I’m intentionally leaking fishing content at a snails pace at this point. This approach allows us to live vicariously through my summertime exploits. Let’s pick up where we left off last time folks. Rode hard, and put away wet. Adrift in the cold, hard world of multi-million dollar mountain properties. Fortunately my exhaustion didn’t prevent me from leaving my she she surroundings in the greater Aspen area. When I inquired about less pressured alternatives to the Frying Pan and Roaring Fork, the guides I chatted with earlier suggested I give Maroon Creek a shot. It was tempting to run up to the campground for an evening of better scenery and feisty, easy fishin’ dinks. I had already bypassed the Crystal River on my late night long haul the night before. But I chose another path. Reluctantly, I began to turn towards the front range and plot my course back to civilization and the increased density of the I-70 corridor.
My first stop on the long road home was an unremarkable sliver of the mighty Colorado River in New Castle. This scrubby little stretch of town isn’t exactly a full on desert oasis, but had an eery Breaking Bad vibe to it. The Colorado had a distinct Ovaltine tinge to it, but I figured I’d do a quick flyby to see if I could connect. I slinked into the drink at a small park adjacent to a densely populated set of townhouses, and worked my way down to a large bridge. It was a refreshing change of pace to cast far and wide on such a large river. Too bad my personal Manifest Destiny wasn’t destined for much of anything, as I struck out on the big murky water. I probably didn’t spend more than an hour the section before the mid-nineties temps began to boil me in my waders.
I wasn’t particularly surprised that I had struck out. This water was big and ugly and I could only dissect a few edge seams and mediocre looking eddies. After the hike back I removed myself from my sweat soaked casing, I rolled onto the freeway with a new mission in mind. Before I could get the Ford Focus into hyperdrive, I found myself magnetically drawn to a familiar collection of ubiquitous delicacies. Yep, the poorly redesigned DQ logo drew me in like a plump crawler in a deep run. It’s as if I’d never seen ice cream before. The downside was that this was the most raucous Dairy Queen I’d ever seen. I swear every youth church group west of the continental divide had just finished whitewater rafting the Colorado. The bathroom looked like a dormitory lavatory on homecoming weekend. I sucked down a new look brazier burger and a dipped cone in short order. This wasn’t exactly the return to civilization that I was after. But beggars can’t be choosers, as I wiped the grease from my mouth and waddled back to my car.
Vail? Yes, Vail. Ever think to fish it? Me neither. I sort of stumbled upon the notion of hitting Vail in the weeks leading up to my trip. Anyone with half a brain would ignore the large stretches of the water along I-70. There’s certainly better, unpopulated and scenic areas of the state to explore. But for some reason I wanted to bust straight up the gut, and see where your average Denver angler could fish right off the freeway. This is definitely one of my idiosyncrasies. Most anglers like to get away from it all in pristine wilderness locations, and I’m certainly not immune to that disease. I don’t discriminate, I like it all, and any astute student of Adrift would know that.
I’ve proclaimed to the Mrs. on a number of occasions that I’m the world’s worst Facebook’r (my apologies, if we are FB “friends”). That statement is filled with a bit of irony, given that I develop online strategies for clients in my spare time when I’m not fishing. We all know those who are above the fray. Standing at parties, proudly proclaiming their independence from novelties such as Facebook, but really just showing their obstinance. I admire their zeal. I tend to be more of a moderate when it comes to social media. Participating, but not particularly involved, just like a junior high dance. Yes, I am a social media wallflower.
In this instance I had the audacity to reach out to some friends from the past via FB. I knew this father/son duo pretty well in high school, but had lost touch over the years. They’ve wisely moved from the corn fields of Eastern Iowa to the front range of Colorado. Actually the last time I saw the son he was passed out on my dorm room floor in college (good times). I’d noticed a few fly fishing related posts on FB and decided to reach out, which is a rare move for me, as I often chose to leave the past in the past. I didn’t have specific intentions, but thought they may be able to lend some local intell to my tour. While it didn’t work out to actually fish together, my friend replied back and mentioned that he’d guided the Vail Valley in previous years. It was this comment that encouraged me to research the Eagle River and more specifically the gold medal stretch of Gore Creek.
