Monday, March 28, 2011

What are Your Top Five Rocky Mountain Bars?

Just as an aside to my last post, and inspired by a quick trip through Montana and central Idaho, I wanted to take a quick poll. What are your top five mountain-town bars (or, if you don't have a lot of experience in the Rockies, what are you top five bars, period)?

Here are mine:

1. The Lariat, Buena Vista, Colorado
2. The Moose, Dillon, Montana
3. The El Rancho, Durango, Colorado
4. The Victoria Tavern, Salida, Colorado
5. The Roosevelt, Ketchum, Idaho

The honorable mention list: The First National, Pocatello, Idaho; the Green Parrot, Buena Vista, Colorado; The Enterpise, Rico, Colorado; The Scotia Inn, Scotia, California; Timbers, Gunnison, Colorado.

Let's see your Top Five. Enjoy.

I Love This Bar...

The floors creak with age, and the wood planks are seasoned with alcohol, tobacco and probably a little blood.

The stale scent of years-old booze drizzled across the room for reasons too numerous to count is oddly welcoming to the senses. It only takes a quick glance around this space to know this is where an eclectic mix of folks gathers to drink.

It's where the old hippy sits next to the cowboy at the end of the bar, where they laugh at each other's jokes. It's where the college kid drinks hard because he can. The next stool over is occupied by the kid's dog–a mutt named Bourbon. It's where the middle-aged woman, who might have been pretty once, spends her afternoons staring sadly into a beer mug, as if remembering the days when she used to turn heads when she walked through the doors. There are stories in this old bar. Lots of stories.

And there's a bar like this in almost every mountain town in the Rockies. From the Dirty Shame in Yaak, Montana to the Buffalo Bar in Silver City, New Mexico, and all points in between, neon signs invite all comers to sit down, have a drink and wash away the day. Bars like the Moose, in Dillon, Montana, or The Lariat in Buena Vista, Colorado, shelter secrets, introduce future lovers, shield the rest of the world from language heard nowhere else and stand sentry over an occasional fist fight. Or worse.

But on their worst days, these taverns are an escape, a recluse for the tired and thirsty. A safe haven, where, amid the "How's it going?" and the "How ya been?" and the "How was the fishing?" there is rhyme and reason and an affordable glass of Irish whiskey to douse a million worries. On their best days, these retreats are places of celebration, where the camera can be passed around and memories captured for eternity in megapixels. Where beer goes down easy and the jukebox alternates between classic vinyl and hip hop, with a little Jimmy Buffett thrown in to make smiling that much easier.

Amid the chaos of a Rocky Mountain tavern, there is stability. Comfort. Walking into a familiar mountain town watering hole is like slipping on an old pair of sneakers. The faces are different, but the characters are all the same. The cryptic (and not so cryptic) scrawlings on the bathroom walls are generally the same, but the names and numbers differ, presumably to protect the innocent. The mounted elk, deer or moose oversees the space, holding court over a diverse mix of patrons who only meet there, and nowhere else.

We all have our bar stories, and we all have our bars. In these sacred haunts, familiarity breeds fondness. Memories of good conversations, good music, maybe a dance or two, all soak into the walls and become part of the ambiance. Bars, unlike any other structure, actually emote–you can feel it when you walk in the door of a good one. It coats all who enter, and the willing gladly absorb the feel of a good Rocky Mountain tavern.

Take a minute the next time you walk through the doors of your bar, or through the doors of any good pub. Let it feel you, and take the time to feel it. Smell the stale beer, or the popcorn machine. Listen for laughter. Or tears. Look around.

Find an empty stool. Order a Jameson on the rocks, and tell the bartender I said hello.

Friday, March 18, 2011

EMBT in the Idaho State Journal

I've recently begun writing again for the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello, the paper I left in 2005 after going to work for Trout Unlimited. I'll be writing monthly columns for the paper. This first one, on the plan to restore native Yellowstone cutthroats to Yellowstone Lake, appears today. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Trade Association that 'Gets It'

Congratulations to the American Fly Fishing Trade Association for its foresighted offer to match up to $2,500 in donations for the effort to fight Utah's draconian stream access law, which was put into place last year and basically denies common-sense access to waters that should be the domain of the low-impact angler.

Last year, the Utah Legislature severely limited public access to hundreds of river miles in Utah, throwing that state's access laws back into the Stone Age, along with Wyoming and Colorado. The irony is that states with conventional high-water mark access laws (think Montana and Idaho, for instance) benefit economically from the angling community that will throw down hundreds of dollars a day in rural communities, so long as they can fish quality waters without worrying about some cheesed-off landowner running them off with a shotgun.

