Per-spi-ca-ci-ty: The quality of having a ready insight into things; keenness of mental perception; shrewdness
With the epic runoff this year and most rivers and streams blown out till mid-July or later, smart anglers are turning their attention to beaver ponds, many of which remain fishable. But truth is, beaver ponds can be honey holes any time of the fly fishing season and loads of fun.
They are usually lightly fished and often hold scads of eager fish plus occasional lunkers. Did I mention the wildlife that abounds around them??
But they can be challenging, often calling for a distinctly different approach than the waters that feed them.
I still remember clearly that first beaver pond I met in Colorado as a novice teenage fly fisherman. I saw trout rising everywhere in a picture-perfect pond featuring a big beaver lodge in the middle, and promptly spooked them to the next county as I confidently walked up to the shoreline and started casting. Bass and bluegill never did that in the Kansas farm ponds where I had practiced learning this new art. Like most small mountain trout waters, stealth is critical, and even more so on the often clear, shallow, and still waters of beaver ponds. But as experience taught me over time, there is much more to successful beaver pond angling than stealth. They are not all alike, sometimes differing dramatically on the same creek. They can also vary radically from year-to-year, sometimes disappearing completely as high flows bust them up or silt fills in the best holding water.
Here Today…Gone Tomorrow
Never fear! Here are some tips on solving the riddle of these unique and intriguing waters that I have gleaned over the years in the school of hard knocks.
Beaver Pond Anatomy
A good place to start boning up on fishing beaver ponds is to understand how they are put together and how they function. Of course beaver dams and ponds differ depending on factors like stream flow and location, but they have defining characteristics that can help solve the equation.
First, and fortunately foremost, many mountain streams in Colorado today have beaver ponds. By the end of the 1800s, beaver had been practically trapped out of existence in the West. Even as they started a comeback in the 20th Century, ranchers often dynamited their dams out believing they deprived their cattle of water downstream or when they flooded grass-rich pastures. Now most landowners, including public agencies, understand the integral role beaver ponds play in a healthy ecosystem, helping to recharge aquifers and providing rich habitat and food for fish and other species. Yes, they can still be annoying when their dams block a culvert and flood a backcountry road or when the pesky critters mow down a beautiful stand of aspen or cottonwood for a meal or building supplies. But overall, the benefits are hugely positive.
The reason beavers build dams is simple—to provide protection from predators and access to food in the winter. Beavers are vegetarians and feast on the bark of trees like willows and aspens. To see them through the winter, they stick succulent twigs and branches top side up in the bottom of their ponds so that the food can be accessed under the ice when the water freezes over. Consequently, the ponds are typically at least three feet deep when new so the beaver can reach their fare underwater from the lodge or shoreline borrows (that are as or more common than lodges among mountain beaver as I can attest having fallen into the trenches hidden in high grasses leading to the borrows). This depth usually requires a dam of five feet or more that is constructed of branches and small logs supplemented with mud and rocks.
If you come across a shorter dam, it is likely because the pond has silted in or it is a diversion meant to slow the flow into a larger pond downstream where the beaver actually live. If the beaver colony is large and active, you may find the deeper holes in your favorite beaver pond so choked with branches late in the season that they are virtually unfishable.
The configuration of dams is often dictated by the swiftness and volume of the stream flow. Straight dams are most common on slower-moving meadow waters while in faster moving streams creeks are often curvilinear or have multiple angles.
The ponds can have one or more outlets, again depending on flow volumes. Dams in meadows also tend to be longer with shallower ponds marked by one or two distinct deeper channels. Faster flowing freestone streams in narrower canyons are often deepest right at the dam. The life cycle of a beaver pond goes from deep with obvious darker holding areas to increasing sedimentation and limited holding water for trout, followed by abandonment and progression to a marshy meadow. Water- tolerant trees eventually invade the meadow foreshadowing recolonization by the beaver to restart the cycle. As discussed below, each stage presents challenges and opportunities for the perspicacious angler.
Beaver Pond Denizens
Beaver ponds, typically with warmer waters and slower flows than the streams where they are found, provide a rich habitat for insects and fish. Midges, damsel and dragonfly nymphs, and mayflies are common, while I rarely find caddis except at fast-moving inlets. Brown and brook trout dominate in Colorado mountain beaver ponds, although occasionally I have had good fishing for cutthroats in faster moving inlet creeks. Rainbows are a rarity in most, except below reservoirs where they have been stocked.
My Number One Rule for fishing beaver ponds is to try to get above them, then sit and size things up.
How big is the pond and where are the deep holes/hiding places that show up as darker water? How about a beaver lodge with channels leading to deeper water? Is the pond an active one with signs of new cuttings on the dam or older with more grass and live vegetation poking through or covering the sticks and branches? Are there multiple outlets and spillways and where are they located? Is the area downstream of the dam open enough to allow an approach from below, or if overgrown, are there openings along the shoreline that will permit casting and still provide screening? Do I see any dimples on the surface indicating a rising fish? All of these questions factor into the calculus of what is the best approach.
