Friday, July 9, 2021

Midsummer 2021 Report, or A Tale Of Two Summers

                           2021 Mid-Summer Report, Or A Tale Of Two Summers

Its the mid-point of summer 2021, and for the second year in a row its been memorable for all the wrong reasons.  This year its not about an invisible virus or smoke from fires, but about water, or the lack of it.  Last year was the busiest that anyone has ever seen on the Upper Colorado River.  It seemed like with everything in the cities closed, people flocked to the mountains to do their recreating here. And a lot of those people bought rafts, kayaks, duckies and SUPs. Boat ramps and their associated parking areas were jammed beyond full. This year, its been mostly…crickets.  Fishermen have been mostly doing their thing on rivers like the Eagle, the Roaring Fork and the Yampa, which have had hydrographs that looked a bit more normal, if abbreviated.

Meanwhile,  over here on the "Lower Upper" Colorado River, the water has been low and warm for a month. Guides have mostly stayed off of it, though the same can't be said for the general public.  The "greeting" message on my shuttle phone line has been less than welcoming to prospective fisherpeople.

We’ve had two subpar winter snowpacks in a row, and the effect is telling now that we are in the middle of a hot summer.  Its not just that the snowpack has been smaller the last two winters, its also that they yield much less liquid gold into the watersheds than they used to. With warmer springtime weather, more of that snow either evaporates or is absorbed by the parched soil.  Yesterday, the USGS water temperature gauge at Catamount on the Upper Colorado River reported 76 degrees Fahrenheit, which is a crazy number to wrap one’s head around.  That is heated swimming pool territory.  Trout may be able to swim faster than Michael Phelps, but not in water that warm.  The backstroke is not their preferred means of locomotion, but it seems inevitable now that we’ll soon be seeing the pale bellies of trout here soon, and not their well-camouflaged backs.  The ten mile stretch between Two Bridges and Catamount has become one of the most popular fishing floats in the state of Colorado in its ten years of existence. But its also wide and shallow, and the sun has a very direct effect on it. There are deeper holes in the river above and below for fish to find refuge in, but not there. Attached at the bottom will be a link to the Catamount gauge, note how fast the sun warms the river up each morning.

  A month ago, water temperatures were high as well (though not as hot as they are now), and dozens of dead fish were seen one Sunday between Two Bridges and Catamount.  Colorado Parks and Wildlife was getting ready to pull the trigger on a voluntary fishing moratorium then, but some cooler weather moved in and we had a mini-monsoon period, which temporarily delayed that.  But a week or two of afternoon showers won’t break a twenty year drought.  We’ve since settled back into hot, dry weather with more of the same in the near future.  Things may worse this summer before they get better.   

 The river is flowing at 700 cfs as I write this.  That’s a bit higher than it was in June, but for this date the mean flow should be more like twice that. Earlier in the spring the discrepancy was much greater.  Lower water in the summer results not only in higher temperatures, but also an increase in the amounts of algae growing on the river bottom.  That algae sucks dissolved oxygen out of the water, so for the trout it’s a one-two punch.  Warm water (which they don’t like) combined with less oxygen (which they need).  This is not a good time to be a trout on the Upper Colorado River.   

  Then, two weeks ago there was a new wrinkle that I didn’t see coming.  We had a short, heavy rainstorm that caused lots of red mud to pour into the river between Pinball and Horse Creek.  These events are not that usual, though they’ve become less common in the last couple years. When these mini-floods happen, the Colorado River usually lives up to its name for two or three days, then clears.  The difference is that this time, two weeks later the lower river is still off-color, probably due to the lack of river flow to carry it all off.  The river bottom from Pinball down is coated in a layer of thick, red sediment that is probably not a good thing for the macroinvertebrates that live there.  Sometimes trout are referred to as being a “canary in a coalmine” as indicators of river health, but it’s bugs not fish that are really the early warning system. The insects go first, and then the fish because there’s nothing for them to eat (except each other).  What the river needs now is a good, high flushing flow to clean that muck out, but that’s something that won't until next May the earliest.  As dire as it looks now and for the rest of this summer, it’s actually the mud that I worry about more than the low water. It won’t be good for insects, and those repercussions may have a more lasting impact than whatever else happens to our other favorite aquatic creatures in the next two months.  

  I’ve been having lots of conversations regarding this situation with fishermen, guides, and my neighbors who live along the river. No one has ever seen the river look like this, especially this early in the summer. We are relative newbies here, having been here only 18 years.  But my life is intimately interwoven and tied to the state of the river, more than most.  Although guides have fishing the Eagle and Roaring Fork, this past 4th of July weekend there were more than a few knuckleheads at boat ramps carrying spinning rods.  (The older I get, the harder it is not to say something).   

  Yesterday Colorado Parks and Wildlife made it official, implementing a voluntary fishing moratorium on the Colorado River between Kremmling and Rifle. I really wish that people could have fun outdoors on a river without having to hook (and kill) fish, especially in times like these when the fish are extremely stressed.  Even though I make less money doing so, for the past two (low water) summers I’ve enjoyed taking scenic floaters more than fisherpeople. Every fish in this river is a wild fish, not born and raised on pellets in a fish factory.  For some people, and I am one, the distinctions between native and wild and hatchery-raised are  important.  But for some, a trout is a trout.  And that’s fine, because if someone spends their time holding a fishing rod instead of gaping slack-jawed at a glowing screen, that’s some kind of victory. In a year like this, if you absolutely must wet a line then the best place to do it is on a lake, fishing for trout raised in hatcheries who were stocked in those high cold lakes for that express purpose.   

  This river has its ups and downs, and always has.  If you’ve been reading my email blasts for any time, you know that I’m more than happy to share when conditions are right.  More often than not, things along the “Lower Upper” Colorado River are sublime.  But right now, in the middle of July 2021, they are not.  As a member of the Upper Colorado River Alternative Stakeholder Group, I realize that Front Range water providers are aware of the situation and doing what they can. The water that’s being held back now will be even more important come August and September if we don’t get some rain. As much as I’d like to see more water flowing past my backyard now, knowing that its being held up above is like money in the bank. 

