On the Ranch

On the Ranch

  • By: John Gierach
sporting life spring 2010.jpg

Driving west across Colorado on Interstate 70, there was a specific quarter-mile where the public-radio and classic-rock stations I’d been grazing through all faded to static and were replaced by country-western and preachers. The exit for the town of Silt was in the rearview mirror and the Colorado River was off my left shoulder. I’d crossed the Continental Divide some 90 miles back and could have made the Utah border in less than an hour, but it was only then that I felt like I was officially on the West Slope where the airwaves are filled with pain and redemption with livestock reports on the hour.

This was one of those rare times when I’d allowed myself to get too busy for someone with my lazy temperament and was consequently feeling a little sorry for myself. I’d just got back from a long trip to northern Canada and spent days mowing through the mail, messages, bills and chores that had accumulated while I was gone. This is the kind of boring adult stuff that’s all important in one way or another, but that amounts to drudgery when there’s too much of it at one time.

In two more days I had to be in Denver at the Fly Tackle Retailer Show, where I had what I’ll describe as “business,” although to an independent observer it would just look like a bunch of people standing around talking about fishing. I know, it doesn’t sound that bad (you’re probably busier than that on your average day off); but for most of the year I live the kind of slow-paced sporting life where being rushed means not having enough time to loaf between fishing trips.

In the meantime, my friends Mark Weaver and Buzz Cox had invited me to come over and fish with them on the K bar T, a small fly-fishing guest ranch they operate on the White River near Meeker. The scheduling could have been easier going, for my taste. I had a scant two days with a 5 ½ hour drive each way, leaving barely more fishing than driving time, but these were the only two days for weeks in either direction when they weren’t booked with paying fishermen and could accommodate a freeloading friend.

I’d heard a lot about the place, mostly from Mark. They had a refurbished hundred-plus-year-old ranch house, two miles of the White River, a mile of spring creek and maybe half-a-mile of a small freestone stream flowing across a hay meadow. The place could take as many as eight fishermen at a time, although they were more likely to have between two and four, which sounded like a more reasonable number.

I was eager to see it and I think Mark and Buzz were just as eager to do a little fishing themselves. Contrary to what some think, guides and outfitters don’t get to fish that much. Instead, they’re busy doing the countless, mundane, mostly invisible things that allow their clients to fish.

I’d never fished the White. I’d heard it was a good trout river, but that most of it was private and what public water there was could be hard to find unless you were already dialed in.

Of course, it’s in the nature of water like this to be private, at least here in Colorado with our unenlightened stream-access laws. Much of the state is a beautiful but steep, infertile landscape and back in the homesteading days the first settlers grabbed up the river valleys with their flat meadows and year-around water.

Desirable real estate being what it is, most of it has stayed in private hands ever since. There was a time when you might have been able to sweettalk your way onto places like this with a six-pack of beer and the promise of a limit of cleaned trout. Ranchers were often proud of their fishing, but they seldom had time left at the end of a day to fish it themselves, so it was mostly appreciated by relatives, friends from town and the occasional polite stranger.

You can still wangle access from time to time, but many of these places have now been leased to help pay the property taxes or sold outright by people who saw the family spread less as a heritage and more as a grubstake to a different life. The consequence is that some of these places are now fished much harder than they once were and by a different class of people: in extreme cases, those who think roughing it is wearing an L. L. Bean sport coat instead of the usual Louis Vuitton.

I got off the interstate at Rifle, gassed up, grabbed a cup of convenience-store coffee and headed the 40-some miles north on State Road 13 toward Meeker. The speed limit is 60, but this is the kind of lonesome two-lane blacktop where you stand an equal chance of being passed by a young buck doing 80 in a dual-axle pickup or getting stuck behind an elderly rancher going 18 miles an hour. It also pays to keep an eye peeled for cattle. Over here the yellow signs along the shoulder still say “Open Range,” while on the east side of the Rockies too many people didn’t know what that meant, so they changed them to “Caution, Cows on Road.”

I mention the drive in detail because the journey itself is the destination, as the Buddhists say, and because it was somewhere up this road that I stopped feeling pressed for time and was suddenly just going fishing. Of course going fishing always seems like the answer, even when it’s not clear what the question was.

