Sunday, October 19, 2014

Turn Off Your Effing Driving Lights!

                           Turn Off Your Effing Driving Lights!

If you stop to think about it, one of the most profound examples of the trust and interconnectedness that we humans share with each other every day involves driving down two-lane roads.  Or more specifically, driving down a small road and passing another motorist traveling in the opposite direction. Its something that happens thousands or even million times of day all over the world.  Yet think of how narrow the gap between a non-event and a life-changing one can be, and it’s truly astounding that there are not more accidents.  Just think of the physics involved with two 5,000 pound objects going 45 mph towards each other, separated by only a few feet and maybe a yellow stripe painted down the middle of the asphalt.  All it would take is a moment of driver distraction (and there are plenty of those in modern automobiles), or an icy patch, or a tire blowout, or road debris, or a bee flying around in the cabin, or any number of things and BAM!, one car crosses over that ephemeral line and catastrophe ensues.

  What an amazing amount of trust we place in strangers we’ll never meet, hoping that they’ll operate their vehicles competently.  We enter into an unspoken, short-lived contract with every car or truck we pass on the road.  The main point of that contract being, I’ll stay on my side of the road, and you stay on yours, and we’ll both go on our way safely.  Basically, its taking the Golden Rule (Do Unto Others…) out for a spin.  But there are also colloraries to this rule, which involve not doing things to hinder other drivers, in the hopes that they’ll do the same for you.  One obvious example of that is the use of high beams, which make things much safer for the high beam-er, but not so good for the high beam-ee.  By and large, most people don’t seem to have much of a problem with dimming their high beams when they see an approaching vehicle.  If they forget, the other driver usually just briefly turns theirs on, and the offender will typically turn their high beams off right away.  This system has worked fairly well for as long as cars have had high-beam headlights, since all of us occasionally forget that our high-beams are on (myself included).

  But over the past few years, a new public nuisance has begun to proliferate on our public thoroughfares, called “driving lights”.  These purport to making our roads safer at night by better illuminating our path, and in the hands of responsible drivers that can be the case. The problem is that some driving lights can be as blinding as high beams are, but drivers who would be quick to turn their high beams off at the sight of an approaching car at don’t feel the same obligation when their driving lights are on.  How this is legal is beyond me.  I suppose that the brightness of the driving lights don’t exceed that of the low beams, at least in theory, but in practice having four bright lights shining at your eyeballs does seem to be twice as bright as having only two.  Perhaps the lumens are the same, but the bottom line is that driving at night towards an oncoming vehicle with driving lights on can be much more difficult than it is without.  Of course not all driving lights are created equal, some vehicle makes are worse than others.  And aftermarket lights can be aimed all over the place, depending on how well they’re mounted. 

  The worst offenders seem to be pickup trucks and SUVs, possibly because they are higher.  Trucks also tend to be more likely to have a heavy load in the back or towing a trailer, which greatly compounds the problem.  A pickup truck going down the road with its rear end down low and driving lights on, can be worse than that same truck running empty using its high beams, yet somehow that is legal.

  It all comes down that very basic social contract we enter into whenever we get behind the wheel.  I won’t mess you with if you don’t mess with me, and we’ll both get to where we want to be without any fuss.  In my opinion, driving around with your driving lights on all the time violates that social contract, especially if they are a really bright pair, which most of the newer ones seem to be. 

  The crazy thing about most driving lights is that they really don’t add that much to the actual ability of the driver to see things at night, at least not in proportion to the amount of visual distress they can cause to the poor bastard coming the other way.  The cost-benefit relationship is severely skewed one way, for it “costs” one driver’s ability to see more than it “benefits” the other.  But the “cost” can be far greater to the blinded, than any benefit the blinder is gaining. The only benefit that additional driving lights seem to have on busy roads is to neutralize the other lights that are blinding you. 

  Personally I own three vehicles, a Saab and two Toyota trucks.  The Saab and the Landcruiser have aftermarket driving lights.  I live fourteen miles up a rural two lane road, and often make the drive up at night or early in the morning without even encountering another vehicle.  One is far more likely to encounter a deer, elk, or fog on the drive than another driver, and so I use my driving lights, very carefully aimed, to hopefully see those dangers better. But if I have them on, and see oncoming headlights, the high beams go off and so do the driving lights.  It would make me feel like a completely selfish bastard to project either one of those towards a fellow motorist and human being.  Once I get to town, the driving lights stay off, period.  Why is it so difficult for people to show other drivers some basic respect?

  When I see a vehicle with especially egregious lights heading in my direction at night, sometimes I’ll flash my driving lights at them.  I’ve yet to have anyone turn theirs off in response, probably because in a pinch people probably can’t remember where the switch is located (since they never turn it off).  Once I rented a Hyundai which had its driving lights already turned on, and had to scour the owner’s manual to find out how to turn them off.  It made me feel like a complete A - Hole driving around with them that first night, except for when I encountered others coming in the opposite direction who were doing the same.

  So what can be done to make people aware of what they’re doing, and get them to stop?  My only solution, other than to try and increase public awareness, is to turn my driving lights back on when someone is shining theirs at me.  It’s a lousy response, but what other tools are there in my toolbox?  If enough people start doing the same, maybe people will start thinking of their driving lights in the same manner that they do their high beams, and the roads can become safer for everyone. 
Until then, if you driver down the road at night with your driving lights on, and some dickhead flashes his back at you for doing it, its probably me!

Squeezing In Some Fishing

                                    Squeezing In Some Fall Fishing

Living and working in Colorado has many benefits, and one of those is that I’m usually not too far from a spot to fish, even in the winter.  People assume that because I’m a fishing guide that I must get to go fishing all the time, but that’s only technically true. What I really do is spends lots of time watching other people fish.

Since I live fifty feet from the Colorado River, getting a line into the water can be as quick as grabbing the little rod that hangs next to the gate on the way out to the back yard. From the end of my dock, I can usually fool one of the small browns that feed in the slow current out there just before dark.

