Back In The High Life, Again.

A Day In The Life Of A Fishing Guide, Act 1, Scene 327:

*Angler stands at river’s edge, excitedly hops from one foot to the other while the guide ties on what will be the first of fifty flies for the day*

Angler: “Gee, I wish I had your job.”

Guide: “Why’s that?”

Angler: “Well, you get paid to go fishing every day.”

*Guide reaches into boat for large club*

Living The Dream from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

At this point in the conversation, I usually try to change the subject. As a guide, you fulfill many roles – relationship counselor, psychotherapist, babysitter, scapegoat, purveyor of wit, wisdom and one-liners – but rarely does personally catching fish make the job description. Rather you facilitate the interaction, row your ass off against the current for ten or fifteen miles, call strikes, untangle clusters, attempt to decipher Mother Nature and hope that at the end of the day the fish were reading from the same page and the tip fairy is out and about.

But every once in a while, you strike gold.

“Hayden, this is Fred. Fred is going to Alaska this summer, and wants to brush up on his rowing skills. You job is to fish, and fine tune his technique.”

So it was this particular day. My chance to not give a damn about body count, or when and where the hatch was coming off, or what the water temperature was, and do what I like to do – throw a dry fly hard against the bank and see what happens. And get paid for it. If that isn’t worth getting out of bed for, I don’t know what is.

By the end of the day, Fred was one tired puppy. Mind you, so was I. So tired, in fact, I broke down my rod and sat out the last mile or so of the float, content to watch the scenery go by, reflect on some of the fish caught, and look forward to a couple of cans of liquid Advil when I got back home. While my shoulders can handle the strain of pulling on oars for eight hours, casting a fly rod for that long is another matter. Frankly, I don’t know how some guys do it.

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April Fools

Clouds, sullen and grey, draped the mountains, and a cold wind blew upstream, carrying with it a few flakes of snow and the scent of more to come. The kind of morning made for lingering in bed, rather than standing at the put in questioning your clients’ sanity and cursing your own impoverishment in equal measure. Yet something in the air also held the promise of dry flies in the afternoon for those who persevered, and so it was to prove.

Floating on April Fools from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

Satellite imaging tells us the Arkansas River historically flowed south into the Rio Grande before the uplift that created the Sangres diverted it east to the Mississippi at Big Bend. And this day, as the river turned there, so too did the weather, with the clouds lifting and the wind abating and losing much of its bite.

Woody Allen once opined that success in life is 80% just turning up, and so too it is with fishing. Get out there often enough, stay out there long enough, float enough miles, and sooner or later you’re bound to come across fish with their mouths open. The closer we floated to town, the more blue wings began to hatch to the surface, and the more fish began to rise to them. We were treated to a good three hours of dry fly action, before the clouds rolled in again, the temperature dropped and things shut down. All in all, not bad for a boat load of April fools.

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March is for midges

The plan had been to find a deep, slow stretch of water to try out a new strike indicator system I’d heard about. Although the days are getting warmer, I figured it was still a little early in the season to expect much of a hatch – that, plus the fact that with the sun high and bright overhead, the fish would likely be lurking deeper anyhow.

March is for midges from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

So much for the theory. After drifting the indicator through a couple of feed lines with nothing to show for my efforts save a couple of snagged sticks ( the indicator worked fine, for that matter ) I spied up ahead a fish working the surface, rising every thirty seconds or so, and then another, a little further up in the run.

That was all I needed. The chance to catch one on top was too good to pass up. Off came the nymphs, on went a couple of dries. I couldn’t see any bugs on the water, so went small with my fly choice. The lead was a bright parachute tied by Salida’s own Fred Rasmussen, the trailer a little dark midge I could only pick out on the water every second or third cast.

I love this type of fishing. The takes are very subtle, often little more than guesswork, the sense of a swirl on the water’s surface in the vicinity of where you think your fly is, a gentle raising of the rod tip and the weight of a fish on the other end. An hour, five fish, and it was time to head home, the promise of more dry fly opportunities to come.

