Four Nights Four Rivers

Day 1

Four nights and four rivers. That was the plan. My Dad and I were going to head out on our Harleys, with all our fishing gear, and take a tour of Colorado rivers. Since it was the middle of July, we knew we’d hit a little a rain, but we ended up riding through a lot more than we bargained for. The first day was going to be the longest day of riding. We left Denver at a decent time, and the plan was to try and outrun the rain, making it over Wolf Creek Pass while it was still dry.

Half the fun for the trip though, started long before we ever left. After we had decided where and when we were going, there was still the pretty big task of trying to figure out how to fit everything for a trip like that on a motorcycle. There were a few fishing things that were a must; waders, boots, 7 piece rod to fit in the saddlebags (and a Tenkara rod for good measure since they don’t take up any space), and my new Patagonia Stealth Atom Sling Pack. Of course, there were also some motorcycle things that were a must; a cover, helmet, jacket, gloves, chaps, and enough clothes that I wouldn’t be able to smell myself too much on the last day while heading down the road at 80 mph.There were, of course, things that we just couldn’t find room to pack though. Nets and motorcycles really aren’t made for each other. While I was able to bring some Korker’s boots with interchangeable soles, my Dad didn’t have any and only packed one pair of rubber bottom boots – a decision he’d regret once while on the Lake Fork of the Gunnison. It was also pretty difficult to pack much water or food with us as we went. This probably cut a few of our stops a little short as we had to jump off the river earlier than we would have wanted to make it back to a town for a little bit of food!

Of all the things that I took, two were the most difficult to pack. Wader boots, especially the Korker’s Darkhorse boots that I took, were a little bulky. Not only were they bulky, but I didn’t want to just throw wet boots and wet waders in my saddle bag as I jumped back on the bike after each different river. So, in pretty sophisticated fashion, I used a ratchet strap to put an old milk crate on the back of the bike. This way I could throw the wet gear in there, and hopefully by the time I made it from the river to the hotel for the night, the gear would be dry. This didn’t end up working out as well as I had hoped because it rained on us so much on the trip.

The other thing that was tough to pack was my fly rod. Sure it was 7 piece rod, but there were a few times that we wanted to move from one hole to another on the bikes, and it was always a bummer to have to break the whole thing down just to move a mile or two down the river. In fact, there were a few times I just didn’t want to do that. It was a great sight to see I’m sure. Me, waders, wading boots, a 7.5’ fly rod bungied to my bike just cruising down the road on my Road Glide (thank goodness for fairings that don’t turn with the handlebars!).

Motorcycles and 4 rivers! Let's fish!
Our bikes all packed up.

The first day of the trip was the longest, and for me, also the worst. We took off from Denver but we weren’t able to make it over Wolf Creek Pass before the rain hit. About 45 miles from the summit, the clouds rolled in, and not only did we catch a bunch of rain, but we hit a bunch of hail as well. To add to this, the rain pants that I took on the trip split open at the crotch as soon as I climbed on the bike the first time that day. However, as we were about 10 miles from the summit, the rain cleared out and we were able to ride on dry roads up and over to the other side. As soon as we got to the other side though, the rain rolled back in and we rode almost all the way to Pagosa Springs in the rain.

The rain quit about 20 miles before we made it to Pagosa, and it was a good thing. We were able to stop for a couple hours and fish the East Fork of the San Juan before heading the rest of the way into town. My dad pulled the first one of the river for the trip, a little Rainbow fingerling, I was not so lucky. Between the ripped pants, and no fish, the first day was a little rough for me. We only fished for a few hours the first day, and I didn’t even have a nibble. After a long day in the rain on the road though, I was ready for a comfy bed and to get back at it the next day.

Fishing in the San Juan river
Me fishing in the river.

Day 2

I woke up a little tired on our second day or the trip. It had been a long ride the day before when I got soaked. So, the first thing we did was head over to the local sporting goods store for a better set of rain pants. Once those were in hand, we were back on the road again. We set out for the West Fork of the San Juan and took a dirt road that definitely wasn’t designed for a couple of Harleys. Just about the time we found a good spot to fish, the rain started coming down. After throwing the covers on the bikes, and my newly purchased rain gear, we did the smart thing. Stood under some trees holding 9ft fly rods in a thunderstorm – oh well. Once the rain started to clear a little, we fished there but didn’t catch anything. We decided to head out to another spot.

