Short But Sweet

Short But Sweet

The brief season of high-altitude streams

  • By: John Gierach
While killing time in a Starbucks in Portland, Oregon, not long ago, I was idly eavesdropping on two businessmen when one--invoking the fashionable cliché--said their problems might be solved if they could start thinking outside the box. The other, younger man replied, "Dude, there's no box." I caught his eye and gave him a 1960's-vintage clenched-fist salute, but he may have been too young to know what it meant. He glanced away uncomfortably, probably assuming that my next move would be to stagger over and ask for spare change.I make a hobby of collecting found-object Zen parables, and that one struck a particular chord because I'd been sitting there thinking about the brief and fickle high-country trout season back home in northern Colorado, which is another one of the countless things in life that don't come neatly packaged. In fact, I may even have been worrying about it a little, as I tend to do when I'm anywhere outside my own comfortable bio region. I'm talking about a handful of headwater creeks near my home that flow off the Continental Divide out of two national forests and a national park, although the seasonal crowds, theme-park atmosphere, and the political correctness that now passes as fisheries management have put me off the park in recent years. I'm more interested in the low-rent wilderness with no so-called "facilities" and no entrance fee: "public land" in the truest sense. There are no special regulations on these streams because no one thinks they're important enough, what with their small trout and the haphazard mix of introduced species. So far, at least, most have escaped the attention of fisheries managers and conservation groups, which is just as well since those outfits often manage to do more harm than good, regardless of their intentions. A friend once said that in this day and age every watershed should have a conservancy to look after it, and that's probably true once it's attracted enough attention. But then another friend who lives about as far off the grid as possible advised, "Just go about your business, keep your head down, and maybe no one will hassle you." In anything resembling a normal year, the streams above 7,000 feet are only good and fishable for a precious six weeks or so out of every year, beginning when the runoff finally comes down, the streams clear and daytime water temperatures warm into the mid 40's. You expect that to happen in late July or early August, but in different years it comes, goes, sputters and recurs owing to high or low snowpacks, early or late springs, hot or cool summers, unusually wet August monsoons, early snows and so on. There are also daily wrinkles like air temperature, rain, wind, humidity, barometric pressure and cloud cover, not to mention the considerable variations caused by altitude on drainages that can fall 4,000 feet, through various life- and climate-zones, in 30 or 40 stream miles. You can fish earlier and later in the year with some hope of success, but that month and a half sweet spot is about average at those elevations. In that same idealized normal year, the good fishing ends, sometimes abruptly, when the first mountain snows in September chill the water again and put the fish off for another season. Once I was right there for the actual event. My friend Mike Price and I had four-wheeled and then hiked far up a stream in the second week of September. That was a little late in the season to be fishing above 9,000 feet, but the weather had held and we wanted to get high up on the drainage one more time. The fishing was a bit slow in late morning because the water was still a little chilly, but it turned good through mid day with swarms of small caddis, a few Flavilineas, and an early afternoon Red Quill spinner fall. Then in late afternoon--in the space of about 15 minutes--the sky clouded over, the wind picked up, the temperature plummeted 20 degrees, and it started to snow. We'd expected rain if anything and were only carrying light, hooded slickers, but at that time of year we should have known better. Anyway, the fishing went off suddenly, so we hiked back to the end of the road where we'd left Mike's World War II Jeep. He'd recently dropped an oversize engine into this antique for extra power, which is well and good, except that its original small radiator overheated when it was driven at slow speeds in low gear. It was several miles out and we had to stop far too often to let the radiator boil over and then slowly cool down enough for us to add canteens of creek water. This is the roughest four-wheel-drive track that anyone I know is willing to drive and the going is tedious under the best conditions. You definitely don't want to do it in the dark or in the snow, but of course it was getting dark and snowing harder. It was a slow, cold ride and a real adventure toward the end, since in the gnarliest spots when we really wanted to see what was right in front of us, the pitching Jeep had its headlights pointed uselessly at the tops of trees. Once we hit the paved county road, we coasted down the canyon in neutral to keep the engine cool. Truckers used to refer to this as "Georgia overdrive." It warmed up a little in the days after that storm blew through and the streams down around 6,000 feet fished passably well for another few weeks, but the high country was locked up for another year. It was like flipping a switch, as fishermen like to say. If I were to mark the local high-country season on my calendar, I'd take an average and draw a line starting on August 1 and ending around September 15. That would be the box, if there were one, but it would be a lop-sided container because these streams are fed entirely by snow melt, so the season tends to be shorter on both ends up at 9,500 feet than it is down at 7,000. But I actually do the opposite: I leave the calendar as blank as possible for that month and a half. That means no work that can't be left undone on a whim and no trips away from home, resulting in excuses that must sound lame to people who don't fish. If you know how to fly-fish high-mountain streams, you can almost always catch trout through August and early September, but the really exceptional fishing--the times when everything that can come together does and these streams give up the best they have--can be short, sweet and unpredictable. If you let your attention wander, you could miss the best of it, and that knowledge makes me nervous during any daylight hours when I'm not on the water. Obviously, this