The Corona virus has afforded many of us the time to fish and also catch up on reading and do some reflecting on life. When I’m on the water and catch a fish using a technique or fly I read about years ago, I sometimes find myself reminiscing about the best books on fishing I have had the pleasure of reading. Some taught me a new technique like using a dry/dropper while others were fiction and just pure reading pleasure. If you search online, you will find numerous of lists of the Top 10, 25, and even 50 angling books. Of course these lists change from decade-to-decade as new works are published, older books fade out fashion, or interests change. For example, the 1970s and 80s saw a plethora of tomes like Swisher and Richards Selective Trout that embraced a more scientific approach to fishing. Once you were done reading some of these, you were nearly qualified as an entomologist. Far fewer of that ilk have been published in the last decade. The list I offer here is entirely personal, and given my advanced age, I hope it introduces some of the best of past, especially pre-2000 publications, to the up and coming, energetic angling young bloods of today (AKA anyone under 40).
The format I have chosen is somewhat different than most other “best” lists. I find it hard to compare a serious literary work of someone like Tom McGuane’s The Longest Silence with a funny-bone tickling raucous tale such as Skinny Dip by Carl Hiassen or a technical tome on caddis flies by Gary LaFontaine. So I have divided my list into a baker’s dozen categories with a few select books in each. I end with a category of books I have yet to read but are “musts.” I will be posting the list in a series of three or four installments. I hope you enjoy perusing my choices, and would welcome hearing of any additions you may have.
Funny Bone Ticklers
Zen of Fishing
How To/Technical Expertise
Science and Entomology of Fishing
History of Fishing
Fish That Shaped World History
The “To Read” List
I distinguish this category from others by several measures. First, does the book and writing appeal to non-anglers? If it does, that definitely says something. Second, what do other accomplished authors who have written acclaimed books have to say about it? The authors on my list below are real craftsmen with words. And finally, was it interesting enough to be made into a movie?
1. The Longest Silence: A Life In Fishing—Thomas McGuane
The Longest Silence is a series of keenly observed essays about the lessons and insights McGuane gleaned from a lifetime spent fishing. James Harrison, a peripatetic poet, novelist, and essayist who himself wrote about fishing and whose novel Legends of the Fall was made into a movie, calls it the best book on angling of all time. I must agree. In his essays, McGuane takes us around the world fishing for tarpon to trout and introduces us to some memorable characters along the way. McGuane, who lives in Montana and continues to write and fish, wrote several other notable books on the outdoors and fishing including his debut novel, The Sporting Club, a dark comedy about the intergenerational conflict between young whippersnapper Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation. Sound familiar Millenials and GenXers? Another good read, Ninety Two In The Shade, a tale of a young fishing guide running into trouble in the Florida Keys was made into a movie starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates.
2. A River Runs Through It—Norman Maclean
Norman MacLean was an English professor at University of Chicago while I was studying there to become a lawyer. He never wrote a book until he retired, but when he did in 1976, Maclean produced a lyrical, heartbreaking semi-biographical story that became a blockbuster. One line in A River Runs Through It describes how many of us anglers feel about our sport: “I am haunted by waters.” In 1992 Robert Redford directed an excellent movie that was true to the book starring Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt. As an aside, Maclean’s son John penned a riveting book, Fire On The Mountain, about a wildfire that took the lives of 14 firefighters near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
3. The River Why—David James Duncan
How can any angler resist a book that mixes fly fishing, family, and baseball? However, this is a book that has probably been read by more non-anglers than any other on this list. The main character Gus is a child fishing prodigy who after he graduates from school sets out to fish his brains out according to a rigourous schedule on the mythical Tamanawis River. After he finds the body of a dead angler, Gus starts his real journey in life, finding love along the way. The author Duncan wrote several other acclaimed novels, and The River Why was turned into a movie starring Zach Gifford, Dallas Roberts, and William Hunt that unfortunately did not live up to the book.