  My hope is that as the flows in the Eagle diminish, levels in the Colorado will rise to satisfy the Shoshone water call.  That water right is a very senior 1,250 cfs, and if the Eagle is at 300 cfs, then the Colorado would need to supply the other 950 cfs.  The Eagle might get down to 200 cfs this summer, which means the Colorado would have to rise to 1050 cfs.  If it stays clear and sunny that might not be enough to stave off fish kills, but its better than the 700 cfs we've got now.

  The summer of 2021 will be a good one for everyone who likes fishing to find some deep, high lakes to do it in. Or target a warm water species that's not just barely hanging on like our trout are.  Wild fish deserve our respect, and even if they’re not on the top of most people’s priority list, they need to be on the list somewhere. The dams in the upper basin of the Colorado River and its tributaries helped create the (usually) cold water trout fishery we all enjoy, and with balanced management they might help sustain it.   

  Even though hope is a poor strategy, I’ll still be hoping for summer rains, winter snows, and a big runoff next spring to clean it all away!

Jack Bombardier

Sunday, May 23, 2021

                                                Betty’s First Brown 

Last Saturday evening I went for a short float with our black lab puppy Betty. Betty is the best thing to come out of the trainwreck that was the year 2020.  She is now just over a year old, and has already proven to be one of the best dogs I’ve ever had in my life.  Betty is well behaved, smart, happy and playful.  She is also great on my boat, and willing to sit quietly on the bow and just take it all in. We also got a terrific Manx cat called Minnie last year, and she has also taken to going for rides on the boat, mostly to hang out with her good friend Betty.  

Betty has a big collar (or collars) to fill. For the last fifteen years, we've had the same three dogs, Ted, a rescue mutt, Daisy, a homeless black lab that found her forever home with us, and Yuker, a handsome yellow lab.  To have three dogs all together for that long is a pretty extraordinary thing.  It was a very stable and happy family dog dynamic.  But as much as I hoped that they would stay together forever, my wife knew that all good things would eventually come to and end, and she had been thinking about what would come after. There is a lab breeder in Paonia whose dogs my wife had encountered, and in February she had a litter with some puppies available.  I wasn’t ready to go out and get another dog, and didn’t want to think about the days of our current dog pack ever ending.  But we drove down to Paonia in May, with the world still in Covid-induced lockdown, to get our new puppy.   

The farm was a bit of Labrador Retriever heaven.  It was located in an old orchard, and was well irrigated, green and lush. There  were were a couple of dozen black and yellow labs in different yards, in all sizes.  The little black lab we chose was the one the breeder considered to be the pick of the litter, but she already had a couple of black females and was keeping a yellow lab for herself out of the bunch.  We spent most of the ride home trying to decide what name to give her. It wasn’t something I wanted to think about until we actually met her, but now that we had we came up with “Betty”, like the song “Black Betty”. We tried out a few others,  but that was the name she responded to.

Personally, I didn’t want to have another yellow lab to replace Yuker with.  One of the most common mistakes people make when they lose a dog they love, is to replace them with the exact same type of dog. The new dog rarely lives up the expectations set by it's predecessor, and its not fair to the dog or their human companion. Yuker was the best dog I could’ve ever hoped to have, and so he’ll probably be my last yellow lab. About the only bad behavior he ever exhibited was a dislike for puppies, and when they would get in his face too much he would often bite them in the ear. Betty moved in to our house and dog home like she owned the joint. Yuker gave her a few low growls at first, but in no time at all she was sharing beds with Daisy and Yuker like they were her family, which of course they were now.  

All three of our older dogs began showing signs of decline over the summer. Ted had died first that previous winter, and we buried him on our pet cemetery up on the hill overlooking the river and Flat Tops. At his funeral Daisy managed to slip off the hill to a hard landing, and she was never quite a hundred percent after that. By fall it looked like Yuker and Daisy might not make it through the winter, so before the cold weather set in I dug two deep holes for them as close to Ted’s as I could. Daisy died in February, and Betty lost one of her bed mates. Betty went up the hill to say goodbye to her Auntie Daisy, but Yuker could no longer make the trip up the hill. Terena got him a harness which we used to get him in and out of the house for bathroom breaks. For the last couple of months he couldn’t use his back legs, and for the last week he couldn’t use his front ones.  Yuker seemed to just slip away finally over a couple of days, and just lay there not wanting to get up or eat anymore. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, it just seemed like he was finally ready to go join his sister and brother up on the beautiful hill. And so he is there now, along with the five other dogs, cats, and one little fawn that are having their final rests as well under colorful piles of river rock.  

One of the best and worse things about pets is that we get to see the entire arc of their lives in just a short sliver of ours. They go from helpless babies to incredible athletes to steadfast companions. and then to elderly incontinent seniors in what seems like a very short time.  Its the devil's bargain we make when we bring a new furry family member into our home.  We know that someday, they're going to break our heart, but that ten or fifteen years of what they add to our lives is hopefully worth the pain we know we'll feel someday when we lose them.  

So now black Betty is our one and only dog.  She got to spend enough time with her furry elders to learn how to behave in or home and to be a good dog.  Betty is spoiled like only an only child, whether they have fur or not, can be. She got a couple of short boat rides out in the backyard last fall, and fell in once off my raft which I thought might turn her off to being in the water.  But by the time the river froze over in December, she was already swimming in it going out after sticks, but not too far.  When the ice melted off in March, she was ready to get out in it and loves the river now, even more than Yuker or Daisy ever did.  Betty loves the water and can hardly be kept out of it.  She is a Lab’s Lab.   

