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Fish / August 7, 2016

Fish and boating in the Yampa Valley

Written by: Eric Jackson

Editor’s note: This piece is the first of a four-part narrative. It will be published in weekly installments. 

The pictures Andy Jenoski had sent from Steamboat were crazy. Big pike, big smallmouth bass, and lots of them. Exactly what I was looking for.

I was on a quest for epic fishing, and I was certain that Andy wouldn’t steer me wrong. I got the info and made the arrangements to take this amazing piscatorial journey.

The night before the trip, with my plans set and my gear prepped, I ruminated on the adventure to come. I had big expectations—for lots of big fish and for full, amazing days on the water. I felt the fear of disappointment in the back of my mind as well. It’s hard not to before these sorts of high risk/high reward trips.

Those thoughts had cooled by 9 a.m. the next morning, when we met at the fly shop. Or rather, when I stopped by the fly shop after a breakfast at a Steamboat Springs favorite: Winona’s Restaurant & Bakery.

I felt comfortable as soon as we entered the shop. It was familiar. I’ve been in dozens of fly shops over the years, and this one was filled with pretty much the same sights and smells. This was fly fishing.

After getting acquainted with, we drove east to a private ranch. Andy and I talked of things of minor importance. We shared a simple goal: catch lots and lots of fish.

As we rumbled down the road, the truck was pulled and jerked by the drift boat and trailer. It was very much a guide’s truck: not totally disgusting, but dirty in way that only working vehicles are.

Out the truck’s windows, we could see the open spaces of northwest Colorado. In June especially, these spaces have a beauty so intense as to be almost unbelievable. It’s the sort of place that makes you feel lucky just to spend time there.

Our commute ended at a private ranch. It was a small and unassuming place, like many others in the Yampa Valley. I had actually driven past it many times without so much as a clue about the pond or its bounty of fish.

The air was clean, dry, and wonderful in my lungs. I felt far from the hustle and bustle and concrete of DFW, where’d I’d been just hours before. That was released from my mind in favor of the mountain life I love so much.

As is the norm, we rigged up our rods and had a discussion about tackle. I noticed a good amount of crayfish in the water as the drift boat was prepared, and even some small baitfish. These are good food sources for fish—especially for the large, carnivorous ones we were on the prowl for.

There was a familiar movement in the water just to the side of the boat ramp. There she was: a chunky smallmouth bass. The thick-bodied fish was on her bed and in perfect casting position.

My first cast toward the bed moved her a bit, but didn’t bring the desired eat. Then a second, similarly placed, stripped slowly toward her. Then one more strip, strip, pause… and she inhaled the fly.

The hook set, the line tightened, and I immediately felt the weight of the fish. She fought hard, and put a large bend even in my very stiff 8-weight rod.

Andy grabbed a net and scooped up the biggest smallmouth bass I’d ever caught. It was bronze-backed beauty, and I hoped it was a good omen. It’s nice to land a fish before the boat’s even in the water.

By the time we were done admiring her and getting pictures for posterity, the boat was launched and loaded. We moved around the shoreline, looking for pike. Pike are the larger cousin of the chain pickerel I catch in east Texas lakes. They hunt the same way: backed up to a shoreline or waiting in weed beds to ambush prey that strays too close.

We drop casts right on the shoreline and stripped them back to the boat. We put cast after cast into the areas that looked fishiest, but had no luck. Then, as we moved toward a particularly promising corner, one fly was stopped by a distinctly aggressive reaction.

This was definitely a pike eating its prey. Pike are an apex predator and they feed as such. Food and fly alike are attacked with ferocity. There is never a doubt that you have a pike bite that the fish you are connected to is angry now.

The bite is start of a strong fight, which you’ll feel all across your body until the prehistoric creature finally comes to net. We won our fight with this one, took some pictures, and released it to the pond.

We continued around the shoreline and caught more of both species of fish. Some were caught from blind casts that found the right spot. Others were caught sight fishing to a fish and being able to watch as it took the fly.

All of the fish were healthy and strong, with a fight that proved it many times over. The fights were the sort that leave bruises on my chest and sternum. Of course, every bruise was worth it.

Roughly halfway through the trip, I realized we’d already caught enough fish to call the trip a success. But there was still more water to cover!

The bites never slowed or died. The only change was the distance between each fish. Each one of these fish had a unique individuality and beauty to it.

In a deep part of the pond, we spotted a large pike moving slowly through some underwater brush. The fish was neither afraid nor aware of us. A skillful cast dropped the fly in the perfect spot.

Strip, strip, pause. Strip, strip, pause.

The pike’s mouth opened and its head turned in one smooth motion. A hard strip set drove the hook in, and the fight was on!

Andy is an artist on the oars—he kept the boat in position, giving me every chance to land the behemoth.

The fish moved in and out of the branches below. Each branch provided a possible tangle and a chance to lose the fish. My heart was in my throat. The line screamed off the reel and the drag sang.

The fish refused to be brought in easily, but I worked her back up to us. Over and over, she appeared by the edge of the boat to give a glimmer of victory. Each time she darted away again. This was an epic fish—she gave everything she could not be landed.

In time, she could no longer turn down her head to dive. Her valiant fight came to an end, and she slid into the net.

The fish was a solid, thick 32” pike. She is by far the biggest pike I have ever caught. Hollering, cheering and congratulations pierced the thin mountain air.

Like the story so far? Come back next week for the second installment. 

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about the author

Eric Jackson

From the time a nine pound catfish nearly pulled three-year-old Eric Jackson in the water to the time he waded the flats of the Texas coast for redfish, all of these experiences have led Eric to share and guide others in fishing.

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