1 Guy With A Fly Rod

FFMP-171200-GUY-001.jpg: FFMP-171200-GUY-001.jpg:

Sweat dripped from my nose as I crouched in morbid curiosity to get a closer look at the biggest freshwater fish I’d ever seen, dead or alive. The mood was somber, even funereal, as seven Macushi Amerindians and five tourists circled the giant green, gold, and scarlet arapaima stretched out in the moonlight on a sandy beach of the Rupununi River. It was 88 inches long with a 46-inch girth.

The men hung their heads in solemn tribute and spoke only in reverent whispers as we mourned the accidental casualty. It was like the death of a friend. As little as a few decades ago, these Macushis might have celebrated the killing of such a fish with a triumphant return to the village and a feast that included flaky white arapaima steaks, farine (from cassava root), awara juice, and bora (long, green jungle beans). Hunting these shallow-water giants with traditional longbows made from warama wood sustained the indigenous Amerindians of Guyana for generations. Today they continue to use arapaima for sustenance, but they’ve traded their longbows for fly rods, and are using catch-and-release sport fishing as a mechanism to protect the fish and their fragile ecosystem.

Fly fishing first came to Rewa in 2011 when a tall, lanky American fishing guide named Oliver White showed up and asked the most accomplished hunters to show him where the arapaima lived. He wanted to catch one using fly tackle, and then release it unharmed. It was the first domino in a chain reaction that helped change their culture forever, save arapaima from potential extirpation, and preserve vast tracts of rainforest from international mining and logging operations that are building roads and advancing from coastal areas at an exponential rate.

Birth of Indifly
To industry insiders, White’s background story is well known. In 2004 he was young fishing guide working  winters at Kau Tapen Lodge in Argentina. There, he met hedge fund manager Bill Ackerman, who started him on a Wall Street career that rose like a shooting star, and burned out in 2008 when White decided he didn’t like the short-sell game, and more importantly didn’t like living and working in Manhattan. Hell, he didn’t even like wearing shoes. He wanted to be outside fishing.

After quitting Wall Street, White bought property for a dream fishing lodge in the Bahamas, and was literally “living the dream” fishing around the world in 2011 when Al Perkinson of Costa sunglasses asked him to visit Guyana. “At the time, I didn’t even know what an arapaima was,” said White.

FFMP-171200-GUY-003.jpg: FFMP-171200-GUY-003.jpg:Their research revealed a fish population survey by the government of Guyana that estimated there were fewer than 300 arapaima left in the entire country—most of them reported in the Rupununi River wetlands near the village of Rewa. (As a result of the survey, Guyana in 2002 made it illegal to harvest, hunt, or even fish for arapaima.)

White also found a small eco-lodge in Rewa owned by a village cooperative. The untouched jungle there is a bird-watching paradise with harpy eagles, seven types of macaws, channel-billed toucans, parrots, parakeets, untold marsh birds, not to mention howler monkeys, river otters, tapirs, and jaguars. The few fortunate visitors to the area also reported seeing giant air-breathing fish in the shallow ponds the eco-guides sometimes used as avenues to view birds and other wildlife. It seemed to White and Perkinson that if you wanted to catch the world’s largest scaled freshwater fish, this was a logical place to try it.

On his first visit to Rewa, White traveled solo to evaluate the possibility of even catching one of the prehistoric-looking fish on a fly rod.

“The first time I came here, I had the wrong hooks, the wrong rods, the wrong everything,” White told me while we were running upstream on the Rupununi River. “The only thing I had right was the place. The fish were there in catchable numbers, and the locals knew exactly where they were at. Once I saw where they were at, and how they behaved, I knew this was doable.”

The biggest obstacle was just getting permission to fish for them, as before he could even tie on a fly he had to secure permission from the local toshao (an elected chieftain) using a written letter from the minister of agriculture and fisheries exempting his catch-and-release efforts from the nationwide ban on fishing for arapaima.

Later that same year, with funding from Costa sunglasses and logistical support from USAID, White went back to Rewa with Montana guide Matt Breuer and made the film Jungle Fish, a documentary about the steep learning curve involved with catching these fish on a fly rod.

In Jungle Fish, Oliver White did much more than figure out how to dependably catch the biggest freshwater fish the fly-fishing world has ever seen. He also trained local guides to use and understand fly tackle and strategies, helped develop much-needed infrastructure like boats and accommodations, and taught villagers how to host guests so that his accomplishments could be replicated.

I visited Guyana in March of 2017 with White and a film crew from Outside TV to see firsthand how to catch these prehistoric giants, and more importantly to learn what has changed since White first visited Rewa. (You can see the 20-minute film Rewa at outsidetv.com, Apple TV, Amazon Channels, or Roku.)

Since White brought fly fishing to Rewa, the village-owned lodge has grown from less than $1,000 annual revenue to about $120,000 per year. So far, the lodge has hosted only 67 foreign fly-fishing guests, but the socioeconomic impact has been immense.

In a village of fewer than 300 people (more than half of them children), most able-bodied adults in Rewa work directly for the sportfishing lodge, and everyone benefits indirectly.

FFMP-171200-GUY-007.jpg: FFMP-171200-GUY-007.jpg:It’s not just the biggest economic driver within the community, it’s the only one.

The jobs (and the money) are spread among a rotating staff of camp hosts, cooks, guides, boatmen, and boat haulers.  The business itself is owned by the village, and its mission is to benefit as many residents as possible. No one works two weeks in a row, because everyone wants the work, and it’s fair and beneficial to spread the employment among as many people as possible.

The manpower required to successfully fish these remote (often landlocked) ponds in the jungle is immense. It often takes a crew of more than a dozen men to machete a path through the jungle, lay down a corduroy road, and drag the boats to the destination at sunrise. While the guests eat lunch, the boats are pulled from one pond and dragged to a new venue for the afternoon. While the men are dragging boats through the jungle, the women prepare food, do laundry for guests, and take care of housekeeping chores—sometimes with small children in tow.

While there are some drawbacks in creating a cash economy where none existed before—drawbacks like televisions and alcohol—the economic and environmental benefits are staggering. With the lodge, the natural ecosystem now has value. Guests pay for the experience of casting to massive arapaima with scarlet macaws screeching overhead and monkeys chattering from the trees.

There’s no need to poach arapaima for food, or illegally capture parrots for the pet industry, when there are well-paying, legitimate jobs available that ensure a sustainable future for Rewa. It creates a situation where it pays to keep the 200 square miles of wetland and jungle habitat in pristine condition. The local school is better funded, there is better access to medical and dental services in the village, able-bodied men don’t have to leave the village to work in extractive industries like gold mines elsewhere in Guyana, so families stay intact. And improved transportation means better access to goods and services from outside the village.

Replicating Rewa
When White saw how the fly-fishing game in Rewa was changing human lives for the better and preserving the environment, the obvious question was: “How do we replicate this again in other parts of the world?”
After a follow-up trip to Rewa with his friend Al Perkinson, who at that time was vice president of marketing at Costa, the pair founded the nonprofit Indifly. Its mission is “to protect fisheries and provide sustainable livelihoods for indigenous peoples” using fly-fishing ecotourism as the economic driver. Indifly kickstarts a sustainable economy based on catch-and-release fly fishing, and empowers local inhabitants to take protective ownership of imperiled natural resources.

For example, now that Rewa residents have seen firsthand the benefits of a nonconsumptive sport-fishing operation, they protect the arapaima as shepherds tend to their flocks.

In the dry season of 2016, two known arapaima ponds became dangerously low to the point where dozens of arapaima were immobilized like beached whales. With no outside consultation, villagers took immediate action and in one day used canoes to haul 19 arapaima one at a time from evaporating sloughs back to the main river channel. The two largest arapaima were still left in one pond at nightfall, but when rescuers came the next morning with more manpower to move the two larger fish, all they found were bones, scales, and jaguar tracks. Previous generations would have quickly harvested the arapaima before the jaguars could get to them.

FFMP-171200-GUY-006.jpg: FFMP-171200-GUY-006.jpg:In another example of how the Indifly seed can become a beanstalk, Rewa residents are now negotiating with the government of Guyana to extend their upriver ownership of the Rupununi wetlands. The move is defensive: At least one Chinese company is vying for the right to log this headwater region and use the Rupununi (or build new roads) to transport the lumber to market. Both options threaten the arapaima, the village, and the wetland ecosystem, but because of the Indifly catalyst, the Macushis now have the communication tools, political willpower and experience, and other means to conserve the resource in meaningful ways instead of being bystanders and victims of resource exploitation.

Clearly, the Indifly idea works, and success in Rewa has spawned two other potential projects. On Anaa Atoll in French Polynesia, the kio kio (bonefish) is a favorite food fish, but the numbers of kio kio and the size of them are rapidly declining, while employment opportunities are nonexistent. The people survive on what they harvest from the ocean, and they are quickly eating themselves out of house and home. Indifly’s goal on Anaa Atoll is to introduce a sustainable catch-and-release fishery that will produce real jobs and protect the fishery.  The challenge is to get everyone on the island to buy into the project (like the Rewa villagers) and stop trapping schools of bonefish as they enter and exit the flats.

In the U.S., Indifly hopes to introduce the Rewa model to the Wind River Reservation, a 2.2-million-acre parcel of land owned and populated by Eastern Shoshone and their traditional enemies the Northern Arapaho. The reservation village of Crowheart is named after a famous five-day battle between the Shoshone and the Crow tribes in 1866. The war was over rights to the hunting and fishing in the nearby Wind River Range, and ended with Shoshone Chief Washakie besting his rival chief in a one-on-one duel. Instead of customarily scalping his opponent, Washakie was so impressed by the courage of the Crow chief that he instead cut out his heart and placed it on the end of his lance.

The point is that the hunting and fishing was (and still is) worth fighting for. Most of the Wind River is within the reservation, and the Wedding of the Waters near the reservation boundary is where the Wind River becomes the Bighorn River. The Wind River below Boysen Reservoir is one of the best tailwater trout fisheries in the country, and access and licenses are permitted on a limited basis by tribal authorities. The tributaries of the Wind River offer excellent small-stream fishing, and the reservation itself contains much of the Wind River Range and provides recreational access to the rest of the alpine lakes and small-stream fishing in the adjacent national forest lands.

The value of these recreational resources is immense, but they are largely unused by the tribal communities, which are plagued by unemployment, alcoholism, and a generation of native youth who are largely cut off from their outdoor-oriented spiritual roots.

“Indifly’s goal with the Wind River project is to create hope and opportunities for the next generation, and help them cultivate an appreciation and understanding of the value of their natural resources,” said White. “Most of the younger generation on the reservation don’t participate in the outdoor pursuits that surround them—this project could be a beacon of hope and set a great precedent for what’s possible.”

To succeed with these future projects, Indifly needs to make inroads with the indigenous people, and garner support from individuals and companies who share the same vision.

“We are in our infancy, and in a lot of ways stumbling our way through,” White said of the nonprofit he started. “We need to improve communication with our fly-fishing base, our marketing, and ultimately our fundraising. The Indifly model is proven, but execution is slow, and we need to make sure we can stick around for the long term to have positive and permanent impact.”

Technical, Visual, Thoughtful
Like most other fly fishers, what first captured my imagination about Rewa was the size of the arapaima. I wrongly assumed that a sweaty, knuckle-busting battle with one of the largest freshwater fish on Earth would be the highlight. What I found is that this shouldn’t be characterized as simply a testosterone-fueled tug-of-war—it’s some of the most serene, visceral, and technical fly fishing I’ve ever experienced. The stalking, the strategy, and the suspense of the hunt are all far more thrilling than the actual fight.

It’s quiet in the jungle. No motors, no trains, no jets overhead, no farms or agriculture, no babbling river, and no wind. The silence sucks on your eardrums like a vacuum on the still ponds of the Rupununi wetlands. Your senses are almost overwhelmed by the sounds of a passing bee; paired scarlet macaws screeching overhead; the deep, distant roar of howler monkeys; and the quick breathing of an arapaima as it breaks the surface for a gulp of oxygen.

Arapaima are mandatory air breathers. While they do have gills, they depend on a modified swim bladder lined with lung tissue for oxygen. Arapaima must regularly come to the surface to breathe, and the guides often time their breathing with a stopwatch to find a pattern.

When the guides see/hear an arapaima take a breath, they move the boat by pole or paddle without a splash or drip of water. Arapaima live in a calm, quiet environment, and their lateral line is formed with a series of dish-shaped structures that are obviously meant to capture vibrations and sound waves. The two guides in the boat use signals to communicate with each other, and whisper only when necessary. Your fishing day is not a time to relive memories with your old college roommate or discuss a new business venture—do that back at camp after darkness. When you stalk arapaima, it’s a test of silence.

FFMP-171200-GUY-004.jpg: FFMP-171200-GUY-004.jpg:The ponds are usually only 4 to 6 feet deep, but the slightly acidic “black water” makes it impossible to see more than a few feet. There aren’t suspended solids like a dirty river back home; the light just can’t seem to penetrate it because it’s stained by tannins from the surrounding forest.

Despite the lack of clarity, you’ll know the fish are there because when they breathe, they settle back on the bottom just a few feet from where they started, and they often emit a slow trickle of gas bubbles as they absorb oxygen from the swim bladder and release the waste gas. That slow trickle sometimes shows approximately where the head is, but it’s still difficult to figure out just what direction the fish might be facing.