4. Big Two-Hearted River—Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway won a Nobel Prize for his story Old Man And The Sea, so I risk sacrilege by saying for my money his Big Two-Hearted River, the concluding installment in his semi-autobiographical series The Nick Adams Stories, is a better one, especially for anglers. This tale is about a young man, Nick Adams, just back from World War I and suffering from shell shock, who takes off on a fishing trip to clear his head. Hemingway’s writing in Big Two-Hearted River is his usual spare, pure style. As a young law school student in Chicago and aspiring fly fisherman, I loved that title, read the book, and set out to fish the Big Two-Hearted River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Fortunately, before I set out I learned that like many in the fishing fraternity, Hemingway was damned if he was going to give away the name and location of a favorite fishing spot. It was actually the Fox River which I fished one summer between classes, a canoe trip that featured clouds of man-eating mosquitos, few fish, and ended in near disaster when our canoe flipped and we lost our paddles 10 miles from civilization in a dense forest. Fortunately soon after we started to walk out I spotted one paddle in a sweeper, and we were able to retrieve it and float to safety.
5. My Moby Dick—William Humphrey
Of all the books on this list, this spare short one is probably the least known and rarely mentioned in the same breath as any of the others. But as one reviewer wrote, “one of the finest fishing stories ever published, My Moby Dick is a small masterpiece about a whale of a fish.” In a nutshell, Humphrey spends an entire summer chasing with his fly rod a huge one-eyed trout that he serendipitously stumbles on in a small creek near his vacation home. Along the way, through his elegant, erudite writing, English professor Humphrey shows us what real literature and writing are like even in telling a fish story. Humphrey came to writing My Moby Dick after penning acclaimed non-angling books such as Home From The Hill and The Ordways. Thank our lucky stars he was also an aspiring angler and shared this hilarious tale with us. It is chock full of wry, smart observations about fly fishing and anglers who pursue trout. Here is but one example:
“I had never known a fly fisherman. Since my ignominious failure to make myself one and my retrogression to worms, I had not wanted to know one. …But even if I had known one, known him well, I would not have trusted myself to seek his help now. Indeed, I would have shunned him altogether. He would have surely notice my state of excitement. His curiosity would have been piqued. My eagerness, my impatience to learn and to put my knowledge to work, would have given me away. A wild look, that of one who has gazed on wonders, haunted my eyes in those days. Fly fisherment are a suspicious crew, and their suspicions run on one thing. My secret would have been guessed, and I would have been shadowed to its soure in Shadow Brook.”
A couple of other books that could be on this list are Howell Raines’, Fly Fishing Through The Mid-Life Crisis and Harry Middleton’, The Earth Is Enough: Growing Up In A World of Flyfishing,Trout, and Old Men. Raines had a storied career with the New York Times before he penned this book after a nasty divorce, producing a beautiful meditation on the “disciplined, beautiful, and unessential activity” we call fly fishing. Middleton’s book is a memoir of his growing up in the Ozarks and chasing trout with the two old codgers who raise him. In the process he learns not only the art of fly fishing but also about the beauty and value of nature in life.
The next installment of Best Books will cover Storytellers, Anthologies, and Oddities.
It has been my tradition over the last decade to take a solo multi-day fishing trip into the Colorado backcountry to celebrate my birthday. Helps clear the mind and get back closer to nature and the beauty of the world. This year I set up my mobile fish camp near a high-mountain lake and fished some old standby streams and some new waters for five days. To make things interesting and test my angling skills, I always try on one day to catch and release as many fish as my years on the planet. As my years pile up, it becomes more of a challenge. But this year, my first day out was a smashing success, and I was able to reach my piscatorial goal and even exceed it while scoring a nice slam—cutthroat, brown, and brookie in one day. OK, OK I won’t mention that monster cutthroat that got off . He was aided by a rascally brookie that helped him escape by hitting the trailing dropper on my two fly-rig while the big boy was cavorting about with my dry in his mouth. At least I landed the little brookie!
Now the pressure is off and I can relax even a little more on my second day out. I’m on the road early for the long drive to the trailhead. The temperature outside is a balmy 38 degrees. The weather report is for the monsoon rains to abate today, but as I drive down the bumpy gravel road the rain is spitting on my windshield, and dark clouds are hanging low over the nearby ridges. Suddenly, however, as the sun begins to peek through, the clouds start to lift and a blazing, big rainbow appears. Got to be some big trout at the end of that rainbow!
