All my bags are packed I’m ready to go. I’m standing here outside your door. I hate to lose my temper and say f-ing goodbye…
“I should be soaking in ice cold rocky mountain waters by now,” I reassured myself. Instead I stood in a hornet’s nest of malcontents where expletives and claims of highway robbery were commonplace. I couldn’t help but concentrate on the metal F-R-O-N-T-I-E-R letters adorned with low rent tinsel holiday decor. Does the airline actually think that a little sparkle makes a difference, and what’s the statute of limitations on corporate flair anyway? It’s like an episode of The Office. The pedestrian confines of Frontier’s lost baggage center at Denver International Airport isn’t exactly what I was looking for in my solo tour of the Centennial State. Perhaps the mistake was mine? I stupidly decided to bring an older two-piece rod which forced me to carry my longer travel tube, as opposed to the convenience of a shorter four-piece tube. I combed through Frontier’s policy regarding carry on’s which clearly stated that you can bring one personal item up to 49″ in length. I learned the hard way not to trust what you read on an airline website as they forced me to reluctantly check my rod tube, and have since changed the policy listed on their site.
I sat at the baggage claim for the better part of an hour waiting for my rod tube, as staff cycled through. Each one more miffed than the last at the loss of my most prized possession. The benefit of my early morning arrival was slowly evaporating. Eventually I was ushered to the lost baggage office to duke it out with the airlines representative mono y mono. A series of phone calls and radio conversations continued to attempt to decipher what happened between Minneapolis and Colorado. Eventually I was left alone in the office to stew in my misfortune, as all of the other angry travelers had been sent packing. The challenge in my case was that there was no forwarding address to deliver my rods to, as we both agreed it’s difficult to find a wandering angler on a backcountry tour. The opening salvo was an offer of $100 to cover the loss of my 3 fly rods. The airline has a policy of reimbursing for rental as opposed to replacement in this instance. One would think that this stipulation is more inline with skiing than fly fishing. I know first hand that long skinny objects can easily be lost in airplanes cargo holds, given that I had a similar battle with skis a few years back in Oregon. I strongly rebuffed their assertion that $100 was just compensation, and I began to plot a number in my head that would allow me to get on the water later that afternoon. For $350 I figured I could hit up a fly shop in route and pickup a cheap rod or two and be back in business. It was time to speak to the management as the customer service representative shuffled away into the abyss. As I sat fuming a baggage handler wandered into the office with my rod tube in tow. It turns out that it had been sitting in the cart the entire time, the staff had simply overlooked it many times over. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I exclaimed as I grabbed my rods and stormed out of the office en route to my rental car. I had no interest in even discussing it further with management as time was my most precious commodity.
I reacquainted myself with the Denver metro by grabbing some provisions in preparation for the next 4 days of fishing and eating. This was the last stop prior to making my run into the rockies. I had considered this trip for a few years, but hadn’t found the opportunity until now. Actually it was a father’s day gift from “the Mrs.” and the Adrifters. This escapade would be a departure from my last few visits out west. Typically it’s been more of a social affair. The fishing piece of the equation is only equally as important as the tomfoolery and skullduggery. I decided that I’d make it a more sober “fishcentric” tour. There would be no concrete plan, though I loosely plotted out a lap around the state. I would hit some shops on the way to gain a little intelligence, and hopefully a spot or two that I hadn’t considered given my midwest status.
I hightailed it out of my urban confines bemoaning the lost hours at DIA. I set my course in a southwesterly direction flying across South Park as fast as I could muster in my newly minted Ford Focus. I’d considered popping in on Antero or the Dream Stream, but quickly dismissed the notion as wasteful, given that it was the off season for lake run fish. As I drove through Buena Vista I decided some fly discussion was in order at Ark Anglers. This choice was a little like going to McDonald’s to order a Whopper, since I had no plans to fish the Arkansas River. As a matter of fact Braden, from Ark Anglers asked me why I was skipping the Arkansas. To which I replied, “I’ve got Rainbow on the brain,” and that, “the average-sized Browns that inhabit the stream are a dime a dozen on my home waters.” He seemed like a good guy who set me up with a few local patterns and sent me on my way.
A blast from the past was in order as I opted to scoot over Cottonwood Pass in route to the Taylor River. I hadn’t been to the Taylor in 20 years, and quite frankly I considered it “the scene of the crime” more than a great fishing destination. In college a buddy of mine suggested we do a little back country snowboarding near the infamous “Hog Trough” below the Taylor Dam. One section we rode was a great makeshift halfpipe but was “off limits” and strictly enforced. Our pea-sized brains didn’t conform to reason and we inevitably got citations for trespassing from the fuzz. The highlight was a courtroom appearance where upon sentencing the judge remarked to the bailiff, “I’m pretty sure I skied down that section of the Taylor Park when I was 18,” and subsequently let us off with a slap on the wrist.
