HOT, DRY, & WINDY - But the fishing was Fantastic!
I called my buddy Scott in Colorado in early June to get an early scouting report on the conditions there. He said "Mike, you need to get out here right away - it will be over by July. We got no snow, the rivers have already peaked and are dropping fast." I had not been keeping up with the winter weather in CO like I usually do and it seemed river conditions were at least a month to 5 weeks ahead of last year when many rivers were still blown out in early July. As soon as I hung up with Scott I got online ordered my CO fishing license and fly-fishing supplies and started packing up my camping gear. About a week later I was at the "Noname" river with a split cane fly-rod in my hand. Heaven on Earth for me.
The Noname River
The Noname River had indeed peaked, was dropping, and the water was clear as gin. Other than the wind, which was brutal at times, fishing conditions on the river were absolutely perfect.
After the long two day drive from TN I usually take a day or two to recover and get acclimated to the higher altitude. However, patience is a quality I did not possess this year so the morning after arriving I threw on my backpack with waders, boots, fly-rod, vest, water and food and hiked a few miles into the Flat Tops Wilderness. My adrenaline was pumping as I could tell from experience the fishing was going to be great - lots of bugs on the water and the river level and flow was perfect. I went in about 4 miles, changed from hiking gear to fishing gear, and hit one of the tougher sections of the river - very technical pocket water but with a few long runs on either side. I worked my way upstream and it wasn't long before I hooked a nice cut-bow. How I love seeing trout rise to a dry fly! And there's no looking over their shoulder up here - it's quite possible this fish had never seen a fly-fisherman before. I waded across the river to a run which never fails to yield a nice fish and I was not disappointed with the fish shown below.
This guy went 16-17 inches and man, what a fight in that current. After working through this technical water, and catching a few more cut-bows here and there, I was relieved to reach the stretch of smoother, shallower, and wider water upstream. There is a section of water where I seldom catch a fish and so I was just casting my fly out into the water as I continued walking upstream. I was fishing a #14 royal wulff (white winged) and the wings disappeared very quietly but I set the hook anyway and waddya know - a fish. He was one of those guys that just sat still in the middle of the river and didn't move. I've lost a few that do this as they are usually just trying to grind the hook out of their mouth (at least that is my theory). So I quickly took up line and waded straight toward him. I got to within about 5 feet and Zzzzzzzzzz he takes off upstream bending my rod over and getting directly on the reel. He was a big. So he goes upstream taking out line...then turns around and heads back straight toward. For once, I was ready for this and took off running through the water toward the bank with my rod raised high. I survived this part of the battle with my line tight and him still on. He tired and was resting in about the same spot I hooked him so I took up line and started walking toward him again. He moved around a bit and we fought and fought and after a few minutes I thought he was tired out and unhooked the net from my vest. Bad move...now I had my net in my hand (with no bungie cord - so if I dropped it, it would float downstream in a hurry) and of course he takes off toward the opposite bank. I followed and he found some deep water and stopped. I was able to ease him out to some shallower water and he seemed tired and I thought I could net him. But when life looks like easy street there is danger at your door. He shoots across to the opposite shore where there is an undercut and a 3 foot steep bank. The undercut was foot or so deep and he went up under the bank and disappeared. I tried to angle my rod and ease him out but knew if I went horizontal the fly would come flying out of his mouth. I did my best (knowing I had a 3 lb tippet and the fish was much heavier than that) but before I knew it he had my line wrapped around a root near the surface. As I tried to get loose from that, he moved downstream quickly and then I was hooked on another root about 2 feet from the water. Making matters worse, when I tried to get my line off that root I got it tangled in some tree limbs over my head. Not he's got me tangled in 3 places and I knew what was coming next, but nothing prepared me for the loudness of the POP my tippet made when he headed upstream in a hurry and broke off. I line busted at my blood knot between the 4 and 3 lb tippet. I still can't believe what a loud noise that made. I used to curse and sometimes let out a primitive yell when I lost a fish of that caliber...now I just smile and give him the respect he deserved. Well done old boy...I will get you next year. Well, maybe.
I continued working up to the small meadow and once again visited a spot that usually has a nice rainbow but this year it was another cut-bow. He readily took my fly and I was able to land him quickly.
