“Walk Softly And Carry A Big Fish”….Anon
August 21, 2016
When fly fishing, nothing is more fun than watching a hungry trout zip from a hiding place to nail a dry fly with a showy splash on the surface—except maybe if you are using TWO dry flies, and the fish is in trouble from seeing double which means double the fun for the angler!
But there aren’t many times when double dries really work, one tied to the other, trailing behind a couple of feet. On bigger waters, the current will inevitably mess things up, dragging one fly too fast or dunking the other. Which is a sure sign to the trout of a fraudulent bug! But I discovered it’s the perfect technique on Archuleta Creek, a little sister tributary to Cochetopa Creek, high in a mountain valley 20 miles southeast of Gunnison, Colorado. (See my earlier articles about Cochetopa creek in 2015.)
The stretch of Archuleta Creek I have my sights on today is a tailwater below Lower Dome Lake, a
state wildlife area with primitive camping facilities. Being a tailwater that draws its flow from the surface of the lake, the creek’s temperature is warmer and fairly constant, and the water very fertile. It has an abundance of aquatic vegetation, which is good for growing bugs and for hiding trout, but not so good for the typical rig I and most trout anglers use these days—a dry fly on top with a nymph tied onto the dry that sinks and trails behind. It’s a deadly combo that gets fish on top and down below (where fish feed most of the time)…except in places like Archuleta Creek which is shallow and where a sinking nymph will pick up a lot of moss and other detritus or just plain snag on streambed rocks. Which can lead to extreme consternation and blue language against a blue sky.
Archuleta Creek trout are partial to very small flies, feasting on tiny mayflies, caddis, and midges that hatch throughout the summer on most days. I’m talking microscopic—size 20-24. Flies this small are extremely hard to see, especially if floating against the bank in a foam line, if you are looking into the sun in the afternoon, or it’s cloudy. In other words, most of the time. For me, the savior on Archuleta Creek and others like it has been to tie a bright yellow strike indicator—a piece of yellow yarn—a couple of feet above the fly so I have a general idea where the little thing is which allows me to set the hook more quickly when a trout sucks in the dry fly. Sometimes the trout will even strike the yarn!! Which got me to thinking, why not use a larger dry fly as a strike indicator, in this case a size 16 green parachute grasshopper pattern to imitate one of the hordes of hoppers buzzing about the meadow here in August. It would be easy to see with that big white parachute top and floats like a battleship.
Now I am off to test my new rig and theory on Day 1 of a five-day stay in my mobile fish camp parked at Upper Dome Lake, formed by a big rock and earth dam across Archuleta Creek. Let the experiment begin!!
It’s just after lunch, and camp is all set up. I have driven down the road below Lower Dome Lake, parked, and am climbing over the ladder that straddles the barbed wire fence that marks the Cochetopa State Wildlife Area, a wild trout designated area, catch and release only by artificial flies or lures. Archuleta Creek is just below, winding its way through the broad open, nearly treeless Cochetopa Creek Valley below the landmark Cochetopa Dome, an old almost-volcano. A true western scene with wide open spaces, framed by forested ridges and a big sky. Because Archuleta Creek is so close to the road here, it gets some pressure by anglers who are eager to fish without a little hike. But a better strategy is to resist the urge and walk on past the creek for a quarter-mile or so until you reach Cochetopa Creek, which hidden by tall meadow grasses and bushes, flows parallel to Archuleta at this point. It’s a short walk, but take care—it’s easier to take a tumble walking through the meadow that has been postholed by clumsy, heavy cattle, than in the creeks. I fish downstream for quarter-mile or so on Cochetopa Creek to the confluence with Archuleta. I am using my usual dry/dropper rig, this time a grasshopper on top and a caddis imitation as the nymph. It takes me a while to get to Archuleta, as the Cochetopa trout are hungry as usual, and I am also distracted by the gorgeous carpet of wildflowers like the dainty white mountain yarrow and flowering bushes like the yellow cinquefoil, a member of the rose family without the thorns, that dot the meadow. I see some pretty little purple asters and then notice some of the wild currant bushes are already turning, and rabbit brush are in full yellow bloom on the drier slopes above—three clear signs that fall is just around the corner in this high country.
