March midge madness in Garfield County
Baetis hatch lures anglers to Colorado River
Dustin Harcourt, wearing a trucker cap and sunglasses, his scraggly hair flowing over his ears into the black hood of his sweatshirt, sat on a 16-foot fiberglass dory, glossy wooden oars at each of his sides. He braved the partly cloudy, slightly breezy Saturday afternoon, with a distinctly cool nip in the air if the sun’s rays were blocked.
The well-known fly-fishing fanatic, named “Guide of the Rockies” by Elevation Outdoors Magazine in 2019, had just splashed over some playful rapids at Kayak Park in Glenwood Springs and was drifting listlessly along the tortoise green current of the Colorado River, toward South Canyon.
He considers himself “blessed to have these types of office windows.”
“It’s one of the best spots in this whole section,” The 49-year-old said. “From here to South Canyon is the best in the whole Valley, in my mind.”
This is why, in Garfield County and the entire state of Colorado, fly fishing remains ever popular. Data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show, in 2020 alone, out-of-state and residential combined for about 1.3 million total licenses sold in Colorado.
“All the rod manufacturers sold out last year,” Harcourt said. “There were 100,000 more license sales than any other time.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Region Public Information Officer Randy Hampton acknowledged 2020 as being a strange year for outdoor recreation.
“We thought there’s going to be a big negative impact, and it was exactly the opposite,” he said. “People went out in droves, so license sales were off the chart statewide.”
“We’re an attraction for people that want to come and fish,” he added. “There’s something about that high-country fly fishing that draws all kinds of people from around the world.”
There’s always a threat to the treasure of fly fishing in Colorado.
More recently, however, the threats come by way of wildland fires. Experts in fact predict Garfield County to have one of its worst droughts since 2002.
Meanwhile, Colorado alone — this includes the Grizzly Creek Fire — has seen 20 of its worst wildland fires in its recorded history since 2002.
“Do we see declines, are there threats? I think there are always, just like any business,” Hampton said. “But if we try to be mindful to maintain the resource and then I think the business side takes care of itself.”
This year, however, the tide is low, Harcourt said. So far, it flows at an alarming 1,200 cubic feet per second. In 2011, the rate boasted 30,000 CFS in late spring, early summer.
Harcourt also acknowledges remnants of the Grizzly Creek Fire — which consumed more than 32,000 acres of local wilderness in 2020 — as a threat to the industry. In addition to fire, flammable cargo possibly spilling into the river and mudslides come to mind.
“Once it starts looking like chocolate milk, it’s no good,” Harcourt said. “The fish start to suffocate.”
Luckily, Mother Nature has helped out as of late.
“We really made a great comeback with the storms of late,” Harcourt said. “If we get to average, I’ll be happy.”
There’s a simple trick to hooking the mouths of the vastly diverse varieties of trout in Colorado.
Especially this time of year, when the fish feed on easily accessible buffets of tiny mayflies, just pirouette your fly toward the foamy parts of the voluminous flow.
“Foam is home,” Harcourt said. That’s where the flies like to congregate, which attracts hungry trout. “Every fish on the entire river is eating them.”
It’s no surprise the great hatch churns some excellent fishing in the Colorado River Valley.
“Let’s say a really, really tough day in January, you might get 10 to 15 bites all day long,” Harcourt said. “Now we’re going to get hundreds of bites.”
At least, when you’re on the boat with Harcourt, who’s been guiding these parts since 1993, it’s truly almost impossible to get skunked. With surgeon-like, almost tyrannical precision, Harcourt will point out the spots you should cast.
Once you’re in a sweet spot, Harcourt will instruct you to simply ride the tide and wait for a bite. Once you see your strike indicator submerge, you’ll immediately tug slightly with the current — trout typically swim against the grain.
From there, keep the line relatively taut, but don’t be too forceful or else you’ll lose your catch.
“We’re just enjoying the dance,” Harcart said. “There’s no big rush.”
Another trick used on Harcourt’s boat includes the power of music. Sometimes, it’s heavy metal that spurs the trout into a fly-biting frenzy. Other times, reggae helps lull the creatures onto the hook.
Oh, and don’t bring bananas on the boat and only spell out the word “W.I.N.D.”
“Fishermen are superstitious,” Harcourt said.
If you ask Harcourt, he’s certainly built up some upper body muscle over the years.
“I’ve added up the miles I’ve rowed,” he said. “I’ve rowed all around the world.”
The Harcourt family is a household name to many in the Garfield County fly-fishing community. Harcourt’s father, John Harcourt, holds a fly fishing class every year in New Castle and Grand River Park — Harcourt Fly Fishing 3g.
“3 g” means three generations.
Meanwhile, Dustin’s two sons — River and Drake — help on guide trips. Drake has even won amateur fly-fishing contests and also sells flies he hand-made himself.
Harcourt also had a major mentor in the late legendary fishing guide Kea Hause, who died in 2015.
“He was my family’s fishing guide,” Harcourt said.
“A lot of us fishing guides, we have a brotherhood,” he added. “We definitely know most in the Valley.”
When Harcourt’s not on the river, he’s out hosting salt-water fishing guides at Guanaja Island off the coast of Honduras.
The only time Harcourt truly tires out is usually in November, but he quickly finds himself drawn again to the current of the Colorado and the trout that call it home.
“Every day’s always a bit different. It’s the coolest chess game on earth,” he said. “When it quits being fun, I need to quit.”
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