Southwest Fly Fishing

An Affair to Remember
By Michael Salomone


Like a string of fine pearls accessorizing the famous Colorado ski town, Gore Creek flows gently through the Vail area and offers exceptional fishing in every season. Fed by small but important tributaries, “the Gore,” as it is locally known, offers an enticing mix of brook, rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout.
   From the lofty reaches of the Gore Range and Shrine Pass to the sometimes-tumultuous convergence with the Eagle River, Gore Creek has plenty of fish throughout its entire 18-mile run. The creek’s lower 4 miles are designated as a “Gold Medal” trout stream by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), testifying to the productivity of this scenic stream.
   The only way to navigate Vail Village is on foot, but there is easy access between the Village and the Lionshead area by means of the town’s free shuttle buses. Buses to reach the downstream Gold Medal stretch of Gore Creek and the East Vail water upstream are on a separate route, and you need to board these shuttles from the main Town of Vail transportation center and parking garage.
   Upstream from East Vail, a feeder, Black Gore Creek, flows from Black Lakes on Shrine Pass (aka Vail Pass). The stream runs alongside Interstate-70 and because of that, has been subjected to years of sedimentation from sand dusted on the highway during winter: the sand makes driving safer, but blankets the streambed, choking off gravel used by spawning trout. Concerted efforts have been made to clean the accumulated sediment from the waterway. A catchment basin has been employed for years to settle some of the sediment from the creek water and, a few years ago, it was dredged to renew its usefulness and eliminate a major creek-choking hazard.
   Far more pristine are Gore Creek’s headwaters located above the East Vail campgrounds. The source for the creek is Gore Lake, high in the Eagles Nest Wilderness Area of the rugged, perpetually snow-capped Gore Range. 
   Including the headwaters and the tributaries, Gore Creek offers plenty of opportunity for anglers, and one challenge is to catch all four species of trout in the system—a Gore Creek grand slam, if you will.
   Breaking the river into manageable target areas can benefit your catch rate. When choosing a specific place in the creek, think about microstructure. Small indentations in the creek bottom develop into depressions where trout sit below the current waiting for food. This is one type of microstructure. Single obstructions often attract trout into unexpectedly small feeding lanes. They are another example of a microstructure. Systematically target such places; forget about the seductive riffle whose channel is multiple feet deep and, rather, concentrate on the downstream side of boulders scattered throughout the waterway if that is where you experience initial success. Follow a pattern until you change your presentation. Adjust for the depth of the water on the Gore and you will contact more fish.
   Gore Creek tends to be uniformly shallow. Specifically fishing the shallow water with dry flies during the summer months is a fun and productive approach—these trout love dries much of the time. Fly size and your presentation trump fly color. As a perfect watershed for a single dry fly on light tippet, the Gore can bring to life a small flexible rod such as some of the new fiberglass rods that have experienced a recent resurgence. A cherished bamboo rod stored in an aged leather case finds plenty of room to exercise casting strokes on the Gore. Pair your bamboo with a long leader and a light tippet for rod-bending jousts with some of Vail’s aquatic residents and you will be rewarded with memories to sustain you until your next visit.
