Spring cleaning

Friday afternoon found me in my garage in full pottering mode, peeling away the layers of stuff that had settled on top of my raft since it last saw the light of day, sometime back in November. Outdoor furniture, snowboard, skis, boots, coolers, camping gear and various articles of clothing had all found a home there over the dark days of winter. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does she seem to reject the notion of a smooth, uncluttered surface serving a beneficial purpose to the universe.

The stimulus of all this activity was, of course, the strengthening call of the river as the days lengthen and the temperature warms. I’m not much one for winter angling. Hauling a fish from the depths of it’s seasonal slumber, torpid and sluggish, frozen finger tips and slipping on sheet ice doesn’t appeal that much to me, not when there are books to read and fireplaces to sit next to. Like the fish, I need a break from the game. If we were meant to be out on the river during the winter months, there’d be some kind of divine signpost, like a stonefly hatch in January.

Spring is another matter, however. There is promise in the air – promise of warmer, greener days, of fish moving from the depths to the shallows, where they can be reached without recourse to the dark arts of weight and indicators. Once the layers of stuff had been removed, it was time to strip down to the bottom of things for a spring clean – removing dry boxes and dry bags, vacuuming silt and sand, picking out discarded tippet, dropped flies, rod tubes, bottle caps and crushed beer cans – the detritus that accumulates in a working fishing boat.

The funnest part is going through my fishing pack, restocking leaders and tippet, floatant and fly boxes. When it comes to flies, it is a truism that what you have the least of is what works the best. Restocking favorites, it is difficult to look at a hopper or stimulator and not imagine it slapping onto the water amongst the grass of an overhanging bank before disappearing in a boil of water, or at a parachute adams and not see it settling gently onto a bubble line and pirouetting helplessly on the current where mouths and fins pockmark the surface.

Fly boxes sorted, I dragged out my camera and sifted through the accumulated clips also, looking for snapshots of springtimes past. My favorite days on the river are those occasional spring days where the sky is grey and lowering, a brooding ceiling that shrouds the mountains and promises moisture, occasionally shedding tendrils of cloud that break free and reach earthward. Bare willows point heavenward, bending before the breeze like bony supplicants and corn snow swirls, pattering softly off raft and clothing, and I’m wrapped snug and warm in a cocoon of fleece, gloves and goretex. In the lee of the banks the blue wings huddle, upright wings buffeted by the breeze, flecks of dark olive against the metallic grey of the water. Flights of swallows swirl in apparent chaos until their method is discerned, working their way slowly upriver into the wind picking bugs off the surface before turning and wheeling back downwind to start again. There isn’t another soul out on the river, and the reward for braving the elements on such a day can be some of the best dry fly fishing of the year.

So I’m officially ready to be back out there again, mentally, physically and logistically. Now, if we could just ditch these sunny days for some cool, threatening overcast, I’d really be happy.

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There’s nothing decent here

We sat in camp chairs, sipping beer and a marg, reflecting on the last couple of days. Fish often enough and every now and then the stars align – weather, location, company, circumstance – to create an experience tinged with magic. The day’s last sun brushed the cliffs of the Flat Tops with hues of orange and pink, the perfect accompaniment to the golds and reds of the aspens on their lower reaches.

I pulled the collar of my down jacket tighter around my neck, marveling again at the temperature swings that are part and parcel of a fall day in the mountains. A pot of stew bubbled to the stove’s soft hiss, and we talked of how good a hot tub would feel right about now to fifty-something year old muscle and bone.

We’d caught a bunch of fish, mainly brookies with olive bodies, neon purple spots and orange and white tipped fins, cutts with flanks of gold and the occasional brown, spotted and buttery in the crystal clear water. They’d taken dry flies throughout both days, some aggressively, others with a sip so gentle you almost doubted they were there.

Right around then, he walked into camp, all boots, buckles and some kind of pistol on his hip that he made sure we’d see. Touching the brim of his hat, he asked for an axe. “Looks like it might get chilly this evening. I need to chop some wood, and seem to have left mine behind.”

