BASALT - It's been several days now and I still can't get to sleep at night. I feel like a kid going to bed on Christmas Eve - tossing, turning, anxiously waiting for the morning light. I haven't felt like this since I was a much younger man, in my teens and early 20s.
Back then I was still going through my progressions as a fly fisher and at that time, all I wanted to do was travel around the Rocky Mountain West and chase big trout. More often than not, that meant fishing tailwater streams like the Green, San Juan, Bighorn, North Platte, South Platte, Blue and Taylor rivers. Somehow or another, though, my journeys always brought me back to the Fryingpan River in Basalt.
Throughout the '80s and up until the mid-90s, the Fryingpan produced fish of epic sizes and proportions, including a massive rainbow trout estimated at around 26 pounds that adorns the wall at Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt. Fish of more than 10 pounds were somewhat common, with very few specimens reaching that magic 20-pound mark. To most anglers, a 5-pound trout is exceedingly large, a 10-pound trout is huge, a 15-pound fish is the fish of a lifetime and any trout of more than 20 pounds is seemingly unthinkable without having to travel to Alaska, Russia or Tiera del Fuego.
As a youth corrupted with big-fish-on-the-fly syndrome, I was fortunate to catch many big trout, of 10 pounds or more, including a very select few fish that tipped the scales at 15 to 25 pounds. Now, as an older and wiser angler, I prefer to fish for the visuals and generally dry fly, streamer or sight-nymph fish. On mysis shrimp tailwaters like the Fryingpan, Blue and Taylor rivers, rainbow trout account for the vast majority of big fish that are caught every year. Large brown trout are uncommon on these rivers and why that is, I don't really know.
On Monday, with temperatures in the single digits, I decided to take a drive up the Fryingpan and go fishing for a few hours. Mile after mile, pool after pool, the entire river was devoid of anglers. I'm no longer the guy that fishes the "Toilet Bowl" pool immediately below the dam, but when the opportunity presented itself with an empty river, I thought what the hell and gave it a go. Twenty minutes into my adventure and several fish later, I hooked the king of the river - a 20-pound-plus brown trout.
I've played this big fish scenario in my dreams several times; how to do everything right and nothing wrong. Never before has my focus been so intense. I thought about every move, every action and reaction, and was lucky enough to not only hook this beast but land it by myself on an empty Fryingpan River. The fly that fooled the beast was a classic, Tim Heng's mysis shrimp in a size 16. The size of the fish will go down in Fryingpan and Colorado lore as one of the largest brown trout ever landed with an estimated weight of between 21 and 23 pounds. What makes this fish special is the girth at 24-plus inches plus, and a length of 29-plus inches.
With some incredibly large fish to my name at an early age, I thought for sure that I had already caught the biggest brown trout of my career, only to once again experience and hold in my frigid and shaking hands the fish and experience of a lifetime. In the time since, I've still been laying in bed sleep deprived, restless, reliving my fish and answering the now frequent emails, phone calls and social media "friend requests." The now-viral pictures of the fish spread like wildfire over the web this past week and I am ultimately just thankful to admire briefly and release this wonderful fish back into the Fryingpan River so another angler can have the same opportunity that I had. Merry Fishmas.