Guides Need To Fish Sometimes, Too
I just got home from a day and a half of fishing, but it felt like a week. That’s because although I’m a fishing guide, I don’t get to actually fish myself very often, at least not during the summer. What I do quite often is watch other people fish. Oh, I spent five or ten minutes most evenings just before dark standing out on the end of my dock trying to catch the same small brown trout. I’ll usually toss flies to them until I fool one, or can’t see the river anymore. But that’s not really fishing, there’s no skill involved in the doing of it. Its just a bit of methadone, and not a real heroin fix.
Summers have gotten busier in each of the eleven years I’ve done this. There are a lot of outdoor-minded people coming to Colorado in the summer, partly due to the fact that the Centennial State is a pretty darn great place to be. Dry weather, full reservoirs, and not many bugs. More people seem to figure out every year that Colorado is where its at in the summertime. (The cliché is that people come to Colorado for the skiing, but stay for the summers). Most of my July and August days are spent rowing, then recovering from that day’s float trip, and then getting ready for the next.
But this weekend, two things happened simultaneously. First, we had a torrential rainstorm on Thursday night that turned the river bright red on Friday. Also on Friday, my wife left town to go visit her sister in Arizona for the weekend. Suddenly I found myself looking at a couple of off-color days in which I couldn’t extract any filthy lucre from the Colorado River. Just as important, there was no one around to tell me how I should be filling that gap instead. And so on Saturday morning, I mowed the lawn to fulfill my legal minimum spousal requirements, and then went fishing.
Not only did I get to go fishing, but I got to try a couple of new spots I’ve been wanting to try, plus I can write the whole thing off to research. Another guide I work with has been trying to turn me onto a couple of high-mountain lakes I’d somehow missed, so this would be a chance to check them out first-hand before bringing any clients up there.
Since the Colorado River was off-color, and probably would be for another couple of days, going up above the red sediment sounded good. So I to an area that shall remain nameless, one I had spent some time in before. Even though I’d fished it many times for fun, this time I would look it at with the cool eye of a trained professional, tasked with getting someone who had never held a fly rod into fish. I started at a lake large enough to paddle around in, but not big enough for a motor. To do the paddling part, I brought a water vessel I’d never used before, a small one man raft called a Tote-N-Float. Its fits into its own bag with carry straps, and is fairly sturdy. It’s designed to use oars, but the oarlocks it has are a hard to find design, and so lacking those I brought a kayak paddle.
Things with the Tote-N-Float started poorly and didn’t improve much. I had a difficult time getting the pump hose to seal, and it took about five times more pumping than it should have needed to fill it up. Once I got it filled, I paddled out in to the lake into a slight headwind, but couldn’t really take efficient strokes with the paddle due to the protruding obsolete oar locks. The boat was very wide, and had a blunt bow that gave the wind plenty of rubber to push against. With my paddle blades having to be held way out away from the boat, the little craft had a pronounced yaw first right then left as I made my way across the lake. I looked over my shoulder and saw that I was leaving a zigzaw pattern of bubbles behind me. And then there was my cold, wet ass, and other body parts that are neighbors of the same physiological region. The Tote-N-Float had a rigid seat made of plywood with an attached stadium seat, but it was only about a half-inch out of the water with me sitting on it. If I could have just sat still there without either me or the water moving, my crotch might have stayed dry. I realized too late that I should have worn waders, and not simply quick-dry pants. For those pants to stay dry, certain moisture-free time intervals need to be observed between wettings, and I didn’t get any of those on the Tote-N-Float.
I got out into the middle of the lake, and sat there resting all of the new muscles in my arms, shoulders, and back that I never knew I had. The motion I had adopted to propel the boat was one akin to crawling out of quicksand or a grave. I leaned back to rest a moment, and heard a slight hissing sound. I’ve had a lot of inflatable devices in my life, and in that rich experience one thing I’ve learned is that hissing sounds are not good to hear around inflatables. Over my left shoulder I could see a steady stream of bubbles coming from the boat in a spot that I had gotten patched. The Tote-N-Float only cost me fifty bucks a couple of years ago because it had a small tear. I spent more than twice that getting a patch put on in Denver, but the boat had sat in its carry bag for two years before I finally got around to trying it.
Now I was in the middle of the lake with a difficult to row leaking boat, and a cold, wet ass. I wasn’t worried about running out of air, for I did bring the pump with me along in the Tote-N-Float’s ample storage area behind the stadium seat. But I questioned whether I could be doing something more fun and productive instead, and which didn’t feel so much like being in a wet diaper. I crab-rowed my way back to shore, the steady breeze at my back. When I got back I stuffed the Tote-N-Float back into its handy carry sack, and it may be there for another two years.
