Friday, September 17, 2010

Flyfishing Colorado's RMNP

(PLEASE click on these photos - some of them are actually quite nice!)

RMNP and the Colorado River, looking up from Bowen Baker trailhead

For those of who who do not know what RMNP is, it stands for Rocky Mountain National Park. This magnificent park is heavily traveled, hosts millions of tourists each year, and offers lots of opportunities for fly fishermen, especially those willing to walk into areas a bit removed from the road.

Looking back on the east side of the Park, from Old Fall River Rd

Before I go any further, I want to bring up a sometimes sensitive subject, particularly, it seems, within the fly fishing world. Fly fishermen in general tend to be very closed-mouthed about the places they fish. Some of this is inherent to the sport itself - it tends to be a solo-oriented, introspective sport. Some of the hesitancy stems from experience - people have seen their favorite spots overrun with other fishermen, and the aura, and eventually the fishing quality, are gone. The usual term for identifying a spot in print is "Hotspotting". If I identify a piece of water by its name, it is because I don't consider it susceptible to Hotspotting. Many waters are on this list. If I write about going fly fishing on the Madison River in Montana, who cares? EVERYONE fly fishes on the Madison if they're in SW Montana! Most small streams, however, remain nameless. These streams, however, I will name, and there is a reason for it.

RMNP is visited by 3 million people annually. With all those people, it can pretty crowded in the peak times - summer, and mid-September to mid-October, when the elk are bugling. Wit only one road going from from the east to west side - Trail Ridge Rd - traffic jams are common (especially right now, when they are doing a major road resurfacing project on Trail Ridge.) Still, if you do some homework, and ask questions, you can escape the crowds and feel like you are the only person on earth in this stunningly beautiful place. The real reason I don't feel the park will ever be a destination is because, by and large, the fish are small. There are a few nice fish in these waters, but if you are looking for a trophy trout, this is not going to be on your radar. Unless, like me, you define a trophy as "any wild trout caught in a beautiful place". If that is your definition, I'll meet you there!

I had one day set aside to fly fish these waters. Due to the roadwork being done, I had to decide whether to fish the East side of the park or the west side - I didn't want to sit in traffic all day going back and forth. I decided on the west side. I love to fish the Colorado River in the park. The headwaters are full of trout, are just the right size, and there is just something about fishing a 15' wide stream for wild trout, and knowing that these very same waters are the ones that carved out the Grand Canyon. Pretty humbling. I always catch plenty of brook trout here, and usually a few browns. Colorado River cutthroat trout are native here, but not very common on the Colorado itself in this area. Some of the tributaries have been re-stocked with pure strain Col. River cuts, but I have never caught them.

The upper Colorado river

I parked at the Col. River trailhead, and walked upstream for about a mile along the trail. It is an easy walk, but for a middle aged guy in less than ideal shape (unless your ideal shape is a pear) who lives basically at sea level, the thin air at this elevation (9,040' at the parking area) makes you stop frequently to catch your breath. And drink LOTS of water. I started fishing below Shipler Park. I always plan to walk upstream further, but I just can't stand to be alongside a beautiful trout stream and not be wetting a line. I started with a #16 Royal Trude and soon had my first fish. While I was fighting it, it seemed to not be of the usual coloration. I brought it to hand, and saw that it was a Colorado River cutthroat! This made my whole day. Beautiful coloration on these fish. After a quick photo, back in the water. I proceeded to catch a bunch of brookies, and one more cut. The water was FRIGID on my feet while wet wading - had to be around 50 degrees. If you were in the water for more than about 30 seconds your feet went numb. But on a stream like this, you don't really wade - more like occasional stream crossing and rock hopping. So, I took a lot of pictures and had a great time.

My first Colorado river cutthroat from the upper Colorado! Beautiful colors.

Col. river brookie

It seems that every time I go fishing there is something non-fish related that happens to make the trip memorable. Earlier this year it was the butterflies on the deer carcass in PA. On this day, another butterfly event occurred. I was re-tying, and looked down to see a butterfly on the cork handle of my fly rod. I started snapping pictures, and the butterfly eventually crawled up the handle and onto my thumb! Never had that happen before, but it was pretty cool! You never know when a photo op will present itself.

And, as usual, there is always the story-within-the-story. This time, I stuck a fly hook in my thumb. Buried it completely up to the bend of the hook - way past the barb. "How?", you might ask. It's easy - just follow these instructions: 1) hang up your fly in a willow on the backcast, just below a beautiful pool. 2) Wade over to the willow, grab onto the branch. 3) Slip on a rock in the water and, as you are sliding/falling, feel the previously unmovable fly slide out of the branch and impale deeply into your thumb.

A dual purpose photo - showing the fly I was using - #18 Goddard Caddis - while proving that I stuck the fly in my thumb!

