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The Other Sides of Aspen: Frozen Fish


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It’s a gray February morning in Aspen.

Snow is falling, but not with the insistence of a mountain storm; that will arrive tonight. In the meantime, it’s just flat-out cold. Skiers up on Ajax and Snowmass and the Highlands are fully gasketed in storm hoods and goggles. I’m not. I’m standing in the Roaring Fork River, wet.

To understand why, exactly, I’m wet (and, yes, quite cold) and why I continue to stand in the river, wet and cold, will require a brief suspension of judgment. I’m not crazy. I’m fishing.

I’m in just over my knees, about six yards from the bank. Snow sits in foot-deep pillows on evergreen branches and on rocks poking out of the water. The midstream water is dark and fast, not quite hiding the red and green river stones, some of which are covered with a dark, emerald slime. Behind me, Doug Moyer, a veteran fishing guide and Aspen Mountain ski instructor, has got one eye on my midstream casts, which aren’t catching fish, and another on an eddy across the river. There, in a slow swirl of water just behind a rock, is something we haven’t expected on this trip: a rare midwinter hatch of tiny, flying insects, and a small pod of fish feeding on them at the surface.

The sight is remarkable: Having spent most of the morning dredging the river with underwater nymphs, I suddenly have a chance to take a trout on a surface-riding dry fly, with all the summertime splash and drama that entails.

“If I tie on a dry,” Doug whispers, “will you be able to get it there?” His skepticism is justified. Only moments ago, I cleverly decided to place all my weight on my left foot, which was located atop a flat, slimy rock. Down I went, my feet flying up in front of me, and if it hadn’t been for Doug’s solid footing and a lucky grab of my hood, I might have taken a very cold bath. Fortunately, my neoprene waders and ski parka shed most of the river water.

“Sure,” I say.

Out I head into midcurrent, not without a sense of peril, a nice little four-weight rod rigged with a microscopic dry fly in my hand. About every 45 seconds, I see a splash and hear the thwack of a fish feeding across the river. These are big fish, the sort of meaty, foot-and-a-half brown and rainbow trout that continue to populate Colorado’s best rivers despite development, whirling disease, and overfishing. And they’re not being shy about their feeding. I begin to cast to them in earnest, missing, at first, by a wide shot.

I wade out a bit farther. Finally, my casts begin to hit their target. With each one, the fly sits lazily in the eddy for a few seconds before being pulled down into the current. Nothing. And again. Nothing. And then, suddenly: thwack.

Downtown Aspen is a short drive from miles of blue ribbon trout streams, including the famous Roaring Fork and Frying Pan rivers. Though these waters get crowded in summer and fall, in winter they offer opportunities to try for big fish in near-complete seclusion. Local guides can show you the best spots, as well as take care of equipment, logistics, and instruction. For more info, call Aspen Flyfishing at 970-920-6886.

Go back to The Other Sides of Aspen.