Now I had to decide how to try and salvage the afternoon. There was a sweet small river that meanders through a big meadow nearby, one I’ve fished before, so I headed for that. It’s a short, steep walk down to the river, but worth the hike. I had fished this river several times before, but usually during the morning or early afternoon when the fish are kind of spooky. Now it was late afternoon, and I could see small bugs about and some rise forms.
I cracked open a beer and put it in the river to keep it cold (my favorite temperature for beer is whatever temperature the river is). Then I had to decide which rod to use. I had with me a ten foot three weight, and a twelve foot Tenkara. I was going to start with the conventional rig, but then I noticed a hole that presents just the kind of situation that the Tenkara really excels at. The small river went around a bend, and just beyond the bend there was a small reverse eddy like a bursitis bump in an old man’s elbow. The Tenkara rod was pulled from my bag and extended, and soon I was dropping my two-fly cocktail into the spinning foam. After several spins around in the foam without interest, I decided to switch back to my conventional rig. Looking up the river, I knew I’d have to make longer casts and so the Tenkara got closed back up.
There were little pale mayflies hatching, and I thought that my standard rig should work. That consists of a ten foot 5X leader attached to a hi-vis Elk Hair Caddis, trailed by a little mayfly. There were occasional caddis flies flitting by, so I figured I was covered either way. But neither fly elicited much interest, but when I noticed that they were rising for something I knew I had to make an adjustment. Then I came to hole that just said Tenkara. The river split into three channels, and there were three little back eddies to fish, all around the outside of a small gooseneck. One could stand at the center of the gooseneck, and fish all three uisng the Tenkara’s reach without hardly moving one’s feet. Before I cast into the first pool, I replaced the mayfly with another elk hair caddis, this one without the hi-vis orange tuft on top. There had been a couple of hits on my top fly with the ten footer that I’d missed, but none on the mayfly. I flicked the flies into the first swirly spot, and after a couple attempts at divining the complicated little hydraulic, got a rise to the second caddis fly. Steering the fish away from the other holes, I tipped the Tenkara rod way back over my head and landed a nice little six inch brookie. I kept fishing the Tenkara, and in the third hole I caught a small brown, this one about nine inches, (or what known in the Colorado River as preyfish). Neither fish was big, but they were beautiful and feisty. I worked my way up the little stream, getting more hits but missing them. Then near the top of the meadow I pulled out a really nice cutththroat, fourteen inches of bronze color with black Sharpied spots and a slash so red I thought he was bleeding. It was the nicest cut I’d caught in some time.
After working my way up the river I got to then end of the bigger pools, and in the waning light decided to explore what lay downstream. I was able in spots to just walk along the river with my arm extended and the fly just floating alongside me like a dog at heel. The fly came to a small riffle, and as I took my eye off it to look at what was below I felt a tug in my hand and realized that I had a trout on. It wasn’t a big trout, and as I gently brought it to the bank, before I could see what kind of trout it was, I had the thought, if it’s a rainbow then you’ve gotten a Grand Slam.
Now I am not normally the kind of person who cares much about How Many or How Big a day we have trout-wise. Fly fishing for trout is mostly just an excuse to be in the beautiful places they tend to live in. But I had never caught all four main species of trout in one day, let alone out of one river. And at this point, I was only lacking a rainbow, and I knew that the state fisheries people loaded the lake below with them. It was like being a baseball player who had already hit a home run, triple and double, and only needed a single to hit for the cycle. So as I drew the trout closer with my arm held as high to land the fish, I was disappointed to see that it was another brookie. Immediately I chastised myself for feeling that way, for brook trout are my favorite trout. They are the fish I grew up chasing in New England. To my eyes they are also the prettiest, (though I’ve seen a tiger trout in person), and photography just doesn’t do trout justice. I released the brookie, fished my way down to the end of meadow ‘til it was almost dark, and gave up on the Grand Slam idea. I would have just enough time to get back to my truck before dark, and put away the Tenkara so that I could photograph the sunset over the mountains.
Reaching for my camera, I noticed that I was missing something, mainly my camera. It was a new waterproof camera I had just gotten less than two weeks earlier, after losing my last one overboard off my boat. Trying to remember where I had used it last, I realized that it been when I took the picture of that gorgeous cutthroat. Walking briskly upriver, I tried to remember which hole I caught it in, but the little goosenecks looked a lot alike and it was almost dark. But then I saw it, on the bank right below where I had steered the cut towards to photograph it.
