This Year's Fly

This Year's Fly

Casting to fashion-conscious trout.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White
Into the Light

The best motel in Basalt, Colorado is the Green Drake. It’s clean, plain, not too expensive and you can guess from the name that fishermen are welcome. The resident dog is named Baxter. He’s a hundred-pound yellow Lab, and a friendly and sudden leaner. You quickly learn that when you stop to pet him you have to throw a leg out and brace so he doesn’t knock you over.

You’d have to describe the place as nice and homey, but it hasn’t entirely escaped the gentrification that’s occurred in the 25 years since Basalt was a workingman’s alternative to nearby Aspen. In almost any other town in the West, this establishment would be called “The Green Drake Motel,” but here it’s “The Green Drake: A Motel.”

April is one of the heaviest snow months in the Colorado Rockies, so at this time of year the drive over from the East Slope takes between four and six hours depending on the weather on the passes. With luck, we pull into town by midmorning, check into the Drake and stop at the fly shop to say hello, pick up the latest fishing report and buy half a dozen of this year’s fly.

Last year’s fly was the Hatching Midge: a plastic-winged, trailing-husk pattern that I thought had too many body parts for the size 18 and 20 hooks it was tied on. I said it was the kind of self-consciously pretty fly designed to catch more fishermen than fish, bought some anyway and caught almost all my trout on them. This year’s fly is the Morgan’s Midge. I buy the usual half-dozen without comment.

The next stop is the convenience store for a thermos of coffee, and a gut bomb to go for lunch. When it’s all said and done, we make the river on that first day for the second half of the banker’s hours hatch. By the time we get up there, many of the well-known pools are taken, but it’s a workday, the weekend crowd has thinned out and there’s plenty of water to choose from. It helps that the three of us have 70 years of combined experience on this river. Chances are good that we’ll find a few overlooked pods of risers and catch a trout or two.

The guy at the fly shop had said, “There’s no reason to be on the river before 10:30,” so the next morning we’re fed, rigged up and on the water by half past nine. This is such an old trick that it shouldn’t work anymore, but it still does as often as not. We spread out in two of the best pools on the river and kill an hour sipping coffee as cars filled with guides and fishermen slow down, spot us and then speed up again, heading to their second choice.

Doug and Vince have gone upstream to grab a spot that keeps two fishermen busy through an entire hatch. There’s a long pool with a wide tailout below an even longer riffly run. This whole stretch is lousy with trout, it pumps out flies like a factory and it’s a rare day when there’s no one fishing it. I can’t see them from where I am, but I know that one of them has taken the pool and the other has staked out the riffle: positioning themselves to block anyone working in from above or below.

This is a famous and often heavily fished river, one of Colorado’s best and some say the best for dry flies. It’s not exactly combat fishing, but you do pick up certain passive/aggressive techniques. Grabbing your spot early is one. Parking smack in the middle of small turnouts so there’s no room for another car to squeeze in on either side is another, not to mention fishing in the shoulder seasons when there aren’t as many tourists around. That kind of thing.

I’ve volunteered to fish a smaller spot downstream. This isn’t much of a run, but the sweet spot is a small back-eddy against the far bank. If you could wade four feet closer to it you could get a decent high-stick, dapping dryfly drift, but you’re stopped short by a steep drop-off, so you’re reduced to trying for a severe pile cast with a hard left-hand aerial mend.

I’ve been fascinated by this spot since I first fished it in the mid-1970s. The first time I saw it I said to the guy I was with, “I can’t make that cast.” He replied, “Me neither, but if we don’t try we’ll never learn.” Thirty-some years later there are days when I still can’t make the cast and others when I can just manage it. I’ve caught a few nice big trout there, plus others that were smaller but still on the high side of average. Two fish is the best I’ve ever done, although even one fish constitutes a victory and on days when the wind buggers my cast or I’m just off my game, I’ve spooked the pool with dragging flies and gone away skunked. It’s a good place to start the day because everything else will be easier.

That morning I go through the normal drill. I tie on the Morgan’s Midge that worked yesterday, wait for the hatch to start and then wait a while longer, until three trout start rising in the eddy and get into a rhythm. Then I wade out to the shelf, manage several passable drifts and get a thick, heavy 15-inch rainbow. He puts up a good tussle on 7X and at one point I think he’ll get into the next riffle and run me downstream, but then he stops in the tailout and I land him where I stand.

