Deep Freezes and Desperation

Deep Freezes and Desperation

Colorado's winter trout

  • By: John Gierach
  • Photography by: Bob White

There can be dead spells in the sporting life. Sometimes they seem TO build from an innocent catastrophe that, in hindsight, looks like a precipitating event. For instance, I’ve just finished writing a book and am getting ready for a late-winter steelhead trip to the West Coast. I’m a little burned out and this is just what I need: a long stretch of time away from the desk, stepping and casting with a Spey rod. This isn’t mindless fishing as some claim (a friend who says it could be done just as well by a zombie is wrong), but it’s true that it doesn’t demand a lot of deep thinking.

But then the trip is abruptly cancelled. One partner has unexpected work conflicts and he owns the company, so can’t pawn them off. The other partner and I decide to go without him, but then he tries to move a gun safe by himself and detaches a tendon in his left bicep. He says he could hear it break as well as feel it. I imagine it sounding like a rubber band snapping inside a wet plastic bag. This after I ask if he needs help and he says, “Naw, I got it.”

I forgive him for wrecking the fishing trip the way you forgive a puppy that eats the couch because he doesn’t know he shouldn’t. This is a big guy who doesn’t know his own strength, and is also unclear about his limitations. Once while four-wheeling, I watched him jump out of the truck and try to move a Volkswagen-sized boulder that was blocking the road. It would have taken a backhoe to so much as budge this thing, even if it hadn’t been attached by the roots to the entire northern Rockies. But he was genuinely surprised that he couldn’t just roll it out of the way.

He has an operation to reattach the tendon and for the next six weeks can’t even use that arm to lift a coffee cup, let alone cast a Spey rod. I think about going on the trip by myself, but don’t have the heart for it. The biggest steelhead can come in the winter, but they come so seldom they can begin to seem nonexistent and the weather is always grim.

I try to picture the long fishless hours alone for day after day in the usual cold rain. It’s a romantic image, but it keeps going out of focus. I enjoy fishing by myself, but there are some sports—and winter steelheading is one of them—where you need a partner to help you cowboy up. Otherwise you can spend too much time in warm, dry cafés and motel rooms.

A cancelled fishing trip creates a specific vacuum that can’t be filled with just any old thing, so I make several day trips to a famous tailwater located two hours to the south of my home. Fishing reports from the fly shop down there are generically favorable, but lack the enthusiasm you hope for. On the other hand, a guide I know says he’s whacking them pretty good down around Long Scraggy some days. But those apparently aren’t the days I’m there. On my best afternoon I manage to land two small, confused-looking trout. One is hooked fairly in the mouth on a miniature Glo Bug variant known as a Nuclear Egg; the other is foul-hooked under a pectoral fin. I tell myself he went for my size 22 midge pupa and missed, but know in my heart that he’d been minding his own business when I inadvertently snagged him.

The small tailwater closer to home has stayed locked up with ice through the canyon longer than usual. It’s been a colder and wetter winter than normal. Not by a lot—just a few degrees and a few inches—but global climate change teaches us that it doesn’t take much to make a big difference and even friends who aren’t old and cranky are complaining about the hard winter.

Meanwhile up in the canyon, I’m reduced to teetering out on the shelf ice to dredge nymphs in the occasional slot of open water, but I keep wondering what I’ll do if the ice breaks loose with me standing on it. I’ve felt 34-degree water go down my waders and that vivid memory makes it hard to concentrate. Then the highway department closes the canyon road to work on bridges, and that’s that for a while. It’s almost a relief.

I check out a stream at a lower elevation that’s recently been stocked with a kind of hybrid rainbow that’s supposed to be resistant to whirling disease. I’ve been wondering if this is a good idea. The wild browns in there seem to have held up against this insidious foreign parasite fairly well, and although there aren’t a lot of them, I suspect there are as many as the stream’s modest biomass can support. Still, I’m curious. I fish a little brown fly I think they’ll take as a pellet of Trout Chow.

