What’s It All About?

Traveling thirty miles down a gravel road generally rewards one with a degree of solitude. So it proved as we crested the final ridge and dropped down into the valley to find the little campground free of habitation, human at least. From up high the serpentine course of the stream could be traced by the stands of leafless willow that grew in clusters along its banks. The valley narrowed upstream to the west before elbowing south, where the peaks of distant mountains, dusted with the season’s first snow, mingled with sullen storm clouds.

Ostensibly we’d come to fish the stream, but for me the next few days would be as much about drinking hot tea in the silence of early morning while the sun slowly worked its way down the mountainsides to an icy camp. It would be as much about the aroma of bacon quietly sizzling on the griddle, of a lunch-time beer sipped with feet dangling in the stream, of margaritas and the Milky Way, and of being in a place where a cell phone is as relevant to an angler as a bicycle to a brook trout. It would be about burrowing deep into a warm bag on a frigid night, of the howl of a distant coyote and the purl of the stream overlaying it all.

We set up camp on a small ledge that offered a pathway down through the rocks to the meadow and stream below. From this vantage point we could observe a portion of the stream—a slow, elongated pool that quickened into a riffle and turned down-valley at the foot of the ledge. After dunking my dried-out wading boots in the water to soften the leather, I returned up the path to the ledge and sat, taking pleasure in the ritual of donning waders, cinching boots, choosing a rod, freshening tippet, and sifting through my fly box even though, in my mind, I’d decided three days ago which fly I would start out with.

The sight of a fish rising in the pool below, intermittently but with the persistence of an active feeder, heightened the anticipation.

“Did you see that?” I asked. “That’s got your name written all over it.”

He nodded. “Ah, mate, you’re too kind.”

“Not really. I just want to have a good laugh when you set the hook too quickly and miss it.”

I pulled my attention from the pool to upstream. For at least a mile it zig-zagged its course before the valley dog-legged out of sight toward the mountains to the south, the pull of what lay beyond growing stronger by the minute.
I rummaged through the food cooler, stuffing some cheese and crackers and a couple of energy bars into one of the pockets of my hip pack. I guessed the time as close to noon, and didn’t expect we’d return to camp until after the sun had dipped below the horizon. By then, I knew, my lower back would be aching gently from walking several miles over uneven ground, my legs would be weary, my best friends Advil, my camp chair, and margarita cup.

“Well, mate, shall we?”

He stood, slipped on his fly vest, and grabbed his rod.

“Yes,” I agreed, “it’s time.”

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The Lake

As lakes go it is not particularly impressive, rather an elongated pond with an inflow at one end and an outflow at the other feeding a small power station further downstream. Getting there takes little effort, the noise from the highway a half mile distant occasionally audible when the breeze isn’t just so, softly sighing through the pines. Yet it is a lake that holds special memories, of one daughter catching her first fish, and the other her most in one day.

“Let’s go up there this morning,” she suggested over breakfast. “I’ll need to be back by noon.”

Forty five minutes later we stood in the morning sun on the rocks along the foreshore. Patches of weed dotted the lakebed along the shallows, and fish circled in lazy, elongated beats, foraging into the gentle current from the inflow, then circling back toward the outflow before resuming their quest toward the inflow again. A thin film of pollen lay on the surface, and occasionally a fish would rise up and sip a morsel from just beneath this film, dimpling the surface but not breaking through it.

Bushes and taller pines grew right to the water’s edge, and I reminded her to keep her back cast high to avoid snagging her line. For the next hour the fish remained aloof, like a Parisian shopkeeper feigning ignorance of the English language. For the most part they completely ignored our offerings, occasionally swimming vaguely toward the fly as if to feign interest before turning away again.

Two women walked along the far shore toward the trailhead beyond the lake, their dog sniffing the undergrowth along the way. A Jeep drove up to the parking lot, then turned and disappeared back down the road, the occupants evidently unsatisfied with what they saw. An intermittent breeze blew across the lake, ruffling the surface. In the center at the deepest part, a bright orange bobber floated, impervious to both wind and current.

Finally, success. Tying on a fresh nymph behind my dry fly, I cast it out and watched as it sank in the clear water, settling suspended a few inches from the bottom. A passing fish turned to inspect it. I watched as it next opened its mouth. The fly disappeared, and as the fish turned away I gently raised the rod tip, setting the hook.

“Try one of these,” I said as I tied the same pattern onto her line. After twenty casts, nothing, not even a passing interest. I shrugged. “I don’t know what these guys want. Whatever they are eating, it is small and I have no bright ideas. Time to think outside the bun.”

