Between the pandemic in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021, three years had somehow elapsed since my last visit to Colorado. Long overdue for a visit and eager to escape the heat of the southern summer, my wife was far from surprised when I proposed a long weekend visit earlier this summer.
Settling on a late July departure that fit both our work schedules, we agreed on a route. Starting at one of my favorite tailwaters along the South Platte, we’d spend five-days completing a circuit that included a few fishing holes and plenty of opportunities for nature photography.
Tailwater Trials and Tribulations
Arriving in Denver early on the morning of July 29th, we hopped in our rental car and began our journey south. Detouring briefly to photograph Pronghorned Antelope southeast of Colorado Springs, we found our way to the water sometime early to mid-afternoon. Skies were blue and conditions were perfect as we arrived. And, while no rising fish were observed, a pair of young anglers assured me it was the best bite they had ever experienced here.
A time of year more known for Tricos and PMDs, I was a bit surprised when they showed me the large Chubby Chernobyls that graced their tippets. Not one to turn down free advice, I tied on a large attractor pattern and joined in.
Unfortunately, the excitement was short lived as after a few casts and as many refusals from discerning rainbows, the weather began to change. Rain starting to come down, we packed it in and headed for our evening’s accommodations. With ~10 miles of well-graded dirt road between us and the highway, I wasn’t interested in starting off the trip in a deluge.
Turned out water wouldn’t be a problem as ice began falling from the sky a few miles later.
The hillsides coated in white by the time we reached the highway, we agreed to try once more at dusk…assuming the weather had passed.
Unfortunately, a single short-lived connection with a large rainbow proved the highlight of a relatively uneventful return visit. Hopeful a morning Trico hatch would improve our odds, we called it an evening.
Of trout and tricos
Rising early to beat the crowds, we were greeted with sub-50 temperatures and a light breeze. Admittedly a bit brisk for wet wading, I elected to do so anyway. So as Maedbh donned her waders and prepared her camera gear, I made my way to midstream.
With the trico hatch still an hour away, tiny beadhead midge patterns were at the top of the trout’s menu. Far from easy fishing under ideal conditions, the strengthening breeze made fly placement a challenge. Though I can’t say for certain, it often felt as if I spent more time untangling my tippet than actually fishing.
Still I hooked a few in the hour that followed, and eventually even managed to bring a decent rainbow to net. A technical fishery with fish smart enough to avoid your fly as they stack up on your heels (See video to the left), simply avoiding the skunk qualified as a win in my book.
When the Trico hatch finally began in the hours that followed, I was quickly reminded just how demanding this river can be. Fishing a #24 CDC Trico Dun (and later a #24 Trico Spinner), I found my offerings refused drift after drift. And, after an hour and a half, I had only a handful of missed hook sets and a single popped tippet to show for my trouble.
Tiring of the crowd that had now formed (the post-COVID fly fishing boom is very real!), I decided to bid farewell and begin our trek to higher elevation.
A disappointing start, all was not lost as Maedbh had made the most of the hour capturing a series of rising trout photos. Presented with a stream with fish as fearless as they are discerning, she was able to station herself upstream of a small pod and capture countless rises without disrupting their feeding. (Look closely, and you’ll see a tiny trico in nearly every image.)
Rocky Mountain Bound
Departing the South Platte around 11 AM, we began our trek through South Park, pausing only briefly for lunch and a beer at South Park Brewing in Fairplay. Fairly quiet when Jake and I had stopped by in 2019, the Brewery and town were now bustling.
Eavesdropping on the waitress at a nearby table, I quickly learned the reason. It was Burro Days, the town festival satirized in my youth as “Cow Days” on the cartoon South Park. Clearly capable of drawing a crowd, the town was packed as we returned to the road and began the crawl through festival traffic.
Finally picking up speed as we made our way through Alma and eventually Breckenridge, we paralleled the Blue and then Colorado as we continued on towards Grand Lake.
Arriving in time for a brief pre-dinner hike, visions of brook trout were only derailed by the abundance of wildlife that graced the trail. Pausing too frequently for Magpies, Marmot and Moose, the rains began coming down before I ever reached the water. Hurrying back to the trailhead, we called it an evening and returned to our hotel.
