A Great Day to Be a Cowboy, Too….

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Thus observed Ed Hillary, and so too did I repeat to myself several times at the bottom of County Road 101, where it meets Highway 50. The little voice within said so with all the conviction of a five year-old trying to convince himself there really is no monster under the bed. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I have a love-hate thing about riding the Rainbow Trail from Bear Creek to Methodist.

The love side of things is easy – just ride the single track. The hate side is pedalling up there. The only thing keeping you going is the promise of what is about to come once you reach the trailhead. To my mind, that part ranks alongside Starvation Creek as the creme de-la creme of local single track – fast, narrow, and not too difficult. The ride to the trail head is another thing altogether. It doesn’t seem to matter how or when you do it – early season or after you’ve a few miles under your belt, from town or starting at the cattle guard, it has you sucking air like someone just kneed you in the ribs. Close to 2000 feet of vertical in six miles, getting steeper, narrower and looser as it goes.

The more realistic, assertive voice inside took over. “This is going to suck, no two ways about it.” I haven’t been riding much this year, and was feeling a little nervous, intimidated even, about the climb. I figured I’d be walking a couple of places. I’ve also found that if I go into the day thinking things are really going to blow, it’s amazing how often they don’t, and events wind up exceeding expectations. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but it is a technique honed from years of guiding fishermen.

Some days I tell myself the whole day is going to be a disaster. The fisherman will doggedly continue to drop his backcast in the face of all evidence to the contrary that not doing so will make the whole process easier and more satisfying. He’ll stare at you blankly when you explain the importance of an aggressive mend, show himself incapable of casting closer than six feet to the bank, miss a dozen fish or more that he didn’t even know he had, tip with all the enthusiasm of a Scotsman down to his last farthing, then go home and tell his buddies how average his guide, and consequently the fishing, was. As it turns out, it is pretty rare to get someone who ticks all those boxes, so at least some part of the day rises above expectation.

Climbs like these go much easier if I can get my breathing in synch with my pedals, and counting the beats, zone out into some kind of Zen-like state. Sometimes a mile or more will pass before I realize that dull fire down below is my quads melting, the strange gasping sound is not an asthmatic squirrel dogging my progress, but my lungs on the verge of imploding. Then I come to the cattle guard, and it starts to get steep. I use the fifteen degree pitches to catch my breath in between the twenties. I tell myself such exercise is good for me. I wonder if Ed Hillary ever rode this trail. Just when I think I’m going to pass out, there stands before me the last obstacle to the trail head – SOB Hill. Summoning my last reserves of character, I tell my legs to keep pumping easy, tell my hands to quit gripping the bars like I’m trying to choke the life out of a python, tell my lungs to keep rattling, and somehow I’m there.

A last deep inhale, and we commenced the climb. This time of the year, as the sun tracks lower in the sky, the morning air is infused with softer hues, the contours of the land are laid bare while up on high, stands of aspen are already ablaze with color. While the early morning sun held the heat of August, the air was cool and crisp in the shade of the trees lining the road. As usual as August turns to September, I wondered how is it that summer passes so quickly? Although part of me is looking forward to the slowing down of mind and body that comes with winter, another part is not ready in any way, shape, or form. All I hope is that when winter comes, it is a big one.

Two thirds of the way up, we pulled to the side to let a rancher coming the other way pass by, driving his cattle down hill from their summer range. He reined his horse across from us and tipped his hat. He looked the quintessential cowboy – steel-grey hair flecked with silver, mustache to match, pale blue eyes and a mouth creased with a smile that hinted at the truth of that moment, that it was a good day to be in the mountains. Lord knows ranching is a tough way to make a living, and days such as this, in the saddle in such a place, must go some way to making up for the 3:00 am calving call-outs in January, praying for moisture, or the latest regulation that always seems to stand between you and common sense.

“You guys see any more cows on your way up?”

We shook our heads. “Just these ones here. Lovely morning”

He sat for a few seconds and took in the view and nodded. “Well, you have a great day.”

