November, November

The phone rang. It was Mr Pink on the other end. “Wanna float?’ he asked. I looked out the window, dubious to say the least. The trees were bending before an unrelenting wind, tumbleweed tumbled, even the birds were walking.

“It’s a little breezy don’t you think? I replied. Menacing grey clouds enveloped the Sawatch Range and were fingering their way down between the peaks of the Sangres. A great day to reacquaint myself with my hearth, I thought. One of the reasons why you live a few minutes from a river is so that you don’t need to venture out on days like these.

“Nah, it’s nice down here – barely a breeze, and the sun’s shining.” Pink lives on the river in Howard, in many ways something of a parallel universe to Salida, separated not by a wafer thin membrane, but a few miles of blacktop. “We’ll float from my place to Vallie Bridge. Should only take a couple of hours.”

Not for the first time, my wife regarded me that look that is equal parts amusement and pity as I announced my plans for the afternoon. “You’re doing what?” I shrugged,and seeking respite from her gaze, headed for the refuge of the garage to dig out my waders and gear. The day before, I’d biked Cottonwood , sections of the trail blanketed in six inches of snow, so how bad could it be?

As it turned out, Pink was right. While an occasional wind gust rattled through the cottonwoods, sending dead leaves scratching and scurrying across the ground, the sun rode high over the clouds on the peaks, bathing the river in a late fall glow.

As we pushed away from shore, it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d floated the river in November. Does an aging memory play tricks, or is November the new October, weather-wise? Either way, it was great to be out there again, feeling the motion of the river beneath the boat, trying to guess where a hungry fish might reside on such an afternoon.

While the activity wasn’t prolific, we each felt the weight of a fish on the end of the line, enough stragglers camped along the edges of eddies and riffles to make the afternoon worthwhile, a success by any measure.

All in all, you’ve got to love living in a place where, even when there is snow on the ground, you can mountain bike one day, and float fish the next. Thanks for the call Pink.


Three Says, Three Fish

Three days, twenty six miles hiked, three fish landed, two broken off. Sounds a bit like the bare bones of a New Zealand fishing expedition, rather than an incursion into the Colorado high country. But such was the outcome from a recent foray to the Flat Tops Wilderness Area with friend and fellow angler “Caveman” Potter.

Like many angling expeditions however, the bare bones of catch rates only tell part of the story. They don’t tell of the stunning beauty of our surroundings, of eating enough bacon to make even Lewis and Clark wince, of a decent dent put in a cooler full of beer, not to mention a couple of bottles of bourbon. They don’t tell of nights under the stars, cold and clear, of the simple pleasure of day’s end, easing weary bones into a camp chair with a cup holder and good conversation.

Despite having lived here for close to twenty years, there are still parts of Colorado that remain a mystery to me, and until this trip the White River drainage was one of them. The White rises out of the Flat Tops Wilderness, flowing west and north through the towns of Meeker and Rangely before emptying into the Green River near Ouray in Utah. I’d heard several stories from other anglers about great fishing in that area, and the fact that it is located on roads less traveled increased its appeal.

Half the fun of these kinds of trips lies in the anticipation, poring over maps, tracing contour lines and drainages, looking for places where the rivers and roads go their separate ways. Hence our decision to largely forego the more well-documented fishing opportunities on the main stem of the White, and focus on the tributaries.

Many things about the conditions reminded me of the New Zealand backcountry. Spruce and scrub oak grew thick down to the river’s edge, necessitating multiple stream crossings and in-river wading, the water cold and gin-clear. The substrate, a mottled mix of greys, browns and reds provided the perfect camouflage for a fish that wants to remain hidden. And not another soul to be seen.

The constant gradient of the river meant quality holding water was relatively sparse. We stalked our way carefully upriver, taking turns casting to the likely spots – the inside of a bend, the eddy behind a larger boulder mid-stream, the quiet of an occasional deep pool. These places were few and far between – sometimes we’d wade a quarter of a mile or more between casts. Caveman had his game on more than me, at least doubling my catch and break-off rate. Yet each night we’d regain camp, weary, thirsty and hungry, and there was no debate about whether we should move on to greener pastures, friendlier water.

I cannot think of more beautiful place I have fished, and the lure of what was up around the next bend kept calling us back each day. On the last evening, getting back to camp as the sun dipped below the ridgeline, we encountered a cowboy, saddling up a pack horse for a trip into an elk camp.

“How’s the fishing?” he asked

“Slow, but man, it’s beautiful up there,” I replied.

