I’m up earlier today—the boat ride to the Nakwasina River will take almost an hour, and my guide Tad Kisaka wants to get a jump so we’ll have a full day chasing salmon. My stomach is growling, but to my chagrin I find that the hotel restaurant isn’t open for another hour! Fortunately, out of my third story window I spot a Subway shop just across the street so set out in my waders for a delectable (well, at least filling) flatbread egg and ham sandwich.
The Nakwasina was purportedly named by a Russian navigator. According to a 1949 geologic/place name study it reportedly means “fermented” in Russian. Doesn’t sound Russian, but who knows. According to Tad it’s loaded with big chums and gnarly male humpies. That’s the music I like to hear.
We are motoring out of Crescent Harbor where Tad moors his boat at 7:45 and then slowly through Ann Harbor which has a long no-wake zone. Big fish processing plants line the shoreline, attracting scads of noisy gulls and even some eagles where fish remains are dumped. I spot an otter swimming insouciantly on his back—that’s always a good omen! The mountains along our route are jagged and stunning.
Mount Edgecumbe, a volcanic peak, looms over Kruzof Island to the northwest of Sitka. As we reach running speed, there is just a light chop on the water, and the sun is peaking through occasionally. Rugged mountains line the route. When we reach Nakwasina Sound, the wind is dead calm and the surface glassy slick. We can see salmon surfacing here and there at the mouth of the river.
Tad navigates carefully through the shallow river flats upstream as far as he can, then we hop out and make a pile with our gear for the day—fly rods and reels, big net, backpacks and fly vests. Tad heads back out to deeper water where he’ll anchor the boat and kayak back in.
In the meantime, I head upstream to a good-looking pool where salmon are occasionally breaking the surface. I spot a dark line of torpedo shapes on the opposite shoreline—a big school of pinks!
I throw a long cast, using a double-haul to get the extra distance I need to reach the fish, and let the gaudy purple and pink streamer bump slowly downstream through the school. A couple of pinks follow it, then suddenly a bright flash and I’m onto a nice silver! The salmon tail walks then bores downstream with me in hot pursuit. After a good fight, she’s on the shoreline for a quick release. Great start! By the time Tad is back, I’ve got a half dozen feisty pinks.
Tad and I work our way upstream towards what he promises is the salmon mother lode. The pinks are everywhere in big schools, and in the deeper runs we spot some outsized chums. The fertility of these salmon runs never ceases to amaze me. Such natural abundance is such a treat to see…and reminds me of the sacred duty all of us have to pass it on to future generations unimpaired.
I see a couple of big chums hunkered down against the opposite shoreline and arch a cast above them, letting the bright pink fly drift slowly, tantalizingly in front of their hooked jaws. No dice after a half dozen perfect floats. Tad suggests changing to a Dolly Lahma fly, a black and white marabou fly that is deadly in Alaska.
On the first cast, one of the big chums rockets forward and inhales the fly, then erupts on the surface when I set the hook. It’s a monster—probably pushing 15 pounds! He does a 50-yard dash downstream, turns around and shoots forward through the riffles into the next pool, then back again. Compared to freshwater fish, salmon are like Arnold Shwarzenegger versus the girly men Hans and Franz. Here me now and listen to me later, they can fight! My 9-foot, 7-weight fly rod is put to the test, but holds. Tad runs downstream and positions himself to net the leviathan, but the fish eludes him several times. Finally on the third swipe, he’s in the net. One of the biggest chums I have ever caught…a beauty.
We find throughout the day we have to keep changing flies after catching a few salmon on one pattern. Apparently familiarity breeds contempt. I pause to lounge in the sun that’s beaming down, usually MIA this time of year. I few gnats are flitting around my head, but not to worry. All is copacetic. Until one of the little critters takes a chunk out of my hand. Gnats indeed—it’s a pestiferous swarm of no-see-ums, microscopic flying sharks smaller than gnats but with the biggest jaws compared to body size in the insect kingdom according to entomologists. I never dreamed I would run into them in Alaska. Mosquitos, yes, but no-see-ums?!? Luckily I have some bug repellant in my fly vest. It’s not the 100% Deet concoction I use in the Everglades, but good enough to keep the little buggers at bay for the day if I spray it on every hour.
The bugs spur us back into action—which continues in every deep run as we work upstream.
