Rocky Mountain National Park.
IT'S AUGUST 1983 and I'm looking over a necklace of beaver ponds built on Hidden Valley Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park. My friend, Chas Clifton, and I are in a celebratory mood. The National Park Service has opened the beaver ponds to catch-and-release fishing for greenback cutthroat trout, the native species in this part of Colorado and the focus of an intense restoration program in the park.
The greenback cutthroat was among the first listed in the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Its known range at that time consisted of about four kilometers of stream with "just a handful of fish," according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Bruce Rosenlund. In fact, in 1973 only a couple of people in the world knew what a greenback cutthroat trout looked like. One of them was Dr. Bob Behnke at Colorado State University in nearby Ft. Collins. Most of the known greenbacks at the time were difficult-to-identify subadults located in small headwater habitats.
Between 1973 and 1983 biologists located several other populations of greenbacks in northern Colorado and the restoration work in the park proceeded. Chas and I were participating in the first sportfishing program for greenbacks in 50 years. We had spotted a dozen or so of them in unfishable lies below a couple of beaver dams, then we waded into a large beaver pond and began casting.
I was using a slightly weighted #16 soft-hackle Hare's Ear. After a few strips, I felt a nudge on the line, set up, and reeled in the trout with anticipation. It was a small brookie, which surprisingly was the reason the ponds were opened to fishing in the first place. The Park Service was hoping anglers would keep all caught brook trout, which over time would reduce competition for the struggling greenback population.
About an hour and several brookies later, I hooked up again, and as I reeled in I noticed a different flash in the water. "This is no brookie," I thought. In a few moments I was holding a 7-inch greenback cutthroat in my hand. I yelled to Chas to bring the camera, but by the time he arrived I had released the greenback, figuring it was too precious to risk holding too long. I was thrilled that the greenbacks were back where they belonged.
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER I am hiking past a long, rocky waterfall with Greg Friedman and Bob Zuellig, both fly-fishing guides in the park and the best small-stream fly fishermen I know. They have agreed to show me a favorite greenback stream on the condition I don't reveal its name. That's not an unusual request from Rocky Mountain Park fly fishers. They are overprotective of the park's small streams.
THE GREAT THRILL in fishing Rocky Mountain National Park is that there are hundreds of small streams, many of which hold trout. You take a map, find a stream, take a hike, and see what's there. Perhaps you find greenbacks, which have been restored to their native habitat in more than 20 lakes and streams east of the Continental Divide; or perhaps you discover Colorado River cutthroat, which are being restored in their native habitat west of the Continental Divide; or brookies; or maybe you find nothing at all. At the very least you will certainly find some of the most gorgeous small-stream trouting you have ever seen.
The fact is that although larger greenbacks, Colorado River cutts, rainbow trout, cutthroat hybrids, brown trout, and brook trout are occasionally caught in the park, most of them are small. Where as Yellowstone National Park is known for big water and big trout, Rocky Mountain National Park is a small-stream fly fisher's paradise.
Rosenlund says that historically the park wasn't always managed for native trout species. "There has always been this sort of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing with the Park Service," he says. "One year you're supposed to be preserving the type of habitat and the species that go with it and the next year you're supposed to be providing recreation opportunities for people. That's been especially true with fisheries."
Rosenlund explains that the idea in the late 1800s, before the park was created and for many decades after its creation in 1915, was to stock as many species of trout in the area as possible. Rainbow trout were heavily stocked, and brook and brown trout, Yellowstone cutthroats, and even Atlantic salmon were introduced. "The idea was to create an anglers' paradise with stocked trout."
Park stocking went on wholesale into the 1950s. Lakes that had never sustained trout were stocked, and even during World War II hundreds of thousands of Yellowstone cutthroat trout were planted every year. Although the idea of restoring native trout species to the park was discussed as early as the 1930s as an alternative to a maximum-sustained-harvest program, interest waned and ebbed, only to peter out again.
