Spring Snow and Big Trout

Every March, my wife Ericka and I fly out to Steamboat, Colorado to ski with my sister, her husband Matt Burkholder and their three daughters, Ashley Grace, Megan and Karen. They have a timeshare out there and everyone but my backside would agree that it's a fun way to see the kids. Matt and Ericka are expert skiers, and the kids are superjocks who are quickly surpassing their flatlander uncle's limited snow experience. Ericka figured it was better for me to try snowboarding, since I've surfed all my life. I'm having fun with it, but after three days of the slopes kicking me like a rented mule, I am ready for more leisurely activities, like flyfishing. We discovered Steamboat Fly Fishers the first year we came out. When we walked into the store I was surprised to see guys and girls standing around in waders. Trout fishing in March? But there's 300-plus inches of snow on the ground! Owner Steve Henderson explained that the Yampa River is a tailwater that never freezes and is full of huge trout. It was a trip snowshoeing down a hillside toward the brilliant stream. I'd never worn snowshoes before. And I was dumbfounded when Ericka, after a brief nymph-fishing lesson from guide Dave Clement, landed a 23-inch cutbow. We make it a point to fish with these guys every year. First of all, their rates are incredible, about $325 for two people plus private access fees. And one of the signs of a good outfitter is little turnover. The Steamboat Fly Fisher guides are as loyal as Hemi, the shop dog. They're also very patient, attentive instructors. This year we fished with Keith Hale and Steve on a private beat on the Yampa. It was a long way down to the river so we road in on a snowmobile, another fun first for this Florida kid. Ericka put us on the board right away with a fat rainbow and lost a couple more fine fish. I caught two of the biggest wild rainbows I've caught in the lower 48, and Steve caught a 23-inch northern pike. I can't wait until next March. Visit steamboatflyfisher.com. Here, Steve Henderson fuels up the snowmobile for the trek down to the Yampa. I never thought I'd ride a snowmobile bristling with fly rods and landing nets.
We've done a lot of horse pack trips, but this guy wasn't leaving the hay bail.
Keith rigs up tandem nymphs under a strike indicator. Note the magnetic rod holders on the side of his truck, which keep the rods from blowing down and out of the snow and mud.
Snow always puts on a smile on me lady's face. Trout do to.
Ericka took a fancy to this streamside home, and said something about retiring here. I'm gonna need a second job.
Steve, Keith and Ericka discuss where to start.
The debate centered around slow pools and brisk runs where the pre-spawn fish have already fanned out redds.
Walking streamside, the debate continues. I stopped paying attention. The mountain setting is just so stunning.
On clear days, sight fishing is possible. Steve points out a fish for Ericka.
Kipling famously said that the female of the species is more deadly than the male. Ericka showed us how it's done, right off the bat. This 18-inch fish is about average for the Yampa. Notice the girth.
Steve coached me to fish close then work lies progressively farther away from the bank. When this fish pulled the indicator I knew right away it had serious weight. We didn't measure it, but guessed at about 24 inches. It took a Hare's Ear nymph.
Thanks Coach!
Notice the black belly on this fish, and how the rainbow runs into the tail. Steve says they only get that black belly in winter, from lying on the bottom. The extended rainbow may indicate a local subspecies.
Keith and Ericka ski down to another hole.
There was a huge midge hatch going on, and Steve and I spent half an hour sight fishing to rising fish. No such luck. The fish were rising in six inches of water and not sticking to any one lie. Next hole up, though, this fat rainbow fell for the Hair's Ear again.
I love the contrast between the pure white snow and these bright fish.
Trout revive quickly in the super-cold water.
This one bolted away.
Steve Henderson counts his blessings in a mountain paradise.

Colorado Tailwaters offer epic early-season flyfishing.