CMC's Denver Fly Fishing Section
Fly Fishing the Colorado Backcountry
Page Three - Strategies
The roll cast and the double haul are two useful casts to master for backcountry conditions. A roll cast is effective in tight, willowy areas where a back cast is prohibitive. The double haul is used for distance casting, casting into the wind or when rapidly shooting lots of line. Double hauls require either a weight forward or shooting head fly line.
Watch the weather. Besides the danger of lightning, bad weather often improves fly fishing. Perhaps bugs are knocked or loosened into the water? Maybe it's harder to detect irregularities in casting? If surface action stops, try below.
Fishing beaver dams: These waters vary from one year to another. Trout grow rapidly in new ponds for the first year or two. Then overpopulation and/or a limited food supply takes its toll. Tannic acid levels rise, due to limbs stored by beavers and diminish the insect population.
Beaver ponds must be approached carefully as to not spook fish. Keep a low profile and cast delicately. Try standing just below the dam. Cast upstream to the deep water behind it. As in most ponds, trout feed primarily below the surface.
Don't plan on fishing more than fifteen minutes per pond. It's best to soon move on or take a break as these fish are skittish. Channels that connect beaver ponds should not be ignored. Be prepared to lose flies to debris and willows.
Fishing creeks & streams: Backcountry streams tend to be easy to read. They don't receive much fishing pressure and food is normally scarce. They hold eager but easily spooked trout.
Most small creeks are full of pocket water and riffles. Others are so shallow or debris-filled that there is no recourse to dry flies. As a general rule, the smaller the creek, the quicker you should move upstream. When fishing small waters, unless strikes are prevalent, walk upstream after a few casts.
Fishing alpine lakes: There are two types of mountain lakes: those above and the ones below timberline. Lakes below tree line normally contain more fish since they typically offer better forage and a gentler environment. These lower-level lakes may require roll casting if trees and brush are obstacles.
Fishing high lakes is a different experience than lowland streams and reservoirs. One distinction is the short growing season. Lakes at 12,000 feet or higher may only be ice-free for two months. Trout food is more restricted and less varied than at lower elevations.
Carefully walk up and observe the lake before wetting a fly. Approach so as not to spook fish. Trout are often only inches from shore. Watch with polarized sunglasses from a vantage point. Note any shallows, inlets, outlets, drop-offs and seams.
Look for cruising fish. Are they actively feeding? If so, are they taking flies on the surface, emergers on the rise or nymphs at the bottom? Perhaps fish are swimming at high speed or chasing each other. Go to the water's edge. Collect any insects the waves washed in.
Note the rises. What types are occurring? Are fish dimpling the surface, jumping clear of the water or just exposing their dorsal fins? Can you discern the prey? What bugs are flying about or swimming below? These are all signals on how to proceed.
Shallows: High-altitude lakes tend to have restricted shallows. Shallows hold warmer water, produce trout forage and attract feeding fish. Fortunately, most are close to shore. One can usually sight and cast to cruising trout more effectively from vantage points on shore than by wading shallows.
Barren lakes: Some waters suffer from winter kill, a condition where there is insufficient dissolved oxygen for fish survival below ice. Harsh winters can result in a zero survival rate. Lakes deeper than 8 feet are less apt to suffer from winter kill as are those with springs or year-round flowing water.
Many backcountry lakes are stocked since they can't reproduce fish. Even if trout succeed in courtship, stream structure and oxygen levels may not allow the eggs to hatch. Inlets with low gradients have a better chance of holding reproducing trout. Most lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park are not stocked and are barren.
Spawning trout: When alpine trout are intent on breeding, they are usually too focused to bite flies. One may initially hook a male defending its turf, but others only "chase" the fly away. Spawning season depends on species and elevation. Larger waters are more apt to hold trout at different stages of reproduction and susceptibility to flies.
Stunted fish: Brookies reproduce faster than other trout. Waters that held a mixture of fish can, over time, hold only brookies. This results in stunted trout if food or angling pressure is insufficient. The Colorado Division of Wildlife has created a liberal harvest rate for small brookies to combat overpopulation.
Ice-out and ice-in of alpine lakes are additional factors to consider. The first few days after ice-out provide some great fishing. Trout eagerly feed and cruise in the open waters. Fish seem intent on attacking anything that resembles food and don't exhibit their usual wariness. This condition persists for several weeks, ebbing in intensity.
Some lakes above timberline might be free of ice, but snow inhibits travel until late July. Lakes warm slower or faster, depending on sunlight and topology. Look for stillwaters with southern exposures and open surroundings to thaw more quickly.
Aquatic insects, crustaceans and leeches migrate to the shallows after ice-out and move to deeper water during ice-in. Scuds, if present, and especially midge larvae are vulnerable during migrations and preyed upon by trout. Fish midge nymphs slowly and scud patterns with a faster, irregular retrieve to mimic natural movements.
Scuds are fresh-water crustaceans similar to shrimp. Waters that harbor scuds offer year-round feasting for trout. These waters are reportedly spring-fed and alkaline-rich. Scud feeders, unlike most alpine fish, can afford to be selective. Waters with scuds offer large, picky trout.
Leave the throngs behind and experience the quiet beauty of the Rockies. Colorado backcountry fly fishing is demanding, gratifying and surprisingly accessible. One can spend a lifetime and touch just a portion. But, don't take it lightly. Do the homework for a successful trip.
Three books are highly recommended for additional reading. They are: Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes by Gary LaFontaine (humorous), Fly-Fishing the Rocky Mountain Backcountry by Rich Osthoff and The Complete Guide to Colorado's Wilderness Areas by John Fielder & Mark Pearson.
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