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Figuring it Out: Planning a Fishing Trip

This post is the second of two posts about figuring it out - or how to set expectations for a fishing trip. And another post suggested by a friend some time ago now. This one is about planning a trip. I plan to spend most of the time on researching the trip as it is really the most important part. It is how you figure out what flies to tie - or buy, I suppose. How to know where to fish, what the access laws are, etc. - all the things you can plan for before a trip.

Colorado's Frying Pan River
Fishing the Frying Pan in Colorado with friends Mike and Rich - we figured it out pretty well! Not long after this photo was taken, we saw a female black bear and her cubs scale this cliff (right of the photo). Mike Kuhr photo.

Setting Expectations - Doing your Research


Expectations are everything. The anticipation and planning of a trip is an awful lot of the fun of a trip. And the planning perks up an otherwise uneventful off-season and helps you get through another winter. If you are a fly tyer, it gives you new flies to tie - and more materials to buy and fly boxes to fill.

Books and a map from past trips
Books and maps from researching past trips.

Planning a trip has never been easier than it is today. The internet is a wealth of information - much of which is true and useful. There are a ton of books, maps, and other references. You can really go down a wormhole researching a trip, trust me.

Navajo Dam on the San Juan River, New Mexico
New Mexico's San Juan River from the top of Navajo Dam - a side trip on the way to southern Colorado.

There are basically two types of trips - the trip where you are planning a fishing from scratch and the trip where your location is set but you have time to fish. When the when and where has been decided for you, it is pretty easy to figure out what to expect. By far the hardest part of trip planning is deciding upon the "when and where" when the sky is the limit (though probably constrained by your time and budget).

San Juan River headwaters, Colorado
The San Juan River headwaters in Colorado - we were there a little early so some streams were too cold to fish well - others were quite good.

For me, planning a trip to somewhere unfamiliar means figuring out what the fisheries are like and what the hatches will be. The hatches are the easy part - a simple search for anywhere you would fish will have a hatch chart. Certainly a fly shop, a guide, a Trout Unlimited chapter, or a local website or blog is going to have a hatch chart. For many places - like here in the Driftless - you will find a general hatch chart for the region. While a general hatch chart serves you pretty well here in the Driftless, in other places, more specific hatch charts are likely necessary. As you move to "destination fisheries", there are likely to be hatch charts for specific streams and even different reaches of those streams. Hatches can vary quite a bit on many Western streams due to differences in elevation and thus when runoff begins and ends, water temperatures and levels, the effects of dams, etc.

Beaver Tailwater, Arkansas
Early morning on the Beaver Tailwater in Arkansas - fishing cold tailwaters when air temperatures were above 100*F was a new experience.

As you travel a bit, the fisheries often become quite different from the streams you are accustomed to fishing. We lack true tailwater fisheries here in the Midwest but in the South and Southwest, they are dominant trout fisheries and in the West, there are many well known - and heavily fished - tailwaters. For the Wisconsinite, fishing a tailwater or a mountain stream can be quite a different experience. While we get snowmelt, our runoff season is totally different from Western runoff season. And I was totally unaccustomed to generation schedules on tailwaters and having to move to get above or below a release. But I did enough research to know what to expect. And yes, our hatches have different "bugs" (though there is a bit of overlap) but the angler somewhat accustomed to fishing hatches can generally figure out how to match the hatch. A good hatch chart should give you some insight into what patterns to hatch and how and where to fish them.

A small tailwater stream in Colorado
A small, somewhat out of the way Colorado tailwater we found from a guidebook.

A Work Trip Example


Let's pretend I have to be in Denver in mid-July (I wish I had a good excuse to be there then...). First, there are no shortage of books and maps about fishing Colorado and buying one would be a great place to start. Most of them are under $20 but let's say I don't want to buy a book because I only have a day, maybe two to fish. The first place I am likely to go is the state's fisheries resource agency website, which for Colorado is: https://cpw.state.co.us/. These days, most of them have an online GIS that will show the user where trout streams and access to them are located. For Colorado, their Fishing Atlas is quite good - not Wisconsin TROUT tool good, but pretty useful. And their fishing maps are even better for more details. These maps and resources are in their regulations book too. A quick look at their regulations will tell you that you need to be quite carefully about public / private waters in Colorado. TroutRoutes - if you have a subscription and that state is covered - is going to be the first place I look for access points in Colorado.

Colorado Fishing Atlas map
A map of the fishing locations in Colorado from their Fishing Atlas

A quick web search for "Fly Fishing Denver" returns a ton of results. Fairly quickly, I have narrowed down the opportunities and then just need to figure out what my time will allow. Do I stay basically in Denver and fish the Denver South Platte or a bit further away the Cheeseman section of the South Platte? Do I have time to head West and fish the Blue River or the Colorado River or Eagle Rivers, places I have fished before? I have looked at a few hatch charts and decided that in mid-July, I can probably get into golden stoneflies - a hatch we don't have here, caddis, and PMD's on the Colorado River that time of year so I get to tying some flies. In less than half an hour, I have a pretty good idea of what my trip is going to look like and I can spend as much more time and effort as I want to better dial it in.

TroutRoutes app screenshot from the Denver area.
Screenshot from the TroutRoutes mobile app shows I have tons of options around Denver. TroutRoutes is a great place to figure out the access to streams in most states.