I got to the K bar T a little after 11 and was greeted by Princeton, who passes as the ranch dog. Princeton is the result of a romance between a Chihuahua and something small, white and wiry. He’s a friendly little guy and smart enough not to go out into the open where he could be picked off by a golden eagle or red-tailed hawk by day or an owl at night. Given time and an overriding affection for all dogs, you get used to him and remind yourself it’s not his fault that he looks like a wet chicken.

After a quick, early lunch, Mark and I drove half-a-mile across a meadow and waded up a shallow side channel to the river. (Buzz had unspecified ranch business to take care of and said he’d try to join us later.) Here in its upper valley the White is what a Coloradan would call a medium-size river. It was the second week of September, so it was low enough to be a little bony, but you still had to search out a place shallow enough if you wanted to cross. Mark said it wasn’t floatable this high on the drainage except maybe at the height of spring runoff when it would be pointless to fish it.

The ranch is at an elevation of a little over 6,000 feet—almost exactly the same as my place on the other side of the mountains—so I knew that by the end of the month there’d be a hard frost, a glaze of morning bank ice along the river and maybe a dusting of snow. But for now it was still hot, windless high summer: the kind of indolent weather that makes you think of a lawn chair in the shade and a good book. Mark said the last group they’d had in landed more than 300 trout from this stretch of the White in two days. That’s a good testimonial, but it also meant that most, if not all, of the willing trout there had felt a hook recently and no doubt still remembered it.

Mark left me at a deep, complicated bend pool with an overhanging cottonwood on the far bank and walked upstream to the next run. I ran a size 12 hopper through several current seams and finally got a 14-inch brown trout. Then I made a long cast with a hard upstream mend to the shady slick on the far bank. Three things happened simultaneously: I saw that I was at the wrong angle for a good drift, a large trout turned downstream after the fly and the fly itself began to drag enough to leave a wake. Naturally, the fish smelled a rat and disappeared. Chances are he’d had an unpleasant run-in with a grasshopper in the recent past.

The rest of the day went very much like that. We started at the top end of the ranch property and leap-frogged downstream, cherry-picking the best-looking runs. This was beautiful water with long, cool, oxygenating riffles pouring into deep, fishy pools, glides and cut banks.

But as good as it looked, strikes were scarce and what at first looked like good takes were often large trout turning away at the last possible second, splashing the fly with their tails. Buzz joined us for a few hours in the middle of the afternoon and landed the biggest trout that was caught: a fat cuttbow I’ll guess at 17 inches. But for the most part, the fish seemed reticent and spooky and even those that were tempted usually thought better of it in the end.

I tried a nymph dropper behind my grasshopper, but it didn’t help. Neither did swinging a Muddler Minnow. Fishing a brace of nymphs with weight in the deeper runs got us whitefish. Some of them were nice and big and plenty of fun to catch; they just weren’t what we were after. The few trout we did get were the smaller ones, at least compared to the dripping hogs in the snapshots at the ranch.

There’s an entire school of fly-fishing literature dedicated to techniques for catching trout under difficult conditions. None of it is wrong, but much of it ignores the obvious fact that even the best rivers have their off-days, just as even the finest musicians have those nights when they’d rather be watching I Love Lucy reruns than playing another gig.

The truth of the matter was put succinctly by Rosalynde Johnstone, a 100-year-old Michigan angler who once said, “Any fish will bite if the fish are bitin’.” Taken either literally or metaphorically, that may be all you need to know.

Buzz left after a while to do more work. Mark and I fished until dusk hoping for an evening caddis hatch, but nothing much happened. As hot as it had been during the day, the air chilled quickly when the sun got low and there weren’t many bugs.

Mark seemed a little disappointed, as guides often are when what they know to be good water doesn’t fish as well as it could. I wouldn’t have minded hooking one or two of those big trout that refused my fly; but mostly I was just glad it was me fishing instead of a paying client who might not have felt he was getting his money’s worth.

Those high-score days the trout counters are after do happen from time to time, but it’s easy to forget that they have lasting if not permanent effects. By all rights, a stretch of water like this should be rested for a few days after a 300-fish pounding.

