Friday, October 16, 2020

elk dreaming

In the summer I went out here on a scouting trip. It was supposed to be a moderate hike with time to explore for elk lairs. The trip thought of as moderate turned into a survival plod while my bad knee groused about the load. Elk season dawned: the knee and I blindly plunged like fate into the lone backcountry.

A winter storm on the passes, Loveland and Vail. First plan was to hike in before dark, but slow going traffic and snow meant arrival at the trailhead in last light. From the edge of Routt National Forest to the end of the road there was an elk camp in every turnout. Four inches of snow on the road had been driven flat in less than a day. Hunter numbers are dropping steadily, while crowding in hunt season increases steadily too. This apparent paradox is easily resolved - no-one is building new elk forests, just as no-one is making new trout streams. New condos, new private ranching fences, yes.  Bigger RVs to hunt from, expansive canvas tent structures that use wood frames and portable power tools to construct, quieter generators for power in camp, yes: all the appurtenances of consumer fetishism, packed densely into the dwindling remains of wild country.

I think often of the Richard Brautigan short story where he finds sections of trout stream stacked up in the hardware store, available on easy purchase terms.

Slept in the truck, the bed is short but gets to 6ft with the tailgate down. Only an inch of toes hanging over the edge, then. The zero-degree sleeping bag kept me warm while the outer nylon frosted into an icy shell by 3 am. Up and hit the trail in moonlight and several inches of snow, 30lb backpack plus 8lb of rifle. This went OK for a mile or two and thousand feet up, then Windy Gap nearly blew me over. After this is a short section of ledge trail with a good long plummet off to the side.
In daylight on the way back,

now imagine that at 4am with snow, blowing snow, stiff winds, 2ft of snow over no perceptible trail. The headlight beam petered out in a haze of white, though I had a strong sense of vasty deeps in the windy dark. 

Chickened out (prudence is the name I'd prefer), crawled back into the woods for shelter and waited for daylight. Finally got to use that survival bivy sack I've been carrying for decades. By daylight another hunter had gone up and left footsteps. 

Further along there were fresh elk tracks. By now it was too late to spy on elk movements if any, in the shades of dawn.

I've never seen an elk during hunting season. So it seemed reasonable to drop the pack and follow these for an hour, until meeting my own footprints coming back around a tangle of deadfall. The elk like a manoeuvre termed the j-hook, circling back on their own tracks to check for followers. Clearly I'm not as smart as the average elk. Still don't know where he went after the hook, maybe was lying doggo in the deadfall.

Back through the pathless woods to the trail which disappeared again under blown snow at the ridge. Picked a drainage to follow which I believed would intersect the trail lower and luckily was right. I've done that before only to end up on a cliff with fine views but no way forward. 

Dropped the pack in camp spot and ran around the woods looking for signs of elk life. Plenty of old sign, no fresh tracks, no bedding areas, not much of anything. I'd have hiked back out if physically capable of it. Good country though. 

Spent the night in perfect silence with Mars glowing redly in the east, moving overhead as we turned toward dawn. Up at 5am to hike up a ridge and look for beasts in the early light. There was more deadfall navigation to the hilltop.

One view from the ridge of empty country,

and another, 

Nothing to be seen except another two hunters vivid in their hunting orange. Later there were two shots, booming into the silence of late fall in this high country. 

Walked the dark woods along the ridges and past potential bedding areas identified from topo maps and satellite pictures, nobody home. Scrambled up another peak in the evening to look around, country all quiet and still.

Out again in the morning, three and a half hours to do five miles and 2000 feet of elevation change. 

There was a day left in the season, but I had made no plans for hunting from the road. My strategy had always been to be fitter and stronger than the other guys, move fast and cover ground in the back country. I hadn't realized just how old I have grown. 

Gave up and drove down the hills, fished a bit at a lake on the way. Hoped for pike but found none in the surf.

On my last cast with a big white streamer, the Pfleuger reel chattered as something made a strong long run. Thought I'd found a good pike, until the trout leapt high over whitecap waves, a gout of spray disintegrating over the long curve of orange fly line bending downwind.