  Of course, some times I look for a bit more of a challenge, and there are productive places to wade all along the river.  I’ll use my bike to reach the closer spots, which has the added benefit of helping to get my legs in shape for ice hockey.  But living so close to good fishing spots means that all I need is an hour or two to be able to fish, so its not a huge time commitment to do so.  Last Sunday was an example of that.  I spent most of the day getting caught up with office stuff and yard chores, and by three was done doing the things that I absolutely needed to do.  So I hopped in my truck and drove up the river to the canyon, where I used the railroad bridge below Pinball Rapid to get over to the other side.  On river left is a small boulder garden, one that I can’t reach from my boat when I take clients through. (The spots that I usually like to wade are the ones that I can’t reach from the boat). 

  Wading across the lower end of the hole, I sloshed up through the current to a large rock that offers a perfect perch to cast from.  Although trout can be found behind some of the rocks, the most reliable feeding lie is where the current runs back along the bank.  After a couple of short casts to get my distance set, I peeled off a couple more feet of line and dropped my two dry flies right on the bubble line a foot or two off the bank.  The flies, and Elk Hair Caddis and small PMD, drifted perfectly and I held my rod tightly ready to set the hook.  The flies went through unmolested however, as they did on my next presentation.  On their third trip, the flies were at the end of their drift, and as I took my eyes off them to scan upriver for my next cast I felt a tug in my hand, and noticed that I had a fish on. I landed a thirteen inch trout on the mayfly, and felt a bit guilty about it since I never saw the take.  After releasing the fish, I made more casts further up into the hole and soon caught a much nicer brown, and felt better about this one since I put the fly right where I wanted it and saw the take this time.

  Now that I had caught two out of this hole I was ready to move on, and so I went back to my truck and drove towards home, to another spot that’s hard to reach from a boat.  When I got there I realized that the water was still running faster and higher than I expected it to be, and spot I was going to try was still a bit blown out.  So I went a little further down to a sizeable eddy below, and cast from there.  This hole was deep, and had a nice bubble line below where the river ran past a big rock on the bank.  I watched for a moment to see if there were any surface action, and I saw a rise, and then another.  From the bank I began casting to areas where the current would bring my fly into the swirling bubbles.  After one such pass, instead of pulling the flies out after they went under, I stripped them back to me like a pair of streamers.  Soon a felt a strong tug, and landed a small rainbow.  I kept tossing the dries into the eddy line, and soon caught a much better rainbow than the first, this one was about fifteen inches.  I didn’t think that I’d better that fish, but kept casting in the bubbles and had to do lots of mending to keep my flies on top. Then I saw a fish rise to my fly and he was on, fighting much harder than the other two.  Once I got him close I saw why, he was foul-hooked.  It was another rainbow, bigger than the first and smaller than the second.  After releasing that third fish, I decided that it was time to go, three fish out of the same hole was plenty, what would I prove by continuing to pull fish out of it? 

  Making my way out along the bank, and saw the rise of a nice fish not far away. I didn’t really want to catch another fish in the same spot, but the siren’s call of a feeding trout is hard to resist.  The caddis pattern I was using was pretty beat up, and would be getting retired anyway, so I cut off the hook and the second fly and cast that towards the unsuspecting trout.  The fly drifted towards the intermittently appearing olive nose, and as the fly drifted over it the nose came up and gulped down the fly.  Since I had no hook I didn’t want to pull it out of his mouth, but did get to feel a good solid pull on the line before the trout opened his mouth back up and spat it out.  Fishing without hooks isn’t something that I do a lot, but every now and then its fun to do everything involved with trying to catch fish, except for the sticking-a-sharp-hook-into-a-trout’s-mouth part. 

  Of course not all of my fishing occurs along the river I live.  My other main working gig is driving a propane truck, and that takes me all over the back roads of Eagle and Garfield counties.  Usually I have my tenkara rod and a couple of flies on hand, just in case I end up on some private property I can fish during work.  But last week I knew that I would be making a delivery to Piney Lake above Vail, and so I made sure I had my other travel rod as well, an old telescoping Trimarc.  After delivering the propane, I drove about a mile downstream from the lake to a spot I’d been eyeing on previous trips. There were spots closer to the resort that I’d already fished in past, but since I already knew that fish were there I was ready to find some others.

  The Piney was much lower than it had been three weeks ago.  The water wasn’t more that a few inches deep in most places, but I did see a little riffle that looked a bit deeper than that which would have made for a good feeding lie.  I extended the Trimarc to its full length, and added a second mayfly to the caddis already tied on.  On my very first cast, a small brookie inhaled the mayfly and I quickly pulled him out of the hole so that he wouldn’t spook the others.  It was only about six inches long, but beautiful in a way that only a brook trout in spawning colors can be. 

  I released that, and on my second cast a fish came up for the caddis.  My hook set was too quick though, and I pulled it out of his mouth.  After a couple false casts to dry my fly, I gently dropped my flies down into the bubble line once more, and the moment my caddis hit the water a nice brook trout was waiting with its mouth open to eat it.  This one gave me a better fight than the first, and when I worked it in over to the shallow water by the bank I saw that it was a foot long beauty, in colors that no oil painting or mere photograph could ever do justice to.  After pulling the hook out of its mouth and watching it swim away, I raised my rod to try another cast.  Before I could I noticed my line was still animated, and realized that there was still another fish on the end of my tippet.  This was a three inch rainbow fry that had eaten my mayfly at some point, without my even realizing it!

  I was going to keep casting, but remembered that I was supposed to be working, not fishing. I had only made three casts, had three strikes, and caught three fish.  Not a bad way to kill a few minutes at work. 

 The following week I was asked to speak at a lunchtime Denver Angling Society event, and after giving my presentation was talking with some folks there.  One of them mentioned a body of water I’d never heard of before, the Old Dillon Reservoir. This was a little lake that the town of Dillon used for its water supply when the town was in its original location, before the creation of Lake Dillon.  He said that he had hiked up to it recently, and that after being recently expanded it had been stocked with Golden Trout.  Goldens are native to California, not Colorado, and I’ve heard of them being stocked in places but have never seen one.  So on my way home from Denver, instead of fishing Clear Creek or the Blue as I often do I decided to check out this spot I’d never seen or even heard of. 

  The trailhead to the Old Dillon Reservoir is located off the dam road between Frisco and Dillon.  I’ve noticed cars parked there in the past, but never given it much notice.  Before hiking up the hill, I grabbed my rod and fanny pack of gear.  After a short hike, I came over a rise and saw a small round lake perched at the top of the hill with a commanding view of the “new” Dillon Reservoir, Buffalo Mountain, the Williams Fork Mountains, and Keystone off to the east.  Traffic from I-70 could be heard just to the west and downhill, but not seen. 

