When I pulled off the road and parked next to the South Platte River, I knew I was returning to a special place. As a teenager, after summer days of fixing fence or raking hay, I had tried my hand at swinging flies and stripping line on the Stillwater River in Absarokee MT. Most of the trout I chased were pulled out with a spinning rig and handful of hoppers scooped from the hood of an old Chevy S-10 pickup. Colorado had been the real beginning. I had learned to fly fish in Colorado.
We were visiting my wife’s family just outside Denver. My father in law leant me his truck and I made my way up to the mountains and parked in the first pull off along the river. I like to drive along any river before deciding where to start. It was unusual for me to stop so soon, but I needed to feel the water and wet a line fast. It had been too long.
Someone was fishing downstream of the parking lot. I grabbed my gear, locked the car, and started wading upstream. Only after I was knee deep in cold mountain water, did I tie on a dropper and begin casting. A size 22 midge, below a size 18 purple pheasant tail. I was told both had been “fishing good”.
It was August and hot. My waders were at home and I moved along grinning, staying far enough out in the river that I could cast to the banks, and following the gravel bottoms that kept the water mostly below my waist. The sun was hot, and the cold river felt good.
At first, I did not remember. The strike indicator would pause or skip slightly, but rarely bob or jerk. I knew I had the correct set up for the depth of water. Another glitch in my drift caught my attention, and I lifted the rod tip with hesitation and a soft motion. Too soft. A tight line, two tugs, and then the fish was off. It was all coming back to me. The takes would all be soft and the small flies I had picked up in the fly shop would make landing fish a challenge. It is not always the case, but I quickly remembered the patterns of fishing tiny nymphs in the rivers of Colorado that I had not dealt with in such severity since my reunion.
Often in Colorado, they eat small flies, they take them light, and they see a lot of presentations. The trifecta of fly fishing challenges in my book. But if you want to catch fish, that is the game you play.
At the end of the day I had probably caught ten fish. Not bad for a half day out of towner, but I had at least that many fish on and watched them shake loose or missed the set. Driving down the winding roads of the front range, I thought back on my time fly fishing these streams and laughed. I had come a long way.
Ten years ago, I might have walked off the South Platte with two or three fish and lost a couple more. What changed? Luck? Maybe. Any day of fishing can be better than the next, but learning to fly fish in Colorado taught me some hard lessons and made me work for fish in the net. It would not come easy. But that’s often best. Here are some of those lessons:
Don’t be Afraid of the Small Flies.
If that is what the fish are eating, then give them what they want.
It is better to learn the subtle nuances of identifying takes on tiny nymphs than to fish the wrong fly and rob yourself of any takes at all.
A larger fly with a smaller dropper is a great technique to present trout with both options.
Hook Sets are Free.
If it looks like a take, go for it. Light takes can be hard to notice, especially if you don’t have much experience. You will be surprised on how subtle the takes can be, but you will never know if you do not try.
Keep That Line Tight!
Tiny nymphs are easy for trout to grab and let go of and there is not much gap in those hooks. This can make it easier for the fish to sip and spit quickly. Any slack in the line during a hook set delays your opportunity to seat that hook in the fish’s mouth. Keeping control of the line can expedite a solid hook set.
Keeping a tight line also means setting your strike indicator appropriately for the depth of water you are fishing. You want just enough line down from the indicator to reach the strike zone along the bottom without excess. I rig the indicator from my nymph one and a half times the depth of the water. Four feet of water means six feet up. Two feet means three. Usually you are guessing the water depth. If the takes are soft, I will error on the indicator closer to the fly than further. Make sure you are moving the indicator to be effective as the depth of the water you fish changes.
Finesse the Hookset.
It needs to be fast, but not too fast. I tended to pull the rod tip too fast for a long time. The cadence of setting the hook is even more important when the fish are hitting the flies lightly. Whenever I am late to see the take and rush to catch the cadence, I am more likely to yank the rod and strip out the hook. This is especially true for dry flies and can be a factor with nymphs as well. I find my hook set timing is often off after I have been nymphing for a while and then switch to dries. It is a different rhythm and one that small flies and light takes can complicate.
Let it Run.
Many times, if you have finesse on the hook set, you can let the fly re-settle in the current if you miss the fish. Try keeping the fly in the water after setting on something that was not a fish. You cannot catch fish if your flies not fishing and you may get lucky further downstream.
In the early years, it was frustrating to go fly fishing and not land fish that I knew were biting. I had to learn the hard way to land fish with small flies, and there were days when the tiny guys and light takes got the better of me. Still are. I am not ashamed to say I’ve been skunked a few times on those Colorado rivers. But the challenge set me up for more tight lines down the road.
If you can do the hard stuff, the rest is that much easier. Keep working through the challenges of small flies, light takes and lost fish. Whether it feels like it or not, you are getting better. Wadeoutthere.