During my professional career as a land use and environmental attorney, I worked with local governments, conservationists, and biologists across the United States to protect wildlife habitat. There were wins, there were setbacks, but I was always optimistic that we were making progress. In retirement I have kept my finger on the pulse of things in the field while turning to a second career writing for outdoor magazines and conducting more personal on-stream piscatorial research (AKA fly fishing). Now the two are intersecting in an unexpected and troubling way. Entomologists are sounding the alarm about the cataclysmic decline in insects around the world, calling it the Insect Armageddon. As pollinators, food providers, pest controllers, decomposers, and soil engineers bugs are a key part of the very foundation for all life on the planet. That means, of course, for the fish we love to pursue. Already we are starting to see the decline of aquatic insects that could have a devastating impact on fishing—witness the 50% drop in mayflies in the upper Midwest just since 2012.
What can we do about it? For some ways each of us can answer the call to action click on the Powerpoint presentation below that I will presenting at a national land use and environmental conference later this month. The future of our sport may depend on it!!
While being a septuagenarian has increasingly few benefits, one major exception is jumping to the head of the line to get the coveted Covid vaccinations. After scoring my second one last week, I didn’t suffer from any serious side effects–except found myself nursing a mild case of fishing fever in its wake. No one warned me about that!! What to do?? Fortunately I found the perfect antidote: A two-hour recon mission scoping out the beaver ponds on a little creek near my cabin just outside Salida, Colorado, that produced some good brownies last spring.
And with spring just a few weeks away so must the spring thaw that will let this small stream aficionado get on back on the waters he loves. What I found definitely lifted my spirits but oddly only stoked my fishing fever. What’s an angler to do??
It was a bright and sunny day when I embarked on my exploratory mission, albeit a brisk 29 degrees at 8,000 feet.
Nevertheless, the first big pond I came to that produced that nice brown trout was already showing some open water! And in the creek up above I even heard and then caught a glimpse of running water!!
To further stoke the fever, a mile upstream I stumbled on a promising series of beaver ponds, replete with a picturesque lodge, that had been hidden by overgrown vegetation last time I was up that way. Got to be some decent fish in there!
Hopefully it won’t be long before I am boasting about my piscatorial acumen accompanied by photographic proof of my beaver pond exploits. To all my fly fishing friends out there, keep the faith—winter is about over!!
The upper Arkansas around Salida is not the first river most Colorado anglers think about for fly fishing when winter descends. More likely they will be part of the crowds from Denver and Colorado Springs that elect to chase trout on the tailwaters of the South Platte or the lower Arkansas near Pueblo. By the photos they post on Facebook of impressive PB rainbows and browns, they do pretty darn well.
But those rivers and their throngs are just not my cup of tea. Fortunately winter is the time to escape the summer hordes that overrun my home water the Arkansas—rafters, kayakers, paddle boarders, float fishermen, and other assorted hoi polloi. Come December is when I get my PBS (personal best solitude) plus feisty wild fish on the Big Ark. But to be successful requires a vastly different approach than the tailwaters noted above—the Ark is a free-flowing, high-elevation river with colder water and where weather is more important on a day-to-day basis, not to mention the preferred trout victuals that differ as well.
In consultation with intergalactic fishing gurus and through keen observation, casing the river carefully since the 1990s (and more often just through the school of hard knocks), I have come up with some insights for the winter angler who wants to get away from it all while still scoring some good fish.
Getting The Lay Of The River: When I write of the “upper” Arkansas, I mean the productive stretch from just above Salida downstream about 42 miles to Texas Creek. Further up north towards Buena Vista and Leadville much of the river is either private or freezes over more frequently. You can catch fish there, but not on as a consistent basis. I divide the upper Ark into three distinct stretches.
First is the area upstream of Salida called the Big Bend where the river makes a hard turn to the north. It extends down to the Stockyard Bridge just below the town, a total distance of about 10 miles.
The valley opens wide here which allows a lot more sun to reach the water. While it gets more pressure, the Big Bend offers more comfortable and consistent angling days than the other two stretches because of abundant sunshine throughout the winter. However if the wind is gusting, the Big Bend is more open this making casting more difficult. The State of Colorado holds several fishing easements here to provide good access, and the stretch also offers stunning views of the Mount Shavano and the Collegiate Peaks not to mention easy access to libations and chow in Salida. The valley’s main fly shop, ArkAnglers, is located nearby along U.S. 50 on the outskirts of town.
The second stretch runs from the Stockyard Bridge down to the hamlet of Cotopaxi, approximately 25 miles.
There are a few areas in this stretch where the valley widens, for example around Howard, but for the most part it is characterized by steep canyon walls on either or both sides of the river that limit the amount of sunlight. As a result, deeper and slower sections are often frozen over, and the hours of fishing often very limited to two or three midday. Public and private lands are intermixed throughout this section.
The third section runs seven miles from Cotopaxi to Texas Creek. Here the valley opens up again in a number of places, although not as wide as above Salida, and the gradient is somewhat less steep. Just above Texas Creek there is a prime stretch with BLM public access where the canyon walls peel way back on both sides of the river to allow abundant sunshine to warm the water.
For more information about public access on the three sections, see the excellent web site of ArkAnglers, our fine local fly shop at www.arkanglers.com.
