Who said size matters?

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Of all the things I love about fly fishing, one is the timely reminders you get about your true place in the universe. We like to think of ourselves as masters of our domain, so it can be a reality check to get outsmarted from time to time by a creature with no powers of reasoning and a brain the size of a pea. Such was the case last week with my journey to the Conejos. My fragile ego can only take so much of a battering, so I decided to head somewhere where I felt the odds might be a little more in my favor.

Small stream fishing is a lot of fun. The narrow confines of the stream bed, often with overhanging vegetation and debris, can make for some tight, technical casting. The fish avail themselves of any piece of water offering shelter from current and predator. They dart out, hitting their prey with remarkable speed, and scurry back to their lair often in the blink of an eye. It is easy to gain a tremendous respect for these little guys, particularly their ability to survive and thrive in such a harsh environment. Winters are longer at this altitude, spring run off reduces the amount of habitable river dramatically, and the summer growing season is short.

This combination of factors definitely increases the fishing fun factor. The fish generally find it hard to resist a well drifted fly, as they need to get as many square meals into a day as they can. Given the increased chance of tangling a fly or line on undergrowth, overgrowth and snags, I’ll usually fish a single dry fly – which is how they fish in heaven anyway, so I figure it’s good practice 😉 .

Fly fishing in New Zealand, where I was born and raised, it is too easy to get fixated on the size of the fish you catch. Sometimes you will get an eighteen inch fish on your line and get annoyed because you were trying to hook the big one next to it. Accordingly, if you are not careful, the success of your day can be measured against how big the fish was you caught. While many women may well smirk at this male obsession with size, there is nothing like a small stream to teach you that it is not the size of the fish that defines your manhood, but how much fun you have catching it that really sets the men apart from the boys.

And so a fun couple of hours was had. Honor was restored. For each fish I landed, at least a couple were too fast and wary for me. While the Arkansas River is too high yet to fish effectively, I’m pretty sure I’ll be heading to a couple more small, high mountain streams in the near future, there to remind myself that it is not the size or number of the catch that matters, but the privilege of being there in the first place.

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Show Down at Grass Lake…

As the rivers rise, its time to head to the hills in search of fish and salvation. With the Arkansas and most of its feeder streams running high and murky, it’s the high lakes that offer the best opportunity locally for a fishing fix. I’ve never been a huge fan of still water fishing. I like the dynamic of moving water. I like the challenges of accurate fly placement and manipulating the line to achieve a natural drift. That said, Grass Lake has been my nemesis over the last few years. Despite several trips there, I had yet to catch a fish, and the pressure was on.

There are several reasons why hiking to a high lake makes for a great day of fishing. Firstly, the surroundings: no crowds, and there is a stark, harsh beauty to these lakes. To survive there, both flora and fauna have to be extremely resilient. They manage to survive in an environment far removed from our comfortable, insulated existence. Secondly, the fishing is often challenging on a number of levels. Unlike rivers, with their better defined holding areas, fish move around in search of food rather than waiting for it to come to them. Consequently, a new strategy is required.

Firstly, its a good idea to walk the shoreline slowly looking for fish feeding and cruising. Upon locating a cruising fish, try to place the fly a few feet ahead of the as it swims by – just like bone fishing in the Bahamas, but a whole lot cheaper. Also, look for inflow and outflow streams where the movement of the water creates current, and you will often see fish concentrated around these places also. That said, there are often times where because of light conditions, the play of wind on water etc there is no way you will see fish, unless they happen to be rising. This is the time where patience and paying attention is paramount. Unlike river fishing, where thirty seconds equates to a long drift, on a lake sometimes you throw it out there and leave it for several minutes waiting for a passing cruiser. In this case, I can guarantee that the second you look away will be the second the fish chooses to strike, as evidenced by my tail hook on the video.

Secondly, lakes are often very still and clear. Fish can see a long way as they cruise, so are very sensitive to a poorly presented cast. I’ll usually fish with a longer leader and lighter tippet to help counter this, as unlike in moving water, a fish has all the time in the world to inspect a fly before deciding whether or not to take. A little trick to help overcome this shyness is to impart a little movement to the fly as the fish approaches. Art imitates life, and sometimes a little twitch of a dry fly, or lifting of a nymph will induce a take.

And then, there is the satisfaction of feeling like you have done something healthy with your day. The demands of a hike at altitude goes some way towards mitigating the life of relative sloth that we float fishermen tend to lead. Some days the most physically challenging thing you do is reach into the cooler for another brew, so huffing and puffing up the side of a mountain makes for a pleasant change of pace.

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