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That Floating Feeling

The urge could be ignored no longer. The lengthening days, the return of bird song, the first of the year’s weeds greening and pushing through the still brown, dormant lawn. It was time to consign winter to the dustbin and admit that spring is in the air. We each have our own ways of acknowledging the new season. Mine is to get out on the river once more.

That Floating Feeling from Hayden Mellsop on Vimeo.

My raft, having sat dormant over the last few months under a covering of lawn furniture, Christmas decorations and various piles of outdoor gear, began to subtly attract my attention each time I entered the garage. When the text arrived from Pinky – “Bill’s had to pull out, got room for one more” – I hauled out my waders and headed down to Howard.

Some never leave the river, fishing it throughout the depths of winter, but for me come the first snow it is time to give both myself and the fish a break. Consequently, going fishing this time of the year always feels like returning to an old friend. The branches along the banks are still bare, the wind chops the iron grey surface of the water, and you squint as you tie small flies on to fine tippet with fingers already coarse and chapped, but you sense the stirring, the change taking place.

We caught fish, not in huge numbers, but sufficient to keep us entertained all afternoon. We caught them on stoneflies and tiny midges and mayflies and hares ears and muddlers. We hooked most in the mouth, others somewhere near and a few not even close. We caught them deep, we caught them shallow, but more than the fish, it was me, the fisherman, who caught the bug once more.

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The Magic of the Black Canyon

It had been a couple of years since I’d last been down the Black Canyon. I don’t care which time of the year – spring, summer or fall. The primary attraction is just being there, partaking of the beauty of the place.

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Most people go there this time of the year, for the famed stonefly hatch. It’s hard to argue with the logic of that. After months of winter and spring spent fishing tiny flies and fine tippet, it’s great to tie five feet of ought x tippet onto your line and throw dry flies the size of hummingbirds to wanton fish. You can’t blame the fish for getting enthusiastic also. They’ve spent the same number of months dining on the equivalent of brown rice and bean sprouts, and suddenly the river is filled with cheeseburgers.

Although river conditions had meant the trip was up in the air until just a few days prior, our timing turned out to be perfect. The stoneflies were hatching throughout the canyon, crawling from the river to shed their skins at night, then taking to wing in search of a mate in the morning as the sun warmed the canyon air.

We fished dries to hungry fish for all three days. We caught multiple over twenty inches. We got sore shoulders from casting and rowing, and sore heads from bourbon. We slept under incredible starry skies and awoke to cool canyon breezes.

Towards the end of the trip, as we floated out of the granite canyon and into the sandstone country beyond, lit up in brilliant hues of pink, red and yellow by the late evening sun, I asked Cliff his impressions of his first experience of the place.

“I’m not sure if I can put it into words. I’ll show my friends the photos, but I really don’t think I can adequately describe this.” He massaged his tired casting shoulder. “I guess I’ll just have to tell them they need to get down here themselves.”

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Once upon a time on the Mohaka….

I’ve been thinking some about mortality lately, in part due to venturing into my fifties. In vehicular terms, you’ve just passed the 100,000 mile mark. All manufacturer’s bets are off, and the needle on the tank shows closer to empty than full. In part it’s the season, the sun low and fleeting, nights long and cold, nature stripped bare. In part, the sudden passing of a family member, and realizing the folly of believing there will always be a tomorrow to finish whatever is put off today.

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When my time comes, there’s a river in New Zealand I wouldn’t mind having a few ashes scattered on. It’s called the Mohaka, and it flows out of the Ahimanawa mountains in the east-central North Island. In twenty five years of river running, its has given me moments of elation and anguish, inspiration and fear. I’ve had my best day of fly fishing ever on its waters – no camera to record it, no other soul to witness it, just me and the river. I’ve stood on its banks knees weak, insides knotted with dread, a crew member from my raft missing in its raging waters for over an hour, and felt the waves of relief when he was found, safe and sound. It has been the scene of my most challenging guide trip – three days for no fish – and also the provider of my biggest tips.

