March midge madness

Anglers cash in on early spring's prime fishing

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Ethan Underwood, 10, takes a photo of his dad, Don Underwood, who is showing off the trout he just caught with Bucking Rainbow Outfitters guide Greg Schulz.

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Bucking Rainbow Outfitters guide Mike Bates holds a "cut-bow" trout caught and released in the Stagecoach Reservoir tail waters of the Yampa River.

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Don Underwood rides a snowmobile with his son, Ethan, 10, to access the fishing spot at the Stagecoach Reservoir tail waters.

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Bucking Rainbow Outfitters guide Mike Bates walks up the Yampa River while scouting for fish.

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Ethan Underwood, 10, fishes with his brother, Cody, 12, and guide Greg Schulz.

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Don Underwood takes a spill after a surprisingly fast strike on his line.

Bucking Rainbow Outfitters owner John Duty remembered when some fellow fishing guides made the trip up from the Patagonia region of Argentina to fish the Yampa River in March and instantly put it into perspective.

"They caught a few fish and asked, 'Why are you paying to travel all the way down to South America to fish?'" Duty said.

Many locals already know about the world-class early spring conditions where sun and warmer temperatures prior to run-off turn fish onto a pre-spawn protein frenzy that forces them as far upriver as possible into concentrated corrals below dams.

Duty said he has repeat anglers book more than three months in advance to fish the private-access section of the Yampa at Windwalker Ranch, where the fattest monsters migrate in and pile into the tail waters of Lake Catamount.

But for those who don't want to pay to play on the private waters, the public Stagecoach Reservoir tail waters also provide a more than ample concentration of hungry trout.

"The (Colorado Division of Wildlife) will rate streams as Gold Medal quality according to the numbers of fish and length requirements," Duty said. "In the Stagecoach tail waters, there's actually higher numbers than Gold Medal requires, but it doesn't meet the length requirement."

The lack of the attention-grabbing label keeps some fishermen away, but it's the gate that keeps motor vehicles from entering through the Stagecoach State Park that keeps the stretch a prime March location. Fishermen can hike down the plowed road, but weekday fishing pressure will remain minimal until the gate lifts April 1.

"If you can get to it, it's all yours," Duty said, comparing it to fishing in a boat show display tank.

To bypass what Bucking Rainbow guide Mike Bates calls "the hearty hike" down, Bucking Rainbow takes snowmobiles a couple of miles in from the north.

Bates and guide Greg Schulz arrived at the tailwaters for a Friday morning trip with the public section, which runs for roughly 8/10 of mile below the dam, entirely to themselves.

"This is like a big aquarium," Schulz said with sun shining and lighting up the male rainbows' lateral red spawning lines as he tied two nymphs on San Diego resident Don Underwood's line.

Four minutes and fewer than 10 casts later, a big one struck Underwood's line.

"I think it's been a decade since I caught something that big," Underwood said upon inspecting the 24-inch rainbow.

It didn't take much longer for Underwood's 10-year-old son Ethan and 12-year-old son Cody to catch the full trout spectrum, landing a rainbow, brown and a brook trout.

"I've never fished in the winter before," Cody Underwood said. "(The best part) was catching a 20-inch rainbow and having a picture to prove it."

Bates uses a 5 or 6X (four-pound test) tippet and on a sunny day, uses a gray-colored midge nymph.

"It's a luxury seeing how the fish swim," Bates said. "You learn a lot about how they swim and how hydraulics and currents get their food to them."

Bates likes the learning curve the tailwater stretch yields. With limited casting and a singular focus on spotting and stalking fish at point-blank range (with a trained eye and the right polarized lens), Bates believes that sight-casting anglers can dial in their skills setting a hook, catching a fish and understanding fish feeding habits.

"You're not just throwing something out and waiting," Bates said. "You're engaging with both the fish and the water, making the fish eat by manipulating him with a food source. You're out there casting, you're mending, you're stripping - it's amazing how fast the time flies."

Time also is flying on these sizable fish remaining in concentrated tail water spots as rivers rise and fish spawn and move downstream to compete for new habitats.

But the fishing isn't just prime at choice tailwaters for the time being.

Steve Henderson, owner of Steamboat Flyfisher, said while fishing is limited in the upper Yampa River drainage to the non-frozen "open" waters, people are getting the "spring-time buzz" for quality sections as close as the downtown stretch of the Yampa between Fifth and 13th streets.

"It's definitely one of my favorite times of year - the fish hormones are kicking in like elk in the fall," said Henderson, whose company also offers guided tail water trips. "The males get more aggressive, going through a feed to pack up for the spawn."

The main attraction for March fishers may be that, as Henderson explained, this is the one time of year when the big fish become most active during midday hours when it's most comfortable to be out fishing.

The outfitters reminded antsy anglers to be cautious of blind casting and walking upon spawning beds, signified by cleared gravel beds and often colored red with eggs.

- To reach Dave Shively, call 871-4253

or e-mail dshively@steamboatpilot.com

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