Thursday, July 30, 2009

July on the Fryingpan River - Part Two

Thursday July 23, 2009 : Adversity Strikes Again

For whatever reason I awoke before sunrise and big fish fever dragged me out of bed to boil water for coffee. Very chilly with some breeze, but the coffee was enough to motivate me to roll down the road to the upper Pan. On the river before 7am with dreams of grandeur. Not a strike, not a whirl - except for the wind which was blowing hard and constant down the canyon. It was not long before I could not feel my toes or my fingers - I was cold! Stuck it out for another half hour before I finally realized I was getting no action and freezing. So, went back to the truck with my tail between my legs and hit the thermos of coffee I brewed up earlier. While talking to new arrival, I tried to take my 5 piece Winston rod down but couldn't separate the pieces..any of them. This has happened before and all that is needed is some cold water on the ferrels which the man offered. I said, naw, that's ok, I'm gonna have a hot breakfast back at camp and fish the rod later downstream. So, I broke my RULE and put the rod in the truck sticking out the back window. You can guess what happened...on my way back to the camp, still cold as hell, I decided the cold breeze through the windows was too much and rolled the window up - breaking the tip on my Winston rod. What a friggin drag. First busted rod in over 10 years. I kinda got over it, figuring that's a long time without breaking a rod - especially considering the amount of fishing I do and my bushwhacking style. Oh well, at least I have 3 more rods in the truck to use. Get over it. Once back at the camp, I decided I needed a pick-me-up and figured I'd go back to the lower Pan and attempt to catch the large fish I missed back on Monday (see July 20 post). Worked my way up the same run just as before, catching nice bows and browns along the way. But I was always looking upstream toward the rock and wondering if the big fish was still hanging there.

When I finally got to "the rock", I checked my knots, my tippet, and tied on a new fly. "The rock" was a perfect place for a big fish to hang out. Fast and deep water on the right side with shallow and smooth water on the left to which many flies were landing and falling out of the willow bushes that also kept things a bit shady and cool. The hole behind the rock was about 4 feet deep. Perfect setup. When I hooked the fish on Monday, I made a nice cast to the hole, sweeping my line to the slow water on the left side in order to get a nice drift. The plan was the same, and though still a bit breezy, I was able to make a decent cast. Wham! Damn...a brown came up and agressively took the fly. I worked him downstream but was worried the action spooked the big bow if indeed he was still hanging out there. Released the brown, dried off the fly, and worked my way back up to the rock. Made a nice cast, the fly drifted perfectly over the hole...but no take yet..not yet...not yet..oooohhhh....I was just about to lose the drift when Wham! the big bow hit it. I was ready, got a solid hook set, and anticipated the jump I knew was coming. The fish did not dissapoint, and he jumped just as before. Somehow, I kept the line tight without snapping it and held the fish. He then headed straight for the fast water but I was ready for this too and I followed him downstream about 20 yards, falling over boulders and making a helluva racket. He was still on. He headed downstream another 20 or so yards, and I followed with my rod tip high. He finally stopped in a hole and just sat there. I was out of breath, and figured maybe he was tired after the big jump and the fast water fight. I know I was exhausted! I reeled in my line and got up next to the fish. He just sat there not moving an inch. I finally got an idea of the size of this fish because I could see where my line went into the water, and I could see his tail downstream. This guy was big, just as big as he looked when he jumped. I have learned in the past that fish always seem to look bigger when they jump - their gills are flared, mouth usually open and shaking, colors bright, and I dont know - in the past I have sometimes been surprised how much smaller the fish are once landed than I originally thought. Not this guy, he was as big as he looked. Released my net's clasp and I tentatively bent down in an attempt to net the fish. It finally dawned on me that this fish was roughly twice as long as the opening in my net, or somewhere in the 30" range. And this on the lower Pan! A shiver of excitement went through me, but suddenly I had a negative thought: is this monster really going to let me net him? Just as this thought sped through my synapses, the fish took off like a raped ape toward the fast water again. Having the rod in my left hand and the net in my right, I had to rely on my drag which had worked well up to that point. Anyhow, the fish hit the fast water, sped upstream and suddenly the line went slack as he switched directions and went downstream. At this point, with about a foot of slack in my line, the fish jumped completely out of the water, about two feet (not an exaggeration) and shook his head viciously. My fly came out, landed close to my knees, and assumed a perfect drift downstream. I was heartbroken. I still am.

I can't describe the depression that set in after missing this fish after breaking my Winston earlier in the day. I just couldn't shake these events, and like a life threatening accident, the fish scenario kept playing through my mind over-n-over in slow motion. It was agonizing. The only thing that made me feel better (for a short time) was calling my friend MikeK and learning that his wife "caught" him emailing a woman named Victoria (of all names...) in which he was found to say marriage was like "jail" to which his wife wanted a full explanation. Well, that got me to laughing but as soon as we hung up..well, my mind went back to the fish. I headed to the Roaring Fork around Woody Creek thinking new water would get my mind off my troubles. Caught 3 nice browns on a stonefly nymph, but couldn't shake my depression. I gave into the urge and pulled over at the Woody Creek Tavern and started drinking. The bartender there got another smile out of me when I could see he delighted in asking his female customers if they'd like a "doggy-style", which was a beer they were serving on tap. The look on the women's faces was priceless, but after once or twice even that novelty wore off and I was back to thinking about the fish. Jeez - will I *ever* friggin land one of these large fish that I seem to be able to hook on a fairly regular basis?? What good is a fisherman if he can't land big fish once he hooks them? Not much I guess.