The idea that an individual can "own" the river bottom hearkens back to the European land-management model that stinks of phrases like, "the King's deer." Only in this case, Utah (and Wyoming and Colorado) anglers who buy licenses that support fisheries management efforts do so to indirectly support quality fish habitat they'll never get to enjoy. So, perhaps the "King's trout" is a more appropriate reference.

Congratulations to AFFTA for once again demonstrating that it's a stalwart friend of the "little guy," and for continuing its efforts to be proactive on the conservation front. The protection of--and access to--high-quality habitat translates directly into fishing opportunity. And, from the local fly shop to the biggest rod manufacturer, that access translates directly into economic activity.

If you're a local fly shop, or an establishment that caters to the fly fishing community in even the smallest way, consider, first, joining AFFTA. Second, consider sending a few bucks to the organization so it can continue to stick up for access and opportunity.

Thanks AFFTA. We at EMBT truly appreciate your efforts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tenkara for Japan

It's a small gesture, but one that's highly appropriate and, for those of who've spent the last week watching the ever-deepening disaster in Japan, it's been a bit inspiring.

Tenkara USA is doing its best to suppor relief efforts in Japan. Let's do our part, too.
As many of you know, Tenkara is a form of Japanese fly fishing that's been around for centuries, perhaps even before we started adding "A.D." after the numerals denoting our years. Tenkara USA, the leading purveyor of all things Tenkara here in the New World, is auctioning off a gorgeous Tenkara net, with the proceeds going to the relief effort in Japan.

Every day, the news seems to get more and more dire, and as we continue to be fascinated by the power of nature, the dangers associated with the most fragile of technologies and the sheer scope of the entire chain of events, let's not forget that, although they're half a world away, they're people and they're suffering mightily. So, even if you can't afford to buy the net online, take a minute and send what you can to our friends in the Far East. Here's a good place to start.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fishless, not Fruitless

Tom Sadler on the Rapidan.
"It's not all about the fishing."

It's an old, dependable fall-back, utilized frequently after "bad" days on the water. But truthfully, it's an appropriate fall-back after days like this one. All hell broke loose the night before, unleashing a spring snowstorm on Appalachia that put the river's brookies on the bottom in what could only be described as a state of confusion. Water, while clear and cold, was uncommonly high and fast.

The remnants of an Appalachian snowstorm.

The day was clear and a little crisp, and even though spring is on the horizon, it felt like winter. And, with wind-blown snow clinging to the oak and hickory trunks of the thick Blue Ridge forest, it looked wintry enough.

We gave it a whirl, our Tenkara rods testing every pool that wasn't flowing madly with post-storm runoff. As the sun hit the trees, the ice that worked so feverishly to attach itself to every tree branch overhead the night before melted loose and plunged to the forest floor, almost making it seam as if it was snowing all over again.

Swollen and cold, the Rapidan hurries off the Blue Ridge.
But, as we proved in our fishless prospecting, walking the banks of a beautiful backcountry stream on the shoulder of a new, promising season, it's not always about the fishing.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Holy Water

Holy water.

It's kind of like porn... you know it when you see it. When I got my first look at the Rapidan, I knew.

Truthfully, it's a bit unassuming. It's not unlike the scores of other trickles that become creeks that eventually dump into the big waters along the Eastern Seaboard that eventually find their way to the sea. It's got the boulders and the plunges, the slicks, and the deep, clear pools where, during the warmer months, brook trout gather in congress and race each other to the surface after dry flies.

That said, the Rapidan is ... seductive. It's one of those streams that's wonderfully satisfying to the imagination. For the first-timer, it's captivating. As we drove up the rough dirt road into Shenandoah National Park, we'd catch an occasional glimpse of the river through the winter-naked hardwood forest. For me, it was like a good fireworks show. At every glimpse of the river, I'd see a deep green pool, or a frothy, white cataract rushing over time-worn rock, and I'd let out a gasp of audible appreciation. I hadn't wet a line, but already I was picturing wild brook trout attached hopelessly to a tight line.

The river in early March is just starting to come to life, to emerge from winter. The trees are still bare, but  there's the promise of green the eye can almost see with a long, deliberate stare into the woods. In a few short weeks, the dogwoods and the redbuds will bloom, and the forest will shield the river from view almost entirely.

But this day, the river revealed herself just enough to elicit excitement, and, for a lover of brook trout where brook trout belong, I was plenty turned on. All I was missing was a pocketful of singles and a $10, watered-down cocktail.

Tom Sadler targets the Rapidan's brookies
with his Tenkara rod.
My good friend Tom Sadler and I had concocted this visit in the early days of February, when the thought of small-stream angling seemed incredibly foreign to me from my basement man cave amid the white and wintry environs of frigid eastern Idaho. At home, the backcountry wouldn't be ready for an earnestly cast fly for months, but in the heart of Appalachia, the brookies would be looking up.