We find a deep, fast-running pool with snags all around, but manage to coax several nice silvers out of it plus some inks. Then further upstream we hit a big school of humpies, and a big male sucks in the gaudy streamer. He puts up a great tussle. Male humpies turn into gnarly looking creatures, with the trademark big humps and dog-like jaws. I always have to laugh when I net one—only a face mama could love.
After we release the big fellow, Tad spots a couple of ghostly apparitions with black tails among the humpies—tell-tale signs of silver salmon. I carefully place my fly above them, but they ignore it as it floats by only a few feet from their snouts. But then one turns and jets downstream and nails the streamer. Fish on! The silver scatters the school of pinks as he rockets around the pool. Such fun to pick up the odd silver among the humpies and chums—we’ll net a half dozen or so of the prized fish during the day. They are excellent eating—some of the best salmon—but I can’t bear to kill such beauties, so off they go to fulfill their destiny.
By early afternoon, we’ve explored a mile or so upstream and then hit a deep hole and a thicket of downed logs. We decide it’s a sign to work back down to the first honey hole. I insist Tad make some casts, and he immediately nails a big chum.
Then it’s my turn….and another good one comes to the net.
Then we’re back to the pickup point, and Tad slips in his kayak and glides out toward the mother ship. By the time he returns, I have caught eight more pinks—just too much fun for one day. Together we have probably caught and release 75 fish in a pristine wilderness setting. Not a boot mark anywhere.
As a bonus, it’s been another day of no rain—a big surprise—and the sun is popping out again, making for a relaxing run back to Sitka.
With all those salmon we have caught, I’ve developed a hankering for a fish dinner. Maybe some halibut tacos? Or fresh salmon sushi? Ah, such tough choices, but someone has to do it!
There are few things in an angler’s life more devilishly delicious than being able to piggyback a fishing trip on an all-expense paid business trip, especially to Alaska. I was treated to just such a moveable feast in September when retained to work with the City and Borough of Sitka. My assignment was to conduct an audit of their development codes and advise on how they might be revised to promote the community’s sustainability goals. I had a great time working with a very able group of community and tribal leaders.
When that was done, I was fortunate to tack on three days to my itinerary to explore some wild backcountry lakes and rivers. A week later after returning home to Colorado, I was still nursing a severe case of salmon elbow as a result of scrapping with too many muscular fish….but was getting little sympathy from my local trout fishing chums.
Sitka’s setting is spectacular, nestled on two islands with rugged mountains, peaks piercing the clouds, jutting up dramatically from the ocean. It’s a small town, only 9,000 or so folk, but is the largest municipality by area in the United States—almost 3,000 square miles! As might be expected in such a remote location reached only by boat or airplane, its inhabitants include many characters that remind me of Colorado mountain towns. Funky and eclectic are two words that come to mind to describe both the local buildings and populace. Twenty-five percent of the population is Native American, most from the Tlingit tribe (pronounced Clink-It). The so-called Oceanic climate and temperate rainforest can be accurately described as wet! 233 days of rain, 132 inches annually, plus a little snow. But thanks to the nearby ocean, the temperatures are moderate, though on the cool side. The average high temperature in August is only 62 degrees. In other words, bring your best rain gear and some warm jackets!
Sitka has a rich and varied history that adds to the fishing pleasure and time in between streamside endeavors. The Tlingit ruled the area for nearly 10,000 years before the Russians came looking for fish, minerals, and other wealth. The Russian American Trading Company set up an outpost in 1790 and soon thereafter a trading post called New Archangel. The enterprise had been chartered by Tsar Paul 1. Clashes with the Tlingit followed soon thereafter, and the warriors under the leadership of their brave chief Katlian drove off the Russians in 1802, destroying their fort (We’ll fish the Katlian River on Day 3). Governor Baranoff (upon which his namesake island Sitka sits) returned in 1804 with more firepower and eventually reclaimed the fort. An uneasy peace ensued.
The Russians built churches and other impressive buildings, one of which served as the site of the transfer ceremony for the Alaska Purchase in 1867.
Sitka served as the capitol of the territory until 1906 when it was transferred up the coast to Juneau. Growth based on gold mining and fishing. Famous authors like Richard Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, and Louis L’Amour in Sitka used the area for background in their novels.
