Third-Rate Trout Streams

Third-Rate Trout Streams

It's always good to get home after a long road trip, but it sometimes takes a specific act of will to go home. That's why the drive back is so often passed

  • By: John Gierach
It's always good to get home after a long road trip, but it sometimes takes a specific act of will to go home. That's why the drive back is so often passed in the kind of anticlimactic silence that descends when there's simply nothing left to say. It's not that you could--or would--spend the rest of your days standing in cold water getting bitten by deer flies, it's just that the detritus of daily life has been piling up while you were gone, and by contrast fishing seems so, you know…uncomplicated.Doug Powell, Vince Zounek and I had been down in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado: a 10,000-square-mile landscape (bigger than Vermont) where ancient, erosion-resistant crystalline rock is uplifted to elevations up to 14,000 feet, a dozen rivers have at least some of their headwaters and where, as author Jeff Rennicke said, "horizons stack up like cord wood." We were on the first leg of a trip to scout some obscure mountain creeks following a haphazard collection of tips. Some of these came from dependable fishing friends and were solid gold. Suggestions from strangers involved a little more blind faith--especially when there was a long hike in the deal--but when you hear about the same creek in the same hushed tones from two or three fishermen, you begin to hope there's something to it. We were specifically looking for the kind of small creeks that many fishermen consider to be third rate and not worth the trouble. It's not that these things are never fished or that they're a sure bet and in fact some of them really aren't worth the trouble. It's just that they're ignored out of hand by some and the remaining fishing pressure is diluted by the sheer number of streams and the scale of the region, so there's still some good, overlooked fishing. When we'd put all our hints and rumors together on a map at home, they revealed a big loop south through the San Juans, followed by a wavy line back north along the West Slope, but beyond the logistics I'm not sure where the idea for this trip came from. (We talked a lot about where we'd go, but never about why.) I do know we all like small mountain streams for their peace, quiet and seclusion and for their homeliness set in drop-dead gorgeous surroun-dings. The countless feeder creeks in the Mountain West are like dogs: genetically identical and often nothing special, but still infinitely unique and lovable. And I, for one, have this idea that constant exposure to the ordinary is good for the soul. I have met some high-brow fishermen who bragged that they only fished at the best places with the best guides at the best times of year and who claimed to not only always catch fish, but to always catch lots of real big ones. If true, a life without drama must be awfully boring, and if false--as you have to suspect--then lugging around an ego that requires that much preening must be a terrible burden. In the end, the best fishermen I know have all finally developed a kind of professional polish without losing the hopeless goofiness of the beginner. You could say the same thing about fishing that they say about baseball: That it takes an adult to play the game well, but it takes a kid to think it's important. The plan was to stay the first few nights in the ski resort town of Telluride at a "pretty nice place" Doug had gotten an off-season comp on through the ski magazine he works for. I'd never been to this tourist town, but Doug had contacts there and it was smack in the middle of some of the streams we wanted to explore, so I figured it would be fine. I didn't think about it again until we pulled up to the portico of a place that looked a little like pictures I'd seen of Windsor Castle: The poshest hotel in a town that makes a fetish out of being posh. I assumed this was another one of Doug's dead-pan jokes--that we'd all have a good laugh and then drive a few blocks to a regular old motel--but the joke was, this was actually where we'd be staying. There were the briefest sidelong glances from the door man and the lady at the front desk, but Colorado is a blessedly casual place with no discernable dress code and in hotels of this caliber they don't care if you're an eccentric CEO, a minor character actor going native or just what you appear to be. The assumption is that if you're there, you must belong there. I naturally had some favorites among the creeks we fished over the next few days. There were no trails along the two forks of the stream with a Spanish name--always a promising sign--and they were both narrow and brush-choked enough that in most places we had to wade up the middle of the shallow channel, taking turns on the pools. On the east fork we got browns, rainbows and some brookies from fingerling-size up to 12 and 13 inches, plus one brown Doug got that we guessed at 16 inches. The occasional big fish from a little freestone stream is often old and worn out, with a skinny body and a big head, but this guy was as fat and sleek as a spring creek fish: a truly astonishing trout from a stream you can cross almost anywhere without getting in over your knees. Vince and I kidded Doug about taking so long to land the fish until we saw it, at which point things got quietly serious for a couple of minutes. We were traveling light and hadn't expected anything like this, so no one had a landing net. An old friend of Vince's took us to a stretch of the west fork, put us in at an unlikely-looking place we'd never have picked on our own, and pointed out the deep cliff pool where, earlier that year, well after sunset, he'd landed a trout he guessed at 20 inches long. "What was it?" I asked. "Brown? Cutthroat?" "Don't know," he replied, "Like I said, it was dark." This is the kind of authentic-sounding detail that marks a true fish story, an unusually skilled story teller or, in rare cases, both. We