Blue-winged Olives

FOR MOST OF A DECADE I REFUSED to bring a fly rod on the annual elk hunt. That’s because my friends Ed, DeWitt and I hunt too conveniently in the

  • By: John Gierach

FOR MOST OF A DECADE I REFUSED to bring a fly rod on the annual elk hunt. That’s because my friends Ed, DeWitt and I hunt too conveniently in the headwaters of the Frying Pan River in western Colorado, about a forty-minute drive upstream from the Gold Medal water below Ruedi Dam. We’re there in mid-October when the blue-winged olive mayfly hatch can be on, and back when I used to bring one, having a fly rod along created a needless distraction. In years when the hunting was slow, I could get to thinking about fishing, and although I never actually went fishing before we’d put in the meat, the nagging possibility had a way of disturbing my concentration.

But then two seasons ago we had one of those charmed hunts. DeWitt and I each had an elk down by noon on opening day and by dark the following evening we had them both skinned, quartered, packed out and hanging in the shed at the cabin. The next afternoon, with time on my hands and nothing better to do, I drove down to look at the river.

It was a chilly day with a falling barometer, no wind and a dark overcast that made the sky look 10 feet overhead: the kind of textbook blue-winged olive day you can wait weeks for. There were only a few fishermen on the water and in every likely place I looked, blue-winged olive mayflies were hatching and trout were eating them, including a brown I spotted in a backwater that would have gone 18 inches.

Not having a rod with me wasn’t as frustrating as you’d think. The hard work of packing two elk out of the mountains in a day and a half had temporarily taken the edge off my sporting ambitions, so for once it was enough just to enjoy the hatch for the pretty sight it was.

Those rising trout didn’t exactly haunt me all the following year, but when I was packing for last fall’s hunt I threw in a rod, reel, waders and vest without a second thought. I wasn’t so much breaking a self-imposed rule (which I reserve the right to do, by the way) as betting that I’d finally matured enough over the last 10 years to keep my mind on one thing till it was done. You do finally come to realize that you can’t do it all and that if you try, you’ll end up driving yourself and others nuts in the process.

Of course things went differently last year. It took us almost the entire 10-day elk season to get the two animals we need to feed our three households and the morning we pulled out of camp was the kind of bright, sunny one blue-winged olives don’t like. I stopped here and there to look at the river on the way out of the valley, but I didn’t see a single rise. I could also remember my friend Roy telling me 10 days earlier that the hatch had just about petered out for the year, although, as usual, if you looked long enough in the right places and under the right conditions, you couldn’t rule out finding a few olives.

There was a long moment of indecision. Stringing up a rod always requires a suspension of disbelief, but with the wrong weather, the river looking dead and the local guru guessing that the hatch was over, the chances seemed too slim.
On the long drive home I wondered how I’d managed to miss the beginnings of the blue-winged olive hatches back in mid-September. I can’t remember what I was doing instead. I hope it was important. I think of my life as reasonably exciting, but I have to admit that some of my days are spent just getting up to let the cats in and out.

But then early in October, before the hunt, I’d had two good days on olive hatches closer to home, on the Big Thompson River.

The first day was the kind you hope for—gray, chilly, good stream flow, not much wind—and my friend Doug and I picked out a short stretch of the catch-and-release water for no other reason than that there were no cars parked at the nearest turn-out.

There were a few size 18 olives popping off and a handful of scattered rises when we got on the water a little after noon, but over the next few hours it gradually built to a full-blown hatch. At the height of it there were dozens of trout feeding within range at any given moment—enough that you had to resist the temptation to flock shoot and pick a single fish to cast to.

We caught trout in fits and starts from about one o’clock till four, with the usual few minutes of confusion when the size 18 flies were seamlessly replaced by size 22s. In my experience, the trout always notice that before the fishermen do.
Enough said. The best fishing yarns always have to do with unlikely successes or spectacular failures. When you just hit the hatch dead on, have the right flies and catch fish, there’s not much more to say.

Two days later I went back by myself. It was supposed to have been another calm, cloudy afternoon, but the sky was clear blue


You can order John Gierach’s latest book, Fool’s Paradise, at the Buy/What’s New section. His Sporting Life column appears in every issue of FR&R.