That was the last day of June. My girlfriend, our dog, and I set out that evening with the idea that we’d sleep on some BLM land, somewhere in the state of Colorado, for something like the next three months. “Until it got cold, then we’ll figure out what’s next.” We had bold plans - cooking on the fire every night, climbing mountains, hot springs, the whole nine yards, all underscored with an enduring proximity to fish. She could work remotely and I could figure it out, jot down notes here and there, maybe take a few pictures. “Vagabond,” “wanderlust;” it looked like all the lame catch phrasing so excruciatingly common these days. In reality we mostly fought these last few months.
Limber Grove, Fairplay
The Blue north of Silverthorne
Early morning through Buena Vista
There were a few initial stops; Fairplay for about week, Silverthorne for a few days on the Blue, but in short order, we’d entered residence further into the Eagle Valley. Up to this point we hadn’t missed much by way of fishing. Runoff showed up late and was pumping everywhere there wasn’t a dam. Peak runoff would eventually be charted as some point in mid-July. When precisely it was, I’m not sure, but a gentleman won a boat from the Vail Daily for predicting the closest time and date of peak on the Colorado. I envied his fortune - if you could call it that - if an educated guess is a skill, then I envied his education. Floating for free, or something closer to free. The stuff of dreams; this was the year to buy a fucking boat.
Shoulder day on the Eagle
Eagle Valley local
We’d picked up one of those “sleeps eight” monstrosities of a tent and a two person sleeping bag rated for survival at zero degrees. Most nights we slept in it, the odd evening spent drinking tequila and listening to free music inevitably resulting in an overnight in the truck at whatever random gravel pullout. I started the trip with what I considered a cultured stance on camping accommodations, ultralight, ultra small, and ultra pricey being the epitome of performance. Bullshit. A garage sale double burner and Jetboil became our kitchen. The French press that ratted around in the truck bed soon claimed title as our most prized possession. $4 showers at the rec center came once or twice a week. The tent, holy shit that fun-filled-family-of-five-weekend-warrior mutant of a tent, was nothing short of nylon poly-blend bliss. Two rooms? Shut the front door. Our cheeks and hands tanned to a diluted soy sauce color as the ritual of daily life set in despite the ever-changing situation. My waders were always wet, but this summer they haven’t dried out beyond soaking.
Money shot outside Avon
It felt like we’d become part of the runoff. Our home was the places in-between Gypsum, Eagle, Wolcott, Avon, and beyond. Stream side in moments from virtually anywhere, we watched it happen, soup to nuts. Early runoff just means fishing it by the book; high flows and fast water pushes fish to the edges where they can get a break from the torrent of snowmelt funneled down toward lower lands on the Front Range. They sit right under your boots most the time. All the way down, the habitat grew think, the bugs thrived, the weather was perfect. With each passing day, the flows slowed down slightly and the fish spread out more. They were eager. Levels receded and opened up new runs and holds daily. Clarity improved to outstanding. Log jams washed down from upstream became new structure. Deep Creek had been a hydraulic slingshot puking into the Colorado when we showed up. Before we moved on it had settled into the kind of pocket water books get written about.
Sight fishing how I’m used to it, fat, shouldery rainbows subtly surrendering their position with lateral twists and flashing eats. Fish behavior that becomes actionable as opposed to haphazard. Heavy surface eating through the day, the dry action really heating up for the late afternoon and evening. Big flies - fat and tall Elk Hair Caddis imitations and burly Adams or Cahill patterns consistently getting fish to the net. Subsurface, it was all working; there are just so many bugs doing their thing at any given time. The flashy Hare’s Ears Bob sells out of Eagle River Anglers are tied by witches. The dark arts, voodoo insect magic on a hook.
