Rocky Mountain Fly Fishing Primer

Enjoy terrific fishing in one of our country’s most scenic national parks.

by Al Ritt

EACH SUMMER, THOUSANDS OF OUTDOORS ENTHUSIASTS come to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in northern Colorado to explore a beautiful area known as RockyMountain National Park. Primary access to Rocky Mountain National Park’s eastern entrances is through the town of Estes Park. Estes Park has a small but vibrant main street filled with shops—including several fly shops—and restaurants. Also in town you can find activities such as horseback riding, hayrides, a fairground that is home to rodeos and festivals, overnight accommodations, and much more.

ARF Hi-Vis Damsel—Blue

HOOK: Tiemco TMC2488, size10.
THREAD: Blue8/0(70denier).
ABDOMEN: Braided damsel body material, blue barred with black.
WING: Clear Organza or Fluoro Fiber.
POST: Para-Post Yarn. Select a color you see well on the water.
BACK: 2-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam, blue.
THORAX: Superfine Dubbing,blue.

Leading out of the town of Estes Park, Highway 34 winds through RockyMountain National Park over the Continental Divide. This state highway eventually exits the western side of the park and enters the town of Grand Lake. This stretch of Highway 34 is known as Trail Ridge Road, and is the highest continuous-paved road in the United States,topping out at 12,183 feet in elevation. Between the two towns lies “the Park,” as it is known locally, home to thriving populations of mule deer, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, coyote, bear, mountain lion, and other wildlife. RockyMountain NationalPark contains many miles of hiking trails, opportunities for viewing wildlife, photography, campgrounds, as well as many lakes, streams, and creeks. Residing in all that water are healthy populations of rainbow, brown, brook, and cutthroat trout.

Waters Teeming with Trout

Some of the Park’s waters are easily accessed from roads; others require a hike of a few minutes to several hours. Most pieces of water are small—many, you might say, are even smaller. The stream and creeks are a mix of pocket water, riffles, runs, and pools, and the lakes and ponds are set in spectacular surroundings.

The headwaters of the Colorado River and its many small tributary streams flow on the west side of the Continental Divide; the Cache la Poudre River, North St. Vrain Creek, Glacier Creek, Big Thompson River, and Fall River and their many small feeder streams and creeks flow on the east side of the Divide. There are also spectacular lakes throughout the park; Lilly Lake, Dream Lake, Loch Valle, Spruce Lake, Timber Lake, Sprague Lake, and Lawn Lake are some of the more popular stillwater destinations.

ARF Humpulator—Yellow

HOOK: Tiemco TMC5212, size8.
THREAD: Yellow 8/0(70denier).
TAIL: Tan calf tail.
BACK: 2-millimeter-thick closed-cell foam,tan.
ABDOMEN: Polypropylene yarn, yellow.
RIB: Brown hackle.
UNDERWING: MirageFlash, opal.
WING: Tan calf tail.
SPOT: ParaPost Yarn, fluorescent orange.
THORAX: Ice Dub, golden brown.
HACKLE: Grizzly dyed golden brown.

As a frequent angler and guide, I’m often asked, “Are there really fish here?” Don’t let the small size of these waters fool you! Many of these lakes and streams teem with hungry trout. And due to the high altitude, the short growing season helps to hone the appetites of the resident fish. It takes a lot of food to sustain all these fish, and I’m also invariably asked, “What fly are you using?”

Hatches by the Season

Summer in the Park is a time of great variety. There are good hatches of midges, various caddisflies, little yellow stoneflies, blue-winged olives, pale morning duns, red quills, gray drakes, Callibaetis, and damselflies. You’ll also encounter additional species of insects such as green drakes and other stoneflies, but in smaller numbers. Leeches, minnows, annelids, scuds, and fish eggs (during spawning season) are also on the trout dinner table. And, because of the heavy streamside vegetation, there are a lot of terrestrials such as grasshoppers, crickets, moths, ants, beetles, and even mice. This abundance of food might make you think that it will be a chore to assemble a fly box for fishing Rocky Mountain National Park, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve boiled my summer and autumn fly box down to a reasonable selection of patterns, and I would confidently recommend these flies to any visitor.

Rocky Mountains National Park is ideal for fishing dry flies. Much of the water is relatively shallow, and because of the short growing season, the fish are frequently looking for food from the bottom to the top of the water column. Due to the large number of terrestrials, they do find a great amount of food on the surface of the water. To reduce the number of flies I need to carry, I choose patterns that are both durable and, in the case of floating patterns, are easy to dry. Some hatches are so prolific that I carry patterns specifically designed to match them. To match hatches of blue-winged olives, pale morning duns, red quills, I use an ARF Harey Dun in the appropriate size and color: olive, size 20 or 18 for the BWOs; pale olive or tan, size 18 or 16, for PMDs; and rusty brown, size 16 or 14, for red quills. The ARF Harey Dun incorporates snowshoe hare foot fur for the wing so that it will not become water-logged, and a Marinaro thorax-style hackle that is sparse yet floats well and is very stable on the water. I also carry Sparkle Duns in the same colors and sizes to match these hatches. There are times, especially on quieter water, when the fish will key on insects floating lower in the surface film, and Sparkle Duns do a good job of imitating emergers or cripples.

