Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday Fishing

                                                Sunday Fishing

Since I live and guide alongside the Colorado, people think that I get to go fishing all the time, but that’s not really true. I do get to spend large portions of my time watching other people fish, but they’re the ones with the rods in their hand, not me.  There can be satisfaction in telling people where to put their fly, and how to mend their line, and then a fish rise to their fly when they actually pull it off. It makes me feel like the authoritative fishing guide I purport to be. Having clients using a tenkara rod gets me a little closer to feeling that I’m fishing, since their casting distance is limited by the fixed length of their line, and the actual placement of their fly is determined as much by where I position the boat as it is by their ability to cast.  But the tug, as they say, is the drug, and they are the ones getting that fleeting high, not me.
Most nights, if I get home before dark I do grab my little three weight from its hook on the fence and try to fool some small brown trout from my backyard dock, but that’s only “fishing” in the narrowest sense of the word.  Yes I’m making casts, and the occasional mend, and even hooking a trout occasionally, but the degree of difficulty is about the same as fishing in a lake, which is to say not much.  I built a dock out on the river which not only gives me an elevated position from which to cast and mend, but I’m usually tossing out into the same bubble line to more or less the same little brown trout.  One evening I did somehow hook a big rainbow, which was as surprised as I was by the hookup and made a decent run punctuated by a single leap.  But he was the exception and not the rule, and I haven’t caught him or any of his cousins since. 
  So it was pleasant surprise last Sunday afternoon when I realized that I actually had a couple of extra hours after knocking off the more urgent items on my honey-do list.  Usually my weekends (if I’m not guiding) are spent running river shuttles for guys who have planned their lives better than I, and can spend an entire day on the river chasing trout and drinking beer. Not only that, but can afford to pay some schmuck like me to do their shuttle for them, instead of doing their own by bicycle or on the end of their thumb like I usually do.  But being mid-November, the river traffic had finally slowed down to the point where doing other people’s shuttles no long consumes my entire day, so I get more discretionary time to do other fun things like work on one of my five vehicles (or my wife’s four). That’s because November is also time for snow tire mounting, oil changes and other overdue maintenance.  
  But last Sunday there were no shuttles at all, despite the river being in as perfect of a condition as I’ve ever seen it, and I’ve spent enough time in or along or on the Colorado River that I’ve begun to grow gills like Kevin Costner in “Waterworld”.  The river is low and clear and every afternoon there are just enough midges hatching to get the trout to notice.  Usually the Colorado in my reach is not a great wade fishing river, for its banks are steep and the willows grow right to the water’s edge, and its fished much more effectively from a boat.  This fall it ran higher than usual and for longer, as downstream water commitments keeping the Grand Valley irrigated were mostly satisfied by Green Mountain Reservoir, and the Upper Colorado River was the beneficiary of that hydrological largesse.  Since Halloween, the river level has dropped to its winter flow of about 625 cfs, and it will probably stay in that range until next March.  At any level below 800 cfs the Colorado becomes a splendid spot to fish on foot, and can even be waded all the way across in spots.  And knowing this river as well as I do, I know exactly where those spots are. 
Soon it will be freezing, and my backyard will extend out to beyond the water’s edge and ice skating can begin.  Over the next month, when the air temperatures get really cold at night, fog will form which coats the tree branches along the river and it makes the entire drive to work in the morning almost magical.  For an hour or two until the morning sun melts the ice, the trees sparkle in the sun and look like vertical chandeliers.  