Now its May, and a year since Betty entered our lives. My boat has been tied up to my dock out on the river for the last three weeks, and I’ve been taking it out for short floats almost every evening.  I’m lucky enough to have the Best Backyard In America.  Not only is the Colorado River right there 24/7, but I can use the back eddies to row almost a quarter mile upstream, and then use the current to float back to my dock. There are also three good holes that I can row and fish to.  

I’ve already caught a few nice fish on my backyard floats this spring, but for one reason or another Betty was never with me.  Twice I’ve hooked fish while she watched, but both times they came off before I could land them and show them to her.  But this week the river  warmed up, and the caddis were beginning to hatch. Each night there were more caddis than the evening before, and by Saturday night they were everywhere.  

So I pushed off the dock in my Hog Island dory with Betty (after tossing the cat out), and headed upriver to try and catch a fish that I could impress my dog with.  I dropped anchor just below the first hole, which is immediately below the railroad bridge, and watched for rise forms.  There were plenty of caddis looking like little black moths on the water, but there didn’t seem to be any fish eating them. So I ferried across the river, and floated up the opposite side to the big hole on top.  The best thing about the upper fishing hole is that there is a perfect riffle to toss streamers into, and a little back eddy for drifting dry flies.  With all the caddis flying about, it was my little seven foot three weight I grabbed. It was already rigged with my standard setup, which is a Hi-Vis Elk Hair Caddis trailed by a small olive mayfly. At the bottom of the eddy, I dropped anchor again and watched the water carefully for a bit to see if any fish were rising. Very quickly I saw a rise, and then another, and another, and so it was time to toss the flies out to see what might happen.   

The caddis were everywhere. They were on the water, in the air, and all over my boat.  They started to piss off Betty, and instead of her normal calm self, she started biting and snapping at them.  Then she took to licking them off the gunwales of the boat.  I was concentrating on trying to drop my dry flies onto some of the more promising bubble lines, but there were so many real flies on the water that it was going to take a miracle for one of them to choose mine.  I tried to get the caddis to skate a little to make it stand out a bit, but the trailing fly dragged on it a bit.  I brought the flies back in, and cut the mayfly off.  With just the Elk Hair Caddis on, I could make it dance a little.  I cast again, but it was almost impossible to distinguish my fly from all of the real ones.  I’d see a rise that was near my fly, and set the hook, only to find out that it wasn’t my fly that had just been eaten. I realized that I’d have to really concentrate on watching where my fly landed, because if I took my eye off of it for even an moment it would get lost among the hundreds of naturals.  

But concentrating wasn’t easy. The caddis were crawling up my pant legs, into my nostrils and on my hands.  Betty kept trying to eat them too and that was very distracting.  It was so dark, that even with the orange post on the fly it was a mere silhouette.  I’d give it little tugs to make it look alive, hoping that a trout would do to it in in the water what Betty was doing to the flies in the boat. Then I realized that maybe I just wanted to catch a fish too much, not for my sake but for Betty’s.  I’ve been fishing for a long time, and usually don’t care that much whether I actually catch anything or not.  Usually, just fooling one or two trout is enough, and even if I don’t get a fish to hand that’s enough . But now I really wanted to catch a fish, and I don’t typically feel that strongly about it. The less I care, the better I do.  Fish, like women in a singles bar, seem to be able to almost smell your desperation.   

  Then finally I felt it.  I lifted the rod a little and something pulled back.  I raised it even more, and the lightly set drag on my reel began to sing.  The line streaked downstream, which distracted Betty from vacuuming the caddis off the boat.  The fish splashed on the surface, which commanded her attention even more.  My little fiberglass rod had a satisfying bend to it, and the fish fought so well I thought it had to be a rainbow. When It finally tired enough that I was able to get it to the boat and into my net.  It wasn’t a rainbow after all, but a brown trout foul-hooked in the back.  Oh well, I wanted to find Betty a fish, and she wasn’t going to care whether it was caught in the mouth or not.  

Betty was transfixed by the sight of this weird creature emerging from the cold water. I held it up to her nose, knowing that she would be gentle with it. We have plenty of small creatures around our place like baby quail and chickens, and Betty is very gentle with them all.  She looked at the fish with curiosity, and some puzzlement.  I put the trout back in the water,  and moved it back in forth in the current to revive it.  In a moment or two it shot out of my hand and back into the black depths of the river.  Betty went back to eating the caddis that were tormenting her, while I pulled up anchor to float back to our yard.  And she got to see the first of what would hopefully be many trout to come. 

By the time that Betty is an old dog, I will be too.  When the arc of her life is coming to its conclusion, so will mine.  Maybe when her time comes, I won't be strong enough to carry her up that hill. But I'm still looking forward to the journey. 


Jack Bombardier 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Closing Day Part 2 - Copper Bowl


                                             Closing Day Part 2 - Copper Bowl


April 18th was the 3rd Closing Day of our dwindling ski season, following Arrowhead and Bachelor Gulch on the 4th, and the rest of Beaver Creek on the 11th.  On the this Sunday, Vail and the Copper Bowl area at Copper Mountain stopped running their lifts for the season.  Copper Mountain is a place I used to ski when I lived in Denver, and still used skinny skis that were longer than I am.  Once I moved to Eagle County, I pretty much skied just Beaver Creek and A Basin.  But last year, when A Basin switched from being an Epic Pass resort to the Ikon Pass, I switched too.  It was the tipping point between the two pass options for me, and after fifteen years of skiing The Beav I was ready to challenge myself with some new terrain.  Beaver Creek is still my favorite place to ski, but the Ikon Pass offers the opportunity to explore Steamboat, Winter Park, Copper Mountain and the Aspen area resorts.