CASING THE JOINT: I have come up with eight tips or rules for winter fishing on the Big Ark, gleaned from my forays up and down the river conducting piscatorial research the past 30 years. Here they are:
Rule #1—Pay Attention To Water Temperature And Levels: While I always look ahead for days where mild daytime temperatures are in the forecast for one of my outings, it is actually more important to focus on night temperatures in the valley two or three days before you fish. While Salida is called the “banana belt” because its daytime temperatures are much balmier than South Park or the Gunnison valley to the west, it still sits at 7,500 feet and nighttime temperatures can plunge into the single digits. When they do, you can count on many sections to freeze over and for slush ice and floating icebergs to make fishing annoying at best and often impossible.
I find that when two or three days preceding my foray nighttime temperatures are in the mid-twenties followed by daytime highs in the upper thirties and above, I can count on more consistent and pleasant fishing. As an aside, note that temperatures above Salida are often warmer at night than the lower two sections.
Water levels are another factor to consider. I find flows between 225 and 300 cfs are ideal to maintain adequate flows and depths in productive pools and runs while allowing the adventuresome angler to cross to the other side of the river (away from US 50 highway) where there is much less pressure. (See Rule #4 below.) To find current water levels on the Arkansas at Salida and downstream at Wellsville, google “Colorado Water Talk” and search for the gauging stations at those two locations.
Rule #2—Sunny Stretches Are Almost Always Better Than Those In The Shade: In bright, sunny Colorado, most anglers who fish in the summer know to seek out honey holes with some shade where the trout can hide away from prying eyes and enjoy cooler water. In the winter it’s just the opposite. Rarely do I catch fish in deeper holes, where one might expect fish to be hanging low in warmer water, IF those holes are shaded most of the day. Many times I have been reminded of this when a deep pool I have been catching fish out of goes immediately to sleep when the sun dips behind a ridge or canyon wall. Might as well head home then.
And don’t be surprised if in a shallow stretch in full sun you find fish, particularly brown trout, warming themselves while they pick off food floating by. Stealth is the key in these stretches as well as a tailored shallow-water nymph rig as discussed below.
The best stretch to find sun is the Big Bend above Salida where the valley is several miles wide and the sun bathes it early then until late in the day (i.e., 3:30 to 4:00 p.m. ) Fortunately, there are a number of state fishing easements that provide access to the Ark up- and downstream from the Big Bend. On the other two stretches below Salida I find it a good idea to scout the day before to pinpoint specific sections that bask in the sun and what time old Sol hits the water (usually not before 10 a.m.) and when it disappears (typically by 2:30 p.m. at the latest). A good rule of thumb is that north/south stretches will get more sun longer than east/west ones. Also, if the canyon walls on the side of the river opposite the highway recede, that means more morning sun. If on the highway side they recede it indicates more afternoon sun.
Once you locate a sunny stretch of water, the traditional approach is to dredge heavily weighted nymphs through deep holes off the main current where the water is warmer and the cold-blooded, slow-moving winter trout don’t have to expend as much energy to grab a meal. That tactic generally works when the weather has been cold for an extended period, but there are exceptions. Warm weather in the winter—say in the 40s and 50s—will have trout venturing into shallower areas–sometimes only a foot or two deep–to soak up the warming sun and even into faster-moving riffles to pick off caddis larvae and stonefly nymphs zipping by downstream in the early afternoon. Several years ago during early winter warm spells I caught exactly zero fish in holes deeper than four feet. Most were caught on unweighted nymphs in water 2-3 feet deep.
Rule #3—When You Catch A Fish, Stay Put: During the winter, trout are usually concentrated in or near deep holes for warmth and safety. If you catch one, you can pretty much bet more are there. I plumb the depth of these pools, but also recognize the fish will venture out in adjacent runs carrying more food, especially when it’s sunny.
I skip most fast stretches and long, shallow slicks that rarely hold winter trout. When you do approach a likely looking pool, take it nice and slowly. Winter water is exceptionally clear, and often I spot fish finning contentedly in front of me, giving me a leg up for placing that perfect cast. One other lie that shouldn’t be overlooked is under ice shelves extending out into a pool.
Trout will often hide under the shelves for cover and dart out to snatch food tumbling by. Every year I catch a few nice ones by placing a cast a few inches from the edge of a shelf and letting it drift slowly and enticingly by these crafty fish.
Rule #4—The Grass Is Greener And Fishing Better On The Other Side: A corollary of Rule #2 is to get on the other side of the river away from Highway 50 that parallels the Ark below Salida. The south/highway side of the river gets far more pressure than the less accessible north. At lower flows in the winter, wading across the river is possible with all due care, and there are bridges and roads here and there that give access to the north shore.
Rule #5–Assiduously Avoid Sections Near Campgrounds: I avoid sections of the Arkansas within one-fourth mile of commercial RV campgrounds and several camp sites designated by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), a 152-mile stretch of the river under joint state and federal management. The AHRA is a well-intentioned idea and government vehicle created in 1989 to protect and manage the upper section of the Arkansas River. While it has notched some major accomplishments like maintaining better water flows and reining in the flotillas of rafters, the result (when coupled with state’s recognition of the river as a Gold Medal water) has sometimes been the opposite. Compared to 30 years ago before the AHRA, hordes more people descend on the area, especially on weekends. Unfortunately the AHRA and associated state and federal agencies simply do not have enough people to manage the area effectively–indeed I have never run into a ranger or other AHRA personnel on the river, only emptying trash bins at rafting put-in points. Fortunately the AHRA has started to limit scattered dry camping to recently improved rustic sites with tent pads and metal fire pits. However, the river in these areas still gets pounded.