White is adamant that if you can get the fly inside a basketball-size area right in front of the fish’s face, “he’ll eat it every single time.” But if you’re outside that short cone of vision, you’re in the no-hope zone. That’s why the guides encourage you to hold your cast until a fish slowly rises for air. Often, you can tell when an arapaima is about to come to the surface because it expels a gush of bubbles at one time. When you see this, you know the fish is ready to surface. When the fish breathes, you can see the head and the direction it’s facing, and fire a cast right in front while the fish is elevated.

The fish are extremely sensitive to their quiet surroundings, and despite your best attempts at stealth, too many casts, a dropped water bottle, or a clunking paddle will cause a fish to move away, and you can often watch it happen as a trail of tiny bubbles rises in a linear path between point A and point B. Camains often leave a similar trail as they crawl along the bottom and release methane gas from the mud. Your best chance at getting any fish to eat is with the first cast, but at least when an arapaima leaves a bubble trail like this, you get a solid indication of which way it’s facing, and you can also use that to your advantage.

“Seeing” these fish in black water is like playing blind man’s bluff when you were a kid. The fish can’t see you, and you can’t see the fish, but your other senses tell you your target is right there. It’s the most suspenseful and thrilling “blind” casting you’ll ever do.

The Science of Catch-and-Release
Large arapaima have mouths about the size and shape of five-gallon buckets. Their gill slits have evolved not to slowly help extract oxygen, but instead to quickly draw in a huge volume of water. They don’t bite or slash at their prey like a muskie or a bluefish, they inhale it with a massive intake of water that you can often hear. A strike often happens like this: You are stripping your floating line with a one-handed retrieve—slowly to keep the fly deep and within sight of an arapaima you know is near. You hear a quick, short powerful sucking sound, and before you can whisper “what was that?!” your line goes tight.

Arapaima suck in not just your fly, but the entire volume of water surrounding it, and as they expel the water through their gill slits they bite down with their bony mouths.

Steelhead, tarpon, and most other gamefish commonly grab the fly while swimming and then conveniently turn away, pulling the hook into the corner of the mouth. Arapaima don’t make it that easy because they don’t chase their prey like many other gamefish. They are ambush predators that sit camouflaged on the bottom like a giant mud puppy.

When a piranha, peacock bass, or other prey species comes close, they lift only as much as they need to, and suck it in.

Often the fish is directly facing you, and still moving forward slightly as it settles back to the bottom. Getting a hook into one is a bitch because you are drawing the hook straight out of the mouth while at the same time the fish has clamped down on the leader and the fly, flattening the fly into the horizontal position where it has little purchasing power.

It’s a hard thing to comprehend, but often the fish bites down on the leader so hard that you can’t even move the hook, let alone dig it in. It’s like when your Labrador retriever bites and hangs onto his leash, so you can’t tug on the collar.

Sometimes an arapaima grabs hold of that leader so tightly that you set the hook hard with an arm-length strip-set, set the hook again, and again, to the point where you’re moving the boat you’re standing in, and then the fish just lets go of the leader and is gone. It’s possible you never really had a hook in him.

FFMP-171200-GUY-002.psd: FFMP-171200-GUY-002.psd:I set the hook hard on one memorable fish with two arm-length strip sets, and then—holding tight to the line—fell backward from the bow into the center of the boat. Even putting my full 200-pound body weight into it didn’t work, as in the next instant the fish simply let go of the fly.

For most visitors, an arapaima is the largest fish of any kind they’ve ever had on the line. The fish are enormously powerful, and while it can take several hook-sets to awaken the giant, once you get them properly hooked they always jump (often multiple times) and everyone in the boat goes from stealth mode to chaos management. Clear the line without losing a finger or creating a knot, get the fish on the reel, and pray your hook is holding on to something secure. If it is, and the fish doesn’t get wrapped up in weeds, around a log, or smash your rod into pieces when it’s close to the boat, you’ll have a chance to land it.

The good news is that you’re in a small, shallow pond. Arapaima don’t have space to sound like a tuna or run toward the horizon like a tarpon, and while the first few minutes of the fight is a violent airborne adrenaline rush, you can usually land one of these fish quickly.

“Since we filmed Jungle Fish, we’ve had a complete transformation in the way we fight and land fish,” said White. “At the start of this project we learned to thump a paddle on the water to scare the fish and get them to exert more energy so we could safely handle them at the end of the fight. These wrestling matches sometimes lasted 45 minutes or more for big fish. It made it easy to handle the fish, but we quickly saw that it stressed the fish excessively, and made for long revival times.

“Our indigenous guides recognized that we might be doing more harm than good, so we looked for ways to shorten the fight times, by putting more pressure on the fish, and using only straight 80-pound-test leaders. IGFA class tippets are detrimental to the health of the fish and we won’t allow them. Rather than fight the fish to complete exhaustion, the guides found that if they jump in the water and grab the pectoral fins of the fish, it just sort of gives up, and it swims away healthier. Now our goal is always to land even the largest fish in under 10 minutes.”

When White says 10 minutes, he’s not just spit-ballin’ a number. In the past few seasons, UMass Amherst associate professor of fish conservation and Indifly board member Andy Danylchuk has implemented one of the most detailed, result-oriented catch-and-release studies going on today. Under his direction, Carleton University PhD candidate Robert Lennox has accompanied Rewa guides (and anglers) into the field over the course of the past two seasons. When an angler hooks a fish, Lennox starts a stopwatch and records the exact length of the fight. With four anglers per week, Lennox observes only a fraction of the total catch, but he was there for two of my fish and clocked them at 5:55 and 5:46 minutes, respectively.

FFMP-171200-GUY-005.jpg: FFMP-171200-GUY-005.jpg:When a fish is landed, Lennox takes a tissue sample, plants a PIT tag to identify the fish in case of recapture, and using a harness made from a rubber band, attaches an accelerometer to the fish to record its movements and breathing activities after it is released.

“These devices (much like a Fitbit for a fish) measure movement on three axes, and they can reveal subtle (or not so subtle) changes in activity patterns,” said Danylchuk, who concocted the removable harness system in his basement. “We use them to quantify how fish respond to the stresses imposed by angling events, specifically elements of capture, handling, and release.”

The accelerometer measures things like how far the fish swims after release, and how many times it surfaces to breathe. It also reveals whether the fish lives or dies. There is mortality in all catch-and-release fishing, and in this study, each fish is carefully monitored after it is released. The 88-inch arapaima that died during our week took two breaths after it was released, and never came up for a third.

At the end of the day, Lennox is still directly attached to the accelerometer by a spinning rod and reel, and 80-pound test braid. To get the accelerometer back, he gives one hard pull and breaks the rubber band. That’s how he recovers the device so he can download the data.

“Just saying ‘we practice catch-and-release’ is not good enough for Indifly,” said Danylchuk. “Not all fish respond similarly to capture, handling, and release, and when the science isn’t already available, we do the science to generate the best practices needed to make the recreational fishery more sustainable.”

The data Indifly is collecting is preliminary but is already helping refine Rewa practices and define successful catch-and-release. Of the 27 arapaima releases Lennox recently documented over six weeks of fishing, three died, an 11% mortality rate which is consistent for all recreational fishing. It’s a remarkable statistic considering the size of these fish, and dramatic considering that the Amerindians of Rewa have gone from harvesting these fish for food, to advancing our knowledge of catch-and-release fishing, and educating the rest of the world about sustainable practices.

And while we mourned with them over the death of one giant arapaima during our trip, we also celebrated the fact that fly fishing has provided a bright future for the villagers of Rewa, and overall arapaima numbers are growing in a protected, carefully managed fishery. All it took was a little help from one guy with a fly rod.

Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman

The post 1 Guy With A Fly Rod appeared first on Fly Fisherman.

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Fly-Fishing the Lehigh River

Fly-Fishing-the-Lehigh-River

The Lehigh Gorge is a 1,000-foot-deep trench with no road crossings in 25 miles, and only two access points. Many spring-fed tributaries feed the Lehigh River, keeping the water cold enough in summer for a healthy population of wild trout. Photo by Jay Nichols

It’s one of the oldest river valleys in North America, and during an early October morning, the frost holds rein over peak fall colors of crispy hard maples and oaks. High above, on its eastern crest, the strikes of first light slowly dissolve gray morning dullness into burning ridges of fire. While I’m standing cold, rigging rods and throwing on yet another layer deep in this gorge, it will be many hours before any direct light reaches the valley floor to warm the soul. As with the start of most days on this river, there is the always the promise of the unexpected and the unknown. This rings more indisputable here on the Lehigh than on any river I’ve fished in the East.

Here on the Lehigh River, the effort is directly proportional to the reward of a wild experience. Wild is something of a sacred commodity in this part of the country, which 56 million call home, but nearby in the hard recesses of the section affectionately known as “The Gorge” it’s yours, but it will not come easy.

With the day’s provisions and gear all packed on the bike, I slip past the gate at the trailhead and start the journey up into the heart of the Allegheny Plateau. The biking is leisurely, and every mile seems to strip away the chains of a taxing life in the busy world. It’s hard not to become mesmerized into a trance by the intense kaleidoscope of crimson reds and deep oranges drifting overhead.

To my right there is an overwhelming line of boiling water crashing into boulders dissolving into long slow and silent pools. Eventually I stop and slip down one of the few trails (or more accurately a barely controlled slide) to the water’s edge. Carefully moving across the field of greased bowling balls and contending with the relentless push of water, I’m able to reach a deep cut fed by broken water rolling over Class II and III rapids.

That rhythm of casting and working the water falls into perfect balance with the sound of rushing water echoing off the mountainsides. At the point of almost losing track of how long I’d been there, all hell breaks loose as a fairly robust wild brown shoots clear out of the water, reaching for the blue sky above. Quick, guiding movements of the rod and jumping from rock to rock help keep my connection to the fish intact. The struggle certainly is weighted more in favor of the trout in such fast water.

A few moments later I find myself looking down at my net admiring the golden belly and bright spots along its muscular body. I can’t help but wonder if this is the first time it has fallen for a fly made of fur and feathers. Quickly it whisks away from my hand, dissolving into the depths of the dark tannin-stained water. Suddenly, the promise of the day’s start is fulfilled. This is fall fishing on the Lehigh. Days here are not counted in numbers, but measured in the currency of the wild experience.

Where-to-Fish-on-The-Lehigh-River

The Lehigh stays cold due to the influence of Class A wild trout tributaries like Mud Run, Hickory Run, Hayes Run, Stony Creek, Pohopoco Creek, and several others. Photo by Jay Nichols

Tailwater Transition
For many, the Lehigh isn’t a name that comes to mind when speaking about the best rivers in the Northeast. For many years this large tailwater had the odds stacked against it. Years of inhospitable releases from Francis E. Walter Dam, acid mine drainage (AMD), and high summer water temperatures resulted in a stunted and struggling trout fishery.

The Lehigh developed a reputation as a put-and-take fishery. Yet underneath it all—and framed by some of the most stunning and wild scenery on a big river in the East—was the potential for an exceptional wild trout fishery.

In recent years, the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance has worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure minimum flows from Francis E. Walter Dam, and that during months of excessive heat, extra water is directed toward maintaining survivable flows. The trout have also benefited recently from the hard work of the Lehigh River Stocking Association, which has worked tirelessly in monitoring and improving water quality from years of AMD damage. With greatly improved management, and a more trout-friendly flow plan from Francis E. Walter Dam, the river’s trout are now reproducing more regularly, and stocked fish are holding over for multiple years.

While the nearby West Branch of the Delaware River is considered the king of the Northeast, the Lehigh (which is the Delaware River’s largest tributary) has a contingent of loyal and faithful followers who happily play in its shadow. Regulars know that the Lehigh does not give up fish easily, and is extremely difficult to wade. Most serious anglers in the region have driven right past the Lehigh to fish the upper Delaware River system, or to fish more forgiving waters in the Poconos. Fly fishers willing to take their lumps and spend time unlocking the Lehigh’s secrets are often rewarded handsomely.

The Lehigh is a blue-collar river, and does not boast the same number of fish per mile as the West Branch of the Delaware River. It does, however, have a higher gradient, interesting holding structure, and close to 30 miles of nearly uninterrupted public access. You certainly do not need to be a member of any exclusive club to sample its finest offerings.

History of Abuse
The Lehigh has an extensive history of abuse. This was once the heart of the anthracite coal region, and the river flanks once hosted the busiest railroad route in the country, connecting New York seaports with the Great Lakes. Much of this abuse was part of the Industrial Revolution, which swept the Northeast in the early part of the last century.

In 1961, under direction from Congress, the Francis E. Walter Dam was constructed. Built for flood control, with a tailwater release, it was far from perfect. With only the ability to release from the very bottom, its cold water did not last through the hot days of summer. Another fault in the design was a low road crossing upstream, preventing the dam from realizing its full storage potential.

Fly fishers and other river users in 1988 pushed for a bill authorizing recreation to be added to the official dam mandate. This key milestone allowed groups like the Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance to spearhead projects such as rerouting the low road to the crest of the dam, allowing a seasonal higher storage level of the reservoir from 50 feet deep to almost 170 feet of icy aquatic gold. Larger capacity also paved the way for annual flow plans that could provide more reliable recreational opportunities.

