Monday, March 18, 2019

The Last Day in the Headwaters for 2018

Last year was not a great fishing season in Colorado. We had a really low snowpack for the winter of 2017/18 and there was little rain, as usual, after that. I didn't spend a lot of time in the headwaters in the summer of 2018, but one of the most memorable trips was the last trip of the season for me...

I drove up to the headwaters to catch a window of nice weather right before the first predicted snow of the season in late September or early October. I had just been visited by my parents, and then recovered from a cold after that, so I was eager to get into the headwaters and just "let go."

Being in this kind of wilderness is regenerative... it re-charges my soul and makes me feel completely alive. The warmth of the sun, the gentle wind and the colors of fall had me swooning over this spot that I hand't fished in a few years. Its a particularly delicate headwaters that holds Greenback Cutthroat and isn't all that easy to access if you don't like ultra-steep banks and boulder-climbing.

But all that scrambling and sliding pays off nicely as the native residents are seemingly always hungry...

I love fall in the mountains here - the days can still be very warm, but you feel the cold wind of winter creeping up.  The aspens turn yellow and orange, juxtaposed against the deep-green of the evergreens... there is a certain feeling of summer's content lingering, yet also a hint of the lonely winter-longing that you know is coming soon.

This particular headwaters is quite well suited for Tenkara fishing in most places, but there are some extremely tight sections of willows and messy overgrown brush that is best just to ignore and walk around. Fishing through these sections can be more annoying and time-consuming than its worth, so I usually hike around them.

The greenbacks in this stream are just so beautiful and vibrant... a lot of orange and some pink hues can be found, and they were shimmering brightly in the mid-day sun. The fish are generally not very big in this stream as it is small and has been flood-damaged many times over.

I spent the entire day walking up these headwaters, and the fishing was actually extremely difficult on this particular day. Morning yielded only a few, but as the sun warmed the water up, the fish became much more active. I also discovered later that I was just days behind a group of other Tenkara anglers who had also pulled countless fish out of the stream so I know it had been hit hard that particular week.

Nonetheless, I managed at least 25 to hand on this day, a respectable number if not a bit low for my average on this kind of headwaters. I never obsess over numbers, and frankly its hard to keep track after 20 anyway!

Up in those high peaks behind the evergreen forest lie the lakes which feed this river... the peaks above them would normally still have snow on top, feeding them fresh melt-water, but this year that snow had melted months before, resulting in very low water all season.

If you can book the campsites early enough in the year, there is some great camping along those high mountain lakes... but good luck getting a reservation for a campsite up there on a weekend!

I also like to carry a nice piece of glass with me on all my fishing journeys. Cannabis is a huge part of the outdoor experience for many, connecting us even deeper with the flow of the universe and the wilderness around us. I find it acts as a "crutch" to help undo certain negative daily societal patterns and jolt me back into the natural flow of the natural world around me. I always sacrifice a small prime bud to the river during my first sesh of the day as some kind of odd ritual... do you have any odd rituals you partake in while fishing?

I enjoyed some Lemon Heads (Lemon G x Face-Off OG BX1) and then took a lunch break. I watched a nice cutthroat trout feed in the run above me while eating my sandwich, and then when I was finished, I packed up and caught that fish, pictured below.

You can see from these photos just how low the water was... luckily it was cold and the fish were looking healthy even though it was not an easy season for survival on their behalf.

I love when the parr marks remain longer than usual. This fish had such beautiful orange cheeks and dark parr marks, it really stood out to me.

But above that run was another even more beautiful plunge pool. I stayed low and cast from far back, grabbing another beautiful native resident...

... which had completely different markings and no parr marks left whatsoever.

 I had time for a few last pools before I had to hike back to the car, and I took my time enjoying every cast.

This last fish of the day was a solid example of a native trout for this river... layers and layers of color, just the right amount of spotting, and an ultra-vibrant slash of orange lending this fish its name.

I scrambled up the banks and took a few moments to soak in the beauty of the late afternoon light on the trees. I was beat from a rough day, but the world around me lit me up inside and gave me a second wind almost right away.

As I walked back towards the trail I noted to myself the amount of flood damage this area has had over time... yet the ecosystem still survives.

There was such a sense of chaos looking out over the river... something about the massive erosion damage and the Aspens looking like they were on fire just hit me hard, but not in a bad way. Nature is powerful.

Looking east back towards the trailhead:

I walked down the trail back towards the car, knowing this would likely be the last chance I had to fish the headwaters before the snow came ... but it was not bittersweet. I was already looking ahead to the potential of a snowier next winter, a rainier next spring, and another year with more water and better fishing soon to come.

The sun setting over the mountains to the west gave me one last gift of natural beauty before disappearing. The cold began to fall on the mountainside, and I doubled my pace back to the car to keep warm. I knew memories of this day would linger and I began to plan my adventures for headwaters season 2019...

