The Elephant in the River

Fly fishing: We're all going to have to deal with river overcrowding at some point in the future, if not already.

The Elephant in the River
Photo by Austin Neill / Unsplash

February 2022

Tis the season for the Fly Fishing Show and the Sportsman's Expo. In Denver, The Fly Fishing Show is a sight to see... it's chaos. Squeezing between the crowds, I've been reminded of how many other anglers there are who are searching for the same things as me. Each one hungrier than the next, to catch more fish and find new places to escape one another. In reality, no secret spot is safe anymore. We all bump shoulders on the highly trafficked rivers around the state, around the West. We all share the same public waters, and are all rightfully entitled to such access.

If you don't mind sharing then you can stop reading, and I applaud your selflessness. But more often than not, we fly fish to escape. We seek alone time on the water, which is a precious commodity becoming more scarce these days. This paradox becomes evident at events like the Fly Fishing Show; there are always new gadgets, new rods, exciting trip deals, and more people attending each year. How can the fly fishing community grow, entice new anglers, and not alienate every angler who's tired of fighting for breathing room on the river? Keep in mind, you might not want fly fishing to grow, but the companies with a stake in the industry do. The more rods sold, the better, right?

Is it possible to still find the breathing room you seek? Yes. Is it possible to reliably take a day trip and not see anyone else? Unlikely, at least in Colorado. Sure, you could pull out a topo map and drive god-knows how many hours to find peace, but we don't always have the time or knowledge. Worse, have you ever thought that your secret spot was virtually unknown, only to show up and find other cars swamping the lot? It can be a little unnerving.

I will always love river fishing, but if the fly fishing industry wants to continually grow, us anglers will need to adapt to find personal space out there on the water. So, aside from paying a pretty penny to fish someone's private waters, what can a trout bum do?

Not a Conversation about Warm-water Fishing

Of course, we could expand our horizons to more warm-water fish (more on that in an upcoming piece), but for those needing to scratch the trout itch, it's best to keep searching.

Compounding Problems

Given alarming trends in rising stream temperatures, increased angling pressure, and variable yearly snowpack, I believe that the future of fly fishing for trout will shift towards stillwaters. Said differently, we will be forced to look elsewhere due to stream closures and unsustainable angling pressure on popular rivers. Yes, lakes... The dreaded "big blues" that are difficult to understand, and require (sometimes) separate sets of gear. We have talked about them before on our site. In fact, we're big proponents of fishing lakes as an alternative to streams already. Not just during runoff either. If this feels completely foreign, fear not, you don't have to start at ground zero. Competitive fishers and UK anglers have been unlocking the keys to lake fishing for years, and most Western American anglers haven't caught on...yet.

How much time do we spend hunting for lake-run rainbows in the spring, and their brown trout counterparts in the fall? Madness sweeps over the rivers when these fish show up seasonally, but here's a little secret: those bruisers live in lakes for the majority of the year. So why not cut right to the chase and seek them in lakes? Further, the West has some amazing stillwater fisheries that may offer the needed relief, and suffer from less angling pressure.

Angler Density Doesn't Impact Lakes the Same Way

Simply put, 100 people fishing a limited stretch of river won't look the same as 100 people fishing a lake shoreline. In broad terms, good spots in rivers can be restricted to a select group of pools and riffles, while lake features, like shorelines, can offer continuous habitat that allow anglers to spread out. Additionally, fish in lakes are constantly moving vertically, and laterally. The fish aren't at all restricted as compared to rivers. Plus, the pool of resident fish living in a lake is much greater, offering more fish that haven't seen your fly before.

Fly fishing Spinney Mountain Reservoir, Colorado
Didn't believe the blob fly would actually work until I tried, Spinney Mountain Reservoir, Colorado

The Other Side of the Euro-nymphing Trend

fly patterns for stillwater fly fishing
Selection of UK oddities

You may not want to hear it, but the Euro-nymphing trend has arrived for good in the West. What few realize is that the regions known for innovative euro-nymphing techniques also offer new insights into lake fishing (compared to the standard balanced leech under a bobber). Just as jigged nymphs offered new perspectives into river fishing, there are innovative lake techniques (and flies) that might change your approach to stillwater angling. Even within fly fishing competitions, lake sessions are given equal importance- a perfect pressure cooker for teasing out the best methods and flies. Though we've heard about the wonders of Perdigons, and Frenchies, we don't often hear about Blobs, Sparklers, or Crunchers. They are worth looking into! We are going to take a closer look at this new world of flies in a future article, so stay tuned!

Top 10 Stillwater Flies - Fulling Mill Blog
These top 10 stillwater flies have seen decades of development work, and you shouldn’t travel anywhere without them. The’re proven fish catchers.

Sweat Equity

Over the past several seasons, we started learning better tactics for lake fishing. It's not always easy, and we don't always have the answers, but fat stillwater trout make it all worthwhile. So, I'm proposing that instead of combat fishing the famous tailwaters, consider taking a few days to walk the bank of some reservoirs. Get in a float tube, or bum a ride on a boat. There might come a day when you have no better choices. We can figure it out together.