“Cheeseburger?” she inquired as I selected a particularly gaudy dry fly.

“Exactly. Enough of trying to catch them with this foo-foo gluten-free tofu.”

She cast out once more. A fish rose off to the right.

“Pick it up and cast toward that rise.”

She did so.

“Now, give it a twitch.”

The fly disappeared in a boil and she set the hook, holding the rod high while stripping the line. A couple of minutes later she released a lovely rainbow.

“What time is it?” she asked, smiling.

“Time to head back, if noon is your deadline.”

I cut off our respective flies and we reeled in our lines.

“Thanks Dad,” she said. “That was fun. I like this place.”

I had to nod agreement.

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How Much To Tip Your Guide?

Ever since society evolved to the requisite level of sophistication where someone could call themselves a fishing guide without being laughed out of the village, and someone else accumulated sufficient goats and grain to trade some for a day on the river, questions revolving around tipping have plagued and tormented anglers.
How much is enough? How much is too much? Is it too big? Is it too small? Will my guide curse my name, laughing at my inadequacy as soon as I leave the parking lot? Should I have saved some cash for my wife’s birthday instead of unloading my wallet like that?

Years of guiding have helped me develop a foolproof ten-step formula that will leave your guide happy, your ego intact, and hopefully also leave you with enough money left over for a dozen roses for your Better Half’s big day.

1: Your guide shows up on time, as neat and presentable as living out of the back of a pickup and occasionally being forced to forage in the Safeway dumpster for food will allow. $50.*
*A little steep, I hear you ask, for merely turning up, somewhat disheveled and a little abrupt? Think again. After all, with guides we are not dealing with normal accepted standards of hygiene, grooming and etiquette. And who knows? Maybe one day some of that $50 might make it past the liquor store to be spent on a razor and soap.

Would you tip this man?

2: You expect your guide to tie on every fly and untangle every ‘wind knot’ you serve up all day. Add $20

3: Your preferred method of dealing with every tangle it is to shake your rod vigorously in the misguided expectation that the two weighted nymphs, split shot and indicator will remarkably untangle themselves. Realizing that your rig has now come to resemble a tennis-ball sized cluster of rigging tightly fastened to the end of your rod, you hand it off to your guide, saying “Huh, looks like I tangled again.” Add $50.

4: Your buddy tangles. Your guide eases the boat to shore beneath the shade of an overhanging cottonwood to help your buddy, but you just can’t stop casting. You turn in your seat and, despite the fact that every guide you have ever fished with has told you fishing the middle of the river is a waste of time, especially river you have just drifted over, you decide ‘What the heck’ and cast one out there. Except, the flies never make it to the water. That’s because they are stuck twenty feet high in the cottonwood you are sitting under, whose overhanging branches are tickling the back of your neck. Add $50.

5: You think that dropping your backcast every now and then and putting a cone head woolly bugger into the side of your guide’s head is just one of his or her occupational hazards. Add $50.

6: You bring beer. Subtract $20.

7: Your idea of beer is Coors Light. Add $20.

8: You bring your shapely wife / girlfriend and insist she fishes from the front of the boat in that bikini she bought in Cabo last winter. Subtract $20

9: You bring your shapely wife / girlfriend, but install her up the back of the boat in waders, while you hog the front all day in your board shorts two sizes too small. Add $50

10: As you can see, the formula has many variables. Some days will require an abacus and construction calculator to tally, and your vest is already bulging with twenty pounds of extraneous gear that you have no earthly idea when or why you bought it. So for those without an advanced degree in accounting, here is what you do. Before you leave the shop in the morning, look deep into your guide’s eyes, slip him or her a C note or two and say something like “I’m sorry in advance for whatever happens today. Let me know at the end of the trip if this doesn’t cover it. Oh, and what kind of beer do you like?”

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The Accidental Angler: Rainbow’s reward

It is my least favorite climb. Not because it is the steepest—it isn’t—or the longest—not so. Rather, for its duration it keeps the rider—if your name is Hayden Mellsop at least—at the upper limit of what can be pedaled, without having the decency to actually get too steep to where I can justify walking, and not feel like I have given in. Riding a single speed bike, without the refuge or benefit of gears, doesn’t help.

The Reason Why

Yet this past year I found myself huffing the gravel road that winds up Bear Creek to the Rainbow Trail more times than ever before. Some climbs start out steep, then mellow as they progress. Some are interspersed with regular lung and leg recharging downhills. Bear Creek just keeps going, getting steeper the higher it goes until, just before the summit, it twists the knife one last time, saving for last the steepest pitch, the name of which decorum prevents me from disclosing in this forum.