  The little reservoir itself was not very impressive, and my first thought was that I was an idiot for even carrying my rod up there.  It covered perhaps ten acres, and was surrounded by rock, cement and gravel, with no vegetative cover whatsoever.  I left my Fenwick broken down in two pieces, and decided that instead of fishing that I’d just go for a hike around the “lake”. 

 When I got down closer to the water’s surface though, I noticed something that I didn’t expect to see, riseforms from feeding trout.  I usually associate trout with living in beautiful places, in fact it’s a big reason that I am a trout fisherman to begin with.  Though there was a nice view from here above the little lake, I can’t imagine that the trout would appreciate that much. 

  So I put the rod together and strung it up, and made my way down to the water’s edge.  Now that I was closer, I could see plenty of dimples in the water, created by what looked to be very small fish.  On my first cast the a trout rose to my fly almost immediately, but when I set the hook I pulled it away from it.  The same thing happened on my next cast, and my next, and my next, for maybe twenty casts.  I stopped setting the hook altogether, but still when I’d raise the rod tip there would be nothing there.  It was frustrating but amusing too.  I considered replacing my mayfly with one that had a barbed hook, for I was curious to see at least one of these “Golden Trout”.

  Finally on about my twenty-first cast or so I was able to get the hook to stick, and brought a very small to hand.  It was not a Golden Trout, but an immature rainbow with golden color and deep parr marks.  I put him back into the water and watched him shoot off to rejoin his clan, with a great story to tell about the abusive giant he had just encountered. 

  Curiosity satisfied, I broke the Fenwick back down and resumed my trek around the little reservoir’s circumference. It was a beautiful fall day and the colors on the hillsides rivaled those on the baby trout.  The lake itself was not beautiful, but the setting was and it was yet another pretty spot that the pursuit of trout had taken me to. One of hundreds of such places that I’ve found in Colorado, with hundreds more yet unexplored. So many places, so little time…

Testimony to the Colorado Water Conservation Board - 9/11/2014

     Notes for public testimony to the Colorado Water Conservation Board
            Jack Bombardier - Confluence Casting LLC – 9/11/2014

Hi, my name is Jack Bombardier, and I’m a fishing guide who lives on the banks of the Upper Colorado River.  I was planning on attending this meeting today and just being a fly on the wall, but was asked to say a few words on behalf of those who make their living along the Colorado and other rivers on the western slope.  It not very often that the average person gets the opportunity to voice an opinion about something that’s as important to them as the Colorado River is to me, so I hope that I don’t blow it!

  Like many others in this room, I wasn’t born in Colorado. I moved here in 1986, primarily so that I could live in close proximity to its rivers and mountains.  I’ll bet that there are a few others here today that might be able to say the same thing.  The first time that I was able to experience the Upper Colorado River was my second weekend here.  I drove up into the mountains having left my map at home in Denver on the kitchen table, and just stumbled onto it, as if drawn here somehow.

  For the last eleven years, I’ve lived fifty feet from the river, and get the opportunity to turn maybe a hundred people a year onto it.  I run a small operation, but some of the outfitters in this room get the chance to expose many hundreds to the Colorado and the other rivers that help make this State what it is, and not Kansas.  They in turn employ hundreds of others who live and work here not because of the high incomes they make doing it, but because of how much they love it, too.

  I’m very glad for the existence of this Commission, and its stated goal of coming up with a comprehensive water plan for the entire State.  That’s because you can’t just look at one river drainage or another separately, especially with the number of trans-basin diversions that are already in place.  Water which should naturally flow west flows east instead, and the water that’s already been grabbed is probably not coming back.

  Rivers that flow west have to make due with water that isn’t high enough to fill their natural channels, which results in warmer temperatures and algae and dead fish. The only way to rectify that is with more water or narrower channels, and though I’m glad to hear that Denver Water is willing consider the latter, the former would be much better!
60% of the Colorado River’s water that should flow west goes east instead, and if a line is to be drawn as to when enough is enough, that’s probably it.

  The last few years have given us a tantalizing glimpse of what the future might hold. This year we had a robust snowpack, followed by probably the best summer we’ve had on the Upper Colorado River since Windy Gap was built.  The previous two years flows were down, and the river was only a shadow of what it could and should be.  Climate models suggest that we’ll be seeing more years like those in the future. We are approaching a crossroads, if we aren’t there already, where we’ll have to decide whether we’ll go down a sustainable path, making the best use of the resources we have, or continue to de-water some areas for the short-term benefit of others. 

  I’ve now lived more than half my life in Colorado, with more than half of that living on the Front Range. I appreciate the fact that this commission is tasked to look at the issue of water as a whole, and not in pieces.  The problem is not a West Slope versus Front Range thing, everyone who lives in this State has skin in the game.  Yes, it would be nice to drive through Aurora or Denver or anywhere else Kentucky Blue Grass grows during a rainstorm and not see sprinklers running. But there’s water that could be better used on this side of the Continental Divide as well. 

  Irrigation uses most of the water in Colorado, and though a large percentage of it goes back into the ground table, there are improvements that could be made.  Lining leaky ditches, increasing pivot irrigation, and revising water law so that water rights aren’t forfeited if they aren’t used are good places to start.  It’s also probably time to take a hard look at the amount of water that fracking consumes, and renders unusable.

  On the other side of the tunnel, pricing water to reflect its true value would be the best way to get people to not waste it.  Impacting someone’s bottom line is an excellent way to get their attention. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, and it should be treated with the reverence it deserves on both sides of the Continental Divide.

  Now I’m nothing special as a river guide, but the place I get to share with people is beyond special.  On a typical day, we’ll see healthy wild trout, bighorn sheep, ospreys, eagles, and sometimes otters.  The Upper Colorado River valley looks pretty much the same as it did when I first laid eyes on it 28 years ago.  For most of its course, it flows past big contiguous ranches or protected public land.  But the whole western ecosystem and economy hinges on the water that runs through it, and trout just happen to be good bellweathers of overall river health. Without cold, clean water there are no fish, so there are no birds of prey eating the fish, and there are no people catching the fish. Without healthy flows, there won’t be people having the time of their life running the Shoshone rapids, or just sitting along the banks contemplating the connectedness of it all.

