5103, A Near Trout Experience
June 27, 2016
Man! Between all the weekends we worked on the house, being away a few times, having company, and then being laid up with my back, I was getting an exquisitely painful case of fish-wish. At one point, I tried fishing the Cache la Poudre downstream of Estes Park, but it was rain-swollen and off color. Same everywhere else. I searched the online stream reports for the Arkansas River, all three forks of the St. Vrain, the Colorado, North Platte, the Pederales, Dolores, etc. Something had to give.
Then I realized that I was searching places I knew, but focusing too intently on the kinds of open unadulterated creeks I like most. What about a tailwater? One that was releasing but also storing so that what came out the bottom was less than what was going in at the top.
Bingo. On Saturday after chores, I sat up here in my office and stumbled on Eleven Mile Canyon, where the South Platte rolls out of Eleven Mile Reservoir. I’d never fished it, but had seen it on a winter fish-wish tour a few years back. It was currently (sorry for the pun) ranked as a 4 out of 5 with the most recent review saying that the morning and afternoons were excellent. I decided right then that I would christen/unleash the new Winston 9’ 5wt rod I’d just purchased earlier in the month.
Francine had a book talk scheduled for Sunday at 3pm. Someone local who’d had a Near-Death Experience had written a book and was going to give a talk. She hoped I would come, but there was no way. She talked about it with me as we cleaned up after another day of working around here, letting me know the details. I listened, but I couldn’t get myself unfocused from the idea of fishing. During the prior week, I had talked repeatedly about going somewhere on Sunday, but she seemed to think I might change my mind. When she finished, I thought a minute and replied, “Baby, the talk sounds great and I’m so glad you’re going. But on Sunday, I’m going to have a Near-Trout Experience.”
I was up early on Sunday morning. I made coffee, loaded my stuff, headed south on Route 93, and was over Kenosha Pass before 8am. In Jefferson, I made a left on CO 77 and followed Taryall Creek downstream past the reservoir, along the gentle valley, and all the way to Lake George. I spent the time admiring the landscape and musing deeply about finally accomplishing the Colorado 14er List. That may be an entire separate journal entry all by itself, one focused on the problem posed by lists. Anyway, I stopped at the Eleven Mile Canyon US Forest Service tollbooth before 9am and hung my pass on the rearview as someone else pulled up behind me.
I drove past the Boy Scout Camp and through the section of private property. Just a little upstream, I was looking at the bait section of the creek and realized that the haze above the water was in fact a cloud of mayflies. I almost drove into the stream. Quickly, I pulled off, walked across the dirt road, peaked between the streamside brush and saw a trout splash. There were PMDs everywhere on the water and above it. There were also larger, Hendrickson-looking duns hovering in the air. They moved soundlessly and with very little wind blowing, they moved in gentle unison, slowly rising further above the water as they moved slowly upstream. It was beautiful. I had intended to go further upstream to the special regulations area. But here in the Everyman’s Section, the world was celebrating a feast of physical transformation, sexual indulgence, and bountiful sustenance. There was no way I could get back in the truck and drive somewhere else, even if it was only 1 mile upstream.
I crossed the road back to the truck and donned my gear. There was a guy next to me and he studiously refrained from saying hi or acknowledging me until I went after him with friendliness. He made it to the creek before I did, having decided to wade wet. I knew it would be a long day of fishing and from experience, I knew that given enough time in the water, hypothermia inevitably awaits no matter how hot the sun beats down.
At the stream, Friendly Guy was above a log sweeper upstream about 30 yards. His girlfriend was further above him and they talked. He was nymphing. ??? There were trout on top EVERYWHERE. OH JOY!!! I felt my interior spring unspringing.
I waded carefully into a good casting position with enough space behind me to throw a respectable backcast. I tied on a little fly, a lovely downwing Pale Morning Dun spinner and cast to the line of splashes.
Huff the fly, repowder, repeat.
After a few more repetitions, I tried a little upwing pattern with no confidence. I could watch the fish come up through the water column and plainly see they were not taking duns.
There was a lovely size 14 Hendrickson Quill hovering in front of me as if only for my private admiration. She was about 3 feet from my face – far enough to focus on easily without my cheaters; close enough to see the elegant long quills extending behind almost doubling her total length. She was brown-bodied too, and the blur of wings helped me size her.
I knew just what to do. As I turned and opened my right pocket fly box, she seemed to lift and hurry upstream.
The fly I selected was tied impossibly sparsely. It hardly had anything fur or feathered on the hook shank. I tied it clean, checked it for trim and true, smoothed the tippet with my fingers, and laid it down light as a whisper.
My first trout of the year was on instantaneously. It zigzagged across and downstream, and I gave it line as I learned the feel of the new rod. Bending it upward, laying it sideways, teasing the fish while it had plenty of strength, I pushed the wand to see how much give it would allow the 5x tippet. When the fish started to tire, I horsed it up on the surface, skidded it across the top within range of my net, slipped it in, exited the hook, kissed it on the head, rested it a second, and sent it back to the rolling clear.
