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?

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Robins, Harleys and Fly fishing

Never mind the longer days, warmer temperatures and the return of the robins – the surest harbinger of spring is the sight of Harley Davidsons back out on the highway. That, and me getting a hankering to go fishing again. I don’t mind admitting, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to winter fishing. If an angler is defined as a jerk on one end waiting for a jerk on the other, this particular jerk doesn’t enjoy freezing his ass off for the privilege.
The other day however, the sun was shining, the air calm, and I decided it was time to dig out my gear, head down canyon and reintroduce myself to the river. There’s a spot below Badger Creek that I’ve often admired from the raft, but never taken to the time to linger and work it from the shore, and this seemed like a great opportunity. The canyon here is wide, gradient mellow and the riverbed benefits from longer exposure to the sunlight.
Experience having taught me that goretex waders provide as much frictional resistance as a toboggan on a snow-covered bank, I walked until I found a place where I could pick my way down in the footsteps of another, prior angler. Tying on a couple of nymphs, a big stone and a small flashback pheasant tail, I began working my way upstream, fishing the edges of the seams and the drop offs where the river bed changes from rocks to deep, inscrutable green. It’ll require a few more weeks of warmer weather before the fish begin to shake off their mid-winter torpor. Takes tend to be slow and gentle, so I was careful to set slow and gentle to the merest stutter of hesitation of the indicator.
Over the next half hour I was rewarded with four fish on the end of my line, two of which I touched, the others managing to slip the hook with a combination of their sluggish cold-water writhing and my cold-fingered ineptitude All this played out under the watchful eye of a grey jay, alighted atop a pinon on the far bank. He sat and watched my progress up river, before chuckling his amusement and flying off, disappearing into the tangle of willows on the opposite bank, bringing to mind Bede’s analogy of the life of man as that of a flying sparrow, entering in at one door and quickly out another, briefly “out of the wintry storm and into it again.”
I came to a slow pool with a gentle back eddy, the low angling sun sparkling in reflection on the undersides of the over-hanging rocks, a cluster of midges huddled in the sunlight, flitting and skimming and doing whatever it is midges do on a late winter’s afternoon. Three fish finned and hovered on the sandy bottom beneath them, disinterested in the meagre protein on offer on the surface, instead preferring to stay down deeper in the water column, feeding on whatever nymphs the gentle back current brought their way. They tolerated my stonefly and pheasant tail for about three casts, before they were gone, and it was just me and the midges.
Not wishing to stick around for any more cries of derision from the grey jay, I wound up my line and headed back up the embankment to the truck, mission accomplished, another season begun.
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Three days, 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.

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Carp Fishing In Old Mexico

“I’m going fishing tomorrow. San Luis Lakes

Kym regarded me over the top of her beer. “There are fish there?”

“Kinda. Carp.”

Even her sunglasses couldn’t hide the look of amusement in her eyes. “Poor thing. You must be desperate.”

Through no fault of their own, carp don’t enjoy the best reputation. Understandable when you’re the cellar dweller, the janitor of your domain, picking over everyone else’s left-overs. Yet the last few years have seen a change in attitude to carp among fly fisherman – some even openly admit to deliberately targeting them. They grow big and strong, and if you close your eyes and imagine real hard, you can almost tell yourself you’re bonefishing.

When Pinky suggested we go carping, I thought what the hell. He, Caveman and Bill had been down to the lakes a few days previous, enjoying great success. It’d been a month since I’d had a rod in my hand, and with snowmelt and runoff everywhere I wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity to fish.

Crossing over Poncha Pass, you enter a different world. The San Luis Valley, the largest alpine valley in the world, opens out before you, the highway running south straight as an arrow, through Old Mexico. People here still scratch a living out of the earth as they have done for centuries, Utes, Hispanics and Anglos. It is a place where for less than the price of a new pick-up, a person can buy a big square of land to get away from it all. You just need to make peace with the wind, dust, heat and cold, and have an affinity for miles of greasewood and rabbitbrush.

Rigging our rods lakeside, I took in the view. The Sangres stretched north to south as far as the eye could see. Drought has dropped the lake level to where you can wade from one side to the other, a half mile or more, without getting in over your hips. The mud on the shoreline has been baked to a parched crust, the lake’s waters a milky brown, tinged blue under the cloudless sky. There is something serene, something other worldly, about the place. It has juju, a presence. It’s one of the few places in the world where you stand an equal chance of catching a fish, or getting abducted by an alien.

Subsurface, the lake’s inhabitants dwell in a world of murky twilight to pitch black. Visibility is little more than six inches. Stepping out into the water takes faith – it’s like stepping out into a cloud. There is no measure for depth, the smooth, muddy lake bed reassuring you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

With no structure to cast to, no current save that generated by the fickleness of the wind, you look for “nervous water” to betray the possibility of a fish – somewhere your gut tells you there is activity – bubbles on the surface, a dark splotch or swirl in the milky gloom, a shadow near the surface, perhaps real, perhaps a trick of  wind and light. If ever a setting typifies the optimism of fly fishing, this is it. Cast retrieve, cast retrieve, move a little, scan the water, cast retrieve. You fall into a kind of self hypnosis. There’s plenty of time to let your mind wander.

Random thoughts flit through your head: what happened to that girl you had your first crush on in middle school? What is it about politicians and their penises? Why is part of the lake’s surface is rippled by wind, but not moving closer? Then a tug on the end of your line wakes you from your reverie. You feel your fly come loose from whatever it was chewing on it, and let out an expletive heard across the other side of the lake. Spanked again, dammit. Concentrate.

By the end of the day, gorgeous and cloudless, I’d walked about two miles back and forth across the lake, on my feet for six hours, all for four strikes and no hook ups. Pinky fared about the same, while Caveman carried the banner with a fish landed and several more broken off. With a couple of hours of video footage of me staring around and casting to nothing, I had to pirate these photos of the previous trip from Pinky. Despite the lack of success, I’d go back in a heartbeat.

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