I booked a small cabin at Backbone State Park for seven nights at our spring break, planning to fish like mad with James for holdover fish in the stocker streams and wild browns in some protected ones. All winter in eastern Iowa it’s been in the 40s, 50s, 60s and mostly snow free. One day in February it was 73F. I looked forward to this trip for months. And so of course the Sunday that it kicked off saw a high below freezing and six inches of snow. Daily highs stayed below freezing through midweek. I could have screamed. There didn’t seem much point sitting in a small cabin looking out at a frozen winter wonderland, so I cancelled the first three nights of the trip and we set out Wednesday. The forecast was a bit better, but not great. High in the 30s Thursday, high 40s Friday, 40 on Saturday, high 40s again on Sunday. We tried fairly hard, kitted out in long thermal underwear and multiple layers of fleece, hoodies, nano puffs, and we more or less managed. But the wind howled the entire time, gusting to 25 mph, it was cold, there weren’t many fish, and it was mostly an endurance trial. Still, grim fishing is better than no fishing.
So the third consecutive day of record high eastern Iowa temperatures saw 69 F forecast. Sounded like an invitation to me, so I got 2017 angling started with a solo day at my beloved STSNBN. Everything about it felt strange – fishing with nothing but a t shirt and fleece on Feb. 19th. Like, it was fun, but 2014 was the hottest year on record for the world, then 2015 was hotter, and then 2016 was hotter still, and it puts a damper on t shirt weather in February, the whole “We’ve torched the planet” thing. But it didn’t stop me from fishing.
I finally got around to tying some Slump Busters. Well, two Slump Busters. I followed the steps in John Barr’s “Barr Flies” except that I added a lead wire underbody because I like to fish streamers heavily weighted. I had intended to use a Daiichi 1720 hook, but the cone wouldn’t go on over the bend, so I used a 2220 4X streamer hook instead. I tied it size 12, with an extra small tungsten cone head (sadly, according to J. Stockard, Wapsi has discontinued the extra small size), and used precut zonkered pine squirrel strips. It’s an easy fly to tie, with getting used to threading stuff through the fur without binding it down the only trick.
I haven’t finished chronicling Western Swing 2, too busy. But the Troutslayer and I are off tomorrow for Western Swing 3. A little over two weeks and three 4-night back country backpacking and fishing segments, all in Colorado. I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve.
The morning was once again sunny, so I broke camp as early as I could manage and got going. The lake I was targeting was on the other side of the Buchanan Creek valley, so essentially I had to lose 2000 feet, go up the valley about a mile to Thunderbolt Canyon, make a new camp off trail, and then regain the elevation up a trail-free mountainside to the lake.
So, having jumped in at the deep end, the first camp morning of the trip dawned beautiful and sunny, and I didn’t actually feel too bad.
I got moving, had breakfast, then spent some time organizing all the new flies I’d bought the day before. I also put together my new Redington rod and tried to fire synapses from 30 years ago about how to rig it. There wasn’t much to do – it came with the backing, line, and a leader all preloaded. Before too long I headed out to see what I could make happen on the lake proper. Continue reading Western Swing 2: Indian Peaks Day Two
So I was actually getting in position to make good on the daydream and fish alpine lakes. Here’s the equipment I used:
Zimmerbuilt Tenkara Guide Sling
Usually two tenkara rods: always my GM 39, and something else, on this trip either a TUSA Sato or Rhodo
A TrailLite Designs 24 cm Ti Net. I got the straight handled one. It worked great.
My new Redington Path all in one western rod and reel in its very heavy carrying case.
On the water, I used a pretty pared down set of gear: a Dr Slick mitten clamp (lost at some point and replaced with a hemo from some fly shop), my nippers on a zinger inside the top sling compartment, a 5X tippet guide spool, Loon Aquel floatant, a leader straightener, a spare spool of number 3 level line, some tapered leaders for the western rig, my Yellow lens over-glasses sunglasses, and that’s pretty much it. I took a ton of other stuff, but eventually banished it.