I was running out of steam at this point and decided I had better head back to my backpack. Not sure why, but I was real low on energy and feeling a bit flushed. Not sure why...I had gotten in real good shape before I left home, so I don't think it was an issue of conditioning. I had my bandana and was dipping it in the water occasionally to keep my head and neck cool, but man, I was dragging ass. After hiking about a mile with the backpack my knee and back started acting up. Screw it. I ditched the pack with all my gear and just hiked back to the campground with plans to come back the next morning. I went back and had a good dinner and lots of water but was still feeling kinda flushed and groggy when I went to bed.
The next morning I felt refreshed and ready to go. It was nice to hike in without a pack and knowing all my gear was up there waiting for me. All I had to carry was food and water. I got to my pack about 10:30am and already the water was covered with bugs of all types. I was psyched! There was a nice deep hole right there where I ditched my gear the day before so the plan was to start fishing there and work upstream for a mile or so. But first, I went downstream to stash my water bottle in the river so it would be nice and cold for the hike back to the campground in the heat of the day. I then started working my way up to the hole but I was not happy with my presentation as several fish rose to it and refused. I tied a new tippet and a new fly for the hole and on the first cast I was admiring my fly's drift when a big mouth rose very slowly and just engulfed my fly. Zzzzzzzzzz!!! he immediately goes on the reel and heads downstream with me running behind him and jumping over boulders and rocks. We fight for awhile and then he heads back toward me so I am stripping line and trying to keep the line tight and shit - my line gets tangled up in my boots and damn have I lost alot of fish that way in the past! Grrrr....but I get a lucky break and raise one foot and the current took away the line and I am free again. Whew...close call. About that time he heads straight toward me and in an attempt to back away I get my rod and line tangled up in a willow bush on the bank. Lord have mercy..I am doing everything I can to lose this fish. But alas, I once again get free and the fish is still on. We continue to fight. I mean when you fish with a 5x 3 lb tippet and the fish weighs more than that and has fast current to aid him, he's pretty much gonna dictate the action until he gets tired. And I finally did tire him out and was able to swoop him up in the net. What a beautiful cut-bow! One of the biggest trout I have ever landed... in the top-5 for sure.
Not bad for the first fish of the day! I really wanted a picture of this one, but I was worried he might not make it through the ordeal after the long fight. So I spent some time reviving him in the cold current and kept him in the net with my knee while I fetched the camera out of my vest. I took a couple quick pictures and then held him in the current and released him back to the wild. He seemed very strong still and I am sure he survived the ordeal. However, I was so concerned about his health I had neglected my net which apparently got caught in the current in went downstream. Since the net floats, I looked downstream 20 or 30 yards, but it was gone. Damn!
I worked my way upstream catching the odd fish here and there but the wind picked up and I was having a helluva time casting and getting nice landings and drifts. I started feeling "flushed" again (for lack of a better word) and thought maybe I should head back to the campground in case my back or knee started acting up again. But when I got back to where my backpack was, I remembered a hole downstream and my gut said "yes, go fish it!" even though I was tired and not feeling well. So, I hiked downstream, entered the water, and fished the run - but I didn't catch a thing or even get a rise. Usually my intuition is good in nature and so I was like, what the heck - no fish? Why did my gut tell me to come back. I kept working upstream and pulled in my line because the wind was terrible. As I turned a small bend in the river, there in the middle, hung up on a small twig, was my net! As soon as I saw it, the net came lose and drifted right toward me so I snagged it. Good Action!
The hike back was uneventful except for the heat and the wind. I still wasn't feeling good that night so I forced down a bunch of water and went to bed early. The next morning I wasn't up to another big hike up the trail with my gear so I decided to make the drive to Trapper's Lake where the fishing is much easier and where I could rest and relax a little.
Trapper's Lake was down 2 feet from last years July level! When I got some ice at the lodge the lady told me they barely got 2.5 feet of snow pack this year versus a normal 6-9 feet. Can you say dry? I couldn't believe all the downed trees (burned in the "Big Fish" fire of 2002) and the lady said, yeah, we've had some really big wind up here.
