By Lynn Burkhead
It would have been a perfect day if I could have quickly laid aside my 5-weight fly rod and traded it for an over-and-under shotgun.
There I was, hip deep in the chilly waters of the Yampa River near Steamboat Springs, Colo., enjoying a superb day of fly-fishing for the river’s big rainbow trout. In fact, I landed my best-ever ‘bow on the fly that afternoon, a fish edging toward 24 inches.
The winter scene off the Creator’s canvas was utterly spectacular in the Yampa Valley, a depression in northwestern Colorado’s high country that had seen a full 18 inches of snow dumped overnight on the nearby ski slopes. Somewhere in the course of my afternoon adventure with Bucking Rainbow Outfitters guide John Duty and his compadre, Rhett Bain of Jackson, Wyo., I heard a familiar sound and looked up toward a clearing, brilliant-blue sky.
That’s when a flight of Canada geese sailed low overhead on fixed wings, in range of, say, a good 9-iron. If that club had been in my hunting bag and the season were still open it would have been a perfect day – for a little cast-‘n’-blast outdoors adventure, that is.
It’s certainly no secret that Colorado harbors some of the nation’s top trout streams, rivers and stillwaters. From the fabled South Platte to the rollicking Colorado to the magnificent Frying Pan, there are few better places in America to wet a line when rainbow or brown trout are on the day’s agenda.
But what might be a secret are the superb cast-‘n’-blast angling and waterfowl hunting opportunities that the state’s tumbling and placid waters support. In fact, just about every corner of the Front Range and high country is dotted with opportunity to cast flies at a fall ‘bow or brown after bagging some mallard breasts for the grill and feathers for the fly-tying vise a little earlier in the day!
Tyler Baskfield knows that secret. In fact, when the waterfowl hunting enthusiast moved to Colorado from the waterfowl-rich state of Minnesota a decade ago, he knew he was landing smack-dab in the middle of some of the nation’s best trout fishing.
But the public information specialist with the Colorado Division of Wildlife didn’t know that he would soon be discovering some of the Rocky Mountain West’s most underrated waterfowl hunting opportunity – in the same waters offering spunky autumn ‘bows and browns.
“I kind of hate to share this, but Colorado most definitely offers some great cast-‘n’-blast action, although most people don’t do it that often out here,” Baskfield said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.
“It’s not as much that the opportunity doesn’t exist. It’s just that people don’t know much about it or aren’t typically willing to do the homework or expend the energy necessary to pull it off. It’s a neat way to spend a fall day.”
Part of the reason that cast-‘n’-blast waterfowl and trout fishing adventures are not more popular is that, as a general rule, most of the waterfowl hunting heritage in the state is found east of the Front Range, not west of it. “A lot of people turn to the plains for waterfowling action, but there’s some great hunting up in the mountains,” Baskfield noted.
Interested in discovering some of the state’s cast-‘n’-blast opportunities that anglers and hunters like Baskfield have had all to themselves in recent years? Then here’s a crash course on this great way to spend an autumn day in the Colorado Rockies.
But in the mountains, winter can arrive much earlier, quickly freezing many prime waterfowl marshes, ponds and reservoirs. When those duck-friendly waters ice up, the bulk of the region’s ducks move out.
“The first split is typically going to be your best opportunity for cast/blast opportunities,” Baskfield offered. “The first of three splits is best. Normally, when you get into the second and third splits, most waterfowl are going to be out of those mountain areas.”
That’s not to say that Old Man Winter’s early arrival in the mountains and high valleys of Colorado spells an end to all duck hunting activity, particularly for the hearty mallard. “Late-season cold snaps can be phenomenal on a river,” Baskfield said. “Ducks can take a lot of weather. That’s not typically what moves them. What moves them is not having access to open water. All of the reservoirs, sloughs and ponds may be frozen, but if there’s a moving river that has open water, you can be in business.”
“Some of the biggest fish are caught at this time of the year,” said fly-fishing guide John Duty. “That’s not to say that we don’t catch big ones in the summer, but as far as catching sheer numbers of big rainbows, the winter is when it is happening.”
What’s the bottom line here? As fall turns into winter, get ready for some red-hot waterfowling action and trout fishing in the Colorado high country.
Later in the fall when cold weather and snow arrive up high, its time to alter the trout fishing gear and fly box a bit, opting for heavier, shorter leaders, two-fly rigs, and plenty of nymphs, San Juan worms, streamers and egg patterns.
As for waterfowling gear, Baskfield believes that duck hunters can
get by with nothing more than a dozen decoys if they’ve found the right still or slow moving water.