Dubbed Leech—Black

HOOK: Tiemco TMC5263, size6.
THREAD: Black 6/0 (140denier).
BEAD: Black.
TAIL: Black marabou mixed with black/red Accent Flashabou.
BODY: STS Trilobal Dubbing, bloody black leech.

For generic mayfly patterns, I carry collar-and parachute hackled Adams (sizes 20 to 14), Parachute Hare’s Ear (sizes 20 to 14), and The Usual (sizes 16 to 12). Olive spinner (sizes 22 to 16) and rusty spinner (sizes 16 and 14) patterns are also useful during a spinner fall, but in a pinch, an appropriate parachute or Sparkle Dun will often work and are even easier to see on the water. If midges are on the menu, a small Adams, Parachute Adams, Griffith’s Gnat, or other midge imitation, in sizes 22 to 18, often take fish, but the ARF Midge Adult is a more representative midge pattern; I carry these in black, olive, and tan. And, when little yellow stoneflies are present, I typically fish an ARF Trailing Bubble Harey Yellow Stone in size 18 or 16.

Rocky Mountain National Park also produces various caddis fly hatches. You can adequately cover most caddis hatches using either a light and dark Elk-Hair Caddis, Lawson’s EZ Caddis, or my preference ,an ARF Trailing Bubble Harey Caddis tied in sizes 18 to12; olive and tan are good color choices for matching most situations.

You might encounter damselfly and Callibaetis hatches on stillwaters and very slow moving water. Trout will often feed opportunistically on damsel flies as they cruise over drop-offs and weed beds, and an ARF Hi-VisDamsel works well as a searching fly in these instances. Hatches of Callibaetis occur during warmer months, and a Callibaetis dry fly imitation, in sizes 18 to 14, can be very productive; I find that an Adams or Parachute Adams will usually interest the fish, and I rarely carry a more specific pattern. When nothing is hatching, you can still find good success fishing the surface using attractor and terrestrial patterns.

Black beetles featuring foam and peacock herl bodies (sizes 16 to 12), red or black ants (sizes 20 to 12), and grasshoppers (sizes 12 to 8) are all great choices. There are many effective grasshopper patterns, including time-tested favorites such as Dave’sHopper and Schroeder’s Parachute Hopper. A favorite of mine is an olive or yellow ARF Humpulator (size 14to 10),which is also an effective stonefly and searching pattern; it floats well, which makes it useful as the floating fly in a dry–dropper rig with heavier nymphs. The ARF Hyper-Hopper and ARF Thingama Hopper are two other successful patterns. Terrestrials and attractors are frequently effective throughout the day during and between hatches. Throughout the season, I fish a beetle imitation more than any other fly. Many fishermen I speak with assume dry flies are not useful on lakes, but I have great success fishing beetles, grasshoppers, caddisflies, Adamses, and Parachute Hare’s Ears on still waters as well as on streams.

Fly Box #1

The Usual

HOOK: Tiemco TMC101, sizes 12 and 10.
THREAD: Bright orange 8/0 (70 denier).
WING AND TAIL: Natural winter-phase snowshoe rabbit hair clipped from between the toes of the hind foot, but don’t drive yourself crazy—you can tie a nice fly using the hair from a front foot, too.
UNDERBODY: Bright orange tying thread.
BODY: Underfurcleaned from the wingand tail.

ARF Harey Dun—PMD

HOOK: Tiemco TMC101, sizes 16 and 14.
THREAD: Yellow 8/0 (70 denier).
TAIL: Mayfly Tails, medium dun.
ABDOMEN: Stripped quill dyed pale morning dun.
THORAX: Super Fine Dubbing, pale morning dun.
WING: Snowshoe hare fur from the back of the foot,medium dun.
HACKLE: Dun (tied Marinaro thorax style)

Parachute Hare’s Ear

HOOK: Tiemco TMC101, size 14.
THREAD: Brown 8/0 (70 denier).
WING: Para-Post Yarn. Choose a color you see well on the water.
TAIL: Coq deLeon hackle fibers.
BODY: Hare’s-ear dubbing.
RIB: Brown thread.
HACKLE: Grizzly

ARF Trailing Bubble Harey—Yellow Stone

HOOK: Tiemco TMC101, size 10.
THREAD: Yellow 8/0 (70 denier).
TRAILING BUBBLES: Mirage Flash, opal.
EGG SAC: Red foam.
ABDOMEN: Super Fine Dubbing, yellow.
RIB: Grizzly hackle dyed yellow.
UNDERWING: MirageFlash, opal.
WING: Snowshoe hare,natural off white or bleached.
SPOT: Red foam.
THORAX: Super Fine Dubbing, yellow.
HACKLE: Barred light ginger with a V trimmed in the bottom of the hackle collar.

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