Tales from the Toilet Bowl
June 28, 2005
There’s something about perching on the rim of the Toilet Bowl, casting for lunkers, that sounds distinctly unsavory.Yet anglers from across the country and beyond seek out the fabled Fryingpan River to do just that. They turn east at Basalt, following the twisting river past stunning cliffs of red rock, postcard-worthy pastures and steep hillsides thick with conifers, lured by the prospect of big fish in a spectacular setting. Inviting holes place temptation in their path at every turn, and many succumb.But the resolute bypass the promising pools; they are headed for the legendary Plunge Pool, aka the Toilet Bowl, where the Fryingpan tumbles from the spillway at the base of the dam that has checked the river’s flow since its completion in 1968. Above are the placid waters of Ruedi Reservoir; below is a Gold Medal fishery with a global reputation.The 14-mile stretch below the dam holds the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Gold Medal designation, thanks to a combination of catch-and-release protections, controlled flows, high water quality and the river’s trophy trout. But those headed for the Toilet Bowl and The Flats below it aren’t just hoping for big trout; they’re hoping for huge trout.
Stories of 15- to 20-pound trout aren’t just fish tales, vow local guides and anglers who ply those waters regularly.”I got a fish a few years back that was 22 pounds,” confirmed Merle Rodgers, a guide with Fryingpan Anglers in Basalt.Decades ago, the DOW began stocking kokanee salmon in the reservoir. A small crustacean, the mysis shrimp, was added to the lake as well to serve as salmon food. Though they’re no longer stocked, the shrimp proliferated. They are flushed through the spillway in sufficient quantities to turn the Toilet Bowl into a buffet of shrimp cocktails for the vivid rainbows, cutthroats, browns and occasional brook trout that gorge in the deep, swirling pool.”The fish are like footballs – they’re really fat,” said Aspen native Robert Zupancis, who has fished local rivers all of his life.
The mysis shrimp are dead or dying by the time they’re dumped into the river, killed in the moving water of the spillway, but their remains proliferate the Toilet Bowl and are washed up to a mile downstream, depending on the flow of the river. Fly-fishermen (and women) head for the bowl and a long, flat stretch below it dubbed The Flats, fishing with a mysis shrimp pattern. Just below The Flats, the first bend in the river – the Bend Pool, of course – marks the end of the mysis migration as a rule.The Toilet Bowl, by the way, was named for its swirling eddy, according to Tim Heng, manager at Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt.There are only a couple of spots on the near side at the bowl for anglers, and a couple of others on the far side, accessible if the river is running low enough to wade across. Fishermen wait their turn at the bowl or stagger themselves in profusion down the length of The Flats.On a recent morning, Chad Javernick of Cañon City occupied the primo spot next to the spillway. “I come once a year – always for the Toilet Bowl and the Fryingpan,” he said. His biggest catch there: a 7-pound, 24-inch rainbow.
But it’s not all about the trout, Javernick added.”The canyon right here is just beautiful.”Shortly after landing a fish, Javernick relinquished his spot to the No. 2 man, opening up a spot for the next angler in line, Mike Hildorfer of Pittsburgh. He was visiting Colorado with several companions who were all trying their luck on the Pan for the first time.”We all know about the Fryingpan,” Hildorfer said. “We all get the hunting and fishing magazines. It’s in all of them.”The crowds drawn to the Fryingpan and the Toilet Bowl have resulted in something of an unspoken etiquette at the base of the dam, ensuring everyone gets a chance.”You go in and you fish and you sort of move on,” explained Zupancis, who prefers to try his luck there in pouring rain or driving wind, when the crowds thin out. “You don’t stand in one spot all day long.”
Last year, when a group of anglers camped – literally – at the Toilet Bowl, well, they got the message from other fishermen, Rodgers said.”In fact, it gets so crowded that it’s frustrating for a guide because there’s no place to put your people,” he said.In the relatively shallow Flats, the trout are visible – torpedolike shadows finning tauntingly beneath the surface. It’s enough to make a grown man drool.”To me, it’s almost like when I used to bow hunt. You stalk them and you cast to them. It’s sight fishing,” Zupancis said.Success, though, is never a sure thing, cautioned Rodgers.
“Sometimes the fish eat like crazy and sometimes they don’t,” he said.The concentration of mysis shrimp in the tailwaters can vary greatly, added Will Sands, a fishing guide at Taylor Creek. However, in the spring, when runoff into the reservoir forces large releases through the dam, chances are good that a lot of shrimp are being washed into the Toilet Bowl and beyond.Only the Blue River below the Dillon Dam and the Taylor River below Taylor Reservoir offer similar mysis shrimp conditions in Colorado, Sands noted.”It creates a unique environment. They’re a high-protein diet for fish.”Sands has seen anglers land rainbows in the 14- to 15-pound range, but his colleagues have watched fly-fishermen reel in trout that top 18 pounds, he said.”I’m not going to say fish of that magnitude are common, but they’re definitely there,” Sands said.
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“They’re are a lot more hooked than landed,” he added. “You can’t just go up there and get one every day.”Landing a lunker, however, is something to brag about. For one thing, these trout see enormous angling pressure. They’re not easily fooled.Rodgers swears the big fish in the bowl have learned to cut a path around a concrete wall that juts out from the spillway, sawing an angler’s leader on the edge in the process.”The bigger they are, the wiser they are,” Sands agreed.”They take my fly, they start moving, that’s the last I see of them,” Zupancis said. “The real challenge with the big fish – it’s not so hard to actually hook one, but to have the finesse and the equipment to bring it in and release it – you make any mistakes bringing the fish in and it’s gone.”This article was originally published in the Aspen Times Weekly on July 10, 2005. Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org