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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The Accidental Angler: Doctor’s orders

Terry was from the Texas Panhandle. He never spoke in a rush, each vowel the length of a short story. He was a competent angler, so much so that I often wondered why he bothered to pay for a guide, except to have someone to laugh at his jokes and tie the occasional fly on for him.

Three or four times a season he’d load a couple of rods in his Suburban then head to the mountains, sometimes alone, sometimes with a buddy. One such buddy was Butch. Even in waders, Butch looked and walked like a cowboy, his calloused handshake as firm as his eye contact as we introduced ourselves.

“I’ve been trying to get him to turn his damn phone off since we left Amarilla,” Terry complained. “Damn thing rings every five minutes.”

“I warned you,” said Butch. “The ranch goes to hell in a hand basket without me.”

We headed to the river, and weren’t ten minutes into the float when Butch’s phone rang. Stifling a curse, he set down his rod and fumbled it from a pocket beneath his life jacket.

Good Ol’ Boys

“He did what!!!!……….How in the………well……..tell him it’s coming out of his paycheck. Get the backhoe over there and do the best you can.”

Butch shook his head in resignation and took up his rod once more.

“I told you to turn the darn thing off. How’s me and him supposed to enjoy our day on the river?”

Terry nudged me in the back as he spoke before casting his line toward the bank, landing his hopper a couple of feet shy. He gave it a cursory twitch, waited a few seconds then picked up and cast again.

“Slow down Terry. A little patience goes a long way. Let it sit a bit, maybe twitch it a time or two more.”

“You wanna see the way he drives,” muttered Butch, reaching for his phone as it rang a second time.

“You’re kidding me……those things cost a hundred and fifty each. At this rate, he’s not going to have a paycheck left……”

Terry murmered in my ear. “Oh, did I mention Butch just had one of those defibrillator things put on his heart?”

“No Terry, you didn’t mention that.”

“Darn thing works too. Yesterday, we stopped on the way up to fish one of the creeks. The hike down was a little too much for him, I guess. Kinda lost his balance then it kicked in. He was right as rain in a few minutes, but you might want to keep your eye on him.”

Thanking Terry for the information, I made a mental note to not take what people wrote on their medical waver at face value in the future.

Butch’s phone fell silent. Perhaps peace had come to the cattle business at last, but more likely the cause was drifting into the canyon where cell service was slight to non-existent. Ignorance being the better part of bliss, I decided not to tell him, for two reasons. Firstly, his phone’s silence would hopefully imply the world would still manage to turn without him, and secondly, it would lessen the chance of that other marvel of modern technology, nestled next to his heart, having to work it magic.

“So Butch, how often do you get away from the ranch?” I asked.

Butch grunted. “Only when he drags me away.” He nodded in Terry’s direction. “And when the wife wants to visit the grandkids in Dallas.”

We floated deeper into the canyon. Free from distraction, Butch hooked and landed his first fish, a buttery brown with sparse, vivid spots.

“Now that’s pretty,” he remarked, inspecting the fish as it lay in the net before I released it.

“Damn right it is,” replied Terry. “Just what the doctor ordered.”

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The Accidental Angler: Two miles more to camp…

I scrambled up the lose rock of the bank, slipped off my pack and, sitting with my back against a sun-warmed boulder, looked out across the stream. The ground rose steeply beyond, striated rows of tussock interspersed with stands of bristlecone, aspen and spruce until, near its peak the mountainside sloped vertically to cliffs of decaying granite, squat like the battlements of some ancient fortress, sentinel to the valley it helped define.

Blotches of centuries-old lichen spread across the face of the boulder against which I sat, testament to both the tenacity of life, and the slow creep of time against which my presence that afternoon rated as little more than a transient insult.

Delving into the pack, I withdrew a tin of smoked oysters, a few crackers and a can of double chocolate stout. My back appreciated the support of the boulder behind and while my face and torso soaked up the sun’s warmth, a biting breeze nipped at any flesh left exposed.

The boulder rested on the east side of the stream just below a confluence where a fork flowed from the west, out of a narrow valley tapering toward distant mountains. Another watershed to be noted and saved for a later time.

