August 15th would be our final day of fishing in the IPWA and marked a return to the Monarch Lake trailhead we visited two days earlier. Still unsure exactly which creek we followed on our first visit, we committed to following the other branch on this day, regardless of name. Eager for redemption following a less than stellar day on the Roaring Fork, we ate breakfast on the road and had made our way around Monarch Lake before 9 AM.
The stream meandered early, rolling smoothly through the forested terrain. Armed with my 3-wt and a peacock bodied Hippie Stomper, I found renewed success as I targeted the small deep pools that formed at each bend and beneath each log jam. Though none were of notable size, brook trout, rainbows and even a small cuttbow made their way to my net as we proceeded.
As the grade increased, however, boulder strewn plunge pools replaced the meandering stream and the bite slowed significantly.
To this point in the trip, 90% of our action had come on dry flies. Nymphs simply weren’t producing as it seemed one hatch or another was constantly underway. This morning, however, insect activity remained sparse at best, and none of my offerings could elicit even a refusal.
Still I rotated from dry to dry…until I noticed Jake landing fish after fish just 15 yards downstream. He had reverted to tight-line nymphing and was making quick work of the resident trout as he moved from pool to pool.
Dropping a size 16 tungsten beaded black stone imitation 3 feet off a small foam hopper, the pool I had been working for the past ten minutes suddenly came alive as rainbow after rainbow found its way to my net.
Small and wild, their coloration was as stunning as any I had encountered on the trip.
Working our way further upstream, the grade again began to lessen and the foam hopper began to draw renewed interest as we worked the longer smoother runs. Downsizing slightly to a hippie stomper in size 12, I was immediately rewarded with my best Colorado Cutthroat of the trip. Appearing from no where as my fly drifted a shallow run, the 13-14″ cutt startled me slightly as it smashed the small foam attractor with reckless abandon.
Safely in the net, I removed the hook and took care to keep the fish submerged as I riffled through my vest for my phone. The fish was stunning and easily my best since we left Eleven Mile Canyon. Sadly, in my excitement, I may have taken a little too long finding my phone and unlocking the camera. Unbeknownst to me, the fish had recovered from the battle during its time submerged and, as I finally raised the net to take a photo, the fish shot forward, flipping over the edge of the net and back into the stream below.
Stunned, I sat on the bank and lamented the loss.
As the day progressed, sparse hatches began. First, tiny blue-winged olives interspersed with some variety of caddis. Then, large gray drakes. And eventually, a steady emergence of pale morning duns.
We cycled through patterns as we attempted to match the various hatches, and in between reverted to tried and true hopper-dropper combos. Rarely, did 15 minutes pass without a fish. And in stretches overrun with small brook trout, it became rare to go a single cast without a strike.
In one such stretch, a small caddis nymph, consisting of nothing more than a few wraps of green dubbing and orange ice chenille (melted with a lighter to form a hardened case), produced 15 brook trout on 15 casts. While a few barely surpassed four inches in length, others were more than respectable for such a small, shallow stretch of water. And all were stunning.
Eventually tiring of the ever abundant brook trout, we decided to double back and begin our descent in hopes of tallying a few more cutthroat before the day was through. A heavier pale morning dun hatch was now underway, and this would likely be our best shot at dry fly action on the day.
While we did eventually find rising cutts, and my #18 PMD patterned CDC dry once again proved its worth, I found myself enjoying the sudden abundance of wildlife as much as the fishing. Whether garter snake, marten, moose, bird or insect, it seemed there was always something about as we continued our descent. And more than once, I regretted not packing an actual camera. Though I’ll always have the memories, an outdated iPhone simply cannot do justice to the scenes I witnessed.
Reaching the car shortly after 6 PM, we reviewed our day one last time as we made the short drive back to camp. Our last day in the IPWA had easily been our best with both of us landing between 30-50 fish including rainbow, brookies, cutthroat and cutbows. Further, we’d outdone our prior hikes, logging 10.6 miles of trail time along the way.
Tired, we prepared for an early exit the next morning and called it a night. Rocky Mountain National Park was on the docket for the following morning, and we’d need an early start to beat the crowds.