The Lease

The lure and limits of private land.

Brook Trout
In Colorado, high-country brook-trout streams are rarely far away. Illustration by Bob White / bobwhite studio.com
By John Gierach
Some friends and I lease a quarter-mile of a mountain trout stream that runs across a willow-choked basin at 8,500 feet. It’s not quite flat enough to be called a meadow stretch, but it’s flatter, wider and more meandering than the steep water in the canyons above and below, and the view of the Continental Divide to the west is as corny as a stage set. The property is owned by a rustically fancy lodge that’s been in business continually for more than a hundred years. This place has been through several incarnations in that time, but it’s now an “events center” that makes its nut in the summer by hosting outdoor weddings with a 14,000-foot mountain as a backdrop.

The stream was leased for a few years by a local outfitter who guided there. In its natural state this water produces feral brown and brook trout not much longer than about 10 inches, but every spring the guy would dump in some big, fat hatchery rainbows for the clients. To his credit, he never actually claimed that these were “wild Rocky Mountain trout,” but he’d fess up only if asked, leaving the uninquisitive free to think whatever made them happy.

“If you were with an out-of-town guest, you could hook the biggest trout yourself while still appearing to generously give up the best water. If you were that kind of friend, that is.”

Then one year the outfitter dropped the lease, and my friend Doug took it over for a token fee that was about what it was worth as a trout stream but far less than they probably could have gotten for it. That’s because the woman who runs the lodge doesn’t care about the fishing one way or the other and would probably just let people fish through if it weren’t for the weddings. These are momentous occasions fraught with nerves and emotion by nature, and the picture-book setting has plenty of built-in drama of its own. At that elevation howling wind can come up suddenly—playing hell with hairdos and flower arrangements—and mountain storms can pounce in the time it takes to ask, “Was that thunder?” For that matter, it wouldn’t be impossible for an oblivious moose or curios bear to crash the ceremony, although I’ve never heard of that happening. Given those risks, the last thing you want is for the proceedings to be marred by something preventable, like a fisherman yelling, “Fuck!” when he misses a strike or being discovered by the mother of the bride as he’s peeing in the bushes.
So our deal is that we get the place cheap in return for keeping it posted. (There was a time when this could have been done with a handshake, but now everyone seems more comfortable when money changes hands.) Beyond that, we can fish it whenever we want as long as we never allow ourselves to be seen or heard by a member of a wedding party. It goes without saying that the short high-country fishing and wedding seasons coincide almost exactly.

From the bridge at the downstream end of the property there’s about an hour’s worth of careful pocket-water fishing up to the Rock Pool. There are some obvious feeding lies in here that almost always hold fish, and there’s the usual temptation to cherry pick, but we’ve learned to prospect and on a good day a trout or two will come out of spots where you don’t remember catching one before. There are a few places where the wading gets gnarly and we’d like to loop around on the bank, but the willows here are as wild and thick as the wedding venue is manicured and we’ve let whatever rough trails there were grow over.

The Rock Pool is a big, open, fishy run that two people can cast to at once, but we usually trade off strike-for-strike to make it last. The sweet spot here isn’t in the dark run against the big granite boulder where you’d expect it to be but at the top end of the tail-out. If you were with an out-of-town guest, you could hook the biggest trout yourself while still appearing to generously give up the best water. If you were that kind of friend, that is.

Above that is some riffly water with scattered shallow pockets that sometimes hold fish, and about midway up this stretch is where you come in sight of the footbridge that leads from the lodge building to the clearing across the stream where the weddings are held. This is where you stop to watch and listen. Usually it’s well-dressed people crossing the bridge that gives it away. (Guests and members of the wedding stroll; caterers and other functionaries scurry.) But it also could be voices, laughter, music, tinkling champagne glasses and so on. Not to sound like a steely-eyed mountain man or anything, but no one who knows the difference between natural sights and sounds and an episode of Downton Abbey could stumble into the middle of things from here without knowing it.

Of course, the easiest thing would be to take an extra five minutes to drive past the lodge to see if the parking lot is full, but we never do that. Maybe we just enjoy slinking into the underbrush like poachers.

If the stream is fishing well that day, we’ll go back to the pickup, drive around to the bridge at the top end of the property and get back in there. If it’s not fishing well, we’ll go somewhere else nearby or, if it’s late or a storm has blown up, just go home. But we usually drive to the top end anyway to see if the no-trespassing signs need replacing.

They don’t last forever. After too long in high-altitude summer sunlight and winter wind a sign will fade like an old photo, sending the message that someone cared about trespassing once but maybe not so much anymore. And sometimes people tear them down, either on general principles or so that if they’re caught fishing where they shouldn’t, they can say, “Well, there was no sign . . . .”