Today tourism and commercial fishing drive the economy. Big cruise ships disgorge hundreds of tourists periodically during the summer months, and the salmon, halibut, and cod fishery make Sitka the sixth largest port by value of seafood harvest in the United States. The harbor, with almost 2,000 boat slips and fish processing plants, is a beehive of activity 24-7.
On my way in for the workshop, my plane from Denver to Sitka via Seattle and Ketchikan descends below the scudding clouds, I put down my book by famous local mystery author John Straley, The Woman Who Married A Bear, which gave me a taste of the peculiar town to come. Soaking in the scene, I swear I can see the salmon jumping!
Day 1: Redoubt Lake and River
I am up early, finishing off a hearty and excellent breakfast at the Westmark Hotel in downtown Sitka that’s my base for the week. You won’t find much “health food” in the restaurants here, where flapjacks and reindeer sausage reign. Then it’s back to my room to get suited up for my first day on the water. I walk out of the hotel, somewhat self-conscious in my neoprene waders, wading boots, rain jacket, and fishing vest, but no one gives me a second look. My guide, Ted Kisaka (pr. Kee Socka), wants me to be ready to hit the water. We shake hands, exchange a few pleasantries, then jump into his pickup and head to his boat in the close-by harbor. Fish await.
Our destination is Redoubt Lake and River, about a thirty minute boat ride to the south. Tad’s twenty-five foot rugged aluminum boat has a nice warm cabin. Amazingly it’s not raining and the sun is actually threatening to poke through. We navigate out of the protected harbor into the big water outside, which is only a little bumpy this morning. I am surprised to learn that we will have to anchor the boat and wade ashore when we reach our destination, then portage our gear into the lake where Tad has a small motorboat boat awaiting. Redoubt Lake is huge, long and narrow—nine miles by one. It’s 870 feet deep and has an odd mix of fresh and saltwater. The lake is fresh to 330 feet then has a dense saltwater layer to the bottom. The Russians used to harvest up to 50,000 sockeye salmon per year, but that run has declined dramatically. Our quarry today is fighting silver salmon as well as chums and humpies (also called pinks). Truth be told, since I haven’t caught a salmon in a half-dozen years, I’ll be happy with anything that bites!!
The scenery is breathtaking all the way, then we round a point and see the Redoubt River plunging over a small waterfall into the bay, which lies before us like glass. I hop out of the boat into the freezing water, thanking the fishing gods for my toasty neoprene waders. Tad hands down a bunch of gear to me, and I navigate cautiously through waist deep ice-cold water to the shore. Tad guides the boat out to deeper water—it’s high tide now, but will fall six feet or more later in the day so he has to anchor further out where we won’t get marooned. In a few minutes he’s paddling back in a kayak that was strapped to the top of the boat cabin. We organize our gear, load up, and begin the short trek through the rain forest to Redoubt Lake.
As Tad readies the small fishing boat, I see salmon cavorting at the far end of the little bay where he has secured the craft. The water is dead calm, and we decide that we’ll need to sneak up on the fish and make some long casts to avoid spooking them. So we opt to start with spinning gear—light/medium 6 ½ foot rods and reels with 15# test line.
Tad creeps us slowly, quietly towards the rising fish, and when we are within range, I flip a bright Mepps spinner into a deep hole at the outlet of the bay into the lake. On the third cast my rod is nearly jerked from my hands, and I’m onto a good silver salmon. But just as quickly he’s off. Dang! When I reel in, I check the hooks and find they are dull. Aarrggh! Rookie mistake. I sharpen up, and several casts later connect again. Another good-sized silver that puts up a terrific battle. A quick photo, and he’s off to his girlfriends. For the next hour we have steady action around the little bay fishing to surfacing fish that innocently give away their position.
My arm is getting tired, so I magnanimously hand the rod to Tad, who at first declines as a good guide will do. But I insist, so he makes a cast and of course hooks another good silver immediately! Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be a gentleman! Tad will turn out to be an excellent, hard-working guide, always attentive and looking to put me on fish, giving me tips and guidance in a gentle fashion. At the end of the three days, he will become a good fishing buddy. Highly recommended!
It’s approaching noon, so decide to explore the main body of the lake, motoring almost five miles to the upper end where the Redoubt River runs in. Tad hasn’t been up there for a while, so it’s a crap shoot as to what we will find. It’s getting late in the season for chums and humpies.
