The allure of the unknown pried me from my lunching location neatly tucked into the cozy confines of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. A day and half of eating out of a cooler left me longing for more. I set out to indulge in a celebratory meal in Montrose and potentially shoot the bull with a local fly shop to help determine my next plan of action. I had mixed emotions about this move as I could have just as easily taken a quick nap then continued my autopsy of the emerald green pools lying deep in the bowel of the Black Canyon. This would prove to be a pivotal moment in the evolution of my tour.
I gingerly progressed down the main drag accessing the situation. I dug deep into my memory banks to compare and contrast what had changed in the metropolis. To my mind this small town had sprawled just a wee bit since my last visit. I didn’t bother with an extensive tour, I went straight to the fly shops. As I located them, I was a bit caught off guard by the fly shop fistcuffs that ensued. Toads and CJ’s were conveniently located right next to each other. What’s a weary traveler to do? Toads appeared to cater to the more serious fly angler, while CJ’s was clearly a traditional bait store, but still contained a healthy dose of flies and accoutrements. I opted to give Toads the nod. What wasn’t readily apparent from the outside was that Toads was just as much of a nicknack housewares shop with a strong female vibe (sorry ladies) as it was fly shop. “No worries,” I thought to myself as I’m game for any retail situation.
I walked in expecting a khaki shirt wearing fella to quiz me down about my station in life, but to no avail. As a matter of fact I stood around for quite some time until I realized that the nicknack section was abuzz with ladies shopping their brains out, but the fly section was empty and unmanned. Your loss Toads. I left the store mumbling “WTF” and proceeded to take my business next door to CJ’s. As I walked in I was greeted with a healthy cache of conventional tackle and yarn. Not yarn in the steelhead sense, but sewing machines and shit. Yep, CJ’s is a strange mix of fishing and stitching. It mattered little to me as they had a surprisingly broad mix of goods and an absolute pro manning the register. I had an in depth exchange with Carl. He offered up an “atta boy” on my morning haul down in the canyon, and mentioned that most people have been avoiding the lower Gunnison due to the dirty water. I really didn’t need any flies, but bought some out of obligation nevertheless. He was a true throwback salesman, and succeeded in convincing me in trying my hand at the big Cutts that unnaturally inhabit the Pa-Co-Chu-Puk State park on the Uncompaghre River. This was a tough call. I typically do not like exploring overly HI sections, nor do I love the golf course like ease of peak summertime state park bliss, but I was smitten with notion of completing my 20inch slam in the first 24 hours.
The decision was made to head south and spend the evening on the Uncompaghre, but not before filling my stomach and my cooler. As I stepped out into the scorching heat and was drawn in by the graphically bold pizzeria across the street. I slinked into Colorado Boy Pizza looking exactly like the guy that had just slept in his car, but didn’t hesitate to order up a pie nevertheless. It felt good to inhale a sturdy round of wood-fired bliss as the thing disappeared faster than you can say ”dry-dropper.” After filling my stomach I decided to fall off the wagon by grabbing a cold sixer, to celebrate in camp later that evening.
The road to Pa-Co-Chu-Puk State park reintroduced me to my favorite peaks in Colorado. The San Juans probably aren’t the greatest fishing range in Colorado, but what they lack in prime trouting they more than make up for in scenery. Upon the first glimpse of Mt. Sneffels I practically kicked the Ford Focus into high gear and sped my way down the million dollar highway down to the gold medal section of the Animas in Durango. It’s one of the finest drives in all of the west, but deemed it foolhardy to head that far south. It was tough to stop short of the scenic stuff, but I still had fishing on the brain and hit the Billy Creek SWA section of the Uncompaghre. In short order I whipped up some nice looking Bows on a nymph rig, but didn’t deem any worthy of photographing. It was late afternoon at this point and the heat of the Western Slope was intense. I moseyed down to the state park tailwater, admittedly a little fearful of what I might find. Visions of golf course fishing and hoards of tourists danced in my head. The ranger at the entrance informed me that the campground was full, which threw a monkey wrench into my plan of warm campfires and cold beverages. I fished nevertheless. My evening was spent blanketing theme park with a variety of offerings. The good news is that I had the stream to myself as the Friday evening crowd must have been busy socializing. The bad news is that there were very few fish in the river willing to take chase. I brought a few nice fish to hand, and managed to roll two large Cutts, but couldn’t connect. I trudged back to the car mentally fatigued from the day and no place to sleep. I grabbed some dry clothes and wandered up to the campground bathroom to change. A large family in traditional Mormon dress gave me the stink eye as they circled around the parking lot on their cheap mountain bikes. It reminded me that I was perilously close to Utah, and that not everyone is accustomed to the man in the plastic pants. You have many wives, I have many flies. Why can’t we all just get along? Looking at myself in the mirror forced me to question what this was all about anyway? Through the haze of cliff bars, sweaty waders and stale car smell I decided to head north.
