Sunday Classic / F-ing-A Yampa!

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The Yampa at Stagecoach Photo by Louis Cahill

This story contains adult language. If you chose to read it, don’t complain. You were warned.

“It takes a few minutes to set in, we are on one of the greatest trout rivers in the world and the fish are going off and we are totally alone.”

Wal-Mart, Frisco, CO, 7:45AM.

I lift a small canister from an end cap display. “Pods, got it.” It feels empty. Kent’s hands are full of Gatorade and dip.

“Get six of those bitches!” he tells me, gesturing towards the display with his chin.

“Dude, they’re like fifteen bucks.”

“OK, four.”

The Personal Oxygen Device, or POD, is designed for flat landers who come to the Rockies skiing and think they’re going to die of a heart attack when they get to the slopes. They are handy when you’re hiking in to a high mountain lake, but that’s not why we’re buying them.

Kent and I have been in Colorado fishing for almost two weeks and we’re pretty well acclimated. We have spent the last couple of nights with my friend Peter in Fair Play, at eleven-thousand feet, while we fished the Platte. Today we’re starting the twenty-four hour drive home. The Pods are for the road.

We’ll wait until we get close to sea level, maybe Saint Louis, and suck them down quick for a legal high. We’ll get our blood-ox way up, put on White Zombie and crank it up until the door panels pop off. It’s what I imagine meth is like and it breaks the drive up nicely.

As I pull on to I-70 Kent is thumbing through the map. It’s just reading material at this point. We both know our way around Colorado pretty well. The Gazetteer is mostly for identifying public land and finding camp sites. “what do you know about the Yampa?” he asks.

“Never fished it, supposed to be awesome.”

“Well, what the fuck, why haven’t we fished it?”

“I don’t know, time I guess. It’s all the way up in Steamboat.”

Our eyes lock for a minute and we both dig into our pockets for cell phones as I exit for highway nine at Dillon. Moments later our wives are both getting the news that we will not be coming home today. I imagine they are used to it.

Kent searches the map for camp sites while I do some last minute research on the iPhone before we lose signal, all at seventy miles per hour. It’s not a well-laid plan. It’s not a plan at all. If we’d known we were fishing we would have driven the night before. If we’d known what we were getting into we’d have been on the water before sun up. At this point we are still ignorant but we know we are in a hurry.

The drive from Dillon to Steamboat Springs is beautiful. North on highway nine past the green mountain reservoir to Kremling, then west on forty over Rabbit Ear pass and down to Steamboat. It’s high arid country dotted with small reservoirs and abandoned, sun bleached barns and houses. The occasional ranch gate signals that people have not given up on it all together.

We make a quick stop in town for some flies, food and local advice, then head for the campground at Stagecoach Reservoir. We grab a camp site and toss our tents up in a hurry and we are in the parking lot on the river by 11:30. It’s not a happy sight. Wall to wall fishermen. Every pool or run has at least one guy fishing it. Some have a guy on each side of the river and in some runs there’s a guy fishing and a guy waiting. If we had known what we were going to find we’d have been in Kansas by now.

We ease along, a ways off the bank, checking out the water. It’s a beautiful river and, good lord, is it full of fish. You can see them everywhere. They don’t seem the least bothered by the crowd of anglers. They go about their business, finning along, eating the occasional nymph or sipping a midge in the surface. Of the hundred rods we’ve seen, none are bent.

Eventually we each find a few feet of unmolested water and start the familiar process of figuring out a new river. We generally do this with a divide and conquer strategy. One of us fishing dries and the other nymphs, or emergers vs. streamers, whatever we feel is likely. When one of us starts to catch fish the other will switch to a variation of that successful tactic and so on until we’re dialed in.

We’re too far apart to really make that work so we each go with our gut and change up quickly if it’s not working. The fish are pretty tough but by the time I see Kent again I’ve caught a couple on scuds. A tandem rig with a heavy orange Czech nymph in the lead and a realistic grey scud trailer is working pretty well.

“Anything?” I ask.

“No, they’re being little bitches,” he answers. “Got a couple of looks at a hopper, you?”

“Scuds are good, you got any? Here, take a couple of these” I offer.

He’s tying them on when the sun disappears. I look up to see heavy dark clouds pooling up in the west. The wind picks up and the temperature drops sharply. Colorado thunderstorms are like that. One minute it’s a beautiful sunny day and the next your cowering from the bolts of some angry god. From the looks of it, this one is pretty pissed.

The first drops are darkening my shirt by the time I get my rain jacket out. Kent is still digging his out of his pack when the rain starts in earnest. The horde of fishermen are running for their lives as the lightning starts to crack. It’s raining hard by this time and the wind is fierce.

We probably should have run, like the rest of the scared little rabbits but we didn’t. Maybe because we’d come so far to fish. Maybe because neither of us wanted to sit in the car for the rest of the day with a wet stinking fishing partner. It could well be that we’re just stupid but we didn’t run. We battened down the hatches and stood in the river in pouring rain and dangerous lightning.

