Friday, January 29, 2010

Potential


First there's the cramped aisle seat on the commuter. Knees aren't meant to bend that direction. At least not for that long.

Then off the plane and into the airport. The rush. Harried faces counting gate numbers. Life becomes a watch face. Everybody has a smart phone.

Baggage claim is next--we stand around the carousel like a litter of puppies around a single food bowl, waiting nervously. They lost it. I just know it.

There's the bag... the big green one. Says Orvis on the side, but don't get too excited. One of the wheels was tweaked a few trips back. It's barely functional, and due to be put down. But it's been everywhere, seen everything. Three countries. Countless cased fly rods. Cameras loaded with digital images of toothy northern pike and saucer-shaped jack crevalle. And trout. Always trout. Can you put luggage out to pasture?

Now the rental car. Hours to go to get over the Sangres, but the skies are blue and the sun is winter-bright. It's a day for driving.

A day for driving largely ruined by brain-dead talk radio. But there's progress--I've discovered the real problem with this country. These pundits have, too, and that's how they survive ... on the anxieties of the sheep. Their closet racism, their veiled biggotry poorly disguised as patriotism. Yes, I know freedom isn't free. I know these colors don't run. I know Democrats spend too much money and Republicans are God's chosen people. I know. One after the other--you've explained that to me.

The sheep are on fire. Your vitriol is the gasoline. Burn, baby, burn.

My kingdom for some FM music. Jesus.

But then I crest the summit and the valley lies stretched out before me. New snow tops the peaks of the San Juans far in the distance, and classic rock shows up with a push of the "scan" button. Another push and Lady GaGa and those siren pipes resonate through the rental. She's a strange one, but damn she can sing. Scan. Mariachi. Scan. Alan Jackson. Radio off.

One right turn and, in the distance, I see the dunes. They look small from here, tucked up against 13,297-foot Mount Herard. Last night's snow is a bright white on the peaks, and the contrast with the drab sage of the valley floor below and the deep blue of the afternoon sky makes the scene ahead especially crisp.

Twenty minutes later, my feet rest on the dry, sandy bed of Medano Creek. It's winter, and the creek doesn't run this far. Three months from now, I'd be shin-deep in ice-cold gritty water, and in a hurry to dry my toes in sun-baked sand a couple hundred yards away. For now, Medano Creek is a beacon of potential energy--when the brilliant white snow melts and rushes in a torrent down the stream, water from the Sangres will lose itself into the valley floor. For now, the sleepy, ice-covered stream soaks into the frigid winter sand without much protest.

A few clouds begin to climb across the sky. The sun sinks low in the southwest, and a chill takes over the dry valley air. The wind picks up. The moon makes its appearance over the Sangres.

One last, long look at the mountains.

It was a good day for a drive.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Char... the Convoluted Natural History...

I just read Ted Williams' latest Fly Rod and Reel column detailing the basic natural history of char in North America and throughout the world. It's an intriguing piece with the usual Williams conservation lessons, and it's likely something that will educate the general angling public--perhaps even more than it's willing to be educated. Snail-eating char in Maine? Pretty damn cool.

Let's not forget, by the way, that brook trout are char, too. God bless the salvelinus genus... to it we owe great pleasure.

An Ode to the Mudbogger ... a Righteous Rant



Buried to its axles in greasy brown water, I watched with no small amount of horror as the driver of the tricked-out Jeep stood on the gas and slowly, in a rooster tail of earth and water, peeled the vehicle out of the creekbed and up onto the packed, wet earth of higher ground.

There were lots of hoots and hollers at the accomplishment. A barrage of high-fives followed the successful extraction from the gaping maw of the southern creekbed. And smiles. Big, muddy smiles.

Now, granted, I wasn't there to be sucked into this contagium of machismo, so I can't speak to the actual level of excitement on the ground. I was watching it from the corner of a hotel-room bed in Nevada on what I assumed was basic cable. One of the many start-up outdoor television networks had devoted a 30-minute timeslot to these heroics, and I found myself mesmerized at the general idea that this behavior was not only acceptable in some circles, but worthy of airing on TV.

Call me a snob, but I was horrified.

Like most dedicated fly fishers, I like to look at water, no matter where I am. I like to guess what lies beneath. I slow down when I cross bridges over rivers, and more than once I've been snapped back to reality by a blaring horn thanks to my magnetic gaze into a river canyon that's drawn my eyes away from a hairpin-laden mountain road.

So, naturally, my first thought at seeing these folks splash through the creekbottom was, "I wonder what used to swim there?" followed quickly by "I wonder who used to fish there?"

