CAVEAT: The North Fork Road has reopened, but is still very rough. Call ArkAnglers in Salida, CO for latest information.
August 11, 2016
Monsoon rains blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico have been soaking us here in the Colorado mountains most afternoons. It’s no fun and dangerous to be up near the Continental Divide hiking and fishing when a storm blows in. Temperatures can drop from 75 degrees to 45 in a few minutes replete with mountain pea-sized hail that resembles snow. So when the weatherman predicted a sunny day this week, I fetched the day pack from the basement along with my mountain lake fishing gear and plotted a trek to a high-country lake I have been hankering to try–Island Lake far up the North Fork Valley about 20 miles west of my cabin near Salida. It’s perched at 12,000 feet just below Sewanee Peak that pokes up into the sky at a mere 13,132 feet. A thirty-year old guidebook I have tells tales of huge, but finicky cutthroat trout in the lake, a story confirmed in hushed tones by some local fishing guides. So I hit the road at 7 a.m. the next morning, figuring it will take an hour to drive up the rough 4WD road to the trailhead and another hour to hike in. Visions of behemoth trout are dancing in my head.
“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.” Henry David Thoreau
Late July 2016
It’s a cloudy morning at my campsite on the Conejos River west of Antonito, Colorado. I’ve slept in a bit late after a long day on the water yesterday, and anyway, rain is in the forecast. But by noon the sun is starting to peek out, and I’m getting the itch to explore. Given the late hour, I need to find something close by that won’t take hours to reach so settle on the Los Piños river, a popular stream only 20 minutes away. I have fished the Pine below Trujillo Meadows Reservoir near the New Mexico border and have had decent results. But I have never been in the more remote headwaters above the lake where the banks are not dotted by cabins or tromped by cattle.
I talk with one of the experienced old hands at the campground, and he draws me a little map. It’s a tricky route to the trailhead up the river canyon, so I am happy to have some directions, especially later when I find the topo maps are out-of-date. I load up and head out on Highway 17, over La Manga Pass and then hit the turn off for the Trujillo Meadows Reservoir just before the road angles over Cumbres Pass. It’s a beautiful drive, capped by a close-up view of the narrow gauge train chugging along the lower Los Piños on its way to Chama, New Mexico. I keep my eyes peeled for the sign for Forest Road 118 to the upper Los Piños and a waterfall that is a popular scenic attraction…then it’s off into the wilds, four-wheel drive at the ready!!
The gravel road is fairly smooth at first, but all that changes when I follow my hand-drawn map and make a right turn a couple of miles up the road. I cross a little creek that runs under the side road in a culvert, then switch into four-wheel drive as the road begins to climb and gets much rougher. The next waypoint is an orange barrel where the road splits, and I have been cautioned to stay left–and rightfully so. The fork to the right looks smoother, but it soon turns nasty, big rocks and muddy holes making it nearly impassable in places. Not to say that the left fork is a picnic. Passenger cars need not apply!! It’s four-wheel only. Lots of deadfalls across the road from the beetle kill (hello climate change) mean I have to thread the needle several times where the Forest Service has cleared the way. After a couple of more miles, that include a very rough steep stretch, I arrive at the waterfall trailhead…and find a cadre of ATV’s and a jeep already there. When I have more daylight, I want to hike up above the waterfall, which acts as a barrier to non-native trout, allowing the beautiful native Rio Grande Cutthroat to thrive. But for now I’ll go contrarian and head back down the road for a 1/2 mile where I spotted a section of the river down in the canyon that looks inviting! And I should have it all to myself. I suit up in my waders and carefully pick my way down the steep but short slope that is overgrown with wildflowers and bushes–this is a lush valley that gets plenty of moisture. I see fish rising in the pools!!
I’m cruising through the Wet Mountain Valley on the last leg of my annual migration from Florida, eager to get a look at my home water, the Arkansas River, to see if it’s fishable. My heart drops as I come down the hill into
Cotopaxi–the Big Ark is BIG. When I check the water levels later I find it’s running at 3,500 cfs–I fancy myself a strong wader, but don’t go near it when it’s over 750. AARRGGHH!!! Well, maybe the smaller creeks are in better shape….but no, when I cross the usually diminutive North Fork of the South Arkansas on the way to my cabin just outside Salida, I find it’s jumped it’s banks and is blown out. Plan B seems to be in order–maybe a hike to one of the high country lakes near the hamlet of Monarch/Garfield, just up the road. Next day I check in at my local fly shop, Ark Anglers, and get the good word. Ice is out on Grass and Hunt Lakes, two of my early season favorites. The weather report is perfect–70 degrees and sunny. My alarm is set at 5:00 a.m!! Grass Lake or bust!