I drove along I-70 leading into the Vail area, and had a good vantage point to size up the Eagle River. As far as the eye could see anglers filled every nook and cranny of its trouty lies. This is the downside of Colorado’s stream access laws. The landowner owns the river bottom, so it forces the average angler into a finite number of public access points. I knew well in advance that crowds might be an issue as I made my way closer to Denver, and I had no plan to dip into the Eagle anyway as I went straight towards the big fish potential of Gore Creek.
Upon arrival in Beaver Creek, I was greeted with the puzzling maze of mountain side roads that accompany ski resorts. I plugged a few different fly shops into my iphone, but couldn’t get google maps to cooperate. At one point it sent me to a parking lot in the section of Vail that was clearly the “wrong side of the tracks.” It was interesting to see the 70′s and 80′s era condos that were clearly yesterday’s news. Vail, like many of it’s upscale brethren, now boasts a plentiful cache of fake castles. Yep, like your local mall, there’s been a facelift of architecture that attempts to convince you that you’re hobnobbing in the finest of ancient Swiss chateaus. Beyond my normal snarkiness, the reason I’m critical of Vail’s layout was my inability to find parking and and adequate access to the local fly shops (or the creek for that matter). I drove around for some time in my burnt out state missing the nuances that would grant me access. Finally I just pulled into a streamside hotel parking lot and pretended to be a guest (a wader-wearing guest). I left the concrete confines and waded into Gore Creek with a stern warning in the back of my mind. Several Coloradans forewarned of its small and technical nature. After an hour on the water I took that to simply mean “small.” Dear Colorado local, “you’re welcome to come fish any of our tiny midwest ‘technical’ spring creeks in late summer.” Then I welcome a reassessment of your beloved Gore Creek. Sincerely, Mr. Adrift. The fishing was footloose and fancy free, compared to recent exploits. I started things off with a dry-dropper, but eventually removed the dropper altogether, ’cause they’d crush my stimulator with reckless abandon. I didn’t last long on the “gold medal” section at the hotel. I picked up a few average fish, but none of the bigger fish made their presence known. Before long I stumbled on a clearly marked piece of private property and cut my losses.
Having learned my lesson from the night before on the Uncompaghre, I decided I’d look for shelter early this evening. I drove east of Vail to find a campsite at the Gore Creek campground on the less heralded section upstream. The fishing gods smiled upon me and I got one of the last two available sites. I quickly set up my tent, unpacked some provisions for the first time on the trip, and rolled back to town for an evening session. This time I opted to hit the public section via the park in Vail. The skies began to open up to a light drizzle, as this thing was looking a little more like the Pacific Northwest than the Rockies. The good people of Vail were kind enough to provide a score to this segment of my film. As luck would have it, the New York Philharmonic was throwing down some mean riffs in the amphitheater nearby. I was like John Rambo stealthily assaulting the steep streamside ravine in full rain gear, seeking vengeance on the fish that had wronged me. It was a surreal evening of rain, music and trout, and I didn’t see another soul. The reports of this stretch said you’d have a good shot at the slam of smallish Browns, Brooks, Cutts and Bows, and it held true to form. Getting the fish to readily rise to monster-sized attractors on my 4-weight was welcome respite from the previous nights.
I covered a mile or two of water before calling it quits. The idea of a warm, dry tent was growing on me. Stretching your legs out in a horizontal fashion was very appealing, I just didn’t have it in me to spend another evening of sleeping “diagonally.” The fact of the matter is that sleep deprivation was in full effect. I needed to get a decent night’s sleep to prepare for my last full day of fishing. I drove back to the campground, put my provisions in the bear box, and beelined for my tent. Logs were being sawed in a matter of minutes.