It was DEEP in my thumb, but didn't really hurt. I grabbed ahold of it with a set of pliers and tried to work it out, but to no avail. (THAT did hurt, btw) Decision time - I'm over a mile into the river, fishing alone, with a hook impaled in my casting thumb. My thumb doesn't hurt much at all. What to do??? Easy - cut the fly off the tippet, and keep fishing. Even though I usually use the thumb on my right hand as the primary "power stroke" part of the cast, with a light rod (I was fishing an 8' 3 wt. rod) I sometimes use my index finger instead. So - I retied (not easy to do w/o using your thumb) and kept fishing. I got about 6 more trout before I decided it would be best to go back to the car to rip the damn thing out. I found the trail and started back.

A small Col. River cut

On the walk back, I ran into a really nice couple from Missouri. We chatted the whole way back to the parking area, and they decided they would help me get the hook out. I had decided to try the method I had used before - wrap the bend of the hook with heavy line, press down on the hook shank, and have someone do a quick POP to pull the hook out. We went down to the river so I could numb the finger in the icy water first. On the way down, I lost the heavy mono loop to use in the hook pull. I numbed the finger in the water and was pushing / pulling on the hook when I noticed that the hook point was just under the skin on my thumb, but couldn't push through the callous. Just then, I remembered that I had done something right for a change!

On Wed., I realized that I had forgotten a folding knife. I always like to have one when I'm solo fishing, so I called up one of the reps working with me. They represent Cold Steel, so I got a new folder from him. I had a brand new, razor sharp Cold Steel knife in my pocket! I pushed the hook through as hard as I could and my new friend from MO gently slit the thumb right at the hook point. No pain at all! The hook poked through, I pushed it through a little more, cut off the shank of the hook, and pulled the whole thing through and out. Stuck the thumb back in the water, and I was good to go. A big THANKS to the folks from MO - you never know when you might need someone to slice open your thumb for you!

I still had a few hours left so I moved down to a tiny stream I knew was full of brookies - Onahu Creek. This is a tiny stream, but is absolutely loaded with beautiful little brookies. I fished this stream for about an hour and lost track of how many brook trout I got. I also did 2 things I've never done before - caught a brown trout on Onahu, and took a video of trout. I hope the video works on here. the tiny brown trout really surprised me - I was at least a mile from the junction of the Colorado River, and the stream is TINY. Oh well - I guess they can go anywhere in high water times!

Onahu Ck

Brook trout from Onahu

There are a few trout in this photo

Closeup from above

Spawn colored brookie from Onahu

Onahu brown trout Hope you enjoy the pictures and video (if it works)(IT DIDN'T). I plan to do another post in a couple of days about the Park and its wildlife. On this short trip - 1 day - I saw: a big black bear, 2 bull moose, a bunch of elk, 6 mule deer, a Merriam turkey with 2 young ones, squirrels, birds, ducks. I LOVE this park!


Bill said...

Wow! Beautiful scenery and beautiful fish! Sorry to hear about the thumb though. Believe me when I tell you this...those pictures are outstanding! Very nice report!

blake said...

Those are some great shots. I enjoyed the scenery shots the best. Nice looking country.

troutrageous1 said...

So jealous of the pictures coming out of RMNP right now. A few folks on the tenkara boards I frequent have been posting shots of the park as well. OMG!

Your day trip sounds looks like it was well worth the getaway. Sorry about the least you didn't have to amputate. :)

Some really beautiful fish there, what rod were you fishing? Couldn't tell in your picture.

Wolfy said...

Mike - the one shot with the butterfly shows the rod.
It is a Diamopndback Classic Trout, 8', 3/4 wt rod that fishes great with a 3 wt. Nice, slow rod. I had a Hardy St. George Jr. reel on the rod.

Wolfy said...

Oops - Diamondback, not Diamopndback

goneflyfishing said...

Very cool and thanks for this post. Awesome pictures and yes, right now is the time being up in RMNP. Rivers are clear and running low, trout are hungry and looking up. Yes, no huge trout but there are lots of them. I spent last weekend up there and posted some pictures on my blog as well.

Casey said...

Outstanding write-up Wolfy! Don't need trophies to make a trip to remember. Excellent job on the pics as well!!! i sure would like to make it over to the Rockies again someday. Been 30 years or so. I'm jealous.

Shoreman said...

Hey Joe. You've got to love being able to travel to all those really cool spots. The scenery is spectactular, the fishing awesome, and the dead trees in the first picture? Firewood on the hoof. Ok, comes from heating with a wood stove. Thanks for the tour. Oh, sorry about the thumb.


Brk Trt said...

Those brookies are as beautiful there as they are here.

Super photos.

Anonymous said...

First of all, outstanding photo's of RMNP waters and its fish! I fished in the park a few times during the mid - 70's while living in Denver. This post brought back a lot of memories for me.