Steamboat Springs Fishing guide Daren Mangiaracina took a couple from France down to the Yampa River in town Thursday and even though his clients had never fly-fished before, he got them into trout. Not just any fish, but one plump rainbow after another, all of them wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logo "I survived the drought of 2003."
OK, the part about the T-shirts is a fish story. But Mangiaracina's sports really did catch and release a series of fat fish on flies. He took it as a clear sign that the Yampa is back.
"If you use a size 12 Green Drake as your indicator and tie a No. 14 hare's ear below it, they're going to munch it," said Mangiaracina, who works at Straightline Outdoor Sports.
The fact that there are any adult trout in the town section of the Yampa is something of a miracle.
During mid-July last year, the streamflow in the Yampa slipped to 12 cubic feet per second, compared with its normal 200 cfs. Even worse was the fact that the water temperature nudged the 80-degree mark. At that temperature, water doesn't contain enough dissolved oxygen to sustain trout.
All of the fish in the river were congregated at sections of whitewater where the turbulence oxygenated the water. Several thousand were stacked up where cooler flows from Fish Creek entered the river.
"It was horrible," Mangiaracina said. "The river was closed for 45 days. We were expecting 100 percent fish kill, but today I'd say our fishery is intact."
The Colorado Division of Wildlife imposed a voluntary fishing ban on the river near Steamboat and the public cooperated. DOW fisheries biologist Bill Atkinson said the fish he sampled after the drought last fall were in good condition.
"Not everyone liked the voluntary closure, but it's an indication that it was a good decision," Atkinson said.
Atkinson noted that the water temperature at mid-afternoon Friday was 66 degrees. With overnight lows dipping into the 50s, the conditions are healthy for trout, he said.
Rogers Israel at Steamboat Fishing Company knows the town section as well as anybody, and figures there must have been some trout mortality last summer, but his personal research indicates plenty of fish survived.
"I don't think we lost a whole lot of fish, but I'm surprised we didn't," Israel said.
He was on the river last week using binoculars to scout the opposite shore. He could spy trout darting from side to side beneath the surface taking nymphs and caught them on tan caddis pupae. He agrees with Mangiaracina that the familiar hare's ear will work just as well.
Fishermen who employ stealth can find rising trout in isolated locations, but most of the feeding activity is still taking place beneath the surface on nymphs, he said.
Jim Comeau fished on the west side of town last week and "hit for the cycle," to borrow a baseball term. In a span of 90 minutes he landed a brown, rainbow, cutthroat and a brook trout using a woolly bugger.
There are at least four species of aquatic insects on the river right now, including the remnants of the baetis mayfly hatch, small stoneflies, big green drake mayflies and pale morning duns. Any day, the caddis flies will begin to hatch.
John Duty at Bucking Rainbow Outfitters said that as the river level continues to drop, the water temperature will rise and the hatches will be heavy.
"We're about to have a hatch explosion out there," Duty said. "The caddis are already thick on the Elk (River), but it's not really wade-able yet."
The key for anglers trying to decide which species of insect the trout are feeding on is to disregard the commotion in the air and focus intently to see what species is hatching at the moment, duty said.
Mangiaracina suggest fishing pale morning duns beginning about 8 a.m. in size 16. It's wise to have the emerger pattern on hand as well. The stoneflies hatching right now are quite small -- as small as size 18 -- but the green drakes are big mayflies, size 12.
Mangiaracina said he even saw trout eat the fluff from willow trees that floated out of the sky this week.
The river closure on the Yampa last summer meant fishermen never really had a chance to take advantage of the overabundance of grasshoppers that everyone endured. The grasshoppers are back and if the river stays in the 200 cfs range through July, watch for a major "hoppertunity" on the town stretch of the Yampa.