I awoke the next morning before dawn, and easily unlocked myself from the warm confines of my sleeping bag. With the efficiency of a skilled surgeon, I broke down camp with only a headlamp to show me the way. In short order I was en route to my next fishing destination. The Blue River in Silverthorne may be the most notorious of the Colorado tailwater “cathouses.” Tucked neatly into a sprawling city-state of crappy outlet stores, the Blue is home to a good number of planted Rainbow Trout. I pulled into the parking lot desperately low on caffeine. Like my DQ binge from the day before, I generously applied the “when in Rome” mantra. I walked into the McDonalds fully decked out with everything except for my rod. I often do this just to watch the people stare at my ridiculous attire. It’s a strategy that I’ve adopted from the good men and women serving in our armed forces. You regularly see them wearing their combat fatigues while dining (even though there is very little combat to be found at most roadside eateries). If it’s good enough for the military, it’s good enough for me. I grabbed my fake coffee shop beverage in full trout battledress and moseyed on down to the river. My plan was to arrive early, before the husbands of shopping wives dotted the stream like a string of Christmas tree lights. It worked to a tee, as I had the place all to myself. The water was low and gin clear. I decided to start small by tying up a Parchute Adams as a strike indicator, while dropping a #20 RS2. I spotted a few decent Rainbows that were easily accessible. They would not be fooled with my poorly tied offerings. I cycled through a handful of droppers, watching each fly be inspected and ultimately rebuffed by the wily Bows. Sulking in my inability to fool these heavily traveled salmonids, I carefully walked downstream to find a new hole. A good-sized school was hunkered down in the interstate overpass pool, but they looked rough. This place reminded me of a pet store aquarium, only these fish had seen there fair share of snaggers, and lustful fly rodders. I placed a cast to the top of the pool and was shocked that a Bow aggressively rose to take the Adams from the surface. I snapped a few pics and sent it back to be harassed by others. I fished for another half hour, but couldn’t get any of the larger fish to cooperate. As much as I enjoy shopping mall angling I had only planned for a quickie. It’s not uncommon for my mind to wander to the next conquest before I’ve even finished the task at hand.
What happened next was completely unexpected, and quite frankly one the most enjoyable conquests in quite some time. There’s nothing more that fly fisherman love than rehashing a little bit of cookie cutter wisdom. This sport is fraught with more “Deep Thoughts” than is actually warranted. We’re only chasing fish with fake bugs folks. Not exactly authoring the Constitution, or putting man on the moon. One bit that is espoused with some regularity is in regards to angler evolution. It goes something like this. An angler starts out in the sport by trying to catch the most fish. Stage two of addiction is when the angler attempts to catch the biggest fish. Finally the highest rung on the ladder is the angler who is no longer is simply satisfied with catching numbers, or big fish, but seeks out the hardest, or most challenging fish. According this bullshit cliche I’ve clearly earned the “old guy” merit badge, and this fish is a testament to that cruel reality.
