Mayfly May

“If this isn’t a good day for blue wings, I don’t know what is,” said one local fishing geek to another downtown the other day. And it was – sullen sky, the air between earth and clouds heavy with the scent of moisture, the odd stray flake of snow falling straight down from a breathless overcast. There’s all sorts of theories as to why blue winged olive mayflies tend to hatch on cloudy days, but that’s all the really are – theories. The main thing to understand, from an angler’s point of view, is that they often do.

By early afternoon I’d ticked off a sufficient number of things on the to-do list to justify a quick trip to the river. Its always a good sign when you pull up, and birds are working the surface. This day, what looked like barn swallows were skimming and swooping low to the river, darting with incredible speed and dexterity, plucking something off of or near to the surface. While birds working the water is cause for optimism, it is by no means a guarantee of good fishing – just because they are feeding, doesn’t necessarily mean the fish are doing the same. I stood and watched the swallows for a while, then switched my attention to the water, searching for signs of fish rising in the bubble lines and back eddies, but the river’s surface remained dimple free, only the occasional blue wing floating by.

There has definitely been a change in the springtime hatch dynamic. In years past, it was nearly impossible to wade the river at this time and not feel the crunch of caddis cases under your boot, nor drive the canyon and not have your windshield smeared in caddis. Nature abhors a vacuum, and where there are now not as many caddis – once again, there are theories – the blue wings are stepping into the void, becoming more prolific by the year, the harbingers of spring on the river. Mayflies are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to water quality, so to see them thrive is reassuring.

When in doubt, tie on a pheasant tail I thought. While not feeding on the surface, I discovered the fish were definitely active below it, and I managed to miss five takes in a row, all of them on the nymph, all slow and subtle, my timing either over eager or so late as to be laughable. I reeled in my line and checked to see if my hook was straightened – no excuse there. I reeled in to check if I didn’t have something stuck to the hook – no excuse there. I thought of some way to blame the fish – no excuse there.

Finally I got my mojo working, and proceeded to land three fish, and miss a couple more. As I reeled in for the last time, I did a quick count: three landed, seven missed, probably more than a guy like me deserves.

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You take what the river gives you

“Are you sure you don’t want to put the boat in the garage overnight? It feels like rain, maybe snow.”

Not for the first time in my life, I should have listened to the Voice of Wisdom, or Wife, as she is more frequently known.

“Pfffft. What’s a little rain? It is a boat, after all.”
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Next morning I reminded myself of this exchange as I shoveled and swept several inches of heavy, wet snow from the boat, more falling from a leaden sky. Common sense would have dictated pushing the trailer into the garage and going back to bed, but over the years experience has taught me that sense and fishermen often share little in common. In my own defense, I would like to point out that had I not being getting paid for rowing the boat, I would have been back between the sheets in an instant. As a guide however, my motto in such circumstances has always been that if the fishermen are dumb enough to want to go, I’m silly enough to take them – an attitude owing as much to relative poverty as much as anything.

The thing I remind myself in such circumstances is that for me, this is just another day at the office. For the guy who has driven here from Ft Worth or St Louis or worse, Oklahoma City, this is a once or twice a year event and he is not going to let a little snow discourage him – at least for the first half hour, after which the realities of a day spent sitting on a raft in below freezing temperatures often starts to sink in. There is also an element of long-dormant teenage macho that comes to the surface, fly shop bravado that sees the fishermen stand around in a jocular group, reassuring themselves that all is well, and they are not going to let a little snow put them off going fishing, like someone from California would.
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We cut a faintly pitying sight at the G Street boat ramp Sunday morning, rigging rods and stowing gear while the snow swirled. Even the kayakers there for the slalom competition seemed to look at us with bemusement. If there was a silver lining to the cloud, it was that the extra moisture had helped to bring the river up from its previous day’s low of 170 cubic feet per second to somewhere around 200. The drought of 2002 served to lower the bar with regard to what was considered a viable water level to conduct commercial float fishing trips, and it seems 2013 is destined to lower it further. That year was the last year I guided commercial whitewater trips on the Ark, and the thing savvy guides learned above all else was that their attitude was the sole determinant on whether or not people had a good time. Some guides carried with them a small black cloud, lamenting the state of the river, while others looked for new ways to have fun and entertain. That year was my best for tips. So far this year, while the monkey on the oars has had to work harder, the fishermen are having as much fun, and catching as many fish, as any other.