I was never one to tear down signs, but I did trespass here a few times way back before the outfitter and the wedding business at the lodge. I used to fish the public water upstream, and sometimes when I’d come back down at the end of the day, I’d see trout rising in the bend pool that’s visible from the bridge. I understood in a vague way that this was private property—or at least that the road was the eastern Forest Service boundary—but a narrow trail led down to the water and in those days there was no fence or sign. If I’d ever been yelled at, that’s what I’d have said: “Well, there was no sign . . . .” I guess it’s ironic that I had a hand in putting up the no-trespassing signs that are there now, but then life is funny that way.

That bend pool you see from the bridge can be good, especially late in the day when there are some caddis or mayflies around. Sometimes trout lie in the riffly, faster current on the inside of the bend, and there’s a slot of deep holding water against the outside bank that can be good for bigger fish. It’s easy to hook a fly in the bushes here and then wonder whether to break it off so you can keep fishing or wade over to get it and blow the pool. At the bottom of this run there’s a logjam with a deep, eddying backwater that’s always good for a fish if you can get the tricky cast and drift right. There’s some interesting braided pocket water below that, but before long you come within sight of the footbridge with its strollers and people scurrying and that’s where any gatecrasher with an ounce of sense will turn around.

There are also several good pools right behind the lodge, but the wedding business has been booming lately, so we don’t get to fish there very often. The good news is that by the time we do get to them—usually in September—the pools have been rested for months, so the innocence of the fish offsets the spooky, low-water conditions.

The first year we had this lease a few of those big rainbows the outfitter stocked were still holding on. Every once in a while you’d see one sulking on the bottom of a pool, apparently deep in some kind of private funk. They were stubbornly uncatchable, as if they’d given up on the effort of either feeding or spooking. Maybe they understood as well as we did that if there was enough food and holding water here to support big trout, there’d have already been big trout, and so they were doomed. By the second summer they were all gone, and I was glad not to see them anymore. They made me sad.

What was left were the browns and brook trout whose ancestors had been planted back in the dark days of Western fish culture when it was thought that one trout was as good as another and so the indigenous cutthroats all but vanished. Browns were native to Europe and brook trout to northeastern North America, but these fish have lived wild in the West for so long that calling them non-native now seems like a technical distinction. Brook trout were stocked here from the beginning—off the books as often as not—and they’re still the most common trout in the small, high-altitude streams of the Rockies. In many places they’re what we’ve had for more than a century and are probably what were here when they built the original lodge in the early years of statehood, before the capital of Colorado was moved from Longmont to Denver.

There are five of us in the lease, but the only two I ever see are Doug and Vince. Doug runs a small corporation, and he’s one of the hardest-working people I know, because he doesn’t delegate well. (I asked him once what his role at the company was, and he said, “I’m the only adult in the room.”) Consequently, his fishing time is limited, and he likes the lease because he can go up on Saturday or Sunday when the public water can get crowded and have it to himself. It does sometimes get crowded around here on summer weekends. When I moved to Colorado in the late 1960s, there were 2 million people living in the state. Now there are 5 million, and every last one of those 3 million new people bought a fly rod as soon as they got here.

“We picked up a few trout here and there…and then halfway up the riffle above the Rock Pool we saw a tall man in a tux and three women in matching long dresses walking across the bridge….”

 

Vince is retired from a middle-management job, but he’s busier now than when he was working. His projects include but aren’t limited to building an addition to his log house and making split-bamboo fly rods. Both are what you’d expect from a perfectionist. When I say I “had a hand in” putting up those no trespassing signs, I mean Vince did the work, so it would be done right, while I stood there handing him the tools he asked for. That pretty much describes every job we’ve ever done together.

Vince always used to fish the lease with his great old dog Gabe. Gabe was the dog of a lifetime: quiet, patient, loyal, self-sufficient, friendly without getting all sloppy about it, and as obedient as he could be without having the fun knocked out of him. He was one of the boys, and I could never get over thinking he was the smartest member of the gang. Gabe was a Border-Aussie, an obscure breed known to be one-person dogs but with enough room in their hearts for a “special friend.” I was that friend. Vince said it was because I have a way with animals, and I suppose that’s true enough, but the pocketful of dog biscuits I always carry didn’t hurt.

Gabe died a few years ago, and Vince now has another dog but there’s no comparison. He’d promised his ailing mother-in-law that if anything happened, he’d look after her little dog. Then she died and so, being an honorable man, Vince now has a ridiculous little 13-year-old shih tzu named Perris. We tried taking Perris fishing a few times, but she didn’t care for it. Just as well, because it was kind of embarrassing.