The commotion puts down the other fish, so I wade to shore and sit on a flat rock that’s been polished by eons of flowing water with a final buffing applied by the asses of fishermen clad first in canvas, then latex, then neoprene and lately Gore-Tex. I check my leader for nicks and wind knots, cut off my fly and tie it back on with a fresh knot. I think about cleaning my line (but don’t) and try the coffee I’ve left in an insulated cup on the bank (it’s stone cold). Those other trout back in the eddy still haven’t started rising again and I don’t feel like wasting the hatch waiting for them, so I walk up to horn in on Doug and Vince. The stretch they’re fishing is big enough for two strangers or three close friends.

Not counting that first day when we’re in a hurry to get to the river, we brew our own coffee, pack our own lunches and do as much cooking as possible in the room to save money. But we always eat breakfast at the Two Rivers Café. It’s half a block from the motel and it’s the last café in town that opens early and that hasn’t morphed into a “bistro” and tripled its prices. There are two schools of thought when it comes to breakfast. I’ve seen Vince start a day of fishing on a bowl of oatmeal, which is fine if you like that sort of thing. But then the hatch can last until three on a good day, which makes it a long way till lunch, so I tend toward eggs, grits, sausage and biscuits at a minimum, adding flapjacks if the weather is cold.

This year it’s sunny, chilly in the mornings and in the high 40s by early afternoon. The same week last year we white-knuckled over the mountains in a moderate blizzard and fished for four days in steadily falling snow. I’ll take either extreme or anything in between as long as the midges are hatching, but all fishing weather has its advantages.

Midges hatch heavily on gray, cold days and trout can be more aggressive when the light is low. Wind sucks for casting (it’s always coming from the wrong direction) but it can mash the flies onto the surface and get the fish gorging on cripples. Trout can be skittish on bright, sunny days, but you have the benefit of being able to spot them in the clear water.

After a childhood spent lowering worms out of sight into dark water, I’ve become a sucker for the visual stuff, which is the only real reason I prefer dry flies to nymphs. I’ll never get over the sight of a trout coming off the bottom in three feet of water to eat, or at least look at my fly. Once you get accustomed to this quick glimpse, you can tell if it’s a brown or a rainbow and get a good sense of its size, all in the space of a split second. The brilliant high-altitude sunlight that allows that to happen is also what gives Colorado its high incidence of skin cancer, which is why the wide-brimmed fishing hat is not entirely an affectation. You may look like a doofus, but you’re more likely to keep your ears and nose well into your 70s.

The Morgan’s Midge produced well, as advertised, but one day at a long run known as Rosie’s I locate a pod of rising trout that don’t like it. Of course this isn’t unheard of. This is the kind of small, technical river where not even the right fly works all the time and where you’ll now and then see fish refuse naturals out of general paranoia. Still, a fly that’s been working usually fools two or three trout out of a pod of a dozen or 15 steady risers.

Just for the hell of it, I try the Hatching Midge. I get a brief glance and what looks like a shrug from one small brown, but that’s it. No surprise there. These are fashion-conscious trout that would no sooner eat last year’s fly than they’d wear white after Labor Day.

The Morgan’s Midge I’ve been using consists of a short trailing husk made of two or three strands of fine tinsel the color of root beer, a gray thread body, a stubby wing made of gray CDC and a sparse grizzly hackle tied parachute style around a white foam wing post. The post is then cut off flush, leaving a tiny white button that, amazingly, can often be spotted on the water at a range of 40 feet or more. I tie the ratty one I’ve been using back on my tippet, and in a fit of creativity, cut the wing off with my nippers. Of course you’ve crossed some kind of line when you start trimming pieces off a size 22 fly because it’s too bushy, but that’s what we’ve come to on some tailwaters where sophisticated tackle and heavy fishing pressure make the fish preternaturally selective.

