In 1966 the Standells sang, “Love that Dirty Water.”
The Standells, obviously, were not fishermen.
If you’ve visited the tail water over the past couple months it will come as no surprise that the water clarity has been a major issue. Flowing the color of a gas station cappuccino, dirt and grime from the work below the dam has been a constant deterrent to me venturing down to the water to try and catch a trout. It just doesn’t look like the type of water where you will get a lot of bites and my previous experiences fishing this type of color, for trout anyway, hasn’t been real good.
Taking a page from my bass fishing playbook, though, I know that regardless of the water conditions, fish have to eat.
Certainly, a sudden in flow of dirty water will shut down virtually any fishery for a while, but usually the water will clear within a few days and things will get back to normal.
Under a constant flow of mud, though, with a nonstop flow of milky water inundating the river, the trout of the tail water, like bass in a murky, muddy lake, acclimate.
Dark water and fly fishing are like blue slacks and brown shoes: you just don’t do it.
Dark water demands big thumping lures, bladed baits, or lures with lots of bulk that will show up well against the dark backdrop of the water.
Or you can just tie on what you usually do and go fishing.
Standing in the first riffle, I was almost surprised to see my strike indicator take an immediate right turn across the muddy surface and then disappear from view. Pulling up hard, a little too hard, I felt the fish just before the tippet snapped and I had to go through the process of re-tying everything again. This time, though, I kept a watchful eye to the run, knowing that it held at least one good trout.
With everything rigged back up again, I dropped the nymph back into the current, watched as it made its way around a small bend, and then suddenly it was gone again. Lifting the rod tip this time, the heft of the trout on the other end was unmistakable. This was a good one.
With the line tightening against the fish, it immediately headed out to deeper, faster water and shook its head against the weight of the line. With the drag on my reel screaming with every run, I tried to move up to a position where I could fight the fish out of the current, but this fish had other plans. Another couple hard runs later and the fish was gone, leaving me to stand on the bank once again, thinking about the dark run as I tied up another rig.
Broken off twice – once was definitely my fault, the second was a fish big enough that I couldn’t get it turned, both from the same spot. What were the odds? Pretty good I guess, since four more fish would do the exact same thing to me over the next couple of hours. Mud or no, these fish were big, strong, and ready to do some serious battle.
The funny thing is, the run that held all these big fish could only be reached if I was standing right in it. The mud was, in that respect, working to my advantage. Where I messed up was in not going with a heavier leader. 4X would have certainly worked in this muck, but who knew? I would have never dreamed that the fish would be this aggressive and ready to bite under such conditions.
A day later, once again standing in the current with a major hatch of blue winged olives and tricos swarming around my head, I encountered a couple other anglers who seemed discouraged at the color of the water. They explained that the fish couldn’t see the fly, and they were getting out of here, heading for more hospitable digs that looked more like fly water. Whatever, I thought, as I headed downstream to a small run that would eventually give up six nice fish, all averaging around a pound and a half, in the next hour. It’s obviously not what we see above the flow that is important, but what is happening below the surface that matters most.
Understanding that the fish do no simply stop eating because the water isn’t the right color for what we’re used to is the first step to success. After that, it’s just a matter of fly selection, and I chose a size 18 red Copper John and a size 18 flashback pheasant tail for all my strikes. Fished near the bottom with a big strip of lead positioned about 12 inches above the lead fly, the combination worked like a charm.
Conditions on the tail water are what they are. The flows can change from 300 to 3,000 CFS overnight, the color can go from crystal clear to chocolate milk and back again in the same day, and the anglers who make the adjustments are often times the ones who are the most successful here.
Love that dirty water? Most don’t, but given the success of a couple days on the river, I’m learning to at least like it.
Pueblo West resident Bill Claspell is an avid outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman who also enjoys writing about his adventures. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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