October 22, 2012
Bar ZX Ranch
On a bright June afternoon, Bret Gardner and I fished our way around six small trout ponds on Dean Lampton's 640-acre Bar ZX Ranch in Paonia, Colorado. We were after the 10-pounders that other fly fishers over the past two years have hooked — and occcasionally landed — in this man-made trout hogpen.
Lampton built his fly-fishing paradise at a 7,500-foot elevation on the family ranch at the edge of Ragged Mountain. He has made 16 ponds, ranging in size from 11/2 acres (50 feet across) to 41/2 acres, and every year he builds more and stocks them with trout.
Depending on which lake you fish, you can catch German browns, Snake River cutthroats, Western rainbows and cuttbows, Tasmanian rainbows and cuttbows, Eastern brook trout (up to 5 pounds), wild brook trout (up to six pounds), and "tiger browns" (dark browns with black stripes instead of spots). The average fish landed is about 5 pounds, but each year two or three anglers land 17- to 18-pound fish and others are frequently hooked but seldom landed. Eight- to 12-pounders are frequently landed, and some of the lakes hold fish over 50 pounds that are occasionally hooked but never landed.
Each pond is different. They range from wide-open, windswept waters surrounded by grass (easy casting) to tiny, weedy potholes in the woods (you're lucky to get a long roll cast). Some are clear and deep in spots; others are shallow, cloudy, and full of weeds. The weedy ones have the largest fish, and occasionally you can sight fish to them as they cruise for food near the surface or in the shallows. The fishing season begins in late May and runs through the first week in October, when the ponds begin to freeze and the ranch gears up for hunters. The fish feed on a variety of mayflies, caddis, damselflies, dragonflies, scuds, leeches, midges, and other pond dwellers. Callibaetis mayflies (#12-#14) hatch in the evenings during July, followed by White Millers (#12-#14), which you can match with a yellow-and-white hen spinner dry fly. Damselflies (#14-#18) and dragonflies (#6, long-shank), and midges (#16-#18 Griffith's Gnats) work all summer. In August and September a #10-#12 yellowish-orange caddis is the ticket. July has the most challenging daytime fishing because of the bright sun, which causes the trout to go off the bite.
Unless the hatch is on, bead-head nymphs and buggy patterns that wiggle, "breathe," or dive when you stop your retrieve work best. Subsurface flies typically outfish drys, except on cloudy days. Even on sunny days, the fish can become more active at the surface when clouds obscure the sun for a few minutes; then when the sun shines again, things slow down. Midges can emerge all day on cloudy days.
In the evenings, the dry-fly action picks up and a hatch-matching pattern or a small (#16-#20) emerger pattern fished with only a slight twitch can take surface cruisers. Lay the fly on the water 15 to 20 feet in front of the cruising fish and hope the fish stays on course.
A twitch can draw an attack.
Nine- to 12-foot leaders and a 3- to 5-weight floating line are right for presenting small flies with soft landings so you don't spook the leader-shy fish. (Don't go lighter than 6-pound-test tippet unless you want to lose your flies.) A clear-tip line can help you avoid spooking fish when they are feedng on the surface, and a heavier outfit is good for larger flies (#6 weighted olive Woolly Buggers are Lampton's favorite). Sinking lines are not necessary in summer because most of the ponds are shallow, but a Teeny Mini Tip line and Teeny Nymphs (Egg Sucking Leech [#4-#6 Ginger or Natural] or #8-#10 Antique Gold or Ginger nymphs) are deadly for large fish. A 100-grain sinking-tip line fishes your fly deep when the water is cold and the fish won't rise to take surface presentations.
The best way to fish the ranch is to keep moving. If the fishing is slow at one pond, try another. When you find one with willing fish, you can usually catch and release several before the others catch on and stop feeding. Then it's time to move. The pond may turn on again later, but by then you will have moved to other water. The ranch is fished frequently and the trout are educated to the game, but consistent action can be had if you are willing to change locations and tactics to meet the fishing conditions.
The modest Bar ZX Lodge — Lampton calls it a "rustic hunting camp" — holds 12 guests in five bedrooms. It has two showers, a telephone, a television, a kitchen, a dining area, and a lounge with trophy game on the wall. Beds with sheets are provided, but you should take your own sleeping bag or blankets. The ranch also rents two camping trailers (accommodates four adults) that can be moved around the property. A new, modern lodge is under construction.
Boats are available on a few of the larger lakes, and some ponds have picnic tables and outhouses nearby. You can also use your own float tubes or kick boats. Transportation around the ranch is provided by truck or rented 4x4 ATV ($75 per day).
Make reservations through the Bar ZX Ranch or book a guide through Horizon River Adventures, which uses Bi-yak guideboats (rigid-hull pontoon boats) to put you close to weedbeds and deep water that wading anglers can't reach. Fishing licenses are required and all fishing is catch-and-release. Guides are required. Daily guide fees range from $180 for one angler to $110 per angler for three anglers. Meals cost $25 per day. The ranch also offers elk hunting on 24,000 acres of leased land.
We caught several trout up to five pounds at the Bar ZX, but the kahunas that are making the reputation of this ranch were not interested in our offerings. We'll be back.
Lodging and restaurants are available in Carbondale, about an hour away. For more information, contact Bar ZX Ranch & Lodge, P.O. Box 250, Paonia, CO 81428, (970) 929-6591, www.bar-zx-ranch.com. Contact Horizon River Adventures at P.O. Box 38, Carbondale, CO 81623, (888) 462-4925.
Philip Hanyok is Managing Editor of Fly Fisherman. He lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Fly Fishing Colorado