A good example of what has gone wrong in the early 1990s can be seen on a mile-long section of the river below Wellsville. It was my favorite stretch, hard to get to, and loaded with good browns and rainbows. Then the AHRA improved access, built some attractive campgrounds for RVs, and designated a couple of primitive camping areas along the river, but imposed no restrictions on bait fishing or limits on the size of fish that could be caught and killed beyond the state’s minimal requirements. Surprise! This once great area is practically fished out compared to the good old days.
On a trip there last fall I had two strikes in four hours, caught one fish, and saw only one other where I used to see and catch and release dozens in the clear water. To make matters worse, the land has been stripped of downed timber for firewood and paths cut willy-nilly up and down the steep banks. The area has been loved to near death. Colorado is predicted to add another million people in the coming decades. I wonder whether the body politic will be smart enough to protect what we have and even add more parks and wild areas to the public realm plus fund the caretakers to watch over them?? Ok, enough pontificating. Back to the fishing.
Rule #6: Walk Softly And Carry Two Big Sticks–I always carry two rods on the Arkansas. In the winter on the first I rig an 8 ½ foot #4 rod with two small nymphs about 2 feet below a featherweight yellow yarn strike indicator with no split shot. At times I will add a small shot and a small bubble.
I employ this rig to target fish in shallower, slower runs off the main current using smaller caddis (#18) and stonefly nymphs (#12-16). On the second, an 8 1/2-foot #5 weight heavier rod, I tie on a weighted (#10-12) stonefly nymph trailed by a #16-18 caddis nymph. See Rule #7 below for more on fly patterns. To this rig I add a plastic bubble strike indicator and a couple of BB split shot. The strike indicator is set high on the 5X leader to allow the nymphs to dredge the bottom in deeper holes. It is critical to experiment throughout the day with depth and weight on each of these rigs.
Rule #7: Caddis And Stoneflies Are The Favorite Winter Meals—In contrast to the South Platte and winter tailwaters where the food ranges from tiny midges to larger leeches, it’s important to keep in the mind that caddis and stoneflies dominate the trout diet on the Arkansas. That’s not to say occasionally you will see a late afternoon midge hatch and even witness a few risers or that a midge nymph won’t work, especially on the warmer upper section, but day in and day out caddis and stones are the go-to flies. For caddis I prefer #16-18 beadhead sparkle caddis larva or one of my own creations, a beadhead green hotwire CDC caddis larva. For larger stones I go with a #10-14 halfback stone, a twenty-incher, or a conehead golden stone with legs. On the lighter nymph rig I will substitute a #14-16 Tung Teaser as the stone imitation. Standard midge patterns such as red and black zebras (#18-20) work well on occasion.
Rule #8—Don’t Forget Warm Togs And Other Essential Gear: It goes without saying but is still worth a mention–even on a day where the air temperature is in the 40s or 50s, the water in the Big Ark will still be ice cold, near freezing.
Consequently, I am a big fan of old-fashioned neoprene waders which are apparently a bit out of style. I bumped into a couple of younger anglers on the stream in last November who asked me what I was wearing–they had never seen or heard of neoprene waders. Believe me, they are much warmer than light-weight breathable waders no matter how many layers you put on underneath.
I wear fishing pants and long johns under the neoprenes to stay toasty warm. And don’t forget socks–at least 3 pair (liner, wool, heavy wool). Up top I can usually get by with a polypro t-shirt, polypro long-sleeve shirt, nylon fishing shirt, and a light rain jacket. I slip on a buff over my head and wear a heavy fishing cap. I stuff a pair of fingerless fishing gloves in my vest just in case along with a stocking cap.
I also strongly recommend felt soles or cleats on the Arkansas which features odd-sized river rocks to stumble over and a strong current even when low. I have recently added a four-piece collapsible wading staff to my basic gear to help avoid slipping and taking a dunking. The wading staff is not only a life saver in the river but also in navigating the steep and often snow-covered slopes down to the water, especially in the middle section, as well as the slick ice shelfs that must be traversed on the river’s edge to get to the water. Of course you will need a net to handle the 18” plus bows and browns you will hook if you follow these eight essential rules!
Greetings to all my friends and readers. I hope your holidays were peaceful. Here’s wishing for all of us a great 2021. It’s been a very interesting and rewarding year writing my blog. One of the few benefits of Covid-19 was providing plenty of social distancing time to pen articles as well as to explore not only those remote places I love while conducting serious piscatorial research but also waters close to home that I had overlooked and new species of fish.
I was gratified in January that 2020 kicked off with Southwest Fly Fishing publishing an article I wrote about Treasure Creek in southern Colorado, an out-of-the way stream high in the Rockies that is one of the few that harbors native Rio Grande Cutthroats.
After that things changed quickly as reflected in my next article in the May issue of Florida Sportsman about fishing safely through the Corona virus.
Apparently lots of other anglers had some time on their hands as by the end of the year over 43,000 people had visited my blog site with over 93,000 views, an almost 90% increase over 2019. Thanks to you all!
Among them were readers from over 70 nations ranging from China to Kenya to Finland to Brazil. I will have to admit my readership from Russia plunged to only two, perhaps reflecting I’m off Putin’s watch list after publishing a not-so-flattering photo of him accompanied by some wisecracks in an article about fishing Saguache Creek a couple of years go. Whew! That obviously gave his minions more time for hacking.
All kidding aside, as we look forward to a year that just has to be better than the last, it reminds me there were lots of good things to remember about 2020. So here is my annual retrospective on the best and the bummers of the past year.