   In mixed water, where the depth varies to a few feet, a dry/dropper combo works tantalizing seams effectively. But be sure to choose a dry fly that is both productive and buoyant enough to suspend the nymph without being pulled under the surface. A constant dilemma is whether to fish a dry fly a bit too large so it is sure to support the nymph (and is easy to see on the water) or fish a more natural (and, thus, more productive) size dry that may drown repeatedly from the weight of the nymph dragging below. It’s a choice you’ll need to make, but hey, you’re fishing gorgeous water, and if that’s the toughest decision of the day, you’re having a fine day indeed.
   Common choices for the dropper nymph include a variety of caddisfly larvae patterns (especially green), as well as the ubiquitous Prince Nymph. Small Baetis mayfly nymph patterns, such as the RS2 nymph in gray or olive, are extremely effective fished as droppers on Gore Creek. Twelve months a year, the always-prevalent midge catches fish. Fished as a dropper nymph, Zebra Midges in both beadhead and unweighted versions in black, olive, or red are always good choices.
   Finding deep enough water for consistently good nymphing generally requires exploring on Gore Creek. At times of high or off-color water, a San Juan Worm will bring strikes in the deepest holes you can find. Using flashy nymphs during high water is productive as well, but the flash needs to be forgotten when the water clears. Educated trout on Gore Creek shy away from sparkle and flash. Somber-colored, unassuming nymph patterns—such as a Zebra Midge sans the sparkle wing—fare better.
   The predatory browns within Gore Creek readily chase down small streamers and hammer them savagely. Small Woolly Buggers in olive or black or a brown/yellow combination can tempt the creek’s heftiest fish out of their lairs. Other streamers are also effective: Autumn Splendors work well during their namesake time of year. The best streamer water is below Vail.
   The Gold Medal water begins where the Red Sandstone Creek, coming from the north side of Interstate 70, flows into Gore Creek. The confluence is approximately where the pedestrian bridge crosses I-70. The Gold Medal stretch continues down to the Eagle River confluence. This deservedly popular part of the creek is easy to reach from the West Vail exit from I-70; off the south side of the freeway, a paved bike/hiking path runs parallel to Gore Creek and allows easy walking to shaded riffles and deeper pools. This same path runs the length of the Gore by continuing up Vail Pass alongside the interstate, Gore Creek, and Black Gore Creek. Additional access to the Gold Medal section, with free parking, is located in parks, such as Donovan Park and Stephens Park. 
   The East Vail exit off I-70 also yields access to the creek. Another path leads to a mostly shallow stretch. Though bolstered by stream-improvement projects, this section of the Gore suffers from prodigious growth of didymo (aka rock snot) during low-flow periods. Suffocating and slippery, this invasion creates treacherous wading conditions, stunted insect growth, and affects trout populations. It is easily transported on wading gear, so be sure to thoroughly clean and dry your gear.
   Didymo is just one possible culprit in changing insect populations in Gore Creek. Densities of mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies—the insects that signify a clean, healthy trout stream—have decreased in Gore Creek, while Chironomids and aquatic worms have increased in numbers. Three other possible culprits have been posited: highway sand choking out the small crevices that nymphs need to live and feed; increase in the amount of fertilizers and chemicals draining into the Gore because of increased urbanization; and magnesium chloride deicer used by the Colorado Department of Transportation to make highways safer for
winter driving.
   Despite these issues, Gore Creek remains a topnotch trout fishery. The official criterion for Gold Medal designation is 12 trout more than 14 inches long per acre of stream; the Gore meets that requirement and more. While anglers are allowed to harvest two trout of 16 inches, catch-and-release fishing is the norm, so designated by the local anglers.

