A Beginner’s Tale of Colorado Fly Fishing

There’s a Reason They Call it Fishing and Not Catching

With the arrival of each season in Colorado comes a barrage of new outdoor opportunities. And just as we’ll score our first ski runs after the mountains get pummeled with snow each November and December, we’ll also hit the rivers for our first few casts as that snow starts to melt in April and May.

The cycle keeps life fresh in Colorado, and it makes sporting special. Put away the snowboard and snowshoes, and prep the fly rods and the camping equipment. And repeat.

I made my first casts of 2014 on Cinco de Mayo weekend in Clear Creek Canyon, that winding stretch of road best known by blackjack dealers, the casino faithful and anglers who know the river’s deep pools and oxygenated riffles as good as any other stretch in Colorado. Considering Clear Creek Canyon is less than a half-hour from downtown Denver, it’s amazing the river wasn’t more crowded with fishermen than it was that sunny weekend.

Much of fly fishing is about the ritual of it all. I’m just a beginner, and yet I’ve had enough of these days to know the motions well.

Retrieve my waders and boots from that highest shelf in the closet. Grab my rods and gear from the basement. Double-check the fly boxes, and make sure I have enough lead in case the fish aren’t rising to my dry fly. Find my old fishing license, and make a plan to stop by Englewood’s excellent Outdoorsman’s Attic for a new one. A blanket and water for the dog. Chairs, picnic and beers for us. And my hat – my hemp-fiber Tilley – which is one of the few pieces of clothing I automatically associate with relaxation. As soon as I tried on my hat, for the first time since last fishing season, I knew we were ready.

About 20 minutes after leaving the house my fiancée, our dog and I are turning out of Golden and onto Highway 6. Its early gentle curves are foreshadowing of more dramatic ones to come. The drivers behind us clearly have purpose, and we pull over at one of the many pull-offs to let them pass; Our pace is more leisurely, and we’re giving the water a loose read from the road, as best we can.

We pull off on one well-maintained dirt patch, but the river there is running too fast and high with all that excitable early-season runoff, so we continue on. Less than three or four miles from Golden city limits we find something better: A dirt pull-off with plenty of room, a well-worn dirt path down to a modest beach, rocks for tables and no trees or bushes – good news for my lady’s sunbathing and my casting.

Less than 15 minutes after our arrival: She’s comfortable with a Modelo and her Kindle, and I’m bringing in my first catch of 2014: A valiant fighter that revealed himself to be an eight-inch brown trout. He was a beautiful little guy, but this wasn’t his first rodeo; Situated in his lip next to my fly was a swivel from a previous angler who almost brought him into the net.

I gently removed my fly from his boney lip and then took out the swivel, tucking it away for good luck in my bib. And then I gave him the farewell taught to me by my father, a sportsman who proudly practices only catch and release: “Thanks a lot, man. I hope to catch you again.” And with that he left my hands and back into the deep and surprisingly clear waters of Clear Creek.

A fisherman will tell you: “There’s a reason they call it fishing – and not catching.” We’ve all come up goose-eggs on immaculate stretches of gold-medal water. But that little guy was the welcome wagon, the proud ambassador of one of the finest rivers in the region telling me, “Hey, welcome back. And please leave the beach cleaner than you found it.” He made up for his limited size with a beautiful color that shimmered in the stark sunlight, inspiring a legitimate “Whoa” from my rarely impressed lady.

For the next three or four hours I worked that stretch of river dutifully. The runoff from the snowmelt was fierce, so it wasn’t really possible to reach the stunning, crystalline pools on the other side of the river. But there was plenty else to fish, and a few took notice to a hopper I tied on amid a gorgeous set of champagne riffles. I saw one of them coming after the hopper, even, but I didn’t set the hook fast enough.

Highway 6 directly follows this stretch of Clear Creek, but the traffic on the popular road isn’t as intrusive as you might think. When you’re down on the river, especially in the early months when it’s running high from runoff, you can’t even hear the fisherman 20 feet away asking what they’re biting on. Sure, you’ll hear the weekend warriors on their Harleys, but that’s about all the man-made action rising above the sound of the river. You can find more secluded stretches of Clear Creek, but for a quick afternoon trip from the metro area why bother?

I’d worked the river downstream beyond a big curve where kayakers were having a rough time eddying out amid all of the whitewater when I recognized the sun’s position: It was almost time to go. I tied on one last fly for the day, a stonefly, and gave myself 10 last casts before walking up to the road and heading upstream to our day camp.

Again, ritual takes over.

I carefully cast upstream, watching the fly’s natural float and recasting a bit further into the pool with each run. I always end my days on the river like this: “One more fly and 10 more casts.” Sometimes it actually works, but most of the time it’s simply a comedown, a TTFN (ta-ta for now) to help me transition back into the real world waiting for me on the shore.

As we quickly packed our camp and got the dog into the car, making plans for a happy hour and dinner that evening, we recounted the last few hours. My fiancée told me about our book club tome, which she’s loving (and considerably further with than I am). I told her about my quest to reach the pools on the other side as she laughed and told me she’s glad I didn’t venture into the deep and fast-moving center of the river. We followed the gentle curves of Clear Creek Canyon back out to the interstate and then home, where our cats curiously smelled my waders and nonverbally scolded us for not bringing home that little brown trout for them to snack on.

By Ricardo Baca
Ricardo Baca is a novice fly fisherman, veteran journalist, founder of the music blog Reverb, co-founder of the musical festival The UMS, founder of the culture site, The Cannabist, and founder of Grasslands PR agency in Denver.

Hand holds a spotted fish.

Clear Creek County is the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. Located just west of Denver along Interstate 70, Clear Creek has 396 square miles of public lands to explore, as well as four mountain peaks above 14,000 feet. Clear Creek is comprised of charming mountains towns Idaho Springs, Downieville, Lawson, Empire, Georgetown, and Silver Plume, which are all along the I-70 corridor. Learn more about Clear Creek County here.