Monday, August 6, 2018

Stunning And Stocking

                                                         Stunning And Stocking                              

Yesterday was one of the most rewarding days of my life.  I got the privilege of carrying nineteen rare cutthroat trout up a wildflower-filled valley into Colorado’s high country, to be released into the wild and hopefully propagate as well.  It was the third time I’ve been lucky enough to help Colorado Parks and Wildlife this year, and they’ve all been interesting.

 The first volunteer day occurred in April, doing the annual fish census on the Eagle River. It’s part of an annual fish count that’s over twenty years old, designed to monitor river health after a Gold King Mine-like spill that occurred in the 1980s.  The process of doing a river census involves spanning the river from bank to bank with three rows of netters. The members of the first row (usually the biggest, burliest guys) hold a device called an electrode in one hand, and a long-handled boat net in the other.  Each member of the first row are connected to each other by an electric cable, and they have by far the toughest job, since both of their hands are occupied and they have no way to steady themselves in the swift current flowing over slippery round river rocks.  The second row follows right behind, trying to snag the stunned fish who tumbled past the knees of the first row.  The third row catches those the second row misses, and also drags floating fish corrals behind them.  Eventually all of the netted fish get brought to another corral-type enclosure that’s set up near the bank, where the fish are counted and their sex and species noted. This is something I help out with every year, since I find it pretty interesting to see what everything that is swimming in a river.  As a fly angler, I only get to see that which will take a well-presented fly.  But when you electroshock the river, you get to see everything in there that swims, and not just the trout.  These include whitefish, chubs, dace and my personal favorite, sculpins.  Its often said that healthy trout populations are a good indicator of a healthy river, like a canary in a coalmine, but that is even more true of sculpin. 
  The Eagle River that day was as cold as it usually is in early April.  I was glad to have my hands free, for I was constantly having to use my net to steady myself.  At one point one of the Parks and Wildlife officers in the front row stumbled back, and I rushed forward to catch him.  He was a big guy, but I was able to just keep him from going under and overtopping his waders.  On one previous river census I had done that myself, and it made for a cold, miserable rest of the day.    
  By the end of the day there was just enough time left to make some runs at Beaver Creek­.  The ski season was down to it’s last couple of weeks, and when it comes down to the end like this I don’t want to miss any opportunities to make some turns on the hill. Living in Eagle County one is constantly reminded of how much everything related to water is tightly tied together, from the frozen snowpack to the creeks, streams and rivers it transforms into later in the year.  The snow we ski on in February becomes the whitewater we crash through in June, and the habitat we try and fool trout in come August.  The well at our home beside the Colorado River is very shallow, for the water table sits only a couple of feet below ground. That frozen water we play on in the winter becomes that water we drink and nourishes our garden in the summer.  Its all one and the same thing taking different forms, and living here you are constantly reminded of just how connected by water everything is.
  My next opportunity to help Parks and Wildlife came in May.  This would involve electroshocking again, but this time on the Colorado River not far above my home.  Shocking a river the size of the Colorado involves doing it from a boat, and not standing in the cold water.  The rafts themselves have frames that are purposefully designed for this exact task, with diamond plate decks and railings that extend out over the front so that the two netters in the bow can lean over and capture the stunned fish.  The electric shock is delivered by an electrode mounted on the end of a boom that is lowered into the water. Electric power comes from a gasoline generator mounted under the seat, and the gas tank is located in the rear of the raft which helps weigh down the back a little.  But the whole boat is still very front-heavy, especially with two big guys leaning out over there.  Between the netters and the rowers sits a live well, and as fish are netted the netters swing the nettees around and into the live well.  When the live well gets full, we row over to the bank, where each fish is counted and a small hole punched into their tail.  The reason for the hole is to come up with a figure known as the Recapture Rate.  The same section of river gets surveyed again a week later, and by counting the amount of fish that get netted a second time, biologists can estimate what the total population of the river is.

  It was fun to be out on a section of river that I know well, and to be able to net the fish without having to stand in their cold environment.  On that day we had two boats doing the survey, one going down the left side of the river and the other surveying the right side. We set off down the river, lowered the boom, and began looking for the flashes of stunned fish to scoop out of the river and deposit into the live well. It immediately became apparent that we would have one obstacle to deal with, and that was the poor clarity of the water. Visibility was only about a foot, and there were many fish the we stunned that would flash for only a moment and then disappear into the murky water.  This was especially true of the many small sculpin I saw that never made it into my net.  Then a second problem began to become apparent, and that was an increasing amount of wind blowing upriver right back in our faces.  The natural state of things in a river is the flotsam in the water moves faster than objects on top of it, and so as the fish were temporarily knocked unconscious they quickly floated away from us and out of sight downriver.  Our raft was being rowed by a Parks and Wildlife officer named Kendall, whom I had worked with many times doing the Eagle River electroshocking.  She did the best that she or anyone could have in trying to push us down the river, but rowing the heavy, unbalanced boat in a stiff wind was a tall order.  I offered a couple of times to man the oars, and wasn’t too disappointed when she gamely demurred and pressed on.
  We were on a section of the Colorado River below an access point called Catamount, which has a very remote feel to it.  It is one of the few river stretches that isn’t paralled by a road, and it sees very little river traffic, especially since a local rancher blocked the only public access point below Catamount.  The other notable feature in this out of the way canyon is a very large Bald Eagle nest right beside the river.  This spring there were four eagles living in the nest, two big mature eagles and two fledglings.  We had already filled the live well once and were on our next round when the nest came into sight.  The two older eagles were there as always, but instead of flying away they hung out to watch, and they were soon to be rewarded for their curiosity. 
   Almost all of the fish we caught were released back into the water as gently as possible, with the exception of any long-nosed chubs we caught.  Those fish are considered invasive non-natives, and can breed with the native chubs which create hybridized offspring which are undesirable.  So the long-nosed chubs got tossed onto the bank after they were counted, and the eagles watching this closely caught onto that quickly.  No sooner would we push off the bank than they would swoop down, grab the unfortunate chub, and carry it off for a one-way ride to their big nest.  The eagles were clearly loving this, for it was Christmas time in May for them. 