Bikes in the thunderstorm while we were fly fishing.
Our bikes in the thunderstorm.

We showed up at the next spot, and I started fishing right away. For some reason my Dad decided that he wasn’t up for fishing at that spot, and so he stayed back at the bikes for a bit to get his stuff together. I didn’t have any luck where I was, but after not too long, my Dad said he found a spot that looked a little bit better just a bit further up the river. I walked up and there was a wide, slow section. I threw my fly in a few times, and of course my dad said I was fishing in the wrong spot. We’d seen a couple different caddis flying around, so I put one on the top, and had a larva midge under that.

After throwing it out a few times, and changing out the tippet and weights to get closer to the bottom, I finally moved all the way up to where my dad said he thought there would be some good fish. It was a pretty deep hole that was on the far side of the river. I threw my rig out a few times, but didn’t get anything. I wasn’t sure how deep the hole was, so I decided to take the dry fly off the top, and just toss in the larva. I kept a strike indicator on the top, a big pink thingamabobber. I played around with the depth a little more, but couldn’t ever hit bottom. So I decided to just take all the indicators off and try my own version of euro nymphing. I tossed it in the first time and boom! Something pretty big took it. I fought him for a little while, and when I finally pulled him in, it was a beautiful 18” Brown trout. So glad my Dad decided not to bring his stuff out with him.

1st catch of the fly fishing trip
Boom! My first catch of the trip!

I put the Brown quickly back in the water, and he took off right back for the same hole. I was hoping there was more in there, so I tossed in again. After a few casts, I hooked into something pretty big again. My Dad, being the encourager that all fishermen who are being out-fished should be, told me that it was unquestionably the same fish that I had just caught and I ought to be a little nicer to the fish than to drag that poor thing out of the water again. As he was saying that, the fish jumped out and we got a nice look at a big beautiful rainbow. Take that pops! I played with him for a little while and was finally able to land him. Just after landing him, we felt a few more raindrops and decided it was time to take off and see if we could outrun the rain again.

A big beautiful Rainbow Fish!
A big beautiful Rainbow Fish!

We jumped back on the bikes, and unlike the day before, we weren’t able to make it over Wolf Creek Pass without running into rain. It was a long rainy ride into Lake City that night, but we stayed in a hotel that night which backed up to the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River. We threw a few different flies at them that night, but didn’t get anything, so we decided we’d call it a day and get back at it in the morning.

Four Nights Four Rivers

Day 3 and 4

Days three and four of the trip were some of the driest that we had, and that was a welcome relief for me! We decided not to fish the Gunnison right near our cabin as the crowd was pretty big on the river right there. Instead, we headed out and were just looking for a decent place to fish along the way up to Basalt. Most of the river was private water, but we found a small stretch of public land and headed down.

Basalt public water fly fishing spot.
Basalt public water fly fishing spot.

My Dad was trying to save space on the way, so head had packed his ‘smaller’ set of wading boots. This detail proved to be a big mistake we headed to this section of the river. We found a great spot to fish, and as is always the case, it looked like there was some good calm water on the opposite side of the river. My dad headed across first, and was having a ton of trouble just making it across the river. The Gunnison was moving pretty fast, and the water was just above our waists as we were making our way through. Since we had tried to save space, neither of us had a wading staff or anything, but I found a couple of branches that looked good enough that I took them out into the river and handed one to my dad. We’ve waded through plenty of rivers together, and more often than not it’s me that ends up having a little trouble heading across.

However, in the effort to save some room, my Dad only brought boots with a rubber bottom on them, no felt, no studs. I was able to make it across the river quite a bit easier since I had my awesome Korker’s Darkhorse boots that have interchangeable soles on them, and I just switched to the felt soles when we got to the river. After fishing for a while on the far side, my Dad decided to head back to the other side, and that’s when he really wished he’d had some felt or studded soles. He took a wrong step, the current caught one of his legs and swung him all the way around. He ended up going down to a knee in the river which let him get a little water in his waders. Luckily for him though, I was a little too far upstream to see it all, and so I couldn’t get any great pictures to tease him with later!

