Category Archive: dF Feature
“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.
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.
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.
– 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.
– 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.)
– 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After a grand time along the Cimarron, my wife and i performed some origami with the small pop up trailer we had, turning it from a tiny dwelling into an even smaller towable box and headed down the mountain with our sights set on the area around Crested Butte. In the past, Taos was the summer haunt that my wife and i would visit annually, but a few years ago i was able to convince her to try the area around Crested Butte and ever since it has been the de facto summer spot that provides her with her cravings (amazing Swiss Alp like views all around) and me with mine (endless fishing possibilities). While the sites and the fishing are more than enough reasons to visit this breathtaking area (views and altitude both causing shortness of breath), the added draw for some (like me) is that Crested Butte lies at the end of a highway, meaning any one that’s there is there because they want to be, not because they were simply passing through.
After a few years of religiously spending vacation time in the area around Crested Butte, i’ve become fairly familiar with a few of the waters in the vicinity, especially the Taylor river and some of its tributaries. In that time, those waters have provided me with some amazing memories (especially once i discovered that green gates meant public land was stashed behind them.) However, as mentioned in previous posts, this time it would be different, i was here to flirt with the unknown, to experiment with the unfamiliar, and to hopefully land a few fish in the process.
Barely avoiding the Death Star tractor beam pull of the Taylor, i managed to head northeast out of Crested Butte for the almost mythical town of Gothic, a town i’ve been trying to make my way to for years, that lies along the East river, and about 1,000 feet above Crested Butte. Once a mining town of prosperity, the town was long ago abandoned and taken over by scientist that conduct research here via the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. For non-scientists the amenities are far from congenial, but what the town lacks in convenience it more than makes up for with eye-popping scenery that will drain your camera battery and practically beat you senseless with its Technicolor virtuosity.
Driving north out of Gothic, the “road” quickly went from amiable to questionable, leaving many of the low clearance two-wheel drive vehicles pulling u-ies as the Subarus, Jeeps and trucks (including me) continued ambitiously onward and upward. Surprisingly i saw more fly fishers on this stretch of the East river than i would anywhere else on my trip, but as i drove higher and higher, the crowds (along with the fish i would later realize) got smaller and smaller.
Eventually noticing that if i went any higher, the waters were going to look more like a leaky faucet than a creek, i hopped out, strung up the 3WT slogged through the thicket and proceeded to land this small but charismatic brook (above photo) within minutes.
Oblivious to anglers and obviously unfamiliar with bead headed nymphs, i was fortunate to land fish after fish, though all were definitely on the small end of things (especially the one below, a record small trout for me) with most of them coming in at around 10 inches. Downsizing to my 2WT rod, the fight in these fish suddenly came alive in my hand. The rod seemed to be at home fishing the bends of these small water as i lazily wet waded my way down the river/creek occasionally glancing up at the 12,000+ foot tall mountains that constantly seemed on the verge of capsizing, and in that instant feeling as small on this planet as the fish doubtlessly felt in my net.
Tired and hungry from the days adventure, i packed up and headed out, starting the slow drive back down the road, with the intent to call it a day. As i approached Gothic though, i noticed that the crowds had all left and i decided to have one last go on the last of the public land before heading back to camp to grab my wife and head into Crested Butte for a night on the town.
Working the deep elbow of a bank holding slack water, i tried over and over with a nymph but couldn’t seem to get the drift right. Knowing my wife was waiting on me, and feeling the hunger swelling inside, i tied on a brown Wooly Bugger, the classic “Go to” fly, and gave my version of a prayer to the mountain spirits around me before lobbing the fly into the current.
Within minutes i was hooked into a beautiful brook that practically tipped the scales for the day, coming in at around 12 inches (above photo). While it wasn’t huge, considering that the creek was almost small enough for me to jump across, it felt epic in a scaled down way. Likely i could have caught something much larger in bigger, broader and more familiar waters, but that wasn’t i was here. My mission was to jump into the unknown and try to grab onto something new, different, and pulsing with life. Easing the brook back into the water and glancing up at the flower soaked meadow, sitting at the base of mammoth sized mountains wearing snowcaps like berets, i felt that i had found exactly what i was looking for.
Later that afternoon as my wife and i roamed the streets of Crested Butte, dined on the most amazing pizza i’ve ever had, via The Secret Stash and their Notorious F.I.G., and generally took in the sights and sounds of the small but buzzing town before heading back to our isolated campsite high in the mountains, i had that old familiar feeling…
“How do i make this day last forever?”
If you figure it out please let me know.
If you want to go:
Closest town: Crested Butte and Guunison
Campgrounds: Lake Irwin campgrounds is a fee campground that can provide an excellent view of the lake. Please note though that there are tons of free camping spots all around the vicinity, so be sure to explore close by before committing. Rosy Lane along the Taylor river has always been a favorite as well, with trout fishing 20-30 yards from most of the campsites.