I didn’t fish the lease this past year until the middle of July. We had a fairly normal winter snowpack, but then April was unusually wet and May was the wettest on record, so by the first of June that alpine peak that looks so romantic in wedding photos was still deep in snow and the so-called spring runoff lasted until the middle of summer.

Some of us drove up there a few times in late June and early July to check the flow and water temperature, only to find that one was always too high and the other too low. At one time we could just check the flow on a website, but the gauging station there blew out in a flood two years ago and hasn’t been replaced. I liked this old-timey business of going to the stream to see how it looked—something I didn’t realize I’d begun to lose track of until I actually lost track of it. You naturally bring wading boots in case you want to get in the water, and as long as you’ve got those, you might as well toss in a rod, reel and fly box. Maybe you’ll make a few casts even if the water is still too high and cold. Or maybe, since you’re up there anyway, you’ll drive to one of the other two tributaries in the area or the roadside lake with cutthroats or the nearby tailwater. In this way what could have been 60 seconds of gazing at a computer screen and clicking a mouse becomes a day in the mountains.

‘‘ Don’t get me wrong: I’m as likely as anyone to travel long distances at great expense looking for big fish—including to Labrador and Quebec for giant, native brook trout—but these mountain creeks are where I learned to fly-fish and even after a big trip up north I can reacquire the scale of things here in minutes. ’’

By the third week of July the water at the lease was clear and 51 degrees but still running too high and fast. In other words close enough for Vince and me to try it. Runoff is a fact of life here, and everyone I know pushes through marginal conditions hoping to stretch the too-short post-runoff seasons that these wet years allow us. Sometimes it’s a bust, but now and then it works beautifully. That same summer on a nearby stream that was even higher and colder I managed to land only two trout all afternoon, but one of them was the biggest cutthroat I’d seen there in years. I’m convinced that if I’d waited for perfect conditions, I’d have caught more fish but I wouldn’t have caught that one.

The lease fished well enough, considering that much of it was still unfishable. (It’s a lot to ask of a trout to swim all the way to the surface in fast current for a little fly, even if it can see it, and we hardly ever nymph fish here, probably because we usually don’t have to.) We picked up a few trout here and there—not many but enough to let us deliver a promising report—and then halfway up the riffle above the Rock Pool we saw a tall man in a tux and three women in matching long dresses walking across the bridge: young, trim handsome people who wore their formal clothes as if they dressed like that every day.

So we hiked back to the truck and drove to the top of the lease to check the signs there for the first time that year. One was faded enough that it was getting hard to read at a distance, and the other was bent double from an unsuccessful attempt to tear it down. Vince would have had his tools in the pickup, but we didn’t have any new signs, so this would take a return trip after a stop at the hardware store. The water was coming down fast, so the stream could be fishing better by the time we got back.

I do think a few people poach here in the usual amateur way, which is a little bit at each end. They’ll be fishing upstream or downstream when they come to the signs, and they’ll stop to think about it. The water they can see looks pretty good. There’s no one around. The owners are probably fat old plutocrats who never fish anyway, so what the hell? They wade on in, make a few casts and maybe land an illicit trout or two. The water up ahead looks pretty good, too, but by now, being basically law-abiding people, they’re beginning to feel nervous and guilty and they’ve made their point, so they turn around and leave. They may congratulate themselves for committing the perfect misdemeanor, but they might also be surprised that they didn’t start hanging 20-inchers the minute they cast a fly on private water. At least that’s how I used to do it.

If you do hook a decent-size trout here, it rarely will be more than a foot long and might turn out to be a brown, just like on the surrounding miles of public water. The brook trout are usually smaller—a 10-incher is a real nice fish—but they’ve always been my favorites, especially later in August when they go into spawning colors. They always have reminded me of Japanese miniatures that wouldn’t be as striking if they were bigger, which doesn’t mean I’m disappointed on the rare day when I land one that’s 15 inches long.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as likely as anyone to travel long distances at great expense looking for big fish—including to Labrador and Quebec for giant, native brook trout—but these mountain creeks are where I learned to fly-fish and even after a big trip up north I can reacquire the scale of things here in minutes.

I’m not alone in this. Once, a famous, elderly fisherman dropped by a lodge in the Rocky Mountains where a friend of mine was guiding. This guy was one of those early jetsetters who’d been everywhere and caught everything and who you might suspect of being a little spoiled. My friend said that after a day or two of hauling in big stocked trout, the old man took him aside and said, “Don’t suppose there’s a creek around here with some little wild brookies?” It turns out there was. There usually is.

John Gierach’s latest book is All Fishermen Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).


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John Gierach
About John Gierach 8 Articles
John Gierach's latest book is All Fishermen Are Liars (Simon & Schuster).

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