Friday July 24, 2009

Skunked on the upper Pan, and decided to stop fishing and go to Central Market in El Jabel to get groceries and have some of their awesome sushi (no kidding, in El Jebel of all places). Sat under a tree next to the parking lot drinking a Guinness stout and eating sushi with chopsticks. People were looking at me, but all I could think about was that friggin fish. Drove back to the lower Pan and decided to take a hand bath in the river. The water felt great, and boy did I need to wash the ole bod, but I couldn't wash the fish off my mind. It was about that time I met "the sisters" two beautiful and very friendly girls from Ft. Collins 25 and 23 yrs old. One was fly-fishing, and showed good form but was fishing in a quite technical run with a dry. I suggested she come downstream to some smooth water where I noticed trout rising. Long story short, I got out in the water with her, she caught her first fish on a fly-rod (8" bow) and was totally stoked about it. She kept yelling at her sis, are you getting pictures? You better be getting pictures! It was great fun and took my mind off my troubles until I realized that I really wanted to take both of them to Woody Creek Tavern but was definitely old enough to be their dad. I didn't even ask, and went about my business after thoroughly enjoying my first good conversation with females in weeks. I definitely need to get out more. Anyhow, i got enthusiastic about fishing again after hanging with Britney for awhile, and decided to try dries on the upper Pan. Had no luck at all til just about sunset when I remembered the #20 PMD I had found in a tree limb a few days earlier. Tied that fly on and immediately caught two fish, both browns, right at last light. I set the hook on sound and the swirl as I could no longer see the fly. I love the way this brown is glaring at the camera.

Saturday July 25, 2009

Snapped off three flies on the upper Pan all on really nice fish. Sound familiar? Caught one fish this day, and if I come back next year he might be 8". Stupid man. Stupid stupid stupid little man.

Sunday July 26, 2009

After 6 weeks, the cooler's a mess, my body is tired and sore, and I am still not over the fish or the broken Winston. Also ran out of white gas for my Coleman stove. All signs are to go home. Decided to pack up, drive the Teardrop down the river road to "the rock" and try the big bastard one more time. Caught fish all along the way, just like the previous two times with my eye on "the rock". About 50 yards from the rock I got a big surprise when the big bastard stayed right where I left him last time, hit my fly, and caught me unprepared with slack in my line. Terrible hook set that did not survive the jump I knew was coming and that he made. That was it, I was done for 2009. I headed off the river and decided I didn't want it to end like that, and decided to catch one last fish. Fittingly, it was a cute little brown (last picture below). That was it. My Colorado 2009 trip was over. I'll never forget the big fish I missed, or how much fun I had this summer in my search for trout. Good luck in your searches - whatever they may be for. Cya, Fitzman.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

One of life's simple pleasures on the Fryingpan River is easy access to some of the best drinking water on earth. This spring (shown above, click to enlarge) are tested every season by the Forestry service when they test the campground waters. Normally, the water quality reports come back with parts-per-million (PPM) listings of impurities. Not so with this water, so I have been told by multiple sources. This water is 100% H2O, with 0 PPM of *anything* else. That's quite amazing when you think about it. Anyhow, I use this water for all coffee and drinking and of course to fill up the water bottle on my fly-fishing belt. Nothing better than getting off the river on a hot sunny afternoon than to stop by the springs and drink some of this cold and very tasty (as in no taste really) water. A delightful pleasure which filled every jug I had for the trip back home.

July on the Fryingpan River

Monday, July 20, 2009

After an "off day" at the Sugarbush campground in which I did laundry, took a shower, attached new leaders to all my water logged fly lines, and participated in the "pie-fest" by showing up with my fork in hand, I drove over Independence pass, through Aspen and down to Basalt where the Fryingpan River meets the Roaring Fork. As usual, I was so excited to be back on the "Pan" I could not even drive the 15 or so miles up the river road to the Little Maud campground at Ruedi Reservoir. So, I pulled over, Teardrop trailer and all, to fish a stretch of the lower Pan. Within minutes I quickly discovered why I hate store-bought leaders - they snap off real easy and I lost two fish and two flies until I broke down and did what I knew I had to do: cut off the last 3 or 4 feet of the leader and engineer it with my normal setup: 6lb, 5lb, 4lb, and 3lb Maxim tippet material (2x -> 5x). The 3 lb 5x tippet seems to work well with the dries I throw, and is way stronger than the supposed 3lb strength of the store bought leader. Of course the other factor involved here is hook setting: after leaving the Arkansas where I catch many smallish quick hitting brown trout, here on the Pan the fish are generally bigger and the first rise I had didn't even budge when I attempted a rather excitedly strong hook set. So, less coffee, no sugar, and more beer. Much more beer...

Anyhow, once the blood knots for my leader were completed I was soon hooking and landing what I came for: Fryingpan River rainbow trout. Here's my first Fryingpan Rainbow of 2009:

Not to be outdone, the brown trout wanted me to know they too would challenge the Rainbows for my dry fly:

Note the bright red spots on this brown. I challenge anyone to show me brown trout that have brighter red spots than those found on the lower Fryingpan River. Notice the red spots on the hind dorsal fin as well. Friggin gorgeous fish. Click the picture to enlarge and check out that awesome trout water! I miss the river already. Anyhow, my first outing on the Pan was a success (if one disregards losing the two rather large fish and associated flies due to the snapped off store bought leaders...) and I landed 11 fish total, all on dry flies, including 4 browns. Oh, the session ended with the hooking of a rather large rainbow which jumped out of the water 2 feet (no kidding), shook his mouth furiously, popping the "new and improved" leader. More on this fish later.