By the early '50s fishermen demanded catchable trout, so they were stocked in the park, but several years later the idea of wholesale stocking was being questioned. In the '60s, Dave Stevens was hired as the park biologist. Although his background was as an elk biologist, Stevens had a keen interest in trout, acquired when, as a student, he worked in Yellowstone National Park as a fishing guide.
Stevens initially questioned the annual stocking of high lakes that were already sustaining brook-tout populations, and he eventually questioned stocking all timberline and above-timberline lakes that were incapable of maintaining naturally reproducing trout populations. He thought maintaining artificial fishing programs ought to stop.
In addition, fishing pressure around the high lakes was degrading tundra habitat, where some anglers dug for worms in the delicate ecosystem. Finally, in 1968 all stocking was halted in the park's lakes and streams. The time and energy that had been devoted to the stocking program gradually turned to restoring the park's native fish.
In 1973, the enactment of the U.S. Endangered Species Act envigorated the restoration program. With the end of the high-lakes stocking program, two-thirds of the park's 150 lakes reverted to their original fishless condition, leaving 50 lakes capable of maintaining fish through natural reproduction. Stevens was loudly criticized by some people who fished the high lakes.
Unfortunately, when stocking ended in 1968, the eightfish limit was retained. And although brook-trout populations were unaffected, other trout populations in the mainstem rivers were reduced to small fish, Daily limits were gradually reduced to two rainbows and two browns. Catch-and-release fishing began to gain favor, and by the 1980s a creel census indicated that anglers were releasing from 85 to 90 percent of the trout they caught.
The fishing character of the park began to change. It had never really been a fishing destination because the main catch was small brook, rainbow, or brown trout, which could be caught almost anywhere else. That began to change with the restoration of the native greenback and Colorado River cutts. By the mid-'80s, anglers were visiting the park to catch and release the native trout and to appreciate the unsurpassed small-stream pleasures. Fly-fishing guide services introduced anglers to the park's charms, and adventurous fly fishers explored the park's secrets on their own.
The adventuresome grunt their way to the top of falls on various streams. The falls are typical of the high-gradient streams on the east side of the park and form the barriers necessary to preserve pure populations of greenback cutthroat. Anglers discover gorgeous highland small streams. Shallow, riffly runs slide into deeper bends. Trees overhang the water and the gradient drops into pocketwaters--a small-stream paradise.
BOB ZUELLIG MAKES A GRACEFUL short cast along the streamside grass at the end of a riffle. Before the fly has drifted six inches, a 9-inch greenback takes it without hesitation. This is the way it might have been 500 years ago on this small highland stream in northern Colorado. And that is the point of fishing Rocky Mountain National Park.
Later in the week Bob, Greg and his wife Jo, and I hike into a series of high lakes. The best fishing requires a hike; excellent water can be reached by day hikes. More adventurous anglers apply for a backcountry permit, which is required if you want to backpack and camp overnight in the park. Favorite loop trips put backpacking anglers into greenbacks on one side of the Divide and Colorado River cutts on the other side, and it's easy to hit a few of the park's finest high lakes on the way.
We've chosen relatively close-in lakes that require a moderate round-trip hike that is easily accomplished in a day. The first lake we arrive at could almost be considered a bay of a larger lake in a nearby cirque. The two are connected by a short stream.
Rocky Mountain National Park high lakes are like all others in the Rockies--trout can be persnickety, and there is always some luck involved to fish them successfully. Standard small-stream drys may work, but if they don't, try midge imitations and small emerger patterns if midges are the food item of the day. Parachute-style drys cover a lot of contingencies on high-country lakes, and it pays to carry the reliable Parachute Adams (#16-#22). The secret weapons are black ants, flying ants, red ants, beetles, and grasshoppers.
Trout are rising. Before long, Jo hooks into a nice hybrid cutthroat, and Greg and Bob aren't far behind. The water is crystal clear and we can see the trout come a long way to take the fly.