By the time we reached the Stock Yard Bridge the clouds and snow flurries had moved on, pushed out of the valley before a frigid six-layer wind that bit at any exposed flesh and made a mockery of accurate casting or mending. At such times one takes solace in the fact that, as a downstream wind, it was pushing us ever closer to the take out, which we reached tired and happy, miraculously right around beer thirty.

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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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Maps, mud and margaritas

The map was sketched on a dog-eared piece of paper, no cocktail napkin being immediately available.

“Its about twenty miles off the highway,”explained Randy. “The road’ll get a little rough, but you should be OK. It’s been pretty dry up there lately, so it should be passable.”

I lifted my gaze from the map to the sky above, leaden for the last 24 hours, blacker yet in the direction the map would take us, the rain falling steadily as it had since yesterday evening. I’d been to this section of the creek once before, several years ago. I recalled a road little wider than a track in places, four wheel drive, gunning the engine through boggy crossings, making turns based as much on instinct as certainty.

“Well, if you don’t see lights on in the cabin by about 8:30 tonight, you’ll know where to start looking for us,” Rich replied to Randy, only half in jest. Gear loaded, we climbed in Cliff’s truck and headed off down the highway, turning north onto the dirt road at the appointed place. Manicured gravel soon gave way to roads that had evidently never seen a D9 or grader in their time. The clouds lowered to the mountain tops, mist hung through the trees and there was the occasional glimpse of a critter ghosting through the undergrowth. We passed a hunting camp, a small city of tents, trailers and Texas plates and plunged deeper into the woods.

Through the first gate, past the No Trespassing sign, and the road became more of a track, dropping steep and slick through the trees, barely wide enough for the Dodge. Down into the meadow, its bottom reaches resembling more bog than pasture land, the truck’s wheels tossing soupy black mud high into the air around us as we struggled to be free of the axle-deep ruts. A turn almost missed, a near sideways slide into the morass, once more through the bog and we began the final climb out of the meadow toward the canyon rim, below which ran the stream we’d come to fish.

Under the shelter of a cliff-top spruce overlooking the canyon, we wadered up then followed a game trail down through the trees, trusting that over the millenia the four-leggeds would have discovered the easiest way to the meadow below. The pathway was already swathed in the golds and yellows of fallen aspen leaves, elk sign and deadfall thick on the ground, while half way down a clear, cold spring gushed from a mountain-side grotto thick with moss and ferns.

After half an hour we emerged from the forest onto a knoll overlooking the meadow that was our destination. The rain had eased somewhat, the raindrops gently dimpling the surface of the stream as it meandered through the lush, knee-high grass. For a quarter mile or so, the canyon walls parted briefly, widening to allow the course of the stream to meander to and fro along its course before the canyon closed in again and reasserted its primacy.

For perhaps an hour the rain eased. While the fishermen appreciated the respite, to the fish it made little difference. They continued to feed with that single-mindedness that comes with the knowledge that the clock is ticking on the season. For our part, we struggled to keep dry flies dry, at times missed more fish than we caught, and at the end of the day dragged our weary bones back to the top of the canyon, each leaving a small part of himself to the meadow, while carrying a corresponding piece of it within.

At the cabin just on dusk, we kicked off muddy boots and showered up. Sitting back with a margarita or two and the Red Socks losing to the Yankees on the tube, I marveled at the ease with which we can step from one world to another and back again, and which of them do we count as the real one?

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