 See you out on the water soon!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Chasing Greenbacks in the headwaters, early season 2018

Many times I have hiked past this stretch of water with no intention of fishing it... and so it dawned on me in early 2018 that I should make a day of fishing this long stretch below a popular trail in RMNP, even if just to stop wondering what it was like as I hiked by, time and time again.

This particular stretch begins above a popular tourist lookout. Yet just a few minutes beyond that crowded place, where children and adults alike complain about all 10-15 hard minutes of walking they've just suffered through, one can step off the trail, walk up along the stream and instantly feel a million miles from civilization. Not many people fish this water, and I'm not entirely sure why. It is productive.

Maybe its because of the bushes and the need for more precise casting? Maybe its the fact that there is no easy way in here without pushing through thick scrub brush and risking surprising the occasional moose or elk? Or maybe its just that most people don't realize what that little bit of extra effort can bring...

Working my way up I grabbed a few brookies and a rainbow in these picturesque spots... a nice way to start the day, but not what I came for. I realized I'd need to get up above the next waterfall to get into the cutthroat water... but I didn't rush it because this place was special.

Walking past pools teeming with brookies and rainbows I took my time to breathe the clean air and feel that feeling you get when you first set foot back in the high mountains after a winter away from the streams. These meadows in the upper headwaters region are just beyond words. There is almost no way to put into words the feeling, the smells, the sounds... I decided to lay in the grass for a while and look at the sky. 

This particular spot is probably one of the most beautiful high alpine meadows I've ever stumbled upon while fishing, and I made sure to take it all in while I had it all to myself.

At the top of the meadow the gradient increased immediately...

 ...and above the first set of little falls I found what I was looking for right away.

This is the kind of thing dreams are made of... and in turn, those dreams are the kind of thing that can make one walk away from one life in order to embrace another.

Navigating this particular section of river is not easy... there are many tight-walled mini canyons... the underbrush is thick... there is wildlife all around. In all actuality, much of this is not that far from the trail. But it is not easy to reach from the trail.. and the sound of the water and the thick trees drown out any indication of these realities.

The best way up is usually walking right up through the waterfalls.

At the top of one set of falls is always a nice pool... and another set of waterfalls!

And in every one of those pockets a fish awaits your properly presented fly... as well as your sloppily presented fly.

The fishing in these places is not particularly hard... what matters most is positioning, angle of the light so one doesn't cast a shadow, and a light footed style of travel that attempts not to warn the fish by way of heavy vibrations from one's feet.

Sometimes I wonder if I sound like a broken recored extolling the virtues of getting to these places to see these fish, these flowers, these views...

But if the record is broken, and it keeps playing back your favorite line of the song, is that such a bad thing? 

Large boulders create small pockets of soft water at the edge of the raging current... and one can always find a fish there... it is like the promise of a healthy stream such as this.

Coming up to the upper section of the Canyon I stopped to take it all in again. At that moment, a helicopter began to circle above. I was concerned about how they began to drop low and linger, and I turned and gave the two thumbs up sign to make sure they'd see I was in this place on purpose, by choice, and to avoid wasting a ranger's time. They left right away. Good call. I later learned that a hiker had gone missing in this drainage a few days prior, so they must have hoped to have found this person... but alas it was just me, losing myself in this place on purpose for just one short day.

That moment did serve as a reminder that being in these places does not come without risk. I like to tell people where I'm going just in case I don't make it back... but thinking about those things and living in fear rather than living in the moment would be a huge mistake... of that I am sure.

In the tiny eddy on the left under the long grass, I hooked a solid 19-plus inch wild greenback. It was one of the nicest headwaters fish I've hooked in a stream this small in ages, if not ever. I was a little sad when it wiggled off the hook at my feet, because I really would have liked a photo of that one. Luckily another smaller fish was waiting for a fly right next to that one, so I got a photo of that fish instead.

By this point I had caught well over 40 fish on this one fly. I felt like it was in surprisingly good shape, and so I continued to fish it. Sometimes the more damaged it gets, the more fish seem to like it.

Which would you rather eat?

The view at the top of the canyon opens into a beautiful rocky bowl that holds a cold glacial lake. The swampy outflow is usually full of trout. Is it still Tenkara once you cross the line above the first fall into the flat/still water of the lake? Nope! It is not. Once one is in the lake... one is then just fishing with a fixed line rod. 

Yet the result is the same... now was that so hard to distinguish? 

I finished the day with some rather large and spectacularly colored Greenbacks from the lake before heading back down to the car. 

These fish are truly magnificent...

What a life it is... I hope more of you come join me for adventures in the Colorado front range headwaters in 2019!