I looked past him, down hill to where he was camped. Truck, trailer, ATV, full camp kitchen kitchen, expedition sized tent, a Cabela’s salesperson’s dream. “Sorry mate, we’re not doing a fire.” I’ve taken plenty of guys like this fishing – so much gear to keep track of, they inevitably leave behind something vital to proceedings.

He looked around as if to satisfy himself as to the veracity of my reply. “How’s the fishing?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “I was up here earlier on in the year, didn’t catch anything decent.”

Caveman looked up for the first time. “What’s decent mean to you?” I was glad he was only on his first marg. Wars have started over less.

He shrugged. “You know…. decent.” He held his hands some vague distance apart then tapped the pistol on his hip.”In case I see any blue grouse. You know blue grouse? Gonna get me some of them bastards.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” replied Cave. “Nothing decent up here.”

The pot bubbled in the silence. I reconfirmed our lack of an axe, and he turned and headed back down the hill. The first stars shone to the east, the sky turning a deeper indigo. I chuckled and reached for another beer. Hopefully he’d remember to leave the safety catch on when he tucked his pistol under his pillow that night.

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Lucky We Brought Beer

Warning: Not many fish were caught during the making of this video.

At an average of 3000 – 4000 fish per mile, you’d think they’d be more plentiful than the rocks on the river bed, but sometimes they can be as hard to find as a politician with his hand in his own pocket at election time. Or so it proved to Caveman and I the other day.

Naturally, with a pastime not short on intangibles and variables, there is no corresponding shortage of excuses either. ‘When in doubt, blame the weather’ is a particular favorite, and the last refuge of many a fishing guide. It can always be too hot, or too cold, or too windy, or too something. In reality it often boils down to the fact that on some days, the fish are reading a different book than you, and there is not a lot you can do about it.

All things considered, the river has held up really well this year from a recreational point of view. The last time the fishery experienced similar low flows throughout the summer was in 2002. This was also the summer a seven fold increase in the number of fish over 14 inches was recorded. Less current means fish can spread out over more of the riverbed, resulting in decreased competition for the prime real estate along the edges. More calories go into growing than battling the current and other fish. Generally mid to late August are the Dog Days, with fish hunkering down during the day, awaiting nightfall to get active, and the warmer water temperatures this year have exacerbated this.

Slow days are the ones you hope you brought enough beer. Fortunately, I’ve always believed that when it comes to stocking the cooler, plan for the worst. Its better to have a couple left at the take-out than being two guys eyeing up the last one with three miles still to float. Slow days are when the memories are generated watching time pass anchored in a back eddy or parked beneath the shade of a bridge or cottonwood, BS-ing.

Slow days also make you really fish. Working extra hard to find a feeder, you’ll try different flies and techniques, fishing fast water and slow, shallow and deep, dead drifts and twitches. It also demands extra concentration when you are the recipient of only one or two strikes in an hour. Morale can plummet and self -doubt seep in when you miss those rare opportunities. There are days when the river, and the fish, flatter us, so it is only fitting that there should be an equal number where they humble us as well. If at the end of the day, you’ve more flies lost than fish landed, its fair to say you’ve probably been served a dose of humility, along with a desire to come back and try to even up the ledger.

But the true point of the day is not how many fish or flies were caught or lost, but recognizing the privilege of living in a place that supports such luxuries as fishing for fun ,and the little cubes of ice you buy in a bag that help keep the beer cold. That, and a special word of recognition to shuttle drivers, without whom we’d all be stuck in an eddy somewhere, eyeing the last can.

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The Bother Of Fish

Sooner of later, it comes down to this: How much do you want to be bothered by fish? For that matter, how much bothering do you wish to inflict on them? There’s all sorts of flies and combinations you can tie on that will, in all likelihood, lead to a greater number of fish in the net – bead heads and double bead heads, multi-fly rigs, split shot and indicators, all of which are designed to help the fisherman get down and dirty in the fish’s world.

Yet there is little more guaranteed to interrupt the flow of thoughts, conversation and PBR on the river than the constant tugging of fish on the end of your line. This is where dry flies come in. You select just one, preferably the gaudier and more outrageous the better, something that, were you to encounter a live specimen resembling the one tied to the end of your line, you’d cross the street to avoid it. Neon colored body, legs like tentacles, sized to the dimensions of a rodent or small child.