The 25-horse motor scoots us along the lake, and after a scenic 30-minute cruise, we anchor up at the river mouth. Enticingly, salmon are surfacing where the current eddies out into the lake. We switch to fly rods and tie on some big pink salmon streamers, wade out waist deep, and before long both of us are onto some nice bright fresh humpies. They only go 3-5 pounds, but look and fight ever so much like rainbow trout. Who can complain?!? Again, steady action for an hour or so then we gobble a quick lunch.
I ask Tad if we can bushwhack our way upstream. He says there is some good water above, but the going is tough because of a big landslide up there last year. The slide actually took out a U.S. Forest Service cabin, but fortunately the three anglers who were staying there were out fishing when the cabin was buried beneath tons of rocks and mangled trees. I’m game, so we motor to the opposite side of the mouth and wade ashore. Now I can see what he meant. Scaling the rocks and big downed trees is an adventure especially for an AARP member, but we finally make it…and are rewarded.
I flip my fly into a pocket behind a big boulder and let it drift, then suddenly a big chum is on it. Chums may not be big jumpers, but are bulldog fighters. The big boy comes to Tad’s big net very reluctantly. The action is non-stop for the next hour or so, with four or five pinks alternating between some hefty chums. In one pool above the rapids the water is slow and clear, so we can watch the salmon stalk and inhale the flies. What a treat!!
Finally we decide to head back to the little bay down the lake and catch a few more silvers before the portage out. They don’t disappoint. We explore a couple of shallow
fingers off the bay and score silvers in each one.
Now it’s almost 3 p.m. and time to portage back the mother ship. While Tad kayaks out to get the big boat, I wade deep and loft some long-distance casts into the water just below the falls. Something whacks my spinner hard, and I have another nice chum, then a humpie. What a great way to the end the day. Tad gets to see my rod bending as he motors back around the point 15 minutes later.
The trip back is smooth, and it won’t be long before I am downing some suds and a big hamburger at the Bayview Pub overlooking the harbor. Up tomorrow is the Nakwasina River where we will be wading and fly fishing for silvers, humpies, and chums. I’d better ice my elbow tonight!
How does your light shine in the halls of Shambala”
–3 Dog Night
Late August 2017
Last summer I stumbled on the proverbial angler’s Elysium—a hidden creek with big trout tucked away in a mountain valley deep in a Rocky Mountain wilderness area. For weeks I had studied maps, taken a gander at all sorts of trail and fishing guides, and chewed the fat at local fly fishing shops to ferret out this little jewel. Then in September, armed with all this intelligence, I strapped on my day pack and struck out to see if whispered tales of leviathans in that tiny creek were true. As I descended into the narrow gorge, I was treated to a scene right out of the Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s novel and Frank Capra’s film about a secret utopia in the Himalayas where peace reigned and people didn’t age. The low-scudding clouds suddenly parted to reveal a green nirvana with a beautiful stream coursing down it, bending and tumbling through meadow and canyon stretches upstream.
The Lost Horizon reputedly drew on Buddhist lore of a mythical, pure kingdom called Shambala whose reality is spiritual as much as physical. I felt that spiritual feeling as I wended my way down the switchbacks into the lush, broad first meadow. That day the sun shown, the fishing for outsize trout epic, and my spirit was calm and content. As I hiked out late in the afternoon, crossing the two fords of feeder creeks, I vowed to return to what I dubbed Shambala Creek.
Now almost a year later I’m saddling up for a horse pack trip back to Shambala Creek with my erstwhile fishing buddy, Bob Wayne. We have a lot in common. Bob is a recovering attorney like myself, and lives just across the road from me in the Everglades. Like me, he loves the outdoors and chasing sport fish both in fresh and saltwater. Bob is one of the most astute fly fishermen and accomplished fly casters I have plied the waters with. On the other hand, we are a tad dissimilar in other ways. He was born in the East and hasn’t been on a camping trip in 40 years (That might explain the big pack of baby wipes in his gear bag, six big apples for what he called digestive roughage, a $250 Thermarest camping mattress, and a his own personal tent to accommodate his sleeping needs!). We make a nice Mutt and Jeff pair with me at 6’3″ and Bob about 5’10” in his elevator shoes.