I secured the camera in a zippered pocket, and looked up the steep hill towards the 4Runner on the shoulder above. Starting to head that way, I remembered that I was still one rainbow trout short of a Grand Slam. Since it wasn’t completely dark yet, there was still time for a couple more casts, so I pulled the Tenkara back out. I cast towards the spinning foam pockets, and missed one hit on a tiny foam line. The flies were barely visible in the dark purple light that was left. I moved down the river a bit to the next hole, tried a couple of casts, and then moved down one more. I was fishing more by feel than by sight. I put the fly in a likely-looking spot, or at least I think I did, when I felt a little pull on the rod. Raising it slightly resulted in a splash on the water, and the fight was on. I decided that no matter what was on the end of the line, and that it was going to be my last cast of the day. Of course, that promise was made easier to keep when I got the fish in my net and saw that it was a seven inch long rainbow trout. I had gotten my first Grand Slam of trout in less than two hours, in a very small river using a Tenkara rod!
Fishing for trout has never been much of a results-oriented pastime for me, but still it was hard not to feel good about it. It made the steep hike back up to my truck go much easier!
That night I resupplied in town, and then drove back up to start doing the “research” part of the trip. There were three small lakes that my buddy and partner took paying clients to, and if I got familiar with them then it might give me an alternative way to earn money guiding when the Colorado River was off-color. The first lake was really a small impoundment, located in national forest so I could park the 4Runner for the night wherever I wanted. I followed my friend’s directions up an increasingly smaller and steeper road to a dead end, where I saw signage for the lake. It had begun to rain as I went up into the mountains, and it was impossible to see the lake in the dark. Every now and then a flash of distant lightning would allow me to get a sense of it, but really scoping it out would have to wait until morning. I got a great night’s sleep that night in the back of the 4Runner, listening to the tap tap tap of the rain on the soft top that I had just reinstalled for summer. An ’88 4Runner might just be one of the best small SUVs ever made. It the only year they put a V-6 into the first generation body style, which is also the only 4Runner made that allowed for the removal of the fiberglass top an the addition of a soft jeep-style top. It’s a great truck in the winter, and even better in the summer. With the left rear seat bottom taken out, a six-footer can easily sleep in the back. I love dirt-bagging it in the 4Runner, and gladly did so that night.
In the morning I walked over to the lake to check it out. The first thing that I had noticed on the Forest Service sign was that the lake had grayling in it, or at least it did when the sign was erected. That sounded interesting – maybe I could follow up my grand slam with my first grayling? I made some hot coffee, and went down to the water’s edge where I had yogurt, orange juice, a banana, and apiece of apple pie for breakfast. Across the lake (which was maybe thirty acres in size) was a bald eagle,. On the surface of the water there was a disturbance, and in the shallows I could see a trout-sized fish finning along. I wasn’t sure if it was a grayling, and the tail seemed to be breaking the water more than the famous dorsal fin, but I’d never seen a trout so stupid as to be that obvious and exposed to predators.
The only two other people out there were a pair in a small johnboat tooling around the lake with an electric trolling motor. They were fishing, but I never did see them hook up. There were some intermittent rise forms, but they tended to be out towards the middle. To get to them I’d have blow up the Tote-N-Float again, and wear waders, and I wasn’t inclined to do either. After breakfast, I got my nine foot Fenwick five-weight and lofted a pair of dry flies out as far as I could into the lake, but that got boring pretty quickly, and the lake itself wasn’t pretty enough to distract me. One hillside was blanketed by aspens though, and I bet in another month when the leaves were changing it might be a different story. I was more interested in the other two lakes, and so catching my first grayling would have to wait.
The next lake was bigger, but required either a twenty dollar fee to access by boat or by a hike in from the national forest. Since I don’t mind burning a little shoe leather to get to good fishing, and I’m cheap, it was the low-cost option I took. From the trailhead it was about a mile long walk, and the reservoir once I got down to it was once again uninspiring. There were many more rise forms though, as well as substantial amounts of algae floating about. When I got to the lake, I saw a rocky promontory with a heron sitting on the point of it, and that seemed to be as good a spot as any to start fishing. One of the three small tributaries that filled the lake also ran past that area.