You cast it to the furthest reaches of the river, those thin margins where the liquid world laps gently at the solid. Throw such a fly out there, you know its going to take a special fish to mess with it. One that’s hungry, possibly a little ticked off at the intrusion, ambitious, on the larger side of normal and actively feeding, rather than minding its own business on the bottom of the river before being rudely hauled to the surface. With this warmer weather and low flows, fish needing a break from the stresses of fish life will tend to head to the bottom of the river during the day, leaving those still full of beans to hang out on the edges and in the shallows, predators awaiting prey.

It is quite possible this is all merely a convoluted justification for not catching as many fish as the guy with the nymphs on the end of his line. It is a sound argument for those who seek the hollow sanctuary of numbers, but personally I’d trade ten fish caught down deep for the sight and sound of one rising to a small, rubber-legged child lazily drifting a bubble line.

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Plenty Of Time To Think

It is not exactly my favorite piece of water to fish, the one from Big Bend downstream to the diversion dam. Once below the dam, the action always seem to pick up for me, but above it, I struggle to catch fish with regularity. Strange, as the structure of the river is excellent, and the biggest fish I have personally caught on the Ark was on this piece. I know many anglers for whom this is their section of choice. I guess I just haven’t figured it out yet.

In other ways, it is my favorite stretch of river. Turning away from the busyness of the highway as it does, the river here flows gentle and pastoral, ambling through meadows and cottonwood stands that quietly speak of times I imagine more simple and idyllic. Every now and then its possible to park the boat river-side and, looking upstream, see not a single sign of human intervention. Its that place on the river where I find I have to work the least to picture how this part of the world must have appeared to those first human eyes.

This particular day, it would have been easy to take in the sight of these same cottonwoods bending and groaning to the wind and decide to delay the float for another time. But then, how often do you get the chance to float the river running clear at 400 cfs at the end of May? And if your M.O. is to only fish when conditions are ideal then it is difficult to make any improvement. Anyone can cast like a pro on a calm day, but wind shows little mercy when highlighting deficiencies in technique and timing.

The smart thing to have done, from a catching point of view, would have been to have fished a nymph rig. Whatever bugs unfortunate enough to have been out and about that day would surely be huddling in the lee of the bushes and undergrowth, blown from the water in an instant. It is worth remembering however that below the surface there is no such thing as wind. Windy days means shorter drifts, which in turn suggests lead to help sink the flies quickly. I thought of golf ball sized wads of nylon and split shot wrapped around the tip of my rod. Prudence and a swirling southerly suggested keeping things simple, so we tied on a single dry and headed downstream.

One of the benefits of not being interrupted by catching anything is the places your mind takes you during the lulls between fish, what Tom McGuane refers to as “the longest silence.” These silences have a tendency to put things in perspective. Its difficult to complain about any aspect of a day on the river. Except if it is freezing cold and I have to guide – then I’ll bitch with the rest of them. We thought and spoke of many things. Surely there are better things to worry about than who marries who, or what. We recalled some departed from this world, and other things that remain on the river, thoughts that dart and flit through your mind like the swallows working the riffles, flashing briefly then lost to the ether.

One particular silence was broken in rather abrupt fashion, in a manner familiar to all who angle. After drifting my dry for ten or fifteen minutes without sign of a fish, I vaguely became aware of the need for a scratch at the back of one ear. Releasing the line from my stripping hand, while one part of my mind was directing a finger to the itch, another was softly ringing an alarm bell. “This is exactly the time a fish will choose to take,” said the voice. It was right. I almost saw it before it happened, left hand scrambling to retrieve the line as the fish rose and took the fly, my ineffectual set not bothering it one bit. The air turned blue. Caveman sniggered. I felt like a guy who keeps sticking his knife in the toaster to see if anything different will result.

By the end of the float, we’d caught a few fish. The wind didn’t work us too hard. I felt reconnected to that piece of the river. Perhaps its a place destined to reinforce to me the value of quality over quantity, and that too is fine by me.

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