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

The Big Bruisers Are Back


              The Big Bruisers Are Back In The Colorado

The almost-perfect summer or 2016 is winding down, and with Labor Day just around the corner the peak of fishing season awaits.  There are almost no bad places to fish anywhere in Colorado in September and October, and no where is that more true than along the Upper Colorado River.  Reservoirs are near-full,  flows are high and steady and just about ideal for floating, and will stay that way until Halloween.
There were a couple of weeks in July during the monsoon flows where the river did get too off-color for fishing, but that’s pretty normal here.  Within a day or two of those events happening, the river clears up again with extra-hungry fish waiting to annihilate your grasshopper.  And this summer, one positive aspect of those off-color days occurred to me that I had never considered. Because when a river isn’t perfectly clear, it seems to keep it a bit cooler, and less sunlight shining directly on the river bottom means less algae growth.  This summer the nearby Roaring Fork River has been plagued by rampant algae blooms, in part because its runs clearer than the Colorado does.  So even though the Fork can be a safer bet to fish if its been raining, you’ll pulling up less greenery with your dropper flies and streamers in the Colorado River.

  In September of 2012, Colorado Parks and Wildlife stocked 30,000 Hofer Rainbows in the river between Dotsero and the Roundup River Ranch. This was due in part to jumpstart the fishing after a major fish kill caused by a flood on Sweetwater Creek that July..  Ever since then, the rainbow populations have been doing great, and the fishing here might be the best it’s ever been.  When I moved to here in 1986, the Colorado River was primarily a rainbow trout fishery, with some browns mixed in. Anecdotally, the ratio seemed to be perhaps ten to one rainbows to browns.  Then in the late 1980s, whirling disease hit hard, exacerbated by the new Windy Creek reservoir, and by the late 1990s that ratio had flipped with browns now the dominant trout species.

  Parks and Wildlife (then the DOW) began stocking Hofers above Kremmling about ten years ago, and slowly those fish began making their way all the way down to the stretch I like to call the “Lower Upper”, or the river below State Bridge but above the Colorado’s confluence with the Eagle at I-70.  As of this summer, the browns still outnumber the rainbows, but by a margin of perhaps two or three to one.  What that means is that we are rapidly approaching a fishery that’s nicely balanced between the two, and which should be close to a fifty-fifty mix by next year or the perhaps the one after.  For the thirteen years I’ve lived beside the river, the fishing has literally been better every year than the year before.

  One thing the river has always had is plenty of fish, but its never been known for having lots of huge ones.  Even though the Colorado through the Lower Upper is dam-controlled, none of the dams are close enough to make the river a tailwater.  Twelve to fourteen inch browns have long been a staple in the Colorado, but it seems like this year, we’ve caught more and larger fish than ever before.  A twenty inch fish used to be rare, but this year we’ve already caught a half-dozen, with perhaps two dozen over sixteen inches being caught.

  Even my backyard has become a productive place to fish. The other night, I was fishing off my dock trying to catch one of the six-inchers shooting out of the water like Polaris missiles after caddis flies, to transplant into my wife’s new hydroponics setup. Instead, I caught a sixteen-inch brown on the size 22 Adams trailing the Elkhair caddis that I was too lazy to remove.  The week before, I was doing a float trip with a father and son from Mississippi, and were having a fairly productive day, boating a couple of fish per mile throughout.  When we got to my place, the son cast a fly toward a fence that runs into the river to keep the dogs in.  The drifting hopper suddenly stopped near the fence, and he told me later that he thought he’d snagged the fence until the line began to move.  He was using a tenkara rod, and not being able to let line out,  I suddenly had to start rowing hard because now I was the line backing! Only two days earlier, a customer had hooked a huge brown up in the fast water in the canyon using a tenkara rod, and we had lost that fish.  When that fish was hooked it ran upstream, and I rowed as hard as I could to stay with it. Then the fish turned, and came straight at my cataraft shooting between the pontoons as I leapt to the front of the boat with my net.  The fisherman grabbed the leader as the fish went under, and the tippet broke off.  This time, I was determined to not let that happen again, and we went round and round in the mellow water of my backyard until the brown finally tired and we were able to bring him to the net.  After taking a couple of pictures and releasing the fish, father and son agreed that the behemoth brown caught with a tenkara using 6X tippet was the highlight of their Colorado fishing trip. 

