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“Into the Gorge”

Trying to get a few last hours of sleep in our small camper along the Gunnison river, i was suddenly awaken by my father, his outline bathed in an ominous glowing ambience provided by a sudden strike of lightning, his words indiscernible over the loud crack of thunder that ripped open the sky before dumping a deluge of water onto all our fishing gear spread around the outside of the camper.  It didn’t take long to run out and tuck it all under the camper, and even less time to fall back asleep, but that’s only because i didn’t know what the onslaught of moisture meant for our drive the next day into the heart of the Gunnison Gorge, it’s a good thing too, because had i known i wouldn’t have slept at all.

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The next morning as the six clients (John his wife Pattie, Alan, Greg my father and i) loitered around the van, the guides (Patrick, Stuart, Steve and their assistant Tom) seemed to be taking their time corralling us and boarding the bus.  Oddly enough, as we turned off the main highway out of Delta, and turned onto the dirt road, their already soft tones came to a halt, like birds before a storm, sending off warning signals, but for what i had no idea.  A few miles further Steve (our driver / guide) stopped in the middle of the innocuous looking dirt road that was freshly bathed in rain water, stepped out and locked the hubs on the four wheel drive van.  Hopping back in the seat and giving the monster gas, Steve caused the giant white egg to move forward.  No sooner had i started to form my question “What was that…?” than we started sliding in odd and mysterious ways on the strange “mud” that due to the nights rain had become a cross between ice and soap, causing an already difficult four wheel drive to take on a whole additional level of fear.  Suffice to say that any ride where gravity’s downward pull on your vehicle is halted not by brakes or friction (two things i will never take for granted again), but by catching a muddy rut broadside, bringing you, your compatriots and a two ton vehicle (plus a ton of gear) to a tenuous stop inches shy of a 200 foot cliff, will be a quiet ride, since all riders will be so busy trying to remember to breathe that words will be surely be kept to a minimum.

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Pulling into the parking lot i almost jumped out and kissed the ground before noticing that folks were already heading down our mile and a half decent down, down, down into the heart of the Gorge.  Hoisting my 75 pound pack i started slipping and sliding down the trail that felt like it was coated in chocolate pudding, sliding an extra three feet with every step taken.  As my steps progressed, i started running through the inventory and wight in my pack, making sure to curse each and every item for the undue exhaustion it was causing.

In an effort to save my dad and i some money from having wine brought in by mule the day before, i had thrown two Bota Box wine bladders in my pack, obviously not expecting this sort of death march down to the river.  As much as i love wine, i have to confess that those two bladders were cursed under my breath with every sliding footstep, and every article of clothing in my pack was accused of crimes of treason.  Of course, once we got to the water all was forgiven and i pardoned both the wine and the clothing, assuring both of them that i would make their extra weight well worth my while, especially that damn wine.

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“Random Moments”

– On the morning of day two, this immense stonefly (below) was found climbing up one of the boats and passed around so that all could see what these monster trout were feeding on.  After that my size 20 nymphs seemed like shallow attempts to convince fish used to double cheeseburgers with bacon to change their diet and be tempted by mouth watering grains of rice.

– Forced relaxation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it’s pretty damn nice.  After fishing hard for hours and pulling over for a wonderful lunch in the shade of the river edge foliage, it’s a little hard to get up and tear up the water in the worst part of the fishing day (high noon), especially when you know you have hours of fishing left.  Not to say i didn’t do that, but it’s still nice to know that you’re expected to use your PFD like a pillow and stare up through the gnarled branches of the Juniper trees and doze off for at least 15 minutes dreaming of the last few hours and those that lie ahead.

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– If you hike drinks into a remote float like this, you are like the King Midas of the trip.  Totally worth breaking my back for an hour or two, just to be able to offer our group something usually taken for granted back in the “real” world.

