The Second-Best Month? By, Jack Bombardier
The Second-Best Month? By, Jack Bombardier
When I was a kid, my favorite month of the year was June, mainly because it is when school let out. (This was way back in the Before Times when “school” was an activity held in an actual building you had to walk to, and not on a laptop on your kitchen table). Having school canceled due to snow was like having an extra Christmas Day. Eventually, I learned to tolerate school if not love it. But I always enjoyed the months in between classes much more than the school itself.
As I grew older October became my favorite month, especially once I had shed the bonds of college. October in New England is simply amazing, with the Jackson Pollack kaleidoscope of colors everywhere you looked. The weather was mild, rivers running clear, and if you were on Cape Cod, the ocean waters kept things warmer than on the mainland.
When I moved to Colorado 35 years ago and began to focus on fishing more, October meant spawning brown trout, and the best time to fish of the year no matter where you were in the mountain west. Rivers are lit with the golden hues of the aspens and cottonwoods, and even if the foliage didn’t quite live up to New England’s brilliance, it was more than offset by the colorful browns and brookies I’d catch. God may have made a creature more beautiful than a spawning brook trout in October, but if she did, I have not seen it yet.
But now it seems that there is a new contender for the best month of the year, and it is the one we are currently enjoying in March. As I write this, the Colorado River is free of ice and running low and clear. There have been a few fishermen out, though not very many. I just got back from running my first river shuttle of the year, and those lucky guys are going to have the entire river to themselves from Horse Creek down to the new boat ramp at Lyons Gulch. We had a nice chat, and I let them know about the good fishy water they could back grow to up above the ramp, and about the gorgeous waterfall across from where we were standing just out of sight. They drove up that morning from Denver in some heavy ski traffic, and when they got to the river wondered if they had made some kind of mistake since there was no one else there. How does one end up on a public Colorado River boat ramp and have it all to yourself? The answer is, while everyone else is still skiing. All those cars they were sharing I-70 with had skis and snowboards on their roofs, not flyrods.
And that is what makes March such a great month to be in Colorado. The fishing season may just be beginning, but snow conditions are at their peak right now. Already this month I have skied at Steamboat, Copper, and a couple of times at Beaver Creek. Each time, the snow was great. From now until mid-April, the fishing only gets better, and the skiing is good, too. The fishing might be better from mid-September till mid-October than it is now, but the skiing is either non-existent or is on some White Strip of Death at A-Basin or Loveland.
A couple of days ago, I had an hour or two to kill one afternoon and drove up the river to get away from barking student dogs at our house for a while. In the morning I “attended” a Zoom meeting of the Wild and Scenic group I am part of seeking to protect the Colorado River. The water was looking really good, for it’s clear from the cloudiness it has for a while once the ice melts off. It occurred to me that I had my fishing bag in the back of my old Saab, and my nine-weight Fenwick was up in the rocket box. Time to get a line wet. At first, I drove up into the red rock canyon section and got out to survey my surroundings. The late afternoon color was pretty, but the wind was howling. Further up at the Pinball Ramp, I checked out a nice flat piece of dry fly water on the opposite bank that is usually hard to reach by wading, but doable now with the low winter flows. The Lower Upper Colorado is typically not a great river for wade fishing due to its steep banks and deep water, but in the spring and fall, there are places you can wade all the way across.
But the wind was even worse there, and so I would have to find a spot to fish better protected from it. I can be a pretty finicky fisherman at times. I do not like to fish in the wind. I also do not like fishing when it is really cold, or too sunny, or when it’s raining. I basically like the overcast, still days, and do not like to be able to see anyone else on the water while I am doing it. In most places, that might limit one’s fishing to a couple of times a year but living on the river as I do enables me to get out plenty in between other projects. So, I drove back down towards my house, and into the Red Dirt Open Space area. Red Dirt is a strip of land running along the right side of the river which extends from the new road bridge across the river near Red Dirt Creek, down for over a mile almost to my boat ramp. Not many people are aware of its existence. The county put up a sign near the road after it was purchased, but that is about all that has been done to it since. There is a spot where the river curves left that has a high, steep hill above it which keeps it out of a south wind. There is also a side-channel there, which makes fishing more like fishing a small spring creek. I hiked down to the lower part where the side channel re-enters the river, so I could fish my way back up.
There is a nice deep hole with a rotating back eddy there, and I sat on a rock watching the hole waiting to see if any noses were poking up in the bubble line. I strongly prefer to use dry flies whenever possible and hoped that I could catch my first fish of the year that way, but there was no surface activity at all. There were a few lonely blue wing olives about, but if they flew around too much or too high wind would carry them off. My next thought was to tie on a small streamer, but I did not want to start with that, I wanted to at least try a smaller fly first. Streamer fishing is basically spin fishing with a fly rod, and there are times when targeting big fish that it can be a hell of a lot of fun. But since it was my first time out, I was hoping to do something more traditional and subtler.
