Breaking the ice

Out-of-the-way angling options for early spring fishing

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Spring fishing

- The Delaney Buttes lakes near Walden offer three distinct angling experiences. South Lake offers Snake River cutthroats as long as 18 inches. North Lake offers the promise of a big brown trout, and the smaller rainbows in East Lake provide a good backup plan.

- Crosho Lake and nearby Allen Basin Reservoir in South Routt offer the chance to catch cutthroat, grayling and large brook trout. But you must be willing to hike almost a mile, sometimes through snow, to fish soon after ice-off. Consult a U.S. Forest Service map to find your way to the lakes on county roads.

If the beginning of trout-fishing season in the Yampa Valley was the subject of a reality TV show, it might be called "Ice-capades, Season 5."

A similar article in a men's lifestyle magazine might be titled, "Ice today, gone tomorrow? The Trout of a Lifetime!" And if the start of the local fishing season was a National Geographic special, it would be called "End of an Ice Age." There's no way around it - spring fishing for trout in this valley is all about keeping track of ice - or, more accurately, the disappearance of ice from area lakes. Anglers who do their homework and fish the right lakes at the right time are rewarded with big trout that are unusually hungry after a long winter of dormancy.

After all, river fishing in the spring is difficult with high runoff and water the color of cafe au lait. And that doesn't change until late May. The only exceptions are short stretches of the Yampa River and other streams that issue forth from the bottom of reservoirs.

"What I tell people is, 'don't start thinking about (river fishing) until Mother's Day,'" said Steve Henderson of Steamboat Flyfisher.

Spring forward

If you insist on wetting a line in a river in April, your best bet is to make the four-hour drive to Dutch John, Utah, and fish the 10 miles of tailwater that flows out of Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

I have to mention the tailwater below Stagecoach Reservoir, where big fish will be sipping midge pupae in April. But this tiny fishery supports natural spawning by rainbows, and you have to search your soul long and hard before you harass the spawners in the state park.

If you decide to ski or mountain bike into the tailwater before the road opens, veteran fishing guide Keith Hale offers some advice.

"Pay attention to the feeding fish, not the fish that are just sitting there," he said.

Even after a long winter, people are a part of the trout's environment in the tailwater. If you can spy a trout whose mouth is opening and closing, it's actively feeding. If it appears more sluggish, there's a good chance it was caught so recently that it's taking a timeout.

Closer to home, there is often good fishing in the Colorado River near Parshall. That's because water managers are so intent on filling Shadow Mountain and Granby reservoirs that they effectively shut down spring runoff.

Counter intelligence

What does it all mean? Well, anglers who have spent the winter dreaming of a brightly colored rainbow on the end of their line are obligated to gather intelligence about the progress of the spring thaw.

Technically, there is no beginning and end to trout-fishing season in Colorado. Unlike many states, Colorado permits year-round angling for trout. In fact, some of the best and least-crowded river fishing of the year just finished - March's pre-runoff season.

Ice-off can be a tricky season. Some people swear by hitting the lake as soon as the ice retreats enough to reveal a few hundred square feet of open water.

It's possible to hit it just right and cast a small nymph onto the edge of the ice. Drag your fly off the ice, let it sink and wait for a hit from eager trout patrolling the edge of the ice shelf.

Conversely, there are days when the water is so frigid the fish won't strike. A change of 5 degrees in water temperature - say from 33 degrees to 38 degrees - can make all the difference, guide Paul Russell said.

Often, Henderson said, the best ice-off fishing is a week after the lake thaws completely. Even then, it can be frustrating to chase reports of wild action.

"A fishing report tells you what already happened, not what's going to happen," Henderson said with a knowing look.

Locally, Stagecoach Reservoir near Oak Creek is often one of the first sources of open water. If you've got a friend who lives in Stagecoach, ask them to keep an eye on it for you.

"By the third to fourth week of April, the inlet of Stagecoach is often open," Hale said.

"A high percentage of the trout in the lake will begin to gather in the inlet bay, and because they don't spawn successfully out of the lake, there's less guilt associated with pursuing them" up into the stream, Hale said.

Henderson said the Stagecoach inlet fishes better when the reservoir level is still low. He suggests streamers, gold-ribbed hare's ears and even golden stonefly nymphs.

Colin Taylor, a guide at Bucking Rainbow Outfitters, suggests that area anglers who don't devote some of their energy to northern pike in Stagecoach are missing a bet every spring. He likes to launch a boat into the bay and fish with a "popper" designed for panfish. They produce aggressive strikes on the surface from fish that often measure 20 to 25 inches.

"The fish are right in the bays. I cast all through them. You just make that popper go 'bloop, bloop, bloop' and then let it sit. That's when they strike," Taylor said.

A steel leader is recommended for toothy northerns.

Later in May, when the ice comes off in North Routt, Taylor heads for the inlet of Willow Creek on the back side of Steamboat Lake. He uses small streamers or leech patterns to hook into some big fish that will disappear into the depths within six weeks.

"Not only are the fish hungry, but all the hormones are shooting through the roof, and their aggression is high," he said.

If your own hormones are urging you to wade into a summer river and fish with dry flies, all you have to do is hang on until about June 22. That's when the pale morning duns, pale evening duns, yellow sallies and even some green drakes will be hatching.

Circle the third week in June on your calendar, and don't let it pass without fishing the town stretch of the Yampa River.

- Story by Tom Ross

Photo by John F. Russell

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