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.

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The Descent Of Man

The day had started full of hope and aspiration. The sun shone on our backs, the river, if a little murky, was the perfect level for floating, bugs mingled with the cottonwood seeds carried on the intermittent breeze, and a shapely young lass wearing an orange bikini sunned herself on the rocks below the F St Bridge. It was a great day to be alive, on a raft, with a box full of dry flies.

I believe there is a natural order to fly fishermen, as there is to most species. Occupying the lower rungs of the ladder stands the streamer fisherman, struggling valiantly toward the sunlight, weighed down by his genetic closeness to the spin fisherman. Next comes the nympher, crawling slowly from the primordial soup, while standing aloft, alone and imperious, both feet planted firmly on dry ground, stands the dry fly fisherman. Like all creatures at the top of their respective food chain, they are relatively sparse in numbers. Streamers and nymphers will say this is likely due to starvation, given the fact Dry Fly Guy tends to catch fewer fish than anyone else. This may be so, but not for he the hollow sanctuary of numbers.

Except that this day, I learned something about myself. Fishing should never be about numbers, yet there is a big difference between catching one fish, and catching no fish. After a couple of fruitless hours, my resolve to fish only dries crumbled nearly as quick as the veneer of civilization in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I realized I was prepared to hit the take out having caught nothing all day, but not without trying everything first. Out went the dries, on went the bobber. Nothing. Out went the nymphs, on went the dreaded streamer. It is not that I have anything against fishing streamers per se, rather that it all gets a little repetitive: Slap, strip, strip. Slap, strip, strip. Slap, strip, strip. Etc.

But it is surely an effective way to catch a fish. If I was sent somewhere remote, and had to eat trout to stay alive, I’d take a black wooly bugger before anything other fly. After a couple of miles, and a couple of hundred casts, patience and abandonment of principles were duly rewarded. I immediately went back to fishing dries to redeem myself, but not soon enough to shake off that vague feeling of seediness. Dante wrote several centuries ago that in order for our souls to be purified, they must first descend to the pits of Hell, where demons and angels tear from us that which has become corrupted during our previous life. Once this process is complete, we rise again, purified, ready to be reborn into the next existence. I reckon, one day back when, he too must have been reduced to tying on a wooly bugger.

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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.

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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.

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Two fish, a broken rod, and a lot of hot air.

I gave up waiting for the wind to stop blowing. The days were getting warmer, and sooner or later the river will blow out and become unfishable for a week or two. I decided to head upstream from town to a place where the river widened out and braided around a few small islands. With the tea-colored water already running over 1000 cfs, I wanted to find somewhere where a fish could seek respite from the full force of the current, and braids, side channels and slower water along cut banks seemed like a good bet.

The first couple of pools I fished were uneventful, then looking upstream I spotted a side channel with several swallows working the surface. Nothing was rising, but it seemed like a likely scenario to find a feeding fish. After a few casts with a dry fly only, I tied on a bead head – when in doubt, tie on a pheasant tail should be one of the Angler’s Ten Commandments – and was rewarded first cast with a nice brown lying in some slack water below the main seam of the channel. Two casts later, and another smaller brown, sitting in front of a large, submerged rock. I fancied myself as Archimedes in the bath – I’d just cracked the code, and the best of the run was yet to come.

As usual, little did I know. I fished up through the meat of the run, working it over carefully, without sight nor sign of another fish. I could have tried a different fly, or fished deeper, but I’m lazy that way. I tie enough knots guiding to want to spend an afternoon doing it for myself. With the wind seeming to let up, I moved downstream a quarter mile to take advantage of some cut banks in a place more exposed to the elements. With the river having been so low only a few weeks ago, there is an increased likelihood when fishing the shallows of snagging on grasses, weeds and twigs that were until recently high and dry. So it proved. No fish took my offerings, but I caught plenty of snags. Then, near the top of the run, I noticed casting was becoming more difficult, even though the wind was receding. It was then I noticed the tip of my rod hanging forlornly from the line, neatly severed below the first line guide.

The mystery is why, given the delicate nature of today’s graphite rods, such things don’t happen more often. That’s why you buy rods with lifetime replacement warranties, and always take an extra along. I thought of the spare lying in the back of my truck, a couple of hundred yards away. Nah, I’d had my fun. Time to head home for an afternoon beverage.

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