In about a half an hour the rain let up and the wind died. The thunder was only a distant rumble. When we poked our heads back out of our hoods we found ourselves alone. I waded back into my run and within a cast or two the line came tight. The same thing happened to Kent.

The rain or temperature change or the angler exodus or a combination of the three had caused the fish to turn on with a vengeance. It takes a few minutes to set in, for us to get our heads around what is happening. We are on one of the greatest trout rivers in the world and the fish are going off and we are totally alone.

The Yampa at Stagecoach is pretty small, for a tailwater. Clear and fast, it’s as good a place as I’ve ever seen for sight fishing. We work together, spotting fish and taking turns working them. We focus on the bigger ones, I’d say twenty inches is average. We’re landing so many fish over twenty that it makes sense for one of us to fish while the other nets, then switch.

We are fishing hard and landing big fish on 6X tippet, one after another. It’s surreal, being on that river alone, wailing on fish. We are like kids who’ve hidden in the toy store until the last employee has locked the door and gone home to bed. We have the run of the place and it’s starting to feel like we can do no wrong.

Kent spots a big rainbow and climbs out on a boulder to cast to it. He comes tight on the fish and it goes berserk. Kent is five feet above the water and the fish charges around the rock he’s standing on, taking his lite tippet into harms way. He reaches his rod way out and works the frantic fish around the rock and back again. The run is fast and deep. I’m on the far side of the river and I try to negotiate the current to net the fish but it’s pointless. She’s just too hot.

The rainbow finally gets her wits about her and bolts down stream, Kent’s reel screaming over the sound of the water. I look up at Kent, I’m thinking, “that’s it, he’s done.” Kent is resolved, his eyes locked on the fish, already in the run below us. He takes one quick look down and jumps.

For a split second I’m wishing I knew how to administer CPR, but like a Romanian gymnast, Kent sticks the landing and is off after the fish leaving me to catch up. I charge recklessly downstream, kicking fish out of my way, trying desperately to get below the fish without drowning or dousing my camera. A hundred yards or so downstream the fish goes in the net. She tapes out at twenty-six inches.

I grab my camera to take a photo. Kent lifts the fish carefully out of the net but before I can release the shutter she kicks her tail violently and slips away. Kent is disappointed with himself and has a hard time letting it go. “It can’t be helped,” I tell him, “it happens to everyone.” I don’t think that makes him feel any better but catching the next fish sure does.

I’m not much of a fish counter. When the fishing is this good, who cares about the numbers? We are way into the double digits and I can’t remember ever catching as many big fish. Certainly not sight fishing. As it gets dark we find our way back to the car.

When we make it back to camp fatigue hits us like that sudden thunderstorm. It takes a minute for us to realize that Kent’s tent is missing. No doubt, spirited away like Dorothy and Toto in the storm. If we had entertained thoughts of dinner they vanished with Kent’s tent. We searched the area surrounding the camp for a while but eventually we surrendered. Reluctantly, Kent crawled into my tent for the night.

Huddled together in the tent, our arms and backs are sore. Our bellies empty. Our heads are full of visions of huge trout and rushing water. Smiles on our faces, the river is still singing in our ears. Our dreams are as vivid as the stars in the Colorado sky. Tomorrow we’ll drive across Kansas and we’ll huff our pods and laugh until our chests hurt and when we get home we’ll tell our friends,

“Yeah, it’s all the way up in Steamboat, and it’s fucking awesome.”



Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / F-ing-A Yampa!

  1. Haha that place is awesome … You should have thrown a live hopper in and watched it get swallowed ….those fish are smart they can tell the difference between real and rubber legs.

  2. Sounds like a blast! Same thing happened to me and a few buddies this spring. We showed up right after a storm similar to what you described and the fishing was red hot. Such a great place especially when no one else is there!

  3. Hit this section yesterday! Landed my first “mighty whitey” along with a handful of nice trout. It was great to catch native fish while listening to elk bugle on the ridge behind us!

    Great post Louis, thanks for the classic!

  4. Sunday, Sept 6, 2015. Fished the Yampa at Sarvis Creek and below the Stagecoach tailwater for the first time! Wow, amazing place to fish! I think that I caught 6 fish, landing 5 – one did get away at the tailwater. Definitely going back, as we just day tripped there from Silverthorne, CO.

  5. Had a similar event happen on the Gallatin in July.

    Was a hot afternoon, anglers bumpin dicks on every friggin access point along 89. A early afternoon rager came thorough and I spent a good hour and half snoozing in the back of the jeep while it sounded like the world was coming to an end.

    The skies cleared, the other anglers didn’t return. I had a sweet little section to myself all evening. The caddis popped, emergers were swung on micro spey, epicness ensued….

  6. Great story man. That tailwater is one of the best in the state, no doubt, but you should have tried in town too. There’s plenty of fish up to about 25″, and they shocked out Sarvis creek this summer and dumped the browns in town, and 2 were over 30″!

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