Sunday, October 19, 2014

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).

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