We wished him the same and recommenced our quest. I discovered a couple of things on the remainder of the climb. Whatever those cows were eating up there, a little more protein wouldn’t have gone amiss. It was uncanny how often their chosen line on the way down turned out to be the same as mine on the way up, and you don’t realize how much cow shit sticks between the knobs of your tires until you start going down hill again.

I am pleased to report that my doom and gloom tactic worked to a tee. I reached the top feeling like I could have climbed another mile if necessary. I sat on a log and inhaled a Cliff Bar and a bottle of Gatorade, and stared off along the tree lined single track as it disappeared around the next corner. Ten miles or so of that to come. The climb was worthwhile. And the cowboy was right. It was indeed a great day to be in the mountains.


A Good Day to Stay Indoors?

It is a fact that the best days to find fish rising to blue wings are often the best days to stay indoors, close to the hearth. They are those days when a sullen blanket of grey smothers the peaks and a stinging wind drives flurries of snow that swirl and patter amongst the bare willows along the river bank and softly hiss at their demise on the water. They are those days when the river flows grey and metallic through a landscape still barren and brown, branches naked to the breeze, raised skyward like bony supplicants. They are those days where non-fishing spouses look at you with a mix of concern and bemusement that never dims over the years as you announce you are heading out to the river for bit. Truth to tell, they’re probably glad just to get you out of the house.

There is something noble and tragic about the mayfly, a brief flowering of beauty then demise that in the big scheme of things is not too far removed from that of our own mortal coil. Despite the forces of nature arrayed against them, despite being at the mercy of wind and water and silent predation, they follow their script with the single-mined purpose and quiet dignity that uncovers heroism in the everyday. I wonder at times if they are in some way aware of the danger that surrounds them as they bob and pirouette down the river, their sail-like wings fragile and buffeted by the breeze.

The fish, on the other hand, seem to harbor no such thoughts of sympathy or admiration for their plight, gorging themselves on the steady stream of protein that comes to them like hors d’ouvres on a conveyor belt. The challenge for the fisherman on such days is to be able to accurately cast, and then identify, a tiny grey fly on a grey river under grey skies with a swirling wind scuffing the surface this way and that. Perhaps once in five casts you see your fly, the rest of the time you play the zone, setting the hook to any rise that might be near where you think your fly is. Like a slugger swinging at fastballs, most you fan on, but every now and then you connect.

After a couple of hours, it was time to head home. The hatch was still in full swing, the fish still rising, but I’d seen enough. A particularly strong gust of wind almost blew me off my bouldery perch into the river, and I somehow contrived to break my fly off on a back cast. Faced with the choice of retying or heading home, I chose the latter, leaving the river to its business.


Diary of a Dry Fly Tragic

While there is an element of optimism inherent in any style of recreational fishing, I like to think it is heightened amongst the ranks of dry fly tragics. The dark arts of nymphing may be viewed as an acceptable, at times necessary, method of fooling fish in the long, cold winter months where navel gazing and bouts of introspection come to the fore. But spring is the time for optimists, and in fishing circles, none shines brighter than the dry fly angler.

At least that’s what I told myself driving to the river one recent afternoon, unseasonably warm and typically breezy. My sense of certainty in the goodness of my quest had been heightened earlier in the day, on a family hike with our new pup along a riverside trail. While she charged and cavorted, barking at the strangeness of the water, spooked yet continually drawn to it, I was scanning the far banks, searching the seam lines under the willows. My vigilance was rewarded with the sight of a couple of risers, not a prolific number by any stretch, but enough to convince that at least there existed a few fish who were, like me, looking up.

There’s always a nagging doubt when fishing dry flies on a slow day, as to what might be going on in the river’s depths. Does the lack of feeding activity above the surface mirror that of below, or is there an orgy of feeding of catholic proportions  going on that I’m missing out on due to stubborness and a deluded sense of superiority?