By 8 a.m. I’m at the canyon rim overlooking the small creek that I have never sampled, far in the backcountry. I scouted it out last summer, but this time around the hike down looks a little more daunting. Could be my knees talking. But then I see a few cows in the meadow below and figure if they can scramble down so can I. After a little searching along the rim I find their narrow path that snakes down to the valley floor.
Once I get about halfway I see I can detour to a gentler slope that emerges at a series of beautiful serpentine bends in the creek that shout “trout!”
I stow my lunch box under some bushes and take off downstream with my new Temple Fork BVK rod that the company was gracious enough to offer me as a replacement when I lost the top section of my favorite TF Lefty Kreh rod when bushwhacking along another stream back in June. It’s an ultra-light, 4# fast-action 8.5 foot fly rod made out of some new high-tech graphite, weighing less than three ounces. It has the power to make long casts that are often required in small creeks when the water is skinny and ample backbone to handle bigger fish in tight quarters when they bolt for brush in undercut banks. I’m rigged under a 5X leader with my old reliable #16 Royal Coachman Trude as the dry with a #18 Tung Teaser that worked well yesterday trailing a couple of feet below on 5x leader material.
My aim is to walk downstream about a mile and work my way back up for lunch, then after lunch explore upstream. Of course who can resist taking a couple of casts in the alluring pools on the way down. Certainly not I! The first one, a big pool at a serpentine bend in the creek, I approach carefully from below. While the water is at a decent level—maybe 20 cfs—it is very clear so any careless wading will quickly alert the fish. The water is shockingly cold as it was yesterday so happy I am wearing some waist-high waders that are made for hiking. I make a cast off to the side of the current to get a feel for the new rod and BAM! nice brownie slams the dry. He’s a fat 13-incher that will be the typical catch today.
I take one more fish then decide I better get back to the mission. I am aiming for a beautiful pinnacle that juts up downstream from the valley floor in the distance. I’ve gone about a half mile when I hear cattle moowing then start to see a steady stream of them going the opposite direction from me. Then more and more bellowing and finally I hear a whinny. A cowboy soon appears with two border collies. I’m in the middle of a full-fledged cattle drive!! After the cattle pass the rugged looking old cowboy and I chew the fat for a while.
He apologizes for interrupting my fishing, but I tell him I’m headed further down. I tell him I know, having been raised on a farm in Kansas with some cows, how tough a job it is tending the critters. He smiles and answers he agrees but wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world—lets him be in the great outdoors every day. I tip my hat to this sign of the Old West as he trots off.
As I proceed downstream I stumble on the site of what I am told is one of the cowboys’ favorite pastimes when they take a break from the trail—a cow pie Frisbee field. I am told tossing and catching these enormous organic Frisbees is a true physical feat and I can see why.
Unfortunately these contests have been temporarily banned here in Colorado due to Covid19. Maybe next time I’ll get to see the real thing.
In other 15 minutes I’m at the palisades and am greeted by a swarming flight of cliff swallows. I soon see why—they have created dozens of little mud houses on the sheer cliff. Talk about homes with a view!
It’s a treat to watch them wheeling and dealing in the air, then returning to the nests to feed their young. I decide to start fishing in a nice run a little further down the faint trail and immediately catch a couple of browns, then just as I am congratulating myself on my piscatorial perspicacity I hook and lose near the shoreline what looks to be a 16” plus cutthroat.
For the next couple of hours I proceed back upstream, catching two or three fish out of every likely spot—most are 12-13” fat and healthy brownies with an occasional 14-incher. About half are on the dry and half on the numph. Some of the larger ones are in the shallows warming themselves in the bright sun, and the fish get bigger as I work back up. I score a couple of doubles—two fish on one cast, one on each fly. One double results in a wild fight as the fish are both 13 inches and have a mind to go in opposite direction. I get several browns that go 14-inches, then just before lunch see one rising tight against the bank just below where a nub of brush sticks out in the run. I kneel and make a perfect cast upstream in the current, and as the fly whirls past the little protrusion a big brownie rises like an apparition and gently sips in the fly. I’m mesmerized watching the take, but finally snap to it and set the hook. All hell immediately breaks loose as the big brownie jets upstream with me in hot pursuit—this old coot stills has some wheels! He reaches some rapids at the head of the pool and immediately reverses course and jets by me the other way. He heads back to his hideout in the undercut bank that is loaded with snags, but my rod is up to the task, and I’m able to horse him away from danger. A minute later after a great tussle, I slide him to the shoreline.
