Moody River

Fast changes on the Big Thompson

It never fails to amaze me how quickly conditions can change on a trout stream. It’s ancient knowledge that rivers never sleep, that they’re in a never-ending state of flux, always rising or falling, changing color, clarity, or course. Rivers — and the fish in them — can be as moody and unpredictable as a troop of drunken monkeys. And just because a river is timeless and enduring doesn’t mean you can count on it to be kind or compassionate.

As if to prove the point, three of us had been fishing the Big Thompson for a whole week, and no two days were even remotely alike, except that they were all fun — and maybe a little too hot. Some days we’d catch fish on fluffy little dry flies, while on others only weighted nymphs or deeply drifted wet flies would turn a trout’s eye. One evening, a tiny tan caddis fly accounted for half a dozen fat browns and two rainbows in less than an hour. The next day that fly proved utterly useless.

Each day the river brought new surprises. One morning we were on the water early enough that dawn’s chill still lingered in the canyon. The first rays of sun filtered through the trees along the far bank, painting the cobbled bottom in rippling streaks of amber, green, gold, and a thousand unnamed shades of brown. A lazy mist hung over the surface while midges, mayflies, and other winged critters danced through it all in a kind of wild outdoor bug ballet. Deerflies and mosquitoes circled about. Dragonflies chased after all of them as the sun warmed their wings. We stood there, our mouths agape, staring in wonder at the beauty of it. My cousin Al finally came to his senses, peeled some line from his reel, floated a cast into the shadows and immediately hooked a good fish.

“Uh-oh,” I said (an allusion to the angler’s curse that says a fish on the first cast is often the kiss of death, meaning you won’t get so much as a bite for the rest of the day). But the river surprised us. Seconds later I had a fish on, and then so did Patrick. It went on like that for the next two hours — one or the other of us always into a fish, sometimes all three of us at the same time. It didn’t seem to matter what fly we used or how we fished it, the trout would eat it.

But then, as suddenly as it had all started, it stopped, and there wasn’t a fish or a bug to be seen. It simply went dead. Because that’s what rivers do.

Dennis Smith is a freelance outdoors writer and photographer whose work appears nationally. He lives in Loveland.