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┬áthe 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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