One Man’s Journey to Pull Giant Fish from Everyday Water - by Len Waldron

An early addiction

“Parents don’t realize what an awesome problem it is to have a kid addicted to fishing,” says Rick Sandoval of Gunnison, Colorado.

Now 46, Sandoval is as prone to slip away to a lake or trout stream as when he was a kid, but these days, when he shows up, large fish frequently find themselves breathing air.

fly fishing beautiful lake mountains

Growing up in Walsenburg, Colorado Sandoval started fishing as a young man and credits his father with instilling a love of the woods and streams. He also teamed up with like-minded kids his age to churn up adventures. 

“My best friend Mike Medina and I had our BMX bikes rigged up to carry our tackle boxes and rods. 

Our bikes gave us the freedom to explore and find fish. 

The miles of riding made us strong for our age, and we learned from one another,” says Sandoval.  Initially, his focus was on bass fishing but quickly turned to fly fishing. 

“Mike and I read every book, and watched every VHS tape and TV show we could find—casting, fly-tying, locations, anything.  We also started a fly-tying club in high school.  We just kept learning and tying and casting.”

Sandoval parted every body of water he could find in search of big fish.  He describes it as a different calling, “Focusing on big fish is different.  The mindset is different.  You have to be willing to cast all day, in all sorts of weather just to get that one shot—and you have to be ok with not getting it. 

It’s as much hunting as it is fishing.  Anyone can drag tiny nymphs through productive holes and pick up average fish, but targeting a big fish, one above a certain size for a body of water or of a specific species is different.”

However, even youthful enthusiasm and the constant drive to improve wasn’t enough.  But when the student was ready, the master appeared.

Joe Butler and the Ten Pound Trout

“No matter what I did, I couldn’t break the ten-pound mark on trout.  At that time, in the late 1990s, the guy known in the fishing industry for big trout was Joe Butler. He became my hero.  Joe was writing about what I wanted to be doing, and I knew I had to somehow acquire the knowledge he had,” says Sandoval.

Butler, author of the book Big Trout on Flies (Walcker Publishing, 1999) caught what was then the world record, and still holds the North American record brown trout on a fly (27 pounds, 3 ounces) at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in 1978. 

He also caught the world record Kokanee Salmon on a fly (5 pounds, 13 ounces) in 1985.  Unable to tolerate the ten-pound ceiling, Sandoval made a pilgrimage to Butler’s fly shop in Denver, Colorado in hopes of learning what Joe may be willing to teach.

“Rick Sandoval came wandering to my fly shop as a teenager.  He had a zest for life and a willingness to listen and do whatever it took to develop his skills to the next level.  He also asked the right questions, and after fishing with him, I also noticed he had the God-given ability to see big fish in the water.  That’s rare,” recalls Butler.

Butler took Sandoval on a trip to the Great Lakes to fish some of the smaller tributary streams in the Rochester and Albion areas.

“I’ve been traveling to that area for the past 30 years and have found that the right conditions can make well-known, average streams, extraordinary.  The difference with Rick was I just had to put him in the right conditions and turn him loose.  He was a strong young man and could walk the streams all day and keep a mental inventory of where he saw large fish, barely visible to others, and approach them several times throughout the day without spooking them,” recalls Butler.

It turned out to be the right approach.

Butler’s experience, coaching and scouting tuned Sandoval’s abilities and he landed a thirteen-pound fish on the first night and over thirty browns in excess the ten-pound mark during the weeklong trip.  The ten-pound ceiling was shattered, and Sandoval gained critical experience on big fish.

Buoyed by his new confidence and skills, Sandoval returned to Colorado, competing in several casting contests and won the International Sportsmen’s Expo Men’s Division in Denver for both Accuracy and Distances in 1996.  He also caught the Colorado state record rainbow and cutthroat trout on a fly—but then a new problem began.

The Lake Trout Problem

Sandoval’s native state of Colorado has several manmade reservoirs with waters that are hundreds of feet deep and contain diverse fisheries.  For example, Blue Mesa Reservoir, built in 1966 on the lower section of the Gunnison River is 20 miles long and home to the largest lake trout and Kokanee salmon trout fishery in the state. 

During the spring and fall of the year, the water in the lake ‘turns over.’ When this happens in the fall, the surface water cools, becomes denser, and sinks to the bottom forcing the water in the bottom to rise. 