caught medium-sized cutthroats and brook trout until late afternoon when Vince's friend took us 10 miles down the drainage to a stretch of private water he had access to. It was on the same stream, but that far down the valley it was wider, deeper, more open and meandering and more what you think of as classic trout water. The guy had meant this as a treat for his old friend and his two partners and we appreciated it, but although we did OK, I was not so secretly pleased that the public stretch upstream had been better. We fished on into the evening when the air temperature finally dropped enough to put off the deer flies, which was a relief. They'd been bad for the last couple of days, and although you do get used to them, there are times when you can't help hating them deeply, both as a species and as individuals. Deer flies are insanely persistent, they bite like miniature wolverines and slathering yourself with bug dope has about the same effect on them as pouring syrup on a pancake. Their only advantage is that they're slow, so you can stop now and then and kill a few out of pure revenge. I wish I'd bothered to count the other fishermen we saw in these mountains so I could impress you with how few there were. (This area is world-famous among skiers, but although it's laced with hundreds of miles of pretty little trout streams, it doesn't seem to be a big destination for fly fishers.) The point is, we had every place we fished to ourselves. That's not just pleasant, but crucial in this kind of fishing, since anyone working up a small creek ahead of you will blow the fishing for anywhere from a few hours to the rest of the day. As it turned out, the fishing in most places was better than we'd hoped, although, as I said, we'd been handed most of this on what amounted to a silver platter, so we could really only congratulate ourselves on our ability to follow directions. But then one of the things you eventually learn as a fisherman is how to accept luck and generosity as if you deserved both. It was raining lightly when we got back to Windsor Castle one evening, so we put on rain slickers to walk the few blocks into town for dinner. We'd barely gotten to the end of the driveway when the concierge trotted up and said if we'd wait a minute, he'd have the limousine brought around to take us wherever we wanted to go. We said thanks, but no thanks; we'd rather walk. We were heading to a cheap sandwich shop we'd found where the nearly invisible working class hung out and arriving in a chauffeur-driven limo would have blown our populist cover. This was the same concierge who, when he learned we were fishing, offered to arrange for a guide. When Vince told him we were so good we didn't need a guide, he'd said, "Of course, sir." Was he joshing us back dryly or being obsequious? There was no way to tell. There was only one stream that we thought might have fished a little better on a different day. It was named for a nearby mineral deposit and flowed out of a dark canyon with sheer cliffs that seemed to lean in farther the longer you stared up at them, finally inducing something between vertigo and claustrophobia and making you look away. But we did manage to get a few rainbows and cutthroats and I realized that, although I'd lost a couple of flies and worn out a few others, I had essentially fished the same size 14 Elkhair Caddis for over a week. But my fondest memory is of a little creek named after its own water chemistry. By then we were several hundred road miles north and two mountain ranges away from the San Juans and at that point you reach in any trip where it's hard to tell if things are building to a climax or beginning to wind down. At the one-lane wooden bridge where it passed under a dirt road, the stream didn't look like much more than a trickle running through an impenetrable bog: the kind of thing most fishermen would glance at without even slowing down. We checked our directions again thinking we could be in the wrong place, but no, this had to be it. One of my oldest and most trusted friends had told us to try this and it was only the memory of his raised eyebrows and conspiratorial grin that kept us from shrugging and driving away. The story here was that this little creek was a happy accident of water chemistry hidden in plain sight. From its confluence with a larger stream on up to where a rich spring-fed creek poured in--not much more than half a mile--the improbably fertile water grew fish food by the ton and there were brown trout and a few rainbows that you'd be happy to catch anywhere, let alone from an obscure little creek that you need a detailed map just to find. Never mind exactly how big some of these trout were. We hardly believed it ourselves, so why would you? Lower down, around the first couple of bends, there were a few miniature clearings blanketed in cow parsnip and leafy aster, but the creek quickly went into a narrow lane of dense willow and river birch where the known world consisted solely of brush and water, fat, eager trout and 50,000 biting flies. There was an all too short stretch of what I think is the best small-stream water I've ever seen anywhere. Then we passed the confluence with the spring creek, which flowed out of private land. We peeked up it anyway. It was clear as glass and matted with duckweed and watercress, but from there on up, both forks of the creek were too small to be anything but nursery water for baby trout. This was clearly the end of it, but we slogged on up the main branch anyway. It was a continuous ankle-deep riffle and the brush grew together over the water to form a low ceiling. For the next few hundred yards, there was no holding water and no room to cast if there had been. By the time we gave up, we were all but crawling up the stream bed, the deer flies seemed downright giddy about finding fresh meat under such thin skin and the effort was finally beginning to seem pointless. On a trip where the whole idea was to go far enough, it was inevitable thaSporting Lifet we'd eventually go too far.