It’s no secret that the Taylor C/R section is one of the best spots in the west for finicky, yet mammoth-sized Rainbows. The impetus for hitting the Taylor, beyond reopening old wounds and chasing monsters, was set in motion many years earlier. I was on a family fishing trip in Colorado as a wee lad. The vacation was going great as my brother and I had caught a reasonable number of typical Rainbows. To take a break from mountain camping we went into Montrose to visit some friends and attend the county fair. Like most fairs an impressive display of livestock and wildlife were featured for all to behold. I was transfixed by the tank that held giant Rainbows. I couldn’t quite comprehend the size of these fish. Were these fish actually the same species that so gracefully adorned the end of my line, or mutants from another planet? From that day forward I became interested in the pursuit of big Rainbows, but didn’t indulge with any regularity often due to the inadequacies of my home waters. On this trip I set the bar a little lower. I decided I’d try to see if I could muster a Rainbow, Cut and Brown above the 20″ mark and hopefully harass a few feisty Brook Trout if the mood should strike.
As I descended into Taylor Park I was greeted with the tell tale hum of ATV bliss. I knew that my first destination would be an exercise in civility as combat fishing is par for the course on the Upper Taylor. Angler traffic below the dam was at an expected clip as participants sucked up slop by jockeying for position in typical hog fashion. I hadn’t planned to fish in the Hog Trough, but I suited up anyway, like a 16-year old kid putting on a condom for his first time. It was fast, loose and full of anticipation. A closer inspection revealed a pack of anglers lining the main part of the run down to the “Avalanche Hole”, but nobody was plying the faster technical water downstream. The plan was to walk the bank, snap a few pics and just get a lay of the land since I was now in sight fishing mecca. Within a few minutes of walking, I’d had enough, I’m just too impatient by nature. I waded in the water and was immediately reminded how icy cold mountain streams are compared to their Midwestern brethren. It took me a few minutes, like it always does, to acclimate the the velocity of this high mountain tailwater game. In short order I spotted a fine looking Rainbow undulating in the relief behind a midstream boulder. This fish would fit the bill, as I had reassured myself that anything over the mythical 20″ mark would complete the journey. Further upstream I had spied a number of fish, mostly in the mid to upper teens range with one pushing 20, but looking like death warmed over due to incessant angler intervention.
I had an interesting conversation with Scott and Mike at the Fly Angler prior to my departure. I mentioned that I found it interesting that most tailwater hardcores in Colorado are obsessed with notion of tiny flies on tiny tippets. #20 flies and smaller on a maximum of 6x are the norm. And for good reason, you’ll fool more fish. The most telling piece of the equation in my mind is that you’ll see things like, “12 takes, 6 hookups, 4 break-offs and 2 fish landed,” in many trip reports. For me the “break-off” is more of an unfortunate and hopefully rare occurrence than a stat worth tracking. Scott offered a bit sage advice that got me thinking. It was something to the effect of, “when you travel to other places you can play their game or just do your own thing.” It’s the bucking conventional wisdom bit that I tend to gravitate to. In the context of the Taylor River I tied a treasure trove of micro Colorado patterns in preparation for this moment.
I decided to start the trip by playing “their game” by sight fishing micro nymphs on the dead drift. I spent the better part of an hour trying to get my fly down to the spot where this big Rainbow was clearly feeding. After great effort I finally got a take on a #20 Rainbow Warrior. I managed to move the beast away from the heavy flow near the boulder, but the merriment was short lived. The fish porpoised to the surface and shook the hook. Clearly I missed my opportunity to seal the deal. With my tail between my legs I walked upstream towards the bridge to access the situation. To my surprise the Avalanche Hole was devoid of anglers, and there were active risers to boot. I slid into the deep slower water and admired the massive number of fish loaded in the heavily traveled corner pool. I spied a variety of insects, including a Green Drake, but couldn’t quite get a handle on what they were keying on. I switched to a PMD dry with a Zebra Midge dropper. Probably not the wisest selection, but I immediately had a rise to the dry, but clearly was too atrophied to get a hookup. I worked towards the far bank where I managed a second hit, but also failed to seal the deal. I continued to work the hole for some time switching flies with regularity, but never really gaining any ground. The ice cold water began to take it’s toll as I actually began shivering in my breathable waders. It was hot outside, but this deep pool was doing a number on me. Eventually the evening crowd began to pack into mix. I finally managed a reasonable mid-teens Brown on an Elk Hair Caddis, but you could tell that these fish had seen it all. The monsters that made this place famous were on hiatus. Only two other guys I saw that evening caught a fish, and they were similar in size to my hog. I opted to pull up stakes and head back to the car to put on a pair of pants under my waders and grab a bite to eat. There’s a sucker born every minute. The allure of this place had sucked me in despite my best intentions to fish further downstream in a more traditional location.
