Colorado 2019: Part 2 (Eleven Mile Canyon Fly-fishing)

Arriving in Denver the morning of August 10th, we loaded up our rental and headed due south for Colorado Springs. After a quick pit stop for food, fuel and other supplies, it was another 30-minutes drive west to the entrance of Eleven Mile Canyon Recreation Area just outside Lake George, Colorado.

The canyon, itself, is a sight worth seeing with large granite boulders and conifer-lined outcroppings framing a narrow riparian corridor.  However, it was the gin-clear pockets, pools, riffles, and runs of the South Platte contained within, and the prospect of stalking trophy trout in these highly pressured waters, that truly drew us there.

A wet winter had led to substantial spring and summer runoff throughout Colorado in 2019, and Eleven Mile Canyon was no exception with normal late summer flows of sub-200 CFS replaced by flow rates in the 260-280 range upon our arrival.  Coupled with the monsoonal waves of moisture the week leading to our arrival, we prepared ourselves for the added challenge of high water.  A technical fishery under ideal conditions, I entered the weekend with the mindset that landing a single fish from these waters would qualify as a moral victory.

As our first afternoon progressed, it appeared my single fish goal might have been a bit too lofty given my skills.  In roughly four hours, my chosen hopper-dropper combo garnered a total of two hits.  Both of which I ripped cleanly from the mouth of small eager brown trout in my excitement.  Jake, a more accomplished fly fisher, fared no better.

Conceding temporary defeat, we retreated to our campsite just in time for a cold rain to damper our evening activities.  A warm dinner would have certainly helped morale, but we quickly learned that we had purchased the wrong fuel for our camp stove.  So with our camp set up and slightly soggy peanut butter sandwiches in hand, we made our way back to the river to give the evening one last shot.

While Jake started off fishing a series of deep pockets along the campground, I worked my way upstream through a shallow rifle to a stretch of slower water where I could see a few fish rising in the fading light.  As my eyes focused, I realized there was other movement in the pool as well, and, found myself momentarily taken aback as a 40-50 lbs rodent emerged from the water less than ten yards in front of me.  Though capybara fleetingly passed through my mind, common sense, and the realization that the log jam 25 yards upstream was in fact a beaver lodge, eventually led me to the appropriate ID. 

A little wary of my close proximity to my new acquaintance, I continued to cast to the distant rises, but avoided further encroachment on the beaver’s home turf.  Eventually he moved on, and, as luck would have it, I finally managed to sync my drift with the rhythm of the rising trout.  A short battle later, a silvery 13” rainbow graced my net.

Lacking the vibrant colors of most wild rainbows in this watershed, I can only assume this fish was a stocker washed over the upstream dam during runoff. The carcass of a small Kokanee Salmon found just down stream, all but confirmed my theory. Nevertheless, I was content to have avoided being skunked and made my way back to camp.

Jake met me along the way and was proud to announce he too had avoided the skunk with a single brown to show for his efforts.  Cold, wet, and exhausted we called it a night.  Eager for sleep. 

Unfortunately, our “neighbors” equated camping with loud music till 3 AM and sleep was not in the cards for us that evening.

Sleep or not, we rose at first light and positioned ourselves along a stretch of river half a mile downstream of camp.  We were primed for our first shot at the famed Trico spinner fall and both agreed arriving too soon was a far better option than arriving late.  Spaced about 20 yards apart, we had the river to ourselves.  At least initially…

Jake staking out a prime stretch of river at 7 AM

After roughly 30 fishless minutes, I had fallen into a bit of an exhausted daze.  More intent on admiring Jake’s effortless casts with the old glass rod he had inherited from our grandfather than on fishing, I barely noticed the first angler that slipped into the gap between our positions.  Anglers two and three weren’t quite as agile and the sloshing of their waders through brisk knee deep current quickly roused me from my half-waking state.

Glancing back at the road, I watched as three more anglers (including one older man entering the river with a crutch under one arm) emerged through the brush at water’s edge.

A creature of solitude, I made the decision to surrender my position to the approaching horde and retreated to the roadway.

It began feeling a bit more like combat fishing at 9AM rolled around.

Though not as prime of water, I found the solitude I sought just beyond a bridge upstream of the horde.  I could still make out Jake in the distance, and, as if on cue, female Trico duns began to make an appearance.

