Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A tale of two seasons

           While fishing tough pressured water may have a lot of benefits from a competitive perspective, I have a deep love for backcountry fishing. There is nothing I love more than putting some miles between the car and I and having a stretch of river or an alpine lake to myself. There is a river fairly near to my home in Fort Collins that has several different sections of hike in water. This river is a bit of a rare commodity along the Front Range which has a relative dearth of hike in rivers compared to where I've lived in Utah, Montana, and Idaho. Unfortunately, though there are backcountry stretches through some mid-elevation arid canyons on this particular river, extensive diversions above these canyons leave the river fishable usually only for a few weeks prior to and after runoff. As a result, I've spent as many days as possible on this water  in May and June since moving here in 2011.
           Toward the end of May this year I went to explore a section of this river that I hadn't seen yet. It requires a 3 mile hike to reach which doesn't sound like much until you traverse over a series of 200 foot tall cliffs to pass the last quarter mile. This day probably provided my most memorable day of fishing this year. I was pleasantly surprised upon arrival to find a willing population of nice sized browns and wild rainbows that ate a frenchie without hesitation. Unfortunately the irrigators put in the gates and the next week the river had gone from just over 100 cfs to 8 and the temperatures went from the low 60's to over 70. I still have no idea how these fish survive the summer. I would assume it is definitely a bottleneck period for survival.
           Growing up in Utah where there is a plethora of great brown trout streams but wild rainbow streams are few and far between, I still get giddy at the red stripe of a rainbow repeatedly jumping in the air. Considering that many of the rainbow populations in Colorado were essentially wiped out by the 90's due to whirling disease, seeing the white tipped fins of a wild rainbow is all the more precious when many of these streams now host only gutter raised hatchery rainbows which leave much to be desired. The wild rainbows of this river give me hope that somehow they are living against the odds here which gives me hope for their future elsewhere.
           Due to the catastrophic floods in September this year, the river has enough of a baseflow this fall to make it fishable again. This hasn't happened either of the other two autumns I've been here. I wanted to check on how the river survived the floods and see if there were any large post spawn browns moving in to this section from a body of water below so I convinced my labmate Clark to make the walk in with me last Saturday. On the way in, the evidence of the flood was still very evident. Debris was lodged in trees a full 10 feet above the current water level.

A tiny tributary had filled in with 8-10 feet of sediment where I had to walk up the canyon to get around this spot in the spring. On the way back Clark and I both got stuck in silt with quicksand properties here. I could actually feel my hip trying to dislocate as I tried to remove my left leg. Thankfully it was a near miss for both of us and I'm here to type this blog today.



However, the water itself looked pretty good when we arrived. The river is fortunate in this canyon to have an intact riparian corridor with enough stabilizing vegetation and space to spread that the channel didn't shift nearly as badly as it has on some of the other Front Range Rivers. When we arrived I took a temp and the thermometer read a frigid 37.5 degrees.


I knew that the fish would be sluggish at best at this temperature. I fished through some medium depth broken water for almost an hour with no result. I finally decided to find some deeper and slower winter holding water. Just up river I came across the pool in the picture below.


A slow seam in the center produced by some underwater boulders held multiple fish on both sides of the structure. The first fish I caught was a male brown of about 17" which took a frenchie. The spawn had been tough on him and he had several scars with fungus around his adipose fin so I quickly returned him to the water without a photo. I couldn't see any redds around but I figured the browns were likely done spawning with these water temps. I'm not a giant egg fan. In all of my nymph boxes I'll bet I don't own more than 18 of them. That doesn't keep them from working though so I humbled myself and chucked on a tungsten glo bug and proceeded to catch 6 or 7 more fish from the pool while Clark took turns in the fun with a few of his own. I took a temp at this point and it had warmed to 38.5 degrees. It wasn't a big jump but the positive direction seemed to have bumped the trout's activity up a notch.



Several other pools produced multiple fish upriver and even a pocket or two but a bank of high clouds moved in which I knew would stall further warming of the water. We had a decision to make and I made a gamble to retreat to the river closer to the valley to find warmer water. So at 2 o'clock after only 3.5 hours of fishing we made the hike back down. When we reached the river there were 8 other anglers in the short little stretch I wanted to fish. I took a temp though which read 42.5 degrees so at least I'd made the correct temperature gamble.  
         I fit into a gap where I knew a couple of anglers had just been fishing indicator rigs. The pool didn't produce like it did a couple of weeks ago but within about 10 minutes I landed 3 rainbows and a brown. Three of them ate a version of the rainbow warrior I'll talk about in one of my next few posts. The next hour produced more fairly solid fishing and I was glad Clark and I had been rewarded for our quick jaunt back. Though I'm sure we would have caught more fish if we'd stayed in the lower water all day we wouldn't have known whether the backcountry stretch could have been the best day of the year. That's the kind of knowledge I prefer not to remain ignorant of.

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