The worst part about the whole thing though, was that we didn’t get a single bite on the far side of the river. Once we had both made it back across though, I hooked into a couple more as my Dad was trying to dry out his vest from taking a knee in the river.  They weren’t quite as big as some of the others we’d hooked into, but it sure was a lot better spending the day on the river as opposed to being at work!

Another nice catch!
Another nice catch!

From there we made the ride into Basalt where we spent a little time on both the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan. We were never alone on either of these rivers, and as we fished pretty close to town, it was obvious that both rivers had quite a bit of pressure pretty frequently. We each pulled out a couple of little ones, about 10” at best. From Bassalt, we made the ride up Palisade for our last night and hoped to fish the Eagle a little the next day.

Day 5

As we arrived in Palisade, we started to unpack and made a bad discovery – no camera. Somewhere along the way our camera was lost, and while that wasn’t too important, it had the pictures of my fish, so we had to get it back!! The more we thought it through, the more we realized it could only be in one spot. Where my Dad had to hang up his vest to dry off, he must have also taken out his camera, and we never picked it back up. What should have been a morning on the river followed by a four hour ride home, instead became an adventure to see if we could find a camera that was lying by the side of a river somewhere, and at least an 8 hour ride home!

We plotted out our route, and discovered that if we took a dirt road cut off, we could save about an hour off the total trip. After scouring the internet, we found some reports that said that 4wd was needed to make it over the road, and some reports that said it was a great dirt road with no troubles at all. We decided to chance it and take the Lake City Cut Off between Hwy 149 and Hwy 50. It ended up being a really nice road without any traffic, and by our best guess it saved us about an hour. We managed to spot the place where we had stopped a few days earlier to fish, and we found the camera laying right by the fence!

Since we were already there, we decided to stay and fish for a while longer. It was one of those tough and frustrating fishing spots. We were by a nice deep pool, and standing just a ways above we could see quite a few decent sized fish swimming around. We both went down, and after 45 minute and 15 different flies, we still hadn’t managed to entice one of them.

A beautiful spot.
A beautiful spot.

We were sitting at a place with quite a bit of debris, and the fish looked like they were feeding right under one of the logs. So, I decided to try a little different rig. I put a couple of weights on and a pretty little streamer (size 16 or so) and cast right alongside the log. I waited until the current took the fly under the log, and then started to strip the line back in towards me and under the log. It worked perfect, and it only took a couple of casts until I hooked into a little Rainbow.

Another catch of a beautiful Rainbow.
Another catch of a beautiful Rainbow.

All in all, we had an awesome trip. We had planned on fishing the San Juan, Gunnison, Roaring Fork and Eagle river. In the end, we had spent some time on all 3 forks of the San Juan, Lake Fork of the Gunnison, the Frying Pan, and the Roaring Fork. I mostly like dry fly fishing, and use a dry–dropper rig most of the time, but of all the fish I caught, I think only one took a dry fly on the top. We had a couple our regular fly rods with us as well as a couple different size Tenkara rods, and were able to catch some on each different rod. While the Tenkara rods don’t provide as much flexibility for where to go, they were a lot easier to set up and get on some of the smaller sections of the river quickly. We pulled a couple fish out of all the rivers we fished, but without a doubt had the best success on the San Juan. My guess is that is partly because it was the first set of rivers we were on and we were a little more tired at some of the other stops.  We ended up riding right around 1,200 miles, and it seemed like about 500 of those were through the rain. If I get to do it again, there are a few changes I’ll make. Mostly, I’ll have better rain gear before I start the trip. It also seemed like quite a few of the rivers we fished only had knee high water and I would have loved to just have some wading pants instead of full waders. I know that my Dad would have loved some better wading boots and maybe even a wading staff in one river. But let’s be honest, half the fun of a fishing trip is thinking about all the great gear that you can buy for the next time out.

Written by Jeff Oetter

I am a Colorado native that grew up going fishing every chance I could. Now I’m a pastor, as well as a life long student! If I’m not working or studying you can find me and my family heading up to the mountains in our Jeep.

We hope you enjoyed this amazing story from Jeff. Let us know what you thought in the comments! Thanks for reading!

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