  At one point, when the wind was blowing the hardest, I looked up to see a big bald eagle hovering ten feet above my head, watching the whole process with an intent gaze.  I tried to remember to keep watching the fish I was supposed to be netting, but it was hard to ignore the bald eagle who was close enough to shit on my head.  Kendall was pushing as hard as she could into the gale, but fish were tumbling away from us in the persistent current.  Suddenly the eagle overhead spotted a tasty snack, and plunged down into the water just ahead of the boat and came up with a fine brown trout, winging it away to add to the pile of fish filling up its nest.  It was a spectacular sight to see, and one I’ll not soon forget!  Our run down the canyon was finished way too soon, and I could have kept doing it all the way down to my house.  Again I was surprised by the numbers and diversity of the fish we caught, especially the numbers of mountain whitefish, which almost equaled the rainbow trout. 
 Even though the process of surveying the fish has to be much less fun for them than it is for those netting them (and way less than for the eagles), it was good to know that there’s a very good reason to be doing this.  In the past year I became part of a stakeholder group trying to come up with a plan to ensure the long-term health of the Colorado River, and surveys like this are critical to coming up with data to objectively measure where we are now and where things are going, for better or worse.  Living and working beside the Colorado has made the river almost as much a part of me as my limbs.  Even if I spend the rest of my life here along its banks, that will only be a small amount of time in the grand scope of things, and anything I can do during my short tenure here to ensure the river’s well-being is a worthwhile expenditure of time. 
  Then in July I got to participate in a third opportunity to work with Parks and Wildlife, this time planting some genetically pure Greenback cutthroat Trout into a high mountain drainage that had been readied for their arrival.  For many years there were considered to be three types of cutthroat trout existent in Colorado, the Greenback, Colorado River, and Rio Grande varieties.  Then, a few years ago a population of cutthroat trout were found on a single small stream called Bear Creek near Pike’s Peak that didn’t look like any of the other three. After some genetic analysis comparing them to cutthroat samples taken over a hundred years ago, it dawned on fish biologists that what had been referred to as Greenback cutthroats (which are found all over Colorado’s eastern-flowing watersheds) were actually Greenback hybrids, and not the real deal.  This lead to a multi-year effort to breed the true Greenbacks, so that they could be transplanted into other watersheds.  Having all of your genetic eggs in one geographic basket risks losing them in case of fire or flood. So my next project would be to carry some of these trout into their new home. 
  I got up early that morning to make the drive over two mountain ranges, the Gore and the Continental Divide.  Herman Gulch wasn’t too far east of Loveland Pass, on the north side of I-70.  It was a sunny morning, and the parking lot was full of eager recreational hikers plus the fifty or so of us who were here on a mission of fish relocation.  Eventually we were all gathered for an explanation of our task for the day.  The truck bearing the precious cargo arrived at nine am on the dot and soon bags were being filled with a careful mix of water to air.  The bags were doubled up, and then nineteen wiggling little trout were added, from three to five inches long.  Each one of the volunteers got to put one of these trout bags into their backpack, and hike it up a steep trail to the meadows above that would become these trout’s new home.
  We were divided into five groups, with Group One releasing their precious packages into the lower stretches, and with Groups Two through Five going progressively higher up the watershed.  I assumed that everyone would want to go as high as possible, so I volunteered for Group Four to give someone else the chance.  But Group Five was two people short, so I jumped over to join that bunch. Soon we were getting our bags of trout and heading up the trail. One unexpected bonus of being in the highest group was that we got our trout first, and would be the first ones going up the hill.  Coming down the trail were lots of people who had gotten up there early for a quick hike, and some of them inquired as to our cargo, especially when they saw Boyd our Parks and Wildlife officer.  This was in large part Boyd’s project, and he was more than happy to let people know what we were doing.  Most were delighted to learn that were putting such rare fish into such a beautiful place.  I’d point to my backpack and ask if anyone wanted some fresh sushi.


The first mile of the trail was pretty steep, and within our group of fish bearers we all found our individual rhythms.  I ended traveling at about the same rate of speed as Ryan, and we became trailmates.  It was a warm morning and took some effort, but the shade of the trees helped cool us.

