SCOTT WILLOUGHBY/The Denver Post
SCOTT WILLOUGHBY/The Denver Post
BASALT (AP) – Contrary to what the good folks at ESPN might have you believe, not all of the action around Aspen was at the recent Winter X Games.
As record crowds flocked to Buttermilk Mountain to watch Shaun White and the rest of the annual action sports circus, a savvy few made a break for the more provincially renowned locale known as the Fryingpan River below Ruedi Reservoir. There they discovered plenty of parking, ample elbow room and an unlikely supply of hardy, eager trout doing everything but backflips to jump on the end of a fly-fishing line.
“I’m still new to winter fishing, but my goal is to catch a fish every month of the year. I’m doing pretty good so far,” said Arnie Vandermeer of Carbondale. “A friend of mine told me just to go up and fish those flats below the dam, and I caught a lot of nice ones up there. I’ve never seen fish that big before.”
From the fishing perspective, this year’s mild western winter has been good to the Fryingpan. And unlike the X Games action that ended at Buttermilk, the activity on the Pan is likely to linger a little longer.
“They’re on the bite right now,” said Mike Calcaterra, a year-round guide with Frying Pan Anglers in Basalt. “Everyone is amazed at how good the fishing is.”
Perhaps more amazing are the circumstances leading up to the quality fishing here in the heart of winter. The locals will tell you it’s typical, although it remains difficult for most anglers to wrap their minds around a brown trout spawn that lingers into February.
Yet such seems to be the case as clusters of trout that should have concluded their romantic endeavors months ago remain gathered around redds in a wide stretch just downstream from the dam. A caught fish on occasion will spill its milk on a pair of waders as if to emphasize the point.
The situation simplifies the approach for fishermen: String up a lightweight leader with an egg pattern, and add a midge about 18 inches below for good measure. Then drop a drift downstream of the spawning beds and hang on for the ride.
“Eggs and midges – it’s so easy right now,” Calcaterra said. “It’s a basic meal for these guys.”
Size seems to matter more than anything else in the midge selection process, with sizes 22-24 serving as top choices among guides drifting basic thread ties such as black beauties, miracle midges, candy canes and the slightly more ornate RS2. Tippets taper down to 6x on the bottom fly.
“This time of year, you want to fish them as small as you can – a midge of some kind and always an egg pattern for this time of year,” said Jason Peltack, a guide with Taylor Creek Fly Shop.
“The fish are still on the redds, but if you fish behind them, you’ll catch some of those browns eating the eggs,” he said.
Following his own advice, Peltack picked up an estimated 20 fish in two hours Sunday afternoon, producing the 21st on cue for the camera.
Like an increasing number of Fryingpan fishermen, he had hopes for one of the chunky Hofer rainbow strains that have grown up to around 10 pounds since first being introduced to the tailwater in 2008. Instead, he settled for a healthy brown that broached 20 inches on the tape as his big fish of the day.
“The crowds can overwhelm you on a warm weekend, but you can work around them in some of the smaller pools and in the faster water,” Peltack said. “The fish hang everywhere.”
The smallish stream currently flowing at a consistent 90 cfs below Ruedi continues to buck the trends of typical tailwater fisheries this winter by offering a solid morning bite when fish and food both are considered sluggish at most other spots.
Whether because of the lingering spawn or the fact that others have yet to disturb the water, the productivity has been undeniable for Calcaterra.
“The morning bite has been the key for me,” Calcaterra said of his busiest winter in seven years as a guide. “It seems to slow up in the early afternoon, then around 2 o’clock you can get some good dry action with midges and the bite turns back on.”
Yes, you read that right. Part of the Fryingpan’s well-earned reputation is because the reality is the river is one of the few places in the nation where anglers can catch trout on dry flies year-round. During a brief flurry on this particular day, fish rose to minuscule emergers and delicate Adams patterns tied to a 7x tippet.
The small crowd that gathered for the sunny Sunday action shared a universal smile amid tales of success that made even a red-eye round trip from Denver worthwhile.
By sunset, the crowd would be gone, while the fish remained.
“Weekends definitely tend to be more popular,” Calcaterra said. “But I guided a trip the other day, and my client and I were the only ones on the river. We stroked every hole. On days like that, you feel like you own the place.”