October 04, 2010
Everyone knows about the Arkansas River's Mother's Day caddis hatch. That's why you should be on the Eagle, Animas or a handful of other Colorado rivers that boast their own bug blizzards. (May 2009)
By Roger Wheaton
Spring is here. Visions of slashing rises and strained leaders fill your mind as trout waters begin to warm from a long winter. Anxious sub-surface insect life begins to stir as water temperatures gradually move toward that magic 53-degree mark.
Big rainbows like this are once again attacking caddis and stoneflies in prolific hatches in Colorado rivers around the state.
Photo courtesy of Steamboat Flyfishers
Anglers also anxiously await reports of bug-filled clouds over the rivers. They pray that spring runoff will hold off as long as possible. Late April into May finds caddis fly masses hatching in what is often called the "Mother's Day" hatch. Colorado's Arkansas River is famed for its blizzard hatches. It attracts anglers from everywhere. This hatch is often so intense that fishermen can barely breathe. They mask their faces to avoid inhaling caddis.
Because of its renowned status, the Arkansas can be overrun with anglers during the hatch. The good news is many other Colorado rivers offer excellent caddis hatches for those who prefer to avoid crowds. Although the hatches may not always be quite as intense as the Arkansas, fishermen will still be greeted by hordes of willing, hungry trout gorging on the season's first meaty flies after a sparse diet of midges and blue-wing olives.
Like the Arkansas, caddis revivals begin on the lower sections of rivers and move upstream daily.
Rising water temperatures that result from increasing daylight hours and sunshine seem to be the key triggers for the hatches.
At lower elevations, the "Mother's Day" hatch is usually over by Mother's Day -- washed out by heavy runoff. On higher rivers, depending upon conditions, the hatch may coincide with runoff or even occur as runoff begins to subside. In this instance, fish will hang along the banks and feed heavily.
If you're serious about catching the hatch, watch weather conditions closely and query local shops to determine river conditions and hatch status. If water temperatures are rising rapidly, it foretells an early runoff as well, so be prepared to get on the water.
HOW TO FISH THE 'OTHER' HATCHES
Aside from the Arkansas River, Colorado has major hatches on several rivers including the Roaring Fork, Colorado, Animas, Gunnison, Rio Grande and Eagle. These early caddis flies are followed by a continual parade of differing species throughout the summer into fall.
Roaring Fork River
Like the Arkansas, the spring caddis hatch on the Roaring Fork attracts both fishermen and big trout. While BWOs, pale morning duns, and green drakes receive the headlines, caddis are more numerous and serve as the mainstay trout food throughout the spring into fall.
A massive spring caddis (Brachycentrus Occidentalis) hatch kicks off the season in April beginning on the Colorado River below its confluence with the Roaring Fork at Glenwood Springs. Warming waters attract the newest caddis generation up this rock-and-roll freestone river rapidly until spring runoff hits bringing this spring renewal to a halt. Once the caddis arrive, be ready to go quickly -- it doesn't last long!
La Fontaine's Deep Sparkle Pupa and Emergent Sparkle Pupa combined with a variety of adult patterns should meet every need on the Fork. The April caddis is a dark fly matched by a No. 14-18 black or dark-gray pattern.
At times, the cloud of newly hatched caddis can become so thick they'll hinder your breathing. Avoid this by fishing just ahead or behind the blizzard where there is less competition for the trout's attention, and it is easier to see your offering.
If you find yourself caught up in the blizzard, you might try using a totally different fly pattern to make your fly distinct.
The spring caddis hatch on the Colorado River, especially in the Middle Park section, can be as dense as that of the Arkansas. It's probably the most dependable insect hatch on the river, too.
In April, caddis will kick off the summer hatches. They'll explode below Glenwood Springs and move rapidly upstream with warming waters. Along the Middle Park section of the river, the hatch is more likely to flourish in May yielding very dense hatches until runoff strikes. Heavy caddis hatches will likely continue throughout the summer into fall. The spring caddis can be matched with standard patterns such as the LaFontaine series, Prince Nymph, dark olive Stimulators, Elk-Hair Caddis and Goddard Caddis in No. 14 to 18.