   In closing, to shortchange the rivers of the water that makes them what they are, is to shortchange every living thing that comes or lives here. After all, we are all mostly made of water, it’s the one liquid that none of us can live without, whether it’s sustaining our body or spirit.

  So I’m very thankful that the Water Conservation Board even exists, and that I’ve been given the opportunity to express my thoughts about the important task you have.

                                         Thank you

                                            Jack Bombardier

Paradise Found, Paradise Lost

                Paradise Found, Paradise Lost

  Twenty years ago, I saw a stretch of river that looked so perfect for trout fishing that it immediately made it onto my bucket list of places I’d like to fish someday.  Since I was on a road trip checking out some other areas that I’d heard of, I was tempted to ignore the many “No Trespassing” signs which made this aquatic gem was off-limits to the likes of me.  Luckily this Sweet Spot was sandwiched between two fine pieces of public water, and so there were enough legal places to wet a line without having to make the acquaintance of the local sheriff, or worse. 

  Above the Eden-like spot was a Famous Tailwater, and just below it state wildlife area. The property itself was on about a mile of land, but it looked to have much more in fishable water due to a couple of large oxbows it contained.  In addition, there seemed to be some kind of creek that ran down into it on the far hillside, but it was impossible to tell how big it was.  At the upstream end, a narrow canyon blocked access from the tailwater, along with a barbed wire fence.  From below, a fence that approximated the impenetrable look of the Berlin Wall kept out interlopers. All it need was a couple of machine gun nests to make it complete. The fence went clear across the river to block entry from the water, and numerous signs festooned every fencepost to making it very clear that unauthorized entry was neither permitted nor looked favorably upon. 

  In the next twenty years after I first laid eyes on it, I went up to fish in that area on numerous occasions, and each time I’d see that pretty piece of river I’d think, “Maybe someday…”, never thinking that I’d ever get the opportunity to actually fish there.  Then, a couple of months ago I was at a Trout Unlimited event where I met someone familiar with the area in question.  He told me that a conservation easement was being purchased that would make the Sweet Spot accessible to the public.  I was ecstatic to hear that, and planned to keep my ear to the ground in the hopes of finally getting in there. 

  A month ago, a guide from that area hired me out to do a half-day guided trip in the public water below, and so I went up the day before to be ready first thing in the morning and to check out some good spots to take the clients to. 

  I got up there late in the afternoon, scouted some holes above, and then went down to the public land below.  All along the road in between I was disappointed to see that there were “No Trespassing” signs along the road to the Sweet Spot.  Down in the public water, I found a couple of likely-looking holes to bring our folks to the next day, and decided to use the remaining light left in the day to do a little fishing myself.  I hiked up the river looking for a good hole to fish with my tenkara rod, but the river was in the last phase of runoff, and still a bit high to fish with my little Japanese rod, despite being a tailwater.  Eventually I got to where the Berlin Wall was, and was shocked to see that the barrier was gone!  I looked all around to make sure that I was in the right spot, but there was no mistake, the fence was gone and so were all the signs! 

  I wondered about the No Trespassing signs along the road, and thought that maybe the land had been purchased already, but that whoever was now managing it had yet to reconcile the two different areas it was in between.  One was a fee area and one wasn’t, and they had been separated by private property.  Also, there were three other areas I knew of where conservation easements had been purchased on previously private land, but with signage indicating this new status yet to put up.  I thought that this was just another case of land acquisitions getting out ahead of land management.  This was a perfect time to fish this place – it was no longer private, but no one knew about it yet, so it was in a kind of gray zone.

It was almost dark, so I decided to use the remaining light I had to explore the property for future expeditions.  The river was every bit as perfect as I had imagined for all those years, and maybe better.  I walked across a field waist-high in grass and flowers still and caused thousands of grasshoppers to take to wing wherever I went.  The meadow seemed to be boiling with hoppers.  I followed the river along its course, and saw numerous places where a trout might hang out.  There were logs in the river, and the occasional large rock, undercut-looking banks and overhanging tree branches.  Around the perimeter of the first oxbow were little spinning foam eddies, and in the middle of the river was a small island that split the river into two channels each with fishy-looking pockets. There was so much great holding water I couldn’t decide where to cast first, but kept the tenkara in its little metal tube. 

  Seeing enough of the big water to know that looked great, I then cut across the large verdant field towards the creek.  Once it got to it I was surprised at how much water it had, it was at least 30 or 40 cfs, plenty for brookies.  It had large granite boulders and enough trees along its banks to keep it shady, but not so many as to make casting impossible. It looked like a perfect spot for the tenkara, but by now it was almost dark.  Fishing the Sweet Spot would have to wait, but it wouldn’t have to wait for long.

  The next day I met the other guide and our four clients, and I got the two newbies and he got the two more experienced fishermen. After four hours of fishing different holes, the sky to the west turned black and the wind picked up.  Soon a hard blowing storm was upon us, and since we already had our four hours in we called it a morning.  The guide and the four fishermen left, but I knew where I was heading, and it wasn’t home yet.  I rigged up my 10 foot four weight and headed upriver towards the shoulder of the first oxbow.  The bad weather had blown through, and the clouds began to break up. All through the big meadow I was once more surrounded on each side by thousands of grasshoppers, the most I’ve ever seen. When I got the oxbow I rigged up a big foam grasshopper, and in deference to the bright sunshine now shining upon me, a small dropper fly below it. I walked up the outside of the oxbow, casting upstream to tempt some big leviathan from beneath the undercut bank.  None reared their head, but then I got to a nice eddy where I saw a nose or two occasionally poking out from the slowly spinning foam.  Measuring out my line in the air I dropped that big hopper right on the edge of the seam, and the water exploded almost immediately in the chaos of a large fish slamming the hopper. 

  After a strong fight I landed a 21 inch rainbow, the second-largest I’d ever caught. It was a beautiful fish with a broad crimson stripe, and bulging belly I guessed was full of grasshoppers. I made a few half-hearted casts after that, but I knew that I wasn’t going to beat that fish so why try.  I was expected back at home, but determined to come back soon when I’d have a lot more time to spend there. It wouldn’t be long before the word was out, and other people started fishing it, too.  I’d found a fly fishing paradise, and the sooner I got back to it the more likely it would still feel so untouched.