Cream of the Crop: Two things really standout as cream of the crop. First, as you might imagine, for a septuagenarian grandpa, nothing can compare to spending time on the water with my sweetheart of a four-year old granddaughter Aly. We started out in May catching some nice rainbow trout at Staunton State Park west of Denver. A few months later she pulled her first yellow perch from Eagle Watch Lake in Denver. A garden hackle lure was the ticket. But the moment I remember best was after she had practiced casting a few times in 2019 with her new spin cast outfit, I said to her let’s go fishing and you can practice casting some more. She looked at me very seriously and said somewhat impatiently, “But Grandpa, I already know how to cast.” And later that day she proved she could!
Another high point was the connection I made with my readers, making new friends around the country. We exchanged emails and phone calls and are hoping to do some fishing together next year. Thanks to Randy, Wendy, JD, Jim, Chip, Dan, Bill, George, and others for your kind words. Looking forward to hitting the water with you in 2021. Just promise not to outfish me!
Most Gratifying: Another yearly sweet spot is hosting an annual fishing trip in the Colorado high country with my erstwhile Florida fishing buddy Robert Wayne, Esq. We are both what might be called elders of the angling community. I get a real kick out of hosting Bob and guiding him on some of my favorite waters for a couple of weeks, even taking him to some of my top-secret creeks. In 2020 Bob wanted to catch a cutthroat, a fish that had eluded him during his storied international fishing peregrinations. We hiked a couple of miles into a high mountain valley through which flows one of my favorite streams, a Herculean task for two old codgers. But when Bob fooled that handsome 15-inch cutt, the smile on his face was ample remuneration.
Earlier in the summer, it was payback time to some fish in a high alpine valley that was also extremely gratifying. Two years ago I hiked about eight miles roundtrip to chase some giant cutthroat trout in Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. The trout were there as I had been promised, but to my great consternation for almost five hours these behemoths repeatedly turned up their noses to practically every fly and lure in my fly vest. With my tail between my legs and the odor of a skunk in the air, I left the lake vowing I shall return. Fast forward to June of 2020, and I hiked back into Lower Sand Creek Lake and exacted some measure of revenge. Fooling many large cutthroats that were cruising the shoreline, I had one of my best days ever on a high-mountain lake where, as experienced anglers know, the fish can be maddenly finicky. See for yourself: https://hooknfly.com/2020/07/25/return-to-sand-creek-lakes-revenge-of-the-skunked/
Another particularly gratifying episode has been the response to a series of my blog articles entitled The Best Fishing Books of All Time. Over the past couple of years I have been heartened to see a cohort of younger anglers (AKA as anyone under 40 whom I call “young bloods”) taking up the sport, both men and women. Hopefully, they will be the next generation of anglers who will not only enjoy the sport but fight to protect and preserve the waters we all cherish. Thanks to a bout of annoying sciatica in October, I had time on my hands to write five articles in which I described dozens of my favorite books about fishing in several categories including “best literature,” “funny bone ticklers,” and “fish that shaped the world,” among others. My goal was to introduce the young bloods to the grand tradition and history of our sport dating back hundreds of years.
I always feel that any endeavor is greatly enhanced by knowledge of its tradition and history. By the end of the year the articles had been read by over a thousand people and is now one of the top results on the web when you google “best books about fishing.” Here’s a link to the first of five installments: https://hooknfly.com/2020/08/01/the-best-fishing-books-of-all-time/
Most Popular Posts: Surprisingly, the most popular freshwaterarticle was one from 2019 on fishing for trout on the scenic Conejos River in southern Colorado, just north of the border with New Mexico. There were almost 3,000 hits on this post, which is somewhat astounding given the fact it is nowhere near any large population centers plus the Conejos is not one of the more fabled rivers in the state like the Gunnison, Arkansas, and South Platte. Here is a link to the article: https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/26/solving-the-conejos-river-conundrum/
While I would like to think it must be my captivating literary style that proved so attracting, I have a hunch its success is more likely attributable to the hordes of pesky Texan fly fishing anglers doing research before they invade southern Colorado in the summer and sample the nearest trout stream to the Lone Star State. (Just kidding guys and gals…we love to take your money, but just make sure you return home come September.)
Also worthy of attention is a trio of articles about trying to find fish AND solitude in the waters of South Park around Fairplay, Colorado. South Park, and particularly the waters of the South Platte, is overrun with anglers from nearby Denver and Colorado Springs. They do catch some big fish, but it’s often combat-style fishing, especially on weekends. I wrote about three small creeks where solitude and good fishing, often a rarity, go hand-in-hand.
Biggest Fish: There is no doubt that despite however sporting and conservation-minded most anglers are, they like to brag about their biggest fish. I plead guilty. My two freshwater leviathans were, oddly enough, caught in the Everglades where most of my angling is in saltwater. Unbeknown to most anglers, the Everglades is dotted with small freshwater and brackish lakes and canals that often hold big largemouth bass and exotic, colorful peacock bass. I did a fair amount of sleuthing and found several that ended up producing a seven-pound largemouth and five-pound peacock. https://hooknfly.com/2020/11/15/freshwater-bass-fishing-in-the-everglades/
Here in Colorado my two biggest fish, an alpine lake cutthroat and a rainbow from the Arkansas, both went about 18-inches. I won’t mention the bigger ones on which I adroitly executed long-distance releases.
In saltwater, my best catches were two snook in the Everglades, one in January and the other in March. One that pushed 30-inches was caught in a brackish lake also frequented by largemouth bass.
The other caught in a narrow tidal creek in the Everglades backcountry was my best of the year at 31-inches. Talk about utter mayhem before I could coax her away from those infernal mangrove roots and to the boat.