As I walked up the steps to the parking lot. I debated if I should hit United Colors of Benetton for a new polo shirt, or continue my fishing saga? Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a small tributary to the Blue that ran right into the strip mall melee. I’m not sure what force caused me to investigate further, since the creek was a max of 10 feet wide and only 6 inches deep in most parts. Upon further review I noticed that there was a somewhat hidden plunge pool under a roadside walking bridge that harbored a few really nice Rainbows. The hidden gems appeared to be largely unmolested by the daily grind of tourists. The challenge was to get a cast or drift into the tiny pool. It was flanked on both sides by overhanging bushes and a small rocky outcropping that formed a small protective undercut. This is the kind of challenge that I relish. I started by attempting to get a small flip cast into the run from the near side (the spot where I took the pictures above). It proved to be an exercise in futility as I just couldn’t get a fly to the far side. I changed plans and walked around to the other side, thinking I could dap and jig a streamer into the pool. I tied on a small #10 tungsten white and pink Maribou jig that had been sitting around in my box for a year or so. I tied it as a small, compact baitfish pattern that would plummet to the bottom in a hurry. I crawled on my hands and knees and peeked over the rocky bank. The pod of Bows was about 3 or 4 feet below my face downstream and the overhanging bush gave me no leeway jig my rod. I devised a radical plan to hold my rod in one hand and jig my flyline in the other, in sort of a hillbilly handfishin’ technique. I was laying on my stomach in the mud trying to peek over the ledge without spooking the fish. I was hoping to get my fly in front the biggest brute in the bunch. After 10 or 15 seconds of agitation, the beast grabbed my fly and made a dash for cover. Pandemonium broke loose as I had the fish on, but could only apply pressure via handlining. I was hoping to transfer the fish to fight it fully on my rod, but the tight quarters just didn’t allow for it. I decided to simply log roll into the creek with my net in one hand and my flyline in the other. If only I had set up a camera to capture this crazy stunt on video. After another minute of chaotic battle, I slipped the fish into my net. If you inspect the photo above carefully you’ll see my rod still sitting on the bank with the flyline tangled on the rocks and into the pool. Unorthodox close quarters approaches are one of my favorites. But this epsisode wasn’t about catching the most fish, the biggest fish, or the most challenging fish. It’s about catching the most numbers of challenging, big fish you can. Or perhaps it wasn’t about the fish at all ;)
Things certainly started out on a positive note by bringing in a solid chunk in a surprising way. I even chose to double down on my McCafe before escaping the evil clutches of strip mall fishing. I moved on to the next task at hand. A little birdie mentioned that Clear Creek just above the historic toursit town of Georgetown had the potential to produce big Brook trout. I hadn’t yet chased Brook trout in earnest, since Coloradans practically consider it an invasive species. This would be a portion of my trip where I deviated from the standard playbook. Clear Creek doesn’t seem to come up as a worthy destination in most fly fishing sources, but I didn’t let that dissuade me from investigating it’s rocky reaches. The small ribbon of intense whitewater is stuck in a steep canyon just below the historic Railroad bridge. I must confess that it was a little intimidating dropping in on such a steep and intensely flowing bit of water. Finding the holding lies was the first order of business. In short order a beautiful little Bow grabbed my stimulator and shot down into the whitewater. A fun battle on my little rod. I worked my way upstream, climbing up a dizzying array of slippery stair steps, with little to show for my efforts. Finally, I reached the portion where tourists lined the stream, busily snapping pics for their Facebook pages and photo albums. This stretch was largely a bust, but a unique challenge nevertheless.
The reason I came to the Georgetown area was to run up Guanella Pass and get into some high elevation exploits, before heading back home. I planned to fish Duck Lake just beyond the summit in search of native Greenback Cutthroats. As I arrived at the beautiful roadside lake I was greeted with the message that no angler likes to see. The perimeter was clearly marked with “No Trespassing” signs and the driveway to the lake reinforced with a healthy dose of “Private Property.” Hmmm, a half hour drive up the pass and no water to fish.