Of those areas, the one that I've enjoyed the most is Copper Mountain, which has been a total revelation.  Last year when I switched to the Ikon also happened to be the year that Copper opened another lift into the Copper Bowl area called Three Bears. That new lift accesses an entirely new reach of Copper Bowl that was only accessible by hoofing it. When skiing Copper Mountain, I usually spend most of my time in Copper Bowl because I love high altitude above tree line skiing like that. Not only is Three Bears pretty fast, but it has a lot of elevation gain for its short length which takes you up well over 12,000 feet. It's also a three-wide chair, so there's room to lay down on it and relax.  From the top of Three Bears, you can make a short lateral hike over to a run called Boulderado, which is an east-facing run with spectacular views of the Ten Mile Range, the Mosquitos, Fremont Pass and the Collegiate Peaks.  The hardest part of the run is not being so distracted by the views so that you forget to ski.  Since it takes a short walk to get to, and there's a rocky section to navigate to get into the good stuff, not many people do it.  

Most of Copper Mountain was scheduled to close on the 25th of April, but since the lifts servicing Copper Bowl closed on the 18th that became "my" Closing Day.  Due to having a river shuttle to run that morning I didn't get there until almost noon.  I can make it to Copper from my house in an hour flat if I ignore the fantastical stories my speedometer is trying to tell me, and for Closing Day I made it there in 55. After several runs in Copper Bowl alternating between the older lifts and Three Bears, I decided to head over to Boulderado, which from the other lifts looked perfect.  After a short hike over to it, I saw that the gate was closed.  Not one to let a piece of orange rope decide my course of action, I ducked under it, picked my way through the rocks, and found myself atop of one of the nicest runs in Colorado, and that's saying something.  Down below at the more pedestrian altitudes, the snow was already becoming a bit mushy. But at 12,000 feet it was just right , light and soft and ice-cold.  I skied down the upper face of Boulderado, and veered a bit left to get back to the in-bounds area. There were only a couple of other sets of tracks in the next middle section of the run, but they were a day or two old and the wind had already filled them back in.  
  That middle part of the run was as great as any I've ever skied, the pitch was steep but the snow had just the right amount of give to it.  Turns were effortless.  At the bottom of the middle section, I looked up and down and saw nary another skier in sight. I couldn't want to get back to Three Bears and run it again.  I pushed off and began the bottom stretch which seemed to go forever, with just some scattered tops of baby spruce trees poking through like green pylons.  I was being totally seduced by the snow and sun and perfect powder, much as I had the previous Sunday coming down from the top of Beaver Creek's Bald Spot.

 Then, halfway down that seemingly endless bottom run my brain turned back on. I looked up the hill at where I'd just skied, then down at where I was going, and in my brain heard the words, Oh. Shit. My thought process changed from, What Great Untracked Powder! to, There Are No Other Tracks Here, Is there A Reason For That?  There was, and it wasn't that I was the only smart enough to have found it, but ecause I was the only one stupid enough to have skied below the point where one could use gravity to get back to a chairlift.  I remembered then that the last time I skied here a couple of weeks before there is a catwalk to get back over to Three Bears. Even the faint tracks I had seen on upper part were gone.  The catwalk wasn't marked with any kind of sign, and in my blissed out state, with endorphins flooding my brain, I had totally forgotten about it. 

  Looking up into the brilliant, high altitude sun I tried to determine how far uphill I would have to hike to get back to elusive catwalk.  My best guess, (now using my brain which was registering some activity once more), it looked to be at least a hundred feet above me, maybe more.  Now I had a decision to make.  Did I hike straight back uphill to the security of a trail that I knew was up there somewhere, or just keep going downhill and hope that there would be some kind of service road or trail that would take me back to Three Bears?  I looked uphill again at would undoubtedly be an exhausting hike, and then down towards the rest of the run that beckoned me like some lascivious, beckoning siren calling to Ulyesses with her legs held apart.  Unlike Ulyesses, I needed wax to cover my eyes and not my ears, for the sight of that lower bit of out-of-bounds run was just too tempting.  Or to borrow a different analogy, would it be the lady or the tiger?  I tried to guess where I would end up if I went downhill.  I knew that Highway 91, the road that went due south from Copper to the top of Fremont Pass would be down there somewhere, but how far? When I visualized that lower part of Highway 91, all I could think of was a very steep wall of rock running alongside the highway. If I skied downhill, would I end up being cliffed out, and have to climb back up the way I came?  I drive that road with my propane truck a few times a year, but I've never contemplated it from this perspective. 

I looked at my phone to see if I had a signal, thinking that it would be a good idea to let my wife know about the predicament I'd gotten myself into.  But of course, I had no signal.  Colorado is a state where you can't drive in the any direction for five minutes without losing your cell phone signal. Something to do with these damn mountains.  In the end, it wasn't that difficult of a choice, but I'm not sure if it was the lady, or the tiger.  Maybe a lady that would change into a tiger? The snow was too good, and maybe there would be a service road, and after all Fremont Pass Road had to be down there somewhere

So down I went, to the lower part of the run which skied as well or better than the top. I sure hoped that it would be worth it.  I kept looking left, hoping to see some way to get back but there was none.  I was probaly not  the first person to ever skied this, for surely someone must have been this stupid before.  But I might have been.  Nothing new under the high altitude sun, and all that.  But by the time I got to the bottom, there was no service road or trail to bail me out.  I would have to follow the drainage, and see where it ended up.  At first the going wasn't too bad, it became a narrow tree run with plenty of deep snow.  But the fact that it didn't have so much as a game trail was a bit worrisome.  The cliffs closed in on both sides, and my downhill options became more and more limited.  I had to cross Copper Creek a couple of times which was under a deep bed of snow, taking care to keep my skis perpendicular to it so I wouldn't fall in.  Eventually it became too narrow to ski, so it was more like snowshoeing only with very long and heavy snowshoes.  I began to hear the sounds of traffic below, but couldn't tell how far away the highway was. The sound echoed off the steep canyon walls on either side, and the highway could be 500 or 5000 feet away, and there was no way to tell how much of an elevation drop there was.  Then the snow ran out, so I had to take my skis off and shoulder them. The ground was pretty soft though, so the hiking in my ski boots wasn't too hard. 