  But the river was not done with its surprises yet.  We continued fishing and at the other end of my property the son caught another smaller brown, (which after the twenty-incher looked pathetic).  Our trip was almost over, but just above our takeout is a curving, undercut bank, and we’ve pulled a couple of huge browns and rainbows from it this year and last.  Just above it, the father broke off his dropper fly, and I said “Let’s go without it, and just fish the hopper only along the bank.  Without a dropper fly, its much easier to get a fly close enough to the grass for a big bruiser to see it”. As I was trimming the tippet off the bend of the hopper’s hook, the son broke his off while tossing it towards the bank.  I said, “Same thing, let’s go with just a hopper. Try and get the fly as close as possible to the grass”. 

  I pulled up the anchor, and we began to drift towards the grassy undercut, and both men made their casts.  Tenkara rods are rigged with a finite amount of line, and can cast only so far and no more than that. Their first casts were short, so I moved the boat closer and they cast again.  The son’s hopper was about two feet from the bank, and he said, “How’s that?”, and I said, “Cast again, we need to get it a little closer”.  He raised the fly off the water, and as he did I gave the boat a gentle twist of my oars, rotating it slightly counter-clockwise towards the bank.  This time his fly landed about an inch off the grass.  “Perfect!” I said, “Keep it RIGHT there!” With slight adjustments to the oars, we were able to keep that fly an inch off the bank all the way down.  The son kept arm extended and steady, and together for just that moment we were fishing like a unit, as one single connected entity.  He held the rod, but I controlled the placement and drift of the fly, with the oars.  I was no longer just a guide, and he the fisherman, but we were both fishing together in that exact moment.  Watching the hopper speed along the bank was mesmerizing.  The sun was at our backs and the whole scene played out as if on stage.  The grass was as green as the Amazonian rainforest, and the hopper looked as big as a hanging curveball does to David Ortiz.  What happened next was obvious, and what should always happen in a just and right universe.  A huge olive snout came up, the hopper disappeared, and suddenly the twelve foot tenkara rod doubled over as an excited expression came over the son’s face. I pushed the boat towards the bank which relieved pressure on the rod, but now we were in the faster current closer to the bank, and we sped downriver with the son holding his rod up high trying to keep solid tension on the fish.  There was an eddy behind a big rock coming up on the left bank, so I made for that.  It was a weird balance of rowing through the current, while keeping one eye on my fisherman and his quarry.  We got the boat and the fish out of the fast water, and I jumped out of the boat with my net.  The son steered him into my net from above, and with that we’d landed our second huge brown trout in less than a mile!

People who have lived and fished the Upper C for years can tell stories of the great fishing before Windy Gap altered the balance of things.  They talk of lots of trout grown fat on the big stonefly hatches of the day.  Although that was before my time here in the Centennial State, I’ve never seen it as good as it right now, both for the quantities and now the size of the fish we catch.

    It seems like the Colorado River has more big fish in it than ever. I‘d like to think that its because after five hundred trips down the river, I’ve finally figured out where they are. But these are almost all wild fish, and keep their own counsel.  The river has a more powerful and infinite force than a mere mortal like me can ever hope to really grasp
    A river full of wild trout is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get. Actually, it’s better than chocolate, since its pleasures linger in the mind long after a day spent on the water is past.  Fall of 2016 is at hand, and this is usually when the fishing gets really good! If this past summer is any indication, what’s coming next should be memorable!