  The next week, a national fly fishing magazine showed up in my mailbox that had a story about Sweet Spot paradise.  It said that the easement had been purchased by a large conservancy, and was in the process of being transferred to the federal government for management.  That explained the lack of any trespassing signs below, and the missing Border Fence designed to keep out Illegal Undocumented Fishing Immigrants like me.  The article mentioned the upper canyon section, and the old log cabin the Sweet Spot had near its bank.  The state land wildlife area it bordered was also prominently mentioned.  Well now the jig was up, and everyone would know about it, so I really wanted to get back up there as soon as I could.  But this was now July, one of the busiest months of the year for me guiding fishermen down the Upper Colorado River in my boat. There was just no time to get back up to the virginal paradise, while it still was. 

  Then I had a float trip on a day following a heavy rainstorm, and I wasn’t sure that we would be able to do the float.  The section of river I float goes through a red rock canyon which though visually beautiful, can quickly go off-color in heavy rain and render the river unfishable.  I was trying to think of an alternative place to bring my client and thought of the Sweet Spot.  Since it was no longer private, but not yet managed, I thought that it might be sorta legal to take a client there, at least until the new management scheme was in place. 

  But the river ended up not going off-color after all, and we ended up having a great day on the Colorado.  Earlier in our float, I had mentioned my Plan B to him and what the paradise I’d found was like, and during our few slow periods of fishing he kept asking about it.  After our trip was over, he asked me flat out if I would take him there the next day, since he had one more day on his vacation allotted to fishing.  I didn’t know if I would have trip for the next day waiting for me once I got home and checked my messages, and so I drew him a map on how to get to the Sweet Spot written the back of a photocopy I had made of the magazine article.  That night once I checked my messages and found that the next day was indeed available, I called my client back.  I told him that if he wanted to go there I’d go with him, but on an unofficial basis.  I wouldn’t ask him for a fee, but if at the end of the day he felt like it was worth something to him I wouldn’t say no to any demonstration of his gratitude.  Also, even though I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t be illegal to guide him in that little slice of paradise, I’d carry a rod myself so that it wouldn’t be an obvious guide/client relationship to anyone who happened to be watching.

  We met the next morning and drove there in his new SUV, which had out-of-state plates.  On my previous visit, I had hiked out towards the road to see if it had quicker access into paradise, and indeed it had.  I followed the row of fence posts that used to support the fence, and found a little turnout at the top with a new access gate designed to let people on foot pass through but not cattle. This turnout is where my client and I parked, right behind a new pickup with Texas plates. 

  We hiked down the old fence line straight into the heart of paradise, and soon found ourselves beside the river.  After stringing up our rods, he waded in and started casting towards the inside of a nice seam.  Before long he was into a 16 inch fish, which I landed and photographed. Making his way upstream, the large Prince Nymph suspended below an orange indicator he was using kept drawing the attention of fish after fish, some we landed and some who got away.  I followed along behind him, casting my hopper/dropper over water that he had just covered with his nymph, and got repeated strikes.  I finally managed to land a 19 inch brown trout on a hopper, and while I was landing that my client got into another fish as well that he had to land because I was occupied with my own. With such a fine fish brought to net and in my camera’s memory card I spent more time watching him fish, net at the ready, and soaking in my surroundings.  It was a beautiful spot, green and lush and chockful of fish.  A bald eagle flew past, and landed in a nearby aspen.   I pointed him out to my client, and almost as if on cue the eagle took to wing and circled around right over our heads, close enough to poop on our hats if it wanted to.  Before the afternoon was over a big golden eagle also flew by, as did an acrobatic osprey.  We were all there for the same reason, to stalk the huge and plentiful fish. At one point I was just sitting there on the bank not fishing, but not needing to.  It was all so perfect that I didn’t feel the need to catch another fish, it was almost too easy.  I noticed the grasshoppers all around bouncing off me and caught one, which I tossed into the river.  It landed with a big Plop almost on top of another hopper that had fallen in by conventional means.  I kept expecting a snout to emerge and inhale either one but they just floated off downstream unmolested.  Then as I scrutinized the water’s surface more closely, I realized that there was an endless supply of grasshoppers, about every ten feet another one would float by. The trout here were like Nebraskans living upstairs from a Country Buffet, no wonder they were so huge.

  After a few hours we were getting hungry, and so I offered to go back to his SUV to get our sandwiches. On the way up, I noticed three other fishermen on the downstream side of the oxbow, working the water we had been in an hour or two earlier.  They had been below us when we had started, in the area that had always been public, but were now fishing in paradise as well.  When I got back with the sandwiches my client told me that he had caught a couple of nice fish when I was gone, and had lost a really huge one.  After lunch I was ready to fish again, and began tossing just the hopper with no dropper fly.  I kept getting lots of hits on it, and started tugging it across the foam eddies just to watch them chase it, hoping to keep it out of their mouths.  I was going to cut the hook off, but kept it on because my client would use my rod whenever I had to re-rig his.  For five hours we enjoyed one of the most wonderful fishing experiences we had ever had, and hadn’t even gotten to the creek or narrow canyon section yet. 

  I began to notice a white pickup truck that had gone up and down the road a few times while we were out there.  At first I thought that it might be the ranger from the state park, who also had a white pickup, but it was a different truck. My client and I were in area with some trees, with him casting to a shadowy overhang, out of sight from the road above when were heard a man shouting, “That’s private property!  Get the FUCK out now!”. 
I assumed at first that he was yelling at us, but I could just see his truck and not him.  After a pause we heard him scream again, “Its private property!  What part ‘No Trespassing’ don’t you understand?”  There was another pause, and at the top of his voice he bellowed, “I’m calling the fucking sheriff if you don’t leave RIGHT NOW!”

  I looked at my client, and we realized that it was the other three fishermen he was addressing, not us.  He said, “He doesn’t see us.  We could just wait here near the trees until he leaves, and go out the back way”.  I thought about this and said, “I don’t want to be here when the sheriff arrives. Plus, I do want to know what the status of the place is.  Let’s just go talk to him and find out, I’m 99% sure that this is public land now but if its not we should find out”.

  On our walk across the field, we hear the man screaming at the anglers he just kicked out, dropping an F-bomb into every sentence. Now we were in the open and he could see us, and as the other men left with their tails between their waders we walked up the hill to receive our abuse. 

