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Fly Fishing the Seasons in Colorado: An Essential Guide for Fishing through the Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall

Fly Fishing the Seasons in Colorado: An Essential Guide for Fishing through the Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall

by Ron Baird

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Broken into four equal seasonal sections, with general locator maps, and 5-10 primary locations, each receiving 1,500 words of narrative-based advice and description about, Fishing the Seasons: Colorado shows the best waters to fish at a particular time of year how to fish them.


Broken into four equal seasonal sections, with general locator maps, and 5-10 primary locations, each receiving 1,500 words of narrative-based advice and description about, Fishing the Seasons: Colorado shows the best waters to fish at a particular time of year how to fish them.

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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
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Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
6.06(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.43(d)

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Fly Fishing the Seasons: Colorado

By Ron Baird

Lyons Press

Copyright © 2011 Ron Baird
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780762771707



The summer fishing season in many rivers and streams begins as the runoff clears and drops, and ends as the water begins to cool in September. This is particularly true in middle and lower altitude waters twhat have no major or impoundments upstream—otherwise known as freestone waters. Primary examples of these are the Cache La Poudre River, the middle and lower Colorado River and the Arkansas River. Each of these are fine fisheries. In recent years the runoff period has ranged from three weeks to two months, depending upon snow pack and weather.

            Other rivers such as the legendary South Platte are heavily dammed and stay lower later in the spring season and are then unleashed as the impoundments fill and irrigation water is released, sometimes raising water levels dramatically and quickly. Stretches of these impounded—such as the Miracle Mile and Cheesman Canyon—are world-class fisheries. Lesser known stretches of the South Platte River, such as Elevenmile Canyon are also very good.

            In high altitude areas, generally above 9,000 feet, the summer season will begin in late June, at ice out and last in the fall until ice over, in October or November.

            As you can imagine, such conditions make it difficult to generalize about strategies for fishing individual areas far in advance of a specific date. Fortunately there is a tool that makes this much easier: The State of Colorado’s surface water website, which contains real time and historic river and stream flow rates. Go to: http://www.dwr.state.co.us/SurfaceWater/default.asp or Google "Colorado stream flows.” See appendix for more information.     

            Once armed with stream flow information that indicates summer-like conditions  such as high but decreasing stream flows and clear water, one of the major hatches on most rivers is for stone flies. These will usually be fished as nymphs in the mornings, as the bugs tend to hatch at night this time of the year. There could still be some blue-winged olive (BWO) mayflies as nymphs and dry flies. And pale morning dun mayfly nymphs (PMDs) will be maturing and floating free. In some rivers, green drake mayflies will start hatching as the water level comes down. And caddies flies begin hatching, although the time varies quite a bit in different waters. It’s a veritable feast for the hungry fish and a free for all for anglers. Weighted nymphs and emergers of all species should be fished along the bank and through any smooth spots in the fast water and in backwaters that curl along the banks.

            Even though the water is still fast, a big bushy attractor like green, orange, or yellow stimulators cast into a slow spot can produce a quick hit, because the fish don’t have much time to scope a bug out.

            And one of the best features at this time of the year is that fish will feed throughout the day because they feel secure in the fast water and it is still cool. As the flow gets lower, more and more slow spots will open up to dry flies. With the multitude of flies still on the water, an angler should find a spot that looks good and cast flies a few times and then change to another species, in nymphs, emergers and dry flies. Approximate sizes for flies can be estimated by turning over rocks to see the nymphal forms or watching bugs that are flying over water. The only time an angler needs to be exact is in tail waters below damns. Most of the time close is good enough. Fish will still key on a single species or more likely a stage of a species but it’s often hard to tell from watching. Only blanket hatches, like the world famous Mother’s Day green caddis on the Arkansas and the trico mayfly hatch on the South Platte River demand a single species of fly be used. And these hatches are so prolific, they bring their own difficulties: It’s sometime hard to get the fish to notice your fly because there are hundreds of real bugs on the water within a few feet of your fly.

            Much of the advice above applies to both freestone and tailwater rivers. But on the tail waters, the midge hatch never really stops so it’s another factor to consider. Many anglers trail a midge nymph beneath a dry fly or an emerger with great success.

            By late July, the water will usually have dropped and become warmer and the best action shifts to mornings and evenings. Caddis, particularly will only hatch in the shade or when the sun drops beyond the horizon. But hoppers splashed noisily will bring a fish to the surface and beetles and hoppers will move fish during the day.