I was fatigued, but the fire still burned brightly from within. The choice to head towards the infamous Frying Pan was an easy one. The strategy was to drive until I got too tired, then find a place to camp for the night. As luck would not have it there was virtually no campgrounds along this almost 3 hour journey. If I thought the late night drop in on the Black Canyon was tough the night before, this was excruciating. By the time I reached McClure Pass I felt as if I was stuck in a game of Candyland or had inadvertently switched my water bottle with healthy dose of Purple Drank. The idea was to get the first shot of the morning at the overly-hyped Toilet Bowl. Like the Hog Trough from the day before these spots pretty much make up the Red Light District of Colorado, and that was the point. Every angler near and far has stuck their fly into these seams from time to time. I wanted to see some of the big reputation spots and a few of the nameless, faceless beats. I rolled into the parking lot at the Toilet Bowl just after 1:00 AM. (I didn’t bother to photograph the familiar pinkish rock formations of the Frying Pan valley at night, so these photos were shot during my escape plan the next day). Earlier in the day I had grandiose plans of enjoying a cold one in the San Juans after slaying some monster Cutts. As it turns out I rolled into the Frying Pan’s finest an absolute zombie. The eerily familiar alien abduction thing reared its ugly head, but for some reason this time it had a more earthly tone. I stepped outside to take a piss and just listened to dam consistently working its magic. Brief thoughts of a late night raid entered my mind in a predictable fashion, but I wisely decided to get a little intra car shut eye instead. Wild animal noises a plenty were heard on the perimeter of the lot with one mid-sized animal making a brief appearance, but I was no worse for the wear.
I awoke at the first glimmer of light, just as I had the morning before. Stepping out of my car and beginning my early morning ritual. I grabbed a quick donut while I put on my soggy waders. As I was tying my shoes, the vision of an SUV filled with bandits emerged from the unkept gravel road. It quickly parked, blocking my access to the much anticipated Toilet Bowl. I naively assumed that this was a first come first serve situation. Before I could grab my rod I saw three guys bolting towards the epicenter, while another disingenuously ran interference. Holy shit, these guys were professionals! By the time I arrived at the sweet spot of the Toilet Bowl, with my tidy whities around legs, they were pulling an unremarkable Brown Trout from the heart of “my” run on an array of Rapalas. I walked right up to the best spot and stood about 5 feet away from the nearest offender. I knew this spot was bullshit, but I wanted my half hour before I moved downstream to more natural locations. I arrived at 1:00 AM, and I wasn’t going to be cockblocked by a gang of chumbolones. After several minutes I hit the boiling point and verbally confronted the group. I was clearly outnumbered, but was surprised that they actually relented. They reluctantly hightailed it back to their chariot and chose to drive around to the far side of the bowl. If look closely at the pic above you’ll see them perpetually casting into the drink. Fortunately for them I have little patience for standing in the same spot casting ad nauseum. I rigged up a specialty deep running two nymph mysis rig and caught one of the smallest Browns in recent memory. I was too sour to capture the 6 inch beast on film, but enjoyed watching the trout cycle through the bowl nevertheless. My opponents across the way managed a few more 16″ Browns, just to show me who’s boss, but it mattered little as I was done with this three ring circus.
I wasn’t in the mood for combat fishing, and quite frankly I was running on fumes, but still interested in making a point. How could I not throw on a monster streamer and swing my way downstream through the flats? A ghost-like graybeard appeared at the bend pool as I eagerly anticipated my assault. It was an episode right out of Scooby Doo. I chose to bypass the prime hole out of fear and respect while I continued on my merry way. To my surprise, I hooked up with a handful of chunky Browns to about 16″, and the hits were aggressive. For some reason this 24 hour period is largely undocumented with pictorial reinforcements. Let’s just imagine this post with a bunch of typical handheld fish shots, shall we? After catching much larger fish on the Gunnison, the average inhabitants of the Upper Pan just didn’t float my boat. The water was gin clear and loaded with smallish Bows, none of which showed any interest in my meaty offering. At this point in my tour I noticed a distinct lack of insect activity. Outside of the Taylor I hadn’t seen many noteworthy risers. I found this odd given that I was fishing during the peak of summer. I chatted with few guides back at the car, who were appalled with my behavior. My giant streamer adorning 10lb. test was tantamount to gillnetting. It mattered little as I drove downstream to another put-in and picked up a few of the smallish Bows on the prototypical puny nymph rig. I grew bored with the task at hand, but the reality is that I had pushed things too far the night before, and I was paying the price.
I was disappointed with my morning on the Pan. Good, bad or otherwise, in its natural state it’s sort of the Kinnickinnic of Colorado, and I’ll just leave it at that. The mysis-infused tailwater frankenfish are much more accessible in the colder months, but I didn’t let the facts dissuade my efforts. Stumbling downstream to Basalt, I was The Walking Dead. Milling around the Frying Pan Anglers shop didn’t help me get my bearings. I asked the dude behind the counter if there were any good hatches recently. He proclaimed that there had been an unexplainable shortage of insect activity for reasons unknown. This enigma seems to be supported by a recent Moldy Chum post on the subject. I sat and just soaked up the sun in front of the shop. After decompressing for a few minutes, I decided a call to my kids was in order. It’s always a surreal experience when you get the reality check from back home. Mrs. Adrift said I sounded “tired,” and she was right. I texted this strangely low res iphone pic back to the Adrift headquarters. The exhaustion was written all over my pixelized face.
Once again I questioned what to do next. I should have checked into a swanky Aspen resort and spa, but that’s not how I roll. There is so much more of Colorado to explore. My unquenchable desire to investigate the unknown supersedes my physical ability to follow suit. Some may wonder why I choose to fish in such a pseudo no holds barred manor, and it’s a fair question. To be brutally honest it’s a personal thing. My father was stricken with Parkinson’s Disease at the rare age of 30 (see Michael J. Fox). Throughout my childhood I watched the people and things that were nearest to him be taken away, one by one. Until there was none. This process helped me realize that there’s no time like the present. Every season my knee hurts just a little bit more, the bushwhacking wipeouts carry more consequences, and I’m reminded of my own mortality. So fish it now, and fish it hard, ’cause you never know when it will be taken from you. Hit it like there’s no tomorrow.