Bob is a bundle of nerves as he mounts his steed, a mule named Nelson. According to the apocryphal tales Bob recounts, he has never met a horse who hasn’t bit, bucked, or trampled him. Fortunately Nelson proves to be a gentle sort, and soon Bob is imitating Roy Rogers as he canters around the trailhead like an Olympic equestrian.
We are on the trail with our mountain of gear and outfitter by 10 a.m. and arrive at 12:30 at a commodious camp site I spotted last year, only a stone’s throw from the creek that will act as our water source and refrigerator for the libations we have toted to the high country. By 3:30 the tents are up, gear stowed, and we are headed to the first deep pool just upstream from our camp.
The rocks in the creek are super slippery, so after fording a feeder stream, we cross the creek and bushwhack up the overgrown far shoreline, growling at the snatching spruce and wild rose bushes. Finally we stumble through an opening in the thicket and emerge just below the honey hole I took three big trout of last year. We creep up slowly and what we spy makes our eyes bulge. A leviathan is slurping down big mayflies as they drift to the tail of the pool, which is barely 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. Being a gracious host and friend, I give Bob first shot. He drops a size 18 Adams parachute, delicately above the rising fish….and nothing happens. He repeats, and this time the big boy rises slowly and insouciantly inhales the fly. The pool erupts as the trout realizes he’s hooked. He churns the water, but Bob’s stout five-weight fly rod finally subdues the brute…or at least that’s what we think until he makes one last lunge for freedom and gets loose. He looked to be a cutbow in the neighborhood of 18-19 inches, huge for such a small water.
We agree to let the pool rest a few minutes, and before long another hefty one is rising, just upstream from where the first nailed the fly. As soon as the Adams hits the water, the fish inhales the fly and the fight is on. The pool is churning again like a whirling washing machine as the big trout makes a bid for freedom. This time I’m able to get him in the net for Bob before he can wriggle off—a fat, beautiful 16-inch plus rainbow! Bob has a wide grin on his face and fist-bumps me. I breathe a sigh of relief—the pressure is off his guide!
We again let the pool rest for a few minutes, then it’s my turn. I move to the head of the pool where the creek plunges over some small rocks and crashes into a boulder before it swirls into a deep hole in the pool below. Last year I got a nice one here on a dry/dropper combination, a big rainbow nailing a size 18 Two-Bit Hooker nymph that imitates the small mayfly nymphs clinging to the submerged stream rocks. I make a couple of casts along the boulder, but no dice. Then on the third I see a big trout jet downstream into the pool and realize he has my fly in his mouth as the high-floating Royal Coachman Trude dry is yanked under the surface. He’s on the nymph and promptly turns and jets upstream, trying to swim over the rocks into the open water above. I pull back hard, my Sage #5 rod bending perilously. Then he reverses course and heads downstream. If he gets below me, it’s curtains because with his bulk coupled with the strong current, my leader will snap. Again I haul back hard and he turns. The fight goes on back and forth before he finally comes to heel—a giant rainbow just over 18-inches long. The Two-Bit Hooker does the trick again. What a start!!
We explore upstream for a half hour, but it’s getting late and we are tuckered out, so decide to call it a day. Shambala Creek is an interesting one, with few fish in the long, shallow runs between deeper pools, usually at hard bends in the stream where the big ones hide. We don’t see another fish after the first pool where we struck gold.
Back at camp as the sun disappears behind the high palisades to the west, Bob (whom I peg as an aspiring pyromaniac) finds his niche as chief campfire maker as I cook up a delectable freeze-dried dinner of chili mac to which I add some fat, succulent diced hot dogs washed down with ice-cold beer that has been cooling in the creek. Fortunately the camp site is surrounded by scads of downed and dead spruce, compliments of the pesky spruce/pine bark beetle that is ravaging western forests, so Bob soon has gathered a gigantic pile of firewood for the evening and morning bonfires. We sit around the blaze for a couple of hours sharing belly laughs at ourselves, two geezers in the woods. A little assistance from Mr. Jim Beam steels us for the cold night ahead.