Anyhow, I know from experience the first morning I fish Trapper's is always the best. I swear the first few fish I catch and release always go back and tell all the others "Hey man, watch out, that dude from Tennessee is back again" and then things cool off the following days. So, I was really ready this year on my first trip down to the Lake...ready except that I left my (new found) net in the truck! Jeez. Oh well, I got on the water about 10:30 am when what I believe to be a callibaetis hatch just went haywire and got the water boiling with surface action. I didn't have a callibaetis fly so I tied on a #16 adams and did my best with that. Boom! The first strike was a gorgeous 19 inch Colorado native cutthroat - big, fat, and very orange! Beautiful. Took me a while to gather him w/o a net and then Boom! a 17"...and boom! another 17"... Good action!! Each fish was a real battle because I didn't have a net and these guys were fighting big time. I guess I was here earlier than normal so the fish were much more in their spawning colors than in July and really battling. Man, you gotta love seeing fish 16-24 inches long in 10 inches of water rising to dry flies! When the sun was out and you got the right angle, you could just see them moving along slurping flies off the surface. I don't know why I get so excited seeing a fish moving toward my fly, slurping flies along the way, and wondering if he will take mine - or not, but man I get a thrill out of it. I didn't get any pictures that morning, but here are a few from the next day.
The next day I hooked up with a new friend Joel P. and we fished the flats in Scot's Bay together. It was a little slow at first, but within 30 minutes hour or so the wind died down and the hatch started again. Soon we each had landed 10-12 fish, most all in the 16-20 inch range. It was a real hoot. If the wind stayed down for 5 minutes or so the flies would come out in mass and that would trigger the fish. Then the wind would come up and everything would stop for awhile. But man, when the water was calm and the bugs were out, it's hard to beat casting to fish you can see and are readily feeding. Here's a couple pictures including this one of Joel hooked up with the lake and mountains in the background:
I should mention that on Trapper's I usually fish my Beasley 4wt "Perfectionist" split cane rod which is a a Paul Young taper. This year, due to the wind, I fished a 5wt "Fitz Special" cane rod that Jim made and, most generously, gave me last year. It was my first time fishing it with dries and I was very happy with the rod. Despite the wind and my somewhat questionable casting skills, I was able to gently land my flies with a very natural presentation. Thanks Jim!
So Joel and I had a good time fishing and then back at the campground I met some new friends Jim and Becky and their buddy Gary from Alaska and we partied a bit. Jim and Becky live in Mexico during the winter and from what I gather spend summers in Colorado fly-fishing and chasing various blue-grass festivals in their travel trailer. Nice life! Also, Bobby and Shirley were still the campground hosts. They have internet access in their trailer and Bobby was able to print off the U.S. Open golf scores for me - thanks man!
Well, the fishing slowed for me as it seemed all the fish in Scott's Bay had my number so it was time to leave Trapper's and head down to the Fryingpan River.
The Fryingpan River
I always thought the river was named after, you know, frying fish in a pan. This year I learned the real story. Legend has it back in the 1800's there was a white settlement up near the present day Ruedi Reservoir. The local Indians were upset about something and tried to come to an agreement with the whites on the issue but things were not resolved. Apparently the Indians came in one night and just wiped out the settlement. Down in the valley, folks were wondering why nobody had come down for supplies so they sent a crew up to see if everything was OK. All they found was a single fryingpan hanging from a tree branch. There was no other sign that there had ever been a settlement there!
The Pan was a bit of a disappointment this year. The water level was very very low and it was the windiest fishing I had ever done anywhere. On the flats below the dam, the wind was blowing so hard my 5 wt rod was bent over like I had a 20" trout on - just from the wind alone! It was crazy.
I started by fishing one of my favorite stretches of river which is closer to Basalt than the reservoir. There were rumors the green drakes were already coming out (mid June??) and I had had a very memorable day on the Pan a few years back when the green drakes were massive and all over the river. This time however, between the wind and the low flow, it was nothing special. I did catch half a dozen fish on dries, but they were nothing special and several larger fish rose to my offering only to look over their shoulder, spot me, and head back to deeper water. The next morning I fished the deep hole below the dam. There was a helluva hatch going on just above the hole, but for the life of me I could not figure it out. I tried BWO's and PMD's, but either the color or the size was off (or my presentation?). I did catch a couple on the PMD's, but missed several large fish that rose to it (what's new). I went up to the flats where it was impossible to fish a dry due to the wind so I tied on a black wooly bugger and stripped it. I did catch one nice fish, this 18" cut-bow (my first cut-bow ever on the Pan).
