The Big Thompson is a large high gradient canyon stream dropping at an average of 100ft/mile, producing strong turbulent flow. Typical of these granite bedded canyon streams, the trout are smallish, 10"to 13"on average for the Big T, an inch or so less for other nearby canyon streams. It’s a challenge to fish though, easiest to negotiate with short-line methods due to the myriad conflicting currents. Combine this with its clear water and heavy fishing pressure and it can be downright humbling at times.
Since I don’t own a light 10ft nymph rod I broke out the “Tenkara”-type telescoping pole I had bought in China 15 years ago. When Chinese friends learned I liked to fish they set up a day for me at a “fishing park” (there was no public fishing water nearby). Others offered to poison a river for me! No joke! For the more sporting of the two ventures I bought what the Chinese (and many Asians) used, something equivalent to the cane pole –usually used with an ultra-sensitive quill float. I also got to pole fish in Thailand, in a medium sized stream with a woman who cooked for the guest house I was staying in. We pursued various tiny to small fishes for curry, essentially “Czech-Nymphing” with bait. Toi, my “guide” told me to go into the forest and cut myself a Rattan pole, not bamboo –“Rattan for fishing pole,” she instructed. Rattan is, like many tropical life forms, well defended:
With it I high-sticked a little freshwater puffer, a miniature version of the saltwater ones, and it puffed up big as a golf ball! The little buggers are very territorial and bit us when we swam in the stream, effectively chasing some westerners shrieking out of the water.
For my Chinese fishing excursion I bought a high-tech telescoping high-content graphic number that was 10.5ft long (stowing down to 23”) and made in Korea from I believe a Shimano factory as I recognized the blank and lettering. I won’t bore you with the “fishing park” as it was lined almost elbow to elbow with anglers and I managed only one roach-like cyprinid, and saw few other fish caught, although one hot-shot caught 3 large roach while I was there. I envied him, and he had the air of an “expert” from anywhere: kept to himself and showed no emotion, as if he does it all the time, and probably does. The novice would be whooping, or looking around to see if anyone was watching.
I’d yet to apply my broad (but not very deep) pole fishing talents to trout so I thought the Big Thompson was the perfect place. The ability to reach out and high-stick over those maddening currents was kindof exciting.
I used a 9ft 1X tapered leader to a 14” piece of Berkley Sensation CoPoly in “Blaze Orange VF”, to a tippet ring, to which 3.5ft of tippet was tied. I took the “high tech” a step further and used Berkley Nanofil in .002 diameter (~3lbs) for my tippet. That oughta get those little jigs down, and offer the best feel and hooksets. This leader is longer than the rod meaning I’d have to hand-line the fish the last few feet.
I followed George Daniel’s advice and tied up some tungsten critters in keeping with the Colorado canyon stream fauna (Glossosoma, Brachycentrus, and some stoneflies), as well as some on standard trout-sized lead jigheads. For the tungsten flies, I used a tying technique that I saw on YouTube. The guy calls it the “Polyphitus” style, the meaning of which is lost on me. However, it has some attributes that do make sense: The hook rides up stabilizing the fly and helps keep it from hooking bottom debris, and it allows a larger bead to be used with a smaller gap hook:
Here’s how to tie this style:
Fashion a sewing pin thus.
Being a “jig” I left a bit of barb as such weight in a fish’s mouth, esp sans fly-line to help create the drag to keep it in place, is asking for lost fish.
Both the larva and pupa of Glossosoma are such plump little guys and similarly colored that I assumed/hoped this (in #16) would do double duty, or just plain catch trout. It did.
OK…I got flies. We’re outta here!
About an hour’s drive.
The Big Thompson in all its glory, and…turbulence..
Rigged and ready.
The first things I noticed when I arrived were the Glossosoma winging up and down the river. I tied on a tungsten #16 Glossosoma larva/pupa and went to it. The first spot I hit was a nice shoreline run created by the bank. On such turbulent rivers the shorelines create good feeding spots for trout because they offer relatively calm flow and are excised enough to offer sufficient depth. The cool thing was it was on the OTHER side of the river; No worries about spooking fish. ;) I waded out a short ways and flicked the little tungsten jig to the head of the run, drew up my blaze day-glo “sighter”, followed the drift, and Pop! My first pole-caught trout was zipping around the chute.
