Watching for Risers in A Changed World
Last night I ended my day as I often do, out in the backyard watching for risers. Sixteen years ago, through a combination of luck, timing and perseverance, my wife and I were able to buy a house on six acres of land beside the Upper Colorado River. Living next to the river is something I have never regretted or taken from granted. Even in the high-water years that we have had to form sandbag walls to keep the water out, buying a house next to the Colorado River is one of the smarter things in life that I have done. I can honestly say that I have the best backyard of anyone I know of, and it is hard to imagine living anywhere else. After many years of travelling all over the world, now it is hard to go any further from home than the nearest ski hill.
Now that its April and the river has warmed up, the fish are becoming more active. Even with the absence of bugs, most of whom have yet to hatch, in the waning hours of light the odd fish or two find something worth sipping out of the surface film. When they do, they create a visible rise form which betray their presence. Some evenings, I am content to just watch the river flow slowly past, and don’t feel the need to grab a rod to try and fool its denizens. Other times, I cannot resist the urge to grab my little three weight to make a connection to the fish.
I have heard variations of the theme that a fisherperson goes through several stages in their angling career. When one first begins fishing, they just want to catch a fish, any fish, by any method possible. Then, as your technique and knowledge improve, you want to catch a lot of fish, and begin to count the amount of fish you get in an outing. Whether a day of fishing is considered successful or not can hinge on what that final number is. At some point, once you have caught enough fish in your life, you begin to target the larger fish, and size becomes the metric of what is considered a good day of fishing. Note that the amount of time an angler spends at each level depends entirely on him or her. A sizeable proportion of my fishing clients are still on levels Two or Three and are all about the numbers. I try to accommodate them to the best I can, for they pay a lot of money being out here stoking their passion. If I can nudge them up one level while they are in my company all the better, but either way if they are happy then odds are so am I. When you have got enough grip-and-grin shots of yourself on your phone cradling some kype-jawed brown trout, or a morbidly obese rainbow, you advance to the next stage. This next step of an angler’s progression involves deliberately increasing the degree of difficulty in some way. This might involve catching fish that either smart, or spooky because they get lots of pressure and are not easily fooled, or feed in lies that are hard to cast into or are just difficult to get to at all.
One of the nice things about being obsessed with trout is that they do not generally live in ugly places. They love clean, clear cold water, and in the Rockies that often means headwater streams. A fair bit of shoe leather might need to be worn out to get to these fish. But the higher you go, the dumber they tend to be, and you might begin regressing back down the size/difficulty of the catching chart. The fishing experience begins to be more about your surroundings and overall experience than your ability as a Master Angler. This is the level I have been stuck at for a few years, though I used to think that it was the highest one, the pinnacle of the fishing experience.
Yesterday with my evening chores finished, there was still some daylight left setting over the big rock formation across the river. I decided to go down the to the river’s edge and look for risers. When we first moved here, my riverside spot used to be a bunch of big rocks that jut out and form an eddy behind it. There is often a trout there in the seam, but it is hard to cast into due to the dog fence immediately behind. Then, eight years ago I took advantage of a low water year to build a small dock that sticks out over the river. It is a great spot to watch for risers from, with a commanding view and plenty of room for a back cast. Last year, I put in a chairlift and that is become my primary Looking for Risers spot. It is extremely comfortable, and once seated you cannot help but gently swing back and forth in it. If I close my eyes, I can imagine that I am going up the Pallavicini lift at A-Basin, which is an identical chair to the one I am in. Conversely, when I am A-Basin going up the Pali lift, I can pretend that I am in my own backyard, and the breeze in my face is not coming off a 10,000-foot mountain but off the Colorado River.