That night Buzz’s wife Rose fried several chickens with rice and gravy, green beans, coleslaw and cornbread. Rose does the cooking at the K bar T—as she did at High Lonesome Ranch, another fishing outfit south of there where I’d first met these folks—and she’s real good at it. Food is important to fishermen. Success, failure and the infinite gradations in between all make us ravenous and bruised egos at the end of slow days respond especially well to good cooking. Every outfitter knows that there are people who use a fishing trip as an excuse to do things they’d never do at home. The most manageable of us simply eat too much and fall asleep.

Buzz was quiet at dinner, but then he’s always quiet. He’s a large taciturn man with the physique of a movie version of a Navy Seal. He grew up in family fishing camps, got it in his blood and has guided himself for the last 20 years. Rose told me that when he announced a few years ago that they’d be running a lodge—effectively going into what’s now called the “hospitality business”—she had her doubts. But as it turned out, Buzz’s unthreatening, but imposing presence and minimalist conversational style make him a more effective camp manager than the usual talkative glad-hander.

The next morning the three of us went over to the spring creek. Like all the water on the ranch, it’s unimproved, as it should be: basically a mile of willowy marsh with beaver ponds and channels running through it. The springs run all year, but they gush in the spring and dribble in the fall in response to the river-fed water table.
This late in the season the water was low and the current imperceptible. It was pleasantly cool early in the day, but the water was excruciatingly clear, the air was dead calm and the sun was bright.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky except for a few wispy mares tails clinging to the peaks of the Williams Fork Mountains on the eastern horizon where they’d do us no good at all.

Mark said most of the water would be too low to fish this late in the season and that our best shot for trout would be in the big beaver pond at the head of the creek. On the way up there he told me they didn’t bring all their fishermen here because even in less spooky conditions it takes at least decent casting and a minimum of finesse to fish it. I think he meant that as fair warning.

I don’t estimate the size of ponds well, but I’ll say this one covered more than one acre, but less then two. There’s no telling how deep it was, but by late summer the weed tops had grown to within inches of the surface. There was a small pod of large trout boiling out at the end of what looked like my longest cast and a few others working above the beaver dam off to our left. Wading closer was out of the question. In water like this, you’d sink to your armpits in black muck within three steps, and even if you didn’t, your spreading ripples would spook the fish.

Buzz teetered out on the dam, while Mark and I cast side-by-side, trying a dozen fly patterns between us with no luck: midge pupae, mayfly nymphs, beetles, ants, backswimmers, damsel flies.

Buzz hooked a big trout on a little grasshopper pattern, but it took him into the weeds and broke him off. I finally hooked a heavy fish on a size 20 Soft Hackle. It made a good run, peeling off line, then did an about face and swam straight back at me. It was the kind of maneuver that makes you suspect that the fish not only comprehends the nature of his dilemma, but is also considerably smarter than you are. By the time I recovered my slack line, the barbless hook had come loose and the commotion had spooked the pond.

Buzz went back to work and Mark and I drove to the freestone creek where we ate leftover fried chicken and listened to grasshoppers clicking in the hay meadow. The stream was a pretty little thing meandering widely across the meadow, taking its own sweet time before it emptied into the river. There was a deep undercut bank at the outside of every bend and we caught fat brown trout and one cuttbow in most of the spots where you’d expect them to be. There were no refusal rises. The trout ate our hoppers as if they’d been waiting for them all morning, which in fact they probably had.

This didn’t look like what you’d call a rich stream and fish of that size probably weren’t residents but trout that had moved up out of the river to gorge on grasshoppers in the late summer. They wouldn’t have been here in the spring and they’d probably be gone back to the river by the end of the month when the hopper supply petered out.

I’ve always wondered how fish know to do things like that. Do they understand their environment to the extent that they can formulate a plan? We fishermen constantly overestimate the intelligence of fish so that matching wits with them doesn’t sound too ridiculous, but at the risk of selling them short, that seems doubtful. I think trout are more like your average fisherman: They snoop around because it’s in their nature and they’re just smart enough to know when they’ve stumbled into something good.

John Gierach has written the Sporting Life column for FR&R since 1992. His latest book is Fool’s Paradise; order a copy at flyrodreel.com Books section.