Along the way we kept running into our other Group Five partners, usually stopped in the shade explaining our purpose to the downhillers. Colorado was undergoing a summer-long heat wave, and getting in your outdoor time in the cooler air of 11,000 feet seemed like a pretty good idea to a lot of people. Every mile or so, Boyd would plant a big wooden stake marking the ending of one zone and the beginning of the next.  The trail leveled off a bit and we passed through the top edge of the tree line, which had kept most of our hike shady.  Soon the cobalt blue Colorado sky began to show through the thinning canopy of pines.  It had been some time since I’d done such a strenuous hike, and with the heat and load on my back I began to feel a bit lightheaded.  But once we cleared the last of the trees and into the big open meadow above, I got a second wind.  The area where the trout were going to make their new home was just beautiful.  A large mountain peak loomed above us, and the hills were carpeted in uncountable numbers of wildflowers.  The cool mountain air was fresh and invigorating, and the sky the bluest I’d seen in a summer that had been filled with wildfires hazing things up.

  We got to our zone, and one by one the Group Five members peeled off to deposit their trout in some new spot in the river that Boyd would point out.  My legs felt so strong that I wanted to keep going as far up the hill as I could, and by the top Boyd and I were the last two left.  He showed me a small deep pocket in the river to put my fish in, then walked up to the last remaining hole where he would put his. 

  My trout’s new home was a triangular pocket about fifteen feet across and a foot deep, with the flow of the small creek creating a counter-clockwise eddy spinning around in it.  There were some deep undercut banks on each side, which gave the trout plenty of cover from the sun and predators.  The first step of the process was to put the bag full of fish in the river itself for five minutes, giving the water in the bag time to cool off.  For this step, I attached the bag to a root that stuck out and walked back to relieve myself and to take in the magnificent view. 

  These had to be the luckiest fish in the world.  I couldn’t imagine more perfect place for a trout on any living creature to live in.  We were mostly above treeline, which meant that wildfires should not be of concern.  The footrail we had hiked up had mostly disappeared down where the trees ended, so there shouldn’t be much human traffic up here. Also nowhere to be seen were any cows, which can be a detriment in some watersheds where cutthroat trout cling to existence.  There were also no mining activities above, with their potential for heavy metals leaching in. Ans since all of the other fish competitors had been removed already, these fortunate Greenbacks had this ideal resource all to themselves.  In the brief time I’d been there, I’d already seen a lot of midges on the water and just above it, and so the trout had plenty of food.  It was hard to imagine a better place to have placed them.

 The next step was to open the bag and let some water in, again to gradually cool the water off.  For this I had to lay down on my belly in the cool, wet grass, while letting in the pristine water. It actually felt great doing this, for the day was hot even at 11,000 feet. It felt as though I was immersing myself into a new, foreign environment, too.  The environment I spend most of my time is at 6,200 feet, technically the high desert, and not the mountains.  The vegetation there is mostly hardy enough to survive with very little water, and the verdant band created along the river is the exception to its surroundings. Here though everything was wet and green and pulsing with life.  I took my waterproof camera out and tried to take pictures of the greenbacks as they swam out of the bag and into their new home. After spending their entire existence up to that point in concrete raceways, what would they make of their new environment? 

  I stayed in the tall wet grass on my belly that way watching them for way longer than necessary, for it seemed to me that what I was watching was something of a miracle.  This moment had been many, many years in the making.  First came the discovery of these genetically pure fish, the only such population in the world.  Then came the decision to try and breed them, and to distribute them in various parts of the state to so that if anything happened to their original habitat, there might be healthy populations elsewhere to ensure their genetic survival.  There had already been two wildfires that had come close to small stream they were found in, so losing them was an existential threat, not merely hypothetical. Next some suitable habitats needed to be found for them, and once those decisions were made then the current occupants of those lakes and streams needed to be removed.  Removing the other fish was a painful but necessary component of the whole process, since leaving them there would mean having them hybridize with the true Greenbacks, invalidating the whole experiment.  Where possible, anglers were organized to catch as many of the current occupants as possible, so they might be relocated to other areas.  But fishermen alone were never going to catch them all, so the final step of the removal process involved using piscicides to ensure a clean slate for the greenbacks.  All of those years of planning and action lead up to this final step, actually putting these fish into the small creek they would be spending the rest of the lives in.  I felt like a very lucky person to be given the honor of completing the mission, for climbing up that steep hill with nineteen greenback trout in my backpack was arguably the easiest phase of a multiyear project.

  It was fascinating watching the trout exhibit various types of behavior once they were set free into their alien environment.  Some of them immediately shot towards the dark safety of the undercut banks.  Others kind of hung about in the middle, as if wondering “What the hell?”.  But three of them immediately figured things out, and within minutes were up at the top of the eddy line sipping midges off the surface.  The trout were not fed immediately before their big trip from Leadville to Herman Gulch, so that when they got into the water they would be hungry and ready to feed.  I stuck my hand in the frigid water holding my camera still, trying to get some underwater shots, but the water was so cold I only lasted a couple of minutes doing that.  Finally I just put the camera away, and just lay there on my stomach watching these beautiful little miracles doing their thing.  The wet cool grass soaked my shirt and pants all the way through, but I barely noticed.  After my previous two experiences with Parks and Wildlife electroshocking fish, it was nice to be doing something that was non-traumatic or stressful to the fish. It gave one an almost god-like sense of power, to be bringing life and beauty to an already perfect place. Being a man I’ll never know what its like to give birth to another human being, so moments like this will probably be the closest I’ll get.  I lost all sense of time and place, and just lay there with my nose inches from the water watching them adjust to their new home, so very glad for the fact that I got to play very small role in making it all happen. 