It's all past tense in those mud bogs, especially in the wet and muggy South. No doubt the little creek once hosted pan-sized bream and probably a few catfish... maybe a bass or two. Now, after a regular dose of lifted Jeeps and the occasional 4,000 rpm slipfest, I'm guessing the only critters living in that water are pretty microscopic and quite a bit paranoid.

I quickly became part of the problem--I didn't turn the channel. Instead, mouth agape, I watched as the show host, who unabashedly admitted to never driving a stick before (city boy), climbed behind the wheel of one of the Jeeps and promptly got it stuck in another creekbottom (why trash the same creek twice, right?).

His passenger reached down and pushed a yellow button, locking the vehicle's front axle, and another painfully slow extraction followed. And, judging by the reaction of the lookers-on, you'd think these two fellows had just topped a Colorado "fourteener" or perhaps wrestled an alligator into submission. At the very least, you'd think they'd just finished an Ironman.

Nope. Yellow button. God bless American mechanical engineering.

Granted, I might be pretty set in my ways--I like stalking trout in those little backcountry creeks, away from the road and the noise and smell of exhaust. I'm the first to claim that hopping on (or into) a vehicle in order to "get away from it all" is counterintuitive. But I understand the attraction, and like to think that, if resources are used appropriately, there's room for everyone to enjoy their passion.

But these soupy little creeks these guys were driving through now have only one use.

Again, not actually being there probably impairs my judgment--I have no idea if the land these juiced-up four-by-fours were slicing in two is public, or somebody's private mud-bogging playground (imagine those property values). But I think, as a sportsman, I can speak with some level of authority to the grade of impact these folks were delivering to the watershed. In short, "mudbogging" to this degree seems like a pretty selfish endeavor.

Later in the show (just a few minutes later--I pulled myself away to make it to a meeting on time), I watched as a line of modified Jeeps and Samarais cruised along a muddy road toward yet another creek. This particular creek was named "Bill's Crack," or something similar--an appropriate name for the waterway, as it truly has gone to shit thanks to the barrage of booger-eating morons and their vehicles equipped with studded tires, roll cages and yellow buttons.

Call me an elitist. Call me intolerant. But don't give the camera a grin with mud on your teeth and try to justify this destruction with an "aw, shucks," shrug of the shoulders. Sure, you're having fun. I get it. You've clearly marked your territory.

And, so long as you continue to do so, it becomes equally important for me and others like me to mark the places we treasure, if for no other reason than to protect them from people like you. Rant and rave all you want about the restrictions wilderness designations put on motorized recreation in the backcountry--we need only turn on the tube and show you what the least-responsible members of the motorized recreation community do to the places they find "irreplacable."

End of rant. Enjoy your time "outdoors." And wear a seatbelt, Cooter. Helmets are optional.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Record brookie caught in Maine

A long-standing state record in Maine fell this week when a Waterboro, Maine, fisherman pulled a 9-pound brook trout through the ice at Mousam Lake near Shapleigh.

According to WGME-TV in Maine, the fish, a hatchery-reared brookie, was certified on a grocery store scale. The new record holder, Patrick Coan, broke a record that stood for 30 years.

Congrats, Patrick... nice work!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sleeplessness...

It takes a die-hard to lie awake nights in January counting the days until the backcountry waters open at the end of May. But here I am. Wide-eyed. Alert. Maybe it was the quad-shot latte at 4 p.m., but, hell, that was eight hours ago.

The sky is gray and cold in Idaho this time of year, which lends itself to hibernating. But for some reason, it turns me into a night owl, and I can't close my eyes and turn my brain off. This year, I can hear the little angler in my head softly speak to me, we're exploring the water up by Stanley. Right. It's a four-hour drive. One way. And then I'm wide awake, as if these plans must be made now. Right Goddamned now.

Is it insomnia? Or just a fisherman's soul fighting the night?

It's cold in Stanley right now. It sits at the top of Idaho, and winter has an extra strong grip on the Sawtooths. Steelhead, 800 miles into their journey home to spawn and die rest, almost dormant, on the bottom of the Salmon River and, like me, await the sun and that final leg of the journey to the base of the mighty mountains. I hope to be there to meet them in a few months--that's a trip to Stanley I want to make tomorrow. Or at least that little angler in my head does. He's making plans as I type this.

Then summer and the mad rush to fit it all in. Maybe I'll sleep before then.

Monday, January 11, 2010

New Country



New country.

For a fly fisher, it’s both an exciting and intimidating notion. An unexplored stretch of watery landscape, foreign to your angler’s soul, pushes aside the contentment that comes with traveling the same road dozens of times en route to familiar water. Your head rests on a swivel. You take in the new landscape.

