There are two ways to experience fly fishing. Anglers can diligently research each proposed fishing location, painstakingly scrolling through site descriptions and reading up on local guidebooks and scheduling trips to local fly shops. The first day on the water, they are perfectly prepared, sporting the ideal fly, the proper technique, the best tackle.
Or, one can wing it.
My husband Brian and I definitely fit into the latter category as we pulled in through the gates at Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) for a day and a half of what we hoped would be successful fly fishing.
RMNP is famous for snow-capped peaks, alpine pools, and hiking trails, but also for the sought-after cutthroat trout swimming within clear streams and lakes. We had stopped at Kirks Flyshop in Estes Park to stock up on some feathered insect imitations … but that was about it.
Day 1: Big Thompson River and Glacier Creek
Someone had mentioned in passing that they saw anglers at the Moraine area’s Big Thompson River (which wasn’t big at all), winding up the very center of a bright meadow, surrounded by mountains on all sides.
I opted for photography duty, dazzled by the blue-purple ridgeline contrasting with the synchronized, undulating waves of emerald grasses swaying beneath afternoon sun. Standing at the edge of the creek we could plainly see the trout, darting in and out of eddies, sheltered from the current. The rocky stream bottom camouflaged the fish, but revealed their slender silhouettes.
Unfortunately, seeing the fish didn’t mean we could catch any of them. Brian grew increasingly frustrated as we traced the curves of the creek, alternating between spooking the trout outright and watching them ignore every fly we had bought.
Swallows of multiple species seemed to mock our efforts as they zipped through the air above our heads, while hummingbirds zoomed among field flowers, and sparrows chirped in the bushes. The fish remained silent.
In our two hours of incessant casting with a four-weight rod, Brian had only successfully landed one small brook trout barely stretching the width of his hand. However, one fish meant we had avoided being skunked, and if nothing else came our way we could leave the park with heads held high.
My husband and I have both been fishing since we were kids. I grew up the daughter of an avid angler, now a Maine guide and author. I learned to cast as soon as I grew strong enough to hold a rod, and have been immersed in stories of triumphant fishing adventures. Unsurprisingly, I love telling fishing tales as much as I enjoy experiencing them for myself. Brian eats, sleeps, and breaths fishing. Introduced to the fly rod by my father when we started dating, he has now mastered both precision casting, fly tying, and reading the water.
Given our long histories with the sport, I honestly don’t know why Brian and I are so bad at planning our fishing adventures before we arrive at a new destination. Perhaps we subconsciously feel that while winging it we can’t be blamed for poor outcomes. We have fished all over the country, but the only place we ever study tidal charts or water conditions remains our own Florida backyard, which, arguably, should take the least amount of planning. Maybe we just don’t like logistics.
Brian has another theory. “I like to figure out the waterways for myself, using maps and ecology,” he explained to me. “I like to see what’s out there and draw my own conclusions.”
From Moraine—an area we had largely to ourselves—we made our way to Bear Lake, packed with people screaming and singing while walking the shore’s nature trail. Seeking more watery solitude, Brian and I retreated up the road to Glacier Creek, enjoying the light of the Colorado summer sun until nearly 9 p.m. Once again, silence pervaded everything but the bubbling of the current and the scrunch of hiking boots.
We walked a short way to the creek bed, bordered on both sides by a wall of bushy trees that made casting a challenge. Tying on a #12 grasshopper, Brian climbed to the top of a tall rock, dangling his line into the ripples.
WHAM. An 8-inch rainbow trout catapulted out of the water to engulf his fly, landing with a big splash and fighting hard until Brian could scoop him up with the wood-handled net. Success!
Unlike Moraine, with no snag possibilities or shoreline scrambling, the fish at Glacier Creek experience less fishing pressure, and we reeled in seven brook trout and rainbows, small but wonderfully colorful.
Anglers out there know the satisfied feeling that comes from a successful day on the water. We had discovered productive fishing grounds on our own, leaving the crowds behind to do it. With every fish released back into the creek, we dreamed of the next one.
Day 2: Colorado River and Onahu Stream
The highlights of our first afternoon sparked an intense hunger in my husband. Where he had first been content to catch trout of any species, he now yearned for a rare, pickier species: cutthroat.
We sought the Colorado Cutthroat, one of over a dozen subspecies spread across the western United States. Most biologists agree that the Colorado is the most colorful of these subspecies, with orange and red bellies belonging to the males. Colorado cutthroat once swam throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and even parts of New Mexico. Glacial retreat over millennia, as well as more recent stream blockages due to fire debris and human interference, in addition to non-native fish introductions, have contracted their range. Today, they live mostly within headwater streams, larger creaks, and some river areas.