has all come to seem really important, as if it were part of a private religion observed by spending weeks at a time living a parody of a 19th Century life in the 21st Century. This tendency goes back at least as far as my early teens. I can remember my father introducing me at the time as his son who was "born a hundred years too late," which I took as a compliment. If nothing else, it was better than his previous explanation that I was so unlike the rest of the family because I'd been left on the doorstep by Gypsies. You naturally think that with most of your adult life spent on the same water you should be able to predict the best fishing, and God knows I've tried. Most of what I know about these creeks has sunk in subliminally over time and now feels instinctive, but I've kept a journal and during a quasi-scientific stage I did some fairly serious reading, which included a paper with the daunting phrase "altitudinal zonation" in its title. I learned several interesting things I didn't already know, but surprisingly little that was of any practical use to a fisherman. It's true that after years of observation, if not actual study, you can develop a nose for what constitutes a perfect set of conditions at any given altitude, but it also helps to spend many days on the water. Even then you're often left to figure out in hindsight why the fishing was so much better one day than another. I naturally brag to friends after the best trips, but in that sense I'm like a kid who throws 28 rocks at a tin can, hits it five times and later just says, "I hit it five times!" Even when I've convinced myself that I have these creeks wired, I sometimes idly wonder how I'd do if I just flipped a coin to see when I'd go fishing and then tossed a dart at a map to decide where. The first time I caught it right this season was in early August on a creek I know in a neighboring county: a roadside stretch in the neighborhood of 7,500 feet. It does get some fishing pressure near the turn-outs, but there are a few steep, overgrown sections that are so hard to get around in that they're still almost untouched. In one way, these streams are fluid and continuous, but in another way they amount to chains of distinct micro-habitats, so the fishing can improve tremendously in no more than a few hundred yards of undisturbed water. There were no real heroics to the fishing unless you count the godawful bushwhacking and rock scrambling or the black bear I surprised at a range of about 20 yards. I'd been picking my way slowly upstream with my head down. He'd apparently been getting a drink because when I looked up and saw him staring at me, there was water dripping from his chin. I told him he was a good bear and a pretty bear in the voice I've heard horsemen use to calm nervous mounts, and clumsily backed into the water birch on my side of the stream, losing my straw hat in the process. When I peeked a few minutes later, he was gone, so I retrieved my hat and kept fishing. The water temperature and stream flow were both close to perfect that day and there were plenty of bugs on the water: mostly caddis, Yellow Sallies and Red Quills. It was a hot, bright August afternoon, but the steep canyon wall had shaded the stream by mid afternoon, so the brown trout that can be so shy in direct light were looking up and eager to rise. Not counting the usual casting and wading difficulties, the fishing was fairly easy. I cherry-picked the water, casting only to the deepest, fishiest-looking plunge pools, caught nine chubby brown trout between 11 and 13 inches and missed maybe five others of roughly the same size. I'd tied on a Red Quill variation of mine that's named for that stream, but in retrospect I think it was one of those days when any fly in size 14 or 16 that floated would have done the trick. I have tied a few fly patterns intended especially for these creeks, but that says more about fly tiers being incurable tinkerers than it does about the fishing. To prove just that point, Mike Price once spent most of a season fishing entirely with Royal Coachmen and Gray-Hackle Peacocks and catching at least as many fish as anyone else. He chose those particular outdated patterns because they were the same ones he used nearly 50 years ago when he started fishing these streams as a "redneck kid" (his words). On the way out that day, I got above the narrow band of impenetrable bankside birch and willow and picked my way along the more open side of the slope. This is slanted bedrock covered with loose gravel and as a surface to walk on it's like a tile floor tilted at an angle and sprinkled with ball bearings. In years past I've put dings in the reel seats of two bamboo fly rods and pale scars on my bare knees and elbows doing this, but it seems necessary. It would have been easier and safer to simply climb another 40 feet up to the road and walk back along the shoulder, but I didn't want anyone to see me there with a fly rod for fear that they'd start to get ideas. You do end up with favorite, dependable spots on your home water that you want to keep to yourself. The best are the overlooked places that you located by being cagey (by either going farther than everyone else or by stopping sooner) although most are just the result of good old trial and error. You start with the assumption that any trout stream, from the best to the most ordinary, has more to offer than is immediately evident. Then you go on from there--sometimes for decades. You also learn to recognize the quality of the gift. In this case, with only a handful of exceptions over the last 30-some years, trout between 11 and 13 inches are about the best these streams have to offer--and only a damned fool would turn up his nose at the best of anything. I've been told by some that in the grand scheme of fly-fishing, trout of that size are a pretty low benchmark to set for yourself. Maybe I'm missing something, but that strikes me as an advantage. I've also talked to fishermen who say they're disappointed in these creeks. They say they fished them once or twice (usually in the easiest, most obvious places) and only caught dinks. A few of them have sounded vaguely accusatory. They seem to be wondering if I'm exaggerating the size of trout I say I sometimes manage to catch, or if maybe I'm living in the past when, as everyone knows, all fish were bigger. But when one guy said recently, "I must not be fishing where you are," I thought, Yeah, let's hope not, and left it at that. Anyone who wants to walk away from these creeks thinking they're not worth fishing has my blessing.