I hear rustling at dawn just outside my tent. Bear? Elk? Deer? No, It’s junior fireman Bob at work. By the time I unfurl from my warm sleeping bag and don a stocking cap, he’s got a good blaze going, assisted by a little Coleman fuel. I rustle up some hot oatmeal topped with peaches, then we wait for the sun to peek over the high ridge above our campsite. No need to get out early before the sun has a chance to warm up the water and stimulate the trout.
We start upstream at about 9 a.m., and hit the first decent pool at a bend in the creek just off the trail about a half-mile above the camp. Purist Bob renounces nymphs and casts the Adams dry that garnered his big rainbow last afternoon. Nary a look after several perfect floats along the undercut bank where the fish were hiding last summer. He waves me forward, and on the first cast, something big yanks my dry under, tugging on the Two-Bit Hooker. Both of our jaws drop as a hefty rainbow thrashes to the surface then takes off to the races. Fortunately the creek is wide at this point, and I have a lot of room to maneuver him away from the snaggy undercut bank. In a minute he’s at the net, a strong 17 inches.
We continue working up the creek, wading through long stretches of skinny water that seem to be devoid of any fish, large or small. So odd, because the water is fertile, every rocked chock-a-block with mayfly and caddis nymphs. As the air warms, a few mayflies begin to flutter about, and we spot some risers in a back eddy above a big boulder that has created a deep pool. Bob makes a perfect cast under an overhanging bush and immediately entices a rise, but flubs it. My turn….and I do the same. Then I get snagged and that puts the fish down.
On to the next pool, and we spot another riser on the other side of a large mid-stream rock. Bob executes a beautiful cast upstream of the rock into the pool, his line draped over the boulder. WHAM! A big fish nails his fly and bolts upstream. Before long, a gorgeous brook trout sporting outrageous colors is at the net, an impressive 15 inches, very large for a brookie in a small water like this.
Now it’s my turn, and I trudge upstream looking for the next hole. I spy a nice trout rising under an overhanging bush, in a nearly unreachable spot. The only way to wangle my fly into the enticing hole is to cast downstream and let it float under the grasping branches. The Trude rides the current, somehow avoiding the snags, and a big fish flashes up but misses the faux treat. Damn! I wait a few minutes and try again, hope fading. But to my surprise, the trout rises again and nails the fly. I haul back hard to force him upstream and out of the hole. It’s nip and tuck for a minute, but finally he’s in the net, a stocky, silvery 16-inch rainbow.
I look around for Bob to gloat, but he’s AWOL. I holler, and after a bit he emerges from the brush with his special solar eclipse glasses on. He informs me that for the next hour he will eschew piscatorial pursuits in favor of watching the moon shadow the sun, a once-in-a-lifetime event he informs me.
Since I have seen a near-full eclipse as a kid in Kansas, I opt for chasing more trout. And while Bob remains awed, in truth we are in a spot with only 85% shadow and the sun barely dims. Fortunately, the camera catches some spectacular images.
After the eclipse passes and we have a leisurely lunch, Bob and I continue upstream. But the water is getting thinner and thinner and good water scarcer and scarcer. Every good pool harbors a big fish—nothing less than 16 inches! But when the thunder starts to roll and thunderheads roll in from the south, we decide to head back. Good decision—just as we hit the camp, the rain lets loose. We ride out the storm comfortably ensconced in my big six-person dome tent, big enough to set up two camp chairs in while we enjoy a good bottle of wine. Finally the rain lets up, and Bob builds a fire and I grab some beer and wine from our “refrigerator”, then warm up a couple of big juicy steaks I had barbecued back at my cabin. My idea of roughing it as a senior citizen.
Bob’s fire keeps us warm along with a little help from Mr. Beam. I have come up with an excellent concoction consisting of Earl Grey tea, French vanilla creamer, a little sugar, and a jigger of whiskey that warms the cockles. Highly recommended as a pre-sleeping bag palliative for the near-freezing temps to come later that night! With our stocking caps and long-johns deployed, Bob and I retire to our respective tents.