The ground began to level a bit, and the canyon walls opened back up.  Through the tops of the trees I saw a movement and a heard a truck roaring up the hill, and knew I was getting closer to Fremont Pass.  Some signage appeared, and I hoped that maybe I had found some kind of cat track that I could ski back to Copper Mountain on.  But it wasn't a sign for the ski area, I was at the bottom of the Climax molybdenum mine complex, and was at least a couple miles up the road from Copper's base.  When I got closer to Highway 91, I saw a bridge that went over the road which connected to some kind of trail on the opposite side of Ten Mile Creek.  On a trip through there last summer I saw them installing that bridge, and thought that it was for some kind of bike trail.  Maybe I could ski down that trail back to Copper Mountain. On closer inspection though, the bridge wasn't for recreation but to support a pipeline that ran underneath it. With skiing back to Copper not being an option, I hiked down to the highway and crossed it.  There was a big wide turnout just below the bridge, which made for a good spot to hitchhike from.  The road from top of Fremont Pass was very straight, and gave drivers plenty of time to see me and lots of room to pull over to pick me up.

  The first truck coming down the hill was a brand new Tundra and it didn't slow down a bit.  That was OK, I didn't expect the first vehicle to stop.  There was a gap in time, and then the next couple of vehicles that went by were cars.  Since I was holding skis and we are still in the Time Of Covid I didn't expect a car or SUV to stop.  For them I barely even tried, and would convert my right hand from a thumbs up posture to a wave with a smile before they were even past me.  However there are a lot of pickup trucks in this part of the world, so I hoped that one of them would let me hop in back.  The next truck that came by was a shiny white F-150, but it didn't slow either.  Then came a late model Tacoma, and being a Toyota truck driver myself I thought, surely he would be able to tell that I was a kindred spirit.  Nope, it went past doing at least 80mph.  Next up was a big Dodge truck, but since it seems that Dodge trucks have a higher proportion of assholes behind the wheel than any other vehicle, my expectations were low. He roared past and I thought oh well, confirmation bias.  Then a little while later it was a new Chevrolet pickup, and soon I was zero for five.  It occurred to me that all of these trucks were too new, and that it would probably be an old beater that would finally stop.  The gaps between vehicles became longer, and I wondered if I would get back in time to make another run or two.  But I didn't mind standing there that much, for it was a beautiful day and at least I wasn't somewhere up on the mountain with a broken leg, or headfirst in a tree well. 

 Then a twenty year old red Chevy pickup came into view, and I thought, Oh yeah, here's the guy.  But it was going so fast I didn't think that he could stop even if he wanted to.  My hand changed from a thumbs up to a wave, and as I looked back towards the pass to see what was coming next I heard the Chevy's tires abruptly slow.  Looking over my shoulder, I saw that he had needed all of the turnout to arrest his speed but had done it. I started running down the hill to get to him before he changed his mind, but then his backup lights came on and I knew he wasn't one of those people who look like they're going to pick you up, then speed off just as you get to their car.  I've had that happen to me before, and its very disheartening.  I got side of the Chevy and the heavily-tinted windows opened.  There were Mexicans inside, and they smiled and gestured towards the back of truck.  I tried to explain what I'd done to put myself in that spot, but they just kept smiling and I got the impression that their command of English was probably about as good as my Spanish.  The back of their truck was piled high with trash bags filled with recycling.  I climbed up on top of the bags and gave them a thumbs up, and we were off.  Before long were going down that hill very fast, to the point I could feel my cheeks flapping like I was on a rocket sled. On top of the pile of trash bags I was at the mercy of the wind, so I dug out my goggles and that helped.  Checking my watch, I saw that I should be able to get back in time for another couple of runs, and was going to straight back to Copper Bowl if I had the time. 

  At the bottom of the hill we approached the turnoff for Copper Mountain, and I expected him to pull over to let me out.  But the traffic light was green, and my guardian angel didn't even take his foot off the gas. I leaned over the side of the truck and gave the fender a couple of good thumps with an open hand.  The driver seemed to be a little startled by that. I think that either he forgot I was there, or maybe he was just planning on recycling me too. We were past the light and almost to the onramp for I-70 but again he braked hard and stopped on the shoulder of the road.  I hopped out and waved, and with a couple of heartfelt "Gracias" bid them farewell. 

  It was a hell of a long walk to the Superbee lift, but compared to picking my way down out of Copper Bowl it was a walk in the park, (with ski boots). I was able to get to the top of the mountain again, but was disappointed to see that the backside was already closed.  I finished that with a couple of fast cruisers, playing my single ski pole like a bass guitar. It had been another terrific Closing Day, not exactly what I expected but that's why I won't forget it soon!

  Jack Bombardier


Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Things They Might Not Tell You In Guide Class...


                                Things They Might Not Teach You In Guide Class

Its springtime in Colorado, and all over the Rocky Mountain west young men and women who dream of becoming fishing guides are signing up for Guide Class.  Taking a class with an outfitter is the first step on that road, and its also the way that outfitters recruit new guides for their upcoming season.  Most guides start off doing wade trips, and then over time buy a boat to guide from that.  Guiding from a boat requires a skill set that goes beyond what’s required for a wade trip. Great float fish guides are hard to find, and are both made and born. That’s because the fishing skills needed to be a good guide can only be learned through lots of practice.  But to have a personality that someone will want to spend a long day in a boat with is something you can’t really teach.  There are plenty of guys who are great fishermen, but lousy guides.  Then there are those who customers love to be with, but can’t catch a fish with an M-80 and a large net. 

Fishing from a boat has some inherent differences than fishing from a bank does.  When wade fishing, an angler has time to scope out the river and determine where the best spot might be to find a feeding fish to fool.  You get to think about the current, and what it will do to your line and drifting fly, and how much room you’ll have for your backcast.  You’ve got the time to look into the river and see what insects are about, and what the angle of the sun and direction of the wind is.  If you work a hole with a fly without success, you can try a different fly or presentation.