If I had let him, Brian would have returned to Glacier Creek—proven fishy—for the entirety of our second day in the national park. He tried to describe the internal exploration drive that pushes him to see around the next bend, and then the next and the next and the next until he reaches 14,000 feet up a glacier or a dead end. But I wasn’t having it, aching to see the park’s soaring skyline, the plunging valleys, and the tundra dotted with wildflowers as much as he ached for a cutthroat. So we compromised: taking the Trail Ridge Road on a winding route to the Colorado River on the other side of the Continental Divide.
In national park lore, the Colorado River remains famous for carving out the Grand Canyon. Yet in RMNP, the waterway only stretches 12-15 feet across in upper elevations, eventually widening between shallow, sandy banks. We pulled off at the Colorado River Trailhead, Brian wading in the small waves while I followed a moose trail at the water’s edge. Once again, we left people behind in the parking area and on the main trail to hike alone with the river.
Grassy banks alternated with forest stands, dotted here and there with active American Robins and Dark-eyed Juncos. In nearly every calm pocket of water trout lurked mostly brookies. But then, in a back eddy behind a log, Brian hooked something different.
We knew he had something unique almost immediately, catching a glimpse of a novel color pattern as the small trout broke the surface with an impressive froth. Holding the rod tightly in his right hand, line taut, Brian leaned forward like a fencer to scoop the fish up, gazing down at the first cutthroat we had ever seen. Beautiful.
We continued our slow plod upstream, quickly losing track of fish hooked and released, landing a second cutthroat of eight inches. We pulled on raincoats for a brief shower, then yanked them off again as the steamy sun returned, lighting up a nearby peak that watched over us like a mildly interested neighbor.
On one exposed sandy bank, we stopped for a brief snack of Vienna sausages from a pop-can, a drink, and a fly change. When fishing or hunting, Brian swears by these tiny hot-dogs encased in aluminum, though the mere sight of them makes me gag. They have been shuttered within their own juices, and, without a fork, Brian had to dig his fingers into the lukewarm meat to retrieve a bite. I tried a small piece before grimacing and shaking my head, walking off a few steps while he finished and mercifully rinsed out the odiferous can. He’s right, the Vienna sausages are easy to carry out into the field and an excellent source of protein, but I’ll garner my energy elsewhere thank you very much.
Brian began searching through his fly box for a new imitation. I stared off into space, lost in thought, when suddenly Brian elbowed my rib cage.
“Look,” he whispered.
Barely feet from where we stood lingered a fox, red as fire and staring directly back at us with chocolate-brown eyes. Far from afraid, he seemed interested in us, sniffing as he took a step closer through the grass.
I like seeing wildlife from a safe distance, but not in biting-vicinity, and I assume park visitors had been feeding this fox (DON’T FEED WILDLIFE). We stared. He stared. Eventually, we had to shoo him away from us, but such an unparalleled view of a fox will remain emblazoned in my memory. Still, I carried the rinsed-out can in my backpack, and found myself looking over our shoulders in case a bigger carnivore (ahem, a cougar) caught the scent of sausage.
As afternoon shifted toward evening, I began to yearn for new vistas once more. Eventually I dragged Brian off the river by sheer force of will, plus promising we could stop farther down the road where the Greenbelt Trailhead provided access to the Onahu Stream and a new stretch of the Colorado River. It was here that RMNP truly came alive for me.
Like Big Thompson River, the Onahu Stream makes its way through green meadows flanked by mountains, but because we had to hike down a narrow and dusty horse-track to get there, the fish remained relatively innocent of fly fishing techniques designed to trick them. Elk grazed nearby, including mother and calf. Woodpeckers and nuthatches twittered in the woods behind the path. We felt wild.
Following the Onahu, pulling up small brook trout as we went, Brian and I eventually reached the Colorado once more. The air itself vibrated with activity, from spotted sandpipers nosing along the shoreline, to hummingbirds skimming the top of the water, to violet green swallows flipping their way between pine stands along the river’s edge. Brian hooked the two largest fish of the trip, gorgeous brook trout reaching nearly a foot in length, shining orange and green in the waning evening.
Day 3: Leaving
In all outdoor explorations, there comes a moment when you know time is up. Brian broke off his fly with the second brookie, and we took that—and the coming sunset—as our omens of departure. We stood for a moment to gaze across the landscape—the snow still sticking to the top of nearby slopes, the blue sky dotted with puffy clouds, the swaying trees and singing birds—and reflect for just a moment on how truly lucky we are.
And then we were off again. Winging a fishing adventure at RMNP paid off with multiple species of gorgeous trout in one of the most stunning watersheds we have ever seen. Are we likely to wing it again?