Use-Drift-Boats-Along-the-Lehigh-River

Drift boats are useful on the Lehigh from Glen Onoko down to Treichler’s Bridge. There is also plentiful wading access from the lower D&L Trail. Photo by Jay Nichols

Whitewater rafters and fly fishers spent years working with the Army Corps of Engineers to achieve an agreement serving all recreational interests in the form of annual flow plans. Years of tweaking these plans resulted in enough water to prolong the benefits of cold water and hit minimum flow targets during the hottest months. This is evidenced in the wild trout now found throughout the river in larger numbers, along with the enhanced survivability of stocked trout.

The next chapter for the dam is the pursuit of structural changes allowing a multi-level release capability. A recent study shows these changes could allow cold water releases year-round and significantly change water temperatures 30 miles downriver. A feasibility study is currently underway and then it’s off to Congress to authorize the $11 million to complete it.

Preliminary assessments show that increased revenue from having such a high-quality tailwater fishery would more than offset those costs. 
The Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau
 estimates there is already more than $2.4 billion in annual visitor spending in this region due to the recreational opportunities of the river as of 2013.

Wild Browns
The Lehigh River Stocking Association (LRSA) doesn’t sound like a group that would advocate for a wild trout fishery, but it has taken every opportunity to put itself out of business. The group built an extensive water quality monitoring network and has conducted fish migration studies to pair with it.

LRSA constructed the largest acid mine drainage remediation project on the river at the mouth of the Luzerne Mine outflow tunnel near Jim Thorpe. The next move is the construction of a fish ladder near the mouth of the Pohopoco Creek that would allow spawning fish to once again gain access to this high-quality Class A trout stream. The LRSA is working toward a future where the importance of stocking is diminished, but for now continues to stock thousands of fish in the river every year.

Faces of the Lehigh
The Lehigh forms in the highlands atop the Allegheny Plateau, and runs nearly 109 miles to merge with the Delaware River in the city of Easton. The most productive stretch of the river is from the Francis E. Walter Dam to the Treichler’s Bridge access approximately 40 miles downriver.

Tailwater section. The upper tailwater section of the Lehigh starts at Francis E. Walter Dam in the town of White Haven and reaches downstream to the Lehigh Gorge. From the dam down to Sandy Run, wild trout and holdovers can be caught, but most of the trout are stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. Unfortunately, this section of the river warms considerably once the coldwater storage from the dam runs out around mid- to late June. While the scenery is beautiful, angling here is mostly supported through stocking and tends to be a put-and-take situation.

You can access this section of river during low or normal flows via the Delaware and Lehigh Trail (D&L Trail)  which runs along the west side from Whitehaven. A detailed map is available at delawareandlehigh.org/map. Anglers can also park and walk to the river right below the dam or behind the supermarket parking lot in the town of White Haven.

You can also float with rafts or pontoons, but drift boats are prohibited on the Lehigh River until you reach Glen Onoko. You will run Class II and III rapids in this section.

Lehigh Gorge to Jim Thorpe. As you move south into the Lehigh Gorge, the fishery offers a more remote, scenic, and wild experience. Over 6,000 acres of the Lehigh Gorge State Park border the river from White Haven down to Jim Thorpe. The river here has carved an almost 1,000-foot-deep canyon into the Pocono Plateau, with no roads crossing the river over a distance of approximately 25 miles with only two main access points. The river here is wild and fast in sections, with heavy riffles, long glides, and large pools, and sees little pressure.

Oddly, the Lehigh is a river where the water temperatures during the hot summer months drop as you move downstream and away from the dam. Here, with the help of a number of icy Class A wild trout tributaries (Mud Run, Hickory Run, Hayes Run, and Stony Creek to name a few) along with the deep, shaded nature of the gorge, the colder water temperatures support the most significant wild fish population on the Lehigh. This is by no means a high fish-per-mile situation, but if you are looking for a ­fishing ­experience with no stocked trout, and a chance to hook into wild trout while drifting a big, fast river, this is the best place in Pennsylvania.

Access by foot or bike is easy along the D&L Trail, but in most places, getting down to the water requires an eye for strategic and difficult bushwhacking. Wading is a serious game here. Studded boots, a wading staff, and fishing with a partner are good ideas. Think of greased bowling balls with nearby Class III white water, and you get the idea. Solitude in such a populated part of the country does not come easy.

Large, weighted gold or black-and-brown stonefly patterns along with standard nymphs such as Pheasant Tails and Hare’s-ear Nymphs drifted deep in fast, aerated riffles often turn up decent-size wild browns. During elevated flows, throwing streamers on sinking lines can turn up some of the river’s more aggressive trout.

One of our favorite ways to fish in the spring is by casting March Brown, Sulphur, or stonefly dry flies to likely looking runs and seams. This is gorgeous water to watch a fish rise from the bottom of the river to suck down a dry. Given the fast water here, these fish are muscled, and will not give up easily when you try to bring them to the net. Sometimes landing the fish is impossible due to whitewater or other obstacles, but just the thrill of the fight (if only brief) in a remote location is worth it. Trout in the 13- to 18-inch range are caught here with regularity, and there’s always a chance at something bigger.

To get to Lehigh Gorge, park at Rockport Access in Lehigh Gorge State Park. From here you can explore 10 miles upriver to White Haven or 12 miles downriver to the next access point at Glen Onoko. The river here can be fished from rafts during periods with sufficient water, but it’s a challenging row with miles of Class II and III rapids. Drift boats are prohibited for obvious reasons until you reach Glen Onoko.

At Glen Onoko there is also a boat launch and access to the lower D&L Trail that runs through the remaining 3 miles of the Lehigh Gorge to the town of Jim Thorpe. The river here still maintains its remote and burly nature but it is the first section of river where it is safe enough to use a drift boat if you are capable of handling some moderate rapids.

Jim Thorpe to Treichler’s Bridge. Below Jim Thorpe the rivers starts to relax and slow down. This stretch stays cool due to the effect of the gorge and many coldwater tributaries. It is best fished from a drift boat or raft, given the depth and width of the river here, but with a little exploration, you can find wadable areas. Most of the rapids for these lower 20 miles are Class I and II, but during times of elevated flows some are upgraded to Class III.

Wild-Brown-on-The-Lehigh-River

Jim Thorpe to Treichler’s Bridge provides the best and most reliable fishing on the Lehigh, with a mix of wild and stocked trout. The Lehigh Gorge is not stocked, and has mostly wild browns. Photo by Jay Nichols

In the lower river, hatches become heavier, and the fishing is a mix of wild and stocked trout. Overall this section provides the best and most reliable fishing. It is here that the river truly takes on the appearance of a Western tailwater. Structure is abundant and what may appear to be a slow lazy run at the surface can reveal ideal holding water just below. Great access can be found throughout from the southern section of the D&L Trail, which runs the full length to Triechler’s Bridge access and beyond.

The lifeblood of this stretch of river is Pohopoco Creek or the “Po,” as locals call it. The Po is a Class A wild trout and stocked tailwater that enters the Lehigh in the town of Parryville. Amazingly, even with the great access, the difficulty in wading and boating the river scares many anglers off and gives motivated fly fishers relatively unpressured water. A typical spring evening consists of nymphing riffles, and then waiting in some of the better dry-fly water for the fish to come to the surface.

Lehigh Calendar
Prime time on the Lehigh is between April and the middle of June, and from the middle of September to early November. During early spring, afternoon hatches on the Lehigh are prolific. The hatches and fishing conveniently shut down about an hour before the sun sets, which leaves plenty of time to head on over to Riverwalck Saloon to grab a beer and dinner after a long day on the river. As the spring progresses we find that those midday hatches change to early morning and late evening hatches that go well after dark, which on some nights causes us to miss last call at the saloon. The lower river has some tremendous hatches that include Hendricksons, March Browns, stoneflies, various caddis, and Sulphurs. Many of the hatches overlap, and in the right conditions they can last for an entire day.

Typically, by the middle of July we seek out other waters to fish for trout or just focus on smallmouth bass, but during wet or cool years the summer can provide some fantastic fishing as the water temperatures stay low enough to safely catch-and-release trout without killing them with thermal stress.

September and especially October is the second hatch season on the Lehigh, with Blue-winged Olives, caddis, and Isonychia providing some phenomenal dry-fly fishing. In November, streamers can be an effective way to target fat pre-spawn brown trout.

Winter is a tough time of year to fish the Lehigh. I wouldn’t advise wading here during times of particularly cold weather. Low and slow is the most effective way to fish using weighted stonefly, caddis pupa, and small nymph patterns. Using streamers to target post-spawn brown trout normally produces our biggest fish every year. If you are willing to brave the cold weather and the risk of being around fast-moving cold water, the payoff can be a brown trout that crawls up your arm to eat a streamer, but there are much easier and safer places to fish this time of the year.

Greater Potential
For those doubters who have been wondering if there is truly a viable trout fishery on the Lehigh, the answer is most certainly “yes.” Currently, there isn’t much more tweaking that can be done with the flow plan, and there seems to be a great balance and common ground between the whitewater enthusiasts and angling community. The biggest prize we can hope for is getting that 30 miles of year-round cold water by fixing the release tower on the dam. While this is a huge goal—and will be difficult to obtain—the tailwind provided by various angling and conservation groups and the people that love this river could make it a reality.

The Lehigh River has the potential to be one of the East’s greatest trout fisheries and is gradually becoming a regional destination. Cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lehigh Coldwater Fishery Alliance, and the Lehigh River Stocking Association has improved the quality of the Lehigh as a fishery tremendously. Gradual improvements are taking place on the Lehigh every year, and those of us who are on the river on a regular basis would rather be on the Lehigh than anywhere else. This is our home away from home, and it can be yours too.

Mike Stanislaw is an IT project manager and lives in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Nicholas Raftas is a guide with Sky Blue Outfitters in Coatesville.

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Fishing Historic Brodhead Creek

Fishing for Trout on Brodhead CreekBrodhead Creek is the birthplace of American fly fishing, with a rich history filled with the likes of Thaddeus Norris, Theodore Gordon, and Ernest Schwiebert. But as time passes, history is often forgotten. Flooding, animosity towards private fishing clubs, and stocked trout helped remove the Brodhead from the consciousness of Pennsylvania fly fishers.

That has changed in recent years with the addition of new public water, and the first ever section dedicated to wild trout. Now, the Brodhead is making history again.

Brodhead Creek has good hatches from the end of April into the end of June, and in a good year it fishes well right through the summer and into the fall. It is blessed with a good population of wild brown trout, and when supplemented with stocked fish it usually provides excellent fishing, especially in May and June when hatches of Sulphurs and Slate Drakes bring fish to the surface just about every day. Anglers often catch a dozen fish (some larger than average) in an afternoon or evening.

Historic Beginning
Brodhead Creek was once a tremendous brook trout fishery, and was a destination spot for anglers from all over. Anglers stayed at the many inns and boarding houses in the Stroudsburg and Delaware Water Gap area and fished streams teeming with trout.

The most popular and famous place to stay was the Henryville House in Henryville, Pennsylvania. It sat alongside Paradise Creek, a quality, coldwater tributary of Brodhead Creek. Guests would fish the nearby sections of the Paradise and upper Brodhead watershed for some of the finest native brook trout in the region; Henryville House logbooks reveal anglers keeping their 40-fish limits, with some individual fish weighing more than 4 pounds. Unfortunately, this tremendous fishery was not going to last forever.

Unsustainable catch limits and the encroachment of industry delivered a crushing blow to the native trout population, and many anglers decamped for New York’s Catskills.

During the late 1800s, European brown trout were introduced to the Brodhead in an attempt to revive the fishery. The new fish flourished. From the turn of the century until 1955 the Brodhead was known as a prime place to pursue these trout, and anglers once again traveled from all over to fish this historic creek. That all changed on August 18, 1955, when the remnants of Hurricane Connie and Hurricane Diane overwhelmed the Brodhead watershed. The Brodhead flooded the towns of Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg, and many residents perished when the waters rose swiftly and the Delaware River flowed backward up the Brodhead.

In 1956 Brodhead Creek was channelized and put under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers. The brute force of the floodwaters and the heavy machinery run by the engineers rerouted the Brodhead and forever changed both its look and its hatches. Even with channelization, flood events continued: The area was hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and suffered a 100-year flood in 2006. The latter event changed the course of the creek and inundated acres of public and private land. Severe storms in the intervening years have continued to change the stream, as the cobble-size rock in the Brodhead is easily moved. The stream is destined to further move and change as it battles the confinements placed on it by man.

What’s interesting is that the fishing and the hatches seem to quickly rebound after floods. Don Baylor is Stroudsburg’s resident entomologist and an expert angler. He has spent countless days collecting and analyzing samples of insects from the Brodhead and other Pocono trout streams. Don has noted that certain mayfly species like Baetis have many broods each year and repopulate quickly after heavy flooding. He also notes that certain species of mayflies such as Cornutas, Quill Gordons, and Pale Evening Duns were not really affected by the floods. Species like the Large Sulphurs and Hendricksons are more affected by the rolling rock and debris; they are present in lower numbers than in past years, but populations are improving.