I think this is a good conclusion to a great morning, and my stomach is making noises, so I walk up to a nearby big rock formation with overhanging ledges that offer some shelter from the bright sun, the temperature now pushing 75 degrees.
Now to get my lunch. Fifteen minutes later I am still looking for that pesky lunch box. I start to think maybe some animal got it or that a stealthy cowboy is now feasting on my victuals. I thought I knew exactly the bush I stowed it under, but how they are looking all the same. Finally after walking a quarter mile back downstream I spot a little bit of red under a bush that I walked right by earlier in the morning. There it is! Note to file: Tag the bush or tree where lunch is hidden in shade with short piece of bright orange construction tape.
Lunch is a relaxing affair under the ledge. When I finish I lounge for another 15 minutes rerigging my flies, substituting a caddis nymph with sparkling mylar ribbing for the Tung Teaser and then kicking back and watching the puffy cumulus clouds drifting overhead. It’s an activity that every angler should engage in a few times each season. Makes you feel like a kid again and helps recharge the batteries. Can you see the cloud that looks like a happy elephant??
I’m back on the stream around 2 p.m. and fish till 3:30. It’s hot now by mountain standards—and the water has warmed a tad. I have good steady action and get a couple more nice muscular 14-inch browns and several surprise cutthroats.
Finally I say to myself for the fifth time, this is the last pool. No sooner does my fly alight then the water explodes in a double hit. It’s utter mayhem as the two trout dash up and down the pool. Usain Bolt would have been proud of my speed scurrying up and down the shoreline, splashing as I go. When the duo finally come to the net I am amazed to see that the two fish I have caught are different species—one a brown and the other a cutt, both about 13 inches. While doubles are not uncommon, even on small stream, they are still unusual and a pleasant surprise. But in all my years of fishing, this is a first, a real rarity—two different kinds on one cast.
With a smile, I release the two beauties and think what better way to end the day. Also as I check the sky out, I see the cumulus clouds are starting to bunch up and darken. Time to start the hike out which turns out not to be as bad as I anticipated.
My wading staff helps me weave back and forth across the steep slope, and then I hit the cattle trail to speed to the top. Huffing and puffing, I come out a few hundred yards from my SUV and pause to look back into the canyon.
It’s been another fabulous birthday trip adventure replete with lots of fish, great scenery, and solitude–with a little excitement thrown in being in the middle of a cattle drive. I am already thinking about my next outing on little Nutras Creek, one of the few I haven’t explored in the La Garita Wilderness area. I’ll take one day off to rest the old body then off I go again!! Join me!
It has been a tradition of mine over the last decade to take a solo multi-day birthday fishing trip into the Colorado backcountry. Helps clear the mind and get back closer to nature and the beauty of the world, and no reminders of Covid! This year I set up my mobile fish camp near a high-mountain lake and fish several old standby streams and some new waters for five days. The annual monsoon rains started early this summer—thankfully, because we are in a serious drought—and rain has been hanging around off and on with more in the forecast.
I need to get in a full day on the water to reach my annual benchmark—to catch and release as many fish as my years on the planet—72! I’ve been successful each year, but as the years pile up, it becomes more of a challenge. Will the rain relent? Will the angling gods smile once again on a grizzled old codger?
Will my knees hold up when I hike into the canyon where the small stream I have my sights on flows?
Here goes! Come on along where the rivers love to run.
Did I fool 72?? See for yourself!
I made the grade just after lunch. Most appropriately #72 was a native cutthroat, a feisty little beauty.