– ALWAYS BRING A NET.  In my confusion as to what this trip might be, i somehow imagined us always fishing from the boat and using one net.  This is almost never the case.  Numerous times i was dropped off on my own and hooked numerous fish that were lost because i couldn’t get them to hand, mostly because of intense flows and lack of a net.  You’d think i’d learn, i left a net behind on a high mountain stream on this trip and paid the price, and i didn’t bring one on my guided steelhead trip a few years back and yet STILL managed to not bring a half pound net while simultaneously being sure to drop an extra pound of vino in my pack.  No matter what trip you are undertaking, i can’t stress enough, always…always bring a net.  (At least for fast waters.)

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– Fish are tougher than you think.  Time and time again we’d be heading down some class III rapids (above) and i’d make a half ass cast into a pool only to feel an immediate tug and suddenly find a trout and myself bound together by some 2X tippet and working our way down a run together in what one of our guides called “A trout relocation program.”  This was absolutely my favorite expression of the trip.

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“Best. Day. Ever.”

Waking slowly and downing some grade “A” campfire coffee, i packed my bags and was escorted across the river by our guides and their raft, within easy sight of our camp, but fishing wise on another planet.  Working the inside bank, i rather quickly landed a few browns that put a decent  in the 5WT and once at hand looked to be around 12-14 inches.

Working my way down the river, to where the pool i’d been fishing bottled into a healthy run of whitewater and small pockets, i managed to hook the 16″ fish (below) from a hole that was obviously ripe with fish.  Shortly after, a second fish about the same size was pulled from the same hole when i noticed a deep pocket behind a larger rock.

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Making the cast, i visually followed the indicator as it crested over the rock and then quickly dove out of my site, like a shy actor at Cannes avoiding the paparazzi.  The reel quickly began to hum as it tore into the backing with a wild ferocity as both fish and line took off downstream leaving me with a 5WT that suddenly was feeling like a wet noodle fighting the fish and flows, and a reel that was more naked than i’d ever seen it.  As any fisher knows, time in a fish battle is relative, but i swear that it was somewhere between 5 minutes (real time) and 15 minutes (fishing time) before i managed to coax this handful of joy from the whitewater.  Escorting him back into a slow flowing pool, i sat down and watched this amazing fish for a good while before he broke off into the current on his own volition, leaving me alone sprawled out on the bank, eyes to the sky in utter dismay at the fish i had landed.  After that fish (caught early in the day) i was so relaxed that fish after fish seemed to come to my fly easily, two things that i assure you are not common for me.

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Strangely enough the fish that made the day wasn’t even close to the biggest for me, he just happened to be the one that i was able to land.  The next was dug up in a slow pool, and worked to the boat where it immediately became obvious he (of she) had a few pounds and at least 8 inches on the above fish.  Shaking and nervous i asked our guide for the day, Stuart, to row me to the bank where i might be more comfortable fighting the fish of a lifetime.  Working the fish in to the bank i looked down through the waters glare to see it looking up at me with knowledgeable eyes that sent a chill up my spine, and then…”SNIP”…it was gone.  I had been played like a sucker by a pro.  I swear that fish knew EXACTLY what it was doing as it built it’s reserves for the inevitable bolt that would snap my 2X so quick and cleanly that i honestly felt zero tension in the rod as the tippet gave way.  Fortunately i was still riding high from the previous fish, and i found that Stuart was far more upset at loosing the fish than i was, sub-conciously telling me it was every bit the trophy fish it looked to be before it decided to leave me alone on the bank.

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Later in the day after an incredible lunch provided by our guides (chicken salad and Pringles rule when you’ve been fishing for five hours straight) i had a glass of wine and dozed off under the aforementioned juniper only to wake and find that the group had all waded down stream.  Slowly rising i heeded to the contrarion in me and headed upstream to some heavy whitewater, looking once again for the pockets that had brought me so much success earlier in the day.  After a few smaller fish (20 inches) i finally hooked into a serious rainbow that shot across the current causing me to shake like Jello in a waterbed before once again being taken into my backing.  The size of the fish (32 inches plus, pinky swear) combined with the flows of the whitewater immediately drew up flashbacks of my steelhead on the Deschutes into my muscle memory.  As the fish tore downstream, leaping like it was trying out for Cirque du Soleil, i quickly made my way down the bank, glancing around at my incredible surroundings, and back at the fish jumping and fighting with an athletic vigor.  With the closest guide 75 yards downstream, i called out for a net before feeling an odd chuckle welling up inside.  A few moments later i truly felt everything in my small universe come together, the experience of wilderness i was knee deep in, the adventure of it all, the isolation, the mountains, the Juniper, the weeks away from humans and their inadvertent treachery, the cool water, the fish…EVERYTHING came together and i laughed and laughed a manic laugh that was the most celebratory sound i’ve ever made in praise of life…true life.