Into the Park
Up early the following morning, we made our way into the park before 8AM. With Timed Entry Permits required from 9AM on, our goal was to avoid the hastle and beat the rush. While fishing remained on my mind as we cruised past the unmanned western entrance of the park, this was Maedbh’s first visit to RMNP, and I knew wildlife viewing/sightseeing needed to take precedent.
Still, streams parallel many of the park trails, and I often found myself wandering as she paused to take photos. The fish proved less than compliant, however, and I was quick to blame increased fishing pressure as my skunk stretched well into the afternoon.
When a brook trout finally fell for a small Royal Wulff shortly before dinner that evening, it was as if a great weight had been lifted. Rains again closing in, I celebrated dodging the skunk for a second day as we quickly retreated to the car.
Rising early once again on Monday morning, we were in the park by 7AM. Reservations in Boulder that evening, this would be our last morning in the park. With plans to work our way west to east, we bookmarked a number of trail heads and even secured an early afternoon Timed Entry Permit to the Bear Lake Road Corridor. Always busy, the Bear Lake trailhead offered easy access to a number of montane lakes and would be well worth the crowds (assuming we could find parking).
Eager to shake the slow start of days past, we started the day following a trail that eventually intersected with a small meadow stream. Too low in elevation for Cutthroat, the stream promised easy access to brook trout, and did not disappoint. Tying on a small tan Charlie Boy Hopper, the stream quickly gave up three fine specimen before we continued down the trail.
Once back in the car, we continued our journey east…pausing occasionally to admire the abundant wildlife.
Elk abounded at elevation, their presence signaled by tourist taillights, and various birds, insects and small mammal dotted every alpine meadow and talus slide. Pika, minute relations of the rabbit, were particularly abundant. Darting about roadside talus slides, they appeared completely indifferent to the “Oohs” and “Aahs” of onlookers.
Time eventually ran short though, and we bid farewell to the alpine tundra as we descended towards the eastern side of the park.
Dreaming of Cutthroat
Arriving at Bear Lake Road midway through our Timed Entry window, we were greeted with notices that both the parking and shuttle lots were full. Having already agreed we would not be dealing with the shuttle, we decided to gamble and make the drive to the Bear Lake Trail Head. Jake and I had taken this gamble in 2019 and lucked into the last available parking spot, and I was unsure if we’d be able to repeat the experience. The guard waved us through, however, and for the second trip in a row, I found myself with easy access to the park’s most popular trail.
Rigging my 5wt H3F with the same hopper that had produced earlier in the day, we began the trek up the crowded trail. Brian had completed a larger circuit along the same trail system a few days earlier, but, with time a limiting factor, Maedbh and I agreed to limit ourselves to the lower of the fishable lakes.
Eventually reaching the lake, I made my way off the trail and onto a small rock peninsula away from the crowds. A guide and client were visible on the opposite shore, and I could hear the exchange as the former coached the latter. It was clear the client had yet to catch a fish, and I worried that may not bode well for my chances. Past experience had taught me these fish were leader shy, and I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of repeat refusals.
These concerns proved fruitless, however, as my 5wt lived up to its “Accurate from Anywhere” slogan. Placing my fly in the path of a cruising greenback at 60 ft, I waited.
The fish rose without hesitation, And I found myself staring at a sizeable (for this lake) cutthroat moments later. When a second smaller cutthroat came to net only three casts later, I could feel the guides eyes on me from across the narrow lake and elected to move on.
Wanting at least one more fish before I hung up my rod, I advanced towards the inlet to the lake. Jake had concentrated on this section in 2019 and had been rewarded with the most brilliantly colored fish of our trip. I now hopped for one of my own and was not disappointed.
Though not the caliber of Jake’s 2019 specimen, the small Cutthroat that eventually fell for my PT Nymph in the moments that followed was far more vibrant than those landed in the lower reaches of the lake.
Satisfied with my success, I fished only a few minutes more before we began our trek back to the car. Glancing across the lake as we descended, I watched as the guide netted his client’s first fish of the day. The look of relief on this face was evident even at a distance.
A cold beer, warm shower and good night’s sleep awaited us in Boulder. Then, it would be back to reality.