As runoff hits, change to a heavier rod and tie on some large willowfly-stonefly imitations and hold on. No. 4-8 20-Incher, Halfback or Prince nymphs with lots of weight or Sofa Pillows, Turk's Tarantulas, and Orange Stimulators attached to a 4X tippet can attract some big Colorado River trout from Middle Park down to Gore Canyon.
Fish the dry flies right along the edges and dredge the very bottom with nymphs if the trout ignore the dry patterns.
Middle Park stoneflies may begin to move as early as late April and compete with the caddis for the trout's attention, but generally they seem to arrive with runoff in late May.
There is plenty of access and excellent fishing in the moderate Colorado River flows from around Granby west to Troublesome Creek just east of Kremmling. Riffles, runs and pools highlight this section largely paralleled by Highway 40. West from Kremmling, the river has more heavy water with some thrashing white water. At this time of the year, heavy water and reduced clarity combine with large, hungry trout to produce a less selective quarry -- a perfect combination for spring anglers.
Many thousands of acres of the pristine San Juan Range yield the watery lifeblood of the Animas, sustaining a healthy population of trout and creating a Gold Medal stretch of river within the city limits. Prime fishing water on the Animas flows right through the middle of Durango.
In the spring, the Animas may be difficult to wade. This is a big, powerful river. But large browns make it a worthwhile venture when the spring caddis burst forth, normally in mid to late May.
Caddis may arrive with runoff. This very dense caddis hatch can be fished successfully by concentrating casts along the river edges. In heavy snow years, water m
ay run high and roily into late June or early July. By mid-June, the caddis will still be coming off heavily.
Thomas Chacon of Duranglers favors No. 16-18 light brown or light gray patterns like the Goddard Caddis. He and Dennis Lum, also from Duranglers, recommended a lime-green dropper, like a Chartreuse Copper John dropper, to imitate the cased caddis in the river here.
Lum said the seven-mile, sidewalk-paralleled section through town is the best part of the river.
Downstream, a $40 fee will gain entrance to the river within the Ute Indian Reservation. This section is loaded with 12- to 15-inch fish. You can avoid summer's "rubber hatch" by fishing the reservation.
Spring brings a strong caddis hatch along the upper Gunnison River and lower Taylor River above its confluence with the Gunnison. Unfortunately, a sparse mid-May hatch often kicks off coincidentally with runoff and doesn't peak until around mid-June.
John Bocchino from Willowfly Anglers in Almont recommends Elk-Hair or Mathews X-Caddis patterns -- olive or tan in No. 14-16, as well as a smaller black or yellow No. 18. Bocchino said they almost exclusively fish dry caddis after runoff because the fish feed on the surface. These fish are not picky, so you don't have to closely match the spring caddis. In the evening, skating or twitching dry caddis patterns will usually bring fish to the surface.
The spring caddis doesn't have the stage to itself, however. The golden stones also make an appearance at about the same time. Fishing both caddis and No. 8-14 orange or yellow Stimulators dropped with small bead-head nymphs will breed success on these hungry fish. The real bonanza, though, lies in the lower Gunnison.
Angling access to the lower Gunnison requires some effort, but the rewards can be spectacular. Big fish splashing after hatching caddis in and below the Gunnison Gorge is the ultimate experience in late April into May. After a short, rough 4-wheel-drive approach -- don't attempt if road is wet -- a one-mile hike down the Chukar Trail opens about a mile of the Gunnison, depending on river flow. Cast No. 14-16 olive Elk-Hair Caddis dropped with Sparkle Caddis Pupa during the day.
Don't quit too early. Skittered caddis patterns in the late evening can attract explosive strikes as egg-layers return to the water. Don't forget to take in the remarkably scenic terrain here. But keep watch for poison ivy in abundance. An excellent choice is to reserve a magical three-day float trip downriver from here.
As the spring caddis hatch winds down, the world-renowned salmonfly hatch begins moving upriver into the Gorge, transforming big trout into gorging fools. Float No. 2-6 dries to huge trout slashing at these mini-helicopters. It can reduce flyfishermen to shaking masses of jelly.