Later, on the big lake, the fishing becomes more technical. It's not so much that fly patterns must imitate naturals perfectly, but rather that the trout are spooky. Our presentations must be as soft as falling thistledown and we must take care to not spook "bankers" when approaching the shoreline from the trail. Spruce trees grow tight to the shoreline, adding to our presentation difficulties. But once again we manage a few trout. None are huge, but we are enjoying the trout, the Rockies, and a big sky. What more can we ask for?
On the hike out in an afternoon shower Greg comments, "You really should pack in with us sometime. You wouldn't believe the more remote lakes."
IT'S AUTUMN AND I'M FISHING on the west side of the park. The topography on this side is a little less severe, but that means I sometimes must hike a little farther to get to the trout. I've spent the morning on the Colorado River, known as one of the park's four mainstem drainages and the only mainstem on the west side. East-side mainstems include the Big Thompson, North St. Vrain, and Fall rivers, all tributaries of the South Platte River. All the mainstems hold what Rosenlund refers to as "exotics"--brook, rainbow, and brown trout.
Although the park managers have a long-range goal to expand the range of native trout species, Rosenlund admits that there will probably always be exotics in portions of the mainstems.
"There really aren't any good barriers in the lower portions of these main drainage's to separate exotics from native trout species," Rosenlund says. "In higher areas, you have waterfalls or steep areas that act as barriers. In a way, these lower-elevation mainstem rivers still form the angler's paradise envisioned by the original park supervisors, with mixtures of brook, rainbow, and brown trout."
"We're not as pushed as we were, because we've met our recovery goals for the South Platte River drainage on the east side of the park, but we don't want to stop now. We've worked on a small percentage of the total habitat available, so we're adding and expanding as time goes by. Obviously, we've restored the easiest waters first. It will get more difficult in the future."
I finish my short morning of fishing to exotics, but the real goal of the day is to hike up one of the small streams that drains into the Colorado River. I know that it holds Colorado River cutthroat trout and I would not want to miss them.
It takes a while to get to the grassy flats that a friend has told me about. The little stream begins to meander there and it just feels fishy. I tie on my trusty #16 Royal Coachman and begin casting. It isn't long before the fly disappears in a swirl. I land the trout, and it is a cutthroat. I've been told there are no hybrid cutts in the area where I'm fishing, so I figure it must be a Colorado River cutthroat. It's where there have always been Colorado River cutts. I could not be happier.
The restoration of native trout species to Rocky Mountain National Park is a work in progress. It's the perfect place to reintroduce and protect native trout species. It's rugged country with hundreds of streams and lakes. High gradients on many of the streams form perfect barriers to protect the genetic integrity of the trout. Native trout may not be the answer for every stream in the Rocky Mountains, but I'm glad we have this park engaged in this work. I need these trout, you need these trout, and I think the nation needs these trout. They are national treasures.
Fishing the Park
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL Park received more than three million visitors in 1998. Most of them stayed in their cars, driving on just a few paved roads. If you want serenity, it's usually as simple as parking the car in a designated area, grabbing your fly-fishing gear, and walking up the nearest small stream. Odds are that within a quarter-mile or so, you'll have fishing to yourself. Expect some congestion getting to the parking area.
Expect the most congestion on the east side in the Estes Park area from May to October. Peak months are July and August. The west entrance at Grand Lake typically receives fewer visitors. It pays to plan ahead for your visit. Obtain a Rocky Mountain National Park map and decide which areas you want to explore. Day trips are possible, beginning at numerous trailheads located throughout the Park.
Overnight campers must have a backcountry permit. Permits are available ($15, for one to seven people) at the Headquarters Backcountry Office in the park or the Kawuneeche Visitor Center. Backcountry permits are limited (first-come, first-served), but may be reserved by mail or in person anytime after March 1 for that calendar year. Reservations may be made by telephone [(970) 586-1242] from March 1 to May 15 and anytime after October 1 for a permit for that calendar year.