Of course the fish got off before the guide could make it there.  Doubtlessly, that was as it should be. Even the loss made me laugh, and that felt right.  I don’t want to sound corny, but i have never been happier and closer to the spastic dance of the cosmic wheel than i was at that moment.

There is so much more, and if you want to hear it all, buy me a drink.  I’d love to share my best day ever as well as the information absorbed with each and every one of you.  (A pinot noir will surely get you the story of the golden eagle, a whole other post.)

Final thought. Go do it. You will never feel the same afterwards.

Also, always carry a net.

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If you want to go:

Closest town: Hotchkiss, Delta and Paonia, Colorado

Fly shop: Gunnison River Fly Fishing not only has a fly shop and camping on the premesis, they also were the guide service that provided me with three of the best days i’ve ever had on the water via their amazing guide service that i can’t recommend highly enough.  (Note, they had no idea who i was and i received no special service because of this blog, which is how i prefer it.)

Campgrounds: As mentioned above Gunnison River Fly Fishing provides camping services via Pleasure Park.  The Berau o fLand Management has an adjacent property called Gunnison River Forks that also provides camping as well as hiking access to the lower stretch of the Gorge.

Local foods, drink and other visitor information:  There are some amazing wineries in the area, with Terror Creek Winery in Paonia being our absolute favorite.  While the food options in this area of Colorado are stretched a little thin, the Flying Fork in Paonia provides top notch food and service that you would usually equate with a town 100 times the size.

 

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Pulling into the clearing, i shut down the engine and surveyed my surroundings.  There was enough space for thirty or so vehicles, but there was only one in residence, a small red truck that obviously had been used almost to the point of exhaustion, parked right next to the trail head.  Exiting my vehicle and setting my small fold out stool on the ground, i grabbed my boots and neoprene socks and started the strangely tiring ritual (altitude i guess) of applying both.

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I had spent days pouring over maps (the real paper kind, since there was no internet in our neck of the woods) and had located this spot which looked like it would either be flowing water of solitude peppered with fish or a complete bust.  Still unsure, and debating the wisdom in driving an hour  and a half from our campsite (which was right next to a lake with a prodigious amount of trout) i pulled on my boots, wondering what the hell i was thinking, or if i even was.

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It was at that moment that he emerged from the camouflaged dance of the forest and made his way to the truck.  The whooping crane colored beard, the practical full brim hat, and the wise eyes set off alarms up and down every fly fishing muscle in my body, “Was it Giearch?!”  Knowing that John Gierach (if it was in fact the fly fishing bard in question) was about as fond as i am of social interaction, i managed a sort of half smile that was reciprocated while he quickly packed up and made tracks out of there, seconds before i summoned the courage to engage the stranger.  Damn.

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Minutes after the mystery had sailed i had my rod strung, crossed the field, and stepped into the unknown brown and green canopy with the same amount of nervousness and excitement that i imagine an actor feels before stepping through the velvet, burgundy curtains to confront his or her audience.  Eyes on the moist, damp dirt trail i was quickly able to discern the mysterious fly fishers boot tracks from those masked underneath it.  Following their path in reverse i sank into the wilderness, my eyes fixed on the imprints with every step.

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Eventually the tracks veered off on to a side trail where i stumbled out of the woods into the lower terminus of a canyon that seemed to reach up and hug the sky, squeezing the color out of it, both it’s blues and whites dripping down the cliffs and back into the water.  The river was exposed here, and pocket upon pocket laid ahead of me with trout anticipation holed up and each one (or so i imagined).