I stopped and straightened. I looked upstream and down. Friendly Guy was pretending to look elsewhere and I gave him a slight wave and a smile. I huffed the fly, squeezed it with a paper towel, dusted it off, and stood still while focusing on my next fish. On the far side of the seam, there was a nice one in a good feeding rhythm. I shook out some line, casted until I had the timing right, then put it in his lane, just far enough upstream so that I could balance the time he would need to see it with the maximum drift length before it skittered sideways.
WHACK! This was a nice rainbow, and it leaped out of the water three of four times before surging to the net. This time, there was no delay during the fight. I sensed the weight of the fish, judged the tippet and hook-set, and had it released before it was out of breath.
It just kept happening.
It was deliriously simple.
It was spectacularly wonderful.
At one point, I stood in medium current just above my knees. My feet were sure and on good rock, the air was perfect, there were flies on the water everywhere, there was no place on the creek upstream or down that wasn’t splashing with feeding trout, and I was the only person I could see in either direction. I could hear traffic up on the dirt road and see the dust as everyone headed up to the special regulations water. I slid my camera out of my wader pocket and took some photos to verify that I had the place to myself.
I was so happy.
Further down, the creek narrowed and the current was fast and deep. I climbed up along the bank and achieved dry land. Even here though, there were fish on the far side of the seam rising and splashing with complete abandon. I was less than 12 feet away from them, just a little too far to dab. I shook out some line and dropped the fly in the soft water, puddling the line and tippet in an awkward stack around the fly. Just as it caught in the current and began to unwhirl, the fish hit and shot downstream. It was just amazing and I when I netted it I kissed this one too, this time for being so graciously cooperative.
The bank was too steep to stay on so I climbed up on road and walked down a hundred yards or so. I crossed a hundred feet of grassy apron choked with dwarf willows. There were clumps of wild rose and everything was blooming. Halfway to the creek, I stopped to breathe in the scent. The whole place smelled like grandmothers. Lovely, heady, lush. Roses.
The creek bent concavely in a perfect arc against a high granite wall. As I approached, I could see trout rising in the current line where it traced the arc about a foot from the rock. The lane was pandemonium. I slipped out to the edge and looked downstream. There must have been a hundred fish rising. Less than 10 feet away from me, a fly rod wavered out of the willow and brush, and I could see someone’s knees as they sat on the bank. Above the pair of knees, high willow branches arched and bobbed downward, and I sensed a foulhooked backcast. My heart sank.
I ducked back into the brush, gave the fisherman a wide berth, and came back to the creek about 50’ downstream, almost at the tail of the bend pool. I waded out about 10 feet and stood there admiring the fish. By this time, the fisherman had resumed his casting, but it was no use. He had no skill. He was not far enough out in the current to keep his backcast out of the willows, and when he narrowly missed hooking them, his fly fell short of the casting lane by 2 feet. He was having no luck.
The fish were completely oblivious of his efforts. He reminded me of me, a lifetime ago on the Loyalsock Flats across from the Forksville Inn. It had been a fortuitous accident. I’d stumbled into a hatch and had all new equipment. The BWOs had been heavy, they were riding high and the fish were frothing the water. Me, the complete novice with no skill and no one to teach me, there by myself with all brand new Orvis gear bought on the advice of a fishy-sounding guy at Tochtermans’ on Eastern Avenue in Beloved B’more. On that day on that creek, an old guy who had been living in the aluminum trailer a quarter mile downstream on the Loyalsock had wandered up to watch me when he saw my truck come past on the dirt lane following the creek. He had now assumed his position behind me, watching me making a mess of it. He was beside himself with frustration. He phantom-casted with his hips and body as he called out to me – “Get it out there further. Jesus Christ, son. Put the goddamned fly where they’ll eat it. Oughhhh…. Oh Jesus H Christ.” He bent his head into his hands as his voice trailed off, his whole frame suggesting despair. I still smile at the memory.
Back on the Platte, back in the present, I stood reminiscing and absently watched the commotion. The morning had already been generous enough that I could admire the rises without going crazy. This morning had been an amazement. The fisherman turned toward me and gestured to come hither and fish the tailout. I gestured no and signaled that I would be impinging on his space, but he shrugged and beckoned me forward.
I cast twice and caught two fish. One surged upstream, disrupting his water. It was nice brown. When I released it we smiled, but his was wan. He had the “what are you using” look. I reset my net on the magnet, waded gently upstream so as not to disturb the water, thanked him for sharing his pool and clipped off my fly. It was perfectly tattered and hanging together with the real, chewed-on-spent-insect-look. Handing it to him, I suggested that it had worked okay for me and that he should dust it off and fish it right in the surface. He wouldn’t see the fly, but to just raise his rod at every splash. We had some kind words, and I moved further down. Before rounding the next bend, I took a last look and saw he had a fish on. His rod was bent and aimed at the splashes.
I thought it would never stop, but it did. By noon the water was quiet. I took a few more fish, but there was not a rise to be spotted.