As far as the fish go, Don and many other anglers are noticing rising numbers of wild fish in the creek. It seems that many people think the Brodhead is a put-and-take fishery due to the heavy stockings it receives. In reality, there are good numbers of wild fish, especially in its middle and upper sections. The bugs and the fish are proving that the Brodhead and its surrounding streams are bouncing back.

Catching Rainbow Trout on Brodhead CreekImproved Access
The upper reaches of the creek are posted with “no trespassing” signs by some of the oldest fishing and hunting clubs in the nation. Some consider it unfair that these clubs have limited the access to this water, but the groups have protected this resource for more than 100 years. In recent years the Poconos have experienced a building boom in which developers have bought land at an alarming rate. If these properties were owned by individual families or local farmers, the watershed most likely would have been overdeveloped and overwhelmed by the growing population. In other words, if those clubs weren’t there we would be fishing for sunnies and bass, not trout.

From the village of Analomink downstream to the Delaware River the Brodhead has about 8 miles of public water that is preserved in public greenways by Stroud Township. The upper section of the creek near Analomink is easier to access than in years past: parking can now be found at the new ForEvergreen Park on Cherry Lane Road.

ForEvergreen is a half mile from the intersection of Cherry Lane Road and PA 191, on the right-hand side just after you cross over the creek. This stretch of newly public water is the first section of the Brodhead to be dedicated to wild trout and will not be stocked by the state. ForEvergreen Park stretches from the cell tower at the upstream end of the property down to the area near the broken bridge (which came here from the old Penn Hills Resort). The area below the bridge is not technically park property, but anglers can fish their way down to the Cherry Lane Road bridge. This property has some deep runs and a few good pools but also has some flats that may be barren at times. Lower Analomink is still tricky to access, but once you find a place to park, you can easily get to the stream by ­following the railroad tracks and fishermen’s trails that follow the stream.

Parking near the Cherry Lane Road bridge off PA 191-447 is limited. Do not park in the post office lot near the creek; they will have your vehicle towed if they know you are fishing. Parking is available at the Analomink Hotel at this time. This local watering hole is located on the left side of PA 191 in Analomink if you are heading north from Stroudsburg, just before the sharp bend. You must park on the left-hand side of the bar, in front of the shed by the downed telephone poles that mark the parking lot. There is room for four to five cars; if there are that many there, you probably want to hit another area.

This section of the Brodhead is most likely what the creek looked like before it was channelized. Big boulders and steep gradient create great pocketwater mixed with a few small pools. These small pools are often deep and tricky to navigate, but with careful positioning they can be covered from one side of the creek or the other. They often give up nice-size wild or holdover fish taking advantage of the prime real estate. This section is a nymph fisherman’s delight, and in evenings throughout the season can have good hatches of various mayflies and caddisflies.

Analomink is difficult to wade due to its slanted rocks and swift water, so make sure you have cleats and a staff. It is also wise to look at real-time water data at usgs.gov. The best fishing is usually when the water is at normal or lower levels. If the Analomink stream gauge reads 150 cfs or higher, the water here may not be safe to wade.

Landing Fish on Brodhead CreekAs you move south from Analomink you will find what the locals call High Bridge, at the intersection of Routes 447 and 191. Years ago the High Bridge was used for dumping; now it is the start of Pine Brook Park, part of the Stroud Township Greenway. The parking area here is clearly marked (as in most of the Stroud Township parks) with a brown sign with the park name and fenced-in parking. This upper parking lot, which places you right next to the stream, is called Pine Brook Park North.

This section of creek is home to a large stream improvement project that was designed and installed by the Brodhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited. The deflectors in this area have survived many floods and have improved the trout habitat. Below the deflectors the stream is a bit deceiving. This section of shallow riffles has some deeper runs that can hold fish—if you can locate them along the banks.

In Pine Brook Park South those riffles enter a long pool with trout hanging out in the deeper water and under the cover of the trees along the opposite bank. This flat water is good dry-fly water but leaves a lot to be desired for nymph fishers. If you continue down from the long pool in Pine Brook South you can access some good water below the flat. It leads into a series of riffles and pools that also hold numbers of fish. I have hit good hatches in this section and find it productive for most of the season.

The entrance to Pine Brook Park South is roughly a quarter mile south of Pine Brook North. The stream is just a short walk along the gravel path out of the parking lot.

Continuing downstream, the line is blurred between Pine Brook and Brodhead Parks. There is no clear trail between the parks along the water but a little wading and trailblazing can get you where you need to go.

The section below Pine Brook is in the shadow of the old Diversey chemical plant. If you park in Brodhead Park, about a half mile down from Pine Brook South, you will see some long pools that almost always hold fish. Heading back upstream leads you toward the same water you can access from Pine Brook Park South. In the section below Brodhead Park, the creek starts to twist and wind through some logjams and odd little pools and runs. Fishing is not always consistent through here, but there are often wild browns as you get closer to the Big Wheel skating center and the Mill Creek Road bridge.

At Mill Creek Road there is a dam that is a common stocking spot and is often frequented by the baitfishing crew. No parking is allowed at the bridge so anglers must park in Yetter Park, which is on the south side of Mill Creek Road off of Roosevelt Street. Anglers may access the water near the bridge and upstream toward the dam by following the trail in Yetter Park to the right, which will lead you toward the bridge and to the holes upstream. Stokes Mill Road also runs along the creek between Mill Creek Road and PA 191. This area is often referred to as the Moose in honor of the Moose Lodge that has stood along the Brodhead for many years. The Moose has long granted access to fishermen and has always had a good relationship with fishermen and the local TU.

Anglers used the Moose parking lot for years, but now there is a township lot just upstream of the Moose that was purchased specifically for stream access. From the lot you can fish up- or downstream and have access to some excellent water. However, this spot is no secret, and the Brodhead is open to all types of fishing in the public water. The easy access from town may make it challenging to find available water in the beginning of the season. Not to fear: when the daylight starts to fade and the dry-fly fishing is prime, most of the dunkers-and-chuckers are long gone.

Below the Moose are the East Stroudsburg High School ballfields and Creek View Park. Access to Creek View Park is off of Appenzeller Road, a side street off PA 191 about a half  mile south of Stokes Mill Road in Stroudsburg. In this section you will find some good pools and easy access as you walk the trails in the park or on the banks of the flood project. From here down to Dansbury Park in East Stroudsburg is where the Brodhead seems to change the most during high water. These pools will change in depth and location and sometimes the creek will cut a totally new course. The trick to finding fish is to look for healthy populations of insects near good water: If you don’t have bugs, you won’t have fish.

Brown Trout on Brodhead CreekThe rolling rocks often crush and lose their insect populations and a section may take a while to repopulate after a storm.

Below the bridges of US 209 and Interstate 80, the Brodhead makes its final push to the Delaware River. In this section the Brodhead runs through a steep gorge with little access. You can reach the upper end of the gorge from Glenn Park, on Collins Street off of PA 191 just south of Interstate 80 in Stroudsburg. From here you can work your way down the trail to the old power dam that was blown out in the 1955 flood. In this section the wading is difficult because the pools are deep and there is little fishable bank. This area is home to some nice trout, but also becomes marginal water in warmer months. When conditions are right, you may find some nice wild browns and possibly rainbows in this section, but this is a game of quality, not quantity. This section is difficult to wade and the tracks on the Stroudsburg bank are active. For this reason, do not fish this stretch alone.

Access to the lower gorge area is at the ballfield off of Paper Mill Road. Do not drive up to the mill; there is no parking there. You can fish your way up around the mill and then cross the creek to access the railroad to work your way upstream. Some anglers just walk the tracks up from the ballfield, but for safety reasons, crossing the narrow trestle is not recommended. Once you are across from the mill, there is some nice water including the pool just below the milldam. Above the milldam about a half mile is a long riffle that leads to a productive bend in the creek.

In the gorge you will find a variety of fish from trout to bass and even shad and stripers. This water may become marginal in warmer weather and sometimes is affected by releases from the local sewer authorities. They are the main reason for the odd smell that often permeates the gorge. The last couple hundred yards of creek below River Road are pretty flat, and the creek becomes smallmouth water as hits the Delaware.

This feature story is an excerpt from Keystone Fly Fishing: The Ultimate Guide to Pennsylvania’s Best Water (Headwater Books, 2017).

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5 Best Trout Fishing Spots in the World

Whether I’m at a fishing lodge, a boat ramp parking lot, a riverside campfire, or an airport terminal in a far-flung foreign nation, when I meet fellow fly fishers for the first time, they invariably get around to asking, “Where is the best trout fishing in the world?”

As the editor of Fly Fisherman magazine, I have had the opportunity to fly fish in nearly all of America’s trout states, Canada, and every continent except Antarctica (and I’ve caught trout dang close to there!). It makes sense when a traveling angler goes fishing for information—we all do it, because it’s one of the best ways to shorten our learning curve.

It’s a common question, but I always hesitate before I give my reply because the word “best” is so incredibly subjective. What do you mean by “the best?”

Is that number of fish caught, pounds of fish caught, or merely the top size? For you, is this strictly a numbers game? If so, “the best” fishing is likely in a pond filled with pellet-fed triploid rainbow trout.

Or is the best fly fishing for you the most challenging? I’ve had days on the Henry’s Fork and the Letort where I’ve had my ass handed to me… but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as “the best.” The real answer has to be somewhere in the middle where the fishing is exciting, visually appealing, and a high level of competency is adequately rewarded with the kind of trout you’ll remember on your deathbed.

It also helps if you’re in a place where you and your companions can get some solitude. I’ve done my share of combat fishing behind shopping malls, under freeway overpasses, and even had to que up in a line of float planes in Alaska, but while these experiences have their time and place—and a special kind of charm—the best places are always a little more off the beaten path.


1. Kamchatka

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If you want to catch huge numbers of native trout on skittering mouse imitations, Kamchatka is the undisputed champion. The Best of Kamchatka photo

Kamchatka has the best trout fishing on planet Earth, but only if you enjoy watching giant rainbows destroy your mouse pattern in a hundred different ways. I guess that’s not for everyone. If you want to be stealthy and fool around with 14-foot leaders and tiny nymphs, it’s probably not the place for you.

When I fished in Kamchatka I floated the Two Yurt River with The Best of Kamchatka, and we had days where I landed 50 rainbows per day between 19 and 23 inches, and that’s seriously underselling the fishing because for every trout landed, there were likely two other heart-stopping and violent mouse attacks that didn’t result in a hookup. It seemed the native rainbow trout were conspiring to kill as many mice as possible, but less intent on actually swallowing them. The result was a week of high-flying surface attacks that really made you appreciate the spectacle of nature. For the complete story, see “Kamchatka: Unpolluted, indiluted, coast-to-coast wilderness trout fishing in the Feb-Mar 2013 issue or read it on-line at: http://www.flyfisherman.com/international/russia/russian-fly-fishing.

And it’s not like I just had one lucky week of exceptional fishing. I’m in close and constant contact with writers, photographers, and professional guides who fish top Kamchatka rivers like the Ozernaya, Zhuponova, Sedanka, and the Savan. (These last three rivers are booked exclusively by theflyshop.com.) The fishing is consistently excellent through the season because these rivers are mostly spring-fed, the habitat is in pristine condition, and they are absolutely loaded with rainbows, grayling, char and salmon. It’s like Alaska was 200 years ago.

The only downsides are that it’s a little uncivilized (true wilderness), and there’s very little sight-fishing. Which bring me to my next choice:


2. New Zealand

Best-Trout-Fishing-Spots-Ever

Legendary guide and Olympic gold medalist Simon Dickie surveys the clear waters of the North Island, New Zealand. Photo by Ross Purnell

It was a hard choice to position this island paradise in second place because it contains far and away the most beautiful locations I’ve ever trout fished. The volcanic North Island has remote streams in a lush, temperate rainforest. The South Island was pushed up from the ocean floor by plate tectonics, and the snow-capped peaks of the West Coast provided spectacular backdrops for small, clear streams with ridiculously large trout.

The best fishing in New Zealand is remote locations you can hike or helicopter to (don’t expect good fishing near the road). You can backpack and take advantage of New Zealand’s extensive hut system and live on $10 a day, or you can return each night to a world-class lodge, or 5-star hotels and restaurants. Quite the opposite of Kamchatka, New Zealand likely has the best combination of civilization and wild trout fishing on the planet. It’s the best place to go as a couple because there’s so much to see and do there. The winery tours and tastings alone are worth the visit, and if you’ve got the time and a good pair of legs, it’s the best DIY trout stream fishing anywhere.

The fishing is fascinating, visual, and highly technical. The trout aren’t normally picky about what fly they’ll accept—you don’t have to use a #22 Trico on 6X tippet like you do on some “technical” U.S. tailwaters. But because of the nature of many of the streams and the large, experienced trout, you do have to be extremely stealthy with your wading and your casting. The trout feed very well if they are undisturbed, but if they sense your presence with just a small unnatural ripple in the water, a misstep on the cobbles, or just a glimpse of fly line overhead, they are gone.