The fish are cute, baby rainbows with parr marks, and they’re all a uniform four inches long. Most can’t get a size 20 fly sideways in their little mouths and when one does, the trick is to set the hook without flipping him over your shoulder. I spot a few larger browns, but the eager babies always beat them to the fly. This gets old quickly. On the walk back to the truck I flush a blue heron that’s so full of these little stockers he can barely get airborne.

I drive over to the West Slope to check out another small tailwater, crossing a 13,000-foot pass with 15-mile-an-hour switchbacks near the top. The snow up there would be chest deep on an elk if the elk hadn’t all wisely migrated to lower altitudes to wait out winter. At that altitude it’s below freezing, the sky is a cloudless robin’s-egg blue and the snow is so bright I can hardly look at it. I’m the only vehicle up there that doesn’t have skis strapped to the roof.

On the west side of the pass I drive through one of those soulless ski towns with a solid business plan but no character or history, and then on down into the ranch country along the upper Colorado River. In a blue-collar café down there I get a cup of coffee that doesn’t cost seven dollars, doesn’t come with whipped cream and sprinkles and isn’t served by a blond girl named tifany.

I post-hole to the river through 18 inches of wet snow that make the level mile feel more like six miles uphill, envying the person who went in ahead of me leaving cross country ski tracks. The river is a pretty little thing sparsely bordered in cottonwood and juniper, meandering through steep snow banks like something out of Currier & Ives. I don’t carry a stream thermometer, but a finger stuck in the river begins to sting in four seconds, which puts the water temperature in the high 30s. I’m hoping for a midge hatch, but there are no telltale flies in the air and no rises or boils on the water. So I put together the standard Colorado winter rig—two small nymphs, a twist of weight and a chartreuse Thingamabobber—and go to work.

I run into four other fishermen that day. One says he landed two brown trout early and then nothing. The other three say they haven’t had a touch or even seen a fish all day. I say, “Yeah, me too.”

On the walk back to the pickup I cross the tracks of a large elk herd that passed through the previous night. There must have been close to a hundred animals. A wide swath of snow looks like it was rototilled and sprinkled with small black turds.

I had a granola bar and half a bottle of water for lunch, but that was hours ago and I’ve slogged through a lot of deep snow since then. Suddenly I’m ravenous for a medium-rare elk burger smothered in A.1. steak sauce. There’s still 15 pounds of elk burger left from last fall’s hunt, but it’s three hours away and frozen solid, so I’ll have to settle for a Big Mac.

This isn’t the worst slump I’ve ever had. This is just the slack that comes with marginal conditions and seasonal impatience. There’s something to be said for seeing your home water in all its moods instead of just when it’s at its best—it’s the difference between being a tourist and a resident—but the old insecurities kick in anyway. Is the fishing really slow or am I just going through the motions without benefit of inspiration? Should I keep plugging away or pack it in and do something else entirely, like cleaning out the garage? I assume this will pass because it always has, but for the time being it seems permanent.

Of course I pride myself on being a fishermen who’s not especially interested in competition—and not just because I usually lose. But then I’m also at large in the 21st Century when it’s hard to find a fishing magazine that doesn’t have the words “catch more” and “bigger” emblazoned on the cover. So where my father would have shrugged and said the fish aren’t bitin’ I now have to suspect that I’m not deploying the proper technology.

I call a contact out west to see how the steelheading has been. “Kind of slow,” he says, “and it’s been raining, but I’ve had a few hatchery fish and one bright hen about 10 pounds.”

I stop in to see my injured friend. He’s making progress, but he’s still in a cast and not too happy about being sidelined from the fishing. I tell him he hasn’t been missing much. He appreciates the sentiment and feels a little better but, like any fisherman, he secretly thinks that if he’d been there he’d have caught fish. He may be right.

The next day I stop to see a boat builder friend who tells me the ice up in the canyon has cleared and the road opened two days ago. There are flagmen and construction delays, but at least you can drive there now. The guy has been too busy making boats to go fishing himself, but he heard this first-hand through his extensive grapevine, so it’s reliable.