Of course the proverbial biggest fish of the day gets away just as I am thinking of how I will be bragging to my fishing buddies. I am working up a narrow section of the creek between two broad meadow stretches. Instead of deep bend pools, I am suddenly hopscotching over rocks between fast-running plunge pools. I come to one featuring a big boulder that splits the current with a swirling deep hole of water behind it. Perfect spot for a big one….and it is. I drop a short cast right behind the boulder, and as my Royal Trude pirouettes around the pool it suddenly, but not unexpectedly, disappears in the maw of a big trout. The battle is on. It’s a full minute before I get a glimpse of the leviathan, a big colorful cutthroat that is pushing 18-inches! The biggest fish I caught earlier in the day was 14-inches. Slowly I persuade the big boy away from his hideout and then keep him from running downstream where he will surely break off. I keep applying pressure oh so carefully and have him almost to my net when suddenly my line is jerked sideways. Another fish has taken the trailing Tung Teaser nymph. This of course spooks my trophy who takes off running pell mell downstream in the opposite direction. I watch helplessly as my prize pulls loose. I am left with a lilliputian eight-inch brook trout. The skies turn a darker shade of blue as epithets careened off the rock walls.
But the story doesn’t end on that sour note. A couple of hours later I have joined the century club–over 100 fish–and have scored a coveted slam: cutthroats, brookies, and brownies. Not a bad birthday present!
My first trip to the beautiful remote Sand Creek Lakes high above the Wet Mountain Valley in Colorado was in 2017, a year of the big runoff. The Arkansas and local streams around my home base of Salida were blown out and muddy well into July. As a consequence, by mid-June I was going a bit stir crazy and had contracted fishing fever. I needed to chase some trout in the worst way, so I turned my attention to the high alpine lakes nearby. One in particular—Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe—caught my eye. I had heard tales of giant cutthroats there, which were confirmed by my high country lake bible, Tom Parkes’ excellent Central Colorado Alpine Lakes Fishing Guide. He wrote “The lake has large cutthroats (approaching two pounds)…” What sane angler could resist??
My next step was to research the trail over Music Pass to the lake in more detail. Even for a youthful septuagenarian like me, it looked to be a challenge—an up and down and up almost four mile one-way hike to nearly 12,000 feet with a good possibility of running into snow banks along the trail and around the lake. But the lure of cruising leviathans won out.
It was all worthwhile humping over the pass and crunching through snow banks on the trail when I got that first glimpse of the lake and immediately spotted the behemoths finning along the shoreline within casting distance. Parkes had not been exaggerating. That was around noon. By 5:30 p.m. when I had to hightail it back to my SUV to beat the dark, I was skunked! I had thrown every fly in my mountain fly box at them, had post holed through snow to reach the west side of the lake that was supposed to be productive, and had even broken out my ultralight spin outfit and thrown spinners like the normally reliable purple Vibrex at them. The cutts studiously ignored all offerings, the boys being much more interested in chasing the girls. Amore was in the air along with the distinct odor of skunk, something that had not happened to me in years! As I scrambled and grumbled back over Music Pass to the trailhead I vowed, like General MacArthur, I shall return.
Now three years later I am on the road from my cabin at 6 a.m. to make the Music Pass trailhead by 8. While the waters in my neck of the wood are lower and more fishable this year, the wind has been howling every day for practically two weeks making fly fishing nearly impossible. Today it is supposed to lay down substantially. I am resolute to avenge that ignominious skunk while celebrating my oldest son Ben’s birth on this very date, July 1, 35 years ago.
It’s an easy drive through the little hamlet of Westcliffe until I reach the Grape Creek trailhead, but beyond that the gravel road deteriorates quickly into a bone-jarring rough track suitable only for real off-road ready 4WD vehicles with an experienced driver behind the wheel. It takes me almost 30 minutes to cover the last three miles.
Since my trip in 2017 I’ve turned 70 and my knees aren’t what they used to be even a few short years ago. Could I make the long hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake again? I decide it may be wiser to head for the lower lake that requires about a mile shorter hike in, but is still up and down. Also, the fish are also supposedly smaller. I consult with my knees and get the green light only for the lower lake. Sanity thus prevails.
When I get to the Music Pass trailhead I am surprised to find six vehicles already there, reminding me the 4th of July weekend is coming up and many people are already out taking advantage of the holiday falling on a Saturday. Fortunately most will turn out to be hikers, not anglers. I quickly begin gearing up, stuffing my daypack with food, drink, and fishing paraphernalia. As I get ready to hit the trail, another vehicle pulls up and two gents about my age emerge. They begin loading up their big backpacks—at least 60 pounds—including packing fly rods. I strike up a conversation with the two amiable chaps, Roland and George, and learn they are setting out for a week-long stay in the Sand Creek Valley to fish both lakes. My daypack, although loaded to the gills, weighs probably a measly 30 pounds. So that does it, I can do it if they can.