“How far up did you get?”

“About seven miles.”

“Doesn’t get good ’till about ten.”

I’ll take him at his word, but that’ll have to wait for next year.


Fishing the High Country

There’s a small stream up at the head of the valley that I like to visit once or twice a year. The combination of high altitude climate and runoff mean it is usually later in the year, rather than earlier, when I head up there. I like small streams. There’s an intimacy to the fishing experience that you don’t find on larger bodies of water, yet the lessons learned on a small stream easily translate to bigger rivers. Big or small, fish or rivers, their basic requirements remain the same: food, shelter, and more calories taken in than expended.

This particular stream is the outflow of a lake, meandering through a meadow laden with willows and wildlife – I’ve encountered fox, elk, beaver and deer. Half the stretch I fish, about a mile and a half in total, flows through private land. The first time I asked for permission, the rancher looked at me in surprise. After a few seconds of silence, during which I wondered if I’d managed to offend him, he replied “Sure. Its just, no one’s ever asked before.” Now we have an understanding. He knows my truck, and once in a while he finds a twelve pack on his doorstep.

There’s lots to like about fishing small streams. For starters, its easy to figure out where the fish are likely to lie – anywhere. While the bigger ones will naturally gravitate to the best places – insides of bends, undercut banks – the smaller ones don’t need much shelter to hide behind. A small rock in the middle of a riffle, a little pocket against the bank will suffice. You can pretty much cast anywhere you need to, and a single dry fly will usually suffice. In fact, often it is the only way you can fish. The need to tuck your fly under overhanging willows or cut banks often precludes a dropper, prone as it is to tangling and snagging. Fish that live this high, in these harsh surroundings, can’t afford to be as selective as their big river cousins. Get a good drift, and they’ll pretty much rise to anything you throw out there.

Another thing to like is the surprise of the catch. It could be a brown, it could be a rainbow, it could be a brookie, it could be a cutt. It could be four inches long, it could be fourteen. There’s the enthusiasm with which these fish patrol their domain, feeding aggressively on whatever floats by. Big or small, once hooked, they will head for the nearest logjam, rootball or undercut. Battling a small fish with a two weight rod on a stream ten feet wide is in many ways as exciting and challenging as a sixteener on the Arkansas.

And last but not least, there is the overarching peacefulness of the surroundings. Far from any highways, the mountains are closer, the smells and sounds of the forest more prevalent, the air clearer and cleaner.

Its almost time to say adieu to the high country for another year. Hopefully I’ll have time for one more trip up there before it is too late. Temperatures are dropping below freezing each night, the ground is carpeted in yellows and golds, and it won’t belong until the fish are living under ice, theirs a world of darkness and torpor, until spring sets them free once more.


Farewell to the Canyon

We kicked back on the boat, toasting the day’s first fish to the net – a lovely brown, buttery yellow underneath, silver flanks flecked with spots of black and red. The sun had recently crossed the yard arm on the east coast, removing any moral dilemma, in my mind at least, concerning beer as a morning refreshment.

The sky was an jumbled patchwork of blue and grey, the whiff of moisture in the air. The sun, angling low, reflected silver metallic off the river’s surface. Looking downstream, I watched a group of six merganzas working their way steadily upstream toward us. Keeping to the shallows, they swam with their heads submerged, every few seconds popping up to take air, shaking the water from their crests, before resuming their breakfast quest. Occasionally they would dive from view to re-emerge twenty or thirty feet away, seemingly moving as effortlessly underwater as they did on top.

Approaching the boat, they gave us a wide, respectful berth, murmuring softly among themselves, continuing upriver. They had the look of siblings, doubtless hatchlings this spring, now grown and turned loose into the wide world. Taking the skills learned from their devoted, now departed mother, those that manage to survive the coming winter will no doubt return next spring, to sire and raise young of their own.

Fall is the season for melancholy – how quickly summer passes. This part of the river, a couple of weeks ago a hive of energy and activity, was now quiet, deserted, at least of human activity. The first hint of gold was evident amongst the trees and bushes lining the river, and a slight chill permeated the air. It felt good to be able to float this far up river so late in the season, on account of the higher than normal flows.

As we moved on downriver, the sky changed its patchwork to a solid overcast, the peaks to the west dark under the lowering sky. The fishing improved the further we floated into the canyon, the fish active on the surface, busy taking dry flies with abandon, driven no doubt by sensing the need to fatten for the oncoming spawn, then winter. We lunched on a gravel bar, enjoying the silence and climbed to the top of some nearby boulders for a birds eye view of our surroundings. A movement caught my attention below. A great horned owl, apparently as startled by our presence as we of hers, lifted off from among the rocks along the rivers edge and flew silently to the cliffs, landing a safe distance away to observe the interlopers, dark eyes in a full-moon face.