A beaver pond I stumbled onto along Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness area is a good example of how a few minutes of scrutiny can pay off. The dam itself was overgrown with bushes and the area downstream impenetrable, meaning I couldn’t sneak up from below, the preferred approach as discussed below.
Despite the age of the dam, the deepest area still appeared to be close to the dam. Luckily, although the near shore was lined with tall bushes making casting impossible, there was a small opening in the vegetation right at the corner of the dam where I might be able to throw a cast. And if I went back upstream and crossed the creek, I could fish around the big beaver lodge on the opposite shore where the water appeared to be deeper and the shoreline vegetation thinner. To really whet my appetite, although I couldn’t see any insects flying above the water, several fish were rising along the dam. Feeding all this information into the mainframe computer in my backpack, I decided to crouch low and crabwalk down to the opening in the shoreline next to the dam. As I got close, I could see several fish finning in the shadows. I split the opening with a perfect (and admittedly lucky cast) and as soon as the #18 foam black midge emerger hit the water, a colorful 12-inch brookie zipped up and nailed it. Two more quickly followed before the action slowed. Next I added a #20 red zebra midge nymph and lofted the rig toward the submerged log just off the middle of the dam. I let the ripples calm and began a slow retrieve. WHAM! Something bigger whacked the nymph, and the battle was on. He dove towards the maze of branches against the dam, but I with my stout four-weight rod was able to persuade him in the other direction. When I got the fish close, he managed to dive into the mess of sticks at the base of the dam only a few feet away from my net. Undaunted, I plunged into the pond, sank past my knees, but managed to extricate a beautiful 14-inch cutthroat before he twisted off. After a photo and quick release, I decided I had thoroughly alerted every trout in the pond to my presence, and in light of the declining sun, proceeded downhill to the trailhead and a waiting can of Rolling Rock elixer. The beaver lodge side of the pond awaits.
Rule #2: Approach From Below The Dam
Rather than fishing the Saguache Creek pond from the shoreline, I would have favored the much preferred approach for most beaver ponds—coming up from below the dam. This tactic allows me to thoroughly fish the dam spillway or outlet where there is usually a pool of frothy water that can hold a good trout or two, and if the dam is blown out will often provide excellent holding water for big trout.
Most importantly, the dam provides excellent cover for me from the naturally wary trout in the clear water of the pond above. I very carefully navigate up to and then begin to climb the beaver dam, gingerly testing the footing of the branches and logs before I put weight on them. I get just high enough so I can peer over the dam and survey the water, looking for risers or darker water.
A caveat: Line control here is essential. If you climb the dam dragging line loops or strip line for casting and let it fall randomly at your feet, your ticket to the insane asylum will be punched. Likely you will hook a fish and then discover the line has formed a Gordian Knot with the branches followed by the sound of your leader snapping.
There is no easy solution here but to try to clear out a small space to drop your line loops and to make as short as casts as possible to avoid having too much line out to handle. Oh, and make sure to look behind you before casting to avoid snagging in the overhanging tree limbs and bushes downstream. If this sounds like work, it is, but the rewards are commensurate.
In newer and still active beaver ponds, the deepest water and biggest fish will often be right above the dam, so starting with short casts makes sense.
Before I throw a long-distance cast further out into the pond, I will attempt some casts parallel to the dam. If there is current flowing towards the dam, a good technique is to cast your flies into the current and let them drift naturally into the depths where the big ones, especially brown trout, like to hide. Of course, it’s a risky strategy because you run the risk of your dropper nymph snagging on the make of branches and sticks you can’t see before the strike comes.
In shallower ponds, the deeper areas may not be at the dam which may have silted in but in the channel the stream has cut from the inlet into the middle of the pond. Often this channel is a distinct darker canal. Brook trout often prefer these areas. Also in these older ponds, as in the photo below, there may be shallows off to the side of the dam where trout are sunning themselves.
Kneeling and casting from the top of the dam can be an effective technique—like the big brookie I caught finning a few feet off shore.
What if you can’t approach from below? If you are lucky there will be an opening near the dam where you can cast as was the case above on Saguache Creek. If not, get ready to do your best high-wire act by walking very carefully out on the dam until you find a position where you can cast. This is hardest where the dam is new and branches and sticks are protruding everywhere. And despite the fact your profile is high and you are sending out vibrations through the water, I have been surprised how this still can work better than casting from the shoreline or certainly than wading.
Shoreline Fishing: Whither Wading?
Sometimes fishing from below the dam or on it are physically impossible. See below!!
If that is the case or once the dam area has been thoroughly covered, the next step is to size up the shoreline upstream. I typically work up the shoreline carefully, often crouching low to avoid spooking trout that are often cruising just a few feet from the bank. If there are bushes along the shoreline, I use them for cover and cast over them.
Don’t overlook fishing around the beaver lodge, often surrounded by deeper water or entrance channels, if you can get to it. Good hiding spots for trout.