Finding a deep hole that hugged a steep canyon wall, i worked the water until the first trout of the day (the rainbow below) erred and mistook my wire and thread nymph for the real thing.   A couple other rainbows followed in quick succession, promptly making it obvious that these waters  must see very few fisherman.

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Working my way back to the trail, i was surprised by the veil that the foliage between trail and water provided.  One could be 20 feet from amazing pocket water and simply have no idea, thanks to the immense and dense foliage that loitered casually along the creek’s bank.

Bend after bend provided on going challenges as well as trout after trout as i made made my way up the trail continuing to follow the tracks that had already provided with me with so much.  Footstep after footstep i started to wonder if i wasn’t fooling myself, maybe this wasn’t my guy at all?  After all, there must be 100 flyfishers in Colorado that look like Gierach, driving the same same kind of utilitarian truck that he’s always mentioning in his well thought out, yet seemingly off-the-cuff stories.  What were the chances of it really being him?

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Thinking this, i suddenly stopped dead in my tracks, or more accurately, dead in his tracks as i noticed his trail going straight into what looked like impenetrable thicket.  Confused and baffled i used my newly found walking stick (a.k.a. branch) to try and find a way through when the path abruptly opened up.  My man, his tracks now clearly visible, had cut branches from numerous plants on the opposite side of the trail and placed them here, covering the lightly worn trail from view.

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Shoot dang.  If the man i had seen in the parking lot wasn’t the wily, crafty character that wrote the many stories i consumed with delight and awe, then surely it was his ghost.  Minutes later when the path lead me to the deepest bluest hole i’d seen, with decrepit ridges towering above it, where first rainbow, then cutthroat and finally brown trout were coughed up in rapid succession, i had no doubt.  That was my man, and he had a secret.  As much as i’d love to share it with you, you’ll have to enjoy it vicariously here, because it now dawns on me that the “half smile” wasn’t him being friendly, it was him telling me that i better keep my lips tight and not ruin this small treasure that he had found.  I know better than to cross famous angling authors or their doppelgängers, but there is hope for all.

There are a million places like this out there, just be observant and poke and prod, you never what path might open up before you.

Oh, and to Gierach (or his ghost)…

“Thank you.”

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Like many, i’ve always wished that i could speak and read all the worlds languages.  If i ever somehow manage to acquire this skill, i’m going to immediately put it to use reading the blog www.westlerorrbeck.se in it’s native Swedish because it’s obvious viewing the translated version via Google that i’m missing out on something that is simply lost in translation.

 

Westler & Orrbeck may have only been around nine months but they’ve managed to put together some killer content in that short amount of time, including some beautifully shot videos.

If you are fortunate enough to speak Swedish check them out at www.westlerorrbeck.se.  If not go here for English.

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Cimarrón: defined as  1) Unruly, uncouth and wild. 2) Rough, not domesticated.

Yep, that sounds about right. Both the creeks i was temporarily calling home (two distinct forks of the Cimarron that converge at Silver Jack Reservoir) and the ancient, crumbling mountains  that surround them fit that description to a T. Each one of them (creeks and mountains) demonstrates an utter disregard for polished lines and subtle suggestions of wilderness. Instead the waters mirror the peaks, all jagged lines and jutting formations that look as though Ornette Coleman had danced through the valleys millennia ago spitting rock and water from his sax, creating a visual and tangible, free jazz landscape that would inspire folks for millennia to come, including me.

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For a good week i was privileged enough, on my recent month long Colorado tour, to spend numerous days wandering the converging creeks with a 7’6″ 3WT and a small sling pack who’s volume was consumed more by water, nuts and jerky than it was fishing paraphernalia (the best part of small creek fishing is that you don’t need much). For the first few days i had the place to myself, exploring runs, pockets, and deep pools with a giddy sort of enthusiasm doubtlessly brought on by pursuing my new goal of here on only fishing new waters, a plan that was already paying off handsomely with incredible surroundings, crystal clear, undisturbed water and a creel load (hypothetical of course) of fish.

