Hope on the St. Vrain

A Lyons-based angler returns to a favorite fishing hole

Greg Lowell

There was no expectation in this fishing trip; I was prepared to be disappointed. But the day was warm and sometimes it’s enough to stand in the river’s cool current and go through the motions. Trout were, it seemed, out of the question but there was a part of me that thought just maybe something had survived the monster flood of 2013.

It had been 10 months since the St. Vrain River had turned into a brown, seething monster that tore apart homes and lives, ripped out bridges and roads and turned a clear, swift trout stream into a combination strip mine and junkyard. For those of us who fished the river down through Lyons, the flood had turned a dream stream into a desolate stretch of piscine tragedy.

The floodwater had deposited piles of debris and untold tons of silt and sand alongside a riverbed scoured clean of all the necessities a trout needs to thrive. Streamside willows and grass that cooled the water and provided insect food now lay flat and buried.

And as if the flood’s destruction wasn’t enough, all winter excavators and dump trucks ran up and down the river, removing the debris and preparing the river for the uncertainties of the spring run. The river flowed brown and silty for months as the work churned the waters.

Then, to add insult, the ditch company jumped in to replace their destroyed diversion dam and in so doing sent the entire river down the ditch for three months while they worked, leaving only a trickle of dirty water in a dusty riverbed.

Whatever trout that survived the flood, the machines and the diversion were surely gone now.

But all winter and early spring I walked what remained of my favorite stretch of the once-river, hoping to see something in the small pools fed by groundwater seeps, but there was nothing. I was buoyed by the beaver who constructed a tiny dam to hold a kid’s pool-size pond and the chattering kingfishers who must be finding something to eat. But nothing stirred in the shallow pools for months.

Then, one early spring day I stood on an undercut bank at dusk and saw dimples on a small pool halfburied by a mound of flood debris. The water was dark and filled with green algae, but something was in there. Then, in quick succession, two little trout jumped clear of the water. Here was the hope I had been looking for.

But within a week the ditch company closed their head gate just as the run-off started, sending water into the river for the first time in three months. The beaver’s dam washed away and the river turned muddy again as the flood’s silt picked up where it had left off. The river ran high and brown for two more months. What could survive this second onslaught?

The guides at the fly shops said that other rivers and other parts of the St. Vrain were fishing well, in spite of the flood, but I was sure they hadn’t seen this particular stretch.

Now it was mid-July, the run-off was subsiding and I was eager to be knee-deep in the flow with a fly rod, no matter how futile it seemed.

Down through the fields I went and plunged into the wooded river bottom. The cottonwoods and silver maples were in places buried in six feet of silt and festooned with dead vegetation, every type of plastic modern civilization could provide and enough house parts to construct a village. Each trunk wore a horse collar of flood debris wound so tight that it would take machinery and men with chainsaws to remove it.

I stepped out of the flood wrack into the sunshine and rush of water. The river was running clear for the first time in nearly a year, but the cobbled bottom, once so rich in caddis fly cases that the stones looked like tiny porcupines, was clean and devoid of vegetation. There were large stretches of quicksand silt where once there were gravel bars. The eddies and pools, the boulders and the sunken trees were largely gone, replaced by a sluiced channel looking as sterile as a swimming pool.

Yet, some of the old river had survived the floodwaters. The overhanging silver maple where I once hooked a brown trout large beyond the promise of the stream was still there. And there was the same run around an outside bend that looked familiar except for the remnants of someone’s deck now flung up on its bank.

I reached down and picked up a submerged stone and looked for life on its surface. The first half-dozen were bare, but the next one had a single stone caddis case and the one after that revealed a tiny squirming bug monster on its underside. Maybe, just maybe, I thought.

Encouraged, I waded into one of my usual spots and found the rhythm in my casting. I watched the caddis imitation for any sign of a tug on the nymph trailing behind it, but none came. I was remembering better times here, the fish I’d caught, when I heard the unmistakable plunk of a rising trout and swung my eyes over to the spot in time to see rings fading in the current.

As I lifted my line from the water, it came again. Hard against the river bank, under the debris pile of tangled orange highway fence and tree trunks, the trout sipped again. Suddenly, it was Christmas morning. Ten months of worry and depression went away with the appearance of that fish.

I placed the fly just upstream from the spot and watched it drift. Up came the fish again, eager perhaps for anything it could eat in this nearbarren river, and took the caddis fly. I set the hook, felt its tug for a second and then it was gone. I saw it clearly when it turned and spit the fly; it was small, no more than six inches long, but it was a fish.

I didn’t care. Never has losing a fish felt so good. I had come seeking a sign and this fish was my grail. Whether it had been swept down from Raymond or Allenspark or whether it was a dogged survivor of this stretch of water was no matter. Here among the devastation there was renewal. It might take five or 10 or 20 years for the river to become what it was; I’ll leave the science to those who know better than me, but here at least were trout where a short time before there was only dryness and destruction.

I moved on, down around the bend, sinking deep in the silt where I had once waded with ease, and cast with a renewed purpose.

Deep in a dark run, I saw the tan flash of a brown trout chasing my nymph. An hour later, next to a piece of corrugated siding, another fish rose to inspect my fly. And beyond a red tarp, waving like submerged fire in the current, yet another fish made an aborted run at the dropper fly.

I caught none of these fish. Three hours, four looks at my fly and zero fish — a bad day fishing on the St. Vrain in any other year, but today it felt like I’d hit the fishing grand slam.

The river was back — at least part of the way. It has a long way to go, I know. But for me, it’s enough that there’s a rise of hope in the bugs on the rocks, the swallows I watched wheel over the river at dusk and that little trout that first ventured out to take my fly and with it a year of despair.

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