Saturday, September 27, 2014

South Park Shenanigans

Earlier this week I was able to get out again and experience some of the great fishing central Colorado has to offer, specifically the South Park area. There are numerous places to fish within South Park but in all the time we've spent here I've only sampled two of them; Spinney Reservoir and the Dream Stream below the reservoir, at least those are the only ones I’m going to tell you about.

In the weeks prior my fishing time has been spent on another stretch of the South Platte but it was time for a change. The fishing has been really good at Deckers and should only get better over the next couple months but the crowds have been a bit encroaching.

I fully expected a good crowd at the Dream Stream this week but was pleasantly surprised. Upon my arrival around 9:15 there were only two other vehicles in the parking lot. Even more surprising is that there were never more than 5 vehicles in the parking lot all day. In all the days I've spent fishing here I've never ventured out of sight of the parking lot. This is partly due to the fact that the stream meanders through a nearly flat meadow and partly because there is no need to venture too far. You can pretty much count on one or more good trout coming from the stretch adjacent to the parking lot. Two of the biggest stream trout I've ever hooked came from that stretch of river while all the occupants of the numerous vehicles in the parking lot were well out of sight.

I made the trip up hoping to find some of the spawning lake fish that annually make the jaunt out of Eleven Mile Reservoir. On the drive up from the Springs I had visions of hefty kokanee and brown trout. If you've been following along lately you may have the idea that crowds and fishing don’t fit together well with me. Actually that’s not completely accurate. Friendly crowds a just fine and that is what I've come to expect at the Dream Stream.

An early parking lot encounter is a prime example. The young man I met there while rigging up said he had been hitting the river weekly for the past few waiting for the lake fish to move up but so far it hadn't happened. Well there went my chance at a first kokanee, c’est la vie. The drive up was worth the price of gas. The aspens are starting to turn and some of the views are spectacular. Driving over to Deckers the past few weeks the scenery is pretty nice but a good portion of the drive the views are obscured by the forest. Another stretch the landscape is still scarred by a fire that took out a good portion of the area in 2008. All in all it’s still driving around the Rocky Mountains but it lost some of the charm after the burn. It had been so long since making the drive to Spinney and I had forgotten how beautiful the drive is from Divide on.

The fishing usually works out well on this section of the South Platte no matter the conditions or time of year; it’s known as the Dream Stream for good reason. Typically, for me at least, a good number of small rainbows and browns can be taken nymphing. This day was no exception in fact I can’t even accurately estimate the number of trout under 12” I landed throughout the day. This seemed to be the same story for those anglers I spoke with as we passed each other heading to our next favorite holes. This isn't one of those streams where you set up in a particular run and fish through the day. Most everybody that has spent much time fishing here has a few runs they want to hit through a day of fishing. It makes for some jockeying through the day but also contributes to the friendly atmosphere.

Several years ago I recall a man spending close to an hour just watching me not catch a single trout from a huge pod of risers in the bend on the upstream side of the parking lot. After I became frustrated and relinquished the bend we chatted about what the trout might be feeding on. I admitted that the trout were most likely feeding on the tiny Tricos but that the smallest fly I had was a size 18. I was just hoping for an overzealous feeder that would take my fly anyway. I took a seat at the picnic table he had occupied and watched as he purposefully waded into position and quickly landed two respectable rainbows. Noticing I was still there he waded out, came over, gave a copy of the fly he was using and relinquished the bend long enough for me to land a fat 15” rainbow. Knowing better than to look a gift horse in the mouth I gave him back the bend and moved upstream to another pod of risers. There are few places that kind of camaraderie between strangers ever takes place.

Another afternoon I spent over two hours sharing a good bend with a total stranger. The bend was loaded with feeding trout in a seam taking emerging BWOs. This time I had the fly, a soft hackle that was taking the feeding trout. He had become frustrated at a number of refusals and asked if I wanted to try for them. I took a 12” rainbow on the first downstream swing and shouldn't help but pass on the favor I had experienced the year before. We traded off turns taking a trout each until we had worn the pod out and they stopped feeding.