From Brautigan: 

 As a child when did I first hear about trout fishing in America?  
From whom? I guess it was a stepfather of mine.   
Summer of 1942.   
The old drunk told me about troutfishing. When he could talk,  
he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious
and intelligent metal.   
Silver is not a good adjective to describe what I felt when
he told me about trout fishing.   
I'd like to get it right.   
Maybe trout steel. Steel made from trout. The clear
snow-filled river acting as foundry and heat.   
Imagine Pittsburgh.   
A steel that comes from trout, used to make buildings,  
trains and tunnels.   
The Andrew Carnegie of Trout!

A small pretty brown out of the tailwater below the dam, then home. 

Kept and ate the big one, red as a salmon. This was the last dinner at home for the older son before he left for his first job. We ate the fish with gratitude and reverence.

Told the other son at college about my elk trip, cold dark snowy and tough. He said "so pretty good then". Of course he's right..

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

exercise in moderation

is what the cardiologist suggested. Usually in summer I like to do trail runs up to high mountain lakes and streams, fish a bit, then run back. She advised that climbing 2-3000ft up a mountain, with heart rate near max for several hours, does not qualify as moderate. Who knew ?

The last time I did that, figured I had probably another nine years. Turns out to be zero. Indulging myself in strenuous exercise has always been my drug of choice, never realized until now that it was an overindulgence like any other.

Ran a couple of times since the doctor advice, easy 3 miler around the park, which went fine except the bum left knee woke up from its slumbers and started paining again. Back on the bicycle it is, then.

Instead of the trail runs, decided on a backpack in to the high country. Theoretically this was mostly to scout an area for elk hunting. All my elk hunting is theoretical as they are hard to find come hunting season.  Packed in a Fenwick 75-5 with a nice lightweight Battenkill III reel, by way of solace in the moments when not failing to find elk sign. By concentrating and throwing things out, I was able to keep the pack under 30lbs, food water and all, which is a personal record of sorts.

Not quite at the trailhead, did not trust my 2wd on that road, instead parked in this pretty meadow/dispersed camping spot and walked the half mile.

This is me resisting temptation and not fishing the stream yet. I had miles to go and spots to scout. There was more water than expected, always happy to see the streams running well, though it does make crossings slower.

About six miles in after walking in from behind that far ridge. These burn areas are basically feedlots for the elk, growing full of elk chow. The fire was in 2002. Oddly there has been no new tree growth - no new pine or aspen yet.

The heart rate stayed down but the legs quit on me.. after about 8 miles the bum knee was complaining, heel bursitis had flared up, and the muscles didn't want to lift anything anymore, never mind me plus a 30lb backpack.

It's a sign ! at last, a sign !
Not sure what it means though.. 

The trail (on L of picture) was so faint I kept mistaking game trails for the route, winding up puzzled in the middle of deadfall and blowdowns. Since the fire the trees have been falling steadily producing these lush meadows crisscrossed with logs. I've watched elk delicately stepping through the pick-up-sticks but my legs are not long enough for that dance. 

By this time there were more elk hoofprints on the trail than bootprints or horse hoofs. Can you spot the elk in this picture ? 

Me either, but they are somewhere.  None of the spots up this trail panned out. There was a fine little campsite with evidence of someone's hunt success.

Back down to the stream, which has a nice meadow section here. There were rises going on among the weedbeds. It's very unusual to see this kind of weedy meadow section in the high country.

I waited until the trail went down to another crossing, where there were more rises. Oddly these fish were selective to the microcaddis hatch going on. They're supposed to be easy up here.. got a couple little brookies to about 9", fat and healthy, no pictures as they flopped off while I was trying to pose them.  I have some #18 Henryville caddis that usually work well for this, back home in the everything bag. #14 Goddard was the smallest in the bag today which was not good enough.

The plan was 13 miles and 2400ft ascent to camp on a trout lake at about 6pm, with time for a few casts. Camped instead on a fishless lake about 2 miles and 400ft of climbing short of goal. It was still a good camp.  And there was evening,

and there was morning,

Legs felt oddly good to knock off the two miles over to trout in 45min. The fish were rising..

and the views couldn't be beat.

Caught that handsome 13" in the picture on a beetle. Spent some time on a nice 16" that was ranging around fast and rising sporadically, further down the bank. First attempt left the beetle out there for several minutes, then as I moved it he was coming up and sheered off. Several other flies got refusals - he'd race up toward them then turn down with a dismissive flick of the tail. Still I had my entertainment. 