When a recent family event necessitated an impromptu trip back to New Zealand, a day on the Mohaka was my number one recreational priority. I managed to hook up with Steve, a friend who’s been fishing and hunting the central North Island for the best part of three decades. In that time of guiding the rich and famous he’s walked away from helicopter crashes, dodged the slings and arrows of outraged husbands, caught more fish than is decent, and like most guides probably drank enough to kill several small elephants in the process.

It had been over five years since I’d had oars and feet planted in a New Zealand river, and in terms of my fishing technique, it showed. Despite knowing better, it always seems to take a while to reintroduce myself to the realities of New Zealand fishing. You tend to not get too many opportunities, so a fish missed as the result of a clumsy cast or mistimed hook set or too tight a rein always leaves you pondering, wondering: will the river will give you another chance, or has she shut the door on your face and turned the key? Gentle Colorado-style hook sets get treated with head shaking disdain, while attempting to arrest that first charging run with a drag set too tight results in bent hooks and the kind of language that would make a sailor blush.

Fortunately this day, the Mohaka was a patient mistress. My first fumblings were tolerated, and after taking a break for lunch and a beer, I got my mojo working at last. The reward for me was a couple of lovely fish, a rainbow and a brown, a day spent on a special river in perfect company, and the commitment to ensure that it is not another five years hence before I again get to immerse myself in the sights, sounds and smells of one of the most special places on Earth.

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Heraclitus floats the Upper Colorado

No man, proclaimed Heraclitus twenty five centuries ago, ever steps into the same river twice. He was, of course, referring as much to the person setting foot in the river as the river itself. I thought about this recently as I sat on the banks of the Upper Colorado, my first visit to this stretch of the river for twenty three years.

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Back then, I was newly arrived in the States, not yet fully savvy to the ways and foibles of America and Americans. “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter”, driving on the wrong side of the road in vehicles the size of a Third World apartment, breakfasts so big they require several plates to contain them, the aridity of the landscape, and the fact that people would pay good money to float for days on flat water, while mile-long coal trains rumbled by and the occasional semi kicked up dust working through the gears hauling hay from a nearby ranch, itself festooned with barbed wire and threats against trespass.

I was looking at the river through the eyes of a whitewater rafter then, not as an angler now. River running in New Zealand tended to be more of a wilderness experience, the rougher, more remote and wilder the better. It took getting deeper into fishing to see another side of a river – long grassy banks with gently swirling current seams and undercuts, subtle shading and drop offs, foamy back eddies that held promise and potential. The pace is more leisurely, the treasures more subtle.

Over the ensuing years my perception of what passes for the color green has changed. I now drive around in my own Third World apartment. I still try to limit my breakfast to a single plate. While train tracks are a distraction, I understand why they are where they are. Dry has as much claim to beauty as lush.

And through it all the river flows with its own timeless dignity that transcends the transient insult of dams, diversions and the folly of claims of ownership.

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The Descent Of Man

The day had started full of hope and aspiration. The sun shone on our backs, the river, if a little murky, was the perfect level for floating, bugs mingled with the cottonwood seeds carried on the intermittent breeze, and a shapely young lass wearing an orange bikini sunned herself on the rocks below the F St Bridge. It was a great day to be alive, on a raft, with a box full of dry flies.

I believe there is a natural order to fly fishermen, as there is to most species. Occupying the lower rungs of the ladder stands the streamer fisherman, struggling valiantly toward the sunlight, weighed down by his genetic closeness to the spin fisherman. Next comes the nympher, crawling slowly from the primordial soup, while standing aloft, alone and imperious, both feet planted firmly on dry ground, stands the dry fly fisherman. Like all creatures at the top of their respective food chain, they are relatively sparse in numbers. Streamers and nymphers will say this is likely due to starvation, given the fact Dry Fly Guy tends to catch fewer fish than anyone else. This may be so, but not for he the hollow sanctuary of numbers.

Except that this day, I learned something about myself. Fishing should never be about numbers, yet there is a big difference between catching one fish, and catching no fish. After a couple of fruitless hours, my resolve to fish only dries crumbled nearly as quick as the veneer of civilization in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I realized I was prepared to hit the take out having caught nothing all day, but not without trying everything first. Out went the dries, on went the bobber. Nothing. Out went the nymphs, on went the dreaded streamer. It is not that I have anything against fishing streamers per se, rather that it all gets a little repetitive: Slap, strip, strip. Slap, strip, strip. Slap, strip, strip. Etc.