Nearly all of the fishing for large trout is visual—the guide spots the trout from a vantage point, and your casting needs to be on point. There aren’t many trout on these mountains streams so you don’t get many chances. My best day ever on the North Island was at Poronui Lodge with guide Dave Wood on a remote mountain stream on Mauri land. The stream hadn’t been fished in three months. We walked 3 or 4 miles of stream from our drop-off to out pickup location and saw 13 rainbow trout. I caught 12 of them. I had a similar high point on the South Island with guide Ed Halson. He had his eye on one big brown trout we hoped to catch, and we did. It was 10+ pounds. We saw four other trout that day, and caught them all, bringing our total to 5 fish. Halson said it was his best day ever on that stream. I tell you this not to brag, but to help set realistic expectations. In Kamchatka a five-fish day is a horrible disappointment, in New Zealand where you are hunting/stalking single fish, you’re there for the esthetics and the quality of the experience.


3. Rio Grande, Argentina

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Typical brown trout on the Rio Grande range from 12 to 20 pounds. Fish over 30 pounds are landed ever year. Jessica DeLorenzo photo

I lumped Kamchatka and New Zealand into two huge geographic regions as because within them, there are so many fine rivers of comparable quality that it’s hard to pick out just one river. However, in Argentina there is one river that’s obviously exceptional. The Rio Grande on the island of Tierra del Fuego is no ordinary trout stream. Sheep ranchers in the late 1930s stocked German brown trout in tributaries of the Rio Grande, but they never dreamed that some of them might make it to the ocean to feed, and that many decades later, it would develop into the world’s finest river for sea-run brown trout. When Outdoor Life writer Joe Brooks first visited the river in the 1950s, he wrote of catching two of these sea-runs, one was 18 pounds which at the time was unheard of.

The Rio Grande is one of those rare special streams that seems to get better as time goes on. The run is now estimated to be as large as 70,000 trout, and most of them are in 102 named pools and three large estancias in January, February, and early March. On a typical day of fishing, you and your partner will have an entire section of river with many pools all to yourself, and you’ll hook three to six fish ranging from 12 to 20 pounds. Most of those fish will come at first and last light, leaving plenty of time in the afternoon for wine, roast mutton, and napping. Not bad for an average day.

Brown trout of 30 pounds or more are caught from the Rio Grande every single season, and that’s the reason people travel thousands of miles to fish here and why the Rio Grande is #3 on this list. Brown trout are forever tied up with the genesis of fly fishing, and they are our ambassadors to the world.  No other river has such consistently excellent fishing for brown trout of this size. For more information, contact The Fly Shop at Redding California. They have been fishing there and booking this river for many decades and have a vast amount of up-to-date knowledge.


4. Montana

Yellow-Stone-River-Best-Trout-Fishing-Spots

The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing, undammed river in the contiguous United States, and the third longest in the world. This aerial highlight shows the Paradise Valley section of the river, with Emigrant Peak in the background. Larry Mayer photo

There is great fishing through all of our Rocky Mountain states but one thing separates Montana from all others: Article IX, section 3 of the 1972 Montana Constitution gives the streambeds in that state to the public for recreational use. In 1984 the Montana Supreme Court in Montana Coalition for Stream Access, Inc. v. Curran reaffirmed the law. While fly fishers in other states like Utah and Colorado are fighting valiantly for their own public access (and should be applauded) the fact remains that Montana has the better public access to more miles of quality trout streams that any other state. With a wide range of opportunities from floatable tailwaters (the Missouri, Bighorn, Beaverhead), large free-flowing trout streams (the Yellowstone), spring creeks, mountain streams, and highly structured streams like Rock Creek, the Madison, or the Big Hole, it’s easy to see that Montana is head and shoulders above any other state in the lower 48 states.

Of course, Alaska has no need of a similar provision, because most trout streams there are already located on public lands. Yes, the fishing is excellent in Alaska—and it needs to be protected from developments like Pebble Mine. But if you’re going that far, for that type of experience, you may as well go to Kamchatka (see #1). It’s only four hours from Alaska, and there are far fewer people.


5. Home Waters

Best-Trout-Fishing-Spots-in-Pennsylvania

Logan Daniel shows Lindsey Enterline the secrets of his home waters near State College, Pennsylvania. Ross Purnell photo

While fishing famous waters like the Yellowstone or Madison warms the soul, and big fish anywhere are always thrilling, the truth is that “the best” trout stream is the one you know well. It’s your home water, the stream where you know each stone and bend, where you can anticipate the hatches by the bloom of flowers along the pathway, and where each pool holds memories of fish lost or landed and old fishing friends.

No amount of and exploration can ever replace or replicate that level of intimacy. It’s like your first true love . . . there can be no other to replace it. The whole point of exploring is to experience that feeling of discovery—that same felling of discovery you felt when you truly “figured” out your home waters. And while you might find bigger and better trout in your journeys, you may never repeat that feeling you had when you first truly “knew” a place and knew it well.

5-Best-Trout-Fishing-Spots

Photo by Jay Nichols

Caveat: I didn‘t list any lakes in this ranking, merely because I prefer rivers over lakes. Like I said, it’s subjective. If lakes were included, I probably would have listed Jurassic lake in Argentina. What happens there is ridiculous. Also, it seems odd that I included sea-run brown trout on this list, but I didn’t include sea-run rainbow trout. Steelhead are in fact my favorite species to fish for, but weren’t mentioned merely because I can’t think of them as trout. To me, they are so much more than that. The fish on the Rio Grande have a similar life cycle and you catch them in similar ways, but when I catch them I can’t help but think, “Damn! That’s a nice trout.”

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Paradise in the Wild West of the Indian Ocean

Paradise in the Wild West of the Indian Ocean

Riding a cruiser around the three-mile perimeter of Alphonse Island doesn’t take long, but overwhelms the senses nonetheless. The massive webs of palm spiders span the road, slowing, stretching, and ripping as I pedal through. Coconuts fall and hit the sandy earth with cannonball thuds. Crabs dodge the bike wheels, wave their lethal claws, and scuttle into dried palm husks. A 90-year-old Aldabra giant tortoise meanders across the grassy lawn before the guide hut, making his slow way to a daily mating ritual with a resident female. This sandy knoll in the Indian Ocean is the base camp of Keith Rose-Innes, managing director of Alphonse Fishing Company and Alphonse Island Resort.

“It’s been a long journey, but I feel most at home here,” says the South African. Today, Rose-Innes finds himself harvesting the fruits of 20 years of hard labor as the leader of one of the most logistically complicated angling destinations on the planet. To understand this explorer, you have to understand this place, 932 miles east of Africa, just under 10 degrees south of the Equator, and hopelessly encircled by what some would argue to be the richest and most challenging saltwater fishing on the planet.

“There are so many species here. The beauty here is distinct, very untouched, and much more wild than comparable locations, like the Maldives,” says Rose-Innes.

The Seychelles are thought to have been mostly uninhabited throughout most of recorded history, visited only by passing Austronesian seafarers and Arab traders. The islands were later used by pirates and other wayfarers until the French began to colonize the islands in the mid-1700s. In 1810, the British Empire took control of the Seychelles, and made it a Crown colony. The islands were granted independence in 1976. Alphonse Island parallels this history and saw its busiest days when it was converted to a coconut plantation in the 1950s, and a resort in 1999.

Coat of Arms
Rose-Innes, now 39, was raised in King William’s Town, South Africa, which was founded by his Scottish expat ancestors. His father served in the Rhodesian Bush War and upon sustaining a head injury, met his mother, a nurse. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, fly fishing was a significant part of Rose-Innes’s upbringing. But in South Africa, there wasn’t a cohesive angling culture to look to for guidance. Instead, his knowledge came mostly through his father and his grandfather, Harry Stewart, a famed angler and fly manufacturer in Zimbabwe.

“I read Trey Combs’s books many times. In South Africa we didn’t have much reading material with apartheid. When I would get a book from my grandfather across the border, I would study it cover to cover,” he recalls. After a trip in his teens to the wild flats of the Seychelles, and treks to the untamed Zambezi River, finding a “normal job” wasn’t his goal.

Paradise in the Wild West of the Indian Ocean

“I’ve never thought that way. Ever. Not once,” he says.

Keith completed a university degree in advertising and made his way to London, working at a fly shop, bartending, landscaping, and playing rugby. He even set up a display at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show.

“I was so poor that I wore my black school shoes for the first three years I was there,” he remembers. From there, he squeezed his way into Farlows on Pall Mall, the fly shop mecca of Old World fly fishing and a grooming grounds for international guides.

Rose-Innes bounced from Farlows to guiding the Amirantes Islands of the Seychelles, enticing fly fishers from London to join him in the Indian Ocean. Wanting to expand into untouched portions of the Seychelles, he hopped on a 100-foot schooner, the Mika, with a few friends to explore the outer atolls.

“We figured it out ourselves. We didn’t have satellite images. We had charts. We’d go to the government mapmaker in Mahé. The maps were all printed in the ’80s. We’d laminate them and plot our course. The depths weren’t correct. So a few times, especially on Cosmoledo, we had the boat sideways on the sand,” he nonchalantly relates.

The crew also carried a copy of Smiths’ Sea Fishes, a 1965 biology classic, as their bible for figuring out how to catch giant trevally, triggerfish, and milkfish. In the exploratory process, they expanded the reach of South African fly fishers who have a reputation as some of the grittiest hunters, trackers, and guides on the planet.

“South Africans over the last 20 years have pioneered areas that are logistically difficult. Nobody opened up these places until these guys came along. They’re fearless guys who have pushed the boundaries of our perception of what is accessible,” says Jim Klug, Yellow Dog Flyfishing Adventures director of operations. “What they are collectively doing significantly raises the bar. They are not only some of the best guides, they are completely fearless. Keith was there from the beginning, restructuring what the next frontier of fly fishing is.”

The grit you acquire growing up on the African continent—bush life combined with often-unpredictable political climates—makes the notion of adventure take on an entirely different meaning. Hopping onto a schooner sailing into the unknown didn’t require deliberation for Rose-Innes.

“It’s the ‘Wild West’ in South Africa. Always have a back-up plan for your back-up plan,” Rose-Innes says. “You [in the developed world] have no idea what we have to deal with. But that’s what equips us to work in these environs and with complicated logistics.”

Rose-Innes founded his own outfitting company, Fly Guide, and eventually joined forces with Seychelles veterans Arno Mathee and Gerhard Laubscher to form FlyCastaway.

The South African company soon had the reputation as a grooming ground for the most hardcore guides, and drew recruits from around the planet. One such grasshopper was Jako Lucas. Rose-Innes encouraged him to finish university and then to work at Farlows, which is exactly what he did. After a year, Lucas circled back and asked for a job. Three weeks later, he was guiding at Cosmoledo.

“We’d throw them in the deep end and they’d have to guide. Jako didn’t get training,” Rose-Innes laughs. “We showed him a few spots on the map, told him where we’d be, to keep his radio on, and then to get out there and guide. And that’s how we did it. After two to three weeks, he’d know a few spots and get better. Every night he picked our brains, and that’s how he learned.”

“‘Fake it ’til you make it.’ I live by that,” says Lucas. “It was four years before I even had the chance to pick up a fly rod and fish the flats. So I was guiding for fish I had never caught. Keith’s confidence, fishing knowledge, kindness, and willingness to teach others are just a few of the qualities that make him a good mentor, not just for me but for many others. No other person has done as much for the Seychelles as he has.”

After years of running the logistical side of FlyCastaway, in 2012 Rose-Innes teamed up with The Collins Group and Devan VanDerMerwe to form the Alphonse Fishing Company.

The resort ambience is second to none. The open-air lounge areas, bar, and bungalows are comfortably island chic without going over the top. This is a place where you can show up to dinner in your fishing attire. Creole-influenced meals are largely made from the island’s garden produce and with local fish. All guests are issued cruiser bikes to get around. Staff are encouraged to mingle with guests during the evening happy hours. Good, clean island living is the overall vibe.

Paradise in the Wild West of the Indian OceanAll-Star Team
His face has graced the covers of magazines and appeared in fishing films, such as Yeti’s 2016 Cosmo.
We’re used to seeing Rose-Innes on the water, but he’ll tell you he’s as much a land creature as a sea dog. He’s in the office many days and nights, or zipping around the island, overseeing everything imaginable. I watch him hunched over with a maintenance worker, inspecting the ground for the placement of post holes. He greets incoming guests on turnover days, and coordinates with conservation scientists stationed on the island.

“Keith’s got to have a finger on everything. Everyone will tell you that,” says Sam Balderson, a naturalist and activities director. “But the great thing about Keith is that ‘what you see is what you get.’ He’s very forthright and ridiculously driven.”

If you dream of working on this island paradise, you’d best be ready to keep up. Alphonse Fishing Company has 2,000 guide résumés on file. The secret’s out that this is the place to become part of one of the most prestigious guide teams on the planet.

“You have to be really careful who you choose. Here in the Seychelles, it’s best to choose character over skill. Skill can be taught. It’s about spending time training the guides,” says Rose-Innes. “There’s no competitive edge within our team. It’s about talking to everybody, sharing information, camaraderie, socializing in the evenings, tying flies, cleaning boats together. Going out on the water and getting results will come naturally.”

Rose-Innes keeps this all-star team fresh by balancing young guides with senior guides and moving them around different destinations, so they don’t get “island fever” from being in one place for too long. They work eight months straight at a time, six days a week, so a change of scenery is revitalizing.