So, I headed off to Little Maud Campground to setup camp. Later that evening, I took out the 5 wt bamboo rod I made and tried my luck on the upper Pan, which I define as upstream of the bridge just below the Ruedi dam. I have not had much success on this stretch of the river in the past. My plan this year was to nymph my way to success and weight the nymphs so as to get them down to the fish - thus the 5 wt rod which I use for large dries, woolies, and weighted nymphs, as opposed to the Winston or Beasley bamboo (both 4 wts) which I use exclusively for smaller dry flies. Anyhow, one would think that the earlier experience would have taught me the need to retie the new store bought leader on the 5 wt fly line. But noooo, the Fitzman was in a hurry to get a spot on the river and too impatient to retie an entire leader with 3 or 4 blood knots. The result was quite predictable. I tried a new presentation (at least for me) on the upper Pan: an attractor nymph (in this case, bright orange with gold bead head), weighted, to which I then dropped off a #20 zebra midge which I have begun using on the Caney Fork River back in TN. I tied both flies myself and used about 16 inches of fluro-carbon tippet for the midge dropper, and set the weight about 8 inches above it allowing it to drift more freely. Considering my past performance on the upper Pan (using mostly dry flies being the dry fly bigot that I am), I was not prepared for what soon happened. I got an immediate and powerful strike which, quite predictably, snapped off. Both flies lost. Do you think I would retie the leader now? Of course not - several fisherman saw the strike and started edging toward "my" hole. You must understand the fly-fishermen of the Pan are not "normal"... they will horn in on "your" territory without thinking twice and to sit down for 10 minutes and retie a leader is to lose your position on the river. Standing and tying the knots is no longer an option for me can't I am losing my eyesight and need to take off my glasses to tie the damn knots. So, I tied on another attractor and midge and promptly lost those two flies as well, this time I at least saw the fish (a big bow) and played him for all of about 5 seconds before he popped off. At this point, it's getting dark, I finally retied the leader, and hooked a nice dark brown trout right as light was failing. I had the net out but lost the fish when the fly simply popped out of his mouth. At least I got to see what fly he hit: it was the zebra midge. Overall, the action was encouraging (at least I am getting strikes on the upper Fryingpan), but overall it was an idiotic performance which cost me 4 nice flies and perhaps two really nice rainbow trout.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fished the upper Pan again right after sunrise and missed two strikes on the attractor/midge combo. Action slowed, so I went downstream to one of my favorite stretches of river for dry fly action. This is one of my favorite slots to fish because I wade across the river and fish under the shade of some trees in full view of the road. The result is alot of action, and many car honks as passerby's (mostly fly-fisherman) acknowledge a bent rod. However, in this section the current is fast and even a 14" fish can give quite a battle which passerbys probably assume must be a larger fish. This particular day was, as often happens, frustrating for those on the opposite bank. "What fly are you using?" "What's your tippet?" they ask - the "they" being 4 guys all within about 25 yards of each other pounding the water over-n-over with casts while standing out in the hot midday sun. I converse politely but it is amazing they can't see the obvious: one, they are fishing water that gets alot of pressure. Two, they are standing in the sun. Three, I am fishing the other side of the river in the shade. Oh well, I must admit it's kinda fun to be watched like that and hearing things like "damn, he's hooked another!". Bar har har. Of course, I am sure these guys would get a similar kick out of watching me lose all the big fish I have been losing lately. Grrrrrr....

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Started at the upper Pan again where I had developed the big fish fever affliction affecting so many Fryingpan River fisherman. It was an all too familiar story as the Fitzman hooked a nice rainbow (I would estimate 24" and a football figure) on his now new and improved leader. The Fitzman hung on and survived a vicious leap out of the water, and then began calmly walking toward the fish thinking, ah, now I've got you now you son-of-a-bitch. About this time the fish too recognized he was in trouble and did what every living thing does when distressed - he went home. Home happend to be under a rock which I had seen days earlier, but apparently had not studied closely enough. The rock was embedded on a ledge, and there was a large hole under it. Worse, the part of the rock toward the center of the river was overhanging and outcropping. All those are excuses for the fact that the fish dove under the rock, my line stopped moving (to my absolute dread...) and I soon found my attractor fly hooked on the rock and the midge was gone. I let out a scream that reverberated against the walls of the Fryingpan Canyon, soon to be followed by the knowing chuckles (and outright laughter!) of fly-fisherman up and down the river. I did manage to catch and land a respectable brown (on the midge). He was starting to grow some manly shoulders. However, apparently the earlier "battle" spooked the river, and action slowed. So, I headed downstream to fish dries for the afternoon and despite the nice brown, left the upper pan with a very empty feeling in the old gullet.

The highlight of the afternoon outing was getting hung up in a tree(seriously). Not wanting to lose my fly, I stood tall on a rock (at some physical risk I might add), grabbed a limb of the tree, and pulled in the section to which my fly was embedded. I soon found a number of lines and realized I would bust my ass if I didn't get off the rock, so I broke off the entire limb and headed to the safety of the bank where I found not only my fly, but a BWO and two nymphs. Not bad. Obviously someone else was trying to make the same tight cast to a rising fish - possible the same fish as I was. I did not manage to catch that fish nor to even get him to rise to my fly. I did catch 4 trout, and met a nice local named Norm. Norm gave me two green drakes tied by none other than A.K. Best himself. So, Norm, if you're out there bud, thanks! I gave Norm one of my zebra midges and told him the story of the big fish earlier in the day. He was sympathetic as only someone on the Pan who had lived a similar experience.

Gold Prospecting on the Arkansas River

This year saw a noticeable jump in gold prospectors on BLM land bordering the Arkansas River and of course in the river itself. I counted 6 miners along a stretch of river I used to fish and whose willows were home to the infamous super beaver story of a few years back. Some were just panning, others had gasoline pumps set up on the hillside for pumping river water uphill and then gravity feed their sluices. One elaborate rig was a self contained floating unit, complete with pump and sluice. Wish I had had my camera for that contraption - it was really something. Pictured above is a man from Missouri who travelled all the way to Oregon this year to prospect for gold. He is using the small creek at the Sugarbush campground to set up his sluice because he could not proper water current speed in the big river. Apparently the Sugarbush creek is flowing at just the right speed. So, he brought back two buckets of "gold dirt" and is pouring it into the sluice to be filtered out. Next he will take apart the sluice and pan the remaining minerals the old fashioned way. He is headed to Georgia next where apparently the purest gold in the US exists and the site of the first gold mint in the US (according to him).

While in Oregan, this man's wife learned a trick from an 84 year old woman: you use a turkey baster to suck out the dirt behind large rocks in which there is fast current on both sides and slow water behind. Then you pan that dirt for gold. Apparently, it works quite well.

It is still possible to stake claims on BLM land. From conversations I had, it is not required to post the land but I don't know if it is illegal to do so. Apparently, if you are prospecting, you had better know where you are and if there is an existing claim. Also, panning is free, but you need a permit for a gasoline powered pump as there are some use requirements. I think the permit is like $20 or and can be purchased in Salida.

With gold over $930 an ounce and a US economy on the rocks, it's not surprising more and more Americans are becoming interested in prospecting for gold. I am going to try my luck on the Arkansas next year.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Role Model

Meet Bob from Kansas, yet another interesting Kansan I have met at the Sugarbush campground this year. Bob and his girl Ruthie were out everyday either shooting the Arkansas river rapids or mountain biking all over the territory. Last year, they biked across the US. Ruthie is a bigtime Tour de France fan and knows more about the riders and teams than I do. She even signed up for cable just to get the Versus network so she could watch the stages. Bob on the other hand - you'd never guess he's a retired banker - owns no computer, no cell phone, and no cable TV. He says "I get along just fine without 'em!" Bob's Toyota Tacoma is only a year older than mine but he already has over 200k miles with no trouble at all (mine is pushing 100k miles).