The next morning we decide to head downstream into the cataract where the creek drops in a head-long rush for a mile or more before emerging in a wide meadow that is inaccessible from above. On the way in as we rode the horses along the canyon rim, we caught glimpses of some tempting pools where the creek butts up against the sheer palisades on its flanks then executes bends that create some holding water. Google Maps reveals there are a surprising number of these bends in the canyon where we expected the stream to be straight and wild and not likely to hold many good fish. It takes us a while to find a spot where we can traverse a steep slope down to the creek then continue downstream in search of the pools we sighted from above. It’s not optimal to work downstream when fly fishing as the trout are facing upstream into the current and can spot an intruder more easily, but that’s the only option as it is impossible to access the creek from below because of the sheer walls and then work up. We hack through the willows and brush and ford some gnarly marshy areas that clearly haven’t seen anything but wild critters in a couple of years. Finally we emerge at a spot where the creek executes a sinuous S-curve, creating a couple of deep pools.
I give Bob the first shot, and he delivers a deft cast that lets his dry fly float down a fishy looking foam line mid-stream. A huge trout rises slowly and sucks it in and proceeds to tear up the pool. Bob weathers the initial runs then adroitly eases the fish to the far bank. It’s another big rainbow that poses for a few shots before finning his way back to his station.
Now it’s my turn, and with confident anticipation I run my nymph through the long, deep run just above where Bob fooled his trout. Shockingly, a dozen casts later, I come up empty.
We move downstream to the lower part of the S-curve and see a nice fish rising just above a big boulder and in a pocket of quiet water just out of the main current. Bob graciously lets me have a shot, and the trout swirls at the Trude but misses. Second cast, it swirls again. Third cast, another look but a refusal. I switch to a small grasshopper pattern and get more looks, but no prize. I switch again to the Adams parachute that has worked for Bob and imitates the mayflies that are starting to float downstream. Another trio of more eager looks, but no hook up. Shaking our heads, we navigate downstream, vowing to stalk this guy on the way back out.
For the next couple of hours, Bob and I hop-scotch downstream, alternating wading on the slippery rocks or walking on the game trail featuring tall grass, downed trees, and wild rose bushes that parallels the creek on the canyon floor. Where the palisades drop right to the water’s edge and stop our progress, we cross the stream, often having to climb over huge downed spruce to continue on the other. On the way, Bob coaxes a pair of muscular fish on the Adams, and I lose the biggest trout of the trip that nails a #18 Tung Teaser nymph then zooms downstream before I can put the brakes on. My 5X leader parts with a sharp snap as the weight of the fish and heavy current do their work.
We break for lunch just below a scenic pool, then decide it’s time to head back to camp. I fool a nice 16-incher on the Trude and Bob a larger one on the Adams, then we’re back at the boulder pool where the trout said no thank you to me nine times earlier in the day. We creep up slowly and peer around the boulder. He’s still there and feeding steadily. I tie on the Adams sans nymph and through a curve cast around the boulder. There’s no hesitation this time and I’m fast onto a heavy fish. He rockets upstream, heading for some jagged rocks at the head of the pool. I struggle to turn him, my rod bent double. He lunges again and again, but the leader holds. After a marathon battle, I manage to ease him over to Bob and the waiting net. It’s a chunky 18-inch rainbow, the biggest of the afternoon.
That leaves one last pool, the one where Bob started the day with a big rainbow. He creeps up stealthily from below and pinpoints a cast along the sheer wall of the palisades. The dry fly floats jauntily in the current then disappears in a flash. Another enormous trout. Bob plays him cautiously, and after a couple of abortive attempts to bring the fish to the net, slides him up on the shore for a quick photo and release.
What a fabulous way to end the trip—a grand total of almost 20 trout, all bigger than 15 inches! Virtually unheard of for a diminutive creek. And nary another angler’s boot mark anywhere. Now it’s time to hustle back to camp—the monsoon rains are threatening again and we can hear thunder rolling down the canyon towards us.
We make camp to the tune of rain spitting on our tents. It’s 4 p.m., and a perfect time for our afternoon siesta. When we awake, the sky is showing a little blue among the dark clouds, so we hustle and get a fire going and cook up some mouth-watering freeze-dried teriyaki chicken dinner. Then settle in for a relaxing evening in front of the fire with the last remnants of our wine stock. But it’s not to be. Big drops of rain sizzle down into the fire as we scramble to get our gear under cover. Then it rains, and hard for a couple of hours, finally giving way to a clear starry sky when I awake around 3 a.m.
The good news is the next morning it’s bright and sunny, just what we needed to dry out our tents and camp miscellany before the outfitter arrives around 11 a.m. When he arrives, we are happy to see he’s brought an extra mule that makes packing our enormous cache of gear a lot easier and quicker. After a few memorial photos, we’re on the trail just after noon.
