Figuring Out Browns in the Rio Grande

by Randall Powell

I've just returned home (to Corinth, TX) from my annual trek to Thirty Mile Campground on the Rio Grande. I began making this summer pilgrimage in 1991, primarily to get away from the stifling Texas heat, and have only missed one year since. However, this year's trip was special for a lot of different reasons, none the least of which was that I finally figured out the Browns on the Rio Grande.

My interest in fly fishing did not emerge until a visit during the summer of 1994 when I happened upon an older gentlemen walking along the bank of the river who was lugging a fly rod and a stringer of eight of the most beautiful rainbow trout I had ever seen. "Aw, I guess that's a pretty good hour's work", he said. An hour's work! I had been bait casting in a couple of the local reservoirs along with my twelve-year-old son and hadn't managed to catch eight fish in four days. Besides, sitting in a lawn chair and waiting for something to happen had begun to lose its appeal. This fellow talked as if he had actually had fun! It didn't take me long to figure out that a fly rod was soon going to become my best friend.

I bought all of the necessary equipment and set out the following summer to conquer the trout population of the Rio Grande. Low and behold, when I got there the river was so high only the kayakers dared to venture in. Undaunted, we set out for the smaller creeks and streams only to be shut out. Zero. Nothing. No fish caught. All of a sudden, fly fishing seemed more like work than fun. Summer of 1996; didn't get to make the trip. Summer of 1997; same thing, only with added frustration.

Then came the summer of 1998. The water was level perfect and from all accounts the fishing was great. I couldn't wait for my chance. However, two days after arriving at Thirty Mile, there I sat with no fish to my credit and only the same feeling of frustration I had felt in the years before.

Then things began to change. While sitting at my campsite early one morning I noticed that the fish in the river were particularly active on top of the water. I had been reading everything I could find about the feeding habits of trout and knew I needed to react quickly. The fish were on the rise and time was wasting. I grabbed my waders and my rod and into the water I went. After about thirty minutes of arduous casting it happened. BANG! A huge brown took my drifting fly and the fight was on. I seemed to be on the verge of success when, as I leaned over to scoop up my trophy, he wagged his head and spit my fly back at me. I was trembling and devastated. I kept on fishing and managed to take a couple of pan sized rainbows. Then it happened again. Another huge jolt and the line began to strip from my reel. The fish leaped from the water and I could clearly see that this was another large brown. I led him and worked him patiently and prepared to bring him in when he too, spit and ran. Day over. Time to go back home with fish stories in tow. More agonizing frustration.

Rio Grande Colorado
My favorite fishing spot

I returned to the same spot last summer only to find high water and days of endless rain. So much for the summer of 1999. No chance for vindication, only the agony of waiting for another year. We packed up and came home early.

I returned to Thirty Mile Campground last week and vowed that I was either going to overcome this frustration or give up on fly fishing altogether. Day one: nothing. Day two: a few small Brookies. Day three: WOW! I found where the Browns were hanging out. Two hours and four lost fish later, though, and I went home empty handed once again.

But something had changed. I had figured them out. I could see them in the water, in the deeper pools, and I noticed that they were only surfacing in the shaded areas, near the rocks and overhanging trees. I also realized I had been fishing too light. The first fish had snapped my 5X tippet and the other three had seemed to spit out my #18 hook with relative ease. These were larger fish and would require more appropriate tackle. So, I resized my tippet, increased my hook size and went after them again.

Fishing Rio Grande
Admired them and then released

Day four: I got out earlier this time, about 6:45 AM. As I approached the scene of the previous day's action I couldn't believe my eyes. They were all over the top of the water and it seemed as though I was destined to finally overcome my frustration. Two hours later I had caught and released seven brown trout, all in excess of fourteen inches. (And that doesn't count the three that got away.) I returned home yesterday a very happy and devoted fly fisherman.

Now, I can only sit and wait for next summer to roll around. But the feeling is different this time. Now I feel more like the older gentleman I had met a few years before; "Aw, I guess it was a pretty good couple hours of work."

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Randall Powell submitted this article and photos to the Colorado Fishing Network. If you have an article or photos you'd like to share, email us.

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