I can only hope I am as spirited and full of adventure as Bob when I am 69 years old! I realize now that I have been limiting my biking to my immediate neighborhood (hill sprints) just due to my fear of a hit and run accident that could be financially devastating. Bob and Ruthie are motivational people and I realize now I need to buy a health care plan and get back on my roadbike and get my endurance and fitness in tip-top form once again!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Fly-Fisherman's Blues

The lower Conejos river (downstream of the Hwy 17 bridge) is noted for great fly-fishing...and it is also famous for lousy fly-fishing. Sometimes you'd swear ther are no trout in the river at all. I caught my first trout here nearly 15 years ago. It was a very plump 16" rainbow full of eggs. I greatly regret eating that fish now that I understand rainbows are having a hard time reproducing and competing with the browns. Anyhow, I stopped at the Mogote CG to fish my favorite spots for a couple days. Bad idea....

July 13, 2009

My morning attempt was to fish above Sanders bridge (the Coleman cabin property) where it was quickly apparent the 4th of July crowd had thoroughly fished the run. There were footprints everywhere, and few fish (only caught 3). For the evening session I decided to fish right there at the Mogote CG, which is famous for large browns. First the wind came up. Then the angle of the sun made it impossible to see my fly. Then a storm brewed up and I had to sit on the bank for 30 minutes waiting for the threat of lightening to subside. Then no strikes. Thinking they are feeding down low, I put on a dropper (prince nymph) and almost fell asleep waiting for some action. When my dry-fly indicator finally did go down, I was in somewhat of a daze and raised my rod to find a *big* brown on my line. I didn't get a good hook set, he turned sideways in the current, opened his mouth, glared at me, and the next thing I knew I not only lost the fish, but my dry fly/dropper combination was now 20 feet up in the pine tree behind me. I lost both flies. Even more painful were the 3 guys sitting under a shade tree drinking beer watching this display. One was taking pictures of me. They were laughing alot, no doubt some of the time (all of the time?) because of me. But I persisted in hopes a hatch would come off near sunset. It never did. The sun was now down, I could barely see, and just about the time I was going to call it quits I heard the old "toilet plunger" sound I last heard on the Fryingpan River last year while fishing blind after dark. It was a nice plump rainbow and I landed it. Of course, the guys taking pictures weren't around when I finally caught a trout.

July 14

My morning session was characterized by NO fish and by being run off the river by mosquitos. The mosquitos were so heavy you had to breath through your nose and even then the buggers would go up your nostrils. When I got back to the truck, they were swarming all over me. I broke down my rod into two pieces, through all the gear into the truck, and jumped in (waders and wading boots still on) and drove down the road at 60 mph with all the windows down. Whew! Found a turn off and pulled over to gear down put my fly-rod away properly. I no sooner got my boots off when the mosquitos found me again. I mean I had two coats of deet on and they still were eating me! I swear one got a needle in right through my 3mm neoprene waders. A guy back at the campground (where the bugs were just as bad) joked that Mogote was Spanish for mosquitos. It is not, a mogote is a geologic structure found in the area. The evening session was even worse. I again fished at the CG waiting for the infamous stonefly hatch to come off, thinking since it didn't last night, it must tonite. That part was correct - the stoneflys not only came off, they were friggin huge. When their wings were beating, they were about the same area as a golfball, with body centers the size of crickets. These flies were *big*. Not only that, there was also a caddis hatch and a mayfly hatch. The river was covered in bugs. But no rises. None. I finally caught a small brown, but turned in. The only thing good about this day was the 43 degree nightime temps and reading myself to sleep: "Heisenburg Probably Slept Here", a book profiling 10 of he world's greatest physicist, given to me by billm. Excellent book. You gotta love Feyman. After having an argument with some students that urination was a strictly gravitational driven event, he proved them wrong by standing on his head and taking a leak.

July 15

Screw it - left Mogote for Salida and the Arkansas river. Stopped at Milagros for coffee and to view the babeage.

July 16

I sucked. Wind was up. No risers. Will I ever catch another trout??

July 17

Good day. Caught over 20 trout, but missed the 5 big ones. Here's how:

1) lost the biggest one (brown) because I was on the bank and got my fly-line wrapped around my boot. The headed downstream in the fast current, and when I figured out what was going on, my rod tip went down into the water and I looked on with trepidation as the leader popped and my fly was gone (and so too the fish).

2) Lost another nice fish because I was watching my fly and it simply dissappeared. No swirl, no movement, no nothing - just vanished. By the time it took me to think "what the fuck Alice?" I set the hook but it was too late. I saw a big silver streak (rainbow) headed toward the fast water and I just knew the hook wasn't set well - and this guy was large. After a very brief fight, ping! He was gone. At least I got the fly back.

3-5) All large fish, all got off due to slack in the line because of the howling wind ripping through the canyon. There is a reason fly-fisherman say "tight lines bud!" instead of goodbye.

July 18

OK, the Fitzman is in a slump. Just like last year, the very windy conditions here on the Arkansas have given me the fly-fishing blues. Losing *all* the big fish yesterday has taken some of my spunk away. Today merely confirmed I am not having fun fighting the wind and the non-cooperating trout. To make matters worse, I hiked down into a gorge for the morning session only to find I had left my anti-glare glasses and my net back in the truck. Then I ran out of 3lb tippet. My left thumb has lost the top 4 layers of epidermis due to all the line stripping and fish de-hooking. It bleeds a little while I am fishing, but I never feel it while I am on the water. Later, it bothers me. As always, click to enlarge the picture and see a miserable looking thumb. Isn't this exciting reading?.