I caught this fish in about 6 inches of water and could see him clearly shoot across and just attack my wooly bugger. However, I wasn't very impressed after I landed him and saw his mouth. He had obviously been hooked and released many many times as both his upper and lower jaws were just about non-existent. What a difference from "Noname" and Trapper's when most fish there have no hook mark in their mouths whatsoever. I was discouraged. The combination of the low water, the high wind, and the fact that my campsite up at Little Maud had no shade whatsoever, well, I decided to bail after only 2 days at the Pan and head for the Arkansas River in Salida. That said, there are some huge rainbows in the Pan and one of these days I am going to catch one of those monsters. Here are some pictures of my friends Curtis and Sheri who have had much success on the Pan.
The Arkansas River
The Ark was also very low this year and I heard several events at FibArk had to be cancelled this year. However, as often happens with low water flows on the Ark, the fly fishing was awesome. I had 17 fish by 10am on my first morning of fishing (all on dry flies) and 24 by 11am. The slowdown was due more to the wind than a lack of willingness by the fish. I caught all these fish on the same #14 Adams Wulff (white winged) fly. Talk about getting your money's worth with a fly (see Percysflies.com)!
Here is a picture of an average brown trout from the Arkansas river. Smallish, sure, but I caught 10 of these just below the rapids you can see in the background. Even better, people driving on U.S. 50 can see you hooked up from the road and honk and yell and scream encouragement. It's a hoot.
Happily I am able to report rainbows are continuing to make a healthy comeback after the whirling disease years. I probably caught 60-40 (in favor of brown trout) this year on the Ark. Here's a couple rainbows. The big smile on my face with the one is because that guy was particularly playful and went airborne 3 times, once over 2 feet high! That always makes me laugh.
But I always think of the Ark as a brown trout river and I tried to capture the color of these trout in the picture below. However, they sure turn color fast after being hooked and the gold kinda tarnishes. Try to imagine this fish with a bright and brilliant gold color and that is how it looks in nature before falling prey to my fly. Any well presented dry fly was working - Adams Wulff, yellow humpies, orange stimulators and any hopper pattern. The Ark is simply full of fish and food. It is a very healthy river.
The fishing was alot slower the 2nd day out as I think the barometric pressure changed plus it was alot windier. I only caught 6 fish in 2 hours of (hard) fishing. The highlight was a 14 inch brown that jumped out of the water 3 feet (no kidding). That guy seemed to defy the laws of physics considering he was in about 12" of water near the bank when I hooked him. Anyhow, the campground was hot down in Howard and I was ready for some cooler temps so it was time to head down to the San Juans and check out my home river, the mighty Conejos.
The Conejos River
I headed down to the Conejos hoping to beat the July 4th crowd and get my favorite campsite which I was able to do. I got the Teardrop all set up, had a good lunch, and started reading my latest Wilbur Smith book, Triumph of the Sun, an excellent and exotic tale set in 19th century Africa. I can definitely recommend this book. I wish someone would read this so we could discuss the Rebecca character...a real tramp or just at the right place at the right time? Ha!
Anyhow, I had plans for the afternoon fish..I was going to start a half mile below the nice run that I have been lucky enough to see the green drakes out in force. My plan was to reach this stretch of river an hour or so before dark. Things started out good enough as I had no sooner finished my hike downstream and entered the river when I hooked up with a nice brown trout. He hit the fast water and was gone forever with my fly still lodged in his mouth. Nothing I could do there but smile. Tied on a brand new fly (Royal Wulff) and on the 2nd cast I got a ferocious strike and I promptly set the hook too hard and popped that one off too. Grrrr....undaunted, I tied on another fly (back to the #14 Adams Wulff) and worked my way upstream through the pocket water. I was able to land several fish in the 12-16" range and was having alot of fun fishing this technical stretch and happy to have my 4wt Perfectionist cane rod in my hand on the Conejos once again. I came up to the island in the river with the big rock on the left hand side. There is always a fish in the ripples above the rock. The trick is to catch the big one before catching a little one and scaring off all the others off. Well, I hooked about a 10" rainbow and he flipped and flopped and I was sure ruined the hole. But on the next cast to the ripples I had a nice rise and caught this beautiful cut-bow who rose to the fly from the depths of the hole under the rock. Note the nice bird nest on the face of the rock.
