Fly Fishing Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park

Two Ends of the Big Thompson River
By Todd Hosman
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Most of this area of Rocky Mountain National Park is mountain meadow. Apartfrom grasses and an occasional alder, there's little cover along the banks, so you'd best keep a low profile. Plan on casting froma kneeling position and moving in a crouch. When fishing thin, spooky sections, make your presentations from a distance of atleast twenty feet from the banks.

Besides the smooth glassy stretches, there's plenty of water variety: undercut banks, pools,riffles, runs, and backwaters. The big undercuts hold special fascination. I remember trying to probe the depth of one with anine-foot fly rod; the submerged rod never did touch bank or bottom. The whole area is great habitat for all trout, thoughbrowns and brookies seem to do best there, probably because the Moraine waters get so much exposure to the sun.

As you wander through the grasses, you may come across old farm tools, crockery shards, and fence posts, all remnants of acommunity long gone. Though today it's hard to conceive of, as recently as the 1920s the Moraine held an entire town, complete with golf course. On the south side of the Moraine, twenty or so private residences still stand, and most are still occupied, if only during the summer season. And though they're within the Park, these are still private properties no trespassing allowed. Fortunately for the angler, the best fishing is on the Moraine's north side. So are the best insect populations.

It's the caddis that really warrants attention. Imitations of all caddisfly life phases are vital to fly-fishing success in the Moraine. When all else fails, try a caddis larva fished deep; brown or black leech patterns often produce when nothing else will, especially in the riffles. Midges and mayflies have a prominent presence, too, as does the little brown stonefly. Concentrate your efforts from the bridge at Bear Lake Road upstream to the footbridge at the Cub Lake Trail.

Though it's outside Park boundaries, flowing mostlythrough Roosevelt National Forest along U.S. Route 34, the Big Thompson River originates in the Park. The river offersexcellent fishing from the Lake Estes dam downstream past the town of Drake.

One of my fly-fishing neighbors, Travis, is athird-generation Coloradan and now about eighty years old. Once, in 1989, we talked about the Big Thompson River in thecanyon. I told him of its fine fishing, but he was dubious, being more than old enough to recall the river long before a devastating1976 flood. Caused by torrential rains, the flood killed scores of people and wasted much of Estes Park and nearbycommunities. It also scoured and reformed the Big Thompson River below the Lake Estes dam. Before the flood, anglers likemy neighbor rightly considered the Thompson one of the state's top trout fisheries, but afterward the river seemed a lost cause.I assured him that the fly fishing was terrific now lots of trout, lots of insects. A bit less skeptical, Travis asked,"Ever usestoneflies there?" Yes, I said, they work great. Before I could talk about how I fished them, he smiled and said, "Hard to catch,aren't they?"

If you're new to the sport, not old enough to remember, or both, my neighbor's remark referred to the practice ofcollecting and then fly fishing with live bait: nymphs, grubs, worms, fish eggs, minnows any natural, suitable subsurface "lure"that could be caught, cast, and drifted. Today, golden stoneflies and little brown stoneflies remain a significant part of BigThompson trout food. However, about a five-mile stretch of the river between the Estes Gun Range bridge downstream to theWaltonia bridge is restricted to artificial fly or lure and is catch and release only no live stonefly nymphs allowed.

The river hasindeed rebounded from the 1976 flood. About a third of the trout caught in this stretch of the Big Thompson are wild browns,the rest stocked rainbows. Downstream of the Waltonia bridge on through the town of Drake there are no special regulations ineffect. Much of the river is steep and full of pockets, plunge pools, and narrow runs fast, fun fly fishing.

From the dam down tothe bridge the river is a hybrid of freestone and tailwater. In the winter, water released from the dam barely keeps more thanabout a half-mile of a shallow, exposed stretch of the river from freezing over. At the same time, the insect life is what you'dexpect in a good tailwater: plenty of Blue-Winged olive mayflies and midges, and lots of stoneflies and caddisflies, too. A #14Prince Nymph with a #16 Flashback Hare's Ear dropper is one of the most effective subsurface combinations.

The trout oftenmove from one part of the river to another, so take extra care to spot fish before you begin casting. Watch for private propertysigns, too. From June through August the river gets fished pretty heavily. Out of respect to the river, the sport, and the trout,you might want to consider other destinations during that time.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 9 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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