But I have to change flies now. Archuleta is a much different water than Cochetopa demanding different flies and different techniques. It is only about half the size—about 10-to-15 feet wide—and its water is much clearer and flows much lower. It’s even more serpentine than Cochetopa—the fish love to hang out at the deeper pools at the bends and along the undercut banks. The fish also appreciate all the aquatic vegetation that waves gracefully in the current where they can hide. And believe me you may be doing some Okie noodling to get your fish if you hook a big one, and he burrows down in deep in the matted cover. I just hope no one ever sees this grown man on his knees in the middle of the creek, water up to my armpit trying to “fish out” that cagey fish I hooked.
As I start up Archuleta (coming in on the left in the photo), I switch from the dry/nymph dropper rig that served me well on Cochetopa Creek and try the double dry. I throw a short cast, and the flies alight gently in the foam line where the two creeks merge, a chow line sure to be carrying some tasty morsels. Something immediately smacks the small hopper, to my great satisfaction! It’s just a little guy, but the experiment is looking good. I next throw a curve cast around the bend a bit up Archuleta Creek. The hopper floats jauntily in the current, then jerks backwards. Something has sipped the miniscule, nearly invisible little dry mayfly emerger so delicately that I didn’t even see it, but the jerk of the hopper was the signal to set the hook. YIPPEE! It worked. Again, it’s a smallish brown trout, only 10 inches, but who’s complaining.
The fast action continues for the next three hours as I work my way slowly back to the starting point. There are fish in every good looking lie, just where they should be. Most are only 6-to-12 inches, but don’t be surprised if you get slammed by a big one like the 15-inch brownie or 14-inch brookie in the pictures, with quite a few in the 12-to-14 inch range. One of the big ones hits the hopper, the other the small mayfly emerger. The ratio is about 2:1 in favor of the tiny trailing fly. You may also get some cutthroats and rainbows, a chance for a mountain fishing grand slam. I get two 12-inch cutts. The key is stealth. Wading like a water buffalo in the middle of the creek will send the trout scattering, leaving big waves in their wake. I spend lots of time kneeling in the water or on the banks while I cast to keep a low profile. I bow deeply to Cabela’s for continuing to make the Dry-Plus
light-weight waders with foam knee pads. And they are reasonably priced to boot with a variety of sizes. All the fish are wonderfully colored and well-fed. Indeed, some are so well-fed that they resemble footballs, bigger in the middle than on either end!! Rumor has it that Tom Brady of Deflategate fame has been trying to get a supply of these football-shaped critters so they can be slipped into a game at a critical point when the opposing quarterback isn’t looking. Could be tough passing such a slick little thing. Just a rumor, couldn’t confirm it, but you never know what Belichick, Brady, and that conniving Patriots bunch might try next. Go Broncos!!
By 4 p.m. I am back at the starting point with over 50 fish caught and released. Most anglers quit at this point where the stream narrows, runs faster through marshy terrain, and is criss-crossed by barbed wire fences. It just doesn’t look as fishy, not as many deeper bend pools. But don’t be fooled—there are some good ones hiding here. As I proceed upstream, I get several 13-inch, strong browns on the two-dry rig, and a couple of years ago netted a hefty 16-inch cutthroat in the run just below the footbridge over the spillway of Lower Dome Lake. I also manage to catch a couple of decent browns right below the spillway, and have caught some big trout by wading the lower lake shoreline—outsized rainbows hide in the vegetation along the banks
No debating, Archuleta is a sweet little creek with a difference and a lot of variety. It offers anglers willing to test their casting skills and fishing techniques….as well as their knees…a unique mountain creek experience unlike that almost anywhere else in Colorado. And a good chance at a grand slam to boot! Now I’m heading back to my trailer, dry camping but roughing it in style—my organic dinner and custom brew are awaiting. Tomorrow I head to the upper stretches of Archuleta Creek, where I have rarely seen anyone fish!