There's a certain mystique that surrounds the annual emergence of Salmonflies and for good reason. There are literally zero other times in a fishing calendar when this many comically large, colorful stoneflies hatch and make themselves available for the taking - on the surface. That certainly is an alluring visual and one that makes the Salmonfly hatch a BUCKET LIST hatch to hit as any self-respecting angler.
However, it's not the easiest hatch to time for a variety of reasons - namely the bugs themselves, the river conditions, and the fish keying in on these big meals. You can't depend on the salmonfly hatch like it's a blue-winged olive hatch on cloudy, spring afternoon. The hatch typically steadily progresses upstream as water temperatures continue to warm up to around 56º F. However, the quality of the hatch varies depending on the quality of river habitat in different sections of the river. Additionally, it can be impacted by the size and turbidity of annual spring runoff.
To make things more complicated, when salmonflies (especially in their nymphal stage) are easily accessible, trout will go on a full-fledged binge on huge morsels of protein. It's a lot easier to fill up on big meals than small snacks and there are times when bugs (both nymphs and dries) are everywhere and fish are simply stuffed to the gills. So, the feeding window that us anglers can take advantage of is compressed, so to say.
I've always had a liking for the salmonfly hatch, but I'd never describe myself as a diehard fan. I've chased it a handful of times, but have been more than alright throwing streamers if I didn't find the right section with the right fish and the right bugs. Friend of the shop and CURRENT coverman Mark Rauschenberger is a diehard. The kind of angler who plans his spring and early summer around it. The kind of angler who hits it on multiple rivers. The kind of angler who is scouting in advance tracking the concentration of those big salmonfly nymphs as they move into the shallows. So, when Mark texted me a picture of a handful of big ole salmonfly nymphs the Sunday before Memorial Day weekend, the decision made itself. We were headed to the Colorado and chasing the BIG BUGS.
For many salmonfly hatch diehards, the hatch is broken up into three phases - the front, middle, and trailing edges. The dry fly fishing during the front and middle portions of the hatch can be feast or famine - but there's a certain rush you get trying to time it up perfect and feed the first fish on a big foam dry. That's what we were after. Our day wasn't going to be spent throwing droppers or streamers. We were committed to the big foam bug game.
The Colorado was low - which was a good news - bad news kind of thing. Normally, runoff would have the river pushed up into the banks, whipping through those riverside willows. The perfect holding spot for trout to take a big bushy dry fly. On the other hand, as walk-wade anglers - we had access to the whole river and weren't limited by normally high flows. The Colorado was our oyster that day.
After some chatter at the truck about not being in a rush and the afternoon is always better than the morning, Mark cracked a morning Banquet beer and we made our way down to the river. In Mark's defense, I insisted on a 5:30 AM departure from Denver with holiday weekend I-70 traffic staring us in the face.
Mark made a couple casts while I got my bearings with the camera. A couple smaller fish popped at his large offering on 2X. The water had a little tint to it, but nothing crazy. We surveyed the banks for bug activity as we worked our way downstream. Anticipation has a way of getting the best of even the most chill angler and I'd be lying if I wasn't a little disappointed when we were greeted by shuckless branches and no adult salmonflies. But, soon enough, I heard Mark call out..."There's a big female. Oooh, a bunch of males." He grabbed some branches from a willow and proudly showed off more than a couple adult salmonflies.
Things were looking good. We kept working our way downstream. The bugs were patchy, but they were present. Were we on the front edge of the hatch...probably. Let's hope the fish would be tuning in.
We kept taking inventory of the aquatic goings-ons. We turned over some big cobbles and found gobs and gobs of nymphs along the banks. THINGS WERE HAPPENING!
A couple ceremonial fly changes in, we decided to work our way back out of the canyon. We both saw adults floundering on the surface getting picked off by brown trout. The casts were tricky with the tight canyon walls and steep dropoffs as the Colorado funneled through the top of the canyon, but eventually, Mark got the skunk off with a diminutive brown. I opted against taking a photo of our first salmonfly fish of the season. Probably a lapse in judgment with regards to fishing luck, but I'll stand behind it.
Mark made a couple of last minute bombs and we headed back up towards Pumphouse proper.
There were noticeably more bugs on the willows as we walked back upstream. The BIG BUGS were HERE.
Now, there's a gap in the story as told by photos here. Above, you see Mark smiling with cold one in hand. Myself, enjoying a fresh brat with some spicy brown mustard. You'd think it was all roses for the boys. Just taking a quick break before getting back after it. You'd be mistaken, my friends. In fact, we had just narrowly avoided some self-imposed disaster.
In an effort to get a handle on the hatch, we drove downstream to Radium and popped in on a couple sneaky trailheads along the way. One of which neither of us had accessed before. We took a quick glance at the trailhead map and agreed. "That looks like a pretty short hike." It was the ole trailhead okie-doke. If that trailhead was a football player, call it Barry Sanders. We were juked out of our shoes.
Sure, the hike wasn't long on the map, but a map is flat and that trail was not. About six switchbacks in, we got a peek at the river some 1000 feet below. I thought to myself, "I guess I'm down for this. Screw it. Mark was putting one foot in front of the other and so was I. We'd get there eventually and the hike out would be miserable, but it'd be good for us."
There were easier ways to get to that section of river and eventually Mark spoke up. "Uh, let's not do this." It's always hard to call it when you're "breaking" trail. But, kudos to Mark for calling it. We trudged back to the truck, drenched in sweat. Bullet dodged. After seeing no bugs around Radium, we cruised back to Pumphouse for what you see above.
We certainly could have forced the issue and kept banging the banks with big foam flies through the meat of the day. But, there were clouds in the forecast and with plenty of company at the access, we decided to wait it out. By the time we got back to the river, it was clear - the break was well worth it.
The bugs had continued to emerge and the fish were responding. I got hot for a run and moved three fish on the big dry in four casts. Mark hooked a couple, as well.
We made the move and crossed at the islands.
One good fish on a dry is what we were after and this bank looked to be the one. Mark slapped his dry down on a soft inside seam and it disappeared.
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Shucks and adults for days.
Summer in the Rockies is here...and Mark found a snake. Bye now.