I’ve found it pays not to think about that too much. Instead, I pressed on upriver, and after fifteen minutes caught my first fish, coincidentally aided by the very wind that had made accurate placement of my flies difficult. Drifting the upper reaches of a pour-over, where a side dumper emptied into the main body of the river, an errant gust blew my flies a couple of feet to the left of where I’d intended. Despite thinking the water too slow and shallow to hold a fish at this time of the year, I resisted the urge to pick up and cast again and was rewarded with the nice, aggressive take of a lovely rainbow, charging about under water like my pup on the river bank earlier.

There followed a long drought, drifting my pmx trailing a caddis over the top of some lovely structure – riffles, pockets and eddie lines – but the sense of doubt didn’t return. I’d caught a fish on a dry, teased it from its world briefly to mine, and the rest of the afternoon could pass by fish-less for all I cared. And it nearly did. Late, the sunlight softening and the air calming, I spotted a fish rising in a glassy run against a sheltered, grassy bank. Several changes of flies were required, each smaller than the last, until it finally rose to a sprout baetis, technically a dry fly although some nymph fishermen will tell you 75 percent of it hangs below the surface.

Two hours on the river, two fish landed, beer in the fridge. It was time to head home. I have no idea how many I’d have caught with a nymph – maybe less, maybe more, but since when has counting been the point?


The Dog Days of March

In a way I feel cheated. Cold spring days battling wind, snow and sleet on the river are as much a part of the fishing calendar as the t-shirt weather of August, the glory of fall in the high country or tromping through the snow to nymph January’s noon-to-two window.

I enjoy the cocoon-like feel of wrapping up in fleece and goretex, the knowledge that there is a warm hearth and hot shower at day’s end making the difference between gutsing it out and despair. Such days help connect you to the cycle of birth and rebirth, as you witness the river and its inhabitants awaken from their seasonal slumber.

So I’m not too sure what to make of this spring. There is a surreal quality about floating the Ark in shirtsleeves in March, the fish as active as it were a summer’s day. I guess I would feel more comfortable if there was more snow in the mountains, but it is also a reminder that you take what nature, through the river, gives you. It seems a waste to not enjoy it for what it is on account of what might happen later in the season.

Maybe April will revert to type, and we’ll see the peaks shrouded again, and the blue wings blown into the nooks and crannies along the rocky shore where the fish sit and sip while flurries swirl. Or maybe we’ll continue with the balmy temperatures and the fish feeding like its July. Either way, might as well get out and enjoy, for who knows what tomorrow brings?


Fresh Powder, Dry Flies

I called Kym from Monarch around the middle of the day for a weather report, trying to decide if I should stay where I was, taking face shots of fresh powder in the trees, or head down to the river to fish for the afternoon. “I’d say it would be a good time to fish. It looks like its snowing all around, but down here its overcast and calm. Not too cold either.”

Bless her. While she may occasionally roll her eyes in pity and perplexity at my fishing escapades, she knows good hatch weather when she sees it. Loading my board up in the back of my truck, I headed down the pass, a quick change into waders at home, and off to the river. My mission was to catch a fish on a dry fly. It was March 1, after all, enough of nymphing already.

It seemed like a great day for a midge hatch, so I figured if I wanted to find some surface feeders, I’d need to locate a spot where the water was slow and deep, and sheltered from any wind that might blow a hatch off the water. There’s a place just below town that meets those criteria, and has delivered for me in the past. I’d not been standing on the bank two minutes when I saw the first rise, quickly followed by several others.

So far, so good. The next step was to actually catch one. My experience of fishing such situations is that with all that calm, clear, slow moving water, the fish can be fairly finicky, not to mention spooky. After ten minutes of no action on a parachute gnat, I tied on a small Griffiths gnat behind, using the parachute to sight my flies in the gloom, avoiding using floatant on the Griffiths to get it down in the surface film.

Straight away, the action picked up, and over the next half hour I landed four nice rainbows, and got spanked by several more. By this stage, it was late afternoon, my feet were cold, the clouds were lowering and wisps of snow swirled about. Time to head home to the hearth and contemplate a red letter day – fresh powder in the morning, dry flies in the afternoon.