Being a total fly tying geek, I know Charlie Craven as an excellent and innovative fly tyer and owner of Charlie's Fly Box is just outside of Denver in Arvada. I have bought from them online and been to the old shop and am sure the new location is well worth a stop. Or - after I have done some research - I reach out to them. I want to fish a tailwater because we don't have them so I ask them if they had one day from Denver, would they fish the South Platte or the Blue at that time of the year? Maybe they have another suggestion. And I would ask what flies I need to tie and buy some materials to tie them. I might look at some other fly shops too and quickly find out there are more fly shops in the Denver metro area than in all of Wisconsin. But I know and trust Charlie so I certainly start there. And being someone in Trout Unlimited, I might reach out to a TU chapter or three in Colorado.

Old Charlie's Fly Box location.
The old downtown Charlie's Fly Box location - photo from a trip to Avon, CO years ago.

There are a ton of resources out there, use them.


The REAL Fishing Trip


The other end of the fishing trip spectrum is that you are planning that once a year, once every few years, or once in a lifetime trip that is all about fishing. We are talking about a more significant expenditure of time and money - increasingly so as we move from once a year to once in a lifetime trips. And we are talking about a lot more choices and many fewer constraints. Maybe your once a year trip is to the same place every or most years and you have probably got things figured out. Or maybe you are a little more adventurous and want to go somewhere you have never been before. You might have a pretty good idea where you want to go based on what I already know or where friends have gone. Or maybe the World is literally the limit.

Sitka, Alaska area stream
A stream in the Sitka, Alaska area which I am sure gets a salmon run - we were there before the salmon runs began.

All the same ideas above still apply - the books, maps, online resources, your connections. Certainly if you are trying to decide where to go and can go anywhere, there is no one perfect answer but many, many, many great answers. There is no way to plan the perfect trip but planning a great trip is relatively easy. Research will put the odds in your favor but there are never guarantees when it comes to fishing.

South Island, New Zealand stream
A stream from the South Island of New Zealand - I took students and was there after the stream fishing season had closed.

My research is probably going a little deeper if I have to choose not only the where but the when as well. The USGS gaging stations or similar streamflow resources in other countries are great for looking at what median stream flows and sometimes stream temperatures - look like across the fishing season. When we traveled to fish Missouri and Arkansas's White River and its tributaries tailwaters, we saved ourselves a ton of issues by researching the release schedules and hydrographs for those dams and their tailwaters. We had plans in place where to fish when and they generally held up pretty well because the generation schedules remained consistent (but there are no guarantees).

Meadow stream, South Island, New Zealand
A meadow reach of a South Island (New Zealand) stream.

If it is a once in a lifetime trip, or at least a very expensive one, planning becomes even more critical. If I travel to Denver - and oh, by the way - I have a little time to fish while I am there; my expectations are much different than if I had the opportunity to go fish New Zealand or Patagonia. And many anglers planning those sorts of trips are much more likely to allow somebody else to do much of the planning for them. That is certainly one of the draws of shop sponsored trips or other trips where you pay for someone else to do much of the planning. They are also likely to give you lists of flies to tie or buy; gear to bring; and information about laws, local customs, fishing regulations, etc.

Ty Churchwell on a Durango area stream
Ty Churchwell, a Trout Unlimited employee in Colorado, showed us some great streams around Durango.

I enjoy the planning part so I am more likely to make it a do-it-yourself trip - or at least parts of it. I am also a teacher and am not independently wealthy so I can only pay for what I can afford - so DIY it is. So I do some research and maybe hire a guide for a day to two, preferably early in the trip. Or maybe I get lucky - like we did on a Southern Colorado trip where someone offered to show us some of his favorite places and how to fish them.


Getting Intel


You have done your homework ahead of the trip but it is always worth checking your work and getting more up to date information. The local fly shop, the folks around the campground, anglers you run into on the water, in the parking lot, at the bar or at dinner are all good sources of up to date information. But be more than a little courteous about it. The local fly shop does not owe you information - even if you spent some money there. They are probably going to be generous because they want you to be successful and come back again and maybe send others that...but only if you behave like someone they want to see again. Many fly shops and websites have fishing reports - another good source of information - but they are probably not going to be overly specific online for everyone to see. Fishing reports are unlikely to tell you exactly where or that "where" is going to get over-run but they will probably tell you the PMDs and red quills are hatching early in the afternoon.


Wrapping It Up...


I lied - I think I am going to write another post about figuring it out on the water as this one got a little long. Planning a trip is a great way to break up a winter. There is great excitement in the uncertainty and slowly starting to figure it out. You can put yourself in a place where you have a pretty good idea what to expect. Your research may even tell you that you need to work on your cast so you practice shooting line or making reach casts. Or that based on the YouTube videos you watched, you know you need to be stealthier than you do on your local waters.

Colorado stream with lot of wood
A cool little place we found in Colorado through the help of our research and chatting with other anglers.

Your research is never going to be prefect - fishing always throws some wrinkles at you. You are never guaranteed good weather for fish-friendly flows or water temperatures - though your research should help you avoid the worst of it. However, weather in particularly is unpredictable. Even if your expectations were spot on, it may still take you a while to figure out how to fish streams that are bigger or smaller, slower or faster, windier, tighter, or whatever than your years of experience have prepared you for. That's part of the fun.

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