I must say, it felt…weird. No reel! Just lead ‘em over with a very vertical rod, shorten the rod by holding further up the blank for leverage, then grab the line and draw em in. Pop! –the hook popped out. This happened more than I would have liked during the day so a net is rather important, esp with such heavily weighted flies –maybe a longer handled one. I hooked 4 trout in that first 10ft of shoreline run, bringing two to hand. The first popped off, the other, a nice ~12” ‘bow, broke the Nanofil. Turns out the stuff is fragile, apt to shred, and being such a pain to tie knots with (it’s thinner and nearly as soft as sewing thread), I went to 6X fluorocarbon. I tried 4X at one point but found I needed too much of it to achieve depth on such short drifts.
As you can see, this river receives some angling pressure.
Bows outnumber browns here, but calmer shorelines give up nearly all the browns. At one particularly nice long shoreline, banked with undercut grasses, I sneaked in from below only to find I'd misread the depth (easy to do at a distance), finding the tail cushion (prime brown lie) further back than I'd expected. And I watched a large (~15-16") brown bolt. That's a particularly nice trout for this stretch. But I now have an address.
The next spot I hit gave up 2 more fish, before a prescient breeze appeared and all but shut down speed control and strike detection. I say prescient in that it brought the T-storms that conjured up a nice Baetis tricaudatus emergence. I then stashed the pole and got to actually cast a fly-line, which is the very reason pole fishing will never replace conventional fly fishing. I was again, however, re-introduced to all that conflicting turbulence. After trying to cast and mend my way out of trouble I finally added 18” more of tippet and was in business. In the turbulent runs the trout rarely rose, showing more in chasing pupae (both Glossosoma and midge) than for duns. Thus my Baetis dries were never more than observed and refused, but a Baetis nymph fished sans weight on a short dropper, took fish.
Speaking of refusals… These are NOT unsophisticated mountain trout, like tend to exist in adjacent canyons. These little shts (I actually said that!) would inspect, refuse, and spook like crazy little banshees at too big an indicator dry, or tippet landing on em, or seeing the same “not food” pass by more than 3 times. In those unpredictable canyon breezes, and turbulence that too often took a cast or two to figure out, I’d finally get a “good drift”, you know the ones you EXPECT fish on, and the little ____ would say, “Nope!”
“NO!???”, I’d stammer.
“What, do we look stupid??” they’d reply.
Yes, I’ve been known to talk to fish, and have them answer. Haven’t you?
I broke each spot down like it was its own small stream –like one must often do with bigger water. However, with such a gradient, the river was parceled into micro-streams; multitudes of current tongues like the chaotic streams of subway riders in New York’s Pennsylvania Station, each with their place to go, sometimes melding for short distances, then careening off one other. Reading currents, a stealthy approach (often kneeling or sitting midstream), a long tippet and slack casting, got the job done, but not at the rate I somehow felt justified for the effort of negotiating that rocky canyon river.
Trout were EVERYWHERE however. I mean, everywhere. Six inches of water, if it was at the right speed, was good enough. And, except for some larger individuals I’d spook out of some inches deep flat-calm backwater, they were never alone. Groups of 6 or more jostled for drift space. It’s one thing to spook trout; It’s another to spook 6 or more at a go.
I also found groups of midging trout, in still eddies, or calm, nearly still side pockets. I took a few on a #22 RF (rabbit’s foot) damp midge, suffering more refusals or splashy attempts followed with no bend in the rod, than hook-ups. “Little ____!! Do you know how much money and time I have invested in you??”
“Ha ha ha ha ha….” They gleefully chuckled back as I headed out of that canyon river, my left boot FULL of water, from a leak I’ve yet to pinpoint, that had run all the way up to my crotch from “keeping a low profile” sitting in midstream. At least I thought I heard sniggling, or maybe it was all those nasty little currents.