American Fly Fishing

By Ken Proper

The first snow lingers only in the shade of the evergreens. A gentle wind stirs the golden aspen leaves with a quaking motion then lifts a few skyward. They hover, swirl, and dance in the air then cartwheel, falling and skidding to a stop on the surface of Pearl Lake. A lone grasshopper hiding high in brown spent flowers leaps in fear or perhaps desperation from the abandonment of its frozen friends and joins the leaves. Squirming, its ripples pass under the leaves and create ever growing circles. I make a mental note: try a hopper pattern first.
   Pearl Lake State Park lies a half mile off County Road 129 near Clark, Colorado—the one northwest of Steamboat Springs in Routt County, not the tiny town a bit north of Denver—and seems miles farther. Quiet, serene, and nestled in the basin below Farwell Mountain, Pearl Lake is an artificial-lures-only, 167-acre reservoir served by a year-round campground with traditional sites as well as yurts for summer and winter guests.
   We walked along the shoreline trail on a crisp October day, looking for cruisers with our polarized sunglasses, stopping to briefly fish near submerged logs. Not seeing any fish, we stopped at a bay below the campground and waded out about 50 feet in the in knee-deep water. These shallows and their sometimes-flooded vegetation breed crayfish, scuds, flathead minnows, and damselflies. My buddy, Wally, continued probing the lake with a size-8 fly that could be seen as a crayfish or damselfly. Woolly Damsel seemed an appropriate name for the pattern. Seeing an occasional rise, I couldn’t pass up trying a
Parachute Hopper.
   Snowcapped Farwell Mountain and the golden aspens reflected in the water with the bright sunshine, then faded as a cloud shrouded the sun, and again returned, looking like a unicorn in the western sky.
   Moments passed and Wally shouted, “Hey, I got one on!”
   I photographed the fight, catch, and release. The bloodred gill and throat mirrored off the gentle blue waves, then disappeared with a splash. While slipping my camera back into my vest, he said, “There was a rise in front of you.”
   “Really?” was my reply as I instinctively raised my rod. Even with my daydreaming, I hooked and landed a beautiful native cutthroat. They share the lake with grayling and a few brookies.
   Beautiful trout and mesmerizing surroundings are further enhanced by some 200 species of resident and migratory birds that fly around the state park. Hairy and downy woodpeckers tap on trees in search of dormant winter insects. The returning migration starts at ice-off in mid-May with the arrival of sandhill cranes and great blue herons.
   This is the best time to fish at Pearl. The spawning grayling leave the deep water to hang out in shallower bays. The Colorado state-record grayling (1 pound, 10 ounces) was caught directly across the Continental Divide at Lower Big Creek Lake, but rumors abound of anglers catching and releasing grayling of more than 2 pounds in Pearl Lake. Hungry after the long winter, grayling prowl for crayfish and damselflies. Use a 9-foot, 5X leader with a strike indicator at 2 to 3 feet to control depth, and retrieve line 6 inches at a time with a 5- to 10-second pause between strips.
   During mid-July, the trout forage on hatching Callibaetis mayflies and damselflies. Green caddisfly pupa patterns and Elk Hair Caddis will catch fish, too. Consider trying the north end of the lake where stream channels enter in submerged brush, creating excellent trout habitat. In July, grayling will be deep and only anglers in float tubes or wakeless boats can compete for the new state record, while culinary campers cook crayfish gumbo on their stoves in the serene atmosphere of Pearl Lake State Park.


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