But for a short window in the early fall the river is still a river, and not a hockey rink or fantasy land of glittering ice forms, and in that time trout can still be caught.  So last Sunday after the snow tires were mounted and the gutters cleaned of leaves and the gates re-hung, there was time to go and fool a fish or two.  I tossed my fishing bag and what I thought was my ten foot three weight into my old Saab, and drove up the road before my honey could think of another do to put on the list. 
  First I drove up to Pinball, for there is a flat across and upstream from the boat ramp that flows at just the right, slow speed for a trout to hold in the water and let the current bring them a wriggling morsel without them having to move a fin to do so. But down near the ramp there an old Ford Explorer with what looked to be either a homeless person or someone on a very extended trip parked there.  They had all their doors open, and gear and clutter scattered all around the truck for a twenty foot radius.  I’m not sure what their deal was, but decided to move on. 
  Next I drove up to bathroom pullout for Pinball where there is a single campsite and good holes just above and below.  There was a 4Runner there with a guy and his black lab fishing the upper hole, so I took the lower.  This has been a good spot to fish from a boat in the past, but a bit tough to get to on foot since it involves a steep brambly scramble to get to the river, and then the aforementioned willows to snag your fly.
Years ago I had taken a family of four fishing on my big cataraft past here, and after stopping so that the wife could use the BLM toilet we had resumed our float and I offered her one of the spinning rods we had on board.  For the first half of the day, she hadn’t fished at all but was content watching her husband and two kids doing all the casting.  When I tried to hand her the rod she said, “No that’s fine, I just want to watch them” but I insisted, and said that there was a really good spot coming up and that she should give it a try. She relented, and as we approached the hole I said, “All right see that bubble line that curls around? Try to toss that lure right there, and as soon as hits the water reel it in slowly”. She did exactly as I directed with her first cast, and the little Panther Martin hadn’t gone more than a foot or two when there was a big splash and the reel’s drag buzzed a little.  She kept the rod tip nice and high as she reeled, and I made my way river right to eddy out and land the fish.  We got the brown trout in the net, and got a nice picture of her smiling flanked by her daughter and son.  After the fish was released, we got ready to resume our trip and I tried to hand her the spinning rod, but she demurred.  “No that’s OK”, she said with a grin, “I’m good! I think I’ll quit while I‘m ahead!” and so she did. She made one cast that day, and caught one fish for her effort, which made her the most efficient and effective fisherperson I’ve ever had on my boat.  

To get to this hole on this sunny November day, I had to walk quite a ways down the road to find a spot from which to get down the steep bank.  No problem, I could just fish my way up the river to the hole.  The rod I had in hand was not the long, delicate Loomis I thought I’d brought, but a nine foot eight weight Scientific Anglers I’d bought that September from Wal-Mart.  It had been in my shop in a green case very similar to the Loomis’, but in my haste to get up the river I’d grabbed the wrong one.  This past fall was one of the windiest I could ever recall, and on many days the only thing it was possible to cast were heavy streamers.  I was at Wally World one day and noticed these cheap fly outfits for sale for eighty bucks, and bought one just to keep on my boat so that in a forty mile an hour gale there’d be something use that might be able to launch a fly further than an arm’s length from the boat.  We had never actually used it, so it was still brand-new with a black Sculpzilla on a short stiff leader attached.  I cut the big streamer off and attached a lot of extra leader to it, making it a dry-dropper rig with a big hi-vis caddis on top and a small purple nymph below. 
  I slid down to the water’s edge half on my feet and half on my ass, and began working my way up to the hole above, working the eddies below the rocks and sometimes the bubble lines out on the river.  There was no sign of fish or insect activity at all. My nymph kept getting snagged on the bottom, so I was doing an expert job of fooling the algae. I shortened it a bit and kept slowly making my way up the bank with nothing to show for it. The river was oriented in direct line with the sun, causing my shadow to be cast twenty feet out ahead of me upstream, so I had to stay close to the bank and make longer casts than I would have expected. I was very impressed with how well and accurately that cheap rod cast.  My leader was twelve feet long to the caddis, but I was able to consistently put those two flies exactly where I wanted them.  The state of fly rod design and production has advanced to the point where a fifty dollar rod you can buy at Wal-Mart can cast as well or better than a seven hundred dollar rod you could buy twenty years ago.  Considering the amount of handwork that still goes into making a fly rod, (these things don’t just pop out of a machine), its something that never fails to amaze me. I’m not sure why anyone would still pay that much for a fly rod, unless its to impress their fishing friends.  If you know how to cast, you can make anything work.  If you can’t cast, a seven hundred dollar rod won’t help that much. 
  Good casts or not, I couldn’t get anything to look at my flies.  I considered changing things out, but my presentations were so perfect that I didn’t know if it would matter.  There are several aspects to fly fishing that all combine to fool a feeding fish.  There is the fly itself, which is to say is type, color and size, and then there is the presentation, which is to say its placement, depth and the amount drag it does or doesn’t have as it floats down the river.  Although every one of these factors is very important, I think that most guides or anglers that spend enough time on the water would say that proper presentation is the single most important element in getting a fish to take your fly.  I was putting those flies right where they should be, with no fish interested in them at all.  The water was low and clear, and I had a good viewing angle into it, so that I should have been able to at least see a flash of something if there was anything to see.
I sat on a rock, cracked open a beer and considered my options.  If the fish were not where I was fishing, then I’d need to go deeper or bigger or both. But the sun was warm on my face and back, and just watching the gin-clear water accompanied by its soothing soundtrack felt good.  I forgot about the rod and just sat there, doing absolutely nothing.  For most of my waking hours, I am on the go from the time I get myself out of bed until I drag myself back into it, just doing and doing and doing stuff.  There is always something to do, and if I’m not doing something then I feel guilty about not doing it.  Yes I could tie on a stonefly nymph, or I could walk to a different hole, or I could go home and crawl under the Saab and figure out why the turbo I put in yesterday didn’t work, or I could go add a couple of bags of salt to the water softener, or I could go upstairs and pay bills, or I could go finish strapping down the new pontoons on my raft, or I could just do nothing. And for ten minutes, I chose the latter. I drank my beer and ignored the rod and was just happy that because trout live in beautiful places, in my pursuit of them, so did I.  It was Sunday after all, and even for a heathen like me that meant that I could have a short rest. 
   I may be lapsed Catholic, but even if one can avoid the church’s architectural grandeur, pomp, or pedophile priests, guilt (like rust) never sleeps. Once I finished the beer, the guilt over not attending the many tasks waiting for me at home re-emerged, and soon I was scrambling my way back up to the car, fishless.  When I go fishing, I usually like to hook at least one and generally do, but I’m not too adamant about it.  Just being where trout should be is reward enough, for trout almost always live in beautiful places that feed the soul.  I got home and attended to some of the things that needed being done, and just before dark went out to stand on the end of my dock to add my waters to those that flow past my house.  That beer from two hours previous had run its course and was ready for its trip to Mexico.  As I did, I heard a little “plop” in the river and saw a riseform in the bubble line twenty feet out, where the sippers usually sip.  I went to fence and lifted the seven footer my best friend made me many years ago.  Its gotten pretty weathered hanging out there every summer for the past several years, but I’ve caught more fish with that rod than with any of the many others I own, for its always there at the ready, much like the river itself. The barbless caddis fly that I’ve got attached to it has been on now for two years, and is probably ready to be replaced.  Most of the hackle is gone and it looks more like a mayfly than a caddis at this point. Its been in the mouth of about two dozen little brown trout, and its amazing that it still floats since there’s so little left to it. 
  So I stood on the end of the dock in the dim light, stripped out some line, and flicked the fly out into the river.  Down below at the water’s edge, our four domestic geese honked and fussed.  Its always hard to tell whether they are happy or irritated, since they don’t have much variation in their vocalizations, only in their volume.  Of all the animals we have on our property, and it’s a long list, the geese who live in our backyard are probably the most useless, but they are kind of fun to watch and mess with.  If I approach them menacingly and make “beep beep!” noises, they’ll move away.  But if I “beep” at them and flap my arms, they follow me around like eager puppies.