What about wading beaver ponds? To be avoided if at all possible, but if the bank is lined with high brush or trees, it may be the only option. Unfortunately, most ponds are filled with deep muck and the commotion you will make in the water will resemble a small earthquake frothing the water, not to mention you will soon be up to your knees in sucking sludge. But as with most things angling, there are exceptions. If the beaver pond is on a freestone, rushing creek, the shoreline may be rocky with little siltation, making wading a good option—particularly to fish the inlet creek.
Other times there may be no option other than wading to reach rising fish or the only deep holding water in the pond. That was my experience on a roadside beaver pond in the Sawatch Range near Salida, Colorado. I caught a few nice brooks and cutts close to shore at an opening in the bushes, but then the surface activity moved too far out to reach, and the dam was too overgrown to venture out on. So I slogged upstream through a marshy meadow, then circled back to the pond and ventured out, the muck oozing around my waders, sucking my legs down. The risers stopped as I waded out about 30 feet, so I held my position for five minutes until things calmed down. Soon the risers began feeding again, and a few casts later a fish inhaled my black foam ant, to my surprise a big rainbow, probably an escapee from the reservoir a few miles upstream.
I held that position and was able to fool a couple more before the fish got wise.
Only after I have thoroughly fished the dam area and shoreline do I focus on the inlet stream that can often be a hot spot because of the easy meals being washed into the pond.
Probably my most epic day of beaver pond fishing was in a situation just like that. A fast-flowing inlet creek that spilled into a huge, deep beaver pond produced a slam (cutthroat, brook, and brown) on three successive casts, all good-sized fish after I had struck out in the beaver pond.
I ended up with over a dozen fish without moving upstream more than 10 feet.
Rocky, rushing free-stone inlets like the one mentioned above are the easiest to read and can often be waded if done carefully. What about the more typical situation where the inlet creek widens into a more lazy flow, often very shallow and clear? Again, I approach very stealthily, often casting from my knees to keep a low profile or hiding behind and casting over bushes as seen in the video below.
Finding Beaver Ponds
Searching out fishable beaver ponds can be a challenging endeavor. I have stumbled on most of my favorites while exploring remote mountain creeks. A good starting point for a methodical approach is to make a call to a local fly shop or do a little searching for online blogs. Another useful source that I have discovered is hiking sites like AllTrails. Greens Creek near Salida is a good example. I had hiked Greens Creek some 20 years ago and thought I remembered a series of big, deep beaver ponds where I had caught some nice brownies. But I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, the AllTrails site for Greens Creek had a series of comments from hikers who mentioned those very beaver ponds. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/colorado/greens-creek-trail. A few days later I was on my way to a successful outing when almost everything else within 100 miles was blown out.
While time-consuming, it’s also productive on a blustery cold winter or spring day to get on Google Maps and start eyeballing local creeks to see if you can spot any beaver ponds for future expeditions. Just tell your spouse or significant other you are checking out tropical Caribbean vacation sites. That’s actually how I discovered some massive beaver ponds on the headwaters of Tomichi Creek above White Pine.
They are high on my list to explore this month, even though Tomichi Creek at the gauging station a few miles downstream near Sargents, Colorado, is running at flood stage above 250 CFS—when I consider 30 CFS to be high but fishable!!
Flies and Tackle
Because most of my beaver pond experience is has come when I came upon a dam on a creek I was fishing, I rarely change flies. That means if I have been successfully fishing a Royal Trude/Two-Bit Hooker dry/dropper rig in the stream, I continue with that in the pond. Most times the trout are not selective and remain willing if I take a stealthy approach. There is usually a fair amount of competition in the ponds, and the fish are eager to get a meal before their buddies beat them to it. I find my best dries have been the Royal and Lime Trudes (#14-18) and grasshopper patterns like the Parachute Madame X (#12-16) or Wilcox (same sizes) in yellow or tan. Productive nymphs include a red Two-Bit Hooker, Tung Teaser, and MicroMayfly in sizes 16-18.
When I set out to target beaver ponds, I usually start with a #16/18 black foam ant or foam midge emerger with a #18/20 red zebra midge dropper. However, larger flies that imitate dragon/damselfly nymphs and flies that mimic minnows as well as leeches can also be effective. Of course in the summertime, if you see grasshoppers in the grass around the pond, put on your favorite hopper pattern.
I favor a four- or five-weight rod with some backbone for beaver ponds so I can make the long casts that are often necessary. The stouter rods have also served me well when a big fish hits and dives for the dam snags. I usually find a nine-foot 5X leader paired with a 5X dropper works fine in beaver ponds and rarely have to go with something more gossamer.
As I have, you will find to be successful on any one pond will probably require a combination, mix-and-match of the techniques suggested above. It will be challenging, and you may think yourself a bit daft for fighting through the brush and ascending a beaver dam until that big brown emerges from the depths to inhale your fly.
You may then become a devotee. Just remember to set the hook!