Out on the road, I walked upstream and examined each pool. I fell into a trance and moved along with my sun hat, rod, vest, waders, wading boots. Two hours went by. Occasionally, I would spot a fish rising, but would stand on the road admiring it rather than walking down to cast over it. I started to think that I ought to walk all the way to the end of the road, but I didn’t really know how far that was. Damn I was thirsty. A guy leaned against his truck where it was parked along the road. We talked, and he told me about his sons who were fishing down in the fast water a hundred feet below the road. He shared an icy cold water, and I drank it down in one long draft, leaving only an inch or so in the bottom for the walk back down. Finally, I realized that my legs were getting tired from the wet boots, and that for such a hot day in all that sealed up wading equipment, I should either get in the water or take something off. I was really hot and the sunburn was showing on my lower arms.
Above the nth bridge, I stopped and turned around. It must have been at least 5 miles covered even at the leisurely pace I was walking. My feet were tender. When I pulled the waders away from my chest, my shirt was soaked. Above the bib, I was perfectly dry.
A guy and his girlfriend were getting into a late model Toyota 4 door pickup. I asked if I could get a ride downhill on the tailgate back to my truck. They motioned sure, and I jumped on. We drove and drove. SHIT. I was cooling off from the road breeze and feeling very good about my decision. Two aluminum cans, emptied of their energy treat, tumbled backward from the washboard vibration. I caught one but the other rolled off and laid in the road. My driver started to brake, but I hollered through the cargo window that I’d come back for it. Finally, I saw the xTerra and he slowed. We shook hands and I thanked them both profusely.
My truck was 500 degrees inside. I shed my vest and rod, reset the trip odometer, and drove up the hill where we’d just come. I found the can and threw it inside, then continued onward to where I’d turned around, then just a little further to the end. I had walked almost 6 miles.
I turned around and returned to the same place I’d been. Standing at the creek where I’d first looked at the water hours before, there was not a fish to be seen. Back at the truck, I took off my waders, socks, shirt, everything. Buck naked, I searched out my shorty shorts and creek shoes. Across the creek, I eased gently down the bank and edged into the frigid water. It cooled me instantly from the shins down. Suddenly, I leaned forward and put my palms on the creek pebbles, holding my chest and upper legs out of the water. Then, taking a deep breath, I let myself down until I was fully submerged.
For the first instant, I wanted to jerk back up and out. Instead, I relaxed and let the cold water suck the heat out of me from scalp to soles. I shimmied sideways like a trout into deep current, and I realized that I was fully acclimated. I could have spent an hour like that. I moved back until I was laying in fairly shallow water with my forearms holding my chest off the gravel bottom, looking upstream at the sparkling water racing toward me. Suddenly, a trout jumped full-bodied out of the riffle above me, taking an insect on the way back in. It took a second to comprehend what I’d just seen. Then, almost on cue, the soft water above the riffle began to dimple.
I stood up and watched. The evening was beginning.
Back at the truck, I dried and put on a clean shirt and clean socks. Then I added my waders and fishing gear and locked back up. At this point, I had the whole creek to myself and I went directly to the bend pool. There were half a dozen fish bumping through the seam, and I immediately caught two of them. Wading back up through the now familiar runs, I realized that I should probably pack it up. There was still a three hour drive ahead of me. On the path away from the creek, I stopped again to smell the roses.
Reluctantly, I shed my gear and stowed it safely in the truck. I put on my jeans and long sleeve cotton tee, worn and soft and comfortable. Behind the seat, there were a couple of granola bars, and I ate a 2-pack realizing they were the first food I’d eaten all day. I felt great and grateful.
The drive home was beautiful. Up through the Valley of the Taryall, winding past old abandoned cabins and ranches, a pronghorn and a small herd of cow elk grazed in the dusk. At the Stagecoach Inn, I stopped for a burger but the kitchen had closed an hour before. The jukebox was blasting and there was a nice mix of his and hers at the bar and tables. It occurred to me that a man could get a dance on a night like this.
Everything was closed in Jefferson, but I was finally hungry. My stomach growled. With the ball game on, the Pirates and the Padres, I imagined a steamer full of hot dogs on their soft buns, borne by stadium hucksters, offered with the squeeze of mustard and handed down a 15 person bucket brigade to my waiting hands. The Pirates held on for a narrow victory.
At the next gas station, I filled up and grabbed a Coke and a hot dog off the roller grill. Who knows how long it had been there, but it totally hit the spot.
Just about 9:30pm, I rolled into my parking place at home and slowed the truck. I was stiff going up the steps to our house, but I felt absolutely great.
Thank you, Trout.
Thank you, Mountains.
Thank you, Sky.
Thank you, Water.
Thank you, Rod, Reel, Waders, Vest, Flies, Net, Boots, Line, Floatant, Tippet and everything else I used today.
Thank you, Life. I am filled with gratitude for this Universe and the physicality I share with all creation, sentient and less sentient. I have a few photos as evidence of how I spent this day, but the best of it is in my heart.