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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.