Then there was a wedding to go to. That, and some intrepid land owners began to lay a frustratingly intimidating claim to the BLM land we’d made an impermanent home of. South and west of the valley we cut down through Glenwood Springs toward Carbondale and Basalt. El Jebel sitting in-between the two and silently more receptive of those souls decidedly living out of their trucks. Where you might get a stray look in Fairplay and condescension in Silverthorne, in proximity to Carbondale and Basalt fading into the background of daily life takes far less effort. Coffee on the tailgate, filling jugs of water at the library, waders drying on the roof rack, dinner at the grills in the park, none of it a problem as long as you don’t make a pattern of it. But, don’t make a pattern of it. The cops will come, and it’ll happen when you’re stoned to the gills.
The Pan abides
The Frying Pan and Roaring Fork. The Crystal too, but for us, markedly less so. I copy and paste mental images of the Pan into my daydreams, the burnt reds and oranges of the sweeping canyon walls making sense of any of the old Dope Rider panels. A medley of sandy clay hues, the Pan runs red through gin clear water. The same being the case on the Roaring Fork, just more wild. Far less pressure and far more water. Even through town, bigger, without the peaceful injustice of a tailwater, the Fork supplemented frustration with picky fish without the drive to the Toilet Bowl to tie on an Epoxy Mysis. Beneath the purview of Sopris, brown trout slip seamlessly out of the hand into an ankle deep optical abyss. They’re more cautious with their eating, consistently dining on small fare, slightly elevated in the water column and looking up, targeting the surface film as the air temperatures climb each morning. The dry trend continued, but as a challenge as opposed to a foregone conclusion. The morning fished best consistently. The blanket of cool overnight lows broken first by presentations meant to imitate the lightest part of first hatches of the day. Triggering fish as much as tricking them.
Browntown outside Basalt
Further West, US Highway 50 cuts straight through Montrose, the crown jewel of the high grasslands. Teen pregnancy and cigarettes being the flavor of the week, it’s a town or a city depending on your interpretation of Home Rule in the state of Colorado. It’s so dry that tiny arcing discharges bend and flash between the dogs feet and his bed. It’ll be cool from 4:00 in the morning until about 9:40, then sweltering. The Modelo tastes noticeably better in Montrose.
To the west flows the Uncompahgre before it joins the Gunnison further North and East. “Dirty water” as it has been translated. On the Uncompagre, the fish blend seamlessly into greens and blues that ebb from Bombay Sapphire clarity to one more akin to Chartreuse. Even through its heaviest sections in Ridgeway, fish easily go unnoticed. “Unnavigable except at high water.” Wild, the Uncompahgre would run low in the summers, so I’ll remain thankful for the construction of the Gunnison Tunnel while it’s convenient. Fishing aside, without it, the whole town might have dried up. Sight fishing based on probability and the most fleeting of surface eats dictate the shape of success from this spot to that one. Short, eager rainbows with stock parts. Through town, boats, tubes, and surf boards. The hatches seem to be lighter than elsewhere else on the Western Slope, the “go-to” generic trout patterns highlighted on all the reports. Prince Nymphs with big sharp wings, San Juans, hoppers, shop talk for even the uninitiated.
Earn your turns, or something like that
East of town, the Gunnison Gorge and the fabled gold medal waters therein. The Gunnison River embodies the other side of the coin that is Montrose. Access is defined by chossy down climbs made exponentially more challenging with two rods in hand. Slides of stone and sand mask steep tracks infrequently traveled; wrong turns are common, particularly for the slow going backpacker. And all you’re really doing is going down, it couldn’t be more straightforward. “Sometimes it’s easier going up then down.” Wise words from the kind souls out at Montrose Anglers. It was sketchy. Succinctly defined, access to the Gorge is the lonely pair of Umpqua hemos dropped on a tall spire. I took them with me, smiling with relief as I trudged forward a few paces, before realizing I wasn’t the first person to make the same mistake, yet another cliffed out dead end. I shouldn’t have eaten that edible at the trailhead.