But last night, I was more interested in what the fish were doing, and since the view is better from the dock, I put a plastic Adirondack chair there and sat in it. The waning clouds above rock formation the had taken on a bright pink salmon color, in stark contrast to the clearer bits of sky which were still blue. The river just beyond the dock slows due to the widening of the channel, but there is distinct current in the middle. From that thalwag, bubble lines form and curl away, and beneath those microcurrents are sometimes fish. At first, I thought I would want a rod in my hand, but the longer I sat there, cold beer in hand, the less necessary it seemed. The fish were not rising, but that was fine, they did not need to. Just being next to a force as powerful and unyielding and beautiful as the Colorado River was enough. Then I began to sense that I has attaining a level of fishing than the one I had been at, one that I did not even know existed. It was a kind of fishing nirvana, one that lies above and beyond actual fishing, a higher and more evolved state of being. Being able to look out over water you know must have fish in it, without having to put a pointed hook in their mouth to appreciate it, was very liberating. If my knees were flexible enough, I might have sat cross-legged like a Buddha to see if waves of light would emanate from the top my head.
But just when I was feeling like an enlightened spirit, there was a distinctive little splash out in the water. Out of the corner of my eye, a swirl formed and in an instant was gone. I tried to ignore it, and to keep the Oneness of All Things in mind. As I began to slip back into the state where there was no me, or the world around me, but that everything was all just the one thing, there was another small splash! and another swirl. It is hard to be an Enlightened Being with fish rising fifteen feet away. I closed my eyes so that I would not have to see the temptation, and just listened to the wind, and the gentle lap of the water on the dock pylons, and the distant call of Canada geese. Surely it was just one fish I had seen rise, and it must have moved on. I opened my eyes again to the splendid scene, and then right in front of the dock, maybe ten feet away, a trout came up and sucked something off the surface exposing his whole dorsal fin in the process. It was enough to knock me down one evolutionary rung, back to Unmotivated Predator. I got up and went over to the chairlift to get my fishing rod. The rod is attached to the back of the wooden frame my A-Basin chairlift hangs from and is kept ready for action whenever the mood strikes. It was handmade for me years ago by my oldest friend, the one who introduced me to fly fishing forty-five years ago. It is gotten weathered by spending seven months a year outside, but I’ve also caught more fish with it than any other rod I own. Every April, I rig it with a ten-foot 6X leader attached to an Elk Hair Caddis, with a small hi-vis BWO pattern connected to the caddis by a 7X leader. Those two flies are what I usually keep on it all year long, and if they make it ‘til October they’re usually beat up looking. Because I crimp the barbs, I usually do not have to handle the fish. I just get them as close as I can to the bank so that I can see them, and then drop the rod tip to let the line go slack so they shake themselves off.
Having a rod this handy only five feet from the river’s edge makes it possible to quickly transition from watching for risers, to trying to fool the lovely creature who is performing the rise. Back out on the end of my dock with rod in hand, I played out some line, made some false casts to get the flies out over the water, and began to cast, mend, and repeat. Cast, mend, and repeat. Whatever fish had been rising seemed to have gone, but the just the act of fishing felt like therapy. Cast and mend, cast and mend. My beer was beside the chair, so I sat back down and finished it, rod across my lap. I was beginning to evolve again when there was another rise, this time out in the middle of the river near the current. I stood up and peeled out a lot of line, making as long of a cast with that little rod as I could, dropping the flies just this side of the moving water, right in the bubbles. Once I blinked, I lost sight of the flies, for they were very small, and it was getting dark and they were very far away. There were no splashes that I could see in the purple light, so I stripped in a bunch of line and tried again. Now it was so dark I could not even pick up the flies when they landed, so it was purely Ray Charles fishing. Then, with my flies and line thirty feet out, there was a rise ten feet away from my feet, under the belly of my line. My first response was a low expletive, but then I could only laugh. So much for Enlightenment. If that trout had a middle finger to show me, surely that would have been it. I pulled the line back in, secured the flies to the rod, and said one last Good Night to the river and everything that depends on it.
Backyard fishing is something I do most evenings when I happen to be home, even if only for a few minutes. Being at home is something that we all are doing more of now in the strange new world of “social distancing”. Because of that, I have been spending more time here than usual. This should be the time of year when my winter job of delivering propane slows down, and my summer occupations of taking people float fishing or doing shuttles for those floating themselves ramps back up. This usually leaves me time for spring skiing, and I typically spend lots of time doing that. Most Aprils, the weather is warm enough that only light clothing is needed to ski, and the base thick enough that the conditions are great. But this is not a normal April in Colorado or anywhere else in the world. Ski slopes are empty of skiers, and my downhill gear is still stuffed into my rocket box waiting to be used again. I cannot bear the thought of putting it away for the year, which I do not typically do until June. Since it appears that the resorts are not going to reopen this year, I had held out the hope that I could still drive to Loveland Pass and do the hitchhike/ski thing there. But I have heard that even that is not being allowed, and that cars are not permitted to park at the bottom switchback where skiers emerge.