Driving up to the river the next morning, I remember a reviewer of sporting books saying you can work so hard at being a trout bum that your fishing becomes an example of the Puritan ethic you set out to escape in the first place. Well, maybe, but fishermen are single-minded enough to be immune to criticism. We rarely question what we’re doing, only how we’re doing it. I remind myself of a decades-old vow to disregard the opinions of reviewers whenever I feel like it.

Two miles down the canyon I’m stopped by a flagman in front of the still-closed-for-the-season Whispering Pine Motel. I sit there long enough to think about turning off the engine to save gas, but just as I’m reaching for the key he lets me through. I pull off at a good pool a hundred yards downstream of the roadwork to take a look at the water. There’s some old, dirty ice along the banks, but the river is completely open. It’s still at a low winter flow, so the long tail of the pool is glassy and I can clearly see trout rising.

I’m more excited than usual, but make a point of rigging up slowly, cinching the boots a little too tight to allow for the laces to stretch when they get wet; stringing the rod with the fly line bent double so if I drop it, it will catch in a guide and not all snake out on the ground; stretching the memory coils out of the leader and checking it for wind knots. All the same things and always in the same order in the belief that if I get the beginning right, the part that comes next might go more smoothly.

The trout are rising to midges, so I tie on a local favorite midge pattern—size 22, black—and start in the slack water in the tail of the pool. This is a cloudy but bright morning with the kind of diffuse light that at one angle makes water so transparent it’s like it isn’t even there and at another turns the river to a sheet of pewter.

In the smooth tail of the pool where I can see them clearly, I hook two small browns at the end of long, slow drifts, and spook another fish I didn’t see with one of my casts. Several other trout inspect the fly but aren’t convinced. I hang an unweighted midge pupa off the dry fly on an 18-inch dropper, squeeze it wet and catch one of the fish that didn’t like the floating fly.

Then I work a few casts into the faster current where I can see rises but can’t spot the fish. I miss one strike and then hook a bigger rainbow. He takes a little line and comes in stubbornly. He’s not all that much longer, but he’s muscular and has a deep, hard belly, a thickly spotted deep-green back and a brilliant reddish-orange lateral stripe. This river had a slump of its own years ago after a terrible flash flood, but it’s come back nicely and now has a reputation for real pretty trout and lots of them. They’re wild, catch-and-release fish and no pushovers, but they’re feeding heavily now, so they’re at a disadvantage. Robert Traver once said, “Funny thing, I become a hell of a good fisherman when the trout decide to commit suicide.”

My next strike is a heavier fish. It’s a longer cast up into bumpy, chrome-colored water where I can’t see the little dark fly, so I slap the water to see where it lands and then follow the drift. When I see a dark snout come up where I think the fly should be, I wait the exact half-second it takes for the fish to take and turn and then set just hard enough to break the 7X tippet. I try to think of a way that this isn’t my fault, but can’t come up with anything.

I re-rig and catch several more trout before the hatch goes off. While I’m playing what turns out to be the last fish, a car passing on the road behind me honks. I wave over a shoulder without looking, wondering if it’s someone I know, or just a strange fisherman with a generous heart.

I’m feeling pretty cocky now, and remind myself that fishing isn’t so much the art of making things happen as it is the art of being there when things happen all by themselves.

I think about rigging up some nymphs and working the deep water, but I don’t really need any more fish and feel like quitting on a high note. At this point I begin to hear the backup horn on a road grader upstream. It’s probably been there all along, but this is the first time in almost three hours that I’ve noticed it.

At the head of the canyon I go past the shortcut over to the road home and drive on into town. I stop for a cup of coffee to go and then walk over to say hello to Steve at the fly shop. I’m hoping he’ll ask how I did this morning.

John Gierach has written FR&R’s Sporting Life column since 1992. His latest book is No Shortage of Good Days.