Midges mean hot fishing in Colorado's cold weather

Story  by Ed Engle


BOULDER, Colo. - South Platte River fly fishers have lived with more uncertainty over the past year than I can remember since the Two Forks Dam threatened it 20 years ago. The Hayman wildfire took center stage last year when it devastated the watershed in the Cheesman Canyon/Deckers area. Although the fire is long past, the great uncertainty is what might happen if there is heavy runoff or severe thunderstorms in the area this summer. There is nothing left to hold the soil in place over much of the drainage, and a gully washer could cause catastrophic silting in the river.

Behind it all looms the drought. Antero Reservoir was drained last year and there is a rumor going around among fly fishers that Spinney Mountain Reservoir or even Elevenmile Reservoir could be next if we don't get some relief. There's even talk that the Two Forks project will raise it's ugly head once again. Some of my fly fishing friends are even going as far as saying things will never be the same.

I can't say what the future holds, but what I can say is that if you want a little good news for a change, this winter's hatches of the tiny two-winged flies that fly fishers call midges below Elevenmile Reservoir and Spinney Mountain Reservoir have been as good as the great midge hatches I witnessed in Cheesman Canyon in the 1970s and 1980s.

I began hearing the first reports of the hatches and the trout that were hungrily feeding on them in January. Fly fishers in the upper sections of Elevenmile Canyon were talking about double-digit days. Most of the trout they were catching were feeding on tiny size 22 to size 26 midge pupa and larva under the water's surface. But there were also stories about afternoons when trout of all sizes were rising freely to emerging midges on and near the surface.

The reports from below Spinney Mountain Reservoir were similar. That's where I headed last week.

I've found that crowds are seldom a problem below Spinney Mountain Reservoir in the early season because January and February can be pretty inhospitable in South Park. It was 6 degrees when I got out of my truck at 9 a.m. The bright side was that the temperature had doubled from what it was when I'd first driven into South Park. Anyway, it was dry cold, and we all know that dry cold doesn't hurt near as much as wet cold (that's a joke).

I ran into three other heavily bundled-up fly fishers in the parking lot. They all were veterans of South Park winter fly fishing and carried two rods each - one rigged for dry flies, the other for nymphs. When I told them I was taking only one rod, they kind of shook their heads and looked at their feet. The one thing I was taking was a Ketchum Release tool rather than my landing net. The release tool allows me to pop the hook out of a trout without removing the fish from the water and more importantly, without getting my hands wet. Dry gloves and hands are a key to winter fly fishing.

At the river the clear, low water revealed plenty of trout. I spent the first hour nymphing a shallow, very clear slick with a trough in the middle of it. My better judgment had told me the water was too skinny, but you have to try, don't you? The key to the fishing now, skinny or not, is to use very small imitations. I chose a size 24 black midge pupa imitation which produced just one strike after an hour and led me to decide to move to less-demanding water.

Upstream I found a deeper run boiling with trout. A bit of experimentation with fly patterns revealed that the fish were on to a size 24 gray midge pupa imitation - at least for awhile. True to form for trout taking subsurface midges, their tastes changed about every 20 minutes necessitating a hand numbing fly change.

Eventually, enough trout were taking flies near the surface that I switched over to dry flies. A tiny size 24 Griffith's Gnat didn't work, but a size 22 olive biot CDC midge emerger did. I hooked up several nice rainbows and a few above average brown trout. I devoted the next four hours completely to dry flies. There were periods when I caught one fish after another and other periods when I was frustrated, but the drama pushed the cold from my mind. I fished until the rises stopped at 3 p.m. That's when I realized my feet were very, very cold and headed home.

So was it worth frozen hands, iceberg feet, and a sunburned nose?

For four hours dry fly fishing heaven in February - you bet.





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