This is a replay of so many years: fly-fishing burnout on the Arkansas river. Hot, windy, hard to cast, water-lined fly-lines after so many days of continuous fishing. Why aren't I enjoying the British Open on TV? What happened in the Tour de France today and boy would I love to watch the Lance and Contador battle once they are in the Alps. And boy, do I miss a refrigerator... Last year after a day like today, I reached up to grab a rock to help me up out of the river and I had a premonition NOT to grab the rock. I subsconciously puled my hand back, looked down, and saw a rattlesnake coiled to strike just below the exact rock I was going to grab. I took a picture of the rattlesnake which you can see here:

That was my signal to leave and I headed back to TN the next day. Today, things were a bit different. I still suffered the mid-summer fly-fishing blues like last year, but in a more serene and accepting way. Today while releasing a small rainbow, I again had a premonition someone or something was watching me. I turned around to find a big-horn sheep staring at me from the opposite bank. He was a majestic beast and I waded over to the shore to get the camera out of the ziploc bag in my fly-fishing vest. I quickly took a picture in case he bolted, but decided I needed a closer shot, so I waded across the water toward him. He had alot of attitude. Hard to describe, but walking toward him took a few minutes, and he was like, yeah doode, I am a big-horn sheep and you are a human. But it isn't hunting season, and you are a fly-fishing nut, so you're not a threat. Then he'd eat a bit, or take a sip of water. Then he'd look at me as though, by-the-way, at the look of things, I can probably fly-fish better than you too. He was truly magnificent. Anyhow, I got pretty close before the water got too high and I was scared of going downstream with a wet camera.

Big-horn Sheep (Click to enlarge)

It's Called Dry-fly Fishing

As I said earlier, my biggest problem now is water logged and old fly-lines. After non-stop fishing for a month now, my lines are worn out and I am too thrifty (stupid? cheap??) to buy new ones. Water logged lines lead to heavy landings, which the trout "feel" and very quickly evacuate the vacinity. You can see big dart streaks taking off to the deeper fast current. Especially when the water is low like it is here now and was on the Conejos. Even if you are lucky enough to make a good cast, the fly itself usually lands with a "thud" and scares the hell out of any fish within the same zip-code. Plus, the flies themselves then retain more water because they are not floating as they should. All this is of course why they call the sport dry fly fishing. The objective is always to land the fly like a feather, have it float on the surface of the water like a real fly does, and keep as natural a drift on the current as possible. Old worn out fly lines prevent this. A bamboo rod is great, but if your line suck, so will your fishing. So, I string up the lines, dry them out, and dress them with Cortland XL cleaner. But old lines are old lines, and after 10 or 20 cast in fast water they are once again water-logged. So, my strategy then is to increase my leader length to 9 or 10 feet, adding much more 3 lb tippet at the end. This works pretty good...until it gets windy (like it is here now) in which case your problems are magnified by such a long leader.

Like I said, I have the mid-summer fly-fishing blues.

But, like 59 year old Tom Watson at the British Open, who faced adversity and Irish Sea wind on the front 9 at Turnberry and lost his lead, only to make two birdie puts (one 45 feet and one 60 feet!) on the back 9, the Fitzman is going to fight through this adversity. So, one more day here to do laundry (and perhaps try fishing once more) and it is on to the Fryingpan River, which is probably the hardest of all rivers to fly-fish from a technical perspective due to the amount of fishing pressure and the age and wisdom of the trout in the river (all catch and release for rainbows). However, I will enter the arena. I will participate and I will try to match wits with the trout on the Pan.

Solar Power for the San Luis Valley

The San Luis Valley in Colorado is the largest alpine valley in the world covering more than 8,000 sq miles at an average altitude of around 7.500 feet. I travel through the valley every summer on my way to the Conejos river and stop frequently in Alamosa for a cheap breakfast at the lil restaurant next to the Lamplighter motel, a visit to Milagros coffee shop (internet access), the bookstore, the Conoco station, and to buy groceries. Sometimes I'll lunch at the Adam's State campus or in the city park along the Rio Grande river. It's a cool little town and the people are very friendly.

Anyhow, solar power has come to the San Luis Valley. Just outside Alamosa off Hwy 17, SunEdison has constructed the largest solar PV plant (8.22 Megawatts) in the United States supporting substation loads for a major public utility. Xcel Energy will buy renewable energy credits and the solar power generated by the Alamosa plant for 20 years. There are plans to build an additional plant with a 16 MW capacity. Combined, the two solar plants will be able to power over 7,000 homes in the valley.

In addition, I read in a local rag that Tri-State (the local electrical co-op) plans to build a solar power plant in northeastern New Mexico with a half-million state of the art photovoltaic panels that will generate 30 MW - enough to power an additional 9,000 homes. They are also investing in a 51 MW wind farm in eastern Colorado. I have heard this farm will be in the La Junta area. Both of these facilities should be in operation by the end of 2010.

It's great to see alternative energy really taking root in this area. It's good news for the San Juan Wilderness and for the trout in the Conejos and Rio Grande rivers and tributaries.

Now, the San Luis Valley is noted for its UFO sitings. Several books have been written on the subject and there is even a UFO themed campground near the new solar plant. Now the locals are saying the new solar plants will invite yet more frequent visitations. I have personally shared breakfast with two older gentlemen who swear they saw a UFO in the upper Rio Grande area. They were camping (and drinking) and about 1am saw a small object that hovered over them and lit up the entire valley with beams of light. I asked if the alcohol may have had something to do with the encounter, and they both got very serious - they admitted to drinking alot, but the fact that both of them saw it at the same time means it really happened. Anyhow, while I was passing through town there was a rumour that a bald headed alien in some kind of silver looking vehicle was spotted in the Conejos river valley. Hey, don't laugh...when the aliens come down, they will look favorable on all the bald headed men first. "Take me to your leader"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Coffee, Cane, and the Conejos

July 7-12, 2009

I caught 9 browns at Swissdale (on the Arkansas River) including the first brown of the summer (shown below).

First Brown Trout of the Year (Arkansas River).

It's pretty amazing that I have been in Colorado over two weeks and only now catching a brown. That said, it's easy to stay in the Flat Tops and catch nothing but cutthroats, rainbows, and cut-bows. Nine trout isn't bad, but the Arkansas was flowing high and fast and it seemed that it was time to go to the Conejos, my "home river" so to speak. On July 7 I drove to the Conejos from Salida stopping in Alamosa for supplies. With the 5 day cooler Mom & Dad bought me, and with a few towels and waders stacked on top, I can now get 7 days out of my cooler and this is a big deal considering the time and distance for ice and food.

