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Spinney Mountain Madness

Opening Day at a Legendary Reservoir
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Every year I go to opening day at Spinney Mtn Reservoir although my head tells me not to go.  After all, it is a three ring circus the likes of which us highlanders rarely see around here.  Usually, one would have to travel to upstate New York to stand shoulder to shoulder with our piscatorial-loving brethren and wade up to our knees for the annual baptism that is opening day.  But, for us Coloradoans, who normally like the solitude inherent to our sport, we set aside that preference and as the old negro spiritual goes, “Wade in the Water children” and hope that this time, God’s not going to trouble the water.  After all, for one day, we all seem to get along and rarely lose our cool even when a fellow angler sticks a rapala into my ear and tries to cast me into the lake.  (That actually happened to me about 12 years ago.  If you are still out there and reading this article, I forgive you although I will avoid your end of the dam if I see you this year.)

Opening day at Spinney is an annual event that I rarely miss. In the mid-eighties to early-nineties opening day brought with it action that still remains the single greatest trophy trout fishing in the modern history of our state.  The reservoir was completed in 1981 and soon after, fish were planted and began feeding on an exploding population of large scuds.  These were not the scuds that you see in the water today.  The scuds back then were easily 3-4 times the size and many, many times greater in numbers.  I can remember catching cutthroats that averaged 7lbs and rainbows that could easily exceed 30 inches for as long as my shoulder could handle them.  Usually after 20 or so of these fish, I was done.  In this case the good ol days really were just that.  And although Spinney has been down but not out for huge fish the past several years, it is making a comeback with the stocking of a new Hoffer-Harrison strain of Rainbow that is expected to exceed the 20” ceiling that has plagued the reservoir of late.* Perhaps the good ol' days will return to the pretty good ol' days so to speak.

Now many of you fishing nuts out there will leave your house at an ungodly hour and wait in line for three hours so that you can be one of the first cars in the lot over at the west side of the dam.  I did that for years but find that as I get older I am less inclined to sleep for 2 hours in the dark breathing the exhaust from a Dodge Ram just in front of me.  So I go more for the gentlemen’s hours and usually show up about 7.  You know the old joke about the baby bull saying to the daddy bull “hey dad, lets run down there and kiss one of those cows” and the daddy bull replies, “no son lets walk down there and kiss em all.”  I would rather get some sleep and walk a little to fish my favorite spots on the far side of the lake where I have a little room to cast.  Now, if you do decide to fish the dam, you’ll still catch fish but just remember that what normally applies to giving another angler plenty of space will probably not apply this day so just relax and enjoy the day for what it is, a freaking carnival.

Spinney Reservoir wind, photo by Angus Drummond photography
Photo by Angus Drummond photography

Strategies:  Over the years I have seen many different opening day techniques on this body of water from stripping streamers, (is that the same as streaming strippers?) to chucking tube baits and rapalas, trolling, and even sink tip lines.  By far, I have caught more and larger fish fishing the same way that I do when I fish a river, with an indicator nymph rig.  I remember vividly the first time I saw this technique used on Spinney or any stillwater for that matter. 

It was June of 1989 and I was out in my old death trap of a float tube called a “lunker hunter" that was made by the single greatest fisherman that ever held a fly rod in Colorado, Del Canty.  “He was well known for his then world record rainbow trout of 26 lbs. caught in 1979 at Flaming Gorge on a fly. He also has a 23 lb. 15 oz. brown, 28 lb. 8 oz. cutthroat, 38 lb. pike, and 52 lb. muskie all from a float tube. He also landed an 85 lb. king salmon on the treacherous Yukon river in that same float tube and drifted downstream for a ridiculous distance to finally land it.  It is said that on the day that he caught the world record rainbow in Flaming Gorge reservoir that the wind and waves were so rough that many power boats had to be rescued.  Del was in a flimsy float tube that I would not be caught dead in during calm water!" **

So back to the indicator…  I was out in my Float tube and the calibaetis were emerging all over the north end of the lake.  The fish, many of them giants, were slurping them off the surface and rolling on the emergers to the point where I could see several hundred kitchen sink sized swirls.  I was doing what most fly fisherman of that era did, fishing a woolly bugger and a scud off a sink tip line.  Did I mention I was not catching anything!  There were two guys wading from the shore and throwing bright orange indicators with two emergers hanging about 4 feet below, and killing them.  They must have caught 12 fish each an hour for almost 3 hours.  That was the first time I had ever seen anyone use a strike indicator on a Stillwater. 

Now that indicator technique is standard fare for most of us “tree snagging” fly fisherman on opening day and throughout the year for that matter.  The beauty of using an indicator rig is that you can leave your flies sitting in the fish zone longer than any other method available by rod and reel.  You can by trial and error lengthen or shorten your leader to the point where you have your flies literally in front of fish for several minutes instead of seconds.  Later in the season I’ll show you how to fish an indicator rig down to 20 or more feet of water. 

photo published with permission from Colorado Trout Hunters

  Author with trout on Spinney Reservoir, Colorado

A little about these pre spawn trout at Spinney…These fish come in close to the shore with one thing on their mind, sex.  Trout need moving water for their spawn to be successful but that does not stop them from trying.  Think of Charlie Sheen in a nightclub with a vasectomy. Very dysfunctional with a worthless outcome.   Sorry to make all of you sick… 

The great thing about pre-spawn trout and Steelhead is that they will still eat a little something while going through the body changes necessary to spawn.  The same instinct that causes them to “pair up” with the opposite sex in the spring is the same urge that keeps them eating the foods that they love throughout the spawning process.   So we want to take advantage of that and also throw in a little twist to those patterns to take advantage of the aggressive nature of those trout while trying to spawn. 

