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.


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