Heraclitus Floats the Upper Colorado

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.


Desperately Searching Stoneflies

They have sex appeal, as much as any ungainly, prehistoric looking creature with four wings, six legs and long, probing antenna can, and this time of the year, anglers will go to great lengths to seek them out. And of all the stoneflies, none are sexier than Pteronarcys, the big, hulking salmon flies.

It is a shameless display of duplicity on behalf of the angler, because ultimately its not the stonefly they are really after, but the fish who feed on them – rather like making friends with the plain looking girl in order to get to know her good looking friend.

Just like no one told the bumble bees they shouldn’t be able to fly, adult salmon flies push the limits of physics as it relates to aerodynamics. Their ungainly flight and heavy, clumsy water landings make them irresistible to a trout in the mood for a serious shot of protein.

June is the month when they are most active, and sometimes seeking them out means going to lengths an angler may not normally contemplate, like scaling sheer cliff faces, scrambling loose scree fields, crossing rivers nipple-deep in water so cold it burns, walking miles on uneven boulder fields, just to get yourself to a place where the hatch should, by rights, be.

Except sometimes its not. Sometimes the salmon flies are being coy, not behaving at the behest of the ultimately ignorant angler, instead moving to rhythms and cycles only they are privy to, rhythms and cycles that have served them well for thousands of millennia.

It was still, of course, a great day on the river. Fish were caught, if not on the finger-sized dry flies we’d hoped. Limbs and joints were stretched and contorted, used in ways they don’t get used often enough. Solitude was found, good company enjoyed, and at the end of the day the appetite had been whetted to come back next year, same place, same time, and try again.


High and Dry on the Arkansas

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.


You Take What the River Gives You

“Are you sure you don’t want to put the boat in the garage overnight? It feels like rain, maybe snow.”

Not for the first time in my life, I should have listened to the Voice of Wisdom, or Wife, as she is more frequently known.

“Pfffft. What’s a little rain? It is a boat, after all.”

Next morning I reminded myself of this exchange as I shoveled and swept several inches of heavy, wet snow from the boat, more falling from a leaden sky. Common sense would have dictated pushing the trailer into the garage and going back to bed, but over the years experience has taught me that sense and fishermen often share little in common. In my own defense, I would like to point out that had I not being getting paid for rowing the boat, I would have been back between the sheets in an instant. As a guide however, my motto in such circumstances has always been that if the fishermen are dumb enough to want to go, I’m silly enough to take them – an attitude owing as much to relative poverty as much as anything.

The thing I remind myself in such circumstances is that for me, this is just another day at the office. For the guy who has driven here from Ft Worth or St Louis or worse, Oklahoma City, this is a once or twice a year event and he is not going to let a little snow discourage him – at least for the first half hour, after which the realities of a day spent sitting on a raft in below freezing temperatures often starts to sink in. There is also an element of long-dormant teenage macho that comes to the surface, fly shop bravado that sees the fishermen stand around in a jocular group, reassuring themselves that all is well, and they are not going to let a little snow put them off going fishing, like someone from California would.
We cut a faintly pitying sight at the G Street boat ramp Sunday morning, rigging rods and stowing gear while the snow swirled. Even the kayakers there for the slalom competition seemed to look at us with bemusement. If there was a silver lining to the cloud, it was that the extra moisture had helped to bring the river up from its previous day’s low of 170 cubic feet per second to somewhere around 200. The drought of 2002 served to lower the bar with regard to what was considered a viable water level to conduct commercial float fishing trips, and it seems 2013 is destined to lower it further. That year was the last year I guided commercial whitewater trips on the Ark, and the thing savvy guides learned above all else was that their attitude was the sole determinant on whether or not people had a good time. Some guides carried with them a small black cloud, lamenting the state of the river, while others looked for new ways to have fun and entertain. That year was my best for tips. So far this year, while the monkey on the oars has had to work harder, the fishermen are having as much fun, and catching as many fish, as any other.

By the time we reached the Stock Yard Bridge the clouds and snow flurries had moved on, pushed out of the valley before a frigid six-layer wind that bit at any exposed flesh and made a mockery of accurate casting or mending. At such times one takes solace in the fact that, as a downstream wind, it was pushing us ever closer to the take out, which we reached tired and happy, miraculously right around beer thirty.