My body ached gently from hiking and casting and sleeping in the back of my truck on an air mattress that once felt soft and plush, but these days seemed my enemy as much as my friend. For three days I hadn’t communicated with any soul but my own. What thoughts I had bounced around the confines of my head, save a few scribbled on paper, or curses, uttered aloud when outsmarted by a fish or foiled by an errant breeze or inaccurate cast.

I wondered why I did this, why come all this way to suffer discomfort and tie small pieces of feather and fir to the end of a gossamer line and cast it upon a body of water to see what might might be deceived by its presence. Was it the lure of uncertainty sprinkled with occasional confirmation? Some kind of retreat from reality, or a search for it? The sense of reassurance that accompanies the recognition of our own insignificance, or the acknowledgement of the folly of assuming on our shoulders the weight of a world too vast for us to comprehend, let alone attempt to carry?

Perhaps it was all and none of that. Perhaps the moment of quiet contemplation while sitting alongside a gentle stream, back against a boulder while eating oysters and crackers and sipping stout from a can was the point of it all, everything else merely window dressing, the means to this end.

Tempting as it was to stay there and nap against the boulder, the bite of the wind stirred me to action again. There was still two miles more to camp, and a stream to fish along the way.

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The Bother of Fish.

“We’re going after big fish this afternoon. Enough of this little fish nonsense.”

I reached under the seat for my fly box, rummaging through the collection of parachutes and hair wings with feigned indecision despite knowing exactly what I was looking for.

“I’ve only got one of these, so don’t mess up.”

Would you take orders from this man?

I kept my focus on the fly box, knowing eye contact with Andy would cause me to lose the hard-ass facade I was having fun with. I liked Andy. I could tell he’d been nervous at the fly shop that morning, but unlike many anglers who say they want to learn then proceed to ignore any advice you give, he’d tried to incorporate much of what I’d suggested into his technique. I’d told him at lunch he was a lot better angler than he gave himself credit for.

“You’ve got ten casts to show me you can fish this, otherwise I’m taking it back.”

I wondered what his PA or sales team would say if they saw him being ordered around by some guy with a sweat-stained ball cap and five days growth on his chin. I cinched the knot tight and handed him the line.

“I want to see the fly an inch off the bank. I don’t care if you think the water is too shallow, or there’s no fish there, one inch, OK?”

He nodded and began to false cast as I eased the boat out into the current. His first attempt landed a foot out. I waited to see if he would pick up and recast, but he instead shaped to mend.

“Pick it up. You’re a foot shy. You can see the fly, right?”

He nodded and cast again. Eight inches.

“You’re getting closer, but imagine how many fish you’d catch if you cast to where they actually are. Get it in there.”

The next cast hit a rock bank-side and slid into the water.

“Now you’re talking. Keep mending to maintain the drift going as long as you can.”

There was change in the contrast of the water around the fly, a flicker of light in the cobbles, and the fly vanished without any disturbance to the surface.

“Pick it up! Pick it up!”

Half turning, he lifted the rod uncertainly. Following brief tension on the line the fish spat the hook, thrashing momentarily on the surface as it did so.

“Damn. I never would have guessed that was a fish. I didn’t see a thing.”

“Big fish don’t expend an ounce more energy than is necessary. Half the time you set by instinct. Next time, if you sense anything strange—anything—going on around the fly, set the hook. Wait long enough to think about it, it’s too late.”

Three casts later, and the fly nestled against the bank once more. This time the take was a little more obvious, the fish rising and drifting tail-first downstream with the fly before gently sipping it. The hook-up was announced by a huge churning on the surface, showering the rocks and bushes nearby with spray. A couple of minutes later we had the fish in the net, a sixteen-inch brown trout—very respectable for the river and the biggest he’d ever caught. Unhooking it, I lowered the net back into the water and the brown swam free.

Back at the side of the river, I parked the boat and reached into the cooler. One can of beer later, and he was still smiling.

“So, would you rather catch one like that, or half a dozen little ones out in the middle of the river?”

He nodded. I finished my beer.

“Personally, I don’t want my enjoyment of the day to be compromised by messing with too many fish.”

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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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