But it is surely an effective way to catch a fish. If I was sent somewhere remote, and had to eat trout to stay alive, I’d take a black wooly bugger before anything other fly. After a couple of miles, and a couple of hundred casts, patience and abandonment of principles were duly rewarded. I immediately went back to fishing dries to redeem myself, but not soon enough to shake off that vague feeling of seediness. Dante wrote several centuries ago that in order for our souls to be purified, they must first descend to the pits of Hell, where demons and angels tear from us that which has become corrupted during our previous life. Once this process is complete, we rise again, purified, ready to be reborn into the next existence. I reckon, one day back when, he too must have been reduced to tying on a wooly bugger.

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High and Dry on the Arkansas

Its all relative, so while 750 cfs might not sound much like high water to those who know the river, when you’ve been rowing fishing trips this spring at 160 cfs, it seems like a positive deluge. Add to that the fact that now is the time of the year when you can throw outrageously big dry flies and fish might actually eat them, the weather is warm enough to leave waders at home and bring Corona instead, and it is little wonder that post run-off is my favorite time to be on the river.

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Well, favorite time of the year for what it is. I’m also pretty fond of fall, for the colors and the quickening, and spring for the feeling of light at the end of the tunnel. But there is little that can beat sitting in the shade of a riverside tree, the last vestiges of morning’s cool dissipating with the rising sun, the taste of cold lager lingering on your tongue, gazing at the mountains and wondering what the peasants are doing that day.

The thing with dry flies is that usually, you know you could catch more fish if you tied on a nymph below, but there’s something empowering, slightly elitist even, about choosing not to. It is a reminder that its all about the process rather than the result, and results can be measured in ways more than simple numerics. One thing I like about casting big, gaudy flies is the amount of head scratching that goes on among the fish – they’ll swim out to look at it, poke at it, kick the tires before discretion gets the better of them and they return to their station, unconvinced. Seldom does a dead drift work in such situations- an angler needs to impart some movement to give the fly the appearance of being immersed in a struggle for life. A twitch, a skitter, a skate, a tumble off the rocks and into the water – anything to bring out the fish’s inner predator.

But at the end of the day, the point is to have spent a day in the pursuit of something essentially pointless. Therein lies the ultimate richness and luxury of a day spent in idleness, floating a river.

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Desperately Searching Stoneflies

They have sex appeal, as much as any ungainly, prehistoric looking creature with four wings, six legs and long, probing antenna can, and this time of the year, anglers will go to great lengths to seek them out. And of all the stoneflies, none are sexier than Pteronarcys, the big, hulking salmon flies.

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It is a shameless display of duplicity on behalf of the angler, because ultimately its not the stonefly they are really after, but the fish who feed on them – rather like making friends with the plain looking girl in order to get to know her good looking friend.

Just like no one told the bumble bees they shouldn’t be able to fly, adult salmon flies push the limits of physics as it relates to aerodynamics. Their ungainly flight and heavy, clumsy water landings make them irresistible to a trout in the mood for a serious shot of protein.

June is the month when they are most active, and sometimes seeking them out means going to lengths an angler may not normally contemplate, like scaling sheer cliff faces, scrambling loose scree fields, crossing rivers nipple-deep in water so cold it burns, walking miles on uneven boulder fields, just to get yourself to a place where the hatch should, by rights, be.

Except sometimes its not. Sometimes the salmon flies are being coy, not behaving at the behest of the ultimately ignorant angler, instead moving to rhythms and cycles only they are privy to, rhythms and cycles that have served them well for thousands of millennia.

It was still, of course, a great day on the river. Fish were caught, if not on the finger-sized dry flies we’d hoped. Limbs and joints were stretched and contorted, used in ways they don’t get used often enough. Solitude was found, good company enjoyed, and at the end of the day the appetite had been whetted to come back next year, same place, same time, and try again.

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