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Fish / August 21, 2016

Fish and Boating in the Yampa Valley: Part 3

Written by: Eric Jackson

Editor’s note: This piece is the third part of a four-part narrative published in weekly installments. The first piece in the series can be found here

It’s hard to follow a grand adventure. Even good days feel like a bit of a let-down if they come right after an epic trip.

I feared that would be the fate of our float trip. Andy Radzavitch always came through with great days of fishing—but yesterday had been off the charts, and he knew it.

When we launched our boat on the Yampa River at 7 a.m., I tried to keep my expectations in check. The raft slipped in the river and guided to a side bank in an eddy with soft current. Andy tied her off to a tree not much bigger than a limb, and we settled in for a day of floating and great trout. 

The Yampa was at its peak. The river’s normal flow is around 150-200 cfs, but it was over 3,500 cfs when we put it in. There was no wading in the Yampa at those levels. Floating the river was the only option, and that meant we had a good chance of getting it all to ourselves.

Our trip would cover about 18 miles of water. The fishing gods had blessed us with perfect temperatures and a lightly clouded sky. It was June in northwest Colorado—an outdoorsman’s paradise.

 

Initially, we searched for that one big fish—the one that would jump on the streamer out of pure primal aggression. Those fish tend to lay close to the bank in dark, secure haunts. They feel safe and protected there, and ready to jump on the first piece of prey that gets just a little too close. We searched for them with the steamer rod. Casts landed right off the bank, but found no takers after several strips.

After a few tries, we rolled up to a good looking riffle with a plunge pool below the shelf.  Andy set the raft up to the side of this spot, and we switched to the nymph rod.

Water running in from the banks brought worms into the river, which are large sources of protein for fish coming out of winter feeding habits. To imitate this, we set up the nymph rig with a large, flashy stonefly pattern and a pink San Juan style worm.

We picked up a healthy little rainbow trout after a few drifts, but it was just a facsimile of the fish we were really after. We added bit more weight to the setup, and moved the indicator up to get the flies deeper.

The changes paid off. We landed a buttery, gold brown trout on the first drift. The 16″ fish was splashed along the sides with vivacious colors—it was a welcome sight so early in the day. Once back in the current, he dove back to his spot.

 

The run we fished was perfect for trout. It was a confluence of two seams, with a calmer subsurface and a rapid cover on top to provide cover for the fish.

Confluences of different seams mean double the food for hungry fish. The softer current provides a comfy place for fish to rest while darting in and out of the current for food. The choppy current on the surface is what makes them hard to see an camouflaged to predators. Those three Cs (current , cuisine and cover) along with the cold, highly oxygenated water from runoff make ideal conditions for these fish to thrive.

The Yampa river is possibly one of the most underrated trout rivers in Colorado, if not the entire southwest. Every trip I take here I am amazed at how much great water to fish there is and how accessible it can be.

We moved a little farther down the river, but didn’t pause the fishing. After all, the odds of hooking a fish only go up when flies are in the water.

Andy set me up on the outside edge of a turn where another promising run sat beside the raft. The flow was from the left, but also off our right. It spilled in through brush and trees not normally part of the river’s path, and brought large insects, worms, and even small rodents with it. These all became food sources for large and hungry fish.

We switched back to the nymph rig for these runs, where the slower seam gives fish a chance to rest as food comes down the “conveyor belt” of current. The indicator made a sudden stop and jumped. Andy yelled for a hook set.

I was immediately attached to an angry, heavy rainbow trout with no intention of being landed. She turned and ran hard, plowing headfirst into the current. This fish was strong and not afraid to show it off. She cleared the water, and we got a beautiful view of the healthy rainbow trout in full flight, shining and twitching amid the shimmering splash.

After crashing back to the water, the fish turned again and headed for the far side of the river and downstream. I didn’t want to fight her from upstream—fighting a fish from that angle increases the chances of breakoff.

Sure enough, the tension on the line died. The fish had won, either by coming unbuttoned or breaking the tippet off. I was let down, but that disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that I’d fooled that large fish and spent some time fighting and playing her.

To land fish, especially large ones, you mush sometimes lose fish. That’s a harsh, hands-on lesson. Those are the only kind in this classroom.

 

Andy set up another dropper fly, and I had the streamer rod out working the sparkly minnow through current. In the middle of a drift, I felt the familiar thump of a hungry fish. The line pulled through my fingers as the fish headed away from us.

I felt certain that I had hooked a brown trout this time. They fight differently from rainbows, and try to dive down in search of a place to hike. This is why these fish are sometime called “bullies”: they attack voraciously, but try to hide when the fly bites back.

The fight turned my way quickly, allowing Andy to slide the net under the fish for photo time. After a few quick photos, we released the still-healthy fish back to the Yampa.

 

The river never rests, and neither do its inhabitants. So we headed on to find another run, hopefully full of fish.

Andy slid to the left side of the channel and set up next to a sweet looking run. The far edge held a nice seam, where we hoped to find another large fish. Several drifts slid downs the seam, creating a slow between fast and slow water likely to house trout.

A strong tug quickly buried the indicator under the surface. I set the hook, and felt the weight of a very big girl. My rod doubled over easily and pulsed as the fish shook hard against the hook in her jaw.

She dove hard and deep, and ran across the river looking for safety and shelter. She swam straight out for the far bank, sending the line screaming off the reel and causing concerns about the dreaded downstream once again.

I knew there was only one option: take the rod low and and away from her to turn her head. This style forces pressure in the strong butt end of the rod and creates a large amount of force for the fish to fight against. It swings the odds in the fisherman’s favor.

I did all I could do with a fish like this: I kept the hook turned into the jaw and kept it there. I worried that too much pressure would break the tippet. I wondered if the hook had a good chase in the jaw or if the fish would rub the line against the rocks and break it. I wanted to win this battle and land this fish.

A fierce pulse downstream pulse shook me a bit, but then I got the change of direction I’d been working for. The battleship of a rainbow was now headed upstream toward up. She wasn’t done fighting, but she was headed out way—at last, line was coming on the reel again.

Suddenly, she was airborne. She made three leaps out of the water, clearing the surface by a foot or more. Each time, my heath stopped.

These jumps were her last surges for freedom, and when they were finished her head stayed high in the water. She slid across the the water with a few more twitches before the net slid under her.

Cheers filled the raft and and the air. Beautiful shades of pink, purple, blue and silver cover the flanks of another gorgeous Yampa river rainbow trout shining under a bright mid-day sun.

Like the story so far? Come back next week for the final 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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