July 7:

After setting up the Teardrop at Lake Fork CG, the first fly-fisherman I met told me the story: it had rained nearly every day in June, Platoro Reservoir was at a 30 year high (after being at a 30 year low just a few drought years back), and the Conejos had been running high and fast all spring until just before the 4th of July weekend when they cut back the flow out of Platoro for the fisherman. And the river dropped bigtime. Now, even though the Conejos is fed by the dam at Platoro, it really fishes more like a free-stone river. That is, it's length (over 25 miles long), number of tributaries (Elk Creek, South Fork, etc.), and varied terrain (from meandering meadows, to great pocket water, to gorging canyons) makes it appear to fish more like a freestone river (ala the Cache la Poudre in northern CO) than a tailwater fishery. Low water excited me as I felt I could wade across the river and work the opposite bank. Being a right-handed caster, this is a big plus - not to mention the opposite bank doesn't get as much fishing pressure as most wussies don't dare cross. So, I headed out about 6pm to fish a place downstream from the campground where I caught an awesome green drake hatch this time last year. Sure enough, the river was low, I waded across and busted some trout using my Beasley Perfectionist (4 wt bamboo) fly-rod and a #12 orange stimulator. And sure enough, just about when the sun was going down (and blinding me to where I couldn't see my fly), the green drakes came out and I ended up catching 12 fish in about 2 hours including some below. Love the Conejos and man do I know how to fish!

Nice to be catching Rainbow Trout again on the Conejos.

First Brown Trout on the Conejos. All day long....

July 8:

Got cold as hell last night and the hot coffee this morning was the highlight of the day. Went upstream to a favorite section of river and could do nothing right. Hung up, tippet screwed up, fly landing like a 747 on the surface of the water and scared all the fish back up to Platoro. By the time I fixed my leader and rig, the wind came up and was blowing the fly 20 yards from its intended landing zone. What am I doing up here all alone? What about that girl back at the bookstore in Alamosa...or the one that helped me pick out wine at the liquor store. I don't know how to fish, so why am I trying to catch trout on this river??

July 9:

Decided last nite to climb Mt. Conejos today since I obviously no longer no how to fly-fish. However, when I awoke the sky was overcast and darkening clouds (very unusual - it's usually clear as a bell in the mornings) and I didn't want to get caught on Conejos Peak if it was gonna get nasty. So, I decided to fish but wanted none of the wind of the upper canyon so I went downstream further then ever before and tried a new stretch of river. Bam! Caught a trout on the first cast and caught trout non-stop from 8am-2pm. What a difference a day makes. The day was topped off by catching 3 fish on 5 casts from the same slot in the river. For once, I was patient enough to take all the right measures. When I saw this slot in the river, I knew it was big trout territory. I fixed a wind knot in my tippet I had been ignoring, and actually broke off some limbs of some bushes so that I could not only cast to the slot, but also form a path of retreat as I knew a big fish would head for the fast water and take me downstream. With all this preparation down, with a swig of water and a mouth full of sunflower seeds...I headed in and made the first cast. BAM!! A big brown swallowed my fly wholesale and headed for the fast water. I gave his some line, retreated deftly over the boulders and down to some calmer water where I wore him out and netted him. The Fitzman is baaack! :) Took a pic, revived and released the fish, and headed back to the slot for more. Another strike. Another cast a foot farther upstream - BAM!! Carbon copy of the first fish...fought the same, took the same route downstream, landed the same, looked the same, same coloring, same size, coudda been brothers. After releasing...I headed back in again. A fourth cast to the slot...nada...a fifth cast a foot further than before and BAM!! A triplet brother! I swear all three fish could have been brothers, all 17-18" and just beautiful browns. Here's a picture of the biggest (I think) of the "brothers":

The mosquitos love this hole in my old fly-fishing shirt.

A beautiful and productive run on the Conejos River

Overall on this day, I landed about 20 trout and had numerous other battles where the fish won out. Good news in that among the 20 odd fish were 4 rainbows. Last year, I didn't catch a rainbow all year on the Conejos and they have been in decline since the browns have taken over. The cutthroat in the Conejos are all but gone - being somewhat slow and bashful, they cannot compete with the browns. Despite all the reputation of cunning, I have found browns to be very agressive and will not let a rainbow or cuttie or brookie take a fly before himself. Anyhow, it's good to catch bows on the Conejos again.

July 10:

Wind is up again - shit! I don't know how to fish. Caught two fish all day - the biggest one being 7 inches long. What on earth am I doing here? I bet the girl at the bookstore is at Milagros having a nice cup of coffee and flirting with some guy on a fly-fishing vacation while I am out here throwing my arm off for no reason at all....

July 11:

Went further downstream to Trail Creek trailhead and hiked down the gultch to the river. Hmm..bear tracks...not too big deal...just keep an eye out. As I get closer to the river I'm in willows over my head and can't see 10 feet. I start being quieter and real stealthy like so as not to spook the fish and all of a sudden I look up and notice a big black animal and a little black animal. My first instinct (incorrect I might add..) was to run like hell! I somehow kept myself from doing that and my second instinct was to beshit my knickers (or in this case, my waders) but it is a good thing I did not. Just two cows who had gotten separated from the rest up on the mesa. Whew. Boy, that will get yer ole heart pumpin at 8am on a cold morning in the wilderness! Long story short - this was a great day of fishing and about 25 fish were landed. None over 16", but all fun and the scenery was awesome as usual. Orange stimulators, caddis, adams wulff - you name it, they all worked. What a river. Do I know how to fish after all? I can't decide.

July 12:

There was the coolest electrical storm over the continental divide toward Platoro last nite. I got up to take a whizz about 3am and I kept thinking someone was taking my picture..then I thought I'd gone crazy..I finally just stood there and looked up at the sky and it was fantastic. The quickets flashes of the brightest white you have ever seen in your life filled the canyon up-river. No sound at all - just flashes of brilliance.

After 5 days at Lake Fork, I was ready for a new campground. Especially after I fixed the CG hosts' waterpump in his RV for which he was very grateful. I kinda thought he'd give me a free night's stay ($14/night) but the offer was not made and I did not suggest it - though I thought strongly about doing so. Oh well, it still felt good to help someone out.

So, I packed up and headed to where I didn't know. On the way back down the dirt road, I pulled over to look down at the river from the infamous "Pinnacles". The Pinnacles if famous for a few things:

1) Hardest section of the river to fish due to the very steep drop down to the river.
2) Hot and heavy pocket water fishing.
3) Big trout.
4) A *very* big grunt back up the mountain after the fishing is over.