Graciously, the duo allow me to play like a wily race car driver and slipstream behind them, saving some energy.
Still after a rugged 1.25 mile climb over a nasty trail to Music Pass, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet, I am wheezing and barely keeping up with the hearty pair.
We sign in dutifully at the wilderness boundary and decide to take a little rest.
The boys look worried when at the pass I do my imitation of Red Foxx’s heart attack skit—“It’s the big one!! I’m coming to you honey!!” Gallows humor I’m thinking.
After the hijinks, we are soon scooting downhill to the point where the trail forks—to the left leads over Sand Creek then up to the lower lake in a bit over one mile. To the right at 1.7 miles is the upper lake.
Along the way, we bump into a couple of young backpackers who tell us they had good luck in the lower lakes for cutthroat. I’m beaming! Also along the way, we get a sobering wake-up call as Roland, an agile 74, suddenly takes a nasty tumble on a scree-like section of the trail. Fortunately although he comes down hard on his back side and left wrist, he avoids serious injury. He shows his true angling colors by immediately remarking that thankfully he didn’t land on his casting wrist! It does remind me why I carry a Garmin InReach emergency satellite phone on these backcountry trips.
As we near the fork we say our good byes as they split off to set up camp in a meadow nearby. I continue on to the crossing over Sand Creek where I take a breather, resisting the urge to break out my fly rod and sample the scenic little water. On earlier trips Roland and George reported they had fun catching the smaller trout I can see finning in several pools.
As I cool off in the shade, I reflect on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which has a fascinating history including Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, and American explorers like Zebulon Pike and John Fremont. First designated as a national monument in 1932 as a result of lobbying by local citizens worried about gold mining in Medano Creek, the Great Sands Dunes were elevated to a national park and preserve in 2004. The core national park covers about 168 square miles, mainly the towering sand dunes, and the preserve another 233 square miles that encompasses the surrounding range of high mountain peaks and lakes, including Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes. Some activities such as hunting that are prohibited in the national park are permitted in the preserve.
After a brief respite to recharge my batteries, I ford Sand Creek by tiptoeing across the top of a log jam. My smile fades soon thereafter as I encounter the first in a series of steep switchbacks that no one seemed to have mentioned in their on-line posts about the trail. I have been back from my winter hideout in Florida for almost a month, but am still quickly wheezing as I pass the 11,000-foot elevation mark. It takes me almost an hour to navigate the final mile, but fortunately am distracted by a couple of curious deer and beautiful wildflowers between frequent breathers.
But all doubts fade quickly when I see the beautiful lake water and the magnificent Tijares Peak towering directly above at 13,612 feet. Tijares is Spanish for scissors, an apt name for the rugged, sharp-edged, serrated mountain and line of peaks that dominate the skyline. And better yet, no one is around!!
As I approach the lake shore, the wind kicks up unexpectedly strong from the north, not what the weatherman predicted. But then again anyone who has fished alpine lakes knows that the winds are completely unpredictable and are likely to change directions and wax and wane throughout the day. But if I’m going to fly fish, I need to find a sheltered shoreline. Then I remember that in his mountain lakes guidebook, Tom Parkes mentions a hidden cove on the south end of the lake that just might be the ticket. Sure enough, as I trek along the south shoreline, I see the curve of the cove, its entry having been obscured by a peninsula of land that juts out into the lake.
I hike over the peninsula ridge and immediately the wind abates…and better yet, I see trout dimpling the calm, clear lake water, and they don’t appear to be small as some posts reported.