I carried all of my flies in two lightweight C&F boxes, which also fit in the top compartment of the sling:
The first box was mostly the same as the one taken on the June trip. Mostly self-tied, with woolly buggers, plus size killer buggers, bead head hotspot killer bugs, Brassies, Hare and Coppers, Green Weenies, kebaris, foam beetles, Griffith’s Gnats, Frenchies, Foam Eggs, midge larvae, cranefly larvae, pigstickers, beadhead Princes, RS2s and some other things.
The other box had a flip page and was mostly filled with newly purchased flies, including Parachute Adamses, Griffith’s Gnats, Mosquitos, Quasi Pheasant Tails, Flashback Pheasant Tails, Scuds, Soft Hackle Emergers, Royal Wulffs, Humpies, Foam Fly Ants, Foam Beetles, and Stimulators.
I discovered by happenstance just a few days before leaving that one needs a back country camping permit for most places in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. The Forest Service website wasn’t very encouraging, saying they became available in January and went quickly. Uh oh. There was also no mention of any provision to get one other than by mail or in person. However when I called the Sulphur District Ranger Station in Granby, there were extremely helpful. They told me that my first target, Gourd Lake, was almost certainly ice free and they issued me a permit for the three nights I wanted to go over the phone. I just had to stop on the way through to the trailhead to collect it.
Monarch Lake Trailhead turned out to be a bit of a trip. You cross a huge dam on a dirt road. With no railing. Long way down. Vertigo. I wasn’t prepared for just how crowded and busy the accessible wilderness in Colorado is. It’s not a reason not to go as you can mostly work around it. But boy howdy a lot of people are doing a lot of things everywhere you go. The trailhead parking lot was huge and congested.
So off I headed for three weeks of high alpine lake fishing. I hoped. I didn’t tie even remotely enough flies, and I was very worried about my ability to fish dries. And I didn’t have the dries I figured I’d need. I put all this to rest by stopping in Charlie Craven’s shop, Charlie’s Fly Box, in Arvada. It’s really easy to get to if you’re going I-76-I-70. I’ve ordered a bunch of materials from this store, and as I’ve learned more about tying, Craven’s books are pretty much the best out there for instruction.
Charlie Craven wasn’t there, but I recognized the guy behind the counter as Jay Zimmerman, fly designer, blogger, and author. I didn’t tell him I recognized him, as I was hyperworried about seeming like a no-nothing doofus. Some hick who messes around on mostly stocked streams in Iowa entering one of the high halls of Colorado fly fishing. I asked him for advice on fly selection for high altitude lakes. I had a list, but he waved it away and went around grabbing things. He wasn’t a dick, but there was definitely a certain Suffering Noobs sheen to it. He kept putting things in one of those little plastic cups and I kept having to ask him what pattern it was. Then he went back behind his counter. Um, okay. So there were a couple of black/red leechy streamers. Some Soft Hackle Emergers. Some kind of deer hair dry with some flash I wasn’t fast enough to catch the name of. Well, whatever. I got out my list and set to. I got: Parachute Adams, Mosquitos, more Soft Hackle Emergers, Humpies, Royal Wulffs, some more Griffith’s Gnats, Stimulators, Foam Flying Ants, Foam Beetles, olive Scuds, and orange Scuds. Now I felt a bit better.
But. I was really, really, really worried about my ability to cast with enough distance on these lakes. I planned to spend some serious effort getting to them. I wanted to have all the tools I needed.
So I asked Jay if they had an entry level rod that wouldn’t break the bank. He directed me to a Redington Path all in one for $189.99.
And so I bought a western fly rod and reel.
Nobody reads this, but sorry, I just have no time for either the whole western “Tenkara makes it totally okay to tell homophobic jokes” line of thought or, honestly, the whole “Tenkara is the one true way” thing. I’m a fly fisherman. I’ve fished tenkara exclusively since resuming, but I have fond memories of casting dries with my old fiberglass rod in the 1980s. Tenkara is more effective than western at many things, including the small stream fishing I do in Iowa. But western is better than tenkara for other things, like casting dries over distance. I’m not going to discriminate. I’m going to use the right tools for whatever job. When that’s tenkara, great. But I’ve now been reminded of how much fun fishing dries with a western rod is. I like it a lot, and I’m going to do that, too.