All’s well for an hour or so until my saddle straps loosen, and I lurch to one side. I hail our guide, and he jumps from his lead horse, runs back to me at the rear of the pack train, and gets things adjusted. But in the meantime, his horse decides to continue the trek without him, pulling the three pack mules behind. In the wink of an eye, the horse and all of our gear are out of sight! The young wrangler takes off in not pursuit, but in his chaps and cowboy boots, he can’t gain any ground. Finally after a mile or so hoofing it at a fast pace, he takes up an offer to take my horse and give chase while I walk behind. It takes almost a half hour before he and Bob catch up with the pack train, which is waiting patiently at a creek crossing, enjoying the shade and cool, refreshing water. I huff and puff in about 15 minutes after that. All our gear is in good order, and we have a good laugh before continuing. What could have been a disaster is just another good story to tell back home! Then it’s onward, up a series of steep switchbacks before we descend to the roaring little creek that will guide us up the wide valley back to the trailhead.
By 2 p.m. we are back at the horse trailer and loading our gear into my SUV. As I police the area for any errant items (missing the wading boots that Bob somehow leaves behind), it occurs to me that I probably won’t be back this way in my lifetime, a thought given my age that flashes through my mind when I visit most remote waters these days. So I wrestle with the age-old question of whether I should share this special stream—my Shambala Creek—with others? Bob lobbies to keep my mouth shut. It is so small and the fish so wild, it could easily be fished out by skilled anglers who aren’t into catch and release. Twenty years ago, I would have been hush-hush about it, not even breathing a word to angling friends. But now….So I decide to have a little fun with it all. Throughout this article, along with the photos, I have scattered telltale hints that the discerning reader can put together to pinpoint its location and figure out its real name. If you think you have the right creek, write me and I’ll let you know, along with tips and advice on where and how to fish it. Just promise to cherish this spot if you make it there and leave no footprints, only the trout you release back to the wilds.
Last summer I made my first foray into the La Garita high country south of Gunnison, Colorado, to explore the hidden waters of Chavez Creek and its tributary,
Perfecto Creek. (See my blog “Perfecto Creek Perfection”—July 2016). I had a banner day, catching dozens of frisky browns and brookies—but didn’t get to sample the waters down in the canyon where Chavez empties into Pauline Creek or the good-looking stretch above the confluence with Perfecto Creek. On my way back to the SUV last summer, I scouted that upper stretch and was surprised to see some big brownies scrambling for cover alongside scads of smaller brookies. I vowed to return! So here I am, up early and
driving the back road that snakes away from Cochetopa Creek and my camp site at Dome Lake State Park. About nine miles after I cross Cochetopa Creek, I ford Pauline and Perfecto Creeks on Forest Service Road 794 then veer left on Forest Service Road 740-2A, a faint dirt track that dead ends at an old corral above Chavez Creek. From the top of the hill neither Perfecto nor Chavez Creek are visible in the grassy meadow below. If I didn’t know better, I’d think no way there is anything down there deep enough to float a trout.
I am on my annual birthday week expedition in search of wild trout. Sadly, most of my pet streams near Salida and Gunnison are blown out, and the 4WD trails I navigate into some of my favorite backcountry creeks are washed out from the several weeks of monsoon rains. So I am heading south towards Del Norte in southern Colorado where the streams appear to be in better shape according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources water talk website. I’ve reserved a campsite right on the Rio Grande River just outside of Del Norte and will be in the lap of luxury with full hookups for my mobile fish camp.
I’ve done some research before embarking and have my eye on little Pass Creek, just off busy US Highway 160 near Wolf Creek Pass. According to Williams and McPhail in their excellent guidebook, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado,
Pass Creek is a little gem with some big fish, overlooked by anglers whizzing by to more famous waters like the Rio Grande and the Piedra. And with the weatherman predicting an 80% chance of rain every afternoon this week, another draw is that it’s easy to reach on a good gravel US Forest Service Road.
I spend the waning hours of the day getting my gear ready, wondering if I can catch (and release) as many fish as my years on earth—something I’ve managed to do the past few birthdays but a feat that is becoming increasingly challenging as Father Time marches on.