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Fly Fishing Report from Two Continents, March 16, 2018

By admin - Posted on 16 March 2018

Telluride's Rivers Awaken

Spring fishing begins on the big rivers, the ones that remain free flowing in the depths of January, where the coldest days are characterized by the layer of fog that rises from the river itself, hovering vaguely over the watercourse like an ethereal reflection. 

The Gunnison and Colorado experience occasional ice drifts on days when temperatures dip below zero, but never develop anchor ice as found on the Dolores and San Miguel.  Trout move very slowly, but do not retreat to the quiet space beneath the ice to spend hibernative months in a stasis.  Insects hatch all winter on these rivers, midges emerging from the frigid flows just as caddis, stoneflies and mayflies emerge in other months.  When trout eat midges, they eat them in bunches.  In February and March we fish the smallest flies of the year on the largest rivers of Western Colorado.   (Note the midge pupa in the nose of a fine Colorado brown trout, below.)


When fishing the Lower Gunnison in March, we expect midges but hope for mayflies.  The book on blue winged olives is that they hatch twice a year, spring and fall, under the climactic conditions typical of those seasons.  In reality, BWOs are among the most fickle hatches, even on tailwaters such as the San Juan and Frying Pan.  Trout will key on them whenever present, so when we see those little sailboats, the game changes. 

A few days ago, guide Mike Weist rowed through a windy morning below the Pleasure Park, hitting fish here and there on stonefly nymphs and streamers.  Some nice rainbows were landed in the first couple miles, but what happened next was remarkable.  The wind abruptly dropped.  Within minutes, Blue Wings emerged from every riffle and were extruded into the seam lines.  Fish rose everywhere.  Mike frantically switched his clients to size #16 dry flies.  For the next hour, the fish count was limited only by a man's ability to net fish and administer Shimi Shake.  In describing that day, Mike, a linguist of considerable sophistication, used the term EPIC no less than 4 times.     

Local rivers are yawning, shaking off their winter blankets.  The San Miguel is snow free for much of its length.  Valley Floor trout rise in predictable places on warm afternoons, lazily sipping midges.  Downstream, the anchor ice lifted in late February and trout are considering moving from the bottom of their winter pools to the riffles and edges, exerting more energy as maturing caddis nymphs tumble in the current and the tiny black “snow stone” evidences the first hatch of the year.  San Miguel fish will remain sleepy for several more weeks.  There is little low elevation snow available to create the pulses in river flow that seem to rattle the San Miguel to life each spring.  We may have a long pre-runoff window, but trout activity will depend upon water temperatures and early hatches. 

New sections of the Dolores become snow-free by the hour.  In many years, the Main Branch and West Fork Dolores are completely unfishable until post-runoff because river level snow melts and raises the river upon first exposure to extended sunlight.  There is little snow in the valley this spring, however, and while much of the river remains snowbound, long sections are now ice free and fishable, but not high or off colored.  Pre runoff fishing on the Dolores offers the opportunity to catch surprising and impressive wild fish.  Although modest in its dimensions and water flow, the Dolores has at least a dozen tributary creeks that serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for wild trout of four species.  We rarely expect to catch a lot of fish in March, but often the best fish of the day is among the best fish of the year.  (Henry Jones with a memorable March Dolores rainbow)

Weak river flows on the Uncompahgre (43 cfs below Ridgway Reservoir) have been answered by surprisingly strong fishing all winter at Pa Co Chu Puk.  The fish population may have been exceptionally strong coming into winter, or hatch activity bolstered by the warm days of our long fall period.  No matter the cause, our fishing on the Uncompahgre has been highly enjoyable and rewarding in every month of winter.  March is never a heavy month for hatches, yet Pa Co trout take midge nymphs, egg patterns, SJ Worms and a variety of streamers through a long fishing window most days.

Downstream, we’re catching fish consistently on larger nymphs, especially attractor mayfly patterns including Copper John variations, as well as stoneflies and caddis of various sizes and colors. Closer to Montrose, the Uncompahgre fishes more like a freestone than a tailwater as river levels and temperatures vary hour to hour.  Time of day is more important than fly pattern as fish respond to water temperature and feed on the full pallet of Uncompahgre invertebrates.  Experiment with fly patterns, size and presentation strategies.  You might connect with a memorable fish, or you might cast all day without a strike.  No matter the result, we fish our March rivers in relative solitude with the sounds of spring our witness.  (Lower Uncompahgre rainbow, guide Boxcar Smethurst)




The Argentine Connection
(John Duncan from San Martin de los Andes, Argentina)

Eight weeks without rain.  Nowhere in the freshwater fishing world is this an auspicious weather pattern.  In Patagonia, drought impacts fishing in the predictable ways:  warm water, low rivers, sparse hatches and trout nailed to the riverbed.  When I arrived in the first week of February, my guiding friends were probing the depths of the best dry fly rivers in South America with San Juan Worms and streamers, looking for trout, any trout, that were willing to play. (Rio Chimehuin, our back yard trout stream in San Martin de los Andes).


