Tie one on: The simple joys of popper fishing
It wasn’t too long ago that my springs were spent on the waters of Harvey Gap and Rifle Gap reservoirs on the outskirts of Rifle, pursuing smallmouth bass with a fly pole. I say pole because rod seems overwhelmingly too fancy a term here in the heart of trout country where tourists spend thousands of dollars on gear and guides to catch pretty trout on a fly rod during the famed green drake hatch standing next to other sports from Texas, California and New York trying to do the same.
Smallmouth Bass, long considered pound-for-pound the strongest of freshwater fish are also considered as pound-for-pound one of the most dangerous of fish, threatening populations of endangered native chubs and sucker. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has therefore been trying to eradicate smallmouth bass and northern pike among other species that prey on or compete in habitat with the endangered fish species
For the past few years the pickings were slim for smallie fishing diehards like myself as CPW staff gillnetted the reservoirs several times in efforts to drastically reduce the numbers of smallmouth bass and northern pike present in Rifle Gap, Harvey Gap and other Western Slope impoundments. My friends and I were going through bass withdrawals and would regularly travel to the far corners of Colorado and surrounding states to go catch a few measly bass. Gone were the days of heading out after work in the jon boat and enjoying the sunset while stretching out the fly line on numbers of wildly acrobatic bronzeback smallmouth. I continued to go out to the lakes in subsequent years and chased the last few remaining specimens simply out of habit and nostalgia. I continued to release them all but cherished each one more than the last, taking the time to really look at their beauty as they become even fewer and farer between, thanking them for letting me into their world.
I obviously wasn’t alone in my frustrations as CPW staff have recently been appeasing the Western Slope bass, pike and warmwater fishing crowd by stocking non-threatening fish species like Largemouth Bass, Tiger Muskie, sterile Walleye, Crappie and Bluegill in places such as The Gaps.
There’s simply nothing as enchanting as fishing a popper for bass. These large, air resistant flies don’t necessarily imitate anything and fish often eat them out of instinct and curiosity. Some vaguely resemble frogs, snakes, and birds while others remind me a foam-bodied grasshopper at a rave party spun-out on molly. Anything seems to go in bass fishing as they are welcomed opportunists making fly selection more about your gut feeling and mood compared to which stage of the ephemerella grandis green drake is hatching at the moment on the Roaring Fork.
While fishing this past weekend, my friend Mark compared fishing a popper to watching a fire. There’s just something rhythmical and totally enchanting in the pops, glugs and splooshes (all technical bass terms) of poppers as they leave bubble trails and rings when stripped and pulled on the waters surface. There’s nothing delicate or dainty here like trout fly fishing – you fish the banks, the rock piles, the ledges and edges, and any other piece of structure where bass can hide near cover. The takes are fast and explosive, not gentle sips like the elegant trout.
Fast forward to the present, where this spring my fishing partner, Travis, and I took my skiff out for an evening of nostalgia. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the CPW recently released a brood stock of around 50-100 largemouth bass that varied in size from 10-12” inches up to 5-7 pounds. We ended up boating three bass that evening totaling over 10 pounds including a fish approaching 7 pounds all on topwater popper flies. To put that in perspective, the state record largemouth bass is 10 pounds. That would be the equivalent of catching a 15 pound trout on the Fryingpan River on a large dry fly.
After landing our third fish that evening, still with about a half hour of light remaining (what we refer to in fishing as the magic hour), we sat motionless on Harvey Gap watching the sun set, stunned and still in awe of our rejuvenated local bass fishery. Finally, with all the doom and gloom surrounding the Corona virus and racial tensions, there was a brief moment of escape, relief and hope for us – the Gaps are back and fishing possibly as well as ever.
I leave you this week with a quote from President Hoover, “To go fishing is the chance to wash one’s soul with pure air, with the rush of the brook, or with the shimmer of sun on blue water. It brings meekness and inspiration from the decency of nature, charity towards tackle makers, patience towards fish, a mockery of profits and egos, a quieting of hate, a rejoicing that you don’t have to decide a darned thing till next week. And it is discipline in the equality of men – for all men are equal before the fish.”
Kirk Webb is a longtime angler who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley.
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More trails will open for the season on Sunday for mountain bikers in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Glenwood Springs.