On a boat, you often get only one opportunity to make that perfect cast or drift.  You need to always have a corner of your eye looking downstream at what’s coming up next, and not at that perfect feeding lie you’ve just floated past. It’s your job a as a guide to remind customers of that. 

Having been a float fishing guide for some time now, I’ve learned a few things through experience that have made me a better at what I do.  For those looking to better their experience while fishing from a boat on moving water, here are a few things to think about that might help.

Getting To Know Your Customer

Before getting on the water, it’s important to know what your customer’s ability, experience, and expectations are.  Are they a newbie, or do they have more experience than you do?  Knowing what their expectations are will go a long way towards making a successful day on the water.  In a commercial setting, a guide will often not meet their client until the morning of their trip, so its important to make the most use of the time you have before you step onto the boat.  If they’re beginners, spend some time on the bank practicing casting before you’re on the water and in motion.  If you’re launching from a busy public ramp, know some spot that’s not too far downstream from which you can have the room to do so.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a fishy hole, the idea is to let them make enough practice casts so that they’re ready for when you do find a spot with fish.  Sometimes the only opportunity you’ll get to pick their brain is on the shuttle ride to the put in, so don’t waste it telling them how great you are.  Use that time to find out about them, and how they fish.  Do they prefer to nymph fish, or use dry flies, or are they from Florida and have only chucked streamers? When I take beginners, I try to make a point of trying each of those methods during our day together to see what they like best, and not just run the same nymph rig all day.  How can they know what they like if they haven’t tried it?  There are an almost infinite number of ways to fly fish, which is one of the things that make it to stimulating.

Before Setting Off

Determine who is going to be in front of the boat and who will be the back.  I typically have the angler who needs the most instruction positioned in front, so I can watch what they’re doing and offer instructions.  If both anglers have similar experience, I’ll suggest that we split the day so that each gets to spend time in front.  The person who is in front typically get the first chance at each hole, so its nice for each of them to have that opportunity.

Its also a good time to let them each know what their responsibilities are.  On a moving river like the Colorado, the angler in front should be casting towards the bank at about a 45 degree angle.  This accomplishes several things at once.  First, casting downstream usually makes for the best presentation.  The fish get to see the fly before the boat or the line, and it also makes for a better drift. Since the water along the edge of the river is usually moving slower than the water in the middle where the boat is, a downstream cast will make it much easier to mend the line.  A second advantage is that by having the front angler making casts that are downstream of the boat, it will keep them looking ahead at the next good spot that’s coming, and not thinking about the one they just passed by. The third reason for the person up front to be casting out ahead is that if they don’t, they force the person in the rear of the boat to cast behind the boat, too. Even if the guide is doing a lot of backrowing to slow down, the boat will still want to overtake the fly. If the person in front is casting directly towards the bank, or even worse behind it, then the angler in back has nowhere to cast but even further behind.  It will be almost impossible for them to get a perfect drift.  Unless they’re tossing streamers, they’re going to have a long day. 

The angler in the rear of the boat only has one thing to worry about, and that’s to watch when their buddy up front is casting, and to not cast at the same time.  Since the angler up front will be looking downriver, they’ll have no idea when their partner out back is casting.  Its up to the rear angler, who should also be looking downstream, to accommodate the person in front so that both casters rigs don’t get snared mid-air. The only thing worse than having to re-rig a multi-fly setup is having to re-tie two. 


Fish don’t seem to be all that worried or notice boats too much. In fact, one of the first things they do when hooked sometimes is race towards the boat, and the deep safe-seeming shadow it casts.  But what they will notice is your oars.  Since fish don’t have ears, they won’t hear many sounds from above the water line. You could probably play some hair metal band at full volume on a boombox and they wouldn’t care (but I would, so if you see me on the river please turn it off).  However, they do have lateral lines which are extremely sensitive to vibrations, so learn to be gentle with your oars when rowing.  Try to keep any splashing or unnecessary strokes to a minimum, especially in quieter water. 


As you make your way down the river, there are times when you’ll want to turn your boat one way or another, or have to move from one side of the river to the opposite bank.  Before you do, let your clients know that you will be doing so.  This gives them a moment to hold off on casting, and will reduce the odds the anglers will get their lines crossed. If you have a boat with an exposed anchor rope, also let them know when you will be raising or lowering the anchor so that their line doesn’t get snagged by it.  


One thing that’s different about fishing from a boat than wade fishing is one person will usually have a more obstructed cast than the other.  In the case of casting from a boat, the obstruction won’t be in the form of a tree branch behind you, but it’s due to the fact that there are three people all sharing a very limited amount of space, two of whom have fly lines looping around overhead.

In a scenario where there are two righthanded anglers on board, one person will usually have an unobstructed cast and the other’s will be somewhat hampered.  For example, if you are in a boat casting towards the right bank, a righthanded angler in the front will have to be aware that a normal cast runs the risk of hooking their guide or partner with their backcast.  However, the righthanded caster in the back of the boat has all the room in the world for their cast.  When fishing the left side of the river, the roles are reversed.  Now the righthanded angler in front casting towards the left has plenty of room, but the person in back has to worry about taking off my hat with his airborne flies. Since in an average day you’ll spend half on one side and half on the other, it all evens out.  

The other scenario is one where there will be one lefty and one righty.  This is great on one side of the river, because both anglers will have room to cast.  But on the other side, both will be obstructed.  So instead of having half your day being great, and the other half not so much, there is one mitigating strategy you can employ, and that’s to go stern-first (backwards) when on what would otherwise be their weak sides.  Thus, if you are fishing with a lefthander up front and a righty in back, you would point your boat downriver when fishing the right bank.  But when you fish the left bank, by spinning the boat around 180 degrees, they can still both have unobstructed casts. This also has the added benefit of giving each anglers an equal opportunity to be in the “front” of the boat.  The only downside to this approach is that as the person rowing, you might get a sore neck from looking backwards for half the day.  But the priority for a guide is to do everything in you can to put your clients in a position where they can be successful. Its not about you, but the people who have spent a lot of money to be out there with you.  A sore neck is what Advil is for. 