The team functions as a unit, pushing you beyond your bounds in a tough saltwater environment. Every guide on Alphonse will make you a better, more focused angler. Day one, I was fumbling to keep up. By day five, I was almost ready to slit throats—metaphorically speaking, of course, and even then, giant trevally throats.

Rose-Innes and guide Ollie Thompson took a fellow writer and me out for a day on the water. The sky was dauntingly split down the middle. The weather alternated between heavy tropical rain with wind and inescapable sun.

We moored the boat near some knolls and hiked. Because the flats are firm, fishing is often done on foot, making the experience a true hunt. Some hikes span finger flats the length of football fields and others are a 6-mile round trip slog through water, like one to the rusted remains of a wrecked Japanese long-liner on the outer edge of the atoll.

Fishing from a skiff is equally an adventure. The changing spectrum of green and blue water glaze over Chihuly-like coral formations flush with fish. It’s like floating over a giant aquarium filled with hawksbill and green turtles, sharks, rays, and hundreds of other mysterious fish species.

We started with a few bonefish, the warm-up species here. My young boat companion and fellow writer Alex Ford made the foolish mistake of assigning himself to land a triggerfish for a Wall Street Journal piece. So after a few bonefish, the rest of our day was focused on these notoriously tricky fish.

We motored to a finger flat. I sat while Ford stood on the casting deck. Rose-Innes hopped out and pulled the skiff behind him. Thompson stood on the platform. Both scanned the flats and soon pinpointed the turned-up tail of a foraging triggerfish waving at us.

On Ford’s third cast, the trigger took the small, green crab and hightailed it toward the edge of the flat, which drops off sharply. With a magnificent splash, Thompson leapt from the poling platform, sprinting through water with a net, hot on the tail of the fish, lifting the line, and making a diving attempt to scoop it before it reached the coral wall. With Rose-Innes yelling directions, the trigger plunged over the side, into a coral hole, and sawed off the line. Thompson sloshed back to the boat, dejected.

Paradise in the Wild West of the Indian Ocean

We took shots at triggers throughout the day, and on the last cast of the day, I hooked one. But I tensed up as it made its dive down the reef, and it also snapped off in the coral.

“You did it right! You did it right, and then freaked out,” Rose-Innes exclaimed, slapping me on the back. Damn. It. We returned to the skiff and called it a day. I got a few refusals in the following days, but didn’t hook a trigger again. That was my chance.

Rose-Innes is a Thomas & Thomas ambassador, and with his guides he has helped T&T owner Neville Orsmond, a South African businessman, refine T&T’s saltwater rods.

“Keith’s somewhere between Indiana Jones and The Most Interesting Man in the World,” says Orsmond. “He’s done it all and has helped me so much with the Exocett rod. He understands fishing in the harshest conditions. I can build it, but he truly gets it. We’ve gone through an entire design process with him and Devan. Those rods are out there every day, all day, getting fished hard, going one hundred percent through the paces.

“There isn’t a better place to test them. And there aren’t better people to do it,” Orsmond continued. “They understand all the conditions that this rod has to perform under during one, small opportunity. What’s going to stop a GT? That’s where Keith and his crew have given us critical feedback. They understand people and fly fishing. They’ve helped us design for everyone, not just pros.”

Beyond experimenting with rod design, Rose-Innes is also working to conserve natural resources. For example, the story of sea turtles around Alphonse Island is one of conservation success. Sea turtles were prized for their meat and shells for centuries. By the 20th century, sea turtle hunting was unsustainable. Legal protections, combined with the presence of an angling operation and guide activity to keep an eye on the resource, have drastically decreased turtle hunting. Today as you walk the flats, you can’t take a step without practically tripping over a happily grazing hawksbill or green turtle.

The same is true of Aldabra giant tortoises, which also inhabit the island. Rose-Innes heard of a hotel owner on Mahé who was hoarding the giant tortoises. “They were just hanging out, being cool, doing what giant tortoises do,” Rose-Innes said. So he offered the tortoise collector a price, and brought a boatload of juvenile giant tortoises back to Alphonse with him, handing them off to the conservation program, which now breeds and monitors the strange, gentle giants. Juveniles and hatchlings are held in a cement enclosure, which guests may visit at any time and interact with one of the rarest species on the planet, existing only in the Seychelles and the Galapagos.

Alphonse also carefully manages its own food fishery.

“We don’t import any fish. We catch all of our own fish here, and don’t believe in pillaging surrounding areas. In return, we manage our fishery respectfully and responsibly. We don’t fish [for food] any shallower than 80 meters,” explains Rose-Innes. “We mainly fish deeper areas and only for pelagics. And that’s created a big change in our dive spots. There are now more fish in those places.”

What’s next for a man who, as many have noted, has done it all?

“I see myself doing this forever. I don’t know about living here. I’ve got a family, but I’m lucky I’ve got a great partner who understands that I need to be out here. I love what I do and she also comes out here,” closes Rose-Innes. “I can’t wait to teach my children how to fish. At this point, I’m not doing this for me, but in order to have something for my family to enjoy.”

Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana.

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Chasing Freshwater Machaca In The Coastal Rivers of Costa Rica

Coastal Rivers of Costa RicaNothing beats bumming around foreign countries looking for adventure. When the folks at Howler Brothers invited me to Costa Rica for some fishing, surfing, and drinking I cleared my schedule. That’s how I ended up in Manuel Antonio National Park—where there are more monkeys than people—for a week of fishing on Costa Rica’s west coast. Funny money, local beer, beachside fires, good company, and language barriers make for good stories.

You can’t hit that part of the world as fly fisher and not chase roosterfish. Notoriously challenging and strange to look at (they look a little like a Dr. Seuss character) roosterfish make you work for it. While I’ve managed over the years to land a few small ones, I’m still looking for “the man.”

In Costa Rica, roosterfish are offshore, which means you can only get at them with a boat, using the classic bait-and-switch technique. We used live sardinas as teasers to bring fish to within casting range, and tried to get them to turn off the live bait and switch their attention to our ball of feathers.

The mate becomes critical when the fish elevates in the water and lights up on the teasers. He finesses the teaser rod as fast as possible to keep the roosterfish engaged, and then comes the moment of truth. When the fish gets within casting range, the mate yanks the teaser from the water, and you try to land the fly right in front of an eager mouth. When it all goes well it’s a beautiful exchange. More often, it’s a chaotic dance on tangled line with confusing Spanglish instructions shouted from the captain. Fly line possesses a magical ability to wrap itself around any- and everything at the most inopportune times, and the fish can either simply become uninterested, or steal the free meal from the mate before you get a chance to present your fly. It makes for challenging but fun fishing.

We trolled the edge of the breaking waves, keeping one eye on the sardinas, and one eye looking out for slightly larger waves that might roll in. We kept two sardinas in the water at all times, one close (within casting range) skipping on the surface, the other free-swimming 150 feet behind the boat.

The roosters often came in hot, their combs cutting through the surface while they tracked their prey. They often rushed the fly, but then turned away at exactly the moment you thought you had the deal sealed. We even tried having one angler false cast continually, so he could drop the fly quickly without any false casting. This led to a few eats, but we still couldn’t get connected. A couple of “trout sets” combined with some bad luck meant the only fish we got to touch were the ones that ate the teaser bait so aggressively that they hooked themselves on the size 10 Sabiki hook we had through the nose. Tough fishing, but a solid reminder of why I need to spend more time chasing these things.

Making it Look Easy
After our saltwater adventure, we hit the town for fish tacos and Imperial, the local cerveza. One of the best parts of traveling is sampling the local culinary scene. We aren’t talking fancy restaurants here, but the taco stands on the street where the locals hang out. We practiced our Spanish, worked on some intel, and planned the next leg of our adventure.

We decided the next day to hit the local break and catch a few waves. I don’t fancy myself a surfer, and I didn’t grow up with it, but I’ve always thought I would enjoy it. A couple years ago I took a week of surf lessons, and can paddle a longboard well enough to stand up on the kiddie waves. Many places I’ve fished also have excellent surfing—French Polynesia, Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica—and when it’s too windy for fishing, the surfing is often excellent. It’s a complementary addiction.

I managed to catch a few breaks, and I even shared a wave with a nice roosterfish that I would have loved to cast at the day before. Sitting on the beach, I watched in awe as experienced surfers danced up and down their boards, spinning in circles and hanging ten.

Being a great surfer implies a commitment of time and thus a passion—those are the people I seek to surround myself with. It makes for better adventures and an examined life.

Fly casting is similar—nothing beats watching a master Spey caster’s fluid, smooth, and effortless movements. It’s the guys who make it look easy who are most impressive. The surfers on their long boards were the same way. It pushes me to improve. Not just the surfing, but all of it.

Coastal Rivers of Costa RicaFreshwater Dreams
Costa Rica also has mountain freshwater rivers with snappers, mojarras, and other freshwater-tolerant species, but we were looking for snook and machaca. River snook in pure mountain water sounded intriguing, and machaca were completely unknown to me before this trip. These silvery fish are omnivores, and eat flower petals and other plant matter in addition to bugs and small baitfish. High-volume action with a hyper-acrobatic fish sounded right up my alley after a tough day of roosterfishing.

We launched rafts with oar frames into a river that could have been in Montana if it weren’t for coconut trees, wild bananas, and howler monkeys. We even used 5-weight rods rigged with floating lines and heavy black streamers. The river was stunning, and rapid elevation drops meant some legitimate whitewater bordered by  steep cliffs and waterfalls.

Our guide was a South African from Montana who runs an eco-
resort called Rafiki Safari Lodge (rafikisafari.com). Carlo Boshoff has carved out a home and a business in a cool corner of the jungle, and has spent years refining his tactics for machaca. His strongest advice was that machaca love the “plop” when food hits the water. He encouraged us to make the fly hit the water with some noise to attract the predators, not dissimilar from the technique for pacu.

It was a beautiful float, but fishing proved challenging. My hope for a high-volume day didn’t pan out, but my partner Alvin Dedeaux from Austin, Texas, managed to land a freshwater river snook, and I did check a machaca off my list. As promised, it was a beautiful fish that crushed the fly and got airborne in a hurry.

Despite the slow day, I saw enough to realize I want to get back there when the fishing is hot. Twenty to forty fish days are common, and Boshoff told me snook up to 40 inches come up the river to chase shad. He hasn’t figured out how to get them to eat flies, but that’s right up my alley.

Most adventures are full of hero shots and glory, this one was full of tough fishing and good times. People and friends make the world go round and I’m a happier and better person getting out there and playing in the world, even when you have to work for a fish or two on a trip.

Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas, Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge in South Andros. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations and guiding in the American West. He cofounded IndiFly (indifly.org)—a nonprofit that works to help indigenous people use sport fishing as a method of conservation.

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Giant Trevally Eating Terns

When I wrote the story “Freaky Farquhar” in the Aug-Sep 2016 issue of FLY FISHERMAN, my introduction focused on the rare and incredible “bird-hatch” where giant trevally gathered to feast on fledging terns hatched at one of the colony islands of the atoll.

After the story came out, I got a few emails and comments from people who discounted the idea of a bird hatch as an urban legend. Sure, our guides at FlyCastaway had us use bird-sizes flies to catch giant trevally, but we didn’t capture the split-second attacks on film as “proof.”

Thankfully there are people out there more interested than me in capturing rare and incredible wildlife footage, and less distracted by hooks and fly rods. The BBC is set to launch its new series Blue Planet II  which airs on the BBC for the first time on Sunday October 28, 2017, and according to this report in the Daily Mail, the BBC film crew captured it all in glorious slow motion.

Here are a few glorious out-takes from the upcoming series  where the GTs of Farquhar Atoll play a leading role.

Still photo from the BBC series Blue Planet II.

Still photo from the BBC series Blue Planet II.

 

Still photo from the BBC series Blue Planet II.

Still photo from the BBC series Blue Planet II.

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Pennsylvania Trout

Pennsylvania Trout

When Fly Fishers talk about fly fishing in Pennsylvania, several different thoughts come to mind. It is a state that offers a tremendous range of opportunity, with over 85,000 miles of streams and rivers, as well as a diverse range of stream types from the fabled limestone spring creeks of the Cumberland Valley; the freestone mountain streams that flow through the Pocono and Appalachian mountain areas; the large Susquehanna, Delaware, and Schuylkill river systems, and some excellent tailwater fisheries. Many Pennsylvania streams and rivers are known to anglers around the world, and most fishermen know of the legendary Letort Spring Run, the famous Green Drake hatches on Penns Creek, and the chess-like game of matching the multiple hatches on the West Branch of the Delaware River. The Keystone State also has a rich history of author anglers who have left bold impressions and influences on our entire sport, such as Vince Marinaro, Charlie Fox, Jim Leisenring, and George Harvey. While many of those famous streams flow through the heart of some of Pennsylvania’s most scenic areas, there are also a surprising number of fishing opportunities within Pennsylvania’s largest metropolitan area, Philadelphia—the City of Brotherly Love—and the immediate surrounding area.

Philadelphia is by far the largest city in the Keystone State, with a population of over 1.5 million residents and more than 7 million in the greater metropolitan Delaware Valley area. It’s a city that rightly claims a significant role in the creation of a new nation and is steeped in history and culture, but interestingly it is also a place worth exploring with a fly rod.