  Living in the mountains in an expensive resort area isn’t always easy.  I work four different jobs depending on the season, and rarely have a complete day off as a result.  So taking a day off now and then to volunteer my time with Colorado Parks and Wildlife isn’t always easy to do, but I always feel like its some of the time best-spent I’ll do all year.  Taking people down the Colorado River in my boat is almost always a wonderful experience, especially watching them experiencing it for the first time.  When I see a seven year old hanging onto a tenkara rod, connected to a feisty rainbow trout on the end of line, I see someone that I hope will someday grow up into a person who might one day love these rivers and mountains as much as I do.  And knowing that I might have made some small contribution to keeping that resource wild and healthy, for future people to enjoy, is the next best thing to making some tiny humans of my own!

                                                      Jack Bombardier

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jim's Swim

From: Larry
Monday, June 19, 2017 3:52 PM
To: jack bombardier
Subject: Jim's Passing

I’m sorry to tell you that Jim passed away about two weeks ago.  I guess he’ll  always be remembered as the only one who ever went swimming  (involuntarily) on one of your fishing trips.  He was seemingly in good health when we had lunch around the first of May.  About two weeks later he was feeling bad enough that his daughter took him  to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with leukemia.  He was told that it was a virulent type that required an extreme type of chemotherapy and the treatment would probably not extend his life more than a few days.  He opted to forego the therapy, went into hospice around the twenty with of May, and was gone within two weeks. 


  So sorry to hear about Jim. He was one of my all-time favorite customers!  I've enjoyed all the time I've spent with both of you on my big green boat.  You don't see too many automatic reels anymore like Jim had, I'll be missing both seeing and hearing those. I've always envied the fact that you two could be best fishing buddies for fifty years.  I hope that you haven't already taken your last trip with me too, and there's only one way to fix that!
  I do sometimes tell people on river trips about the ‘Only Person To Have Ever Fallen Out Of My Boat’.  I started to write you about my reminiscence of it, and as the details filled in realized that it had become a little story, or at least an anecdote.  Do you mind if I post this on my blog?  Names of any guilty parties can be changed.
   Again, sorry to hear about Jim.  I'm glad you got to hang out with him recently, even if you had no clue that it might be the last.  There is going to be some interaction we have with everyone we meet that will someday be our last, whether we know it or not at the time.  I guess that's a good reason to treat everyone as nice as possible, so that the last memory they have of us will be a positive one!

                                                          Jim's Swim
The way that I remember it, the three of us were out in late October and the sun had dipped below the canyon rim.  It wasn't dark yet, but getting darkish.  I was with Larry and Jim, two of my favorite customers.  They were the kind of clients that made me feel guilty taking pay for being in their company. They were both around seventy when they began doing floats with me, but had already been best fishing buddies for fifty years.  Larry lived on the Front Range and had a place in Summit County, and Jim lived in Grand Junction. That made my stretch of river roughly halfway in between for both of them, and so it was a nice equitable drive for them to come fish here. Both men had lives well lived, and shared the good stories that accumulate around such a life. 
On one of their trips, we were running a little later that usual, and being late October the evening has a way of snatching away the sunlight earlier each evening.  After a summer of pretty constant river flows of around 1000 cfs, the river levels had dropped to 700 cfs, exposing rocks that could have been safely floated over a week earlier.  Late in the day it became obvious that we would be finishing in the dark, the only question being, how much of it?
  Then Jim hooked a nice fish in the hole below Jack Flats, where the beaver pond above splashes back into the Colorado River below.  When the river is low, it becomes a haven of oxygenated habitat for the trout. There have been many fish caught here over the years, but this was one of the biggest ones yet. It pulled harder than the usual fifteen inch brown trout we usually caught, but since we were tossing streamers with heavy tippets Jim soon brought the fish to heel.
  He got his fish to the side of the boat, and being in short section of flat water, I opted to land it on the move without dropping anchor.  Jim steered the fish into the net, and once safely subjugated we saw that in it was a huge rainbow trout.  Rainbow trout used to be the dominant fish in the Colorado River before Whirling Disease, and though their numbers had dropped dramatically, their numbers were beginning to climb again.  His rainbow was valuable broodstock, and we needed to get it back into the water as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, the trout had gobbled a black woolly bugger that was now down deep in its gullet. I totally ignored the passage of the raft over the next few seconds, concentrating entirely on delicately removing the hook without making the fish bleed, in darkening light on a gently rocking boat.  The hook came free, and I lowered the trout into the water, leaning way out over the side so that current could run into the rainbow's mouth and revive it.  The fish held itself there limply for a moment, and then with a great burst of strength shot out of my hand.
  I got back into the seat and grabbed the oars, and saw that we were headed towards some rocks on river left.  Larry was up front and watching everything closely, letting me know about the danger to our left.  Pulling hard on the oars, I called out over my shoulder, "Hang on Jim!".
  "I'm hangin'!" came the gruff reply.  I wasn't quite able to completely arrest the motion of the raft, and we bumped the furthest-most rock.  It was enough to spin the boat a little as well, and as we began to go sideways I heard a loud, "Ooof!" behind me.  Looking over my shoulder, all I saw were the undersides of Jim's boots as he back-flipped off the boat. We saw the back of his head and shoulders quickly floating away from us in the fast current, while hearing him whoop and laugh.
  Jim was headed towards a shallow bank river left coming up in his best case scenario, or off to Mexico in the worst.  The raft got hung up a bit, but I swung it downstream and rowed like hell to catch up to my amused flotsam, guffawing loudly over the sound of the river.
  When Jim got to the shallow water, he was able to stop himself and stand back up, still laughing.  I had forgotten what he had been wearing that day for water protection until he stood up.  It wasn't something like full-length neoprene waders or a breathable one with a belt, but  pair of rubber Red Ball hip boots, worn over blue jeans. Quite possibly the worst thing a person want want to wear to a swim meet held on the brisk Colorado River, whether they be seventy years old or seventeen. 
  Larry and I pulled up beside him on the bank, and endeavored to get Jim back into the boat, but couldn't because he couldn't lift his leg with the weight of the water in his boots.  We sat him down on the end of the front pontoon, and I lifted his leg slowly up. When it got above his waist, a couple of gallons of cold water came down and splashed him, with Jim howling in laughter and merriment the whole time.  He and Larry were exchanging what amounted to, "Holy cow, did that really just happen?" comments.  I was worried that Jim might be going into shock. Now that the sun had gone down it had gotten much colder, I was feeling a chill. I thought,  I'm fifty years old and dry,  Jim's got twenty years on me and is completely drenched!  It was looking like a fast row home, with Jim needing to soak in the hot tub to stave off hypothermia once we got there.
  "All right Jim, let's get the other boot" I said, and began to lift that leg.  Once more came a cold rush of water, and again Jim acted as if he couldn't have been having a better time.  "Jim!  Are you OK?" I shouted.  I looked deeply into his face to see if his pupils were normal.  With a big laugh, Jim said, "Haw! Haw! Haw! All that cold water is going right up my ass!  Haw! Haw! Haw!"
  Larry and I were beside ourselves laughing too.  Jim had just been through a life-threatening experience better than us. We cobbled together enough dry clothes between the three of us to get Jim warm and dry, and he made it home just fine.  Going for an evening swim in the Colorado River is not something that most people would handle well, unless their name is Jim Katzel! 
  What made me want to document this recollection, is that today I found out that Jim has passed on to his next grand adventure, the one that awaits us all.  I'm sure that wherever his spirit is now, he's making his new companions happy to be in his company, as he did when he was down here.  Fare thee well Jim, and hang on!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sitting On The Dock