I wish my photographic skills could have captured how magnificent the colouring on this fish was. He was in the shade and when I first netted him I was astonished at how bright and crisp and gorgeous this fish was.
By this time is was about 6:30, bugs are all over the water, and I am salivating with the thought of catching the green drakes on my favorite hole with my bamboo rod in hand! As I work up toward the hole, catching some nice fish along the way, I feel a disturbance up ahead. Crap. Three bungholes are in at the hole. I say bungholes, because two of the guys are standing together just thrashing around in the water. Worse, 3 guys in one small hole? Jeez. I was disgusted in just stared at them for a moment and then climbed the cliff and headed back to camp. I guess the thing that upset me most was the fact that the Conejos is a very accessible river. There must be 20 miles of access. When I climbed up out of the river these guy's truck was parked not 30 yards from mine on the dirt road. Miles of river up and down stream, and they had to park right next to me and jump in the river ahead of me. I noted the license plate said Arizona, so if you bungholes happen to read this blog...and you know who you are...give a fellow fly-fisherman a break will ya? Perhaps you too have caught the drake hatch at this hole...but dudes, seriously, I was there first ya know? Ugh. An unfortunate ending to an otherwise most enjoyable outing.
The next morning I headed upstream to fish one of my favorite runs. After catching a few browns like this guy....
... the wind came up strong and I retired to camp for lunch and Wilbur. I didn't even fish the evening and was started to lose my desire to fly-fish. I was hot, dry, and a bit worn out. I planned to take the next day off entirely. I was starting to miss the comforts of home.
Next morning I slept in late and made myself a big potato, egg and cheese omelet using my home grown potatoes - most tasty!! I then crawled back into the Teardrop to read more Wilbur but my mind kept drifting back to the river. Was I really at the Conejos and not going to fish? I noticed the wind was pretty calm...jeez, was I sitting out the best day yet? Finally I got motivated, jumped in the truck and headed up to the meadows. I had fished these meadows 10 years or so ago and the water was low, warm, and had no structure and no trout! I never fished that stretch again and I am not sure what made me try it on that morning, but I was glad I did! It seems the Colorado DOW had teamed up with the local San Luis chapter of Trout Unlimited to do some habitat work in the river. Apparently they brought in a backhoe and dug some deep holes and put in some boulders and large rocks to build up some what are in effect small dikes every 100 yards or so. Man, what a difference! Not only are there some deeper and cooler holes for some bigger fish to hangout in, but the structures make some ripples and feeding lanes for the fish. I can't think of a better setup for a bamboo dry-fly fisherman like myself - what a blast! I caught a bunch of fish in the meadow. Here is a picture of a typical Conejos brown along with some nice yellow flowers (I was getting in touch with my feminine side...).
But my favorite was the last fish of the day (and of the trip). I had gotten some wind knots in my tippet and usually take the time to cut them out because a large fish will always break the line at the wind knot - and I had two of 'em. But I was lazy and heading back to the truck anyhow so I just kept fishing. I landed my orange stimulator in a nice set of ripples and POW! a ferocious strike from a hungry brown. He went down to the bottom of the hole and then just came straight out of the water a good foot and a half and landed with a splash. Being aware of the wind knots, I played him quite gently and he took advantage of it by jumping twice more out of the water and heading downstream. I finally netted it and tried to capture the brilliant gold color on its belly by leaving it in the water still hooked to my fly. It went 18" but the photo didn't quite capture its brilliance.
Well that's it - that was my summer fly-fishing vacation. Short, but very sweet. I headed back to Salida and the Ark, but it was just so hot that it was not enjoyable. Plus there were bear in the campground and that meant I had to sleep with the doors on my trailer shut...making it even hotter still. I headed home..and was anxious to get in my own bed with the ceiling fan on and the AC turned down low. I guess nothing makes you appreciate the comforts of home more than 2 weeks of camping other than 6 weeks of camping like the old days!
