I spent the better part of 30 years fishing nothing but the streams, rivers, and lakes that Colorado had to offer. Since I was old enough to warrant such, I have always purchased my Colorado fishing license, and that was the end of that. The past five years, however, I have had the opportunity one is afforded with the time and money middle age bestows upon us, to fish in other states: the cool Rocky Mountain states featured in Fly Fisherman magazine and known the world over. I have fished the Bighorn, the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Gallatin, the Ruby. I have taken a turn on the North Platte Gray Reef section as well as the Miracle Mile. I have even drifted the Box Canyon and coaxed a riser just above the Harriman State Park section of the Henry’s Fork in Idaho. And, for the most part, these rivers are everything they are cracked up to be, and then some. They have given me a fishing high that lasts long after the trip is over.
However, after my last trip through southern Montana this past March, I returned to my home state not with a sense of euphoria, but feeling a bit forlorn. Years of on-again-off-again drought, severe population increases near key trout habitat, and a water management philosophy that is straight out of the stone ages have all led to less access and fewer trout – or so it seems. I was, to put it mildly, bummed out. My home state has just not stacked up to the other Rocky Mountain states as of late, and that depresses me. I kept monitoring snow packs levels and stream flows, waiting for a sign of improvement, some good news. I chased the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Ark only to find more fishermen than fish (or caddis for that matter). I sulked. I griped.
Then, I found what may have been my saving grace. First, it began to snow. Our April looked like March, our May like April. The snow totals shot up, and we were promised a runoff very close to normal. The flows didn’t change much at first, but you could see the silver lining about to appear from behind the dark clouds. Then it warmed up. Highs were in the 80s for days. And mid-level snow began to fill the rivers, which would fill the reservoirs, which would mean beautiful cool, clean water for the fish and a brand new, freshly-scrubbed bottom for the insects. I began to perk up.
But that also meant I could not fish some of my favorite streams (as is normal this time of year) and would have to look elsewhere for good fishing opportunities. And this is where I found my “hidden” Colorado, and it was right in plain sight.
One of my friends suggested we look to the warmer waters of the Front Range and target some different species. Now, bass I am familiar with. I have fished for them for the past six years or so. But I always considered them a side note and didn’t explore the lakes in my area for these thugs of the deep very much. So, we began looking on web sites and searching Google Earth for anything blue. We had some success, but without a boat, pickings were still pretty thin.
Then, while on Fish Explorer, a friend saw a post about another species: Pike. I have fished for carp, and blue gill, and perch. But pike? PIKE! These things are kind of scary for the nube. I mean, they have real teeth and a more, how should I say it, pissy disposition. They are huge predators, the apex of their environment here in Colorado. I didn’t know where to begin.
It turns out my 7 weight BVK and a slow sinking seven-foot leader with 30 lb. spider wire were all I needed, that and a good pair of needle-nosed pliers. Pike are hunters and prefer big food that is gaudy as hell. I tied up some different varieties of pike bunnies in different variations of red, white, purple, black, and flash (some have all those colors on them). These babies are four to seven inches long and weighted with dumbbell eyes. They don’t necessarily represent anything in particular, but have the general silhouette of something fishy. But just tying on something new and applying some different tactics were fairly exciting. I had a buzz the night before our initial outing.
The first time out, we pretty much blind casted into the deeper pits that had structure, or at least a nice green or black color. I know pike prefer to hide very still and then ambush their prey. But, what I didn’t expect was the chase. I have seen brown trout move a few feet for a streamer, and then felt the tug as they bite and turn, but pike are a different story. The first fish I caught came out of the depths and chased my offering a full thirty feet before rejecting it at the very end. My heart doubled its pace as soon as I saw that 25-inch black torpedo chasing down my fly. But, unlike a trout (or most trout), once it peeled away from the chase, it stayed in the shallows and kept looking for its meal. So, I quickly got my nerves about me, cast back past the fish, and teased the fly past him. Again, he caught sight, and shot after the fly like a bullet. I reacted too quickly (a rookie move) and pulled the fly out of his face. But, he remained, unscathed and undaunted. A third cast, and this time, I waited for the eat. Locked!
To watch this primordial predator hunt so aggressively was one of the most amazing things I have seen as a fisherman. The fight was fairly brief. After a couple long runs and one big head shake right at the end, I managed not to get bit, and landed the fish. The adrenaline rush was too much. I needed more.
I can only imagine this is what sight fishing to a baby tarpon or a bonefish must be like, although I know they both fight a lot harder. But the type of casts you make and the chase they give seem very similar. Plus, a little pike is 24 inches. They hit like a howitzer and won’t let go. They seem to prefer to fight the thing pulling them around rather than try to dislodge the fly. It is like they don’t know they are even hooked. I managed to land two in the 30-plus inch range, and they were both just as much fun. I learned to handle them better and got a few nice photos.
Inadvertently, I had found my new Colorado experience, the thing that made my state fun to fish again. And it was right here the whole time. Once runoff has subsided, I will again target the cold, clear mountain waters for my beloved trout. But, the other species will definitely be getting more attention, especially our toothy friends. They have given me a fresh lease on my favorite hobby in my home state, and they have reminded me to not tunnel vision so badly, to look around and explore just a bit more. All good lessons for a guy entering the second half of life.