Big game hunters traveling to Northwest Colorado in October don't arrive looking for trout. And for anyone who has the great fortune to hang an elk early in the hunt, that's a big mistake.
Local hunters keep their rods in their rigs throughout hunting season and look for opportunities to find big fish whose metabolisms come alive in the cooler water of autumn.
Brett Lee says there is no reason to go any farther from the hotels and restaurants of Steamboat Springs than Stagecoach Lake State Park, 15 miles south near Oak Creek. Lee is one of the owners of Straightline Sporting Goods in Steamboat and a veteran hunter.
Lee knows the Colorado Division of Wildlife has been stocking Stagecoach with bigger fish than typical to give them a chance to survive the giant northern pike that are cruising the lake. The strategy is succeeding, and October is the month the fish come out of the depths of the lake for a burst of feeding before winter sets in.
"Boy, was it dynamite," Lee said. "We fished until the lake froze. It was some of the best fishing in years."
Hunters looking for deer and elk in game units west of Craig also have unusual opportunities to fish for smallmouth bass and northern pike in the Yampa River. During the reconstruction of Elkhead Reservoir in spring 2005, nets meant to capture bass before they could make their way into the river system failed. The result was the unintentional release of the sport fish. The hard-fighting smallies are prone to chasing streamers and lures in white and chartreuse colors.
After Lee has his elk hanging, he heads for the reservoir in his float tube. During a typical outing, Lee said, he might catch 10 or 12 fish, all of them between 17 and 22 inches in length.
The region's enormous elk population means that with cooperation from the weather, the chances of success are as high as anywhere a hunter can journey. Hunters hope for a moderate snowstorm and overcast skies -- enough foul weather to move the elk out of their high-elevation hideouts, but not enough to make four-wheel roads impassable.
The cooler temperatures of autumn also bring rainbow trout back into shallower water in large impoundments like Stagecoach Reservoir and Steamboat Lake.
Fly patterns are no mystery at Stagecoach -- the old standby woolly bugger in olive, black and brown, will successfully imitate the minnows that trout gorge on in Stagecoach.
On the other side of the Park Range, in Jackson County, anglers will find their best opportunity for a trophy brown out of North Delaney Lake.
All three Delaney Buttes lakes are easy to locate on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest maps, which hunters will want to purchase anyway.
Realistically, hunters who haven't bagged their animal aren't going to entirely divert their attention from elk and deer to trout. But Lee knows how to mix hunting and fishing pleasure.
"If the weather is right, you can hunt all day," he said. "But if the weather is hot and sunny, why not take a break in the middle of the day and go fishing?"
Lee pointed out that hunters visiting Colorado often hunt in parties. It's almost inevitable that one hunter will bag an elk on the first day, and the rest of the party hunts for several more days without getting a shot. If the first lucky guy has had the presence of mind to pack his fishing tackle, he's in for a second vacation. n