Mix and match flies for best seasonal results


COTOPAXI, Colo. - Tiny mayflies rallied to rescue fly anglers on a day when the Arkansas River's famed caddis hatch still simmered like suggestions inside a teapot on the verge of boiling.

Tough mayflies. Baetis, a.k.a. blue-winged olives, BWOs. They were basking in their element. Shortly after noon, perfect gloom and cold rain rolled down from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, eclipsing sun and warmth. The weather turned wondrously raw.

Animated by their cherished bitter cloud cover, the gray sailboats, smaller than a child's fingernail clippings, launched on stainless steel currents. The Arkansas' renowned wild brown trout rose to eat them.

So it goes in the early days of Brachycentrus caddis, the celebrity bug that draws anglers from hundreds and even thousands of miles to these parts from mid-April until heavy runoff sets in.

Caddis reign under the sun, Baetis under the clouds.

The delicious dichotomy ensures that virtually no one intent on fishing dry flies gets neglected along the Arkansas' abundant public reaches from Canon City to Salida and far upstream.

"There are 2,000-2,500 trout per mile in the river," said head guide Larry Kingrey of Royal Gorge Anglers in Canon City, Colo.

But catching those trout while they are bellied up to the banquet is not necessarily easy, particularly when both bugs take to hatching at once. Kingrey says fly fishers should heed which insect the fish are keyed into eating.

"If you see rising fish, watch for a minute and see what they're doing," Kingrey said. "Are they splashing or are they sipping? That will tell you if it's Baetis or caddis."

The two dramatically different rise forms are responses to the different methods the unrelated insects use to emerge and exit the water as breeding adults.

Brachycentrus caddis pupae slip from cone-shaped cases, which sheltered them as larvae, and drift free for a time. They ascend slowly in the water column before accelerating into what Kingrey calls "that final bloom."

He said he learned in discussions with late fly-fishing luminary Gary LaFontaine that a caddis pupae can drift up to 2 miles before making its move.

Then it blasts through the water, inspiring the famous comparison with Polaris missiles.

Trout are accustomed to chasing down caddis pupa rocketing from underwater and adult caddis skittering on the surface. Thus, the splashy rises.

"They like to bash that caddis pupa and push him down and eat him on the way down," Kingrey said. "But the (rises to) Baetis are more like a tip."

Baetis mayflies emerge slowly, splitting the nymphal shuck and struggling to escape as they drift underwater. On the surface, the Baetis duns float for several yards or several hundred yards while drying their new wings. Thus, the leisurely sipping rises of trout.

Once the hatches are under full steam, feeding trout can become maddeningly selective. You might find fish feeding on emerging caddis pupae, skittering caddis adults, peacefully floating Baetis or Baetis emergers under the surface. But never all of the above. Fly anglers both laud and curse such complex hatches.

An example presented itself under the raw, drizzling skies in a pool near Cotopaxi the other day, where Blue-Winged Olive dry fly imitations fared poorly, despite dozens of "rising" fish. In fact, most of those trout weren't rising but taking Baetis nymphs just under the surface. On closer inspection, what appeared to be rises were bulges and trout tails gently breaking water.

Arkansas River veterans know to hedge their bets by casting two flies at once during such complex times, mixing and matching Baetis and caddis adult imitations with caddis pupae or Baetis emergers fished on a dropper below. A golden stonefly nymph often serves as a wild-card enticement.

Where caddis are high on the trout's menu, Kingrey likes a beadhead caddis pupa imitation fished on a dropper 2 feet below a No. 14 Elk Hair Caddis dry fly.

"Cast and mend upstream hard enough to make that top fly move and cause that pupa to surface a little bit," he said. "That's just what that naturally does."

The Arkansas River caddis hatch made its first modest appearance last weekend at Canon City. Given low water and rapidly rising water temperatures, the bugs are expected to be in full bloom with time to spare for the annual Caddis Festival of the Collegiate Peaks chapter of Trout Unlimited. The event is scheduled for May 4 in Poncha Springs, Colo.

(Ed Dentry is a outdoors writer for the Rocky Mountain News)





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