Sunrise on the Gunnison
Salt, pepper, soy sauce
A wild contentment stained with intimidation exists a thousand or so feet from the canyon rim. You’re smaller all the way down there. It's cliche but oh so real. It’s dark for longer in the mornings, then the shadow of night comes sooner on the east wall. Rockslides boom like thunder in the dead of night. A work in progress, two million years in the making; Gunnison Gorge is earthier, the river at its base, more honest. The sapphires and chartreuse reminiscent of town or through Ridgeway run longer and deeper through slick patches downstream of the Black Canyon. The resource yields pigments at home in their natural habitat, true to form, without the background noise of the in town fishery or the day-use at Ridgeway. Faster water and more of it; remote access and the benefits therein. It’s haunted with a reputation, the canyon, and the fish for that matter, indifferent to your fleeting visit.
I’ve been dirty this whole fucking time. It felt like I was still sweaty from cleaning the old apartment for weeks. I haven’t returned a lot of texts and missed a lot of calls. Some friends and family must be a little pissed. My feet are chapped to the point of resembling the sprawling western approach to Salt Lake City. Cracked, calloused, black around the edges. Out of necessity I’ve reapplied deodorant at least three times daily. Everything is wet at some point every few days. The booties on my waders are marshy at best. As soon as there is some semblance of cleanliness the dog ruins it. It is perfection.
Amanita Muscaria, Western Slope
It was easy leaving Montrose. It’s been easy leaving all these places in fact. There comes a time about two weeks into any particular stay where someone or something grows suspicious enough second guess another night. Two weeks happens to be the sweet spot for figuring out new water, and conveniently, the BLM limit for most the places we’ve been. Two hours of drive time and we’re in Crested Butte thinking of the Taylor. We spent the night catching a show that I’ll never remember entirely. Fucking edibles killing it yet again. Xavier Rudd, killing it as always. Then the next morning over Jack’s Cabin and onto the Taylor. It’s easy to trick me into a “oh, let’s just find a cool place to make coffee” mentality when this is daily life, but it’s a lie every time. A blessing, sure, but nothing more than an elaborate ruse to cover an obsession with time on the water, or a failed attempt to lower expectations before they're even apparent. I’m really thinking of those fish, their colors and spots, the ring around the iris, what they’re eating, flows, temps, cloud cover. Not coffee, literally everything but the five or so minutes it takes to brew the surprisingly dank 100% Arabica from Walmart.
They’re there and they’re not quite as smart as they should be. They look tough, weathered, browns showing off a darkness not popular in other fisheries. Fresh out of a few seasons on the Front Range, tailwaters unthinkingly prompt a definition of pressure and selective eaters. New boots pulling up in new trucks to fish their new rig. The Taylor has its fair share of the classic caricature but it’s too long to be that full of wildly intelligent fish and far fewer anglers seem to make the trip. The dam is another story, but fuck the dam. On the Taylor, you’re in the woods and it feels like it. Access couldn’t be easier but tree cover masks so many bends and riffles, this spot or that spot fading in priority out of a lack of visibility. Fish eat uncommonly naturally, cotton flashes subsurface and violent takes on top, even after the errant presentation slaps them in the forehead. Peaceful injustice at its finest.
Baetis eater on the Taylor
I heard last week that the first frost in Gunnison County had been recorded on August 29th. Open Snow published their first long term forecast for the ski season. The mornings have started later and the crispest part of the early hours is just plain cold. We drove eastward to Denver the other day and I’m sitting at a friends kitchen table soaking in the air conditioning. I’ve showered twice today. Reflecting on what happened seems premature with an option on the table to head back out to Buena Vista for some time on the Ark. I churched up the experience talking to my mom and dad about a month ago. Obviously needing some reassurance, “I’ve caught the fish of a lifetime at least once a week...” I think my dad gets it. I hope at least, when I moved out to Colorado he cautioned me not to become a trout bum. Whatever, conversational fodder - fish of a lifetime, first, biggest, most, all that crap. We’ve got some unidentified rashes, broke two 5wts, put some serious miles on those tires, and caught a grip of fish. One hell of a trip so far.
If you dropped those blue hemos on the way down to the Gunnison, they're my favorite now. Suck it.