Lake trout (Salvelinus namaucush) in the Blue Mesa Reservoir prefer a band of water typically between 40-60 feet, sometimes deeper.  However, when the lake water begins to ‘turn over,’ the lake trout move to the shallow edges following their preferred thermocline.  During these brief periods, a subpopulation of piscivorous lake trout, that grow quickly and to a larger size, can be seen cruising along the banks.  Some are up to fifty-pounds, and the largest can be easily identified by their orange fins with white stripes along with edges.  The water’s turnover and the lake trout’s move to the shallows usually corresponds with their spawning cycle, and their colors become more vivid.  Normally only caught by deep water trolling rigs, these enormous fish will take a fly during these brief seasonal windows.  It’s enough to drive a man like Rick Sandoval mad.

big lake trout fishing

I met Rick Sandoval on a pack horse Rocky Mountain elk hunt several years ago.  His skills in woods are as developed and unique as those on the water.  Rick is part Navajo and Apache Indian. 

It sounds cliché until you find yourself in the woods with him; then you realize he is seeing, hearing, and feeling things other people do not.  At 11,00 feet in elevation, we chased elk through snow storms, steep terrain, and frigid temperatures.  So when he described this seasonal fishing phenomenon and invited me to chase the giant lakers on a fly, I had to jump.

Big Wind, Big Fish

Joe Butler told me, “The worst conditions are the best for big trout, particularly windy conditions. The wind oxygenates the water, stirs up bait fish, and generally makes the water more turbid, making feeding ambushes easier. You have to be committed and don’t let bad weather force you away.” 

If that’s all true, we were in good shape.

Late November in the interior of Colorado can get extremely cold.  There had been some preceding days below zero weather, so the 20-ish degree Fahrenheit temperatures freezing the fly line in the guides on the first day was relatively balmy.  Sandoval prefers a white wooly bugger with split shot twelve to eighteen above the fly. 

“I prefer the split shot to a weighted head.  I tie some wire into the fly so it has some weight, but the split shot gives the fly a more natural action.  I also found this set-up successful on a dead drift in a stream.  Here in Blue Mesa, they seem to prefer white.” 

However, Sandoval’s not afraid to change up his fly and has a well-worn Plano tackle box set up as a mobile fly tying bench. If conditions change or he needs more flies, he simply sits down and spins up a batch.

mobile fly tying fishing

The water level at Blue Mesa reservoir was at a 40-year low making the trek down to the lake difficult as we navigated loose rip-rap. Sandoval mentioned the lake trout typically cruise the shoreline feeding and scouting for spawning locations, but the volatile water levels force them to use what’s available and their spots change from year to year. 

The casting was a challenge, but Sandoval hooked a small silver-grey lake trout early on, and I thought we were in for some action. 

Rainbow trout were plentiful, and we’d catch several dozen over the next two days, but the big lakers were elusive.

We saw a few, hooked even fewer, but couldn’t land any. 

Day two brought high winds that ripped across the water and foiled all but the perfect cast.  I put several flies into the back of my head. 

Sandoval had a few casts pushed around by the wind, but far fewer than my own.  Towards the end of the second day, we began seeing the larger trout cruising. 

Though not as plentiful as they might be a week further into the turnover cycle, the submarine-sized trout cruising the edges gets the blood going and takes the bite out of the cold. 

Sandoval caught another small lake trout and hooked two large fish but lost them.  The fish were here, and our methods were sound, it was just a duel against the daylight and the wind until one of us put one on the shore.  But at the end of day two, though we caught many smaller fish, the truly large lake trout (greater than 30-pounds) eluded us.

I had a brief window of time on the morning of the third day. 

It snowed overnight and was the coldest morning thus far—so cold I didn’t even want to know the temperature because I knew I was going anyway.  The casting was tough, I was cold to my bones, and had a nine-hour drive into a snowstorm ahead, so after a few hours I wished Rick luck and began the precarious climb up the steep and loose rip rap to my truck. 

Just as I reached the vehicle, Sandoval hooked a monster. 

He had switched to a darker, articulated fly for part of the morning but had just returned to his go-to, white wooly bugger.  Rick landed the 42-inch, 20+ pound fish and even after all this time on the water, both his voice and hands were trembling with excitement. 

He’d proven his devotion to the gods of large fish.  They needed to see just one fisherman break to give up a big fish.  True to his philosophy, Sandoval was willing to endure the elements for that once-a-day shot at what for most mortals would be the fish of a lifetime.  For Sandoval, it was just another chapter in his book. 

When he’s not posting photos of absurdly large fish and elk @co_mountain_native on Instagram, Rick busies himself with making custom furniture from barn wood and other reclaimed materials. He’s the owner of Full Circle Woodwork in Gunnison, Colorado.

- Written by Len Waldron

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