At least we hoped.

Tenkara rods at the ready, Tom and I wandered down to the river over the forest floor carpeted in last fall's leaves. After a few fly combination concoctions, we settled on a high-floating Adams as an indicator trailed by a small bead-head nymph–Tom went with a Copper John, and I trailed the dry with a small black stonefly imitation, largely because Tom had seen the real thing after turning over a rock or two when we got to the water.

Carved violently into the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, the Rapidan is the kind of river the ancients had in mind when they created the Tenkara system. The long, supple rod reaches just far enough, and allows for pinpoint casts and ideal drifts among the manic currents of a river whose water can't make up its mind.

Keeping in mind that winter was technically still upon this temperate clime, we anticipated sluggish native char that might need to have their Trojan meals delivered to directly to them. While that proved true early in day, we were later able ditch the droppers altogether–the brookies hit dries as the day wore on, sometimes with the determination they can't be trusted to exhibit until the weather warms and the trees sport summer attire.

A Rapidan brookie. God bless cold, clear water.
On one occasion, a large fish charged the Adams and came nearly all the way out of the water in the process. Sadly, I missed the brook trout, but I was no less thrilled at the sight.

Tom is a full-on Tenkara convert, and I'm slowly becoming more appreciative of the counterculture fly fishing technique. On this day, on the Rapidan, I began to appreciate Tenkara, not for its quirkiness or its "next big thing" allure, but for its sheer effectiveness. With twelve feet of rod to maneuver, and about the same amount of level line, there is virtually no nook, cranny or crotch of the Rapidan that can't be fished with an ideal drift. The Tenkara, if we were up to no good, could be a deadly troutslayer on a stream like the Rapidan.

We caught a reasonable amount of fish–truthfully, more than I expected, given the gray, overcast day on the shoulder of winter–on my first visit to the Rapidan. And we took the obligatory detour to river's genesis, where the Mill Run and the Laurel Run collide just below a destination that's nearly as his historic as the river itself.

The Brown House
In the 1930s, President Hoover constructed "the Brown House," a Blue Ridge retreat situated right between the two streams that converge to form the Rapidan. Today, the site is a tourist destination mostly, although both the Laurel Run and Mill Run are perfectly fishable. We didn't bother on this day, choosing instead to fish the mainstem of the Rapidan itself. But it was good to see the presidential hide-away positioned atop the river, and it's good to know that, eighty years ago, an American president could be seduced by the Rapidan's trouty visage.

I'm grateful for the chance to experience one of our country's signature trout waters, and I'm humbled that the river's native brookies fell for a few of my offerings on this cloudy March day.

And I look forward to visiting the Rapidan again and seeing her in a new, but equally alluring outfit that changes patiently with the seasons. Thanks Tom and Matt. I owe you one.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Good Company

Time: 2:20 a.m.
Location: Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
Status: Whiskey bottle has a good dent in it. Down a couple of good cigars.
Animal House quote that comes most immediately to mind: "Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son."
-Dean Vernon Wormer

OK... that might be a little harsh. It's just that the room is spinning, and in a scant six hours, I have a date with the Rapidan. Well, OK... seven hours. Maybe eight. Point is, I'm fishing the Rapidan, holy water for brook trout devotees, sometime in the very near future.

I've commandeered a room from my good friend Tom Sadler, the author of Dispatches From Middle River, and we're visiting the storied stream–at least once–over the next couple of days. But first, we had to tip back a few drinks, splay the world's problems out before us like a gutted trout and set about solving them.

Turns out, the world has a lot of problems. But I think we're game. If we can make progress on the State of the Sporting World, and put a respectable amount of space between the bottom of the cork and the top of the whiskey line in a good bottle of hooch, we should be all set.

Stay tuned to the blog over the next couple of days. We'll whittle away at all those problems, and, in the meantime, we'll work that whiskey bottle down to a respectable level.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guest Blogger Gets Tazed for a Good Cause

Eat More Brook Trout guest blogger Liza Raley, in her position as a Classy 97 radio DJ here in Idaho Falls, attended the Idaho Falls Police presentation at the Idaho Falls Rotary Club today, where she volunteered to help the police demonstrate the effectiveness of the taser.

About 50,000 volts later, Liza could be hear muttering, "I'd rather be fishing Warm River with my Tenkara rod..."

Here's to the brave and beautiful Liza ... If she can endure a tazing, that eight-mile forced march into the Yellowstone backcountry to chase cutthroats this summer is going to be a piece of cake.