 

Season by Season
It is summer now as I pen this piece and a modest crowd mills about the Betty Ford Alpine Garden on the eastern edge of Vail Village. We gather a collection of onlookers as we enter the shaded, cool water beneath the covered bridge leading to Ford Park. Moments later, in the broken surface of the first riffle, my buoyant caddisfly pattern is engulfed by a rainbow trout sporting scarlet cheeks. Casting a foam-body caddisfly imitation along the banks fools three more fish.
   But the sun soon kisses the water and things begin to change. Dry flies continue to draw exciting action, but the increasing light affects the hatch and causes the need for smaller offerings along this rocky stretch. Different kinds of insects can hatch simultaneously on the Gore, challenging anglers to decipher which bug the trout are eating. My caddisfly pattern is becoming less successful, so I switch to a size 18 Purple Parachute, which brings a colorful cutthroat to net within the next series
of casts.
   As we approach the next bridge on the creek at the south side of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, the water deepens beyond the shallow gravel and rocky runs where the dry flies have been successful. We change to subsurface flies and are rewarded immediately with a feisty brown trout that takes a soft-hackle Pheasant Tail in the bubbly depths. Soon, we switch to dry/dropper rigs and follow a well-maintained creekside path upstream to the Vail Nature Center and some very seductive deeper runs studded with large boulders.
   The dry/dropper rig consists of a size 12 PMX for attraction and visibility supporting a small beadhead Prince Nymph. This combo produces repeatedly as we approach the golf course along Gore Creek. Each summer, beavers work the willows and create pleasant pools that hold fish but inevitably blow out each runoff during the spring melt. Here, man-made improvements have enhanced the stream for both the angler and the fish. Deepened pools and airy pinch points create clearly defined drift lines for anglers to follow. Before retreating downstream to our vehicle parked at Manor Vail Lodge, a chunky, brightly colored brook trout eats my Prince Nymph near a branch-covered blowdown extending into the creek.
   Obviously, summer is a perfect time to fish Gore Creek. For a fly angler, what could beat a beautiful summer day in the Colorado Rockies? Well, perhaps an even more beautiful autumn day.
   Autumn is big fish time on Gore Creek, especially in the Gold Medal section. Aspen leaves tumble in the clear current, adding color and dimension to the flows as anglers probe the deeper areas for large trout. The fish are still looking up and can be taken on the surface, especially with terrestrial patterns, but small streamers account for the biggest fish. Toothy brown trout moving up from the confluence with the Eagle River eagerly chase small streamers, while hefty, fat-bellied rainbows pack on weight from this insect-rich section of Gore Creek.
   They need that weight come the long mountain winters. But those winters can provide excellent fishing on Gore Creek for anglers willing to brave the cold. Ice and low winter flows sometimes choke the creek down substantially, so searching out fishable open water is key. The lowermost section just above the confluence with the Eagle River often remains open during winter because it receives more daily sunlight.
   The blue-sky days during the area’s famous ski season bring out midge activity on Gore Creek, but you’ll need tiny flies—sizes 20 through 24. And despite the frigid air, you may or may not have the water to yourself: visiting skiers often take a day off from the slopes to try their hand at winter fly fishing on Gore Creek. Still, you may very well enjoy having a stretch of open water all to yourself on a blue-sky winter day when the revered ski slopes of Vail are swarming with people.
   Springtime pushes the limits of fishable water as snowmelt swells the creek. However, while the upper reaches of Gore Creek run high with runoff, the water often remains clearer than on the lower stretches, which have gathered turbid runoff from more of the small tributaries. In the East Vail area, the water spreads through a broader channel and fills small side channels where anglers can find feeding trout. Also, as off-color water predominates on lower Gore Creek during spring runoff, the portion of the stream through the heart of Vail Village becomes a playground for kayaking whitewater extremists. From International Bridge in Vail Village, you can watch “rodeo” tricks performed by
expert kayakers.
   For fishing during spring, Czech nymphing techniques are effective in the discolored water. Use a large stonefly nymph for attraction and weight, and combine it with smaller flashy nymphs, such as the Fly Formerly Known as Prince. During high water, regulars embrace unglamorous patterns, such as the San Juan Worm; small streamers, especially fished in tandem with nymphs, are also effective in spring. Jeff Lyon, head instructor for the Orvis Fly Fishing School at the Cordillera Lodge in Edwards, Colorado, lovingly refers to this type of rig as a Happy Meal.
   No matter the season, Gore Creek has much to offer anglers who enjoy incredible scenery. Here, mountain ramparts skirted with famous ski slopes overlook a graceful freestone stream running right through Vail, home to four species of trout. Tempting the finned inhabitants of Gore Creek is a yearlong affair. From minuscule midges in frigid winter months to high-floating dry flies in sunny summer months to meaty mouthfuls during the autumn streamer season, you are sure to find a face of Gore Creek you will enjoy and remember.

 

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