Much of the park is rugged mountain terrain. Weather can change in an instant. Be prepared for the changes by taking adequate clothing and rain gear. In the high country, lightning is a real danger during afternoon thunderstorms.
For fishing regulations and requirements, get a copy of The Rocky Mountain Fishing Information brochure from the Park Service. It lists catch-and-release-only areas, closed waters, and open lakes known to contain fish populations.
A brochure detailing backcountry camping and the Special Fishing Regulations brochure are available from the park's information office, Another useful brochure titled, "Bring Back the Greenback: A Native Trout Bounces Back from Extinction," details the history of the greenback and cooperative recovery efforts. A list of waters open to sportfishing for greenbacks in the park is also available. The official park map can also be obtained from the information office by writing to the Rocky Mountain National Park Information Office, 1000 Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517. The brochures can also be obtained in person at park headquarters.
Fly Fishing Rocky Mountain National Park, by Todd Hosman (Pruett Publishing Company, 1996), details select angling destinations in the park, entomology, fly patterns, and fly-fishing techniques.
Park Fly Patterns
PARK TROUT ARE NOT selective feeders; they're opportunists that survive on small-stream rations. A single fly box stocked with a variety of drys, nymphs, wets, terrestrials, and a few streamers is all you need.
Royal Coachman #14-#18; Royal Coachman Trude #14-#16; Elk-hair Caddis #12-#18; Stimulator (yellow & orange) #12-#16; Parachute Adams #14-#20; Adams #14-#18; Lime Trude #14-#18; Rio Grande King #14-#16; Light Cahill #12-#18; Pale Morning Dun (parachute; Compara-dun, or traditonal) #16-#18.
Black Ant #14-#18; Flying Ant #14-#18; Grasshopper #10-#14; Beetle #14-#16.
Pheasant Tail #14-#16; Prince Nymph #12-#16; Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear #12-#16; Zug Bug #12-#16; Brassie #16-#18. Bead-head versions of any of these also work.
Soft-hackle Hare's Ear #12-#16; Partridge and Orange #12-#16; Partridge and Green #12-#16.
Woolly Bugger (black, olive, brown) #8- #12; Muddler Minnow #8-#12; Light Spruce #8-#12; Mickey Finn #8-#12; Zonker #8-#12; Hornberg #6-#10.
High lakes trout often respond to the small-stream fly patterns, with a special emphasis on the terrestrials, smaller dry-fly attractors, Parachute Adams, and streamers. You should add some midge larvae and pupae imitations (#18-#22) in black, olive, and red. A Griffith's Gnat (#16-#20) and emerger patterns such as the WD-40, RS-2, or floating nymphs (#18-#22) can save the day.
Look for Blue-winged Olives close to year-round; caddisflies from late April until ice-up; Pale Morning Duns from June through August; Green Drakes in July and August on some streams; and a prolilfic Red Quill hatch from June until September. Golden and Pteronarcys stoneflies are seen occasionally from June through August, and ants are important from April to ice-up. Hoppers come on later in June. Midges can hatch year-round.
ED ENGLE is the Southwest Field Editor of FLY FISHERMAN and author of Fly Fishing the Tailwaters (Stackpole, 1991). He lives near Colorado Springs, Colorado.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK fly-fishing outfitters and guides are required by the Park Service to have a permit. A guide trip is one way for anglers unfamiliar with the park's numerous small streams acquaint themselves with its fly-fishing opportunities. The out fitter list that follows is not all inclusive, and prospective clients should always discuss their expectations for a trip and check references before booking
* Estes Angler (800)586-2110
* Colorado Wilderness Sports, Inc. (800) 504-6642
* Kinsley Outfitters (800) 442-7420
* The Flyfisher (800) 922-5014