Walking closer to that point, I realized that it was a small island, not a peninsula. The water across didn’t look far or deep, but by the time I got halfway to it my arms were upraised and the water halfway up my chest. Where the line is between “wading” and “swimming” can be blurry. If I had been wearing waders, it would have overtopped them, so technically this might have qualified as “swimming”. Once onto the heron’s perch, I could see why it liked this spot so much. Trout could be seen cruising through the pods of floating green gunk, occasionally popping their noses into the surface to slurp some yet-unidentified bug. After watching them for awhile, I began casting about ten feet in front of the trout I could see hoping that one would check out my offering. Two did, but both turned abruptly away as soon as they got a closer look at my flies. At the far end of the lake it looked as though there might be another inlet, so I walked down there to see. There was a very small and very cold creek of about five cfs that ran in, so I walked up that to see if there were any small pools. The water made my sandal-clad feet numb, and I did find one babbling brook dropoff that was worth photographing but not fishing. I was OK with that though – once more the fishing rod in my hand was merely the ticket to a secluded, beautiful spot that I would never have found if not for the pursuit of trout. Fishing might have been the reason I was here, but it wasn’t really the reason. On the way back, I watched an osprey making silent circles above the water, playing avian god. Which of you fish will soon die in my talons? As I watched the osprey, a sudden shadow passed over me like that of a passing plane, and I looked up to see an immature bald eagle fly twenty feet over my head. I was tempted to fish some more, but not really that much. I had verified that there were fish in the lake, maybe even a good number, but figuring out what they wouldn’t turn their noses up to wouldn’t be that hard to determine. I had noticed huge tricos the size of damselflies hatching, and am pretty sure that I could have imitated one of those pretty well and tempted a fish with that, or a grasshopper.
I hiked out from there and went to lake number three, possibly the most promising of all. It was also in a national forest area, and the road access pretty good. Though it was well off the beaten path, when the lake came into view I saw that there were some people scattered on the bank either spin or bait fishing. There were two dories out on the lake, both operated by friends of mine. It was just past noon, and I was preparing to make a long hike to the lake’s inlet, when I saw both boats heading to the small boat ramp. Instead of hiking, I drove there instead and got to the ramp just as their clients were climbing out of the boats. I asked my friend if he wanted to give me tour of the lake, but he’d been guiding for several days in a row and was ready for some home time. But he offered me his boat, and after the previous days experience in the Tote-N-Float I was more than ready to take him up on that. After attaching his trailer to my truck, I rowed out into the middle to take it all in. This was a much prettier lake than the last two, though there were more people here as well. To the northwest was a bold escarpment that was the edge of the Flat Top Mountains, and on the southern edge a dark forest of big trees were guarded over by a big bald eagle. To the south and north were dark black clouds, and I could tell that I wouldn’t be able to hang here forever before the weather moved in. I rowed from one end of the lake to the other to get an idea of its size, and the whole time I did so was surrounded by rising fish, some not merely rising but jumping clear of the water in pursuit of their quarry. My friend had left me a rigged rod, and said to just use that, they had hooked forty fish in under four hours using it. It was six weight Orvis, rigged with a large foam hopper and a neon green egg pattern suspended beneath. Out in the middle of the lake I chucked that thing out there, watched in land with a Plop!, and waited. I made a few more casts towards the heavier concentrations of rings, but no one was interested. It was everything I hate about still fishing, and why I do so little of it. Fishing moving water has a pull on me that all but the most beautiful of lakes lack. There is really very little skill involved in still water, just cast it out there, watch closely, and when a hungry fish happens to cruise by be ready to set the hook. Whoop de doo.
The weather seemed to be getting closer, and so was the lightning, and I began to wonder how safe a large aluminum dory would be in the middle of the lake. I rowed back to what I thought would be striking distance to the ramp, and took out the Fenwick still loaded with a couple of dry flies. Since fish were still rising aggressively in the face of the oncoming storm, why fish something below the surface? I wanted to see the fish before he hit my fly, and not watch some chunk of foam disappear in the water. In short order, I caught several fish, mostly small stocker rainbows and one nice brown. Then the wind kicked up, and the I knew it was time to make my break for the ramp, and was just finishing strapping the boat down when the hail began to fall. By the time I got halfway to town, the roads were covered in a layer of white ice that looked like snowfall.
After dropping the boat off with my friend, I made a leisurely drive home. When I got back home to the Colorado River I was glad to see that it was clear enough to fish. Visibility was a foot and a half looking down off the Catamount bridge, and presumably clearing. A fishable river meant that it was time to go back to work, and my mid-summer two day holiday was over. It was time to watch other people fish again, and help them catch some.