  He was standing with his hands on his hips and a sneer on his face.  “Hi, nice to meet you, I hope!”  I said with a big smile, and this seemed to but him a little off-balance.  “My name is Jack, is there a problem?” 

  “Yeah, I’d call trespassing a fucking problem, wouldn’t you?” he said.

  “We came from below, and didn’t cross any signs”, I honestly replied.

  “Where are you guys from?  Are you with those goddamned Texans I just threw out?” I then remembered my client’s license plate. 

  “No, I live in Eagle County on the Colorado River, and fish up this way a lot.  This is my cousin, he’s out visiting on vacation.  I’d been telling him about this place for years hoping to fish it with him”.
 “What part of Eagle County do live in?”, he asked, and when I told the section I lived in he seemed to soften a bit.  “That’s a pretty nice area” he said, and I told him that was, and that fishing it from a boat was the big river equivalent of wade fishing this little bit of paradise below us.  I told him that I had read about the easement that had been purchased on it, and was excited to finally be able to legally access it.
  “Easement? What easement?  There’s been no easement!  This is private property and has been for a long, long time”, he said. 
 “But isn’t this the Hubbard Ranch?”, I asked.

  “Hubbard Ranch? This isn’t the Hubbard Ranch, I don’t even know where that is.  This is the GAY Ranch, and has been for a long time!”

  I had to bite my tongue to maintain my composure and not laugh at this statement. The thought of a private place to fish dedicated only to fishermen with homosexual inclinations was almost too funny to contemplate.  It turned out that “Gay” was the property owner’s surname, and not meant to imply the sexual orientation of the only people allowed to fish there.

  Then I remembered the copy of the magazine article with the map I had given my client, and asked him if he still had it in his SUV.  He did and the three of us walked down the road to where it was parked.  When we got there we found the story and showed it to the ranch manager.  He scanned the article and quickly noticed a detail that I had missed.  It mentioned that the easement was on a property three miles below the Famous Tailwater, and we were more like one mile from it. Everything else seemed to fit the description of where were, except for that.  I asked about the imposing fence that was no longer there, and the manager said that there had been a property line dispute with the Forest Service, and that a new survey had determined that the fence was 100 yards into public land, and they had been forced to take it down. 
  “Well I’m sorry, I truly thought that this was public now,” I said honestly.  “Thank you for enlightening us”.  I stuck out my hand and the ranch manager shook it. Then he smiled for the first time and asked, “Did you catch many fish?”
    I looked at my “cousin” and smiled, then told the manager, “a couple”, smiling myself and doing some Reverse Fisherman Lying.
  The manager snorted at that and said, “A couple my ass! You fellers look like you know what you’re doing. I’ll bet you did better than that!”  We both smiled, but didn’t give him any more rope to hang ourselves with.
  That was one of the best places I’ve ever fished” I told him.  “I’ve wanted to fish that for twenty years and wasn’t disappointed.  Sorry I won’t get to do it again”.
  With that we parted, and my client and I drove off.  We both agreed that it was one of the best places either of us had ever had fished, and didn’t regret doing it.  I looked at him with a smile and said, “Oh well, sometimes its better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission!” and with that we both laughed.
  Five hours in paradise was better than none at all, even if it was only going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.  And in a way, its probably better that it was not going to be public water, for how long would it have stayed so perfect once word got out?  In short order, it would have just become another nice place to fish, but not the perfect unspoiled spot it was and still is.  Now when I die, if there is a heaven and I get to go there, I know exactly what I want it to look like (the Gay Ranch, not the gay ranch).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Here Comes The Runoff


              Here Comes The Runoff

Its Memorial Day Weekend 2014, and here comes the runoff. Over the past few days the river level has risen from about 5000 to 8000 cfs, but where it will top out this year no one really knows.  In the eleven years that I’ve lived here beside the river, the 12,000 cfs we saw in 2011 is by far the highest it’s been.  In most years, 5000 cfs is about what we get. The two years since 2011 have been drought years, with only thin snowpacks to feed the runoff.  This time last year the river level was only about 400 CFS, as water managers were trying to store every drop of snowmelt they could to see us through what was predicted to be a dry summer.  It peaked at about 3,300 cfs in the middle of May.

  This year is obviously very different, but so far it’s been a throwback to 2011. The May 1st SNOWTEL readings for this year had the Colorado River Basin at 166% of its thirty-year average, or the most since 1994.  The skiing has been great all year, and over A-Basin it still is (I’m going tomorrow). Even Aspen reopened for another weekend.

   For the past few days,  I’ve had to do all of the same things that I did in 2011, from sandbagging the entrance to our crawlspace and setting up a couple of sump pumps, to removing everything that will float from the backyard.   Today the water level reached the bottom of the sandbags, and I had to wader up for the first time to move stuff around. It will probably go a foot or two higher in the next week.  In 2011, from this current river level and above I had to spend an hour or so out in the river every evening keeping debris off our fences, and I expect that there will be more of that this year.  There was a lot of anxiety that spring, not knowing how high the water would eventually get, but having been through this once before I’ve got a pretty good idea of what needs to be done to keep the water at bay. 
It could possibly get higher this spring, but the snowpack is pretty comparable to back then.  And, water managers have a new tool in their toolbag, the permission to send more water east through the Roberts Tunnel in case the western slope needs a little relief.  Unfortunately, its been even wetter on the Front Range than here, so they might not have much room to absorb more! As long as we don’t get any heavy rains while levels are at their peak, we should be OK on the Upper C.

  One new wrinkle I’ve had to compensate for this year is the little wooden dock I built in the summer of 2012.  Although the dock has only been there for less than two years, I’ve become quite attached to it. It’s a great spot to fish from, pee off of,  learn to fly cast on, or set drinks and hockey sticks upon when the river is in its winter ice rink mode. Its also a great place to just hang out, sitting in a pair of Adirondack chairs making our own little Corona commercial.  When I first built it, my wife said, What am I going to do if the river ever comes up that high again?  I told her that these river events happen only very twenty years, so we’re good for another nineteen.  Nineteen turned into three!  So to protect my dock, I covered it in rocks to hold it down.  Then when the river started rising, the water started to eat away at the banks where the dock was anchored to what used to be solid ground. So I got more round river rocks to stabilize the bank with, but whether this works or not remains to be seen.  The pictures my wife took of me standing on the dock yesterday might be the last we see of it.  (I tried to get her to go out onto it for a picture but she refused, being smarter than I am).