Identifying Your Customers Strengths And Weaknesses

Some experienced customers know exactly what they want to do, and how to do it.  They know where the best fishing lies are, have the skills to put their flies there, and can also mend the line just so to get a perfect drift.  All you need to do is keep the boat a consistent distance from the bank, and they can do the rest.  These are my favorite customers to have on my boat (along with attractive females), but unfortunately you may only get one or two of each per season.  The rest will either have some skills, or worse their skills aren’t as good as they think they are.  Some anglers can cast great but not mend, others can expertly mend a fly but only cast ten feet from the boat.  Some will spend all day casting behind the boat, while others will not be able to pause long enough on their backcast to load the rod, and you’ll spend the day untying “wind” knots.  Its important to try and identify your customer’s shortcomings early, and to gently recommend ways to correct them.  Because of this, its almost easier to guide someone who is a raw beginner than it is to have someone who thinks that they’re already great at it.  At least a beginner is open to instruction, where an experienced person might bristle at your suggestions.  I have one customer who is one of the best casters I’ve ever seen but won’t let the fly float long enough to actually catch many fish.  He’ll make an accurate cast and put his fly ten inches from the bank, then make a perfect mend, but will only let the fly float for about a foot before pulling it out and repeating the process. Meanwhile, he’ll miss ten feet of perfect water that pass by while his flies are in the air forming his next cast.  He does catch fish, but about a quarter of what he might if he would just keep his flies on the water longer, (which is where the fish are). As a guide you’ll run into all personality types, and some will take instruction and some will not.  The kind of people who can afford to spend $500 to spend the day fishing when they could do it for free tend to be those who have attained a certain level of success in life.  They probably manage a business of some sort and are used to giving orders, not taking them. On top of the technical skills needed to be a good guide, there is also a certain level of emotional intelligence needed as well.  Learning what you can and can’t control will make the difference between a long day on the water, and one you’ll hate to see end because you’re enjoying it as much as they are.

Getting Them Out Of Their Comfort Zone

Most people will just fish with one hand all day long, because that’s what they’re used to doing.  Fly casting is difficult enough to do with your dominant hand, why would you want to ever switch? If you’re fishing from a boat, there are several good reasons, and the first relates to the aforementioned lefty\righty scenarios. If you can convince your customers to try using their off hand, then no one ever has to have an obstructed cast no matter what bank you are casting towards. This isn’t something that I suggest while clients are fishing multi-fly rigs like nymphs or hopper/droppers, but I do when we are fishing streamers. The reason is that casting streamers are much easier than other rigs, since they’re are weighted and the casting motion is much simpler.  Streamers on a medium sized river like the Upper Colorado often work best being tossed towards the bank or around structure, twitched or stripped for a couple of feet, and then pulled out and quickly cast again.  Fish are usually holding within a few feet of the bank, and not out in the heavy current.  If a fish hasn’t begun to chase your flies within the first few feet, they’re not going to, so there’s no reason to work that fast water that the boat is in.  We’ll usually set up fifteen or twenty feet from the bank, cast towards that soft water along the edge, and swim the flies back until they are in the faster water.  If there is some big brown trout chasing it, then you keep stripping the flies all the way to the boat to stimulate the fish’s chase response. If there aren’t any chasers, then you pull the flies back out, ideally before they’re more than halfway to the boat. This way you begin your backcast while you still have enough tension on your line to load the rod.   In very short order, casting streamers becomes an easy, repetitious motion that’s easy to do with either hand.  It might take fifty casts to master it, but in fast moving water like that you’ll have fifty casts under your belt in just a few minutes. In a half hour, most people can cast streamers as well with their left hand as their right.   

  Then the other advantages to off hand casting become apparent.  For one thing, in a righty/righty scenario, if one angler is willing to cast with his off hand then you are now fishing righty/lefty, so no matter what side of the river you’re on both anglers have an unobstructed cast.  The next advantage might only become apparent after the day is over.  By spending some portion of the day casting with the arm you don’t normally use, you are saving a lot of wear and tear on you regular arm.  Streamer fishing is a very active, tiring way to fish.  If you are doing it correctly, then your casting arm is in almost constant motion.  Every cast you make with your left arm is one less you are making with your right. Finally, your client is learning a new skill, which might serve them well someday if they’re righthanded, and find themselves having to make an upstream cast from the left bank while wade fishing.  I’m still not great at casting lefthanded, but I can if I have to and its because of the time I’ve spent casting streamers lefthanded from a boat. 

The Lift & Drift

There are going to be days on the water when you have to deal with wind, and not just if you fish in Wyoming.  Sometimes I’ll set up in the bottom of the big eddy so that clients can cast upstream with the wind at their backs.  Or I’ll have them try to tune into the wind’s rhythm, and make their casts between the gusts.  But you can’t hold in the same eddy forever, eventually you have to make your way down the river.  Hopper/dropper rigs have one fly that will cut right through the wind, weighted nymph, but the hopper itself is large and unaerodynamic. The two flies have characteristics that are completely opposite, so trying to cast them into the wind is a fool’s errand.

  There’s a technique that I call the Lift & Drift to help mitigate the effects of the wind, and to keep fishing even while in motion.  The Lift & Drift works on the principal that things in the water will float faster then those things floating on the water.  An example of the first would be insects both real and artificial, and example of the latter would be a boat.  The key to making the Lift & Drift work is to identify the thalweg, or the part of the river where the flows are the strongest.  This is typically where the bubble line is, and may have spinners in it if there was a morning hatch.  Even on windy days, the thalweg will often look smooth as glass, even with the water’s surface rippled everywhere else.  Feeding fish don’t care about the wind that’s making things difficult above the water’s surface. Its often just a matter of drifting your flies in that sweet spot and keeping them there long enough for a trout to see them. 