Late afternoon, as the boat nudged the shore of the take out, the rain began to fall. Thickening all day, their load too heavy to contain any longer, the clouds began to release their precious moisture onto the valley floor. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day. As we drove back towards civilization, I was able to put my finger on why the mood of the day had been so singular. For a stretch of the river that in the summer can see in excess of 400 boats and several thousand people, we had seen not another soul. Only once previous can I recall this happening.

It was without doubt the most beautiful day I have spent on the Arkansas. It was mid-May, 1994, and a couple of guys had booked a rowing instructional. Despite heavy cloud blanketing the mountains, and the forecast for snow later in the day, they wanted to go. By the time we reached the entrance to the canyon, fat flakes fluttered down out of the monochromatic sky, settling the landscape, dissolving into the river with a constant soft, audible hiss. Our world was cloaked in white, the rocks in the river islands of pearl and grey against the iron green of the river. Not a creature stirred, not a breath of wind ruffled the river’s surface. By the time we reached the take out, and the grateful warmth of our vehicle, a foot of snow carpeted the canyon, and icicles hung from the boat’s rigging. I felt we had been blessed, privilege to a scene, a side of the river, not normally shared.

Back at the shop this recent time, we learned the river level had been dropping throughout the day. Come morning, it would be too low to run. It had been a perfect day, a farewell to summer, and time to leave the canyon and its inhabitants to settle in to their approaching winter slumber.


Missed Fishing, Missed Fish….

My record for missing fish stands at nine in a row. Bad enough I know, but I was guiding at the time. It was during the caddis hatch ten or so years ago. A sunny spring day when the caddis were just starting to hatch in earnest, and the fish, not yet sated, were pursuing the bounty with aggressive abandon.

The lady I was guiding, Samantha, was having difficulty getting the timing of her hook set right. The situation wasn’t helped by the speed with which the fish were hitting the flies on the surface. When a caddis hatches, it rises from the bottom of the river, often riding an air bubble to the top, wings fully developed and ready to fly. Breaking through the surface film, it is off, like a rat out of an aquaduct, to quote Brian’s mother.

The fish know this, and know too that if they want to have caddis for dinner, they’d better be quick. Accordingly, you have to adjust your reaction time to the rhythm of the fish. Having missed several takes, in exasperation Samantha turned to me, handing me the rod. “You do it, show me how.”

It was then I went 0 for 9 over the next five minutes. Handing the rod back to her, I shrugged and suggested the river was telling us we needed to break for a beer rather than let the humiliation continue.

This time of the year, the takes tend to be a little more languid. Fish are seeing and feeding on a lot of terrestrials. The conveyor belt passing over their heads carries lots of hoppers, beetles and ants, creatures not meant to be in the water, usually inept and helpless when they are. Fish know they have more time, so leisurely inspect their prey before committing.

In this situation, the challenge lies in not setting the hook too early, thereby pulling the fly out of a still open mouth. You get to watch the fish rise up to inspect the fly, sometimes drifting downstream with it, nudging it, before taking or refusing. The bigger the fish, the more time they tend to take. You need to discipline yourself to wait.

In New Zealand, it’s called the “God Save The Queen” rule. Downunder, until they sense something is wrong with their world, the bigger fish do everything slowly and with deliberation. No calorie of energy is expended unnecessarily. A fish rising to a dry fly will sometimes inspect it for five or ten seconds of more before deciding to take or refuse. I’ve seen them open their mouths around a fly, then drift backwards downriver for several yards, mulling their options, before backing away and returning to their station.

When they do take, it is usually so slow and deliberate that the fisherman, knees shaking in anticipation, must discipline him or herself to wait until the fish is back below the surface, mouth firmly shut, before reacting. Hence the mantra “God Save The Queen” before setting the hook.

All of this is a rather round about way of saying that on the day in question, it took me a little while to get my mojo working. For the first twenty minutes or so, and at regular intervals thereafter, I couldn’t hook a fish to save myself. I’ll put it down to lack of match practice – my other job has kept me from the river for most of this summer, which given the state of the economy over the last few years is a good thing, I guess – and keep telling myself that it just wouldn’t be as much fun if you hooked them all.