I'll give you an example.  I use a brown or pink San Juan worm on many still waters during the year.  Trout love worms.  We all know that.  But during the pre spawn ritual; I will use a red San Juan because the fish will make the connection between a worm which is food, and a color that ticks them off, which is red.  So now we are taking advantage of two, not one, primal urges of the fish.  Why do you think that egg patterns work on opening day when not a single female has yet dropped her eggs?  Exactly.  Instinct.  As a guide I use an egg pattern as my first or “point fly” 12 months out of the year for that very reason.  Fish, just as humans, behave instinctually.  I don’t know why I hate to shave so much but my mother tells me that my grandfather felt the same way.  We are all creatures of habit and more importantly, genetics.  You can’t “teach” a bird dog to go on point.

If you want to find the biggest fish of the year on opening day you will want to look for spots near shore that have what these bruisers are looking for.  Gravel.  Trout are genetically programmed to find a substrate that will look after and protect their eggs and young and that is pea-sized or larger gravel.  In a river, where spawning is usually successful, fish lay their eggs on the redd (yes it is "redd" and not "bed") and then the eggs filter down into the gravel and are protected for the incubation process until they hatch.  If you find a gravel bottom or rocky/gravel bottom near shore you are going to find fish. 

There are other rocky and gravel areas near shore besides the dam. Take a walk and wear polarized glasses and you will be amazed.  Concentrate your efforts on the west side on foot or by boat.  Some of the bays on the southwest side of Spinney can be very, very special.  Especially in times of high water.  You can always hire a guide and have them show you some of these areas by boat.  I have a saying.  Teach a man to fish he will catch a few fish.  Show a man how to hire a guide and he will catch big fish all his life.

Now I have to make a point here.  Fishing for trout on the redd in my mind is clearly unethical and has disastrous effects for future fish generations especially in rivers.  Even more harmful is walking across the established redds in any river where you see them.  If you see a large or small circle in a river bottom that looks clean of any moss it is your responsibility to avoid it.  In coldwater lakes and reservoirs we have a little leeway here.  First of all the fish are stocked and are not going to create future fish.  If the fish are feeding near the shore and not on the redd, I believe that we are free to fish for them as long as they are returned to the lake unharmed or kept as regulations allow.  If you see any fish paired up with another and trying to spawn, I would recommend that you leave them alone and look to fight them another day.  Even if the trout do not successfully spawn in lakes they are still so very vulnerable and it doesn’t seem very sporting to “snag” a helpless animal while it is trying to enjoy its urges.  Who hasn’t said and done the stupidest things of our lives while in the pursuit of a partner?

The bottom line:
I would recommend for opening day that you rig your nymph rig as follows.  A 9’ 3x shock absorber leader with the bottom 3’ cut off.  Believe me when I say that if you hook a 30” rainbow you will want to have the shock absorber section in that leader.  I have personally had too many giants snap me off or pop out the hook with ferocious runs to ever go back to the standard leader.  It costs a few bucks more but it is well worth it. Then you add a 9” section of 2x fluorocarbon tippet to the end with a double surgeons knot.  To the end of this attach a small black swivel.  The swivel is also key to keeping the entire rig from tangling and is a wonderful way to keep your split shot from sliding and weakening your system.  Then tie a 9” section of 3x fluorocarbon tippet from the bottom of the swivel and then a size 10 halfback to the end.  To the bend of the halfback hook attach a size 14 egg pattern in the following colors.  (Early Girl, Oregon Cheese, or Cream.) 

Your final pattern, or trailer, should be a midge larvae in red, olive, or chocolate in various sizes.  This rig will hook and hold fish consistently where others won’t.  If you tie flies I highly recommend that you tie your patterns on Tiemco 2488H hooks.  Especially in the smaller sizes.  This is the only hook that I use when trying to land fish of 25” or better.  How many of us have straightened out a size 20 fly on the fish of the year?  If you have to change patterns, change the final fly.  Other trailer patterns could be a flashback pheasant tail, Chironicone, or annelid.

If necessary, get creative with your fly patterns and use oddball patterns that make no sense.  I had a friend several years ago murdering fish on the North Platte with a mysis shrimp pattern when there isn’t a mysis within two hundred miles of there.  Scuds used to be the predominate food source on Spinney but honestly I just don’t see them in any numbers or size anymore. 

With the additional water of the last few years flooding new vegetation, perhaps this year the big scuds will return.  Certainly the anglers will.

* Source Jeff Spohn, Aquatic Biologist South Park Colorado Division of Wildlife.
** Summarized from MankinD of Fish Sniffer


If you are looking for a guide trip on Spinney with Scott contact Minturn Anglers at 970 827-9500 and mention this article for $125.00 off a regular 2 person float trip or go to Minturn You can also email Minturn anglers will be offering this very special rate for the months of April and May. All full day float trips come with a nice lunch and drinks on the boat.

Photo by Angus Drummond photography

© 2022 Scott Thompson (NymphManiac)
Scott is a Colorado native and began fly fishing the Rocky Mtns in 1977. His first strike indicator was a piece torn off of his dad's foam beer cooler. After attending Colorado State on an acting scholarship he then went on to a successful 17 year career in comedy. He is currently producing a television show for Sportsman Channel called "Fly vs.Guy" which will debut in Jan 2012. He now guides rivers and lakes all over the State for Minturn Anglers near Vail.
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