Monday, June 26, 2017

Jim's Swim

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sitting On The Dock

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

Overlap Season

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