For the first winter in many, Northern Patagonia received more than average snowfall.  Over coffee in a San Martin pasteleria, said Lucas Rodriguez of Traful River Outfitters, “We were due.  It had been at least 5 years since the last big snow winter.  Snow refills the groundwater supply.  Here in Patagonia, spring water is critical for almost every river because that water is cold.  When groundwater is low, the rivers get warm too quickly in the summer.”

A strong winter was followed by a cool and rainy December, setting the table for a long summer and fall with cool rivers, heavy hatches and happy trout.  But January and February were hot and hotter.  Suddenly, by mid-February, snow and rain were distant memories.  In Patagonia as in Colorado, fickle are the seasons. 

Hot weather in January equated to spectacular fishing, especially on larger rivers such as the Chimehuin and Collon Cura.  High water receded rapidly, but trout and fishermen indulged in the abundance.  By the first week of February, water temperatures climbed into the mid-60s, even on the Upper Chimehuin as it passes through Junin de los Andes, the self-proclaimed trout center of Argentina.  On public water, classic fishing beats were occupied by families standing in the river, cooling themselves like dinosaurs.  Guide Lucas Buxton spent that week at a well known lodge on the Collon Cura.  “We just couldn’t catch any fish.  The Collon Cura is really deep, but the surface water temperature was 70 degrees.”

I fished just once in the hot weeks.  The Lower Malleo rises in Lago Tromen, one of the coldest lakes in the region.  It is fed downstream by abundant springs and its river corridor enjoys heavy tree shade.  Above all, the Malleo is a river of hatches, the diversity of which is matched by few trout streams in the world.  Even with low water and a high sun, two species of mayflies, a tan caddis and a sneaky little stonefly all emerged.  Late summer hoppers created an audible hum, a white noise that sweetened the voice of the ever-present wind.  (Daughter Brooke lines up a fish on the Lower Malleo).

Although their spirits were surely dampened by the shrinking nature of their home, the trout of the Lower Malleo assumed feeding position right on schedule.  At 9:00 am I walked a boulder-strewn beat and saw not a single fish.  An hour later, browns and rainbows averaging at least 17” materialized near every deep water rock.  Some were in front of their rock, some behind and others parked in the feeding lanes alongside.  For every boulder, a really nice trout.  Bugs emerged.  The first were caddis, flapping their wings along the surface as they struggled to take flight, looking for all the world like clumsy, diminutive water birds.  Mayflies were dispensed from the river one by one over a period of hours, their thin bodies effervescent when viewed downlight.  When the first mayfly passed, I noticed that each fish had levitated to within six inches of the surface.

Why do trout prefer mayflies?  In a particular seamline, about one per minute floated downstream.  Actually, the abundant caddis floated right on past, but every mayfly was hoovered by the snout of a hefty brown trout, its body tipping and then pursuing the morsel with sweeps of its broad tail.  When I shared this with born and raised local guide Mark Lewis, he acknowledged, as if in apology, “Yeah, the trout just don’t seem to like our caddis.” 

I think it has more to do with liking mayflies than not liking other insects.  Over the next several hours, I noticed that although there were up to five hatching insects, the trout always selected the mayfly, when present.  In past years, I’ve enjoyed terrific caddis fishing on the Malleo, albeit in different seasons.  At home in Colorado, caddis are the staple food item on half the rivers in our state.  But on this day, the mayfly held the trout’s attention.  I caught only a handful of fish, two of them large, but each came with the reward of a proper stalking.  I whiffed on a couple of beauties and fed one particularly vexing fish three times without hooking it.  I broke off the best fish, a brown pushing 20”, on a size #18 orange fur ant that I tied decades ago for the Lower Dolores.  Lower Dolores fish held no respect for the orange fur ant, so it was furloughed.   Now, it rests in the Malleo.  (Brown chose the wrong mayfly, above).


In the second week of March, the weather has abruptly changed.  The Pacific Ocean now breathes heavily through gaps in the Andes, waterlogged air refreshing all it touches.  Air temperatures have dropped from the upper 80s to the low 60s.  The fishing, too, will change.  March is a light month for hatches, but cooler water and shorter daylight will spur fish to feed with greater conviction.  Soon come the April mayflies.  On the rivers of Northern Patagonia, the season closes with the most concentrated hatches of the year, a concession to the trout for a long winter awaiting.

(Fresh coat of snow on Volcan Lanin, headwaters of the Malleo River)






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