I quickly stow my pack and start to rig my fly rod, soaking in the sun’s warming rays. But then it dawns on me it’s going to be a challenge casting along the shoreline here crowded with spruce and pine trees. And wading isn’t an option at this point because the bank drops off sharply into deep water. So I also pull out my ultralight spinning pack rod and rig it with an old reliable alpine lake combination of two nymphs—a zug bug and zebra midge trailing a clear bubble. As I approach the water to scope things out, I spy a good-sized cutthroat feeding over deep water. He’s too far out to reach with the fly rod, so I grab the spinning rod and throw a cast 15-feet in front of the cruising fish. As soon as the flies hit the water he jets forward at light speed and nails the zug bug without hesitation before it sinks even a foot! As I tussle with the cutt, I think I have the ticket to success. Surprisingly, it will be the only fish I take all day on the spin outfit or on a nymph. Such are the vicissitudes of alpine lake fishing.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flailing the water with the nymph combo, I decide to walk back from the point of the peninsula further into the cove where I see the water is much shallower. As I approach, I spy some big cutthroats cruising in the clear water, nonchalantly picking small bugs off the surface. I see one working his way towards me only a few feet from the shoreline and hastily tie a #16 foam beetle on my fly line, a morsel that has successfully tempted many alpine lake trout. The bank is lined with trees, so I have to execute a tricky cast parallel to the shoreline, leaning out of the water to give me room to execute. My efforts are rewarded as he sidles up to the fly, opens his mouth and …..darts away at the last second.
After several more casts with the beetle and no takers, I switch to a smaller #18 black ant. Soon, a nice colorful 16-inch cutt casually sucks in the fly. Now I think I’m onto the right pattern, but again a succession of fish scrutinize the ant but shy away at the last moment. Frustrated, I get down on my belly and lean out over the water to get a better look at what the timid trout are feeding on—some very, very small little midges. So I tie on a #20 black midge emerger, but still only get brief looks and no hits. I step down further to a #22 black midge dry with a white foam top that enables me to see the microscopic offering on the water.
I lay a gentle cast a few feet in front of another big cruiser and success! He sucks in the fly without hesitation, and the fight is on. He’s strong, but with my trusty old Sage 9-foot, 5# fly rod, the cutthroat finally succumbs, agrees to a quick photo, and is back on his way. From then on for the rest of the day, it’s a movable feast!
For the next hour in the cove, I hide behind the trees and wait, letting the trout come to me, often in pairs. I target the larger ones, and net a beauty that goes 17-inches!
The only glitch is a short period where several trout come up to the midge, examine it closely, then refuse to take. I finally conduct a close examination of the fly and discover a small wind knot in the leader an inch in front of the fly. In the clear water apparently the fish can see this tiny glitch. I retie, and the fish again cooperate. By noon I have caught a dozen more beautiful cutthroats of several varieties. Some look like natives and other the more colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat that have been stocked here. Who am I to quibble?
After lunch I decide to work around to the south end of the cove where two creeks feed in.
On the way I continue sight fishing for cruising fish in the shallow flats, having a blast trying to lay the fly in their path, close but not too close to spook them. Luckily there are no trees crowding the shoreline so the casting is easy.
I’m successful about one out of four tries. When I get to the creeks, I find smaller fish already spawning there, but the big girls and boys are cruising and feeding just off-shore, often within casting range in two-three feet of water. By 3:30 p.m. I have caught another dozen, including a showy 16-incher.
It’s been one of the best days I have had in years on an alpine lake, where the fish can often be extremely finicky. It’s certainly been the most fun—sight fishing for big trout and getting to watch them take in the crystal clear water! And the odor of skunk has definitely dissipated in the clean mountain air.
Now it’s time to head home. Last trip it took me two hours to hike out, but now it will be closer to three. As I start trekking back down towards the fork on the steep switchbacks, my knees immediately start complaining—going down is often tougher than hiking up. So I slow down and take a little time to reflect on the 72 years I have had on this beautiful planet. Thirty-five years ago at noon in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, hospital I first held my oldest son Benjamin in my arms. Back then fathers were not allowed in the delivery room but had to wait in a little waiting room for nervous dads just down the hall. I suddenly heard a baby cry, and then a nurse appeared with small bundle. Ben squinted up at me, his expression seeming to say, “Who’s that!” Now 35 years later he’s grown into a fine young man who excelled academically at Colorado College and then studying for his master’s degree in history from Texas A&M—who would have thought I would have ever raised an Aggie!! Now he works for a law enforcement agency using his smarts to track down the bad guys. I reflect on how lucky I am to have two good boys—his younger brother Matthew is a wonderful, doting father to my #1 sweetheart and fishing buddy Aly.