Thoughts of running down to Gunnison to stir up old memories began to materialize. I decided to take one last stroll up to the dam swinging streamers on the way just for good measure. I surprisingly found the run devoid of anglers, as the sunset began to paint the canyon with a remarkable pinkish hue. It’s the first time I really took my brain off of cruise control and soaked in the surroundings. No more fish were brought to hand as I exchanged a few “what’s up bros” with a few boys from Cali. They were piling in the parking lot for a covert plan to subdue some monsters on their size #32 Micron Mysis. This is typically my kind of operation I relish, but something compelled me to move onto the next chapter of my saga.
I began to drive South out of the canyon. Road construction forced me to detour into the darkness on Jack’s cabin cutoff. It’s at this point that I really began to feel the full brunt of my travels. Navigating this small mountain road in the looming darkness was a challenge to say the least. By the time I reached Gunnison I was almost too tired to appreciate my homecoming. The dusty little town of Gunnison is one of those inbetween kind of places that dot the landscape in the Colorado Rockies. Whenever I mention to people that I attended Western State it’s almost always followed by a blank stare. I was too tired to do a grandiose tour, but I did go look at my old dorm and circle the campus to see how things had changed since my last visit. I considered grabbing a late night meal at a local eatery, but chose to tackle the next leg of my tour in preparation for a dawn raid on the crown jewel of my excursion. The wasted afternoon on the Hog Trough was eating away at my psyche, and I was determined to make amends.
I underestimated the challenge of late night mountain driving. This journey was never meant to be comfortable. It’s a style of travel that’s not for everyone. I actually enjoy the pain living out of the trunk of my car for a few days, it’s part of the allure. I think of it as car camping meets Easy Rider. Sure I cheated by skipping Nebraska by flying to Denver, but Colorado flights are just too cheap to not avoid Huskerland. I knew in advance that my nomadic ways would put many miles on the road, and that was the point. The plan was to make the run to the East Portal of the Black Canyon. I was too tired to photograph any portion of the trek, including the East Portal road itself, which is a breathtaking little jaunt east of the National Park. It’s full of killer vistas, sheer cliffs, hairpin turns and perpetual rock slides. None of which I could see as I blearily dropped in at midnight.
I’d been to the Black Canyon many times, but had never been down to the East Portal campground. Navigating this section of the “Gunny” in the middle of the night was the kind of experience that you can’t get sitting on your couch at home. I almost felt like an alien abduction was imminent. Even at night you’re struck with the claustrophobic feeling of being tucked into this scar in the earth’s crust. Eventually I was able to get my bearings and found the campground which was largely barren of other campers. There was only one other tent neatly positioned in the back of the campground. I decided to be respectful the the others by not dragging my tent out in the middle of the night. I simply parked my car, reclined the shockingly comfortable seat and closed my eyes.
There was no need to set an alarm clock. I let nature take it’s course. At the first glimmer of daylight I awoke and exited my tomb. I scanned the area and found myself perched at the waters edge. The river in this stretch alternates between deep emerald pools and faster shallower sections dotted with massive boulders. As it turns out my parking spot sat just above one of the deep pools. Upon first sight I was concerned with the lack of clarity. The river was running just above 600 cfs and I knew that heavy rains had wreaked havoc further upstream a few days earlier. The Cimmaron was spewing chocolate milk into the mix, but ultimately this played to my strengths. It’s always a double edged sword when you put on your damp waders the morning after fishing. It takes a second to acclimate discomfort of wearing a wet rubber suit, but the distraction is short lived as I turned my attention to the task at hand. I pulled my 8-weight from its tube and didn’t fuck around with complicated little nymph rigs. An 8-weight might seem like overkill to most, but I was going to swing heavily weighted 4 1/2″ T.B.E.s and wanted a rod that could cover from bank to bank on one comfortable swing. I hightailed it upstream to the diversion dam and began to work it like a full-time job. For some reason I was initially intimidated by the velocity and depth of the stream. I guess I’ve had too much tiny spring creek action lately, but was able to get past it in short order. After a few short strikes I was able to get on the board within a half hour or so. I picked up a gorgeous heavily spotted Brown and solid Rainbow, which felt pretty good after a slow evening on the Taylor. The real treat was that I had the entire stream to myself, most likely due to the subpar water conditions by traditional standings. This wouldn’t have been a good day to attempt micro nymphing, but a fine day indeed to play my game.