  The Upper Colorado River is in many ways one of the most drought-proof and flood-proof rivers in the state or even the US.  Since the river is the lifeblood of the southwest, there are a lot of local, regional and even international commitments that ensure some water flowing all the time. There are several storage options upriver that can be used to manage the flow here, but all are more than fifty miles away.  Below the closest (Wolford Mountain) and here, there are numerous small streams pouring in.  Sheephorn Creek is running high, draining the Gore Range, as does the Piney, which as I write this is over 600 cfs. Rock Creek’s USGS gauge isn’t working, but I saw it a couple of days ago and it was at least a hundred. The river usually has more water in it down here than one might think, because of all the little streams between here and the nearest gauge upstream in Kremmling.

  We’re likely looking at a month of this before it starts to come down.  Until then the fishing rods will stay stowed, and the whitewater gear will come out.  The section of the Upper Colorado River that I live and guide on is usually a pretty mellow section to float, with only a couple of rapids and bridges to navigate.  Once the level gets over 5000 cfs though, it’s a different story.  The sheer volume of the water creates numerous fun waves and wave trains, and the whole trip from Derby Junction to my backyard takes half the time it normally does.  When river levels rise so does the speed of the water, which is why a river’s height doesn’t double when its cfs does.  CFS is a measure of a river’s volume and not height. Because its moving faster there is more total water volume traveling past any given point on the river without being twice as high.  Its one reason that I like to look at cfs numbers instead of the gauge height figures most USGS gauges also display.  The gauge height number will vary from one part of the river to another, depending on how wide the river channel is and the gradient.  A rise of four feet in the narrow section of Jack Flats upriver would probably be only a foot and a half at my house, where the river channel is a hundred yards wide. 

  One property of rivers is that when they rise they tend to go off-color, and when levels are dropping they clear. In 2011 I didn’t know if I’d still have a house to live in by summer, let alone what it would do to the fishing. Turns out that they both did just fine.  Once the river was past its 12,000 cfs crest near the end of June, it didn’t take too long to start to clear up.  I did my first fishing float that year in the first week of July, with the level still at 10,000 cfs and slowly dropping. We not only caught fish, we caught a bunch, and were those fish ever hungry!  It had been a tough two months for the trout trying to feed in that big water, and now that it had slowed and cleared up a bit they were ready to eat something. The rest of that summer the river fished great, as flows slowly diminished.  We lost our caddis hatch that year, but simply fished more terrestrial patterns than usual.  It should be a great year to fish ants, cricket, and hopper patterns.  I may even be tempted to toss a mouse pattern or two. 

  Another advantage to those high water conditions is that the fish tend to congregate in eddies, out of the main body of the river.  So even though the water is deeper, they are easier to find, more competitive and less wary.   This makes the fishing pretty fun, because instead of just methodically working the banks all the way down the river, you can concentrate on the eddies.  In between the eddies, the water runs fast and furious, and you can just enjoy riding the big waves and forget the fish for a moment.  It’s like a half-fishing, half-whitewater trip.  Folks in 2011 who had done whitewater trips in Glenwood Canyon and then come fishing here, said that the whitewater here was more fun than in the Canyon. (Partly that’s because commercial rafters can’t put in at the Shoshone ramp above 6,500 cfs.  Above that level, the highest place they can launch trips from is Grizzly Creek, below all the famous Shoshone drops).

 One other thing that I also learned in 2011 is that launching boats from my backyard is a nasty, muddy affair.  It was almost Labor Day that summer before the mud dried much, so I did a few trips from my father-in-law’s ramp a half-mile downriver.  He’s got a nice, steady grade from the back corner of his property down to the river, one that he and I cleared and graded eleven years ago. Boats can be launched pretty easily from there no matter what the level of the river is, from 250 cfs to 12,000. There’s also a nice, natural eddy where the ramp is to make stopping there with a boat really easy.  But, having my shop in one place and my boats in another presented some logistical issues. 

   So this year, I was planning to move my fishing operation from my backyard to my in-law’s.  Mostly that was because my wife’s dog business and my fishing operation can sometimes be at cross-purposes.  Parking can be tight in the summer, and it’s hard to teach fly casting at the river with a chorus of dogs doing their thing for a soundtrack. (So it was also somewhat about having a quiet man cave to run off to get away from said dogs).  Now that I’ve seen how high the river might get, I’m really glad to have already set those forces in motion.  Having the business back in the spot where it was originally envisioned to be is going to be like coming full circle.

  All that is making me feel pretty good about the upcoming summer, and the challenges it will present. Seeing the drought-afflicted areas to the south and west, and the flood-damaged valleys to the east, one hopes that having so much water is a blessing and not a curse.  After all, next to oxygen it’s the most important substance on earth.  But with the climate changing, it seems that most areas either get too much or too little of the stuff.  But here on the Upper Colorado River, it usually seems to be just about the right amount.

Jack Bombardier
14503 Colorado River Road
Eagle County, CO 81637

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feeding My Soul

                                                             Feeding My Soul

  Its the middle of winter, and I'm in my full-bore schedule which consists of a lot of work,  little bit of play, and not nearly enough sleep.  My full time gig is driving a propane truck, and my part-time one involves working for a Vail limo company.  In between work stints, I try to squeeze in as much play as possible.  "Play" in the winter means skiing, hockey, and the odd trip to a tailwater to try to tempt a trout with a small fly.  Sometimes I spend so much time working that I begin to feel like wage slave, but that's where the play part comes in. Most weeks I don't get to enjoy nearly enough of life's fun moments and fill my soul with doing the things I love, but last week I did and it’s what makes me look forward to winter. 
  First of, one night I finally got to do some ice skating on the Colorado River, after several sessions of clearing the snow from it.  In the eleven years that we've lived up here we've been able to make an ice rink most but not all winters. River ice can be extremely dynamic and volatile.  Some winters I'll get the surface perfect, and the river level will inexplicably rise and ruin it.  Or we'll get more snow than I can clear with a shovel, or the weather will turn warm and it will thaw prematurely.  This year we had a warm fall, and no cold weather until the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and then it got cold and snowed heavily all at once.  This left the ice very bumpy, and I wondered whether this would be one of those years without skating.  But even though the ice looked very unpromising, I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon clearing it anyway, hoping that sunshine would eventually do the work of smoothing it out.  After a week or so, it was somewhat better but not yet smooth enough to skate on, and then it snowed again.  Once more I spent a couple of hours out there getting that white, reflective powder off my rink, and it was at least smooth enough underneath that I could wear skates as I shoveled, which gave me a lot more leverage. 