Jay warmed up a lot when I told him what I was up to, heading to the backcountry for three weeks with just the odd hotel night break. He figured I was pushing it in terms of season and might be postholing through snow. That turned out not to be the case with the recent hot spell, but I tried to soak up as much advice as I could in five minutes.
Then I was off and through Denver and headed for the Indian Peaks Wilderness.
With James about to head off to Paris to meet his mother and me about to head off to Colorado to bum around high lakes for three weeks, we took a day off from various preparations to fish STSNBN. I was still smarting over lost behemoths and we figured it would be rounding into its best early summer form. It pretty much was, though thunderstorms had blown it out badly and it was only just coming down enough to really fish well. The water level was higher and the water a bit murkier than usual.
I leave in a few days for a kamikaze solo trip to Colorado in which I’ll spend just under three weeks backpacking to as many 11,000-12,000 ft alpine lakes as I can squeeze in. I have the ultralight backpacking elements squared away, and the tenkara-backpacking proof of concept from the last trip. What I have no experience with or much preparation for is fishing alpine lakes, or stillwaters of any kind. I’ve read Jason Klass’s post on tenkara on alpine lakes, but that’s about as much received knowledge as I have. I plan to use the Keen sandals and neoprene socks to wade where possible. The main technical worry is casting range. I have 12, 16, and 24 ft floating pvc line purchased from Badger Tenkara. I used the 12′ line a bit near the start last year and in fact caught my first biggish wild brown using it. I’ll take the GM Suikei 39 and the Sato, and I guess I’ll see how casting extra long floating line goes. What’s not very clear to me is how to land a fish when the line and tippet are together twice as long as the rod. I guess you have to handline it (obviously), but just getting the line into a position that you can grab it doesn’t seem an intuitively obvious maneuver. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to figure it out.
Anyway, the other worry is fly selection. I guess buggers work, they work pretty much anywhere. And I’m decently set for weighted nymphs. But it seems like a lot of the action on lakes is dries, possibly sort of flipped from the normal situation on streams where subsurface will generally take more fish. I hadn’t tied a dry fly in my life, but I’m pretty set on the idea that I’m not going to buy any more commercial flies except in a pinch, and tie everything I fish with. So it’s time to have a go. The first pattern that gets talked up everywhere is the mosquito. They kinda look like an actual mosquito, and some people opine that it’s what they actually mimic. I dunno. Yes, mosquitos are everywhere, but I’m not sure they spend a lot of time on the surface of the water except when something goes dramatically wrong in their life. They don’t hatch in trout water, but in shallow stillwaters – bogs, standing pools, etc. The patterns seem to basically be colour variations of a classic Catskill mayfly. The most widely used one seems to be black thread, a grizzly hackle fiber tail, a stripped grizzly quill body, grizzly tip wings, and grizzly hackle. I’m short on time and skill, and it seemed a bit much to jump in with learning both hackle tip wings and quill bodies, so I’m trying to crank out simplified versions, with a black thread and extra fine silver wire rib body and omitting the wings. I dunno, I guess they more or less look like dry flies. I’ll see what the fish think. I’m cranking out a bunch in sizes 14, 16, and 18. Using Whiting 100s keeps it modestly idiot proof. I figure if they’re a bust I can always stop into a fly shop in Colorado and remedy the situation. With limited time, I’m planning to concentrate on these and a whole bunch of stimulators. If I have time I’ll try to tie some other attractors, like wulffs or humpies. I figure I’ll mostly fish tandem flies, sometimes with a weighted nymph dropped beneath a stimulator. I have a few commercial dries in larger sizes, including some Royal Coachman, Adams, BWO, and a few deerhair caddis.