From most accounts the far bank can be inaccessible most of the time at the East Portal. Some diehards bring rafts to get to the other side. To my surprise I found a spot just downstream of the dam that I could tiptoe across without too much endangerment. I proceeded to get a few more misses that are commonplace in streamer fishing. For me it’s a batting average kind of technique, and on a good day you should eclipse the .500 mark. Not to be dissuaded, I fired another cast to a dandy looking edge seam. My line tightened as I felt the head shakes of a decent fish. I quickly saw the silver flash of a good Rainbow. Quite frankly it was a short and unremarkable fight as I netted the sardine shaped specimen. Payback’s a bitch, as I exclaimed “hell yeah,” and crossed the Bow off of my trip’s to do list. The fish taped out at the 21″ mark for those who are counting at home, and things were just beginning to heat up.
I continued to boulder my way downstream putting my fly into any available holding lie. The canyon in this section isn’t nearly as dramatic as further downstream, but you’ll still find yourself backcasting into some fairly steep cliffs and rock slides. At one point I snagged a branch and climbed up to untangle it when I noticed that I wasn’t the first to encounter this particular conundrum. I was struck with the contrast between my grossly oversized fly and the miniscule bead-headed nymph that someone else left behind. It illustrated to me yet again that there are many ways to skin the cat, and that’s what makes this such a great endeavor. I came upon the tailout of a pool that was flanked on both sizes by protruding rock formations. The run below these rocks looked phenomenal. Prior to casting into the heavier flow I somewhat haphazardly flipped my T.B.E. in front of the rock only a foot or two off of the bank. A fish emerged from the geologic undercut, but I didn’t hookup. I dapped the fly right back into the toilet-sized spot, and this time a big Brown emerged from the bowl. The second time is the charm as I managed to pull the beast out of his rocky confines and down into the heart of the run. I wonder how many anglers have walked right by this fish due to only fishing the driftable main part of the run? After a few minutes worth of tussle I netted the second big fish of the morning as the sun worked its way down the canyon wall.
I couldn’t decide which photo to post of this fish, so I just included them all. This post is already a mile long, a few redundant pics aren’t going to do too much damage are they? This Brown bested his pinkish cousin from minutes earlier by a good inch or two. These fish certainly don’t fall into the obese category, but I’ll just chalk up their torpedo like disposition to the angry flows of the Lower Gunnison. At this point I was in the groove and feeling really good about how the morning was shaping up. While these fish weren’t the real trophies I was after, I was satisfied with the results. Within an hour of fishing I was able to cross the Rainbow and Brown off my list.
I picked up a few more decent Browns, but didn’t bother to photograph them. At one point a swung my offering down into the tongue of a promising run and was stripping it back up the distinct current seam. About 15 feet from my rod tip an absolute whale emerged from the depths. He was a dark colored Brown that dwarfed the big fish I’d just caught. He charged the fly from behind and tried to murder my “Big Easy”. I prematurely ejaculated the lure from his mouth in amateur hour fashion. One has to put an awful lot of time on the water to get these kinds of bites, and even then they’re rare. If you throw big flies on big water that holds big fish, I guess you’re occasionally going to agitate a monster. For the second time this summer I missed the mark on a real trophy. It’s been the recurring theme in 2013, so by now I’m used to it and it didn’t rain on my parade. As the morning progressed I had one other sizable Rainbow swing and miss, but once the sun hit the water the bite shut down. I bypassed a few deep pools containing dink risers, and indicator nymphed a few runs, but it proved to be ineffective. My water bottle was running low and the heat was bearing down. I found a spot downstream that appeared to be crossable, but barely. I inched across at a snail’s pace trying to not do a Brad Pitt down the Gunny. I was only partially successful, as I took a dunk in the river nevertheless. It ended up being more refreshing than concerning once I got past the shock of the cold water running down my legs.
I hiked back upstream to my car having completed the majority of the East Portal loop. The river becomes largely inaccessible further downstream unless you’re up for some serious rock climbing and even then things can get a little hairy. I peeled my wet clothes off and made a makeshift clothesline in an attempt to dry out. I sat on the bumper of my car eating lunch and exchanging pleasantries with a fella from Tennessee who was spending the summer traversing the wild west. We said our goodbyes as I sat watching the river go by. It really was the first time 36 hours that I had stopped to take a breath. While the morning’s fishing wasn’t the greatest outing I’d ever had, it was very gratifying. Prior to my arrival in Colorado I’d considered spending the entire trip on the Gunnison. It is more than worthy of investigation as one of the great rivers of the west, and should be on every angler’s bucket list. I didn’t really know what to do. Should I stay or should I go? Should I fish the evening bite to see what I can muster? The fishaholic in me wanted another shot at the big fish. I was convinced that I could blow this thing wide open since conditions were perfect and not another angler in sight. It was the antithesis of the Taylor River experience from the night before. Solitude and big, willing fish. What more could I ask for?
I sat eating my apple, both content and unsure of where I was going or what I was doing. There was certainly a sense of gratitude that my parents drilled John Denver songs into my head on the Colorado trips of my youth. And a renewed sense of giving thanks that I left on a jet plane yet again.