                                        Sitting On The Dock
Last night after finishing various chores around my place, I heard a loud splash out on the river that could only mean one thing.  There was at least one trout popping through the surface film, noshing on one of the caddis flies that had been intermittently hatching all afternoon. Earlier, after putting my powder skis away in the shed, I‘d gone down to the water’s edge to pay my respects to the river. For the first time all spring, there were some caddis flies fluttering about. I scanned the bubble line just inside of the main flow and looked for tell-tale dimples, but there were none that I could see.  However, a slight breeze was blowing just hard enough to ripple the surface, making any subtle takes of a wriggling caddis hard to see.
  Just before dark, I heard another little splash, and walked the forty feet from my driveway to the water’s edge.  Sure enough, there were risers aplenty, perhaps one little splash every fifteen seconds or so.  The trout were feeding in their usual spot thirty feet out, but also in the nearer bubble line, not more than a leader’s length from the end of my dock. 
  My trusty seven-foot three weight hangs right next to the gate, so I got that.  Being able to grab a fly rod that’s ready to use at any moment is a wonderful thing. There’s nothing worse than being next to a river full of feeding fish, and hurriedly tying knots, while listening to the soundtrack of missed opportunities. Splish! Splash! Plop!
  That little rod has caught a lot of trout, more than any other rod I own.  It was handmade for me by my best friend ten years ago, which makes it extra special to fish with. I normally prefer to use longer rods for their added mending ability, but being on the dock a couple of feet above the water is like having a long rod.  It’s a lot more weathered looking than any other rod I own, too.  That’s the price of it being ready to use at any time, out in the weather. For the first few years I had it, it lived in its tube, hardly getting used. But then five years ago my dock opened for business, and I recognized right away that it was the perfect casting platform for my favorite flyrod. A rod was made with love in Massachusetts, and not in some distant Asian factory.   
  My dock is placed in the precise spot where one can make a short, easy cast to the fishiest part of the river.   I’ve caught a lot of fish in my backyard over the years, to the point where I try to give them every opportunity to thwart me.  I crimp the hook barbs of course, and at times have used flies so old that the hook rusts off.  (It’s still just as much fun fooling a trout with no hook at all, even if they only hold on for a second or two). Where once 5X tippet was the norm, now I only use expired 6X and 7X tippet that I won’t risk using with paying customers.
  The dock itself is rather humble, made from some recycled building material we had on the property.  It was built there on the river’s edge during the drought year of 2012, where the river never went above 2K during the peak of runoff.  The previous spring of 2011 had the highest river level we’ve ever experienced, 12K cfs, and was over 10K for two months.  For most of the summer, the crawlspace to our house was sandbagged and two pumps ran full-time to keep the water out.  2012 was the extreme opposite, and with all that exposed bank it seemed like a good time to sink some deck pylons. Having a solid spot that one could be upon the river had always been a dream of mine for the eight years we’d been living there.  My wife had some reservations about using that fine old lumber for my intended purpose, but I sold her on the idea that we could use it for Dock Dogs training.  (I ended up making it a bit too high for that).
  One afternoon as the lower structure was complete, and I was working on the deck above, my wife came out to check on my progress.  She asked what was I going to do if the water ever got as high as it was the year before. At it’s present height, the dock would be a foot or two below the water’s level from the year before.
 “Oh, with global warming the river will never get that high again,” I said, only half-believing it myself.  That was five years ago, and the river hasn’t gotten quite that high ever since.  It did get very close in 2013, or less than a year after our conversation about it.  That spring, the river was rising by 600cfs a day, and I was concerned that my dock might float away.  My neighbor had a lot of extra  piles of rock on his property, so I got a Tacoma-full of those and laid them out all over my dock  Now that the project was finished, it all was in the hands of the river gods.
 I wanted to take some pictures of what might well be the last we’d see of our dock, after only one year of elevated riparian glory. I asked my wife if she would wade out there so I could take her picture on it, and she didn’t just say “no”, it was more of a, “Oh hell no!”.  So I gave her the camera, and walk/waded out there myself. The water was really cold, but high and dry positions of the rocks on the dock were very motivating.  I wore Crocs and rolled up my jeans up to over my calves, making them look like capri pants.   You had to go through the cold, flowing water in my yard to get to the dock.  The bigger rocks that were keeping the dock from floating away were an inch or two above the water line, so that once there, it looked as though I were walking on water.  I found a perfect place to stand, with the water running just an inch or so from the soles of my feet. I turned, and took in the view back towards my yard and the wife who was pointing a camera at me. There have been times in my life that I’ve been very grateful to live right beside the Colorado River, and that was one of them. 
  She took a couple of shots, and I splashed my way back to her, and that was the last we would see of the dock for the next two weeks.  Then, through a series of weird redirects running through the tubes of the interweb, the picture she took ended up in the Grand Junction Sentinel under the headline, “Jack on the rocks”.  It created quite a stir, especially in the capri pants fashion industry. 
