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Trouts Journal

Trip Report - Fishing Cheesman Canyon at High Water

Ivan Orsic / Jul 3, 2014

Being creatures of habit, it's understandable that anglers sometimes have a hard time adjusting to change. We get used to seeing and fishing rivers during certain conditions, and when these conditions change it can be difficult to adjust how you're fishing to remain productive. This scenario has proven particularly true this year with the abundance of water flowing through our States rivers and steams, all thanks to a record snowpack from the winter season. This in turn has led to a lot of misinformed anglers speculating that fishing is slower than usual due to the higher flows.

The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. While it is true that during peak runoff fishing was stalled due to high and off color water, conditions have only been improving and the fishing has been lights out good on most of our states famed trout waters. One section of water that has seen unseasonably high flows is Cheesman Canyon. With flows ranging from 400 cfs to 1000 cfs, it is easy to understand why some folks have been put off by the higher water and have been seeking angling opportunities elsewhere.

But the reality is that this section of river happens to only fish better when the flows are up. To prove this point I recently spent a day in Cheesman Canyon with the hopes of utilizing different fishing techniques to fool some of the most educated fish in Colorado. Flows were roughly 500 cfs when I arrived at the Gill Trailhead parking lot at 8am. By days end I had countless fish to hand, culminating one of the best days of fishing I have ever had in Cheesman Canyon. While every day is different, and success can be due to forces far out of your control, I do feel that the following factors were integral in my success that day:

  1. More water allows the fish to spread out beyond the deep pools and runs. This is one of the key benefits to higher water on every river, particularly on rivers with substantial fish populations. While Cheesman Canyon is known for it's deep pools and long runs, some of the best fishing can be found in the most non-descript locations when the water is up. On this particular day, I started off fishing a dry dropper cast upstream along the banks of th river. After a couple of hours with no success, I traded my dry fly for a indicator, threw on a bit more weight, and almost immediately started catching fish. The key to success, in addition to the rig change, was fishing in areas where most people would be wading (i.e. 2'-5' off the bank in shallow water).

  1. Increased flows means more available food for the trout. It seems simple enough, but more food will typically create more freely feeding fish, particularly on rivers with healthy insect populations. On this particular day, I witnessed caddis, stonefles, PMD's and Green Drakes hatching, in addition to the abundance of midges, worms and scuds that normally make up the trout’s diet. While this abundance of insects is a good thing, the reality of figuring out what insects the fish are keying in on can be overwhelming. My best flies on this day turned out to be small stoneflies, caddis nymphs emergers, and PMD nymphs; but it did take me a couple of hours of trial and error to key in on what the fish were looking for.

  1. Faster moving water forces the fish to feed on instinct with less time to scrutinize your flies. Under normal flows (i.e. 250cfs and below) I try and avoid fishing flies with beads or a lot of flash in Cheesman Canyon. Over time I have found that simple is often better, and the more realistic your fly the better chance you have of a fish eating it. Yet when the flows go up, my strategy changes, and I try to use flies that will be able to grab the fish’s attention. The reason for this is two fold. First, increased flows push the fish into faster moving water, and brighter flies will stand out more to the fish. The second reason is that I want my flies to stand out from all of the natural bugs in the water, and make the fish feed based on a predatory reaction. Both of these points can be accomplished by fishing flies with flash or bright colors, or with flies with beads heads.

As I sat on my tailgate at the end of the day enjoying a well-deserved cold beer, I marveled at the day I had just experienced. Fishing Cheesman Canyon is by no means a guarantee in terms of the number of fish you'll catch. Success is measured by the individual, and for me a day wandering through this famed canyon is usually enough to make me content; and any fish hooked or landed are just an added bonus. But every so often, that canyon will provide you with a day that will keep you coming back for years to come. And to have this day come at a time when conditions seemed against me, ultimately opened my eyes to how as anglers we can all benefit from getting a bit better at accepting change.

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