There’s something comforting about the familiar, like that little mountain creek you’ve fished since you were “this tall.” You know, the one that still sports that same plunge pool today, where you can drop a Royal Coachman in the soft water along the edges of the waterfall and catch the progeny of the brookies you hooked all those years ago?

As we cruised along a fresh strip of blacktop, watching the Nevada desert fly by in the hazy morning light, I was hundreds of miles away from my little brook trout stream. Hell, I was impossibly far away—or so I thought—from any trout at all. In fact, as we eased off the highway and onto a deeply rutted dirt “road” through the sage and the cheat grass, I asked my host, Jim Jeffress, “Are there really fish out here? Or are you taking me into the desert to hide my body?”

A simple shrug of the shoulders served as his reply—his focus was on the route, not the destination. Jim guided his big diesel truck up the questionable dirt track into the barren mountains, kicking up fat grasshoppers along the way.

Trout food. But trout?






The weather was, as Jim put it, “severe clear,” and the temperature this September day was pushing triple digits. Off to the right, a herd of wild burros—hell on the native vegetation, but much loved by the crunchy crowd—barely noticed our incursion into the backcountry. So enamored by this non-native animal are the PETA freaks, I later realized, that they ponied up some significant cash and hired a pilot to fly a banner over Invesco Field at Mile High during a November Bronco game. The message compared U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to a slaughterhouse foreman for his efforts to rein in these invasive, range-ruining beasts (and their wild mustang cousins) from the battered landscape.

Up we traveled, straddling oil pan-puncturing rocks and mounds of burro shit, over subtle rises that revealed more mountains in the distance. The view offered hope—aspens sprang from the rocky crotches of the peaks, and mahogany and the occasional limber pine started to show in the distance. The appearance of the familiar eased the doubt in my angler’s soul, but the notion of casting to rising trout in this austere landscape still seemed a bit far off, if not impossible altogether.

But Jim said the trout were there. Waiting.

And not just any trout. Tiger trout, the sterile laboratory-created offspring of a brook trout and a brown trout, lurked in the depths of this high-mountain mere, dropped in each year thanks to a Division of Wildlife bombardier. Once fishless, the lake was now rich with these surly denizens—products of that twisted salmo on salvo piscatorial experiment—that, with no ability to spawn, simply spent their lives eating.

At the trailhead, where a steep climb into a Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area awaited us, big mahoganies grew like olive-green umbrellas out of the dry, rocky soil. Their lower branches gone thanks to browsing deer and grazing cattle, the trees looked a lot like acacias, and the surroundings looked remarkably similar to the African savannah.

The trail pierced a sage-covered meadow as it wandered up the hill toward our destination—the snow- and spring-fed lake shielded on three sides by mountains and so remote, commitment was the focal trait for those who wished to fish it. While committed, I was skeptical. There’s water? Here?

We started up the trail, and hope again resurfaced as we left the sage and entered a stand of aspens. The green quaking leaves, just a couple weeks or so from their annual autumn celebration, cooled the desert air and hinted at the possibility of trout water ahead … somewhere.

Minutes later, we crested a rocky ridge and gazed down at the lake just a short walk from where we stood. The water reflected vertical cliffs rising from the edges of the tarn. The winsome cry of an osprey pierced the high-desert quiet. Like us, the cruising bird eyed the glassy waters of the lake. A rise ring. Another. Yet another.

Our pace quickened, and the unfamiliar became exciting—my gut tightened with anticipation, and I began a mental inventory of my fly box. Trout were rising. Strange, wonderful trout.

The air, noticeably cooler at this elevation, hummed with life. Hoppers flitted from underfoot. Mayflies—big gray drakes—soared into the sky from the edges of the lake. Behind us to the south and west, the desert spread out to the horizon, revealing the volcanic peaks of California’s northern Sierra in the hazy distance.

Packs dropped to the ground, and rods were hastily assembled. Line screamed from reels as three of us glanced only occasionally at the delicate work our fingers were doing with fly line and rod guides. Eyes were properly tuned to the lake’s nervous surface, where sips and gulps left the water in a state of perpetual anxiety.

Flies, hastily chosen and quickly tied to tippets, were doused with grease. Politely, yet barely so, we spread out on the lake’s rocky shore.

That first cast, offered to a target left behind by a feeding trout, was liberating, and suddenly the intimidation that comes with casting in new country to new fish in new water was gone, replaced simply with peace only a fly fisher can truly know.

I love new country.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Resolutions...


Just a few days ago, on the Trout Unlimited blog, I resolved that I'd paid my last rod fee of 2010--an entertaining day spent on a Paradise Valley spring creek, for a price, was enough to convince me that searching out hidden trout water (and, honestly, less-educated quarry) was more my thing.