I pulled my old Fenwick out of the tube and assembled it, something easy to do since it’s a two-piece rod. It seems like most rods these days tend to be four-piece designs, which means they have got three ferrules, not just one like my Fenwick. I am sure if it is the reason, but that Fenwick casts better than anything else I’ve ever used. I can put a fly wherever I want it with that rod. However, over the last few years, I have not been using it all that much. If I am fishing small backcountry waters, I tend to use my ten-foot three-weight Loomis. Ever since I’ve started using a Tenkara rod, I’ve begun to appreciate the extra line control you get with a longer rod, and that ten-footer is great at mending flies once they’re on the water. For traveling, in my fishing bag, I have got a nine-foot-five and three-quarters weight Scientific Anglers/Cortland rod that I use a lot. (What is a five and three-quarters rod you may wonder? It is the unholy alliance of a six weight Scientific Anglers rod which I broke the second segment of, and one segment of a Cortland rod with a broken tip. This works much better than it sounds). The rod I use most often is a seven-foot custom rod my best friend made me years ago, and that rod hangs ready on the back of the wooden frame our chairlift hangs off in the backyard. Since that rod is always rigged and ready to go, it gets used a few times a week casting to the small browns I see sipping bugs every night in my backyard.
But now for the first time in a while, I had my trusty Fenwick in hand. Even though I did not see any caddis out yet, I decided to try an elk hair caddis first just to test the waters. A night or two earlier, I had seen one in my bathroom window so there must be a few of them around. I rigged up an eleven-foot leader with a 6X tippet and started casting into the bubble line. The fly was hard to see in the glare of the river, and after working the eddy for a while with that without luck I changed things up. Since there was no surface action, I knew I needed something below it but wasn’t ready to start tossing streamers yet. The thing that I might normally do here would be to tie a small BWO pattern off the caddis, but with nothing rising, I thought that might be a waste of time. Since the elk hair caddis could barely support itself much less a dropper fly, I took it off and tied on a Stimulator, with a green and purple flashback nymph below that on 7X.
On my first cast, while watching the Stimmy floating around the bubbles, a fish rose and sipped something out of the film a foot from the Stimulator. Dohh!, I should have used another small dry fly I thought. But at least I knew that there was someone eating there and figured that they would see the dropper fly eventually.
I worked that hole for a while but noticed that it was already getting a bit late. It never fails to amaze me how the act of fishing can bend, curve, and distort time. You think that you have been at it for only an hour and look at your watch and realize that three hours have passed. I do not know if Einstein was a fisherman, but if he was it probably had something to do with his Relativity Theory. So, I started working my way back up the side channel, dropping in my flies and drifting them downstream, but the Stimulator and its hidden payload remained unmolested. It was time to leave but being skunked means that you have earned the right to always make one last cast, no matter how many last casts that ends up being.
There was one more spot to try at the top of the side channel where it diverts from the main body of the river. The flow was fast enough that it made a little riffle as it entered the hole before spinning clockwise. I dropped the Stimulator in the nearest part of the riffle, then made each cast a foot or two longer than the last, working the entire hole. The Stimmy rode much higher than the elk hair caddis did and was easy to see even with the water’s glare. On the fourth or fifth cast it suddenly disappeared, and when I raised the rod tip the rod tugged back. I saw the pink flash of a small rainbow, and he darted back and forth in fury over his predicament. I got him to the bank pretty quickly, the 7X tippet holding fast. The rainbow was only a foot long, but he fought well for his size. At the edge of the water, I stuck my hand in to hold him for a moment, then let the line go slack and the barbless hook came right out of his mouth. Off he went into the dark water, hopefully no worse for wear. It was not a great fish yet, but maybe someday it might be. And the first trout of the year does not need to be big to be memorable. It is a sign that even in the strangest of years, some things can be relied upon to keep one grounded. Like the feel of a fish’s life force in your hand, that brief connection to the natural world which knows nothing of Zoom meetings, viral pandemics, Netflix queues, or partisan politics. A world that once you toss a fly onto some water’s sparkling surface, it is not 2021 or 1991, or 1961. There is just you and the rod in your hand and the fly on the water and (maybe) a hungry trout that is willing to fall for it all.
But looking up from the river, with the mountains not so far away still cloaked in a brilliant white coating of snow, I was reminded that is its still technically winter. Up there is the future river, like liquid gold, waiting to melt and roll down the hillsides to quench our thirst, water our pastures, and provide habitat for countless creatures big and small. Later this week I’ll be up in those mountains to ski those fluffy slopes, on the same water that I’ll be enjoying a second time later in the year. Snowpack is the gift that keeps on giving. In March, the connection between mountains and rivers seems closer than any other time of year.
In less than a week, it will be my birthday and will mark the 60th time I’ve made this long trip around the sun. Six decades have gone by very quickly. It is sometimes tempting to think of one’s journey through life as an hourglass filled with sand. At this point for me, there is a lot more sand in the lower part of the hourglass than there is above still waiting to fall. How much sand there still is in that upper part is the big unknown.
My wife’s grandmother made ninety-eight trips of her own around the sun and made the last eight while living nearby. She was sharp as a tack right up until the end, and once I heard her say, “Oh, if only I could be 70 again!”. So perhaps this aging thing is all relative. Spaceship Earth is going to keep going around the sun whether we are here to ride it or not. And that river outback has been flowing for a very long time and will keep on doing so even when I’m no longer here to watch it.
But it is hard to think in existential terms in a month like March though, with so much promise ahead. A year ago, we were all headed off a precipice and had no idea how far away the bottom was. But in this year, in this March, we all have reason to hope and believe that the worst is behind us. And maybe there will be good things to have come out of this difficult year. Hugs are going to feel a little better and longer than they used to, and maybe handshakes will be a little tighter. A-Zoom meeting is better than no interaction at all but being with other humans in close quarters is something I know that I am looking forward to and won’t take for granted again. So maybe this year, March is the best month of all.
For more incoherent ramblings like these checkout, jackbombardier.blogspot.com/