Getting Hooked: First-Timer Fly Fishing

    Our man tries fly fishing, lands a whopper and uncovers five fly fishing hot spots near Colorado Springs on the South Platte River, Arkansas River and more.

    fly fishing mishaps
    Illustration by Courtney Caldwell

    Since its inception, Springs magazine has sent me on a number of improbable missions. I’ve bared it all at a clothing-optional hot spring, chopped down a tree and biked up the side of a mountain. For this issue, I wanted to do something relaxing.

    Fly fishing was suggested.

    I admitted I had never tried the sport. As a kid, I’d fished in murky ponds after baiting hooks with slippery worms and stared at bobbers. But not fly fishing—though I had seen A River Runs Through It and fancied myself a Brad Pitt type. Shorter and arguably handsome, but on the inside totally Brad Pitt.

    I agreed to take it on and called a friend who I knew could initiate me. His real name is Tim, but for the purposes of this article I’ll call him Mr. Colorado. He’s a champion athlete, a crack bike mechanic, an award-winning photographer, and in his 20s, he worked as a fly fishing guide. If there was anyone who could give me the 411 about fly fishing, it was him.

    I started by asking him how fly fishing was different from ordinary fishing.

    Before replying, Mr. Colorado took a deep breath and was silent for a moment. In the movie version of this article, that silence will be filled with some ominous organ music. Maybe a thunderclap. “Fly fishing is the ultimate form of fishing,” he said. “There’s no bait—the flies aren’t real. They don’t smell; they don’t taste. You are simply fooling fish by duplicating Mother Nature.”

    I wrote that down.

    “If you really want to know what it’s like,” he said, “you’ll have to get out on the water yourself.”

    “How about tomorrow?” I asked.

    Mr. Colorado agreed. This, I told myself, was going to be a piece of cake.

    We left a little after 8 in the morning and drove to Eleven Mile Canyon on the South Platte River near Lake George. It’s about an hour and 15 minutes from the Springs, along Highway 24, a picturesque granite-lined canyon surrounded by ponderosa pines. If you’re wanting to get your feet wet in the sport, explained Mr. Colorado, this is the place. It’s a short drive, and there’s not a lot of hiking to do to reach the river. It’s also relatively safe; the current is neither as strong nor as fast as it is in nearby Cheesman Canyon.

    After donning our waders and stringing up our rods, Mr. Colorado produced the fly we would be using. It was smaller than I expected, a hook covered in gray hair and a pair of what appeared to be delicate, diaphanous wings. “Meet RS2,” he said, referring to the fly.

    “That is also the name of one of the Star Wars robots,” I pointed out.

    He laughed, and explained that the RS2 was the creation of a legendary Colorado fisherman named Rim Chung. “RS stands for Rim’s Semblance,” Mr. Colorado told me. “It was his second attempt to copy the form and the movement of the mayfly.”

    Mr. Colorado put the fly carefully into my hand so I could take a good look. He had tied the fly himself, with a tail made from two hairs of a moose mane and wings that had been fashioned with a sparkling material called Flashabou. In fly fishing parlance, the RS2 is what’s known as a “mayfly emerger” because it’s meant to look the way mayflies do as they emerge from their larval stage, just as they come off the bottom of the river and take flight. It was hard to believe the fish would be able to see it, or that it would be strong enough to hook one of them.

    “If I had to use just one fly, this would be it,” Mr. Colorado told me. “You can fish it almost everywhere—because mayflies are everywhere.”

    Finally we were ready to fish. Mr. Colorado handed me the rod, and reminded me of what we’d already talked about on the drive into the canyon. The key to fly fishing is the elegance and the grace of the cast. You allow the line to unfurl behind you, pausing in time and space for just an instant, before bringing it forward in a gentle, perfect arc.

    My first cast was what Mr. Colorado described as an Indiana Jones. I whipped the delicate RS2 right off the end of the line.

    “A good beginning,” said Mr. Colorado.

    My second cast was not much better. I let all the line out at once, and somehow, inexplicably, it knotted around itself.

    “That’s called loading the line prematurely,” he said. “It’s a normal mistake when you’re starting out.”

    “It’s the first time it’s happened to me,” I said.

    Then we both laughed.

    “One more time,” said Mr. Colorado, without even a hint of impatience in his voice. It was plain that he loved to be out there on the water and in the mountains. There was something sacred about this place and this sport.

    I took a deep breath and gave it all I had—which was not the best strategy. The fly hooked on a tree limb behind me. And though I’d like to say that I didn’t pull on the rod with as much force as I could muster in order to free it, that’s in fact what I did.

    The hook came shooting out and embedded itself in my arm.

    After removing it, Mr. Colorado said he had an idea and attached something called a “strike indicator” to the end of my line. That’s a fancy name for a bobber, and within a few minutes I’d caught the most massive rainbow trout I’m sure Mr. Colorado has ever seen.

    “It must be 15 pounds!” he shouted.

    I took the fish in my own hands. Thinking of it now, of the glistening weight, I would say 20, if not 25 pounds.

    Then it jumped out of my arms and swam away. Before we could take a picture.

    You’ll just have to take my word for it.


    5 Fly Fishing Hot Spots

    Here are some of Mr. Colorado’s favorite nearby honey holes.

    1. South Platte River near Deckers

    This is one of the closest spot to Colorado Springs, about an hour away beyond Woodland Park. It can be pretty technical and busy fishing here due to the easy access and proximity of Denver and Colorado Springs. And there are lots of big, smart fish!

    2. Cheeseman Canyon on the South Platte

    Just outside of Deckers. A decent amount of hiking is required to get in there, but it can be well worth it. There are lots of big, pretty fish in here and many fewer anglers due to the hike. It’s impossible to stock this area, so the fish here reproduce naturally, causing them to have vibrant colors. There are three miles of catch and release with flies and lures only.

    3. Eleven Mile Canyon on the South Platte

    A little more than an hour outside of Colorado Springs near Lake George, this is a great spot for beginners and those who don’t want to hike a lot. It’s a beautiful canyon that you can drive all the way in on a road built on an old railroad grade. The top 3 miles of the canyon are catch and release with flies and lures only.

    All three of these preceding areas on the South Platte fish well year-round. Due to the tailwater effect of bottom release dams just above them, the water never freezes for several miles downstream.

    4. Arkansas River between Canon City and Salida

    State highway 50 runs along the river making for easy access about an hour and a half from Colorado Springs. The fishing is generally easier than the South Platte, but the fish are usually smaller too. This is another great place for beginners to learn. The Arkansas has over 100 miles of Gold Medal fishing from Canon City to Leadville. Gold Medal status is determined by the number of fish per mile and the average size of those fish. This river fishes best from March through October.

    5. Spinney Mountain Reservoir

    If you’re looking for a great lake to fish, this is it. About an hour and a half from Colorado Springs beyond Lake George. These Gold Medal waters hold lots of big, strong fish and easy access. It’s a great place to take a float tube, pontoon or small boat. Spinney fishes best just after ice-out in the spring, and also from May through July.

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