Southern Colorado on the Skids With Joel Hays

| September 20, 2012

Colorado monsoon on the horizon - Photo Courtesy Joel Hays
Colorado afternoon monsoon on the horizon. Photo Courtesy – Joel Hays

Continued from Tuesday September 18 Story

The next day was our guide trip with Dave (from Wolf Creek Anglers). I am usually not one to hire guides in Colorado. I grew up spending summers there, and guided in the Crested Butte/Gunnison area in the early/mid 90’s. The only spots where I hire guides these days are float trips, or if I’m in a new area. I like to figure things out on my own but this time Mother Nature had thrown us a curveball.

We knew water levels were low and fish were stressed. We knew what we SHOULD do in those situations to catch fish. Unfortunately, every other decent angler in the area did the same research and the fish were HAMMERED. The guide trip (at least to my bruised ego at the time) was buying us the one thing we needed . . . private water.

When I guided in Colorado, I was one of the guys that railed against private access and the crazy water/property laws in the state (you can float a river but, if you drop anchor or step out of your raft, you’re trespassing). Now I’m faced with a crack in my angling ethics a mile wide.

“Hmmm. For $325 I can pay a guy to take us on public water I hammered yesterday and I KNOW there were no fish. OR, for an extra $50 we can go to a private stretch of the San Juan with stream improvements (which mean deep, cool runs) and some un-stressed fish.”

“I’ll take the $375 ranch deal please!”

Am I a sell out? Have I passed a point of no return in angling dharma? Will a wild cutthroat high up in a Divide headwater ever innocently take my #14 Humpy again?

Part of me is really concerned. The other part says, “Who the F cares? That’s a nice rainbow at a time when NO ONE was catching any fish!” Oh well, these are deep, philosophical questions to deal with this winter while pulling stockers out of the Blue River or Beavers Bend.

The moral of the story is that we did what we could to make the most of a 3-day trip in tough conditions. When in doubt – hire a guide.

So, flashback to the beginning of the story.
Colorado Fly Fishing with Joel Hays - Photo Courtesy Joel Hays
Success at all costs and well worth it. Photo Courtesy – Joel Hays

Bright sunlight, a tough cast, a twelve-foot plus leader and TWO dry flies.

“All the fish along here will eat the caddis,” says Dave, “but, for some reason, the big guys back there like the gnat.”

I make the cast, get a decent drift, and the Puterbaugh disappears. A nice 16” female comes to the net. After a little rest I give it another shot and the cast lands perfectly in the slot (luckily I am fishing the greatest dry fly rod EVER – the Sage LL 389) with the gnat doing and little skip further back in the hole. I notice the caddis moving upstream and for what seems like a minute my brain can’t calculate why a dry would go “up.” Finally, I remember the gnat, set the hook, and the world under the willow branch explodes. The 389 protects the 7X perfectly and a beautiful 19-20” male rainbow comes to the net.

Now my angling ego takes a second shot. I had steeled myself with the knowledge that I didn’t “really” need a guide in CO; I just needed the access. But, in reality, would I have fished that willow branch with a dry combo in the middle of a sunny day with no hatch going on? Probably not. I was so set on plumbing the bottom of runs with a weighted nymph (“it’s hot” . . . “they’re DEEP”) that I would have given it a poke or two and moved on to the next pool. When trout are stressed by warm, low water, they handle it in one of TWO ways – they either go deep, or get in well-aerated SHADED water. There was a shallow riffle up stream of the willow tangle that was giving these alpha fish everything they needed. I knew this but needed Dave’s zen-master smack between the eyes to figure it out.

And who-the-hell adds a dry dropper to a DRY fly?!?!?!? This is why you PAY FOR THE LOCAL KNOWLEDGE.

Colorado brown trout caught on the moon - Photo Courtesy Joel Hays
There is water on the moon! Photo Courtesy – Joel Hays

Case-in-point. The nice brown pictured came from the third ranch section we hit that day. It looked like the surface of the moon. I thought “Why the hell has he taken us here?” Look at the background of the photo. We were fishing against a huge, featureless shale cliff. No vegetation. No visible cover. BUT, there was a catch.

The far bank had a shelf about two feet under the surface that gave fish perfect cover. And the stream was FILLED with little brown stones. While my friend caught every sucker in the river, I hooked up with two nice browns that gave the 389 everything it could handle.

Another plus of getting a guide is the additional local knowledge that can be gained. We asked Dave where we should go the next day and he hooked us up with a high country cutthroat stream that was accessible by 4WD vehicle (I can only say that I was impressed by the off-road capabilities of our Nissan Rogue rental – and I’m glad the deposit wasn’t in my name). They weren’t large fish, or plentiful, but they were natives and rose to a dry fly in some breath taking country.

A beer, some sunbathing while stuff dried in an alpine meadow, and we were off to Durango to catch a late afternoon connection to DIA and home. Not a bad long weekend. If we had not hired the guide . . . it would have pretty much sucked – and I would have spent the rest of the weekend sitting in Kips nursing SKA Pinstripes while comparing Dos Diablo Dynamites with Big Pelewski’s (if you don’t know what these are you’ve GOT to go).

So, set forth with your head high and firm in the knowledge that your angling skill will prevail. And take your wallet just in case!


Wolf Creek Anglers
Let it Fly
Higher Grounds

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Category: Colorado Report, Culture on the Skids, Destination Fly Fishing, Fishing Reports

About the Author () is where to find my other day job. I write and photograph fish stories professionally, and for free here! Journalist by training. This site is for telling true fishing news stories, unless otherwise noted.

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