Bummers: Perhaps the biggest bummer was, of course, related to Covid-19, but not in the way I expected. Fishing is a great way to socially distance and you don’t have to wear a mask most of the time. No problem there. What I didn’t anticipate was the virus would be a force that hobbled many angling and outdoor-related magazines that have published my articles and the death knell for others like the venerable American Angler. That magazine carried some of my first fishing articles back in the 90s. When the virus hit many fishing-related businesses either shut down permanently or temporarily and cut back dramatically on their advertising which staggered many angling magazines and book publishers. As a result, after a piece on Treasure Creek was published by Southwest Fly Fishing in January, only one other of my articles made it into print in 2020, ironically one in Florida Sportsman that dealt with tips on fishing through the Corona crisis!
I also had to grapple with an acute case of sciatica in late summer that cut down on my ability to explore and chase trout in some of those small creeks in rugged Colorado canyons that are dear to my heart. It reminded me growing old isn’t for the faint of heart. Fortunately I am on the mend so hope springs eternal, and scenes of backcountry soirées in both Colorado and Florida keep dancing in my head.
Burst Bubbles: In my spare time one of my favorite endeavors is sleuthing on-line or using Google Maps and other GPS apps to discover remote backcountry creeks in Colorado that just might be loaded with eager trout. It’s a hit or miss game, about 25% of the time turning up a goose egg. This year the honor goes to Nutras Creek, a tributary of Cochetopa Creek on the edge of the La Garita Wilderness Area in south central Colorado. I have had some of the best fishing days over the past few years on Cochetopa and other of its tributaries. I had driven over Nutras Creek many times, and a couple of cryptic posts online reported some big brook trout hiding in the beaver ponds that dot the stream. Google Maps confirmed there were literally dozens of good-sized beaver ponds up- and downstream from the access road. A month later I eagerly made the hour drive from my mobile fish camp only to find most of the beaver ponds were gone, kaput, extinct, washed out!
While I managed to catch enough brookies in the few small ponds that remained and in the creek, I went home issuing a plethora of epithets directed towards Google Maps for not updating its satellite photos thereby leading me on this wild goose chase! Fortunately a few weeks later my sleuthing paid off with a Century Club day on another remote creek that shall remain nameless.
The Bloodcurdling: Spending time in the wilds, either in the Colorado mountains or the Everglades backcountry, you’re bound to have some exciting moments—one reason I carry a Garmin satellite text phone in case I get in trouble. This year was no exception. Two of the bloodcurdlers were close encounters of the wildlife kind. Last year it was a truculent Burmese Python in the Everglades. This year it was a big 12-foot gator that I stumbled on in my kayak, passing within 15-feet of the big boy as I emerged from a mangrove tunnel into blind turn. I was close enough to the prehistoric looking creature to be able to count the gnarly teeth protruding from his jaws.
Fortunately it was a very cool day so he was content to bask in the sun and let this intruder beat a hasty retreat.
The second close encounter took place a few months later in the Colorado high country. I was finishing up a successful day of fishing on a remote creek when I heard some noise in the woods above me. I turned and saw a moose with a giant set of horns ambling my way down the slope.
Moose are often very belligerent, especially cows with a calf. Again I lucked out as the moose eyed me contemptuously then turned around and proceeded to saunter away insouciantly as if I wasn’t worth paying any heed to.
The most dangerous moment, however, came when I made an ill-advised decision to descend an extremely steep slope with loose scree into a canyon to reach an alluring creek far below.
I quickly realized the fix I was in and thought this may be a case where things that go down never come back up. I was carrying two fishing rods and a small insulated bag with my lunch in it when I lost my footing and started to slide down on my keister. I quickly jettisoned the lunch bag and tried to grab some brush to stop my descent without breaking my rods or body parts. Finally about twenty feet down I lunged and latched onto some sturdy brush and was able to finally dig my boots in and stop. I took a deep breath and turned around to chart my course back out, but realized there was no way to go back up.
Best Laughs: Closely tied to the blood curdling slide above was the fate of the canvas lunch bag I was carrying. When I gave it the heave to free up a hand to slow my descent, it started flying down the long steep slope, bouncing off rocks and gaining speed by the second. Suddenly something started to gush from its sides making it look like a pinwheel as it careened towards the creek. When I retrieved it 10 minutes later I was delighted to find most everything was intact except for a can of the elixir known as Squirt soda pop that had split open. That explained the small geyser spewing from the bag on the way down. It may have been gallows humor, but I couldn’t help but laugh as I watched its flight down the rocky slope.
Another good guffaw involved the tale of the broken rod. I rarely break a fishing rod while chasing trout. One exception this year was when I left a rod leaning on my SUV then backed out and crushed the tip. Temple Fork Outfitters graciously replaced it with a newer better model at a modest cost for shipping. But in the Everglades I average three broken rods a year which I attribute to much larger fish that I tangle with in tight quarters in mangrove tunnels, often in my kayak. Certainly could not be lack of skill. This year the broken rod tale was under much different circumstances. I was on an outing with my accomplished fishing friend from Georgia, Steve Keeble. We were on a quest for snook in my Gheenoe in the Everglades backcountry. We caught plenty of snook but then decided to take a breather in a slow-moving backwater off the main channel. It was loaded with forage fish, and soon we started to see black tip shark cruising everywhere. I suggested we have a little fun, so chunked up a ladyfish and baited it on my stoutest rod I typically use for large tarpon. I handed it to Steve, and a shark quickly gulped the savory meal. I yelled “set it hard,” which Steve dutifully did, which was followed by a loud crack as the rod snapped in half.