                                                          Jack Bombardier

Winter Is Tenkara Time

                                          Winter Is Tenkara Time
After a long, glorious Colorado autumn that seemed to last forever, winter is finally here.  Most anglers put their rods away once the snow starts to fall, and break out their skis or retreat to the tying bench once it does. But a new tool has emerged over the past few years which has to potential to revolutionize the way we think about fishing during the “off season”, and that is the tenkara rod. Tenkara-style rods are usually around twelve feet long, with a fixed line and leader combination of fourteen to twenty feet that comes straight off the tip of the rod. Tenkara setups use no reel whatsoever, and make fly fishing  even easier than spin fishing.  I guide float fishing trips on the Upper Colorado River, and have had days where novice anglers using tenkara rods have out-fished more experienced fishermen using conventional rods. 
 By now you’ve probably already heard about tenkara, and maybe even tried it yourself.  The rods were brought to America by Daniel Galhardo of Tenkara USA, but there are now several different companies selling them now at various price points and levels of quality.   For a person skilled and adept at handling a conventional fly rod setup, the notion of limiting oneself to a fixed amount of line may seem to be very constraining. What happens if the fish you are casting to is eighteen feet away, and you’ve only got a seventeen foot long tenkara rig?  It is true that there are situations in which tenkara setups aren’t optimal, and that would include wade fishing big rivers, angling for large prey, and windy days. 
  I really love fishing with my tenkara rod, but still use a conventional setup at least three-quarters of the time.  But there is one scenario where tenkara rods really shine, and that is for winter tailwater fishing. Colorado is home to many productive winter fisheries, most located below big dams.  Tailwaters include the Blue River below Dillon Reservoir, the Frying Pan below Ruedi, the Yampa below Stagecoach, and the Taylor, to name a few.   What these waters have in common is a steady flow of (relatively) warm water flowing all winter that is conducive to insect hatches, and in turn to feeding fish.  Waters like this are justifiably famous for the big trout they produce, but fishing them during the high season usually means casting right beside many others doing the same thing.  The nice thing about visiting them in the winter when everyone else is on the slopes, or inside nice and warm and dreaming of April, is that you can often have these normally busy waters all to yourself.  
  The two main obstacles to winter fishing are rod guides that ice up and freezing hands, but tenkara rods solve both problems. (Freezing feet can also be a problem, but if you stand in the forty degree water instead of the ten degree air on the bank it helps!)  Tenkara rods have no guides to accumulate ice, so that’s one problem completely eliminated.  As for your hands, a tenkara only requires the use of one to hold the rod, so the other hand can stay warm in your pocket.  The hand holding the rod can be clad in a snowmobile mitten if conditions dictate, since tenkara rods don’t need delicate hand coordination to fish with. The only time you’ll get your hand wet is when landing a fish,  but using barbless hooks can greatly reduce the amount of fish handling necessary when you do land one. 
 Flows coming out of dams are usually low, and with the slow start to our winter season so far they’ll probably remain that way all winter.  Dam operators will be loathe to release any more water than necessary until we see how big of a snowpack we end up with by next year.  But low water like that is perfect for tenkara. Tenkara rods are mostly promoted as a way to fish small streams and headwaters, and they are great for that. But the more I use them, the more other situations I realize they are good for.  Beginning fisherfolk? Check.  Kids, or the elderly who no longer have good hand to eye coordination? Check. Backpackers, or people fishing from horseback or mountain bike? Check.  Fishing from a boat, where casts are often fairly short? Check.  But of all the varied uses of tenkara rods, there is none where they give you a bigger edge than for winter fishing.  Once you’ve used a tenkara rod on your favorite tailwater, you’ll never take your regular rig out again when temperatures dip below freezing. 
  And if you do hook a big one,what if he wants to take you deep into the backing that you don’t have to give?  If you’re fishing from the bank, it might mean that you’ll have to sprint along the bank.  When we hook one from my boat, it means that now I’m the drag, and I have to row like hell to keep up. But here’s an alternative method, told to me last winter at the Fly Fishing Show by the folks at Temple Forks Outfitters.  I’ll preface this anecdote by admitting that it might be complete BS, but then aren’t most good fishing stories?  TFO builds tenkara rods for Patagonia, for its founder, Yvon Chouinard, is a long-time tenkara aficionado.  The story told to me is that Mr. Chouinard was fishing somewhere for Atlantic Salmon with a tenkara rod, and hooked a nice fish.  The salmon did what they are famous for, which was going on a long, athletic run.  He did the best he could trying to run along the bank, but the fish quickly took him to the end of his limited line. Faced with a choice of just breaking the fish off, or tossing the rod into the water, Mr. Chouinard chose the latter. With a conventional rod, throwing your rod into deep water would be a sure-fire way of losing it forever, but tenkara rods have a trick up their telescopic sleeve.  They float.  The rods are hollow, and have oversized cork handles, and thus will float almost indefinitely.  (When I tell this story to my clients, I’ll often toss the tenkara rod they’ve been using into the river to demonstrate this).   Mr. Chouinard and his partner then waited patiently alongside the river bank, hoping that another characteristic that Atlantic Salmon supposedly have is true.  That is, when an Atlantic Salmon is hooked, although they go on these long runs that take you deep into your line backing, once they throw the hook or break it off, they'll go back to the original feeding lie they were hooked in. So, after waiting for some period of time, they saw their tenkara rod slowly floating back to where the salmon was originally hooked, and were able to retrieve it.  Still attached to it was one tired Atlantic Salmon, which they were now able to land!
  I make no claims as to the veracity of that story, but am just passing along what was told to me. The storyteller’s nose did not seem to grow discernibly in the telling of it. But it hypothetically could be true, for tenkara rods do float.  So if you do happen to hook some huge rainbow in the Toilet Bowl below Ruedi Reservoir, remember that you do have an alternative to breaking him off! 