Many fly fishers may find it difficult to believe (given the sensitivity of trout and the conditions they require) that there would be opportunities to fish for them in Philadelphia and the greater urban area surrounding it. Surprisingly, Philadelphia’s easy-access streams provide recreational experiences that can satisfy your appetite for fly fishing just as easily as you can pick up a Philly cheesesteak.

These are not destination streams like the Bighorn or the Green in Montana and Utah. You wouldn’t come here strictly for the fly fishing. But if you are visiting one of the area’s historic sites, you’re there on business, or you’re a local looking for a quick getaway from city life, the fishing on these urban gems can be very good.

Valley Creek
The winter of 1777-78 was a bitter one for the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington. Losses at the Battle of the Brandywine and the Battle of Paoli had allowed the British to capture Philadelphia, forcing Washington’s men to winter in an area several miles west of the city. Known as Valley Forge, the area took its name from a forge built around 1740 along Valley Creek. The forge itself was destroyed by the British in 1777.

The site afforded a good defensive position thanks to the natural barriers formed by the Schuylkill River and Valley Creek on two sides of the encampment. Washington chose a farmhouse near the confluence of the two rivers for his headquarters. The winter was a harsh one, and the troops suffered from a lack of clothing, food, and shelter. An estimated 2,500 soldiers perished.

Today Valley Forge is known as a symbol of American resolve. The area of the encampment is now preserved as Valley Forge National Historical Park, and it’s visited annually by more than 2 million people who come to view the headquarters used by Washington, his officers, and the Marquis de Lafayette; to visit the crude shelters used by the soldiers; and to hear the story of one of America’s defining moments. Quiet little Valley Creek flows through this beautiful park on its way to the Schuylkill River, and although it is one of one of southeast Pennsylvania’s finest trout streams, it is hidden in plain sight of the park’s many visitors.

Valley Creek is a 10.8-mile-long limestone stream that begins in East Whiteland Township in Chester County and consists of runs, riffles, and long, glassy pools flowing through a mix of woodlands and meadows. Numerous undercut banks, deadfalls, and large rocks create ideal cover for trout. The stream is seldom wider than 25 feet and is fed by Little Valley Creek and numerous springs, which help to keep water temperatures below 70 degrees F. even in the hottest days.

Pennsylvania TroutAt one time Valley was a stocked stream, but a PCB spill caused the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) to impose no-kill status on the creek, which allowed the wild browns in the stream to flourish. Today, Valley Creek is classified as an exceptional value stream by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a class A wild trout fishery by the PF&BC. Within Valley Forge National Park, both Valley and Little Valley Creek are managed under catch-and-
release, all-tackle regulations.

Insect life here is healthy as well, and anglers can find good hatches of Blue-winged Olives and Tricos. Caddisflies include Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.), Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.), and Green Sedges (Rhyacophila sp.). Midges and crane flies are also important, and terrestrials play a significant role in the summer and fall.

U.S. 422 cuts through the upper corner of the park and turns into the park at the visitors center. From here, take North Outer Line Drive to South Outer Line Drive and turn right onto PA 252 (Valley Creek Road). PA 252 runs parallel to the stream from the south side of the park. To access the stream from the north side, take PA 23 from the visitors center to Gulph Road and turn left onto PA 252 (Valley Creek Road). There are several parking areas here.

Fishing inside the park is open to the public, however the water outside of the park is mostly private with limited accessibility. Rods from 7 to 9 feet matched with lightweight 2- to 4-weight lines and longer leaders of 12 or more feet tapering to 6X to 8X tippets are important to avoid putting fish down. Steve Spurgeon and Jared Ellis have both fished Valley Creek for years and emphasize the importance of using long and light leaders with small patterns. Neutral-colored clothing and quiet wading are also important to avoid spooking fish.

Wissahickon Creek
Cutting through northwest Philadelphia, Wissahickon Creek (Lenape for “Catfish Creek” or “Stream of Yellowish Color”) flows through the steep, wooded valley of Fairmount Park—America’s largest urban park at just over 9,200 acres, and one of 600 U.S. National Natural Landmarks.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote the story Morning on the Wissahiccon in 1844, inspired by the beauty of this valley and the stream that courses its way through it.

The valley of the Wissahickon is one of remarkable contrast to the urban environment immediately outside of the park, and it attracts many hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders to its network of trails.

The stream begins near the town of Gwynedd in Montgomery County and flows for nearly 23 miles before its confluence with the Schuylkill River southeast of Manayunk. The creek’s long riffles and pools are easily waded, but it does have some deep pools here and there.

The stocked trout water is in two separate sections, the first of which begins west of Flourtown at Lafayette Avenue and continues downstream to Stenton Avenue. The stream in this section flows through Fort Washington State Park and downstream into Wissahickon Valley Park and then Fort Washington Park South.

The stream is accessible here by Stenton Avenue at the upper limit, at PA 73, and by West Valley Green Road and West Mill roads. The second section of stocked trout water begins at Germantown Pike and continues downstream to Lincoln Drive. Access to the stream is by Valley Green Road, Kitchens Lane, Walnut Lane, and Lincoln Drive.

Forbidden Lane provides another excellent access point and is popular with hikers, bicycle riders, and joggers, and there are a number of parking areas close to the creek.

Wissahickon is stocked with trout each spring, and is managed as a put-and-take fishery. This stream has been degraded ever since the first colonists arrived in Philadelphia, so visiting anglers won’t see prolific fly hatches. The insect life here is limited to a few hardier insects, namely several caddis varieties including Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.) and Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.) and midges, but there are a surprising number of scuds.

Pennsylvania TroutPennypack Creek
Pennypack Creek flows 22.6 miles through Montgomery and Philadelphia counties before entering the Delaware River just north of Philadelphia.
Pennypack Creek begins west of the town of Horsham. The stream is relatively low gradient, with a mix of riffles and long, flat pools, and is easy to wade. It is stocked with browns and rainbows in the spring and fall, but the water temperatures become too warm for trout during the summer. There is, however, good warmwater fishing for largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, crappie, bluegills, and pickerel.

Pennypack’s stocked trout water begins at the upper limit of Lorimer Park in Montgomery County at a rail-trail crossing and continues downstream to PA 13 (Frankford Avenue) in Philadelphia County. Access can be gained from the upstream boundary of the stocked trout water via Moreland Road and, continuing downstream to the lower end, via Moredun Road, Verree Road, Krewstown Road, Bustleton Avenue, Roosevelt Boulevard, Holme Avenue, Rhawn Street, Welsh Road, and Frankford Avenue.

Neshaminy Creek
Ed Jaworowski needs no introduction to the fly-fishing fraternity, but many may be unaware that this is where his journey as an angler began. “A favorite uncle, immediately after his return from World War II, first introduced me to a fishing rod and bluegills during our regular visits to Chain Bridge, a popular fishing and bathing section of this stream back then,” Jaworowski says. Neshaminy Creek is a 40.7-mile-long stream in Bucks County that begins just south of the borough of Chalfont and flows southeast to its confluence with the Delaware River at Neshaminy Park southwest of Croydon.

Neshaminy Creek provides a great resource for local residents. The stocked trout water (rainbows and browns) flows within heavily wooded park areas that make it a great place to introduce a child to fishing or to hold a family outing.

Like many streams in this area, the trout fishing here is limited to the early part of the season because water temperatures become too elevated by the middle of June or before. Warmwater species are the game on this stream during the summer and fall.

Neshaminy creek is also surrounded by an extensive park system, which provides a buffer from the city. Like the other streams in this section, it is stocked with trout and also has carp and bass in it, with smallmouth bass and panfish abundant during the summer.

During the early season the stream is stocked in two sections; the first begins at Bridge Valley Road in City Park west of PA 263 (York Road) and continues downstream to Mill Road near the town of Jamison. The second section of stocked trout water begins at the dam at 1,711-acre Tyler State Park and continues downstream to PA 332 (Richboro Road). The stream is fairly wide in places, sometimes more than 50 feet, but is easy to wade.

Ridley Creek
Due to its proximity to Philadelphia, Ridley Creek is not a stream for solitude, but it does provide convenient and readily accessible fishing in one of the most beautiful parks in this corner of the state. It also has a stretch of catch-and-release fly-
fishing-only water, and the best hatches in the Philadelphia region.

Pennsylvania TroutSixteen miles west of Philadelphia and five miles north of Media lies Ridley Creek State Park. Prior to the 1960s, the 2,606-acre property was held privately by Walter M. Jeffords Sr. and his wife, well-known horse breeders who had acquired properties adjacent to their original land holdings. The land became a public park in 1972.

The property contains a number of historic buildings, many of which predate the War of Independence. In 1826 there were 15 gristmills, sawmills,
and other types of mills in operation on Ridley Creek, the oldest of which was Providence Mills, established in 1718. America’s first railroad, the Leiper Railroad, operated here from 1810 to 1828. The many historic structures are a treasure for visitors who come to tour these buildings or hike, jog, or ride the park’s 12 miles of trails.

For trout anglers, Ridley Creek offers excellent fishing opportunities close to Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs. This charming stream begins in Chester County, formed from two branches that originate near the villages of Frazier and Malvern.

Ridley Creek flows for nearly 22 miles before emptying into the Delaware River. Most of it flows through wooded and rural areas before reaching its confluence, which is more industrial and urbanized.

There are two segments of the creek classified as stocked trout waters; the first begins 1.25 miles above Gradyville Road and continues downstream to the falls in Ridley Creek State Park; the second is from Brookhaven Road downstream to Chestnut Street at the lower edge of Taylor Arboretum Park southeast of Brookhaven.

Immediately below the upper stocked water is a 0.6-mile section from the falls in the park downstream to the mouth of one of its tributaries, Dismal Run. This section is managed as catch-and-release fly-fishing-
only. The trout population consists of stocked and holdover rainbow and brown trout that are released in the spring and fall.

The stream in most of the regulated areas is seldom more than 20 feet wide. Ridley does not have a diverse array of aquatic insect life, but there are good hatches of Blue-winged

Olives in the spring and fall, along with Early Blue Quills, Sulphurs (E. invaria and dorothea dorothea), and some Light Cahills. Spring also brings Early Black Stoneflies.

Caddisflies are abundant and include Speckled Sedges (Hydropsyche sp.), Little Black Sedges (Chimarra sp.), Green Sedges (Rhyacophila sp.), and Grannom caddis (Brachycentrus sp.). Also important are crane flies and pale olive, red, and black midges.

Access to the stream is via Gradyville Road; turn south on Providence Road and proceed to East Bishop Road. Go to Chapel Hill Road, which crosses the creek and becomes Barren Road, or continue straight to follow North Ridley Creek Road, both of which parallel the stream. There are several parking areas near the intersections of these four roads.
If you find your business, recreation, or historical education taking you to Philadelphia, be sure to bring a fly rod and waders and cast a line on some of these urban gems. You’ll be surprised by what you find. If you live in the greater Philadelphia area and have overlooked these waters, there is a peaceful escape from the noise and pace of the city and an opportunity to cast to trout within a short drive from center city.

Henry Ramsay (ramsayflies.com) is a fly-fishing instructor, photographer, and a contributing author of the new book Keystone Fly Fishing (Headwater Books, 2017). This article is partially excerpted from that book.

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The Hidden Honey Holes of Guyana

When these old flood channels are full of water, arapaima use them to migrate deep into the jungle. During the dry season, it takes a team of boat haulers (and sometimes a little help from the guests) to get the boats to the best fishing. Beth Sweeting photo

When these old flood channels are full of water, arapaima use them to migrate deep into the jungle. During the dry season, it takes a team of boat haulers (and sometimes a little help from the guests) to get the boats to the best fishing. Beth Sweeting photo

The fishing in Rewa, Guyana, is spectacular—you’re hunting the biggest scaled freshwater fish in the world, and they are often in tiny ponds of just a few acres. When the Rupununi River floods, the arapaima thread their way back into the jungle to find the stillwaters where they prefer to feed, spawn, and raise their young. When the dry season comes, oxbows, side channels, and lagoons become disconnected from the main river. To get to the fish, a team of 12 or more boat handlers drags two or three 14-foot aluminum johnboats a mile or more through the jungle for a morning of fishing.

At lunch while the guests are eating, the boatmen drag the boats out of the jungle and move them to another pond for the afternoon.Why not just leave the boats at the pond? Because many of these ponds are fished only once per season, and the village cooperative has only a handful of boats provided by the nonprofit Indifly for this sport fishing venture. The guides are careful not to pressure these small waters that might only contain a handful of arapaima. From our base of operations at Sunburst Camp—a 3-hour boat ride from the village of Rewa—we fished a new pond every morning and every afternoon. You never see the same place twice when you’re exploring the hidden honey holes of Guyana.

In this short clip (an excerpt from the film Rewa: Fishing for Change by Outside TV) Oliver White and I badly wanted to fish a remote spot called Tapir Pond that had not been visited in three years. Even with a team of haulers it was tough to get the boat through the dense underbrush. Oliver and I added some muscle to get the boats up a steep embankment, a location that also shows a dry flood channel and the likely pathway for arapaima that migrate during flood events. Barefoot was the only way to get any traction in the thick mud. Flip-flops were consumed by mud and shoes were even more useless.