There will also be golden stones as well as other smaller stoneflies coming out at this time. The trout hold close to the canyon walls or tall grassy banks, seeking cover and access to these big, clumsy stoneflies. Cast flies against the canyon wall or weedy banks in shady areas until the sun is well up, and then rest as the stones are done for the day. However, the caddis return in the evening en masse. Drop a No. 14 Sparkle Caddis pupa behind a No. 14-16 dry caddis for great evening action.
Rio Grande headwaters burst out of the high San Juan Range between Silverton and Creede. They plummet down into the plush San Luis valley. On the way, it nourishes some fat rainbows averaging about 12 inches as well as larger trout up to 18 inches. The river is better known for its really large brown trout, some of which exceed 5 pounds.
A major caddis hatch usually erupts in late May, and moves from the valley to the Rio Grande Reservoir.
Mike McCormick, owner of Wolf Creek Anglers in South Fork, said the caddis hatch has rivaled the Arkansas hatch as runoff subsides, then continues throughout the summer into fall. McCormick suggests a Puterbaugh Black Foam Caddis matching the size of caddis on the water. Tan or green Elk-Hair Caddis from No. 10-16 also work well.
Rio Grande caddis will mix in with other big hatches and can run the gamut of sizes from No. 10-22. The Rio Grande salmonfly hatch occurs around mid-June into July. That hatch often mingles with the spring caddis. A caddis pattern dropped from No. 4-8 Sofa Pillows or dark Stimulators is an attractive combination. Floated along the edge, this combination can bring jolting strikes.
Although there is a lot of private land below the reservoir, there is also adequate public access within the national forest and in state-leased areas. Road access follows much of the river. But it becomes rougher and turns into four-wheel-drive access somewhere above the reservoir.
The water above the reservoir is less fished and offers more isolation. Just below the reservoir, a very difficult gorge to access offers the bold angler some superb and isolated fishing. For the average fisherman, perhaps the best segment is from around Creede downstream.
Unfortunately, some 24 miles of Gold Medal Water flow through private property. It's a good idea to float this water with a local guide service.
Standard caddis patterns will attract willing trout.
The Eagle River Valley is a confluence of extraordinary wealth living side by side with blue-collar America in a beautiful valley surrounded by snow-covered peaks.
One constant, though, is the combination of crystal mountain water and spring caddis hatches. These hatches can be quite dense and usually peak in late May. Caddis clouds move upstream until cold runoff waters end the annual ritual normally somewhere near Minturn.
Early in the day, use larva patterns on the bottom and change to a pupa, such as the LaFontaine Deep Sparkle Pupa, to simulate the caddis moving to the surface. As the fish move on the surface, drop a pupa 15 inches behind an adult caddis fly.
Be sure to get back on the river in late evening for another session of caddis action as the females return to lay their eggs.
Alex Cruz of Alpine River Outfitters in the Vail Valley said there are no hard, fast rules for the spring caddis. Annual weather conditions are unpredictable, but determine when runoff will come. He recommends caddis patterns in No. 16-20, especially a Peacock Caddis. Carry a wide variety of caddis patterns, colors, and sizes for the Eagle.
MEET THE CADDISES
About 300 species make up the caddis family in the Western U.S. While they represent a wide variety of sizes, shapes and lifestyles, all become a major source of trout fodder. They are distinguished from other insects by their outsized, tent-shaped wings and elongated antennae.
The caddis grows through complete metamorphosis -- egg, larva, pupa and adult.
Most of their life is spent in the larval stage as free living, net-building, or cased caddis. As trout food, the caddis is most available in its pupa stage while drifting downstream into emergence. Later in the evening as the adult females return to lay their eggs, trout may again engage in a feeding frenzy.
The spring caddis, Brachycentrus, is a dark insect with a black or darkolive body and head. Successful patterns usually range in size from No. 14-18.
Spring caddis bring explosive angling along many Colorado waters. But fluctuating river conditions affect the timing and duration of these often dense hatches. Watch water and hatch conditions, and be prepared to hit the water quickly when the caddis pop out. Also, keep an eye out for stoneflies in early spring, especially as runoff rises. These two hatches bring on incredible fishing opportunities on the Arkansas as well as other Colorado rivers.