Wednesday, May 10, 2017
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!
Confluence Casting LLC 14503 Colorado River Road Eagle County CO 81637 970-524-2775 Jack@confluencecasting.com