A Great Day To Be A Cowboy, Too….

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Thus observed Ed Hillary, and so too did I repeat to myself several times at the bottom of County Road 101, where it meets Highway 50. The little voice within said so with all the conviction of a five year-old trying to convince himself there really is no monster under the bed. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I have a love-hate thing about riding the Rainbow Trail from Bear Creek to Methodist.

The love side of things is easy – just ride the single track. The hate side is pedalling up there. The only thing keeping you going is the promise of what is about to come once you reach the trailhead. To my mind, that part ranks alongside Starvation Creek as the creme de-la creme of local single track – fast, narrow, and not too difficult. The ride to the trail head is another thing altogether. It doesn’t seem to matter how or when you do it – early season or after you’ve a few miles under your belt, from town or starting at the cattle guard, it has you sucking air like someone just kneed you in the ribs. Close to 2000 feet of vertical in six miles, getting steeper, narrower and looser as it goes.

The more realistic, assertive voice inside took over. “This is going to suck, no two ways about it.” I haven’t been riding much this year, and was feeling a little nervous, intimidated even, about the climb. I figured I’d be walking a couple of places. I’ve also found that if I go into the day thinking things are really going to blow, it’s amazing how often they don’t, and events wind up exceeding expectations. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but it is a technique honed from years of guiding fishermen.

Some days I tell myself the whole day is going to be a disaster. The fisherman will doggedly continue to drop his backcast in the face of all evidence to the contrary that not doing so will make the whole process easier and more satisfying. He’ll stare at you blankly when you explain the importance of an aggressive mend, show himself incapable of casting closer than six feet to the bank, miss a dozen fish or more that he didn’t even know he had, tip with all the enthusiasm of a Scotsman down to his last farthing, then go home and tell his buddies how average his guide, and consequently the fishing, was. As it turns out, it is pretty rare to get someone who ticks all those boxes, so at least some part of the day rises above expectation.

Climbs like these go much easier if I can get my breathing in synch with my pedals, and counting the beats, zone out into some kind of Zen-like state. Sometimes a mile or more will pass before I realize that dull fire down below is my quads melting, the strange gasping sound is not an asthmatic squirrel dogging my progress, but my lungs on the verge of imploding. Then I come to the cattle guard, and it starts to get steep. I use the fifteen degree pitches to catch my breath in between the twenties. I tell myself such exercise is good for me. I wonder if Ed Hillary ever rode this trail. Just when I think I’m going to pass out, there stands before me the last obstacle to the trail head – SOB Hill. Summoning my last reserves of character, I tell my legs to keep pumping easy, tell my hands to quit gripping the bars like I’m trying to choke the life out of a python, tell my lungs to keep rattling, and somehow I’m there.

A last deep inhale, and we commenced the climb. This time of the year, as the sun tracks lower in the sky, the morning air is infused with softer hues, the contours of the land are laid bare while up on high, stands of aspen are already ablaze with color. While the early morning sun held the heat of August, the air was cool and crisp in the shade of the trees lining the road. As usual as August turns to September, I wondered how is it that summer passes so quickly? Although part of me is looking forward to the slowing down of mind and body that comes with winter, another part is not ready in any way, shape, or form. All I hope is that when winter comes, it is a big one.

Two thirds of the way up, we pulled to the side to let a rancher coming the other way pass by, driving his cattle down hill from their summer range. He reined his horse across from us and tipped his hat. He looked the quintessential cowboy – steel-grey hair flecked with silver, mustache to match, pale blue eyes and a mouth creased with a smile that hinted at the truth of that moment, that it was a good day to be in the mountains. Lord knows ranching is a tough way to make a living, and days such as this, in the saddle in such a place, must go some way to making up for the 3:00 am calving call-outs in January, praying for moisture, or the latest regulation that always seems to stand between you and common sense.

“You guys see any more cows on your way up?”

We shook our heads. “Just these ones here. Lovely morning”

He sat for a few seconds and took in the view and nodded. “Well, you have a great day.”

We wished him the same and recommenced our quest. I discovered a couple of things on the remainder of the climb. Whatever those cows were eating up there, a little more protein wouldn’t have gone amiss. It was uncanny how often their chosen line on the way down turned out to be the same as mine on the way up, and you don’t realize how much cow shit sticks between the knobs of your tires until you start going down hill again.

I am pleased to report that my doom and gloom tactic worked to a tee. I reached the top feeling like I could have climbed another mile if necessary. I sat on a log and inhaled a Cliff Bar and a bottle of Gatorade, and stared off along the tree lined single track as it disappeared around the next corner. Ten miles or so of that to come. The climb was worthwhile. And the cowboy was right. It was indeed a great day to be in the mountains.

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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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