For these reasons, I'd never found the time to fish the Pinnacles before. Today however, I felt the water being really low - at least there was no risk of a big hike to unfishable water. I wished I had a companion for this venture, but what the heck. I pulled over (Teardrop and all), suited up, and hiked down to the river. Well, the reputation was correct - it was steep and a bit of work. But worth it - the river was gorgeous and the trout were receptive. That said, I was a bit dissapointed in the size of the fish - nothing bigger than I had been catching. I did catch one rather fat 17" brown, but of course the camera batteries were finally kaput (they had been "not working" for some time, but all I had to do was take them out, warm them in my hands, scratch around the contacts a bit, and I could always get one more picture. Well, not today. So, not only did I not get a picture of the fat brown trout, but I got none of the beautiful river down there either. Take my word though, it was spectacular and wild country. On the way out after catching 7 or 8 fish, I was lucky enough to find an old abandoned road. It looked like the original road to Platoro it had telephone lines strung next to it and the poles looked really old. Anyhow, this made the hike back downstream to the original route down the mountain much easier. Then the grunt up. Let's just say the Fitzman was looking for any shade tree on the hike up for which to rest under. Whew! What a workout. But I'll do it again next summer...later this summer??

The picture below didn't turn out as cool as I had hoped. Yes, the fish is small, but he was rising under that rock and the cast was just perfect and he nailed it! Just imagine me not in the picture and you too will see a beautiful little slice of the Conejos flowing under that rock.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Kansas Kontingent

July 4-5, 2009

Rick and Hammer - click on the photos to see the beards.

This year the Sugarbush campground was full of Kansans, including my biker neighbors Hammer and Fauna, and from across the creek Rick the BBQ expert. Hammer was pulling a small trailor on his Harley that I must admit got more attention than the old Teardrop. Rick had a big rig that was designed to haul toys in the back - in his case a couple of 4-wheelers. Once these were taken out, an air mattress was put in and the compartment was a bedroom for his two girls.

I met the two girls first. They were playin around the creek's big hole and I said how's the water? They said cold. I said cold?? I thought you country farm girls from Kansas were 'posed to be tough. Just jump right in! They looked at me in disbelief, so I turned back to whatever I was doing. Then I hear splash! Both are in the water and soon covered in mud. It got real serious when one of them said "not in the face, not in the face" and the other was making mud balls and baking them in the sun to ripen...

Rick and the girls.

Big rig!

It was the first time I can remember hanging out with people from Kansas, but I hafta say they were some generous and kind folks. The first night, Rick made a trip over from the cabin down the road (in the family for generations) to bring over some 10-12 pounds of beef brisket he'd been smokin all day. Rick owns a BBQ place in Elkhart, KS. So, I get back from town and Hammer and Fauna are like don't cook dinner Mike, we've got you covered - check out what Rick brought us. Well, I don't have to tell you that after being in the Flat Tops for two weeks, this news was heaven sent. So, we pigged and drank beer. Half way through the meal, it dawns on me that Rick didn't provide any BBQ sauce, and I mentioned this. Well, Fauna, never one to hold back a thought, says you ungrateful so-n-so - here the guy brings you all this great smoked brisket and you are complaining about no BBQ sauce! After she calmed down, I explained that most guys I know that are proud of their BBQ (especially those who own their own restaurant) are *very* proud of their sauce and I just thought it was interesting that Rick did not bring any over with the beef. Fauna and Hammer were both of the opinion I should just let this oversight slide in view of his generousity. The next day, I was over bs'ing with Rick and getting the tour of his rig and of course thanked him profously for the brisket. Then I said, hey, Rick, not to look a gift horse in mouth, but I was surprised you didn't bring any of your BBQ sauce over with the beef - aren't you proud of your sauce? Well, he got this very concerned look on his face and said, you know, I forgot! I've got some over at the cabin and I'll bring some over later. Well, later on he comes over with a BBQ pork sandwich (with bacon) and says Mike, this has my sauce on it - what do you think? Well, it was delicious and I said it was some of the best BBQ sauce I'd ever had. Now, this was different. Do you have a secret? Without hesitating (unusual for cooks...) he says, yup, wasabi! I said wasabi, in BBQ sauce? Well, turns out his wife was enamered with a ranch dressing they tried at TGI Fridays that had wasabi. They talked the owner into selling them a 10lb tub which they were sure would go bad before they could finish it. Not to be - they loved it and put it on everything - carrots, celery, sandwiches, etc. etc. During one of these ranch/wasabi lovefest, Rick's wife said hey, why not in your BBQ sauce? Rick says his diner's success is solely due to his wife's tinkering with the menu, so when she suggested this addition to his BBQ sauce, he jumped on it and the rest is history. If you are thinking this is all bullshit, just visit Rick-n-Roll BBQ in Elkhart, KS (Hwy 56 East) or visit (under construction).

Then Rick says, so, you like wasabi huh? Be-right-back and he bounds into the inner sanctum of his trailer to return with a can of, can you believe it, Blue Diamond Almonds - BOLD with Wasabi and Soy Sauce! Ohhh man, are these almonds good! Try them out - you can pick em up at Wal Mart and there is no way you won't finish the can as long as yer beer holds out.

Rick's son Ricky is a born businessman. Came right by to look over the Teardrop, asked me if I go through Kansas on the way to Tennessee and I said why sure. Hands me his Dad's business card and says this is the best BBQ you've ever had (this was before we feasted on it) and tells me just how to get there from the main road. Later, I found out that Hammer got a stack of business cards from Ricky, and I told him I guess I didn't rate - I only got one. Hammer said no, the kid realized we live in Kansas and you are in Tennessee. Good point!

Rick's son Ricky.