Steve exhibited his considerable angling skill by continuing to fight and land the truculent critter with half a rod as I doubled over with laughter. Of course the joke was on me with the broken rod, which Steve graciously replaced.
Biggest Surprise: My biggest—and most pleasant—surprises all came on freshwater lakes in the Everglades. Most of my fishing in the Glades is done in tidal creeks or the Everglades backcountry where the water is salty. When the Corona virus hit south Florida, mobs of anglers sans masks or any attempt at social distancing descended from the Miami area and Fort Meyers, where public boat ramps had been closed, on our local boat ramp on Chokoloskee Island. One morning at one point a line of over 50 boats were waiting to launch.
Not wanting to tempt fate or run into the hordes in the backcountry, I decided to investigate some of the nearby freshwater lakes inland that usually receive little pressure. Boy I am sure glad I did. As noted above, over a period from late March until early April I caught and released some big largemouth and peacock bass and a hefty snook that had somehow found her way into a lake just off the Tamiami Trail. Who knows how she got there as there were no canals or creeks leading into the lake, but who am I to complain!
I received another pleasant surprise on the South Fork of the South Platte later that summer back in Colorado. I had set out to fish the South Fork in the flatlands of South Park, but when I got there the stream was blown out, muddy water filling it from bank-to-bank. Undaunted, I decided to drive the some 20 miles up towards historic Weston Pass to fish some beaver ponds on the South Fork headwaters. Posts from local fly shops said the fishing there was challenging as the ponds were overgrown with brush, however still fun for small brookies but nothing else. The ponds were definitely there, stretching for miles along the creek, and the brookies were eager. But I had a hunch the attractive short stretches of open running water between the ponds might just harbor some bigger fish…and they did. I managed to catch several handsome cutthroats, one that went 15-inches. Definitely a satisfying surprise! https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/.
Birthday Century Club: One of my annual traditions is to take a multi-day solo high-country fishing trip in Colorado on my birthday in late July. And part of that tradition is to see if I can catch as many fish as my years on this planet, which in 2020 were 72. I had my sights set on a comely little creek hidden in a canyon that I had only recently discovered last year and had fished but once. Not only did that little jewel produce fish in numbers—I caught and released over 100 wild trout thus qualifying for the Century Club—but my efforts were rewarded with a high-country slam–a cutthroat, brown, and brookie, with the cutt and brownie coming in as a double! Not sure how many more years I can make a trek like that, so this one was all the more to savor.
Most Beautiful Fish: The beautiful coloration and intricate patterns fish sport never cease to amaze me, nature seemingly able to exceed anything thing I could imagine. In freshwater this year the honors went to the stunning cutthroat trout of Lower Sand Lake and the gorgeous Arkansas River rainbow trout, the last fish I caught late in December. On the saltwater side, it was hard to beat the riotously colored Peacock Bass and Atomic Sunfish (AKA Mayan Cichlids) that I fooled on a freshwater lake in the Everglades.
Old Dog, New Tricks: The older I get, the more I get set in my ways, for example, in the species of fish that I chase and the techniques that I employ to catch them. So it was with the antediluvian long-nose gar that proliferate in the brackish water of Everglades tidal creeks, canals, and ponds. I had hooked many a gar while chasing snook and redfish, but never landed one. I considered them a nuisance despite their fighting ability. Gar have long bony mouths filled with hundreds of sharp little teeth that make them extraordinarily difficult to hook. They are shunned by most sport anglers because of the challenge hooking them as well as their truculent tendency of trying to bite one if hooked. They are reportedly good to eat but nearly impossible to clean due to armor-like scales. But one day in February when I ran into a huge school of spawning gar and hooked and lost fish after fish, I vowed to master the fine art of catching the toothy torpedoes. Back home I found a number of articles by good ole boys from the South who actually specialize in gar fishing. I learned that I needed some specialized lures to catch these prehistoric fish. These off-beat lures, which are made out of unraveled nylon rope, have no hooks at all but rely on the nylon fabric to ensnare those needle-sharp teeth. Not available at local tackle shops, I crafted a few of my own that I thought turned out rather well.
On my very first day on the water with one of my handsome creations I cast with extreme confidence towards a gaggle of gar porpoising on the surface in a canal along the Tamiami trail. Something erupted from the water, and I was astounded to see it was a giant snook that had inhaled the lure. Unfortunately, since the lure had no hooks, the snook had to merely shake her head and was soon cruising away scot free. To make matters worse, I also had a tough time hanging onto the gar that smashed the lure time and again. So it was back to the drawing boards where on the advice of another gar hunter on-line, I added a small trailing treble hook and didn’t friz out the nylon . That would prove to be the answer. On my next outing I hooked dozens of feisty gar and managed to land several as substantiated by the photo below. The lure in the middle shows the results of grappling with the nasty gar teeth. Guess it goes to prove that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks! For the full story of chasing the prehistoric gar, see https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/15/in-defense-of-the-antediluvian-gar/.
Most Scenic: The little secret creek mentioned above in the Birthday Century Club was hands down the winner of most scenic. As I approached the canyon rim an incredible scene opened before me, reminding me of the mythical Shangri La. See for yourself!
Into The Future—2021 And Beyond: I’m anticipating 2021 with high hopes. Only a few days into the New Year, I’ve already caught my first fish, a nice brownie from the Arkansas River on an icy cold day featuring my rod guides clogged with ice. I also got in some practice on my patented long-distance releases, magnanimously freeing a couple of bruisers.
Now one of my readers has just invited me to do some ice fishing for big trout in frozen Antero Reservoir located in frigid South Park (Antero hit 50 below zero a couple of weeks ago!). I haven’t ice fished for 15 years since doing so with my son Matthew when he was in high school. Should be interesting and will probably spur a hasty return to Florida!