The weather forecast predicted a shower around 2 pm which usually produces some kind of hatch. The wind which is often brutal at worst and annoying at best was just a breeze throughout the morning. Multiple hatches made for interesting fishing with Tricos, BWOs and midges hatching in alternating waves. Trying to keep up involved paying very close attention and making multiple fly changes. The effort was rewarded with several small trout and a hook up on one hefty specimen I never saw before it buried into a heavy patch of vegetation and broke off. It came during the last hatch, Tricos just before the wind set in. When I say set in I mean set in. Fishing dries became impossible. Not only could you not see the tiny artificial on the water, the trout had stopped rising given that all the naturals were being driven down to Eleven Mile on the 20+ mile per hour steady wind and into the canyon on the gusts that had to be pushing 30.

Being somewhat of a veteran of these conditions changing to a hopper dropper rig came quite naturally. It was quite natural for the trout too. Without skipping a beat the marabou pheasant tail style nymph began catching right away. The wind usually signals lunch time and being a fan of lunch I heeded the signal before heading up toward the dam.

The wind did not die down as hoped when the clouds thinned out making it difficult to spot the feeding trout taking emergers near the surface. I fished up one of the riffles taking small trout from the creases in the vegetation occasionally taking a 12-14” specimen. One of the stone current breaks that cross the river yielded a pair of the better trout. Catching good numbers of small trout can put you in a bit of a happy trance that makes you laugh inside every time one takes. It’s a situation that can cause you to readjust your expectations to tinkering with the little ones and that’s okay. For a fisherman catching a multitude of small trout easily beats most things in life especially a day at work. I found myself laughing out loud every time the hopper darted to the side or straight under the surface signaling another take.

Working my way methodically upstream I set on yet another take when the hopper stopped to find real weight, the kind of weight that immediately re-readjusts your day. As I applied pressure a golden streak in the 18” range bolted from beside the boulder it had been nestled next to. That’s when the shenanigans began. Usually when fighting a big trout the first one to make a mistake loses the fight. When the brown trout took off on a run downstream the lose line shot up around the rod butt. I turned and stumbled but somehow kept my balance. As a feeling of panic set in about the line around the rod butt the brown turned and headed straight back at me giving me an opportunity to unwrap the line while stripping in line as fast as I could. It wasn't pretty but a pair of jumps and a few strong runs later I had a very healthy, brightly colored brown trout in my net.

After a few snaps and release I took a deep breath and went back to tinkering with the small eager trout. Going back to catching numerous small trout after a really god one there’s a persistent feeling that it could happen again, that is one of the reasons we spend so much effort at fishing. Truth be told catching small fish is fun but deep inside we all want to hook and land big fish and a lot of them.

The wind continued and so did the small eager trout. Pushing on upstream it was if every small trout in the river was on the feed. It’s times like this that it makes you wonder if the larger trout are feeding also but they can’t get to your flies before a smaller one gets there first. I reached a small area where the trees lining a long lazy bend blocked the wind from the surface of the river. It was easy to spot pods of three to five small trout holding along the edges of the thick mats of vegetation. I couldn't help but laugh with exuberance as I cast to these pods every trout in the group would dart toward the nymphs to be the first to get there. It was here that on twice two trout were hooked at once, one on each nymph. On one occasion I had three hooked for a few seconds when one also took the hopper!

The wind was really starting to wear on me so I made my way back to the truck for a short breather and a snack. When I opened the door and stepped out of the wind I realized just how loud it had been. I also realized that my face was getting wind burned. For several minutes I considered packing it in for the day but it was just 3:30 and sunset was still quite a while away. I had landed more trout through the day than I had landed over the past two years, by any standard that has to count as a good day. The season is coming to an end though and other plans are going to keep me off the water for a couple weeks so the decision was made to press on until sunset when the gates are locked and the park is closed for the night. To combat the wind and sun burn I greased up my face and neck one more time with sunscreen and headed downstream one more time.