The Lift & Drift works by putting the boat in the thalweg, having the client make a downstream cast, and fishing below the boat. The boat will follow the flies and we use the current to carry the fly out away from the boat. Often in the face of an uphill wind, their cast will just land in a big heap, but that’s OK.  The current will carry the fly or flies downstream over the feeding fish, and that’s the Drift part.  Eventually however the line will run out of slack, and the top fly, usually a big foam-bodied hopper, will begin to drag.  It will first create a v-wake, and then get pulled under.  However, if the angler slowly raises their rod tip as the drag begins, they can lift that fly out enough to put more slack in their line, and then gently lower it again, resuming their fly’s downstream drift.  You do this until it begins to drag again, lift, and repeat the process.  If the uphill wind is gentle, I hold the boat sideways so that the angler in the front and back can each work the bubble line.  If the wind is stronger, then the boat will probably need to be pointed downriver into the wind, and only the person up front will get to do this.  But the Lift & Drift can be a very effective way to keep fishing even into the teeth of a strong wind, by using what the river gives you, i.e., steady current, and not trying to fight the wind.  Also, it’s often the moment when the angler slowly lifts line up to impart slack back into the line that the trout will move in and take the fly, especially when fishing dries. 


Tenkara is an ancient Asian style of fishing originally intended to fish small headwater streams, or what our grandparents would have called cane pole fishing.  A tenkara rod is very long, 11 to 13 feet, and uses no reel, just a long line and leader combination.  Tenkara in its purest form uses specific flies with a forward hackle that are gently pulsed to give the flies a lifelike motion. If you want to really get into it, you could probably light some incense or a candle, and get on your knees and say a prayer before casting.  I don’t bother with any of that, and simply view a tenkara rod as a different kind to fly rod. I rig the terminal tackle exactly as I would a conventional rod, i.e. a hopper/dropper, or nymph rig, or double dry fly.  I’ve even used unweighted Wooly Buggers and caught fish that way. 

You don’t often see anglers using tenkara rods from a boat, and for the life of me I can’t understand why they aren’t.  There are many reasons why you would want to have a tenkara rod or two on your boat.  For one thing, they are telescopic, so they don’t take up any room at all.  I’ve got at least a couple rigged and ready for every float I do, even on scenic floats when we’re not even planning to fish.  The next is that because they are so easy to cast, they’re great for beginners.  One of the things that give beginners trouble when learning to cast is that the pause on the backcast while getting the rod to load is constantly changing, depending on how much line is out in the air. Since a tenkara has a fixed length of line, the pause on the backcast never changes.  It’s a lift, pause, then forward with the rod. Lift, pause, forward.  Lift, pause forward.  It makes casting incredibly easy.  In most cases, beginners are casting beautifully in very short order.  And that ease of casting translates into anglers casting equally well with either hand.  There is no righty/lefty conundrum, for most minimally coordinated people can do it just as well with either hand. 

Now that the angler isn’t having to think about how to cast, they can concentrate on the matter at hand, which is fishing, not casting.  And the fishing part is now easier, because with the longer length of rod, an angler has far more control over their lines and flies than they would with a conventional shorter rod.  Mending is much more important than casting when it comes to catching fish, and beginners (and experts) can mend easier with a tenkara rod.  This mending ability comes in handy when working some of the big, foamy eddies that the Upper C is noted for.  Being able to hold your leader up out of all those spinning eddies keeps flies floating long enough for a hungry trout to see them.

Having a tenkara rod on hand is also a great way to get spin fishermen into fly fishing.  When guiding spin fishermen I’ll usually wait until they’ve caught a couple their way, and at some point will suggest that they try a tenkara. The advantage to it is that in faster water, they can spend more time with their fly in the softer where the fish are, along the bank, and less time with the spinning lure in the heavy water No Fish Zone reeling their lure in readying for the next cast. 

The one situation that tenkara is not good for though is in the wind.  When its windy, you end up with wind drag and not water drag, and tenkara rods a pretty useless. 

There is one adaptation that you need to make to use a tenkara rod to fish from a boat, and that is to make a longer setup than you would if you were fishing some small spring creek.  For a typical 12 foot long tenkara rod, one might have a line and leader combination of perhaps 15 feet to fish small water.  This allows an angler to land their fish by holding the rod up over their head with one hand, and to land the fish with the other.  However, a rig that short would mean that while working one’s way down the river, the boat would have to be too close to the bank to get the fly near the bank, which would spook fish. So to use a tenkara rod on the river, I typically rig a line/leader combination eighteen to twenty feet long.  This is usually just about right to put your fly a foot or two off the bank.  The interesting part comes when a fish is hooked, and it’s time to get it into the net.  Often, we can get a fish close but not quite close enough.  In these circumstances, I’ll hop out of the boat and land the fish beside it.  It’s a bit inconvenient, but its usually easier on the fish and makes it simpler to release it.  Its also a great perspective to take a photo of both anglers when they’re in the boat, and you’re not.  I’ll hold the fish up in my left hand and take the picture with my right, and having the fish in the foreground makes all three subjects roughly the same size. 

There is also one last sneaky advantage for a guide when their customers are using a tenkara rod, and that is it’ll make you feel like you are the one fishing, not just the client.  When I’ve got someone using a tenkara, I’ll typically have them positioned in front, and keep the bow of the boat angled towards the bank. When they make a cast, the fly will only go so far due to the finite amount of length of their setup.   If its not close enough to the bank to hit the seam we’re aiming for, I’ll have them cast again. As they do I’ll turn the bow a little closer, so that their next cast lands closer to where we want it to be.  In effect, I’m the one who is placing the fly in the correct spot, not them. This gets me more engaged in the whole process, since it feels like I’m the one fishing, and they just happen to be holding the rod. 


Guiding fishermen from a boat can be a great way to make a living, since you’ve got the world’s best office.  The longer you do it, the more ways you will learn to improve the experience for both you and your customer.  Just try to keep an open mind and be ready to “go with the flow”!


Jack Bombardier

Confluence Casting LLC