When the river finally receded it was still there, and not much worse for wear.  When the river came all the way back to normal levels, the rocks got re-distributed onto the banks for stabilization, and since then the dock has been a steady constant presence in the yard.   Once a pile of lumber, now a unified whole withstanding the elements.  In the summer it’s a great place to sit on, or to pee and fish off of.  In those winters that I’ve been able to make some skating ice, its a good spot to put your mittens, hot chocolate or whiskey flask on. 
  Putting the dock where I did also had one positive, unforeseen effect.  Just beyond the end of it, there’s an area of water that flows slower than the river above or below it does.  Floating bugs tend to stall there, making them easy pickings for the fish. So when the trout are eating, you don’t have to toss a fly very far to get it near an eager mouth.    
  Last night I put a plastic rocking chair near the edge of my dock, hanging out over the river with water on three sides.  I sat down on it and gave it a couple of gentle, tentative rocks. Our fearless Russian Blue cat came out to visit, rubbing himself on my ankles while he scanned the water with me. Every time a fish would rise, Blue would twitch and look out at the river, whiskers and ears angling forward.  He hangs out with me when I fish or pee off the dock, but he likes fishing better because he really likes to help with line mending.  Blue is also quite the predator himself, for in his mind he’s a 200 pound mountain lion, not a fifteen pound scale model of one with blue fur.
   The little browns were still sipping on the vulnerable caddis flies, attempting to take wing for the first time after spending their wholes lives underwater as river insects. What an amazing transformation that must be from the caddis’ viewpoint!  You life starts with months of dark and cold and wet, building yourself a little cocoon to live in. Then growing legs and moving about on the bottom, dodging the occasional trout, sculpin, chub, crayfish or bird. And then one day, due to water temperature or length of daylight or, who knows?, suddenly all these little bugs by the hundreds start swimming up towards the light.   If they can free their wings and flap them hard enough to get them dry, they take flight, and what a crazy thing that must seem like to the caddis!  Can insects feel happiness? Do they know ecstasy?  Are their minds complex enough to be blown by an experience like that?  Caddis don’t live for very long in that elevated state, only a couple of days at the most.  If they are lucky, and a trout or a duck don’t eat them first, they might find a willing and suitable mate to make sweet caddis love with. Thus, the male’s job done, he gets to do little more than fly around for the rest of his time on the planet, pondering that intense experience.  Soon his frail constitution will give out and he’ll fall, sometimes into the river where a trout will eat him anyway.  His post-aquatic life consists of learning to fly, having sex, and sometimes combining the two.  But what a blaze of glory to go out on, after so many months in a deep, dark river.
  The female still has one more vital task to perform, and that’s to get those now-fertilized eggs into the river where Mr. Trout will be waiting. They often drop eggs in a row as they “skate” across the water’s surface, instead of just pooping them out in one spot, and from an evolutionary standpoint that makes a lot of sense.  It’s also why caddis dry fly patterns are more fun to fish than mayflies. Not only are they more buoyant than a mayfly, but often fish are caught as you ‘skate’ your fly across the water just like Mama Caddis does. They also float well enough to hang a small emerger or second dry fly off of, making them even more effective.
   Last night, it was so dark that I only see my fly for a very short time, if at all.  There’s a big rock formation across the river called Sleeping Indian Mesa, and it blocks out half the evening sky. It also divides the river in front of me to half bright, and half-black.  If I cast to my right, the fly lands in the black, and the fly looks like a teeny white speck.  Once it drifts into the bright water, going from my right to my left, it looks like a black silhouette. Sometimes, you’ll see it in one side of the light divide or the other, but not in both.  Last night,  I could drift a fly over feeding fish ten feet from the dock’s edge.  Even though it’s old beat-up size twenty elk hair caddis with a rusty hook, the fish will still try and eat it.  It doesn’t require much of a cast, just a flip of the right wrist while the left hand scratches the cat, who is staring intently into the water.
  I missed one strike while flicking line into the water, pulling some off the reel to make my first “real” cast.  The second one I was too late for, for the cat jumped into my lap just before and I only heard the strike after the splash.  A third fish bumped my fly only after it drifted downstream of the dock, and began to swing below me like a wet fly under water.  It flashed a second time after it, and then disappeared. It was officially nighttime, and I was in that, ‘OK Just One More Cast’ mindset, and on my second or third Last Cast finally hooked one.  He wriggled and jumped, but finally he relented to being gently tugged to the dock.  I went down the edge of the river, standing on rocks that once kept my dock from turning into a raft, and got the fish close enough to see.  Foot long brown trout was the most that could be determined in the blackness. Without touching him, I let the line go very slack, and suddenly his possum act ended and with a great head shake, spit the fly out and was off into the depths. 
   Sitting there on the edge my dock, sky almost dark, casting a fly into water so black it can’t be seen, drinking a cold PBR while rubbing the back of my cat’s neck, I saw a vision of the future.  One in which I’m seventy or eighty years old, just sitting there on the dock doing exactly the same thing, and enjoying it every bit as much.  Hand me a tenkara rod, put on a fresh pair of Depends, make sure that the brakes of the wheelchair are locked, and just leave me alone for a few hours.  Sounds like a hell of retirement to me! 
                                                Jack Bombardier   
   Confluence Casting LLC  14503 Colorado River Road  Eagle County CO 81637 970-524-2775          