I suppose most fathers ask at some point as they age what they would have done differently, how they could have done better for their children. I tried to give my boys a world view and to stoke their curiosity by taking them on trips to Africa, Great Britain, Greece, the Boundary Canoe Waters of Minnesota, and other interesting places. I was happy to pass on my love of tennis to them—both played varsity for East High, a big public school in Denver, and could handle me on the courts by the time they were seniors. Matthew even won the Denver Public Schools doubles championship. We had great fun along the way peeling around Denver in that old 1987 Corvette and lots of fun camping and fishing in the streams of lakes of Colorado and exotic places like the Boundary Waters for northern pike and smallmouth bass and the backcountry of Alaska for salmon and grayling. I hope they will always stay curious and also remember that if you follow all the rules you’ll miss all the fun.
I probably traveled too much on business in the 1990s when I was starting my land use consulting firm, having been fired with just three days notice from my job as an agency head in Denver by a new mayor. But fortunately they had a wonderful mother who filled the gaps I left and gave them much more. I think many guys in my generation were that way, putting business and work ahead of family at times, but there’s nothing like being unemployed with two kids at home to focus your attention. If I had to do it over again, I would draw brighter lines between work and the rest of my life.
My musings are abruptly interrupted as I start the steep climb up from the trail fork to the top of Music Pass.
I finally make it with the assistance of numerous short stops in the shady spots along the route, pausing to admire the wonderful views and wildflowers.
But the worst is yet to come. The mile-long plus trail from Music Pass to the trailhead is in terrible shape—eroded and strewn with loose rocks, a sad commentary on how this wealthy nation has short-changed its agencies that take care of our public lands.
I nearly lose it twice, my legs slipping out from under me as the rocks break loose under my feet, saved only by my hiking pole slowing my abrupt descent.
I realize, sadly, that this will probably be the last time I will hike to the Sand Creek Lakes. My knees are just not up to it, the penalty for playing too much tennis and basketball in my earlier years. Not that I regret that, but just end up now paying the price. Indeed I will be hobbling around for a couple of weeks after this hike. I know, happily, there are still lots of remote places with fish to explore that will not require what one of my fishing buddies wryly calls a DDM—Duerksen Death March. I’m already planning that for that one in a couple of weeks, a secret little creek I stumbled on last summer with relatively easy access and just loaded with wild trout! More on that one in my next article!!
P.S.—If you want to sample the fabulous cutthroat fishing on either of the Sand Creek Lakes, do it soon. The National Park and U.S. Forest Services have plans to restore the Sand Creek drainage, including both lakes, with native, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. That will mean poisoning all existing fish in the lakes and creek. Check the status of these plans on-line before you go.
One of the real satisfactions and enjoyment I get from my Facebook fishing groups is reading posts from young 20- and 30-something anglers like my son as they hone their fly fishing skills while catching (and releasing) some beautiful muscular trout here in Colorado. But I have to admit to an urge to scream and gnash my teeth when these young bloods refer to their trophies as Toads, Slabs, and Pigs/Hogs. I think some of this jargon may have been imported from booyah southern bass fishermen, but whatever the case it seems sacrilegious to use four words in the English language that conjure up ugliness to describe something so rare and stunning or to introduce those terms into the gentle and civilized sport of fly fishing! So in the spirit of imparting some tips on nomenclature from an irascible septuagenarian who has been chasing trout for over 50 years, I offer the following guidance on acceptable terminology for describing your trophy.
First, a short primer on what is NOT allowed:
TOAD—this is what a toad looks like:
SLAB—this is what a slab looks like:
PIG/HOG—this is what a pig/hog looks like:
Now that those pejorative descriptive terms have been banished from your youthful vocabularies, here are some suggestions for more appropriate adjectives to describe your outsized catch: Monster, Huge, Gigantic, Gargantuan, Colossal, Titanic, Whopper. And for those of you who want to project a more erudite, cultured aura, please consider Leviathan or Brobdingnagian.
Thank you, dudes, for considering this rant from an increasingly curmudgeonly old codger. Please resume fishing at your earliest opportunity.