A Word About Global Warming
America used to be a pragmatic country and a country that paid attention to science and technology. Now we seem to make policy based on religion or political ideology. Mention the words "global warming" and certain politically motivated folks will throw "it's cyclical man" at you as though you are an idiot for not understanding the cyclical nature the Earth warming and cooling over the eons. Well, of course weather is cyclical - even the four seasons are cyclical. There is no argument there. But to say that weather is "cyclical" and that that one magic word ends the debate is preposterous. Just this year alone we have seen a spring in which temperatures in the northeast were breaking hundred year old high, not by a degree or two, but by 8 and 9 degrees. Folks in upstate NY were seeing tulips in March when normally there are lucky to see them by mid June. In one day this year we had more tornadoes than normally occur in an entire season. We had 114 degrees in a small town in Nebraska a couple weeks ago - and it was still June...not even July or August. We've had multi-year droughts in Texas and elsewhere that are as bad as ever. We have seen increasing wildfires in states like Colorado and Texas. Sure these are all, taken individually, merely anecdotal. But taken in totality - can we really afford to ignore the warnings that nature is showing us on a daily a near daily basis?
I have only been fly-fishing in Colorado for 15 or 16 years. Sure, that is obviously a very short period of time in the big scheme of Earth's history. Call me naive, but nothing concerns me more than the huge change I have seen in the higher elevations of Colorado over this short period of time. Both in the woods and in the rivers.
What we need to do is this: close down all the coal-fired power plants and switch them over to natural gas. Despite what some politically motivated people will tell you, increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere has been proven to raise the temperature. Natural gas has emits 50% less CO2 than coal and 100% less of the toxic heavy metals particulates of coal (and which are now found in the TN river courtesy of the disastrous fly-ash spill by the TVA at Kingston, TN in 2008). We also need to switch from gasoline powered vehicles to NGVs. Natural gas emits 30% less CO2 than does gasoline.
We cannot control what China and India or other nations do. But for U.S. policymakers to continually ignore what is happening to our Earth's climate - well, it has reached the point of absurdity. It reminds me of when Rick Perry was running for President. A group of wealthy Republicans in Galveston were very concerned about the investments made in their winter homes along the gulf and the increasing threat that water and storms were making on them. So Perry commissioned a study on the issue. But when the report came back fingering global warming as an issue, the report was doctored and heavily censored. So much for a country of science - especially for Republicans owned by Exxon, AEP, Patriot Coal, and the railroads. This was much reported in the press. To read about it just google "Rick Perry Galveston Bay Study". It's very disturbing and show the lengths our politicians and "policymakers" will go to in order to distort the truth and what is happening.
I often wonder, don't these people have children? Is it really soooo important to be "right", or wedded to some political ideology and not have to admit that, wow, just maybe we got this one wrong!, that they would put their children's future (and perhaps even their own!) at risk? Very sad. Very sad indeed.
So, YES, global warming and/or climate change, however you wish to refer to it, is "cyclical". There is no argument here! However, it is cyclical around a RISING TEMPERATURE TREND LINE. And this rising temperature trend line is sloping upward even faster than scientists predicted only as recent as 5 years ago. In fact, if the scientists and meteorologists supporting the theory of man-made global warming have made a mistake, the only one I am aware of is that they were way too optimistic! The planet is warming much faster than they predicted and the impact of this warming has been much more severe and has occurred much quicker than they believed would be the case.
So, there's my rant. Cyclical, of course. But cyclical on a rising temperature trend line. The slope of the trend line is more and more being determined by man's energy choices. And those choices have been to use the two most expensive and dirtiest fossil fuels (coal, and oil via gasoline) as opposed to the cleaner, cheaper and more abundant fuel: natural gas. And yes, as soon as we shut the coal plants down (job #1), we should begin building out solar and wind assets.
Not to leave on a sour note, here's a joke and a true story relayed by a buddy of mine who sometimes listens to the police scanner at night:
911 operator: Can I help you?
Caller: Yes ma'am, we're at a poker game and Jimmy's been stabbed!
911 operator: Is he alive and still conscious?
Caller: Yes ma'am, but he's bad cut up real bad and we need an ambulance right away!
911 operator: I will send one now - where are you located?
Caller: We are on Eucalyptus street.
911 operator: Could you spell that please?
THE LAST WORD:
If I was a religious person, I would pray for cooler temperatures and rain in Colorado. And I would pray for this summer to end soon and the snows come early. Not being religious...I guess I'll just hope like hell.