March rainbows

Trout present a golden opportunity for late winter anglers

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— The time to catch a rainbow is now.

When spring runoff begins this year, it will come with a vengeance. The Yampa River will run high and muddy, and it could stay that way until July. For fly fishers, options include seeking out low-level lakes or digging the passport out of the dresser drawer and jetting to Mexico.

If a trip to Ascension Bay isn't in the budget, anglers best not delay. Some of the hottest fishing of the year is happening now in the Yampa River. The chances of catching a 20-inch or larger rainbow trout in the city limits are good.

Veteran guide Rich Evans of Straightline Sports proved the point this week. Evans walked to the Yampa River, post-holed through deep snow on the river's banks and began casting to pods of large trout that were feeding regularly. His two-nymph rig attracted take after take. In 90 minutes, Evans had netted several trout that would rank among the best of an entire season for many anglers.

"Fishing in town is exceptional right now," agreed Jarett Duty of Bucking Rainbow Outfitters. "People are catching trout on micro stones in black, size 16, but we're also just beginning this week to take some fish on streamers. We've still got a few weeks of this left, for sure. And if winter comes back, if we get some more snow, it could last longer."

Tim Kirkpatrick of Steamboat Flyfisher attaches a little more urgency to the pre-runoff angling bonanza.

"This might last for just another week or two," he cautioned.

A bonus during cold spring fishing is that the fish tend to bunch in deeper pools, raising the possibility of taking two to eight trout out of the same spot -- something less likely to happen in summer, when the fish are spread out.

"We're definitely seeing most of the fish in the slow water at the tail end of the runs," Kirkpatrick said.

Midday water temperatures ranged between 37 and 41 degrees last week, Kirkpatrick said.

Evans said slight variations in temperature really can heat up the fishing.

"Even a degree or two makes a difference," he said. "When the water warms even a little, they start to hatch, and the fish, being gregarious, can get into a feeding frenzy."

Anglers in the know will indulge in a little frenzy of their own for the next several weeks. If you don't fish the river now, it could be months before you get another crack at it.

Trout are cold-blooded, and water temperature dictates their feeding habits. The truisms of summer are reversed in winter. Instead of fishing early in the morning and from late afternoon until dark, March fishing should be done at midday under a warm sun. Even a couple degrees of variation in water temperature can increase feeding activity.

Don't look for trout in the same places you might expect to find them in July. Trout often are bunched in the deepest holes near the bottom of a run. Look for large, submerged boulders that protect lethargic fish from the current. Don't expect to find fish in the riffles.

Takes will be subtle; fish with a yarn indicator that has been greased. The slightest unnatural pause in the progress of the indicator signals a fish -- don't hesitate to strike. Don't become frustrated by missed takes -- that's par for the course this time of winter.

Fly patterns: the trout are seeing stoneflies tumbling out of the riffles into the deep holes this time of year. Fish them small and black and fish them large in size 10 and 12. Tie a bright red San Juan worm off the shank of the stonefly hook. When midges are visible on the water at midday, it's likely the trout are eating the emerging nymphs below the surface. Tie a dark brown, size 18 midge pupae or emerger beneath the larger stonefly.

Avoid drag that puts trout off by frequently "mending" your line. Flip a coil of slack line onto the water for a natural drift. Be prepared to use your off-rod hand to rapidly strip up the slack as you raise the rod tip to set the hook.

Crimp a small, steel split shot onto your tippet 12 inches above the upper fly. You don't want to spend all of your time in the weeds, but if you aren't occasionally tapping bottom, you're not in the rainbow zone, guide Rich Evans said.

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