Positioned towards the downstream end of a shallow riffle, I scanned the water for signs of rising fish.  Finally, I spotted two, what I believed to be a large brown trout and a slightly smaller rainbow, holding position in the weedy, slack water along the near bank.  I watched the two fish intently for a number of minutes as each rose rhythmically towards the black flecks drifting helpless on the current. 

The tiny black mayflies with their slightly opaque wings were no more than a size 20.  Sifting through my fly box, I settled on a tiny black thread bodied fly, dubbed generously at the thorax and kept afloat by a minute tuft of white CDC.  The #20 CDC Trico was the smallest dun imitation in my arsenal and I only hoped it was small enough to elicit a strike in the run up to the anticipated spinner fall.

The larger fish, now holding tight to a pair of small boulder at the head of the slack water, broke rhythm as the Trico hatch intensified.  Calculated sips were replaced by frenzied gulps as the trout made the most of the short lived feast. 

Disadvantaged by the lack of rhythmic feeding and abundance of natural prey, I re-positioned in hopes of improving my odds.  A few casts later, a drag-free drift placed my fly right above my quarry. Sure enough it rose, gulped, and…I immediately pulled the fly from its mouth. Undeterred, I continued and repeated the same missed hook set at least half a dozen times before the fish began to ignore my attempts.

With the hatch transitioning from duns to spinners, I transitioned as well. Trading in my #20 CDC Trico Dun for a #24 Spent-wing Spinner.

Given my inability to set the #20, I doubted I would fare much better with the #24.

Sure enough the pattern persisted. Rise, gulp, set, miss…

By this point nearly two hours had passed, but I refused to move until I had netted this fish. Finally, by some stroke of luck, my hook set finally found flesh and the fight was on. Now to avoid breaking off my 6x tippet…

The tippet held though and I was amazed to see a 19″ Snake River Fine-spotted Cutthroat, not Brown trout, gracing my net.

Pleased with my perseverance, I called it a morning and went to find Jake among the crowd downstream.

As it turns out, I made the right call as six anglers accounted for a single broken tippet in time I had been gone.

Moving on, we spent the rest of the day exploring with far more fishing than catching to show for our effort. Jake did add a second brown to his tally late in the afternoon, but my drifts just weren’t perfect enough to fool the numerous trout that inhabited the gin clear pools and runs we targeted.

Returning to camp for dinner, we spotted risers along the same stretch of river Jake had fished in the morning. Now vacated as the day tripping anglers had begun their long drives back to Denver, we once again had the river to ourselves. The oft neglected evening Trico hatch was in full swing as the male duns emerged and prepared to wait out the long night in anticipation of their female counterpart’s morning arrival.

Though these duns were no more than a #20 or #22, I tied on a #18 CDC dry in Pale Morning Dun coloration. Though a poor representation of the actual mayfly, I knew I’d have no chance of following the true representation in the fading light. Positioned below a small beaver lodge, I began a series of upstream casts targeting the nearest risers first before slowly proceeding upstream.

As luck would have it, my #18 was a close enough approximation in the fading light. Methodically moving up the run, I landed five rainbows from 12-18” in quick succession as well as my first brown of the trip.

Jake fared nearly as well, landing a series of rainbows and cuttbows. The largest of which pushed 20”. For 30-40 minutes, it seemed we could do no wrong on a river that had stymied us continually the past two days. Content in our success, we called it an evening.

The following morning (August 12th) brought another stellar Trico Spinner fall and the crowds to match. As had been the trend the prior morning, Jake popped a few tippets and I simply failed to properly set the tiny hook over and over again.

Tiring of the crowd, we decided to slowly work our way towards the entrance of the canyon. There was plenty of good water downstream, and we were well aware that we had a 3 hour drive ahead of us this afternoon.

Tourist Trap Hole

Stopping at site known as the “Tourist Trap,” we decided to give the trout one last try before moving on our way. Large, wary trout abounded in the deep hole, but they showed little interest in our offerings. While Jake momentarily connected with one monster, it was largely an exercise in futility, and I ventured towards the shallower head of the run.

Spotting a lone cutthroat intermittently feeding on spent Trico spinners as they drifted downstream, I once again tied on my #24 Trico spinner and delicately dropped the fly into the fish’s feeding lane. First time was the charm for once and my second Snake River Cutthroat of the trip made its way to my net.

Not wanting to test my luck, I climbed the bank and took in the scene as Jake continued to work the large fish below.

He soon conceded defeat, however, and we were off. A brief stop for beer and lunch at South Park Brewing (highly recommend the Open Range IPA) and it was off to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area…

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