Westward Ho! I am heading to Colorado for the summer, making tracks from the Everglades
to the Rockies to beat the heat and the rainy season. You know when it’s time to leave Florida when you step outside and your eyelids start sweating!! I’ve packed up my mobile fish camp and will be on the road for two weeks, taking the northern route this year through Georgia and Tennessee then west. I’ll be doing some piscatorial research along the way as sampling local cuisine and culture in two states I haven’t had the pleasure of driving the back roads.
My first stop will be Cape Canaveral and the Banana River Lagoon, near my old stomping grounds where I lived for
the past 6 years before moving to the Everglades in May. I’ll be revisiting some of my old favorite angling spots in honor of my good friend and best fishing buddy, Tris Miles, who passed away last year after a tough battle with lung cancer. We spent many good days together kayak fishing the Banana River No-Motor-Zone flanking the Kennedy Space Center.
The five-hour drive up from the Everglades goes smoothly, and I get set up quickly in a retro RV park called Carver’s Cove. Despite being in the heart of bustling Cape Canaveral, it has dirt roads and big old shade trees, not to mention some frontage on the Banana River. Then with some trepidation I walk down the narrow road to the dock to check the water conditions. I’ve been reading about the algae blooms, growing pollution, and intracoastal waterway fish kills here in the Banana and Indian Rivers. The water isn’t as clear as usual–more like a watery pea soup–but on my third cast I get a jolting strike….and after a brief tussle reel in a nice baby tarpon!! What a surprise. Before the sun sets, I have caught a few small sea trout, everything on a red jig head with a root beer-colored grub with a chartreuse curly tail that seems to glow in the cloudy water. It seems to be the ticket! So, with visions dancing in my head of high-jumping snook shaking their booty and voluptuous sea trout, I head back to an early lights out. The alarm is going off at 4:00 a.m!!
I’m headed out early again way before first light, creeping slowly out of the RV park in the dark, lights dimmed. I hoping to avoid waking my sometime fishing and drinking buddies in their nearby trailers, an august assembly of accomplished tarpon and permit fishing mavens. I’d have to explain how I could eschew those iconic game fish, instead pursuing a holy quest for as many barracuda as I can catch (and release) in one day. They already turn their noses up and make sport of me as the Kayak Cuda Buddha for my unfailing devotion to these toothy torpedoes! My destination for this quest is the colorfully named Toptree Hammock Key. The launch point is at the end of Niles Road on Summerland Key.
I’m on the water at first light, but even though the tide has just peaked, I am having to paddle rather than pedal in the shallow water as I head north. I can hear the fins below the boat scraping on the hard corals that dot this hard-bottom flat. Which is a good sign usually because barracuda tend to prowl these areas. Finally I make it to the old bridge that links Summerland to a series of smaller keys. It was apparently blown out partially by the last big hurricane, so a span is missing, and the trail to it from the ramp is getting overgrown. I’m continually amazed at all of the abandoned and storm-wrecked structures that abound in the Keys, testimony to the hardy and fool-hardy souls who actually lived on them, farmed them, and raised families before being driven off by hurricanes, bugs, disease, or the heat. Most are overgrown and wild again, part of the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. Maybe a harbinger of things to come as sea levels continue to rise down here. But I’m not about to let dark thoughts of climate change deter me from my barracuda quest! Those thoughts are better contemplated over a margarita.
As I creep closer, I see the falling tide is flowing hard around the bridge abutments, so I figure there must be some barracuda hiding there, picking off forage fish washing by. My first cast with the trusty Mirrolure MR18 is greeted with a solid hit, and a nice 20″ barracuda comes to the boat after some strong runs. A good start. But the bubble is soon burst as my kayak runs aground on a grassy shoal near the bridge, and I discover the water is only a few inches deep under the span and far out into the Niles Channel to the east. My hopes of joining the Century Club–catching over 100 fish–are starting to fade! So somewhat dejectedly, I head further north towards Wahoo Key, where I find another expansive, beautiful hard-bottom flat. I bail out of the kayak and begin wading in the beautiful clear water as the sun starts to light things up so I can see anything that moves. I spot a couple of long darker forms near the shore that seem to be moving and loft a cast that way. One of the shadows darts towards the sinking lure and before I can even crank the reel once, KERBLAM!!