Quit and went looking for elk spots again. One of these looked really good. Not co-incidentally there was a big outfitter camp a mile away.

On the way down there was a tiny brook through a meadow. At the stream crossing there were half a dozen brookies in this little pool. Let them be, wondered about the lower reaches.

Another six miles out and dragging again, took a long slow time. A good walk though. Here the fireweed blooms in the old burn. That's also elk chow.

My  favorite thing to do in the truck is to sit on the tailgate and drink a cold beer, after a hike/canoe/backpack/fish. Did that.

Stopped by a roadside stream for a bit. Brawling little creek, tough going along the banks and the weedy rocks. There were fish everywhere. This 11" brookie,

a 10" rainbow, 

and a number smaller. This was the simple fishing I'd expected after the long walks, but here it was on the road. Oh well at least it was there, somewhere.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

on not catching cutthroat trout 2014

This started life as a post on The images vanished with time.
2014 is history now, so I remember the past in the hope of repeating it. As Max Beerbohm said, history doesn't repeat itself, historians repeat each other.

If not catching fish, might as well do it somewhere high and handsome..

5 miles hike into Rocky Mountain National Park, up from 8500ft to 10 000ft. On the way up we met an 83-year-old man turning around at the creek where the bridge had been washed out by last years' floods. He said he didn't want to take his old bones hopping across those rocks anymore, but he could still get up and down the trails, so he did. My role model for getting older.

Ken did get two cutts, here is one.

This is what we used to think was the native Colorado greenback cutthroat trout. Following DNA analysis, turns out to be just a subspecies of the Colorado River cutt, finely adapted to its life in the high country. See the article by Erin Block in the TU Trout magazine Fall 2014.

Ten years ago this lake and drainage was full of these beautiful cutts, 8-12" long on average, with the occasional 15" monster. We had not been up here in years and found the cutts have been outcompeted by the brook trout, which tend to overpopulate and get stunted in this environment. So we caught about 60 fish between us, 58 of them small brook trout 4-6", pretty little fish but not the outrageous beauty of the natives. I did not take any pictures of them, being haunted by the ghosts of the vanished cutthroat and too sad to photograph the meager brookies.

We spent a couple of hours bushwhacking down along the stream, in case the cutts were holding out in some remote pool or riffle. Here I am trying to look as inconspicuous as a tree.

Shortly after this I fell backwards into another tree and ripped my ancient Red Ball waders apart. That began a five year quest to find a pair of waders as good, detouring through a lot of cheap wet waders and damp feet, before culminating in $400 Simms. The Red Balls cost $20 and lasted over twenty years. I'm suspending judgement on the Simms until then, I should live so long. So far they've outperformed. That means staying dry - waders have one job. Apparently it's no longer possible to make dry waders at the sub-$400 price point.

All down the stream, nothing but shoals of desperate brook trout. 

Here's my Fibatube (Hardy) 3 1/2 weight, dragged off the dusty back shelf. This doesn't get much exercise in the mountain West, as I prefer a longer rod for the open streams and lakes and winds we usually encounter. However it's perfectly suited to the tree tunnels of the small high streams, had forgotten how it will happily cast nothing more than a tapered leader accurately and easily.

The original 6'1" was too short for me, so added a butt extension and built the handle over that, to make a 6'10" rod. The first time I took it out on a backpack trip in the Drakensberg, it ran into a big rainbow on one of the low lakes, a shock for all concerned. Next trip found a 19" brown in a tiny stream at dusk, after catching little rainbows all day - nearly fell flat on my back as the fish rushed off three pools upstream. The luck tapered off after that unfortunately. Still it catches fish to the full extent of its powers, hindered only by the fisherman.

Here's the brown, dead. Catch and kill in those days. Them's good eating. 

The reel is an Argus 56LT. At first thought it was a copy of the Orvis CFO, but after looking at the Abel in Ken's picture, maybe it's copying that ?  Either way it's a nice little reel, a good copy and well sized for a DT 4wt and some backing. It has a devilish small elbow spring in the retaining clip, which I lost twice and found once. Now it has an artisanal spring handmade from safety pin wire.

Five miles back out and down in the gloaming, to a fine burger and beer at Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons - highly recommended.

