the canyon dodging a herd of mule deer on the way and eventually finding a quarter full parking lot that I had been told was the access to the 5 miles of trout infested water below the dam. After a mile or so of traversing snowy mountain slopes to the river we hiked another mile and a half to get out of the crowd. I settled Cat on a big sunny rock at the edge of the water and waded into trout heaven. I could see a number of fish stacked on the edge of a drop-off so, I drifted my double nymph set-up right in front of their faces. Again and again until it was clear that some aspect of my presentation was wrong. After a half dozen fly changes, I moved on in search of some hungry fish. For the rest of the day, I made cast after cast presenting my little bugs to numerous trout that never even gave the slightest indication that what I was offering was edible. Another outing ended without so much as a bite. Cat did get some great pictures of me in action that really made me look like a legitimate fisherman. I was happy for that at least and posted them on facebook as soon as I got home for all my friends to see. There was no need to mention that I didn’t catch anything.
For the next few months, I bided my time reading fishing reports and talking to any trout fisherman that I ran into. I discovered Charlie’s Fly Box in downtown Arvada and even picked out a beautiful Sage rod and Larson reel to request for Christmas. I also purchased a little book with more than enough info on all the underwater creatures that trout feed on. It is a great book and is small enough to fit into my trout vest for quick reference out on the water. Pocket Guide to Western Hatches by Dave Hughes, I recommend it to anyone that has some learning to do about trout food. Armed with my new found knowledge and with the warmth of spring coming on quickly, I was ready to try again.
As soon as the rush of turkey season subsided, I began to focus my attention on catching my first Colorado trout. When the dust settled and I looked at the calendar, I had only a single Saturday free to pursue the latest conquest. With a very pregnant wife at home (C-section scheduled May 6th) Saturday May 4th would be the last opportunity until months later, after the run-off subsided. I checked all the fishing reports and talked to numerous fly shops around the state and, finally decided that the Arkansas River along Hwy 50 between the Royal Gorge Bridge and Salida was the hot spot. The BWO hatch was on with reports of Caddis hatching under the right conditions. I could barely sleep. I gathered and organized my fly boxes, rods & reels, and waited for the weekend. All that week I was just brimming with optimism and dying to get on the water so, I decided I would take a long lunch break and revisit Clear Creek where my Colorado Trout adventures had all began. Wednesday at high noon I ran out of the office, jumped into that light blue company car and with a squeal of tires I headed west toward Clear Creek Canyon. Only a 7 minute drive, I pulled up to the spot shortly after noon and headed down the steep bank toward rushing water. I knew the BWOs (Blue winged olives or Mayfly) would be hatching that overcast afternoon and with thoughts of rising trout I barreled down the slope. Only ten feet into my descent, I slipped and reflexively broke my fall with my rod hand snapping the last section of my best 9’ 5 wt. Sage rod. In one swift motion my lunch break adventure was cut short. I headed back to the office with a heavy heart.
Luckily, I had a backup. It wasn’t much but, it was the right weight and length and, would do the job. Granted, it would just take a little extra muscle to get the fly out there on those long casts. It had cost only $30 as a combo rod and reel from Bass Pro but, had already proven itself as a trout rod on the waters of the White River, Arkansas. I put my good reel on it and mustered every ounce of determination in my body. I would finally fish the Hatch if it hair lipped the Pope.
4 AM Saturday I woke and dressed despite groans from the wife. Even she knew that the fishing wouldn’t be good until midday but, I was determined and, I didn’t want to sell myself short on this day. I jumped into the car that had been preloaded the night before and raced down I-25 toward Colorado Springs. Stopping only for a few last minute flies at Royal Gorge Anglers just outside of Canon City (you have to stop at the nearest fly shop to your destination to get a few of their recommended flies) I got to a suitable spot mid-morning, suited up and hit the water. Within a few minutes, two trucks pulled up beside my vehicle and emptied of fishermen ready for action. With 70 miles of public water on the Arkansas, this chapped my ass. I got back into my car, waders still on, and headed on up the river. After similar happenings in two more spots I finally decided to pick a location that was unlikely to get competition. Hwy 50 parallels the river for most of the way between Canon City and Salida making accessibility no issue but, there were areas where a steep slope down to the river discouraged all but the most hardcore of fishermen. Of course, I fell into that category and picked the most rugged place I could find. This did the trick and I enjoyed an afternoon of solitude.
