On a sunny, bright, brilliant morning in the thick of Alma autumn, Jon and Donna Ventura of Los Alamos, New Mexico were standing on the marshy banks of the South Platte River (Middle Fork) trying to perfect their fly-fishing technique. It was the first time either of them had tried their hand at angling — the flys, the leaders, the pickup cast and roll cast — and after 45 minutes neither one had caught a brown trout. They could see the occasional ripple from a hungry brown, but the fish just weren’t taking the mayflies and midges preferred for this time of year.
Standing to the side with a watchful eye was Justin Wyman, a first-year guide from Breckenridge Outfitters. Today the Venturas were his only clients for the two-hour introductory session, so he was more concerned with teaching the basics than catching trout after trout after trout — although that would be a nice bonus for everyone.
“Sometimes,” Wyman said while analyzing Donna’s cast, “when it’s this clear and this bright the fish won’t come out. That’s why they call it fishing, not catching.”
It’s not like the Venturas were disappointed. The sky overhead was impossibly blue and dotted with sparse clouds, while on all sides pockets of shimmering, golden aspens accented the hills between thick stands of brownish-green pines.
When a gentle breeze blew the entire pockmarked blanket seemed to sway and ripple, bright yellow to rusty orange to bright yellow again, like nature’s quicksilver. It was nearly the height of autumn leaf-peeping season at the southern foot of Hoosier Pass, and Donna was soaking it all in.
“I can see how people fall in love with this,” Donna said between slow, measured casts upstream. “It’s very peaceful.”
A pause, a cast and then she looked up from the crystalline water to the hillside.
“And nothing beats being in the middle of this.”
CRASH COURSE FOR ANGLERS
There’s more to autumn fly-fishing than a crisp breeze and stunning visuals. It’s also the thick of brown trout spawning season, when the big, aggressive fish start moving upstream with nothing but food and procreation on the brain.
For anglers, spawning season means fish of all varieties are more likely to bite at small flys like midges, mayflies and nymphs — red is the preferred color in autumn — along with terrestrial flys like ants, beetles and even grasshoppers work best. Browns are so voracious this time of year that they’ll even go after brown, white and black streamers made to mimic bait fish.
“They get very predatory right now,” Wyman said before leaving the Breckenridge shop around 8:30 a.m. “It’s fun out there — they get feisty.”
Browns might be feisty, but it takes a clever angler with the right flys and patterns to whet their appetites. That’s the point of the introductory session: It gives first-time clients like the Venturas a taste of the basics with an experienced guide who can tie flys, explain technique and offer advice, all from the field — no YouTube tutorials required.
“(It’s) just one of those things on the bucket list,” Jon said as Wyman attached a tippet to the leader line and explained how one protects the other. “Why not give it a try? We’re moving to Montana in a couple of years and this will be something great to do out there.”
After a 30-minute drive from Breck to Alma, the intro course begins with another 30 minutes of casting technique on a beaver pond at Alma State Wildlife Area. The pond is the perfect setting, Wyman said, with no overhanging trees or thick brush to snag lines and ruin the day before it begins.
The Venturas started with two essentials: a roll cast and a pickup cast. The roll cast is designed for tight, wooded waterways, when anglers want to keep their fly and leader low to the water. The trick is to sweep from 2 o’clock to 10 o’clock and let the line slowly drift downstream. After three or four casts, Wyman suggested moving a few steps upstream to try again.
The pickup cast is the epitome of fly-fishing, made for wide rivers and open water with plenty of room to move. Anglers toss the line directly overhead without snapping their wrist. This makes the weighted leader line do the work, like lead weights on a spin-casting line. With enough practice, the motion becomes smooth and fluid — almost hypnotic.
“One of my friends was saying, ‘This is a very Zen experience, like skiing,’” Jon said just before leaving the beaver pond to test his technique on the river. “I didn’t believe him, but then I thought, ‘You’re right.’ I get in my boots and it’s all that’s on my mind.”
ZEN ON THE RIVER
When Wyman finished teaching the basics, he led the Venturas upstream from the beaver pond to a stretch of river littered with pools. Feeder streams are best this time of year — spawning season means trout move from deep waters like Dillon Reservoir into inlets at the Upper Blue River and Tenmile Creek — and Wyman suggests fishing right around dusk, when fish are hungry and the light isn’t so bright.
The group made its way along the banks, stopping occasionally to cast a few times before moving on. The fish still weren’t biting, but again, that was just fine with everyone. Donna was getting the hang of the pickup cast with a mellow, fluid motion, while Jon was getting used to the tempered rhythms of casting.
“This is so much different from everything else I do,” said Jon, who trades skiing for biking come summertime. “You have to learn to slow down.”
Wyman continued to watch, offering advice from a patch of reddish-yellow brush on the bank. The fish still weren’t biting, but like his clients, he was soaking up the scenery.
“Some people are just stoked to be out there, to get into the wilderness a little more,” Wyman said. “We can go down to the Blue, but I like to get away from things if we can. You get enthusiasm, even though someone has never done this before.”