My first order of business will be to finish the Paddlers Fishing Guide To The Everglades that in 2020 I signed a contract to write. The publisher will be Wild Adventures Press, one of the leading fishing guide producers. I’m already thinking about marketing the book, especially in a time of Covid-19. I had my first trial run making a presentation to the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers Club out of Sarasota. My friend Jim Cannon, a club member, invited me to host a Zoom meeting focusing on some of my favorite kayak fishing creeks in the Everglades. It was great fun answering questions from the 30 or so members, and the positive response was very heartening as witnessed by this very kind letter from the club’s president:
Chris—I have one word to describe your presentation to our club. OUTSTANDING. I was telling Ethan earlier today that your presentation was one of the top two or three that I can remember in the ten years I have been a member of MCFF. Your information, diagrams, stories, and friendly demeanor, along with some great pics, made for an awesome evening….Hope to meet you in person in the near future. Tight lines. Ken B.
If any of my readers would like me to make a Zoom presentation to your fishing or kayaking group on either fly fishing for trout in Colorado or saltwater fishing in the Everglades, I would be happy delighted to oblige. It’s been a reel…er…real treat to meet so many fine people and avid anglers over the past five years through my blog, and I look forward to more in 2021. I’ll be adhering to the following New Year’s Resolution:
It’s a cold December evening in the Colorado mountains with temperatures predicted to dip to seven degrees tonight. I am usually long-gone to Florida this time of year, chasing snook and tarpon. However, this winter a certain virus and grandpa day care duties for my sweetheart four-year old granddaughter Aly have combined to make me stay put in my cabin near Salida.
Fortunately, I am sitting in front of a blazing fire with a glass of Old Vine Zinfandel that’s easing the suffering a tad.
As I sip the red elixir, I began to daydream about chasing the elusive brown trout on my home water, the Arkansas River. My thoughts may be a bit balmy, but after all this is the so-called Banana Belt, a valley much warmer than nearby South Park or the Gunnison River environs just over Monarch Pass. So with high hopes, I check the weather forecast for the next week and am delighted to see in a couple of days the daytime temps are supposed to soar into the 50s. That’s more like it!! I begin to plot my next outing.
Come morning I haul out my old neoprene waders from storage in the basement. As I have written previously, while unknown to most young anglers (aka the under 50 crowd), neoprenes are ever so much more suitable in winter than those thin high-tech breathable waders no matter how good your long johns are. (For some tips on cold weather river fishing apparel and fishing gear, see my article above from late 2017.) Later in the day while enjoying another fire I rig up a couple of rods. On one, an 8-1/2 foot four-weight, I tie on two nymphs under a yellow yarn strike indicator with no weights. This one is for when the fish move into shallower, slow runs to warm up during the day. The other is heavier 8 ½ foot five-weight with a couple of weighted nymphs below two BB split shots and a bubble strike indicator. This one is for the trout when hiding near the bottom in deeper, warmer water just out of the main current. My leaders on both rigs are 5X as I don’t find the Arkansas River fish leader shy in the winter.
A couple of days later I am loading up my SUV and heading out at 11 a.m. to one of my favorite stretches of the Ark above Salida. In this neck of the woods and at this altitude, winter is definitely very civil gentleman’s fishing hours of 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.. Starting late gives the water a chance to warm up under a bright sun in a bluebird Colorado sky. Most of my winter fishing on the Big Ark is done around Salida and downstream towards Coaldale where the temperatures are usually 5-15 degrees warmer than in Buena Vista and upstream from there.
When I get to my chosen spot I am happy to see there are no other vehicles in the small parking area. I rarely fish the Arkansas from May to October any longer when it’s overrun with kayakers, paddleboarders, float fisherman, and other wade anglers. But weekdays from November through March I usually have the place to myself like in the good old days.
After a short hike to the river I head to an old familiar honey hole—a stretch at a bend in the river below a series of rapids that deepens and slows the current providing a perfect spot for hungry fish.
Thanks to the frigid temperatures earlier in the week, there is a shelf of ice extending three feet out into the river, necessitating some fancy footwork to reach the water without slip sliding away into a cold bath. The water is crystal clear, darkening only where the river deepens, and of course frigid, somewhere in the low 40s. I decide to start with the lighter weight rig with a #16 Tung Teaser and a #16 beadhead CDC Hotwire Green Caddis nymph of my own creation which has been my go-to winter fly for several years now.
They are both tied on a couple of feet below the yellow yarn strike indicator. It’s a good setup to explore the shallower, slower edges of the run just below the rapids where brownies often settle in on a sunny day to warm up and feast in comfort. I unfurl the line and start my cast, only to be unceremoniously whacked in the thigh by a big chunk of ice that has broken loose from above. There is also flow ice out in the current, but it will soon disappear under the warming rays of the sun.
I regather myself and lay a perfect cast just on the inside of the current in a shallow run above. I get a perfect float, but no action. Several more casts, and it’s still no dice. I figure the brownies must be holding deep waiting for the water to warm, so switch to the heavier weighted nymph combo featuring a #12 beadhead weighted Halfback stone fly imitation trailed by the CDC hotwire caddis.
On the first cast into the deeper hole further out the bubble disappears, and I set the hook confidently…on a tree branch on the bottom courtesy of some beavers that have been busy in the area. Luckily I manage to work it loose without disturbing things too much or losing a fly. I recast in almost the same spot and again the bubble disappears as if on cue just as the flies sink in the deeper water. But this time it’s a nice fish on the CDC Caddis. After a worthy to-and-fro tussle with several good runs I ease a respectable 14-inch brown into my net.