I catch four trout in seven casts with the wingless fly and then it starts fluttering weirdly on the false cast. When I strip it in I find that the hackle has come loose and is sticking out to the side. This had been a well-tied fly that stayed together through something like 20 trout, but nothing lasts forever. I reach for my nippers to cut off the fly and put on a fresh one, then get a wild hair, nip off the hackle and fish it that way. There isn’t much left of the fly now—just the trailing husk and that little foam button —but it works better than it had before. I get four or five more trout on it before I finally spook the pod.

On the way back to town that afternoon, we stop to see my friend Roy Palm. Roy lives on a private stretch of river—a quarter-mile or so of some of the prettiest and fishiest water in the valley—but he’s not one of the wealthy landowners who’ve arrived in recent decades. In fact, he’s an old river rat who wangled his way onto this property in the late ’60s or early ’70s and has held on through a series of maneuvers that would give a Wall Street banker a migraine.

Since then he’s largely left the streambed alone, but he’s taken some small browns out to avoid overcrowding and keep the size up, and he did build a head-gate-controlled side channel so wild fish from downstream can spawn unmolested. He also built benches at several of the best runs for solitary river watching. When I first fished this property, it was a jungle of willow and cottonwood saplings, but in recent years the banks have gotten more manicured. It’s easier to fish now, but less wild looking. There’s been a revolving roster of hunting dogs around the place and two of them—both yellow Labs—are buried in neatly marked graves above high water. I remember them both as pups, especially Flicka, who once ate my hat.

Over the years Roy has done every job imaginable to get by, but since I’ve known him he’s guided, owned and run fly shops, and tied flies professionally. Many of the standard patterns on the river first came from his vise (including some that now bear other people’s names). His flies were always admirably spare and simple, but now that he’s more or less retired and no longer worries about selling flies, his patterns have become totally minimalist. The last batch he showed me consisted of nearly naked hooks with a little thread and a wisp of wing or a half turn of hackle: just the barest suggestion of an insect. These flies aren’t what you’d call commercially viable, but they’re deadly, and their delicacy would be startling even if they hadn’t come from the big hands of a man who looks, sounds and sometimes acts like a bear.

Roy’s fishing seems to have gone in that same direction. He was never a fish hog, but by now a day of fishing consists mostly of watching fish feed, examining insects on the water and then tinkering at the vise. He might catch a trout or two to test a pattern, but then he’ll retire to one of the benches again to watch and think—usually with his two current Labs and a fresh drink.

You could say that Roy is proprietary about this stretch of river. He’s been fairly generous with access over the years—more generous than I would have been—but when someone has an especially good day, he might mosey out to announce that they’ve caught enough of his babies and it’s time to quit. They felt pleasantly alone up until then, but at that moment they realize they’ve been under surveillance the whole time.

It’s widely believed that Roy shoots at trespassers, but that’s not strictly true, although he does have rifle targets set up at strategic places along the river, so that if you were trespassing, you might inadvertently stumble into the line of fire. Technically speaking, that would be an unfortunate coincidence. When the sheriff stopped by after one incident, Roy shrugged and said, “There ain’t supposed to be anyone back there.”

We sit on the back porch talking for an hour or so, and then Roy invites us to come back and fish there the next day.

We show up at 10:30 the following morning and spend what seems like half the hatch walking the river as Roy points out, in excruciating detail, how insect drift lines, currents and holding water come together into specific feeding lanes, with special emphasis on the quiet, bank-hugging seams you could easily miss.

This is knowledge accumulated over decades spent watching more and fishing less, and although I’ve fished this place off and on myself for 30 years, I’m learning things I hadn’t yet figured out. So I listen attentively, but it takes the better part of an hour, fish are feeding the whole time and I begin to get a little twitchy. I’m not a fish hog either and I do aspire to the enlightened vantage point that would let me watch trout rise without wanting to cast to them. Still, my internal voice keeps saying, “Dude, get a hook in the water!”

When the tour is finally over I wade into the shelving riffle above the Camp Pool and tie on a Morgan’s Midge. I’ve clipped the wings off all the ones I have left, but I’ve provisionally left the hackles on because, although I now know better, I still like all the little bells and whistles. I pick my fish and land eight or nine real nice ones before the hatch peters out. I don’t know if Roy is watching or not, but I suspect this is a number he’d consider appropriate.

John Gierach’s latest book, No Shortage of Good Days, was released in May. He lives in Lyons, Colorado.