Overlap Season

                                               Overlap Season
  In many mountain towns there is said to be a fifth season, in addition to the typical four, called Mud Season. That’s true in much of Colorado, but the Centennial State can also claim to have a sixth season, one I like to call Overlap Season.  This occurs when you can fish, ski or golf within the same period time period .  Overlap Season usually begins sometime in March, or can be as late as April, but this year it began in February.  The snow is still deep, the fish are biting, and the fairways are greening up.  Although I’m not a golfer, I do try to make the most of the skiing and fishing opportunities that I can. It’s an awesome time of year to live in Colorado, and makes me glad that thirty-one years ago this very month, I made it my home.
  The Lower Upper Colorado River looks just gorgeous right now, low and clear and as olive as Al Pacino’s cheeks.  Water temps are up to fifty degrees, and from what I’ve seen “fifty” is the magic number in the springtime.  Fifty makes trout very, very happy. 
  But then your gaze rises above the water’s liquid allure, and up towards the mountains, where the pristine white blaze of perfect, pristine show shines like chrome.  That snow beckons surely as does the river, but there’s the knowledge that the window to enjoy those perfect slopes is closing fast.  To try and fool a fish?, or go carve through some aspen trees at Beaver Creek?  Hope to hold a crimson striped, spawning rainbow trout I I your hand, or hop off a cornice at A-Basin and carve a turn into some wind-deposited powder?  So many choices, and so short an Overlap Season to take advantage of!
  How long the river will stay as perfect as it is now, on March 15th 2017, is difficult to say.   With the deep snowpack we have, one would expect the water managers to start releasing water fairly soon to make room for the Big Melt.  But it’s been a weird winter, one which has flipped the pattern of the past few years.  For the past several winters now, we’ve had a lot of snow early in the season, and a lot in the spring, with the middle stretch of January and early February being dry and cold, without much snow.  This season, it was awful early, with Vail and Beaver Creek opening late and the World Cup races at the Beav being cancelled due to lack of snow (and overnight temperatures to warm to make it). But then the snow finally came, and by the end of February we were looking at snowpack numbers we haven’t had since the epic year of 2011.
  Now it’s the middle of the March, and not only has the snow pipeline shut off, but the short-term prognosis is for more warm, dry weather. What that means for fishing is that as long as the water in the reservoirs stays up there, the fishing should be great!  This might be the best spring fishing since we had in the drought year of 2012, with one big difference. 2012 was a drought year and though it fished great back then, the Lower Upper was dominated by brown trout.  Low water conditions that fall led to the release of 30,000 catchable-size rainbows into the river, and those rainbows and their offspring are going to be spawning this year. This spring the river has fished well, and should get even better once the bugs start moving.  So if you want to make the most of Colorado’s Sixth Season, get up here soon and make sure you pack your skis and fishing gear.  You can even put a golf bag in the back if you still have room! So please give me a reason to leave my old Volant Chubbs in the back of the Saab, and come fishing!
                                                Jack Bombardier   
   Confluence Casting LLC  14503 Colorado River Road  Eagle County CO 81637 970-524-2775   

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Good Old Days Are Now

            The Good Old Days Are Now For The Colorado River

It’s tempting to think that things used to be better in the past than they are now, that if we could only step into a time machine and emerge back into 1969 or 1955 or 1928 or whenever, the world would be a much better place than it is now.  For some aspects of life, that might well be true.  But for one vital resource that’s near and dear to my heart, the Colorado River, I’ve begun to think that the Good Old Days are right now, and not in some distant past.