With renewed confidence and aplomb, I wade back out pirouetting around several sharp chunks of ice floating down the current that appear large enough to have sunk the Titanic. On the very next cast I hook the bottom again, but as I wade to extricate it this time the bottom begins to move. This is a big one who has taken the faux stone fly, and he immediately heads pell-mell out into the fast current to make good his escape. I put the brakes on him, bending my rod perilously, but manage to turn the brute out of the flow before he can get below me and snap off in the fast current. Then it’s a back and forth brawl as we test each other. Finally I slowly raise him to the surface and smile—at least 18-inches and maybe more. This moment of joy is immediately followed by one of my patented long-distance releases before I can coax the brownie into my net. Grrrr. That will be it in this run despite another 15 minutes of flogging the water thoroughly. Usually I can count on four or five strikes in this hole, but not today.
I continue upstream and come to a medium deep run up against the shoreline that has been productive in the past. The main current is about 30 feet out and strong, but closer in there is slower water that is only two-to-three feet deep in bright sunshine. I switch back to the lighter rig without any weight, and no sooner do the flies hit the water than the yellow yarn strike indicator is yanked under. I set the hook and am onto a feisty 15-inch brown that has inhaled the caddis nymph. He cavorts around the pool before coming in for a quick photo and release.
I check my flies and knots then prepare to cast. But in the hubbub I didn’t see or hear the float fishers—a guy with a lady guide—come careening my way. The river is narrow at this point so she has no option but to slide right down the run that had yielded by latest fish. I return their waves half-heartedly as they slide by. Needless to say, that puts the quietus on that stretch.
Undaunted, I continue around the bend to a sure-bet honey hole that always produces some good fish. I have learned I have to cross over the river to get to the best lie, a deep hole that has been gouged out at the tail end of a long, fast rapid. Although the Ark is only running at 360 cfs, it still demands caution so I pick my way carefully across a shallow stretch 100 feet below the hole using my trusty wading staff for balance.
I walk up the shoreline and start to slide out on the 20-foot ice shelf separating the shore from the water and catch some movement in the rapids above—it’s a lone kayaker bouncing his way down the standing waves. I ask him to stay away on the far bank to avoid floating over my chosen spot. He nods, waves cordially, and slides by with minimal disturbance.
By now it’s time for a snack, so I decide as a precaution to let the honey hole settle down for 15 minutes before probing its depths. I find a nice warm spot on the shoreline with a log to sit and lean up against. I begin musing about fishing in 2021. Will I be able get down to Florida and chase some snook before summer hits? What about my annual trip to the Keys in May to chase big toothy barracuda? My friends don’t call me the Cuda Buddha for nothing. Will there be enough water in Colorado this year so I can explore the Conejos River and other favorite waters of the southern part of the state that suffered so greatly this year from low flows?
A flight of honking Canada Geese snap me out of the daydreaming. It’s time to fish they seem to announce! I tread carefully as I inch out again on the ice shelf and ease into the waist deep icy water on the edge of the pool.
My tootsies immediately protest at the shock of the cold water despite the neoprene booties and three pair of sox! I am using the heavier nymph rig to get down deep to where the lunkers usually hold. I throw a long cast upstream and am immediately reminded why casting a heavy two-nymph rig with split shots and an indicator bubble is such a delight. I have managed to start my forward cast while the aforementioned gear was still flying backwards. The result is a knot of Gordian proportions which takes me 15 minutes to solve accompanied by intermittent epithets before I am back into action. I vow to focus and do less daydreaming.
I take extra care on the next cast, and the flies land perfectly at that top of the pool and start the leisurely float down into the depths. On cue the bubble indicator disappears, and I’m on to a good fish. He bores down deep with the Halfback in his mouth, plows upstream then back down. I head him off before he strays too far, and he slides into the net, a handsome 16-inches, a wild fish with a perfect forked tail, not the nubby variety you see on fish from some heavily fished winter waters like the so-called Dream Stream.
My luck continues and a few casts later I net another 15-incher and soon his twin, both on the caddis nymph. Then I recall that in the past the trout have been hiding out under the ice shelf for cover, darting out to feed. After a couple of tries, I manage to pinpoint my cast so that the rig lands just a few inches from the ice cover. It floats a few feet, and then the bubble is yanked under. It’s a smaller brownie, maybe a foot long, who’s taken the Tung Teaser, but one of the most satisfying of the day.
By now it’s 3 p.m., and the sun is sinking below the trees on the south bank, casting a shadow on the pool. Along with the fleeting warmth, things have quieted down from a piscatorial perspective. I see a small hatch of midges is underway, but no surface activity. I make a note to use a midge imitation like a red zebra nymph on one of my rigs the next time out.
As I exit the water, something dark and out of place catches my eye in a jumble of logs on the shoreline. I stroll over and discover a double-bladed kayak paddle entangled in the timber and brush. I slowly work it free and discover it’s an expensive model in perfect shape, no worse for the wear and exposure. Apparently some kayaker lost it navigating the rapids above when the Ark was roaring earlier in the year. I have to smile, thinking it kind of squares things and is a modicum of payback for all the summer follies visited upon us wade anglers on the Arkansas and other rivers by kayakers, float fishermen, and boaters of various ilk. I think, maybe a little devilishly, I’ll enjoy using it all the more for that reason down in Florida where I kayak fish for snook. We old codgers can have thoughts like that without much remorse.