                                                          Jack Bombardier    

   Confluence Casting LLC  14503 Colorado River Road  Eagle County CO 81637   

Jack will be a featured speaker at the International Sportmens Exposition in Denver January 12-15th 2017, talking about tenkara and fly fishing the eastern Flat Top Mountains

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Deep Creek Deserves Wild And Scenic Status (Vail Daily)

                       Deep Creek Area Being Considered For Wild And Scenic Status

Yesterday, I went to a public meeting sponsored by the BLM, US Forest Service and American Rivers putting forth a proposal to list the Deep Creek as a Wild and Scenic Area.  Deep Creek in western Eagle County, and the idea of giving it some level of added protection has been bandied about for at least twenty years. When I first heard about this latest proposal last spring, I was slightly skeptical despite being generally in favor of protecting our wild western landscapes.  

  The reason for my skepticism was twofold. The first is that the there's currently no existential threat looming over Deep Creek. Though the potential for mining operations or water resource development exists hypothetically, no one is talking about doing it, at least not at the moment.  So what exactly are we protecting it from? The second reservation I had was what might happen to the area by listing it as "Wild and Scenic", in terms of drawing attention to an area that sees very little human traffic as it is. It is extremely rough country, with no real trail running through it. Its as close to impassable as you'll find in Colorado, and so is already self-limiting by its very nature.  Would making it "Wild and Scenic" have the unintended consequence of making it less wild and scenic, by encouraging people to visit the area more?

  This summer I made several trips up into the Deep Creek area to better know it.  I've tried to access it in past, but been rebuffed by high spring flows.  This time I went in the summer with a fly rod in hand, often using the creek itself as a means of egress.  It is an extremely wild and scenic place,  a point which everyone agrees on. Deep Creek is a pretty amazing area, dropping from subalpine fields of wildflowers at over ten thousand feet, to high desert at six thousand in just under fifteen miles. There are some feisty, colorful brown trout in there, a sizable arch, wildflowers aplenty, and one of Colorado's best views from its easily accessible overlook.  It is also home to one of the most extensive cave systems in the world. Its also already under federal control, with Forest Service land on top and BLM below. No private property is affected. But is a new federal designation right for Deep Creek, and is the time to do that now?

  I'm a fishing guide who lives beside the Colorado River, and Deep Creek is practically in my backyard. At the meeting yesterday, many of my neighbors who ranch in the area showed up, and most had levels of skepticism that were much higher than mine.  They had concerns that such a designation might impact the ranching operations they've conducted in the area not for just years, but for generations.   They know this area better than anyone else, and their worries and opinions need to be seriously considered.   

 As for me, after chewing this proposal over in my mind all summer I've come to opinion that I am in favor of the new status for Deep Creek, with the caveat that the interests and concerns of the local ranching community are addressed to their satisfaction.  I'd also like to see the BLM and US Forest Service leave the area just as it is to their utmost ability.  That means, no bridge over the creek near the bottom switchback, no trail improvements, no fancy visitor center and a minimal amount of new signage.  In other words, if the purpose of the new designation is to preserve the area just as it is, than they need to leave it just as it is, to the greatest extent possible.  And now is the time to get it done, before some potential threat to the area becomes manifest. Keeping out a mining operation with its associated issues, and leaving as much water in the creek as possible to support the truly unique riparian ecosystem is a noble goal. Keeping out good ranchers who've spent their lives working and living in that landscape is not. But in the end, having such a wild and scenic place our backyard is worth protecting. 

  So let's move forward with recognizing and protecting the Deep Creek area, and then try our best to just leave it the hell alone!