“I use mallard decoys in standard size,” the CDOW public information specialist said. “I’m a little bit of a freak about duck hunting, so I carry in 30 decoys. I probably don’t need that many, but I’m always afraid I will not have enough. With a shotgun, that can be a pretty good load.”
One thing Baskfield is adamant about is ensuring that passing ducks can see his decoy rig. “On those river hunts, it becomes vital that your decoys are visible,” he said. “I always keep a fresh coat of paint on my decoys. When ducks are flying up the rivers, it’s vital that they see your decoys, so they’ll come on in.”
Baskfield has observed that Colorado’s river ducks – unlike the ducks in the waterfowling wonderland of Stuttgart, Ark., where even youngsters wander down Main Street practicing their highballs and feeding calls on a big-volume duck call – aren’t all that impressed by calling. Instead, he has found, paying attention to such basics as being in the right spot, building a good makeshift blind, not moving and keeping his face down as ducks approach, and waiting until they are in effective shotgun range are the keys to his success.
When success comes however, there’s one four-legged piece of equipment that the veteran waterfowler has found indispensable on Colorado’s moving water. “Hunting a river is a different animal than hunting a slough or a pond,” Baskfield said. “Retrieval can be a problem unless a hunter has a retriever. It is real easy to waste ducks if you’re dropping them into a river and they’re flowing off. It can be tough unless you have a good dog.”
Good camouflage in the form of clothing, a hat and gloves can help keep ducks from being shy as they circle a spread of dekes. Add in a thermos of coffee, some good breathable and/or insulated underwear, dark or camouflage breathable waders with solid footing, and a waterfowler/trout angler is set for a day of fun on the water.
One piece of equipment that Baskfield thinks should be mentioned is a drift boat, canoe or inflatable raft. With such a rig he is able to fish during the Indian summer warmth of late afternoon for trout while scouting for a place to hunt ducks the following dawn.
“If you see ducks in one spot on a river when you’re floating, they’re probably going to be there the next day,” Baskfield said. “The seeds they’re feeding on in stillwater areas is attractive, and ducks typically will frequent the same area for an extended amount of time.”
The veteran ‘fowler cautions Colorado hunters to remember the state’s trespassing laws when it comes to rivers and streams spilling through private property. While not an issue on public land and waters, Baskfield urges hunters to pay close attention to the low water flows of autumn that could spell trespassing trouble during a drift through private property. “Once you get out of that boat, you’re trespassing,” he stressed.
For hunters walking into public fishing and hunting spots around the state, the key to success can be similar to the keys of big-game hunting success in the high country: How far is a hunter willing to pack gear in to find good shooting?
“Get away from other hunters, even if you have to walk in farther and carry fewer decoys – that’s the key,” Baskfield said. “If you’re willing to put in the work and go to areas that other hunters aren’t willing to access, you can do pretty well.”
Of course, there are times and places where cast-‘n’-blasters can let human fishing and hunting pressure work in their favor by anchoring a waterfowl pass-shooting blind. “A lot of times, ducks will wing it up and down a river corridor all day,” Baskfield said. “If you’re on a river that is heavily fished, you’ll be getting ducks moving all day because guys are floating or fishing a river, and you can have pretty consistent action throughout the course of a day.”
“It has phenomenal duck hunting with some great decoying opportunities and the fishing is really good,” he said. “While a lot of flyfishers think of the Utah portion of the Green River when they think of great trout action, there’s still some good trout fishing on the Colorado side of the border.”
The key to this and many other cast-‘n’-blast locales is timing. “Pressure doesn’t come into play as much as the weather,” Baskfield said. “If you can get a trip up there when the weather is real nasty in Wyoming and Montana, you can have some great duck hunting as the birds are riding south in front of the storm.”
“My brother got an elk, and we went down to the White and hammered the trout,” Baskfield reminisced. “There are not too many duck hunting opportunities, but it might be a nice cast-‘n’-blast for big-game hunters.”
ed from the valley.”
“The other thing there is that the Yampa River has some great pike fishing, especially as you get towards Hayden and Craig,” Baskfield said. “There’s some great waterfowling action on the Yampa, and there’s virtually no pressure.”
Great fishing, great waterfowl hunting, no pressure. That might help to explain the secret my good trout angling buddy Rhett Bain told me while standing knee-deep in the Yampa on that snow-covered day mentioned earlier.
“There’s a curse here that the Ute Indians have,” Bain said as we soaked in the scenery. “They say that once you come here to the Yampa Valley, you’ll always return.”
It sounds like to me that Bain was also describing another curse, and one that any angler or waterfowler would welcome being the object of: the curse of the cast-‘n’-blast trout fishing and duck hunting that can be enjoyed on an autumn day deep in the heart of the Colorado Rockies.
And believe me – once you try cast-‘n’-blast, you will always have to come back for more.
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