Paul Adams – Spring in Colorado’s Tarryall Creek

The Fabulous Wilson’s Warbler

Water diverted from the river and gravity-fed along ditches irrigates the meadows, and pool a foot or more deep in low spots. Here the grasses will be too coarse for grazing or hay, but wildlife relish these temporary wetlands.

Mid-May in Colorado, and Tarryall Creek had risen in recent days to a level ideal for dry fly fishing. This was good news for now, but flows should be much higher at this time, and we will lament the limited winter snowpack in the coming months. I fished a couple of hours on each of the previous two afternoons. A handful of trout were caught both days, but the conditions had promised better. Not a cause for complaint, but my expectations ahead of a short session on that third morning were modest. That, of course, is to judge an outing simply on “fish caught”, whereas springtime along Tarryall Creek – surely, any river – offers many other compensations.

Spring has asserted itself over the past few days. Willoshrubs carry the vibrant greens, yellows and red of new growth. Their tips are the translucent silver of the furred buds preparing to open. Migratory birds have been returning for several weeks, sized from hummingbirds and the smallest warblers to the ubiquitous Canada geese.

Water diverted from the river and gravity-fed along ditches irrigates the meadows, and pool a foot or more deep in low spots. Here the grasses will be too coarse for grazing or hay, but wildlife relish these temporary wetlands. If one bird personifies this time and place it is the red-winged blackbird. The males, otherwise similar to their British namesake, sport prominent flashes of red and orange on their wings. Though common across Colorado, wetlands are their preferred habitat. Here the males advertise their credentials with an incessant, sharp call, and flamboyant flashes of their wings, while perched on reeds, willows or fences around the water.

Red Winged Blackbird

Insect hatches were sparse in the cold, snow-fed water. A few small caddis; moth-like at first glance, bouncing across the surface, struggling to get airborne. Small and medium sized olives – generic “mayflies” in the American vernacular – caught my attention in ones and twos. And as the afternoon warmed, grasshoppers climbed the dead grasses, this year’s shoots still only an inch out of the ground. Very little here from which to match a fly selection, but that is typical in mountain streams. A #16 quill-bodied dry will cover the bases, as it so often does. During the past two days I tried larger and smaller, to no obvious effect, so today I tie back on the fly I clipped off to end yesterday’s session.

Immediately the change from prior days was apparent. On only the second or third cast, a small brown darted several feet from the shallows to intercept my fly in the riffle. By the time the first bend of the stream had been fished – about fifteen minutes – two more trout, somewhat larger, had been unhooked. I waded across the stream to fish the next bend from the inside. Willow, my eight month old border terrier, was carried across, still cautious in water that she can’t wade on her short legs. Carrying the dog and cane rod, my fly trailed in the water and another small brown, unperturbed by the disturbance, attached itself. This is the sort of luck that belittles our assertions of skill. My score now stood at four fish from three strikes.


The next hour followed a similar pattern. Some missed strikes of course, but a dozen fish unhooked, with two or three more performing their escape from the barbless hook. The fish were in the stretches that typically yield, but also those that produce less reliably. Modest fish, nothing bigger than 12 inches, but all wild and with beautiful markings and condition. In coming weeks the commercial fishing lodge upstream will start stocking larger hatchery fish for their well-healed guests, and the high flows during run-off will deliver some of these fish to my stretch. Large they may be, at 18 to 24 inches, but also weak, pale and devoid of any native smarts.

Wild & Beautiful

I fished less than half the length of stream available to me. Tight under a beaver dam, in a slack little more than table-size, a small trout needed all its agility to intercept my fly as it accelerated over the lip into the faster riffle. Momentum and current carried it downstream with me playing out line and stumbling over rocks to follow. A 6-inch trout was belatedly unhooked nearly 50 yards downstream, in a scene more befitting a 20- pounder on a prestigious, salmon beat. This humour seemed a fitting end to the session.

Away from the stream, I stood the rod and hung my vest on suitable fence posts. For an hour, WIllow and I checked the flow gauge on the irrigation, walked the ditch to check that the water was being distributed correctly, and finished by inspecting the visitors in the flooded meadow.

.With the day now shirt-sleeved warm, the bird calls were competing with the croaking of dozens of unseen frogs, suitably warmed and energised. This was not lost on a stately heron, which caught with a precision that would be the envy of any angler.

Mountain terrain generates weather that is often changeable, unpredictable and localised, but I feel this most starkly in spring. A long winter has been endured; finally we have days which are warm, even hot. Snow cover is now confined to high elevations and shaded aspects, and the last ice left the river weeks ago. Greens are replacing white and grey. Seasonal migrants return. Existence has been replaced by exuberance.

And then it snows.

We always get a snow storm or two in May, but that doesn’t lessen the shock. The forecast signals it days ahead, but doubts remain; the system may track differently or weaken; a potential snow storm may be just a cold snap.

My last evening walk, between dusk and dark, saw clouds that had descended below the nearby peaks. A few snowflakes were falling, so fine that they struggled to reach the ground. By morning, the first light reflects off of six inches of snow. Heavy, wet snow, not the powder more typical of a Colorado winter. Snow continues to fall intermittently for several more hours, between brief and diffused appearances of the sun.

Small Copper John Nymph

My plans to fish are modified rather than cancelled. The river level has risen over the past week even before the snow. Depending on the temperature, it will be a day at least, potentially several, before this fresh snow raises the level further. Already though, the trout have been chased into the slacker water protected by rocks, logs, and bends. Insect hatches will surely be on hold today, so a small Copper John nymph will sink quickly to where I hope the fish are holding.

Spring Continues its Advance, Despite The Snow

Incongruous with the fresh snow, spring has continued its advance during the past week. Willows are in leaf, and the tips of the aspens are now capped with a green sheen of the fresh leaves, highlighted by the white backdrop. Even amidst the snow flurries today the green increases noticeably. The birds avoid the snow cover and concentrate in the flooded fields and the margin between river and bank where the snow cannot hold. Without the sun, the blackbirds are sulking; present, but missing their voice and flamboyant displays. Instead it is the robins that take centre stage; American robin’s of course; much larger than their British cousin, thrush-sized, and a breast of rust-orange rather than scarlet. Flocks of 15 to 20 are probing any exposed and soft ground. A dedicated bird-watching session would identify many species, but even to a passing angler the Wilson’s warbler cannot be missed. Small, a typical warbler-size, both sexes are nearly solid yellow, and they search just above the water line with a thoroughness and urgency so typical of small birds.

The Fabulous Wilson’s Warbler

Two hours of fishing doesn’t disappoint. A few threads of wool, as an indicator, track the nymph in the turbid water. Some bites are an unmistakable lunge, but a momentary checking of the indicator is more typical. Each cast is fished out, as the nymph is often taken as it rises on the tight line at the end of a downstream swing. I always expect to miss my share of nymph bites, and do, but eight or nine are unhooked. The typical 8-12 inch browns, with a couple of five or six inches to keep an ego in check.

At the spot that last week staged my epic tussle with a 6-inch brown, the dam has been damaged by the higher flows. The water cascades through an ugly hole, the productive slack now just a memory. Damage to dams – often their complete failure – is common in spring, having been constructed during the low, autumnal flows. But they performed their primary purpose, a layer of unfrozen water through the winter. Repairs will be made in the months to come.

Writing & Images Paul Adams – May 2022 Colorado