Next day we tried a big Wyoming river. On the drive in a big old moose crossed the road, stopped in the middle to glare at us, and took his time shambling across. This was supposed to be an easier hike, into the canyon from the plains,

Unfortunately we got a mite confused (as Dan'l Boone used to call getting lost) and wound up going up and down the canyon sides a couple of times, without benefit of trails. It was real pretty though, and we walked up on another moose resting in the shade on top. He was a young fellow, a fine glossy black beast, who looked at us in horror and ran off, all elbows and knees. Here we are about to clamber down the 500ft back to the river again.

The fishing was awful slow, so we slogged out and hiked in to a different creek further down the drainage. This is the first time in 15 years of fishing together that Ken and I didn't have good catching. Ken was grumbling that his good-luck charm (me) had stopped working, I grumbled right back that my WY guide (him) wasn't up to snuff anymore.. 

One nice brown in the new creek as consolation, and a smattering of smaller ones. Pretty anyway.

On the drive out there was a family group of moose (meeses ? mice ?), papa, mama, and baby, browsing next to the road. These were quite unperturbed by us but the light was low, so no good pictures. Here's a fuzzy pic of papa.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

high country 2019

The snows of yesteryear await the snows of September.

The last few years between family, work and etceteras, once a year in the high country is about the best I can do. Last year was October, this year I made it up early, in September. It took me some time to write it up, thinking slowly and moving even slower.

It was supposed to be a trail run on the way up. Between the rocks, steepness, and my getting old, there was much more walking than running. Expected 5 miles and a bit over an hour, turned out to be 6.5 miles (2500 ft climbing) and nearly two hours. Here's a brief runnable bit of trail.

I was puzzled by the presence of a couple of hefty guys in waders setting up on Betty lake as I arrived, stringing up fish (illegally). They did not sound or look like backpackers, and certainly didn't hike in ahead of me unless they started in the deepest dark. Alpacas ? Llamas ? dudes dropped off by horsepackers ?  Later research shows there is a 4wd road from Winter Park side up to Rollins pass, from where there is an easy mile downhill walk to get to Betty. Oh well I enjoyed it more with the sweat crusting on my shirt. Also, in terms of elapsed time from home, it's just as quick to run up, as drive around the mountains to sneak in from the backside, and way pleasanter than dealing with traffic.

Numbers of pretty little cutts like this, fast action but I couldn't hook them for some reason. I'd try to tighten on 15-20yds of line blown by the wind, and get a heap of flyline at my feet with only a distant swirl for entertainment. The rod is built on a cheap Chinese 4wt fiberglass blank, somehow always seem to pick it for these excursions. It's slower than I prefer but once I can relax, it will lay out long casts with minimal false casting. The 9' 3wt graphite would be a much better wind rod in these high lakes but not as much fun on the smaller fish.

As much of paradise as I expect to see.

Went up to the little stream between the lakes. It was full of fish, no easier but I like sneaking the little pools. Dropped the flies in there and he sailed out from under the bank.

Crawled up to the end of the trail, leaving the (relatively) easy lake.

Bob is a deep rocky lake, with not much evidence of life. One good fish cruising the shallows.


As I was catching this fish, four guys skied down from the Divide on that dirty patch of snow. One of them is standing just at the edge of the lower patch of snow in the picture. Saw them later and said it seemed like a lot of walking for a little skiing. They probably thought the same thing about my fishing.

Thunder rolled in and it was time to beat feet. Usually September in CO is calm, mild and reliably sunny through the day. Now we broke the weather, anything can happen.

Down to the little stream to see what lives there.

It always amazes me, even after many such experiences, to find the size of cutt that can grow up in these tiny creeks. I looked at this run and thought, 'no cover there, can't be a fish' then saw a slim brown shape working in the current. The hardest part of casting in these streams, is keeping the flies from hanging up on the bankside vegetation.

The first brook trout of the day was also the last fish, as I ran out of time.


I'd hoped to fish one of the bigger creeks below for its mix of little brooks and bows. By the time I got there we'd had a couple inches of rain and hail. The stream was running high and colored brown.  Also I was cold and wet and old, no longer up for gnawing the last thirty minutes of fishing out of the day.

Another year redeemed by a day outside. As Dead Horses sing,
I just wanna go where the soft wind blows
And the mountains are covered in the cloud shadows