  Another week passed, and I finally had a little time after work enjoy my handiwork.  The waxing moon lit up the backyard aided by the bright white snow, making artificial illumination unnecessary.  I laced up my skates, and made my first few strides down the black ice surface, and suddenly felt as though I was flying.  The skatable ice that I shoveled was almost three hundred feet long, though not very wide. But the width didn't matter, just being able to zoom up and down the river felt surreal.
  My wife came out but didn't trust the ice enough to put on her skates, so she walked around with me on it until she got cold.  At one point a train came by over the bridge spanning the river, and we watched it pass by while almost underneath it, feeling its tremendous power. When she went back inside, I told her that I would in shortly, that I just wanted to do a few more fast laps. After doing that, it warmed me up so much that I just kept skating. Finally I was able to reluctantly tear myself away, and go back inside, happy in the knowledge that all of my hard work shoveling snow was not for nothing. 
 The next day, I got my soul filled in a different way.  Terena and I drove down to Evergreen, where I gave a presentation to the Trout Unlimited chapter there. Not long after I began my float fishing business, I hit upon the idea of doing Powerpoint presentations to TU chapters as a means of getting my name out there, and drumming a little business. Not wanting it to be an overt sales pitch, my presentation talks mostly about public fishing access along the eastern Flat Top Mountains where I live. Over the years, I've kept adding more and more slides and maps to it, to the point where I could probably spend hours doing it. I love living where I do, just downstream from some of the most spectacular river mileage in Colorado, and the enthusiasm I have for sharing it with people seems to be appreciated.  I've now done this presentation to perhaps a dozen TU chapters, and have also given it at the Fly Fishing Show in Denver a couple of times, but it had been over a year since the last time I’d given it when I spoke in Evergreen last week.  I had almost forgotten how much fun it could be talking about my beautiful backyard in front of a roomful of slightly inebriated fishermen, with huge images of colorful cliffs and trout behind me.  They wanted me to try and keep it to about forty-five minutes, but it ended up being closer to an hour and a half (though no one seemed to mind).  When I was done the chapter members gave me a nice round of applause, and it was wonderful to see my wife's beautiful face beaming at me as they did.  That was another big deposit into my soul account!

  On Saturday, I had to deliver some propane in the morning, and delivered an entire truck full of gas to a single customer with multiple tanks.  This left time in the afternoon to run up to Beaver Creek to do some skiing.  In the winter, I leave my skis and boots in my car just in case the opportunity arises to get out for an hour or two, and this was one of those opportunities. Even though our winter was off to great start in terms of snowfall, it had been a full week since had gotten any fresh powder. Nonetheless, there are plenty of places to find untracked snow at Beaver Creek if you know where to go, and I do. Mostly that involves skiing in one of the many aspen glades that abound between the main mountain and Arrowhead. Most of that terrain is in-bounds, but some of the runs I do were shown to me by my good friend Ted Duckarope.
   It was a beautiful day to be on the mountain, with mild temperatures and the cobalt blue skies Colorado is rightly famous for.  I parked at the free Arrowhead lot and began my afternoon there. From the top of the lift, I skate-skied straight ahead into the trees and could see the single set of tracks I had made a week earlier. For the next three hours, I made one run after another on virgin snow that the thousand other skiers who had been here in the last week had missed. How this is the case is a bit of a mystery to me. A lot of people are terrified of skiing in the trees, and as I can personally attest the are quite painful to run into. But I think that groomed runs full of other skiers are much more dangerous than trees, for as hard as they may be, trees don't move and won't run into you!
  With each run I took I grew happier and confident, until I was in a completely blissed-out state. At one point I came upon a steep bump run while traversing the mountain to get to another glade, and barely paused before dropping in. I began skiing bumps rather late in my career, not until my late thirties, and I still stop and check them out thoroughly before plunging in. But on this day I was skiing with such a high level of confidence that I tore right into them. Halfway down the steep hillside I had what was almost an out-of-body experience. My head seemed to be unconnected to my body, and it was like I couldn't  feel my body or even control it. I flew down the hill but didn't seem to be touching it at all, it was like I was flying. My fifty-two year old body just performed like a well-oiled skiing machine, and I was just along for the ride. I had experienced this state of grace before in powder, but not in the bumps. It might be how a skier in a Warren Miller movie might feel like, watching themselves projected on a large screen, but the screen was completely inside my head.
  I finished the day as I usually do, by catching the Strawberry Park lift just before it stopped running at four pm. This gives me one a long, last run along the spine of the mountain and back to the top of Arrowhead.  I was the last one down off the hill, and felt like the only person on the planet. Days like this are why people make the sacrifices they do to live in the mountains they love. Careers and relationships can take a backseat to getting that narcotic-like fix.  I work twice as hard as I did in my twenties and make half as much, but I get to live beside the Colorado River with a beautiful woman surrounded by the mountains that prompted me to move here twenty-eight years ago. How long my aging body will allow me to keep pursuing this rigorous and active lifestyle is an open question that I'm not sure I want to know the answer to. But I intend to ski and fish and skate and row until I'm physically unable to do so, and maybe even a little past that.
 Maybe heaven is a place that people with kind and benevolent souls get to go to once they shake off their mortal coils, but I'm not sure I want to put all of my eggs in that basket. I think that heaven is inside off all of us, and can be found in those moments of sublime perfection that occur when we make an effortless turn in the powder, or in a perfect cast to willing trout, or when making love to our life's partner, or in making a perfect pass to a teammate’s stick in the blinding blur of a hockey game.
  To do something right and well in the moment is to be in state of grace, and to create as many of those moments as we can in this lifetime is as close to heaven as we can reasonably expect. If a bearded and berobed St. Peter is waiting for me someday like a bouncer for the world's most exclusive nightclub, I hope that I'm not found wanting. But until then, I'll just keep feeding my soul every opportunity I can get, and try to enjoy this daily miracle we call life for as long as I can.