  This is now my thirteenth year of living beside what I like to call the “Lower Upper” Colorado River, and I’ve never seen the river in better shape than it is now.  Thanks to a wet spring, the reservoirs on the west slope are all full, as are the ones on the Front Range, so water that might have gone east under the Continental Divide are in their rightful watersheds instead.  Also, this spring we’ve been catching more rainbow trout than I’ve seen in over twenty years, due in part to Hofers that were planted upriver several years ago and above Dotsero in September of 2012.  Many of the ones we’ve been catching are either the same size as those planted or even smaller, which means these are wild fish, and not pellet-fed hatchery stock. 

  The third factor which is making me happy these days are the bugs.  In the last week or so since the runoff ended, we’ve been having caddis hatches like here like we haven’t seen since the big water of 2011.  Since that high water year, the caddis have been around but in much reduced numbers.  We might have a couple of days of hatches around in May, but would then see hardly any for the rest of the summer. Previous to 2011, the Lower Upper was wonderful caddis water.  Like most fly fisherfolk, I prefer to catch a trout on a dry fly to any other method. As much fun as it is to watch a rainbow come up and hammer a hopper pattern, or it is to see an aggressive, hormonal brown streak out of its hole to chase a streamer, there’s just nothing like seeing a trout come up out of nowhere to sip a well-drifted fly that is connected to your rod.  It is the essence of what makes fly fishing as addictive as it is.  And of all the hatches one can be on the water to witness, caddis hatches are my favorite. A fish can be fooled on a dead drift with a caddis, but sometimes its putting a little action into your fly that elicits the strike.  A caddis will sometimes work better if its dragging or skating across the seam, like a female caddis laying its eggs.   Sometimes they even work better after they’ve sunk.  Since they are so busy and float se well, even a beginner with little concept of line mending can find success fishing a caddis pattern. I’ll often recommend to clients that when they are ready to lift the fly off the water to make their next cast, they should lift it slowly and then accelerate their lift, instead of just yanking the fly out. It’s often just as they begin to pull it out that the fish moves in to strike.  And if there are small mayflies such as BWOs or Tricos hatching as well, a caddis makes a great top fly to keep track of the smaller mayfly attached to the bend of its hook.  Seeing as many caddis back on the river as we’ve had, with plenty of water to supply our needs for the rest of the year, is making me hopeful that 2016 has the makings of an epic year!

  I’m a relative newcomer to our fair State, having only moved here thirty years ago in 1986. This was just after Windy Gap Reservoir went online, and long-time locals will point to that as being the main cause of the degradation to the Upper Colorado River that followed.  The reservoir created a shallow 400 acre lake which warmed the water and cut off the connection of the river to the waters above and below.  In addition to diverting water east that should have flowed west, it also had a significant impact on the macro-invertebrates in the river and by extension, the fish who rely on them as a food source.  Windy Gap has had a negative impact on the Upper Colorado, but the good news on that front is that Northern Water has agreed in principal to build a bypass around the fetid reservoir, pending studies that show it to be viable and the money found to build it. As for the Lower Upper, that is the Colorado River below Kremmling, we’ve been somewhat immune to the compromised water that the upper river gets thanks to the added flows of the Blue, and of Muddy Creek below Wolford Mountain Reservoir.  The beneficial effects of the cold, clear water of the Blue River below Green Mountain Reservoir are well known.  Less appreciated are the positive effects that Wolford Mountain has had on the Lower Upper Colorado River.  Wolford acts as a huge sediment trap for the turbid waters of the aptly-named Muddy Creek.  Since the dam was finished in the late 1990’s, it’s had the effect of a much clearer river below than there used to be back in the “good old days”.  There’s also one more bit of good news this year related to Wolford Mountain.  A couple of years ago, it was noted that the Pritchard Dam (which created the impoundment) had shifted more than its engineers had anticipated.  A concern arose that if the dam ever failed, it could result in the greatest “natural” disaster Colorado has ever seen, as a huge wall of water would roar down the Colorado and take out everything west of Dotsero with it.  My house would probably end up somewhere in Westwater Canyon, or perhaps Lake Powell.  However, this year an independent study was done that concluded that amount of shifting the dam has done was within safe amounts, so perhaps there is one less thing to worry about after all.

  So in July of 2016, there is nothing but good news to report from my perch here beside the lovely Lower Upper.  I don’t have a crystal ball, and can’t predict what kind of summer it might be in terms of weather (of course even people who are paid to do that sort of thing can’t). But I can visualize a day a long time from now in the future, when Elon Musk’s Tesla Time Machine Inc is doing a booming business, when someone steps into a little capsule with a fiber optic fishing rod and types “Summer 2016” into the control panel for a visit back to the “Good Old Days”!

                                                Jack Bombardier