For the first few minutes of fishing I tried the double and triple nymph rigs that had been suggested for late morning but, the lack of visual stimulation got the better of me and, I decided to fish dry flies or not at all. I could see tons of freshly hatched Mayfly floating on the surface of the water but, didn’t observe the first rising trout. After a few hours of drifting BWO variants I began to notice a Caddis fluttering on the surface every now and then. I jumped at the opportunity, after all, those little mayflies where too small to keep an eye on. I tied on a #18 Elk Hair Caddis with a dark body that I had purchased at the fly shop up the road and went to town drifting it on every stretch and past every boulder in sight, slowly making my way up the river. I fished for hours trying to match the drift of the sporadic Caddis that floated past me but, they were so lively and were always fluttering up and landing back on the water as they made their way toward the bank. I had yet to see a trout rise to slurp one of the juicy critters from the surface but, decided to imitate their actions as closely as I could anyway. I reeled the line up so that only a foot of the floating line and the leader remained and began to drop the fly down to the water for a few seconds and pick it back up imitating the motions of the real caddis. As my fly hopped across the water, I analyzed my strategy making improvements with every attempt. With my fly so close to me I knew it was likely that I was spooking trout so I headed for a boulder strewn section of the river where I knew trout would be resting in the shadow of the boulders. My plan was to fish the opposite side using the boulder to hide from the sight of the trout. I used my newly developed technique on a few boulders without any action. Slowly moving from one hunk of granite to the next I eased my fly onto the water only to pick it back up and then back down again. Then, something extraordinary happened, a beautiful brown trout broke the surface of the water to take my fly out of midair. In a flash, my rod arched downward as an energetic 14” brown trout fought to free himself. I briefly savored the moment and then worked him into my hands. I had done it. I had overcome fishless days and a broken rod. I had lasted long enough to enjoy that sweet moment of victory. Not an easy and smooth kind of victory but, one that is sweetened by the scars of failure. It felt so pure being alone in a place like I was, thigh deep in the swift current with mountains rising on either side. I snapped a picture and watched him dart out of sight.
Having landed my first now, I wanted to learn. I wanted to discover if what I had just witnessed was a lucky break or something I could repeat. After fishing the remaining boulders with only one more missed strike, I knew I needed to accomplish the same action further away from my body. I needed to hop my dry fly across the water at a distance from myself in order to stay out of the keen sight of these mountain trout. It was mid-afternoon and the wind and picked up dramatically blowing up the valley. As I would pick the fly up and then set it back down the wind would blow my fly out away from me. And then the thought occurred to me that I could use the wind blowing at my back to gain some distance and still retain the action I desired. As I let more line out the gusting wind would carry the fly far enough away from me and I could remain undetected. The results were tremendous. I watched fish after fish rise from the depths and snatch my fly from the surface. Soon, I noticed the trout rising to take the live caddis that were coming in more numbers now. I was smack in the middle of a feeding frenzy. I would take two or three fish from one spot and ease against the current ten feet or so and catch a few more. I fished as long as I could landing more than I could count between 12 and 18 inches but, as the sun’s radiation lessened, the vigorous action eased as well. Eventually, I packed the car and headed north to my wife and unborn son.
Up to that point, I had considered myself a fly fisherman. I had experienced tremendous action on the white river with my Uncle John in October when the big browns were making their run upstream to spawn and had caught a number of little brookies in Yellowstone and Montana but, now I was hooked. I had established a “tradition” that will not go unobserved. Two days later my first child, a healthy baby boy, was born. In the years before he is big enough to fish alongside me, a new determination will reign: the need to master this art so it can be suitably passed on to the next generation. This is a challenge that has a whole new driving force, much stronger than any I’ve known.