            When the water reaches its warmest temperature of the day (3-4 p.m.) the fish, particularly rainbows will move into the riffles to get more oxygen. And yes, to eating. Big bushy high-floating dry fly, usually attractors, can be cast over and over again in the riffle water. It may take a number of passes before the fish will bite. Once, on the Lake Fork of the Gunnision, I had a strong feeling that a big fish was sitting in a smooth area between to barely submerged rocks about three feet apart, and I cast to it at least 30 times with no action. On the next cast I hooked and landed an 18-inch brown. It was the only bite I had had in three days. While it happened in the evening, the same thing works during the day, but I normally wouldn’t cast more than 10-15 times over the same small area then move to another spot. Don’t be afraid to try that with large nymphs such as a # 12 hare’s ear or pheasant tail, bead head or lightly weighted.

            High altitude lakes follow the same pattern, temperature wise, as the bugs and therefore the fish are active early in the season when the water is cooler, or later in the summer when it’s cloudy or mornings and evenings. If fish are rising, cast a dry fly imitating whatever bugs are present as close as possible to a rise ring. If the fish aren’t rising, try an emerger very lightly weighted with a wrist roll retrieve, stripping 3-4 inches slowly and letting it settle for 5-10 seconds between retrieves.

            The two major hatches on most high-altitude still waters are damselflies (what most of us call dragonflies) and callibaetis mayflies, which are fairly large and somewhat black and white segmented bodies. In many waters, these bugs are present from early June to early September. At others there are intense hatches at various times. And the fish’s IQ seems to go down by about half at those times, making them easier to catch. When a hatch isn’t on, try using fairly naturally appearing flies. Unlike in streams and rivers, lake fish have plenty of time to scope a fly out and decide whether to eat it or not.

            Another favorite in high altitude lakes are black leaches. These should be fished close to the bottom because although leaches can swim, they stay close to the bottom and that’s where fish look for them. Not all alpine lakes have them. The most common leech is simply black marabou feather tied to a hook. When wet and moving, these feathers are compressed into a tubular body, when the stop, the feathers will flare slightly, making them look alive, even though actual leeches don’t flare.

In scoping out a lake, look for the vegetation zones, which usually ring a lake at between 3-8 feet of depth. Two feet or less depth is not usually very productive. In many, the trees and bushes grow right out to the water’s edge, making back-casting difficult. Add to this the fact that fish like to accumulate on the deep side of a ledge, and a ledge is usually proceeded by a steep bank, wading out far enough to back cast is not possible without taking a dip. Roll casts work at those time for nymphs and emergers but will sink a dry fly.

            All of that makes a float tube a good idea, and the angler can position himself in deeper water and cast to the shore. And also move the top-feeding fish. If nothing else works, fish tend to stack up near the inlets and particularly in front of outlets where food is concentrated. In those cases, the angler can wade out a few feet and back cast parallel to the shore to avoid the vegetation and plop a fly in those areas without too much trouble.

            When nothing else is working, either in rivers, streams or lakes, try streamers, or woolly buggers or muddler minnows. I have luck dead drifting streamers and woolly buggers in medium to fast water or slow or fast stripping them through pools, deep holes, and of course lakes. These flies imitate small fish and even tired fish have a hard time passing up such a large meal, the nutritional equivalent of about 5,000 may flies.

            One of my favorite tactics cast across fast water and let the water sweep the lure into and obstruction like a brush pile, downed tree or large rock that is forcing the water back into the middle of the river. There is usually a buffer of slower water right in front of the obstruction allowing the fish to cherry pick fish and bugs from the fast moving current just inches away.

            Muddler minnows are usually heavy weighted and meant to be fished on or near the bottom. With muddlers and weighted woolly buggers in slower pocket water, it sometimes works to cast behind a rock, let it settle to the bottom and give a few very short jerks.

            To illustrate the value of creative approaches, I like to tell the story of fishing a popular campground on the Boulder River (in Montana). The water was low, the banks were trampled and I decided to use a minnow imitation streamer with a woven silver body and a rabbit fur strip down the back and as a tail. There were several people fly fishing the riffles without any luck so I moved to a slower stretch and cast across the creek and dead drifted past the overhanging bank with no luck. Farther downstream was an ox-bow in the far bank formed by a small boulder in the stream. A lot of driftwood had piled up on it so the stream cascaded over rock into a semicircle of brush and wood. I cast the streamer, which floated more than I usually care for, into the ox-bow and let the current carry it into the slack water behind the brush. A large brown trout shot straight up like a missile and got into the current. I had a four-weight rod and couldn’t land him. One of the other anglers netted him for me. We unhooked him quickly and set him back into the current. The guy who helped me estimated he was 20-iches long and fat as a pig. The moral of the story: If nothing is working, be creative.




Excerpted from Fly Fishing the Seasons: Colorado by Ron Baird Copyright © 2011 by Ron Baird. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ron Baird is a retired award-winning journalist. He is the author of Dark Angel, iUniverse, 2001, a mystery and the first installment in the Aaron Hemingway series, as well as Fishing Colorado: A Falcon Guide. He and his wife Nancy Morrell, live in the foothills of Boulder, Colorado.

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