Local foods, drink and other visitor information: Crested Butte (like Austin) is a unique and quirky town that has enamored so many folks that it has a constant stream of folks coming back or checking it out for the first time. Despite this you can still have a good time if you’re sure to avoid it during any holidays or festival dates. My two favorite spots (after trying most) are the aforementioned Secret Stash and the Ginger Cafe, with pizza and thai food being their respective specialties. If you’re camping, showers can be taken while doing your laundry in one stop at the Crested Butte Hostel.
“I can’t look at hobbles and i can’t stand fences, don’t fence me in.” – Cole Porter
While i fully share Cole’s general distaste of fences, i’ve come to find that when they’re on public land (as they are on much of the National Park lands in Colorado) they tend to be much more agreeable. Used as a deterrent for grazing cattle sharing the park land, they seem to have much the same effect on humans as they do on our four-legged counterparts, keeping the bulk of the herd contained and restrained while the occasional curious soul works its way though the taught, tensioned wire and sneaks off into the thicket.
After days spent exploring the small forks of the Cimmaron above the Silver Jack reservoir, i was ready for something a little different. Thus it was that i made my way down below the reservoir, to where the water exits the drain and flows with wild abandon down the valley creating the headway or the Cimmaron river proper that meanders until eventually working its way into the Guunison river (site of another adventure to come) and eventually on to the Colorado river.
I had been clued into this stretch of water days before during a conversation in a local fly shop. While one of the employees dropped the volume of his voice and verbally filled me in on the tasty spot, i couldn’t help but notice that the other employee was giving me a low-key but intense look that seemed to read something along the lines of “You realize this is local information, and my co-worker is spilling some major beans right now, RIGHT?!” Sure do, got it.
One of the major points the guide had made during the low volume conversation, was that after hopefully finding the right turnoff, parking lot and trail, a barbwire fence should be found and followed to a gate that had all outward appearances of leading to private property even though in all actuality it was a legally passable blockade (title photo) leading to wonder and free range lands for the curious and insatiable.
Once past that gate, the footprints decreased noticeably. With every step the already difficult to find trail became harder and harder to follow, and by the time i made my way down to the river it was obvious that very few folks had ever come this far. Stepping a few feet out into the river i was able to glance downstream and find the signature sight i was instructed to look for, a boulder in the river the size of a VW bug laying next to a fallen rock that had the mass of a small trailer house…all i could think was “I’m here…i have arrived.”
It took a while to figure out the incredibly fast-moving water that seemed at times to almost be choked by the vertical walls along the river, but eventually the puzzle was unlocked and rainbows seemed to suddenly become ubiquitous tenants in my net. As i made my way down stream, edging through the rock garden, two things became quickly apparent; the first was that the already vague trail along the river was quickly turning into nothingness, and secondly, every fish i caught on my way downstream got bigger and bigger, inch by inch.
Climbing over ridge after ridge i watched as any sign of a trail faded into nothingness, and suddenly felt myself thrust into an intense wildness that seemed to be me in with an overwhelming confidence. While i didn’t see a sign of any fellow anglers, no lures, lines or footprints, i’m sure that other folks fish here, it’s just to enticing in its perfection and humming shades of green and blue, sucking you in with unmentioned promises of fish, adventure, and solitude.
Eventually, i came to a bend in the river and practically fell to my knees, overwhelmed at the utter perfection that laid in front of me. Huge pines towered over a long riffle that dropped into a deep inside pocket directly behind a boulder twice the size of my Honda Element and three feeding lanes were clearly differentiated by yellow tinged foam lines. Unlike the rest of the river, backcasts didn’t need to be watched cautiously as a wide gravel shelf provided ample room to set up the casts without concern. A few casts and this lovely 17″wild rainbow was on the hook and moonwalking across the water and jumping with aplomb like some sort of Michael Jackson/Jordan hybrid.
Slowly finding my way up the ridge, i finally made it back to the road (quite a relief actually) and hoofed back to my car, being sure to make mental notes of this shortcut into the woods and onto the special spot hereafter known as “Valhalla”. Surprisingly what i thought would be a many mile hike turned out to be less than one. Walking up to the lake, and fence that stood between me and my car, i couldn’t help but think of how differently distance can be covered. A meandering river and a practical, manmade dirt road seem to have very different ideas as how to cover the same amount of land.
Standing at that fence and looking beyond it, i spotted numerous groups of folks, all well-intentioned and well mannered i’m sure. However, all i could think was that maybe fences really weren’t that bad…as long as everyone else was on the other side.
Out of respect for the folks that clued me into this spot i’m not going to reveal the information i have (and will) for all the other spots from this trip. If you’re resourceful enough and piece it all together i’m sure you’ll have no problem finding it, and get to experience something that will keep your lips tight as well.
-Sorry and enjoy
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.