My plan was to hit an area of carefully placed boulders beyond where I had fished earlier in the day. Plans don’t always work out whether you’re fishing or just living. Before I could get half way there my bum knee started rebelling abruptly and intensely letting me know the day was coming to an end sooner than I had hoped. I hobbled to a nearby short, steep bank and had a sit resting and letting my legs dangle in the cold current for several minutes. The cold water felt good and helped with the cramping pain that strikes out of nowhere much more often than I’m agreeable with. You've heard it before and you’ll hear it again; getting old is not as much fun as it could be in some respects. In other respects getting older can be a good thing. When I was younger and much more oblivious to pain slowing down for the day would have been out of the question. Being a little less resilient than in years gone by I decided not to continue the hike and just sit for a while. A light feeling of melancholy self-pity set in as thoughts of mortality suddenly consumed my day. These feelings have nagged me far too often the past five years; the realization that a little hiking is tolerable but the days of hiking up the side of a mountain to secluded fishing are over.

Sitting, studying the current a flash caught my eye along the far bank. It’s funny how the flash of a trout can help a fisherman with a rod in his hand shift gears from self-pity to excitement in the blink of an eye. At some point the wind had subsided to a tolerable level, snapping out of that dark state it came as a pleasant surprise when I realized how calm it had become. I could also see a pair of small trout feeding along the same bank where a good number had risen to a dry before the wind had kicked up earlier in the day. I thought about retying the leader and switching to dries again but the wind hadn't subsided that much.

I pulled the leader from the reel foot letting it catch in the wind and removed the lower nymph from the guide where it was hooked near the tip of my rod. I peeled line from the reel and made short flip casts working more line off the reel. Standing up I worked my way out to where my casts and drifts could reach the far bank. It only took two casts to realize the wind hadn't abated enough to consistently cast a three fly rig thirty feet without some gnarly leader tangles. Shifting expectations I shortened the line and re-positioned to work the deep slot closer in and upstream.

At the head of the slot the bottom drops out to a deep trough. On the shallow side of the trough is a heavy patch of vegetation that reaches almost to the surface. I worked the near, shallow side of the vegetation with several casts as the wind picked up again. Feeling confident the near side had been covered I moved closer and made a cast to the other side of the vegetation. There are times, and they don’t come very often but an overwhelming feeling just tells you that a good trout is in that spot. Sometimes it works out that it’s nothing more than a feeling, this was not one of those times. At that certain spot, at that certain time the hopper stopped dipping under the current.

There’s a difference between the way a small trout takes and the way a big trout takes. Most often small trout take with all the vigor they can muster, sometimes moving a great distance. Older, bigger trout learn to feed with a minimum of movement and calories burned. Instantly I could tell this was a good size trout. I set back with minimal force and immediately felt the weight of the trout that completes the hook set without risking breaking the delicate 5X tippet. The hefty rainbow made its first surge against the sting of the hook coming near but not breaking the surface.

There’s an immediate mix of panic and joy that comes over you the instant you realize there’s a big fish attached to the end of your line. The panic comes from the fact that it only takes one mistake to lose a good size fish especially in a strong current. The joy comes from hooking a good sized fish.
Unlike before there were no shenanigans just what seemed like a very controlled coercion getting the trout into the net. There are times when landing a fish like this can go on for what seems like an eternity. Instead it went more like a choreographed ballet. Using the current and the length of my rod it was like leading a fat man to a medium rare ribeye. Just like that I had a second big trout in the net. Big is a relative concept in fishing but when you've spent the day catching mostly 6-10” trout anything over 18” is big.

After releasing the rainbow back into the river I took a few minutes sitting on the bank. Letting the slow, easy current wash past my legs I started to reexamine my earlier mood. In the words of John Gierach “They say you forget your troubles on a trout stream, but that’s not quite it. What happens is that you begin to see where your troubles fit into the grand scheme of things and, suddenly they’re just not that big a deal anymore”. After all I was sitting on the bank of a trout stream where I had landed more trout in a day than I had in the past two years. I may not be able to hike up the side of a mountain as in days gone by but I can take a short hike on one of the best trout streams in the country and land a pair of trout that would make most fly fishers jealous. Who wouldn't like to get in on those shenanigans?

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