When the stories about the coronavirus were first emerging from China, and it became apparent that it was going to find its way into the United States, I did not think it would affect my lifestyle that much. But then our last men’s hockey league game got cancelled and coming off two wins in a row that hurt. On a Friday I went to Aspen and skied Ajax for the first time in thirty years, and stopped an hour early thinking I’d save my legs for the next time, not realizing that the “next time” might be eight months away. The next day would be the last time that chairlifts would run in Colorado for the season. Even with everything happening all around, I did not think my fishing business would be very impacted. After all, what could be a healthier and more stress-relieving thing to do than to go fishing? I thought that other than the clients who might not be able to fly in from wherever they live, it would not affect my business that much. And to a point, that has been true, the local rivers have seen earlier season fisher people than ever. The ice was not even off the river yet when I started seeing lots of anglers standing in that cold water, hoping to hook some drowsy fish. For the first couple of days after the lifts closed, local fly shops had a huge unexpected bump in business from out of towners here for the skiing that they could no longer do. But once they got out of town, that business evaporated. Going fishing only works for self-directed folk, and not for those who might otherwise have hired a guide. Once you insert a guide into the equation, you now must think about the guide’s truck, or the guide’s boat, or the lunch the guide prepared for you.
I also assumed that I could still do shuttles, and that might even be busier than normal. But once social distancing became the norm, it became apparent that driving other people’s rides were off the table, too. After all, a person’s car is their personal space, and as germed-up by them as anywhere can be. Would I want to go into other people’s personal space, or ask my drivers to? And would these potential clients want us in theirs? The answer was obviously no. There are plenty of guide’s rigs that I hated to drive in last year before the pandemic. Though some guides (like me) keep their trucks clean and free of personal items, some appear to be where the guides eat, sleep and procreate. Having to drive vehicles that have cigarette butts and trash on the floor, or uncapped Gatorade bottles half-filled with saliva and tobacco juice bouncing in a cupholder is unfortunately common. Practicing personal hygiene does not seem to be at the top of many guide’s to-do list.
And yet through it all, the Colorado River just keeps flowing by, unaffected and unaware of the changes happening above its waterline. The fish and the geese and the eagles and the gophers and the magpies and the deer and the otters do not care either. Yesterday morning my wife and I were in our kitchen looking out the window at the river and saw some splashing. A merganser was out there not practicing social distance guidelines, juggling a decent-sized trout in its beak. The trout looked too big to swallow, and it shook itself free after a short battle. In our backyard, the only “flattening of the curve” is from the stomachs of the wild neighborhood turkeys, sitting in the grass waiting for their next helping of sunflower seeds. The “hot spot” here is found sitting on the chairlift in the afternoon when the sun is low enough to reflect off the river into your face as well as warming it from above. There is no “emergency shutdown” for the river that can be ordered by any politician, it is way beyond the concerns such insignificant creatures such as ourselves.
Colorado’s namesake river just keeps moving slowly past 24/7, 365 days a year (366 this year), year after year, as it has for at least 290 million years. Back then, the only creatures on the planet that were not fish were called tetrapod’s, and their footprints can be found next to the water only a few miles upriver from here. The tree of life has many branches, but at the trunk can be found tetrapods. Every day I am surrounded by the rocks and cliffs along the river valley that are millions of years old, which help to keep our short-term worries in perspective. Not only is the lifespan of a single person a mere blip in the big scheme of things, so too is the entirety of all human existence. We are all here on this spinning blue and green ball for just a short time, geologically speaking. We live, we love, we suffer and laugh, we play and toil, and too soon we are gone. And through it all, the river just keeps flowing past, whether we are there to appreciate it or not.