Most fly fishers see tall snow covered mountains and trout when you mention the front range of Colorado. I think about gravel pit ponds and cool waters full of big smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, trout and green sunfish.
On this day my fly fishing host in northern Colorado was native Fort Collins resident Steve Solano at that time owner/operator of Rocky Mountain Fly Shop in Fort Collins. Since this trip, the fly shop closed but Steve's knowledge and skill in fly fishing still remain.
Steve has fly fished this area of Colorado all of his life. In addition to really being an accomplished fly fisher, he was a wonderful resource for information about the incredible cold and warmwater fisheries.
On this particular trip with Steve, we were privaleged to fish the ponds of a friend of his who was in the gravel mining business. As Louie closed out the pits, he reclaimed them as stocked and well managed lakes on his property. The reward -- wonderful fishing for about 13 species of fish. Our main fish of interest on this day was front range smallmouths.
Smallmouth bass, Micropterus dolomieu, prefer cool clear waters and rocky lakes. Before stocking programs in suitable waters nationwide, these very game and exciting members of the sunfish family were found mostly in Southern Canada, the Great Lakes region, plus the Ohio River and Upper Mississippi River areas. Fortunately these days a fly fisher can pursue these wonderful fish over most of the nation, so when in Colorado, don't forget the smallmouths.
Smallmouths weighing between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds comprise most of the tippet class world records for fly fishing at the National Freshwater Hall of Fame. IGFA's group of tippet class world records falls into the 4lb 1 oz to 4lb 14oz weight for the first 4 tippet classes, 2 to 8 lb. test. So a smallmouth in the three to four pound range on light to medium fly tackle with 2 to 8 pound tippet qualifies as world class fishing. Folks, these Colorado smallies might just surprise you!
Fishing in Colorado's gravel pit ponds can be really intimate, but because of the tall cattails, grasses, and bushes on shore, if you're not in a float tube, inflatable boat, or jon boat, you will have to spend much of your time swinging up a high backcast then driving a long forward cast out in front of you. This kind of casting is a challenge, but it will really pay off for you.
In this case the ponds were small enough to fish much of the water from shore, so we chose to wade the edges carefully and quietly fish from shore. Whether from a float tube or the bank, fish your favorite 8 to 9 foot 3, 4 or 5 weight trout rod.
Notice thy flying smallmouth in the image above right. Gravel pit smallies have the basic temperment of bronze colored pit bulls -- they hit hard, explode into the air, then run deep trying to leave your fly in available cover. BE READY!
Cast floating line with at least a nine foot leader and minimum six pound tippet. For deeper water, increase the length of tippet and add three feet of four pound tippet if you need the extra depth. Given the amount of vegetation present, we generally used 6 pound tippet. Experiment with your retrieve style: First use slow two inch retrieves, then vary with longer strip retrieves. Try to imagine the swimming pattern of the forage you emulate, and make your fly emulate that action.
To determine fly selection before you begin fishing, study the pond carefully. Carefully search the pond for clues such as surface hatches, smallies chasing minnows in the shallows, or birds feeding along the shore. Look for subsurface structure, surface action, actively feeding fish. Note weather conditions, and water clarity. Know your favorite fish's forage base. There are many factors to consider. On our trip the sky was overcast threatening rain; it was cool and the wind was blowing. There were only very sporadic rises. Smallmouths consume small minnows, crayfish, hellgrammites, and nymphs, as well as large quantities of a variety of small insects.
We found that in the Colorado gravel pit ponds small leech or crayfish imitations and streamers under two inches long or small poppers were supreme. With minimal surface action, we decided to probe from just under the surface to the depths of the pond. We were careful to probe the water just outside the dropoffs covered with vegetation.
More widely known in trout circles, wooly buggers are very popular in Colorado warmwater fly fishing, and so are clouser styled flies. When the fish are deep and suspending on structure, use extra long sink counts to sink your streamer down where the fish are.
The day's first fish came from a shallow area just beside a gravel island. Steve cast to the channel, let the clouser styled streamer sink, and strip retrieved in slow, 1 foot retrieves. On about his second cast, he raised his rod and the water boiled with our first smallie of the day. It was a nice one! Steve began to fish the pond counter clockwise from the bank. I cast the same area and missed a fish, then moved carefully out onto the little island to our left. All around me was a world of cool, clear water full of vegetation spread out over the gently sloping gravel and soil basin. Thick cattails lined areas of the shore, bushes hung over more of the shoreline creating wonderful cover for fish. The pond was post card perfect.
Fat smallies were suspending above and hiding in the aquatic growth on the drop offs. First I probed the nearby water, then cast farther and farther out. My long casts laid out on the slick water, my little streamer sank, and the tick on the line would tell me to raise my rod for the hookset. Then the rod would arc and shake and the water would fly as the powerful smallmouth would go airborne in his struggle to get free. I fan cast the entire area around the island and waded out to cast farther into the deeper water. The smallies were suspended and were ready for a morning snack. Steve and I loved every minute of it.
I caught this huge smallie off a gravel island in one of the ponds while wading and casting a black #12 weighted streamer from the island to deep water, counting it down, and stripping it back. This fish weighed 4 pounds!
Smallmouths like the one left prefer gravel, boulders, and rock strewn pools. These gravel pit ponds are full of rock and plenty of cool, gin clear water.
In addition, the weed lines, cattails, grasses, blowdowns, overhanging brush and aquatic plants provide smallie magnets in these pristine waters. In waters like these providing there is ample forage, smallmouths can become quite fat and strong.
Steve fished a bucktail streamer, I tied on a favorite black size 12 heavily weighted streamer, which delightfully substitutes for a leech or a crayfish in most fishing situations in the East or West. Later in the day when the action slowed, I switched to my "craw colored" size 12 heavily weighted streamer and immediately caught two more fat smallies.
For over five hours we cast to the depths, counted down black size 12 streamers, and caught lots of smallmouths, most averaging two to three pounds, and several three to four pounds. The two largest fish were four pounders. It was quickly becoming a day to remember, so we shot many slides and photographs. We both walked the edges of the ponds casting to the deeper water in the center, counting down these heavily weighted flies, and stripping them until we felt the familiar jolt on the end of the line. Becoming tired from fighting strong fish and the weather, I glanced at my watch. It was not even 5PM and I had caught and carefully released 45 beautiful fish -- Steve had caught and released a few more than that.
I decided that I had to catch a fat smallie on a real ultralight outfit. I rigged a Sage 1 weight with Lamson reel and Sage WF1F line plus six pound tippet and cast my number 12 black streamer parallel to the shore. I cast over a dropoff and felt the pickup. The rod bowed under the load of what was to be a three and a half pound smallie. It took me a couple of minutes, but I had the fish to hand and Steve shot the obligatory photo. A few more casts yielded another fiesty two and a half pounder on the 1 weight. What a thrill!
The two of us caught and released about a hundred of the finest smallies we had ever seen. This day was one of the finest days I have ever spent fly fishing. Now you know how to catch Colorado bronzebacks on the fly, and why you should try it!!
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