It got me thinking about resolutions in general, and, given the time of year, I thought I'd jot down a few, just to get them on the record. In fact, if you're reading this, you're enabling my first resolution, which is to spend more time exercising the keyboard with some personal writing. I was inspired over the holidays by Bruce Smithhammer's blog entry in Mouthful of Feathers, a fantastic blog that's bird-hunting-centric and written by two good friends who, oddly enough, are just as at home behind the creative keyboard as they are with 12-bangers pressed against their shoulders and a Hun in the sights.

The resolution is simple. Write more. Maybe even every day, if time and circumstances allow.

The next commitment is even more basic. I vow to get my kids outside more this year. It's nothing new, really, but they're matriculating through childhood so quickly, that, with the oldest, I can sense our time together growing short--new interests are bound to overtake the soon-to-be teen-aged girl, and, while I'd love for her grow up, drive a pickup truck and spend her summer days as a fly fishing guide, I'm not delusional. She's a beautiful girl with smarts and ambition--I'll likely lose her to rocket science or chemistry in the long run. For now, I'm content to help her improve her fly cast and her shot with her new pellet gun. Same goes for my son, who has more questions than I have answers--finding those answers together while cold water runs over the tops of our toes is one of my biggest priorities.

I vow to walk away from the road more often this year. I'm serious. Blue lines call to me from inanimate gazetteers, and I will answer that siren song more often. This one is vital to my sanity.

There are others, like adhering to that decorative wall-hanging my wife proudly installed a couple of years ago. It simply reads, "Always kiss me goodnight." I will. I promise.

Happy New Year, all. May it be the best ever.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The world loses a fisherman...

Charlie Meyers, the long-time outdoor editor and writer for the Denver Post, died Tuesday night after a two-year battle with lung cancer. I will miss him greatly, both as a good friend, and as the living conscience of the Western sportsman--he was one of my heroes, and he always will be.

Growing up a young angler in Colorado, Charlie's columns and features in the Post inspired me to tread the trails and walk the streams of the high country. His work taught me to appreciate the 8-inch brook trout pulled from the transparent waters of unnamed mountain streams, as well as the trophy rainbow we fly fishers anguish over beneath well-angled tailwaters and big-water rivers throughout the West. The two, he convinced me, were very much the same--living, breathing examples of beasts adapted to their surroundings (not unlike Charlie himself, a Louisiana transplant who found a home in Colorado). But Charlie's work also instilled in me the importance of conservation, and, hence, the value of those priceless native cutthroats that, with a little effort, can still be found in their natal waters of the West.

It was only recently--within the last five years or so--that I got to meet Charlie and got to know him aside from the work he did for the Post. He was, first and foremost, a newspaperman. While he earned his greatest accolades for his writing of skiing and the outdoors, he was equally comfortable with newsprint staining his hands and engaged in a hearty discussion about Denver's old-time newspaper wars. I've often thought that, if the Post's brass had sought out Charlie's opinion on the state of the industry more often, the Rocky Mountain News might have folded long ago (not that I relish that sad day--growing up in a two-paper town has its obvious benefits). Having come from a newspaper background myself, I think Charlie realized it was quite the treat to visit the Post's downtown Denver newsroom and soak in the sights, sounds and smells that are unique to that profession.

But Charlie's gifts to the outdoorsman are what will one day make up his legacy. Later in his career, after he slowed down significantly in his writing of skiing and other winter sports, he ramped up his writing efforts in the hunting and fishing arena. He was an avid fly fisher, and he traveled the world with a fly rod always close at hand. And, while the recreational aspect of his writing was what likely appealed to the masses, he generally included a strident conservation message in his efforts. Sometimes it was blatant--he was known to call out members of Congress, the Colorado Legislature and the Colorado Division of Wildlife when the state's fish and game were getting short shrift from politics. Sometimes, though, his eloquent and conversational writing was simply laced with a subtle conservation reminder--he was one of the first outdoor communicators in the country to grasp the concept that habitat equals opportunity.

I will always fondly remember Charlie Meyers for his passion and his talent, but I will also recall a soft-spoken gentleman who, whether he knew it or not, became a mentor to me, long before I had the privilege of shaking his hand. And I will treasure, always, the kind words he used to describe me and my own efforts to reach out to the fly fishing community when he reviewed my book last year.

Charlie Meyers was my friend, and I miss him. I take solace in knowing that, if Heaven has a trout stream--and I'm fortunate enough to one day make that journey--I'll see him again.


-Chris Hunt

More on Charlie's passing:

Fly Talk
Denver Post photo gallery of Charlie
Woody Paige on Charlie Meyers