You hope for recent rain, which dampens the dust and solidifies the loose rock into something resembling a firm, traction-yielding surface. You hope for a tail wind. You hope for a succession of vehicles ascending the road at the same time, providing the perfect excuse to stop for a breather as they pass. Sadly, such occurrences are few and far between.

There is a small meadow near the top that catches the morning sun. Here is the place to dismount, collapse on the ground in a heap, and metaphorically at least, pop the champagne cork of victory over gravity. Ahead lies the reward for all the exertion—six miles of some of the best single track riding in the valley. The trail winds through a combination of pine and scrub oak, rising and falling with the contour of the land. Toward the end, up a short, deceptively steep slope the trail crests onto another small meadow.

A panoramic view of the valley spreads out before you, town in the foreground, a glimpse of Buena Vista in the middle distance, and defining the western perimeter, the Sawatch Range running all the way to Elbert and Massive at its northern reach. At this point the effort exerted to date becomes worthwhile—time for another dismount, time to sit, stretch and, depending on the season, sip cool water or hot chocolate, savor a snack and contemplate—both this place we live and our place, collectively and individually, as part of a greater whole.

As arduous as the effort expended to get here, balance is found in the anticipation of the coming downhill, the return to the valley floor. Several options present themselves, from road to routes not appearing on any map to trails with inspiring monikers like Blood, and Guts. It is somewhere around now, with legs quietly burning from the exertion, endorphins coursing, that the memory begins to play tricks. What was a couple of hours ago my least favorite climb has now become, with the benefit of hindsight, my favorite.

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Once upon a time on the Mohaka

My boots settled into the soft pea-gravel of the river bed. I stood silently, thighs and calves braced against the steady press of the river, imagining the soles of my feet growing roots, tapping deeper into the earth beneath me, grounding me to this place and time. I’d last stood in the Mohaka several years ago, and with the direction life was taking, who knew how many more until I did so again?

With eyes closed, I inhaled the scents of the river, cool and humid – beech forest and dank vegetation overlaid with a faint hint of sulphur mingled with heather in bloom. Somewhere behind me a pair of native tui, birds whose white throat-ruff saw Europeans call them Parson’s bird, cackled noisily in the bushes along the river.

The roots grew deeper, through the soft earth and clay and volcanic substrate to the bedrock beneath. Then Steve’s voice snapped me from my reverie.

“Oi, Sunshine! Are you gonna cast to the fish, or wait till it stops feeding?”

I returned my attention to the task at hand. Thirty yards upstream, a small rocky point jutted out into the flow as the river made a sweeping curve to my left. The point created a large back eddy, at the bottom of which I stood. A current seam swirled off the tip of the point, and in this seam a brown trout fed freely, rising every thirty seconds or so to take small mayflies from the surface. Steve, a friend who guides anglers and hunters in this part of New Zealand, had concealed himself in the bushes along the bank above where the fish fed, acting as my spotter.

“OK, false cast directly upstream in front of you. When you’ve got enough line out, I’ll let you know. Then drop the fly in front of the fish.”

I stripped line off the reel then began false casting, once letting the line land on the water ahead of me, well away from the fish.

“Quit fishing like an **#!%$ American!” he yelled, stifling a curse under his breath. “Keep the line off the water!”

He was right. Any hint that there was an intruder present would see the fish disappear into the river’s depths. Suitably chastised, I continued to false cast until he gave the word, and I set the fly on the water, directly on the current seam. It was a small fly, riding low on water reflecting the glare of the surrounding bush.

My first cast was short. A rise, well away from my drift. Second cast, this time in the zone. Another rise. I waited a second then struck hard. The fish, hooked, immediately charged for the faster current in the center of the river while I endeavored to raise the rod tip high, to get some leverage against its pull. Still underwater, it turned upstream then leapt clear of the river, slapping down on its flank as it shook from side to side. The line went slack. Up in the bushes, Steve groaned, head in hands.

“Mate, that was a spanking! Welcome home.”

I shook my head as I reeled in my line. The hook was bent out, straightened to a right angle.

“Well, so much for that.” I gently eased first one, then the other, boot from the pea-gravel and turned toward the shore. The tui still cackled, and in response to the gathering heat of the day cicadas had started to rasp, their collective crescendo rising and falling, an aural manifestation of the river’s pulse, of the life force that flows through and around us.

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