The morning after the BBQ feast, I wake up and hear my neighbors cookin up breakfast so I start my morning coffee routine when Fauna says, Mike - don't be making any breakfast - we've made too much omelet. I said no, no, I really do have food - you guys from Kansas don't have to feed me for every meal. She said nonsense, we didn't make it FOR you...we just made too much - so come over and get you some or we'll just have to throw it out. So, I wandered over with my coffee and here was an omelet of all omelets - hash browns, onions, peppers, pork, chicken, eggs and cheese. Zow-eee was it tasty! Best omelet I ever had (no lie). What a way to start the day and how they hauled all those tasty vittles along with that camper on a Harley I will never know. Anyhow, Hammer and Fauna were great. Tom (the campground host and owner, great guy) was giving the girls hell for playing in the creek and Fauna looked him straight in the eye and said "you're a crusty old bastard aren't ya?" Well, I just about busted a gut and fell in the friggin creek. Hammer was telling of coyote huntin stories where they go out in the winter to the prarie - no trees for miles, just small elevation changes. He and his buddy sit back-to-back as you never know which direction the coyotes will come from and sometimes they'll be 20 or 30 of em coming at you with their tongues hangin out. So, they position themselves and their rifles and start making rabbit calls and whatknot. Now, he says you can't move an eyelash when they start comin or they will break off and leave. So, you just have to be still while they come from all directions straight toward you (thinking you're a meal..). Then you blast them. White snow turns fast and it's blood on the highway. Hammer wears an UnderArmour shirt that looks like his arms are tatoo'd in camo. I thought so, and so did one other guy. I think Hammer delights in rolling up the sleeve after questioned about it. He also told a story about taking his grandmother to the doctor's office in Colorado Springs one day. He was helping her out of the car when a couple in a Mercedes dropped their jaw thinking his old grandmother was being rolled by a biker. He told his grandmother what was happening, and of course she played it up bigtime and pretended to fight back. Of course the young couple in the Mercedes sped away fast and Hammer and his grandma had a good laugh over it.

Anyhow, lots of fun with the folks from Kansas this year.

Hammer and Fauna.

Ready to Roll!


Another guy from Kansas, I forget his name, nice as could be. He was notable for his refusal to call the Arkansas River by anything other than the "R-Kansas" River. Cracked me up.

As usual, I never even thought about taking pictures til everyone was packin up to leave on July 5th. But I did get a few shots and they're shared here.

As far as all the trailor competition goes - despite all the nice units at Sugarbush this year, I'll stick with my old Teardrop. Even all covered in Flat Top's mud it's still perfect for the Fitzman. The fender shown had even been cleaned off by a couple whizzes, so imagine what the one on the opposite side looked like ;)

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Flat Tops Wilderness

Typical Flat Tops Country

June29-July2, 2009

The Flat Tops Wilderness is one of my all-time favorite places to camp and fly-fish. Its remote, rugged, wild, and less visited than most. This year there has been abundant rainfall - it has rained almost every day this spring. The trails are muddy and sometimes a bit difficult. The plus side of mud is good tracks - you can see who (or what) has been on the trail before and after you, assuming one knows his or her's own boot print. The usual critters where there again this year (deer, elk, bear, coons, skunks, etc) with one exception - I never saw a mountain lion print this year. However, rumour has it that the large "dog" prints on the trail were actually wolf prints. The old lady up at the cabins swears she had wolves round her house on a couple of occaisions early this spring. I googled "wolf print" and gave them a good look in comparison to dog prints, and I am still not convinced the prints on the trail were wolf, That said, I am not convinced otherwise either. Regardless, I never saw a wolf.

I realize now that I never take pictures of the trails into my favorite river. I take lots of river pictures, but in truth, the trail makes just as big an impression on me. It's the trail that must be hiked in to the real good fishing - the farther you hike away from the campground, the better the fishing. Two miles..OK...three miles...pretty decent...four miles in - fabulous fishing. Anyhow, the trail is always on your mind - what to pack-in, what not to pack, how much time to hike in/out, and at some point every year the question comes up - do I give up catching nice fish to beat the storm that is brewing, or, do I keep fishing and risk getting caught on the wrong side of the "boulders" at sundown. The "boulders" is a term some of us use to refer to the mountain top full of big boulders and rock that must be negotiated to get back to the campground. If the storm has lightnin, and they usually do, you don't want to be caught on the "boulders" with an aluminum frame backpack (like mine) and a fly-rod tube sticking up in the air (not to mention a bald head). I got caught on the wrong side of the boulders once. The lightening show was spectacular - actually striking some of the rocks on top of the mountain. I was wet cold and it was after dark when I stumbled back into the campground where Alan and crew were already organizing a search party. Amazingly cool since I had only met them a couple days before.
Anyhow next year, I am going to take many pictures of the trail to document its various sections: up hill to deep pools, narrow/muddy/buggy/flat, nice meadow, open aspen meadow, uphill to boulders, "the shoots", uphill again, straight and narrow, open meadows, and finally the cabins (at 5mi in). After four or five days hiking this trail, it leaves its imprint on you and you get to know it well. This year, the wild flowers were amazingly bright and colorful.
One man gathers what another man spills. So far I have found a Henckles knife at MeadownLake CG (very nice!) and a book on Colorado wildfires which I found on the trail.
The river was high this year but I found some good fishing including one day that was nothing less than inspirational. Here are some pictures from that day.

A nice fat cut-bow (rainbow/cutthroat hybrid).

This rainbow was a 19 incher.

Another cut-bow.

Another couple cut-bows.

The river was high and fast due to all the rain. It was hard to get good drifts with the dry flies I like to use. Also quite difficult to land a big trout as they usually run straight for the current. So, you have a choice - use 4 or 5 lb tippet and catch many fewer fish (fly doesn't drift as naturally), or use the lighter 3lb tippet and hook more fish, but lose some flies when the big ones take off on you. I lost quite a few flies...
Of special note this day was "the log". As I worked my way up the river I saw a big tree which I was too lazy to negotiate. On the other side of the tree was a real nice piece of water where I knew some trout would be hanging out.

Casting into this sweet draw from below the log, it became apparent that hooking a nice sized fish would be difficult if not impossible to land. About the time that thought went through my mind, I got a powerful strike from a medium sized rainbow. He of course headed into the current and downstream. I thought I'd lose him and my fly, but I worked him as best I could and eventually, with my rod and on the upstream side of the log, actually netted the fish underneath the log on the downstream side. I hope you can visualize this. Anyhow, after netting the fish for some reason I started laughing out loud as I was quite amazed I pulled it off. I ended up catching 3 more the same way until a whopper didn't feel like playing my game, took me downstream, and popped the orange stimulator off my line. So, I eventually got what I deserved, but it sure was great fun for awhile!

I had to string up this rainbow (just under 20") to revive it after a classic well fought battle. He lived, and I had a Kodak moment.