 It was difficult to see the fly in the remaining light. Casting it upstream, at this time of day it usually lands into the dark shadow cast by the large rock formation across the river.  In the inky black water, a floating fly looks like a speck of light.  As the fly drifts downstream, once out of the shadow into the brighter pink water it looks like a spot of black.  I made another cast a bit longer, and heard another trout sip in the bubble line below.  Each successive cast went a little farther, and I tried to follow the progress of the fly but it was impossible now.  It might well have been Ray Charles fishing, but I just kept casting it out and hoping that a fish could see what Ray couldn’t. 

  Then my eye caught some movement in the sky and a bald eagle flew past fifty feet above the water, heading home to some distant nest.  I love my backyard.  Distracted, I felt a tug in my hand, saw a small splash in the water, and got my fix, endorphins flooding my brain.  It wasn’t a big one, but except for that one rainbow, it never was.  It didn’t have to be.
The geese noticed the ruckus and began their own, now raising their wings with either alarm or delight, its hard to tell with geese. I usually drop the tip of my rod at this point to let the line slack so the fish will come off, but this time I let it swing below me towards the geese, who really got animated as the surprised and struggling fish came closer. They didn’t know quite what to make of the small trout splashing its way towards them, so they just flapped and honked in their collective mania.  When the trout got close to them, I let the rod drop and it shook the fly out of his mouth, and swam away. The geese collected themselves and swam off across the river, swearing (or possibly cheering) as they went.
 So much for my Sunday fishing, I didn’t get skunked after all! The river, as always, will provide.

Jack Bombardier