For more info on arapaima fishing in Guyana, see my story “1 Guy with a Fly Rod” in the Oct-Dec 2017 issue of FLY FISHERMAN or watch the film by Outside TV we shot on location in March 2017.

Beth Sweeting photo

Ross Purnell, guide Shun Alvin, and Oliver White with a middling size arapaima Purnell caught while filming Rewa: Fishing for Change. Beth Sweeting photo

Beth Sweeting photo

Boat handlers drag aluminum johnboats through the Guyana jungle to access remote stillwater ponds. Beth Sweeting photo

 

 

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The Upper Rio Grande: Colorado’s best-kept Secret

The Upper Rio GrandeStanding beside the crumbling adobe barn across the river, the old mule eyed me with contempt. I was wading mid-current in heavy water, working hard to get on top of my drift, and it looked like the animal didn’t appreciate my presence.

“If she decides to come this way, I suggest you back out and go for the trees,” said my guide. Joel had lived on the ranch for years and had experience in these sorts of situations.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched my fly disappear in the middle of the big hole, and I missed, distracted. The mule slowly turned away, and I caught the scent of roasting chiles and mesquite.

Silver Town
Stashed away in the mountains of southern Colorado near the old silver boomtown of Creede runs one of the best-kept secrets in American fly fishing, the upper Rio Grande.
Iconic in its association with the desert Southwest, the second-
longest river in the U.S. is a muscular, high-volume flow running from its headwaters in the San Juan and Weminuche ranges, where snowpack often exceeds 400 inches per winter. Fat trout navigate big water here to chase some of the largest aquatic insects in the country, offering outrageous dry-fly fishing with patterns in sizes unheard of on tailwater streams.

The history of the Rio Grande runs deep as well, with thousands of years of settlements on its banks and struggles for the water it provides. From its source on the Continental Divide 30 miles west of Creede, the Upper Rio Grande winds down through steep canyons and high-altitude ranchland, passing the town of South Fork at its confluence with a major tributary. From there, the river heads east and flows into endless riffles before hitting the floor of the San Luis Valley at Del Norte, once a proposed territorial capital, now a rock climbing and mountain biking mecca.

In 2001, the river was improved through a change in fishing regulations, allowing flies and lures only, and outlawing the use of bait. This has resulted in a steadily growing population of larger fish, with miles of recently designated Gold Medal Trout water.

The Rio Grande runs through some of the best agricultural country Colorado and New Mexico have to offer, and ultimately ends up dumping into the Gulf of Mexico where Texas and Mexico are left to fight over the scraps. Like her sister river the Colorado, the lower Rio Grande is heavily oversubscribed, and has a political history that is a subject in its own right. But the upper Rio Grande is a different story that shines with its own unique biology and tactics for fly fishers.

Heavy Hitters
Pteronarcys stoneflies are the Holy Grail for many Western anglers, and more than a few interstate road trips have been launched by an overnight phone call saying that the hatch is on. Salmonflies are among the largest flying insects in the world, requiring #6 to #8 hooks and heavy use of foam and hair to create patterns half the size of a badminton birdie. This handsome insect sports a brightly colored salmon orange neckband and slate gray wings, with the most effective fly patterns including a bright orange collar or other spot of color for fish to visually identify.

The Upper Rio GrandeNotorious for their short-lived emergences, Pteronarcys californica (Salmonflies) hatch for only a few days, and often during periods of peak runoff flow in the spring. Their hatches can be outrageously heavy, smearing windshields and clogging air intakes on approach vehicles, while feeding fish are going berserk in the rivers, gorging themselves on the flying equivalent of a porterhouse steak.

A big river in the throes of a full-on stonefly emergence is a heart-stopping sight for any fly fisher. Fish lose all fear and slash mercilessly at the struggling insects fluttering on surface, with the largest fish in the river getting in on the action and taking over the best runs. Watching a 20-inch fish launch out of the water to nail an insect the size of your thumb in midair burns into your memory, and for some, drives a lifelong fever.

Whatever ecology makes the Rio such a prime habitat for stoneflies seems to also drive a tendency for other insects to be on the big end of the scale. Following hot on the heels of the Pteronarcys hatch, large Western Green Drakes (Drunella grandis) make their appearance, often emerging within a masking hatch of remnant stoneflies. Some fish can become selective toward these mayflies while fly fishers miss the boat by focusing on the more obvious Pteronarcys.

A typical late June to July rig for a dry-fly angler in the area would be a #6 Stimulator with a #10 Parachute Adams or Green Drake imitation as a dropper—and the takes tend not to be subtle. As local guides are fond of saying, “Go big, or go home!”

Dry-fly hatch season on the Rio is mid- to late summer, basically from the high water point of runoff through August, though on a river with such varied biology, other tactics can be used with great results. Early-season fish slam big streamers even at midday if the water is slightly off color, and the majority population of brown trout become absolutely ferocious during the late October spawning season, defending redds from egg-stealing dace and other minnows.

Nymphing during lower water in the late summer and fall allows fly fishers to wade close to uncommonly large structure, throwing large Prince Nymphs and Copper Johns to imitate stonefly nymphs, with Pheasant Tail or caddis emerger droppers typically bringing up the rear.

Historic Landscape
Fly fishing on the Rio has a long history. This is home water to a community of high-altitude hardcore sportsmen, multi-generational ranching families, and some locals with Spanish lineage dating back to the 1500s or the native Utes before that. Coronado’s expedition to the Americas ended in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, with some explorers calling it quits on returning to Spain and founding the town of San Luis, which survives to this day.

The geology of the region is unusual. Like Yellowstone—another region regarded for its excellent fishing—the area is predominantly volcanic, and the largest known explosive eruption in geologic history was produced by the La Garita Caldera in the mountains east of Creede. A supervolcano 27 million years ago ejected enough ash and debris to cover an area the size of Southern California to a depth of 40 feet. This produced a volcanic plateau known as the San Juan Mountains that covers a vast area of southwest Colorado.

More recent volcanic activity in New Mexico blocked the Rio Grande’s flow out of the San Luis Valley and created a large Pleistocene lake at over 7,000 feet in elevation. The lake had no outflow but was stable due to influx, evaporation, and seepage into the aquifer for 3 million years. Finally, sedimentation and high levels of precipitation allowed the lake to breach a low rise to the south, draining some 100 cubic kilometers of water and cutting the 600-foot-deep Rio Grande gorge west of Taos, New Mexico.

The Upper Rio GrandeAs a trout fishing resource, the Rio Grande is essentially a bifurcated river system. From agricultural impoundments high on the Continental Divide down into the western San Luis Valley, the river provides over 60 miles of coldwater trout habitat before it is subject to temperature and siltation changes due to low gradients and dewatering from agricultural canal systems.

In the central valley, northern pike and other rough fish dominate the river. Pike up to 50 inches long have been caught in the wildlife refuge near Monte Vista. Exiting the valley south of Alamosa, the river is significantly reduced in flow until it experiences recharge from the superb fisheries of the Conejos and Red rivers, cooling the water to become excellent trout habitat again in northern New Mexico. But it is the headwaters of the Rio Grande in Colorado that arguably provides the best opportunities and variety for fly fishing.

Local guide Kevin Leggitt owns and operates the Rio Grande Angler in Creede. Born and raised in the area, Leggitt bought the shop in 2000, and immediately began to think strategically about how best to address the resource to service his clientele. Contrary to most perceptions of the river as a thin, shallow stream, the Rio Grande is a large river in its first 60 miles, with steep banks and heavy runs. Wading in early to midseason can be a difficult proposition, and large sections of private ranchland west of Creede make walk-and-wade access difficult.

“We really started looking at the Rio as a float river in the ­early 2000s, by gearing up in a professional way with drift boats and framed rafts,” said Leggitt. “With word getting out about the stoneflies and other large insect hatches that we have going on here during high water, it was obviously a best way to get after that.”

Twenty miles downriver in South Fork, you’ll find Leggitt’s partner Joel Condren and his base of operations at 8200 Mountain Sports. Condren is also the founder and senior guide for South Fork Anglers and Mountain Man Rafting. “This river has the most amazing biology, and it changes mile to mile. One section can be heavily slanted toward stoneflies, and the next will have a huge population of Drakes or PMDs mixed with caddis. As a river guide, it keeps you on your toes,” says Condren.

All this is not to say that the Rio is not a river for the privateer on foot. The Coller State Wildlife Area above South Fork offers an excellent resource for wading fly fishers who enjoy boulders and structure. In a great example of management in the public interest, numerous excellent access points near bridges with riverside parking areas have been leased by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, with different sections being suited to varying water levels and fishing styles. From Del Norte to South Fork, water tends to be big and open, for those who are into booming casts and longer drifts.

The reason the upper Rio Grande contains such an impressive overall flow is because it is fed by a huge basin in one of the highest mountain precipitation areas in the West. Wolf Creek ski area just to the south is known for huge dumps of powder from winter weather systems coming out of the Gulf of Mexico, and the tributaries that feed the main stem of the Rio Grande are generally peppered with trout.

The South Fork of the Rio Grande—a major tributary—runs from Wolf Creek Pass north to the town of South Fork, offering excellent dry-fly fishing with generally easy access near several national forest campgrounds. Other streams that run into the river typically have access points higher up in the national forest. Several upscale guest ranches have also operated in the area for over 100 years, with stocked lakes, private creeks, and guide services on the main stem of the Rio Grande.

Native Trout
Trout in the main river are self-sustaining populations of nonnative brown and rainbow trout, with some of the rainbows showing hybridization from interbreeding with cutthroat. Brook trout are common in the high-altitude streams as well, and in some places are prolific. I once had the privilege of guiding a skilled dry-fly fisherman into a 130-brookie day high above Creede on a tiny stream where almost every cast produced a fat 10-inch fish on an Elk-hair Caddis.

Native pure-strain Rio Grande cutthroat are rightfully the most prized trout species in the region, but are now only found in the highest reaches of isolated freestone streams. Only the most motivated and adventuresome fly fishers will ever encounter them, as Rio Grande cutthroat currently occupy only 10 percent of their historical range.

Greenback cutthroat were recently designated as Colorado’s state fish, but these southern Colorado cutthroat are equally rare and beautiful. The value of native fish is not lost on the fly fishers of Colorado, and Trout Unlimited has been working with the state Division of Wildlife to help restore Rio Grande populations and habitat. TU’s Rio Grande Basin Project manager Kevin Terry has a degree in fisheries biology and now lives in South Fork, where he is working with local communities on conservation and access issues. Terry splits his time between restoration and protection projects for Rio Grande cutthroats, and working with water users to help optimize use through strategies like timing of reservoir releases, leases, and efficiency upgrades to irrigation infrastructure.

The Upper Rio Grande“The local towns here are tight knit, with a strong sense of values and history. When we came in with proposals to help conserve water for habitat and other ideas, community leaders were very open to collaboration. I think there is a real sense that this whole valley is going to benefit from improved and protected resources for tourism, while being able to work seamlessly with the historical farming and ranching economy,” said Terry. “After all, a main reason people choose to live here is for the quality of life, and fishing can be a big part of that.”

Across the valley from the main stem of the Rio Grande, the northern Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises above Great Sand Dunes National Park, running up from New Mexico with peaks to over 14,000 feet in elevation.

Here on the western slopes of the Sangres, Sand and Medano creeks flow as perennial water sources. These streams historically flowed into the previously mentioned Pleistocene Lake Alamosa, which undoubtedly shared populations of trout that lived in the Rio Grande.

With the geologic events leading to the catastrophic draining of the lake, the populations of aboriginal fish in the Sangre de Cristo became geographically and genetically isolated. That the streams never dried up completely during historical droughts is nothing short of a miracle.

Medano Creek now has a tiny restored population of Rio Grande cutthroat which had been subject to overfishing, and there is a similar population in Sand Creek where a downstream sand dune barrier prevents upstream migration of nonnative species like rainbow trout. Remnant populations of pure-strain Rio Grande cutthroat have been documented in other waters in the Sangres, but information about those places is closely guarded.

Unlimited Potential
The Upper Rio Grande valley has remained relatively untouched compared to other Colorado waters due to distance and travel logistics. Five hours of driving from the major hubs of either Denver or Albuquerque, the San Luis Valley is also ringed by high mountain passes, with the only low-gradient access being up the river valley itself from New Mexico.

Despite the apparent lack of traffic, the area is located roughly midway between two of America’s newest national parks—Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison—and offers almost unlimited potential for wilderness recreation. There are currently four designated Wilderness Areas in the Rio Grande National Forest: South San Juan, Weminuche, Sangre de Cristo, and La Garita.

Miles of backcountry streams with developed 4-wheel-drive roads crisscrossing the high country give access to excellent small-stream and high-lake fisheries in mid- to late summer. However, fall comes early at this elevation, and fly fishers mostly concentrate on the main stem of the Rio Grande itself from mid-September on.

The general consensus is that the Rio Grande is a biological anomaly in that it is by definition a large-volume tailwater that fishes like a freestone stream, with large insects and everything else that entails. The late season is especially aesthetic, with massive stands of aspens and cottonwoods turning to autumn colors over low, clear water.

If you’re looking for a destination fishery far from the crowds, southern Colorado is hard to beat. For motivated fly fishers, the Upper Rio Grande and the surrounding region is an unspoiled playground to be explored.

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