Fortunately I conceived a Plan B. I marked Silver Dollar Lake on my map as the backup plan. It was about a 3-mile trek from the main highway up to 12,400 feet. This lake receives a some pressure. But the odd half dozen anglers a day that make the hike is light compared to more prime front range destinations. In the first half mile of the ascent I chatted with an elderly gentleman who was on his way down from the lake. He was catching his breath from the journey. I inquired about the conditions up above, to which he replied, “the relentless wind didn’t allow me to successfully fish with my Tenkara.” I wondered about the effectiveness of a Tenkara on this high mountain lake under any conditions, but I didn’t broach the subject. I continued my way up to my rocky mountain high. It took me awhile to acclimate to high altitude hiking, but I fared okay given that I’d been running a fair amount of miles back home. I bypassed the lower elevation lake, since I was warned that it is private property. After another hour of hiking I arrived near the summit. A chilly blast of cold air shot off the mountain ridge and smacked me in the face, reminding me who was boss. I scanned the area, and noted a blue dot on the far side of the lake. I couldn’t tell for sure but the telltale rhythm seemed to be indicative of a fly fisherman. I waded a short flat towards the west side of the lake, throwing a garden variety black woolly bugger, just to acquaint myself with the lake. As I worked my way around the chilly blast turned into a full force gale of sleet and snow. I couldn’t help but think of Norman Rockwell and his Tenkara back at basecamp under these conditions. As luck would have it, I packed my 8-weight for this leg of the journey. I was in search of big Cutts and I wanted to be able to fire off long distance dedications at will. Fortunately the precipitation was short lived as the storm cleared out and the air temps began to rise to more temperate conditions. The blue dot from the far side of the lake had come around to my side and leapfrogged me on the trail. I gave the gentleman a hearty, “how do you do?” But received no reply. He clearly was in the zone and had little time for exchanging pleasantries. Over the next couple of hours we were partners in pursuit as we both worked the west side of the lake. Me with my water bottles and Powerbars, he with his steady stream of cigs. I wondered how difficult the hike must have been for a middle-aged chain-smoking fly rodder? As it turns out my burner buddy and I couldn’t seal the deal. You could see about 10 feet down in the crystal clear waters. There was a steady stream of fish cycling through the area, but it was virtually impossible to get any interest from them. At one point I had a really nice Cutt put on the brakes and beeline for my Black Beauty. It’s nose got within two inches of my fly before making a jarring last minute rebuff. I had a similar experience on a damselfly pattern. For whatever reason I just couldn’t get the fish to commit. Streamers, terrestrials, nymphs and dries, I emptied my box trying to unlock the mystery. At one point I watched a 23″caliber Cutt make an abrupt turn towards an invisible insect and blast out of the water to take the enigma. I’ll just end this chapter by admitting defeat. My high mountain game is atrophied to say the least. I had a hard time walking away from this challenge, since I’m a sore loser, but I had to extract myself with plenty of time before dusk. The long journey back down gave me plenty of time to digest my shortcomings.
It was time to freestyle. My time was running out and I was determined to squeeze whatever juice was left in my trip. I spied some reasonable looking beaver dams when I was looking for the Silver Dollar Lake trailhead. Nothing cures a fishing funk like a few eager Brookies. I hiked through a meadow that looked like black bear central. It was the kind of place that was made for human/bear interactions, but I tried to put those thoughts out of my mind. I returned to the ease of a big bushy attractor pattern, and began to work my magic. Sure enough in the first run I connected with a micro-sized beauty. I spent the better part of an hour foolin’ char as the sun began to dip low on the horizon. You would think after days and many hours of plying a dizzying array of water that I’d be too spent to march forward, but that just wasn’t the case.
I drove down to Georgetown and considered where the hell I was going to spend the night. I had no accommodations and I needed to be back to the airport by 9:30AM. As I contemplated my next move, I noticed that Clear Creek ran right through town. I was somewhat befuddled by the fast section a few miles upstream earlier, but the beat behind the gas station was a more manageable situation. I grabbed my rod and launched a few gas station lot loops. Sure enough, a tiny Brown grabbed my fly and I rejoiced in delight. I decided to walk my way through town and see what it had to offer. Colorado smiled upon me as I racked up good numbers of Browns, and Bows. Once again there was no hatch to match, but it mattered little as this was an easy evening of fishin’.
I returned to the gas station and wished I had another day to fish. No matter how long I’m away on a fishing trip, I always want “just one more day” to see what’s behind door number 3. I just don’t feel full. No one likes a lunch buffet more than me. Let’s call a spade a spade. We’re an overweight nation indulging in a mind numbing array of mile long buffet lines. Fishing, like eating, is a worthy adversary and Colorado definitely fits the bill. From grand rivers, to small mountain hideaways there’s a little bit of everything for everyone. So don’t hesitate, the Rocky Mountains are an all you can eat proposition.