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While i had three or four amazing and otherworldly days on the creeks (before discovering the Cimarron River below the reservoir…post to follow), it was the first day on the creeks that seemed to set the mood for the next few weeks of my adventure. Let it be known that I am by no means the kind of fisherman that has double didgit days on a regular, or even semi-regular basis. If anything, i am competent at best when it comes to enticing fish on my home waters, and slightly less than that when working foreign waters fishing for trout.

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Never the less, i was fortunate enough to have one of THOSE days you always hear about. The smile on my face would have given it away (had anyone been there to notice it), i was having a great fishing day, and only my rusty trout skills kept it from being better. In that first day, i brought well over 25 trout to hand and lost half that many to bad hook sets and broken tippets due to the high amount of trees and random wood that washed down stream during runoff (Tip #1: Don’t use 5X on high mountain streams). Many more fish and photo opportunities were also missed because i hadn’t thought to bring a net, guessing that that the fish would be so small that a net would just be extra weight. The reality was that the water, while low, was dropping elevation at a considerable rate, and the fish had been strengthened over time by these flows, two facts that meant losing a majority of the fish before the camera was even drawn. (Tip #2: Always bring a net, even just a small one.)

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Early in the day i naively spent my time on only the deepest and darkest holes, assuming that the trout would find the shallow riffles to be undesirable.  With 50 yards or so between the deeper holes (we’re talking three feet deep) it took a while to cover some serious miles before working my way back down stream, testing out the riffles and being reminded by Professor Trout, that you can pull some nice fish out of water not much deeper than their bodies are.

While the majority of the fish were rainbows and browns, there were the occasional cutthroat that added some technicolor tones to an already vivid day. While landing my first of these beautiful fish (above) i was worried that i had somehow let the hook sink to far into the gills and figured that to be the reason for the redish /orange marks  that seemed to be emanating from the jaw. Much to my elation, it was just a beautiful and vibrant fish that seemed only slightly miffed to have me gawking at it’s coloration.

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None of these fish were huge by any means, most fell within the 12-16″ inch range with the occasional 18-20 inched, but they were wild as all get out and made sure to let you know it, running and jumping like they were trying out for next years fish olympics. Considering that i was wet wading, and fishing a tiny 3WT with alternating nymphs and dries, in such a visual knock out of a land, unfettered or bothered by fellow anglers, they might as well have been three foot monsters. Staring up at the crumbling mountain crags that towered against the sky, and then down to the crystal clear water quickly working it’s way seaward, and finally at the trout recomposing itself in the back eddy at my feet, i couldn’t help but feel that i was in on a wonderful secret. I’m also fairly certain that the statuesque female moose, the male elk with the fresh velvet rack, and the crazy cacophony of deer, herons, water fowl, marmots and hummingbirds, all of which  i happened to come across in the creek during my lonely fishing hike added a degree of wonder that took the whole experience to a level that i previously thought impossible. Strangely enough, this was only the begining of the magic…but that’s another post.

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If you want to go:

Closest town: Ridgway, Colorado has some amenities, and Montrose to the north has many more.

Fly shop: R.I.G.S. Flyshop (These guys have consistently been cordial and helpful over the years and have an amazing selection of flies.)

Campgrounds: Silver Jack Reservoir campgrounds is a fee campground and there are tons of free camping spots all within a mile of the reservoir, most of them on the upper end of the reservoir where the creeks converge.

Local foods, drink and other visitor information: Ridgway is a classic Colorado small town (less than 1,000 people) that more or less serves as an adjunct town to the much more expensive and popular Telluride. The town is pretty mellow and laid back, and not surprisingly one of the few towns that chose to legalize marajuana and reap the tax rewards. The downtown is situated along the Uncompahgre river (fishable) and host numerous art shows and festivals in it’s quaint and lovely city park that is bordered by local boutiques and breweries.’

While i’ve only eaten out a handful of times in this town over the years (restaurants seem to come and go in these small towns like migrating geese) my new favorite is Taco del Gnar  for providing adventurous culinary explorations into what a taco can be (the special taco of the week, scallops and gorgonzola put me over the moon.)

As far as fisherman are concerned it provides the R.I.G.S. Flyshop for all your fishing and guiding needs as well as a local grocery store to stock up on camping items. 

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