Abert’s Squirrel Hunting

Three inches stacked on the back porch railing before it dark. Another inch fell over night. The elk and deer rifle seasons are done, aside from Private. The woods would be clear of orange.Abert Squirrel Hunting2 8,500 ft; the edge of cottontail and Abert Squirrel habitat. More snow would have fallen here. Anything more than 6″ and things are on lockdown until it settles. These animals don’t get around well in deep snow. Snowshoe Hares are better equipped for that. Mother nature has an answer for everything.

Abert Squirrel Hunting1First tracks. Everything that has happened since the snow stopped is speaking. Any movement in the last 5 hours is logged. The wind was up. Branches littered the floor. Tracks of both rabbit and squirrel. Coyote, deer (a pair – doe and yearling) and several unknown birds.

More sign. Bows of Ponderosa on the ground. A squirrel was just above me while it was snowing, and afterwards as evidenced by the one deeper in the snow. Abert Squirrel Hunting11 Abert’s eat pine bows in winter; as many as twenty a day.

Their numbers have a tendency to fluctuate over the years largely due to snowfall. Too many days of deep snow and they suffer. These past few, have been light in snow so I am seeing more around. Enough to justify a few shots taken.

The hike was easy. My steps; the only human tracks in the area. There isn’t much reason to go into the woods this time of year apparently. I have yet to see another squirrel hunter in my woods. I’ve been here for over twenty years. I am hiking above a draw that extends several hundred yards. Below is a fen edged with tracks of deer visiting for water, even though its long frozen. To the east is a field that I would expect to find pheasants in if it were in the Midwest or eastern slope. Abert Squirrel Hunting7There aren’t any here aside from penned birds. Few make it through the winter and those that do are taken quickly by coyotes, bobcats and raptors. There are no tracks going from wood to meadow. This is a place of death for them. Little cover and easily seen from above.

While breaking down the tripod I hear a squirrel from an area I was just in. I wait and hear another chatter. Camera and Abert Squirrel Hunting10tripod stowed I go back over my steps to find him dropping down a tree and bouncing to another. Their tracks always make straight lines. Squirrels rarely linger like rabbits do. They travel with purpose. I watch. Too many times I’ve chased them through the woods only to lose them. Animals have an innate ability to put as much cover between them and you. Whether it is a flushing grouse or rabbit or squirrel. The only ones that don’t fit this paradigm are the bigger ones. Elk and Bear. They mow down pretty much anything they can. Earlier this year I spooked a bedded elk in a grove of thick aspen saplings. It left me in a straight line. I could see it only because the saplings were mowed. Eventually the woods closed in and I could only hear crashing. I never did see that elk again.

The squirrel was gone. I followed its tracks to a Pine. I girdled the tree and found no exit tracks. The squirrel was up there. Somewhere. I moved back a few paces and hung my gear on the limbs of an oak tree. I would wait it out. Abert Squirrel Hunting4It would eventually get skittish and move. Same thing with rabbits. They don’t have the patience bigger animals do. I knocked the snow off a downed tree and sat.

I shoot old guns. Most are older than me by several decades. The one I carry today is a model 1906 Winchester .22 lr manufactured in the late 1920’s. These were parlor guns and most that are still around have lost their rifling. This one is still accurate which is one of the reasons I shoot it. My father passed it to me before he died. The other reason.

Movement.

Ten feet from the trunk. A twitch. He’s looking at me. Been looking at me the whole time. Abert Squirrel Hunting5Watching me wax about this gun. There is always a moment of sadness when I see game to kill. Many times I pass on the shot. This time I do not. You can only go into the woods so often and not kill before it becomes simply hiking well armed. Moreover, I am a hunter. A meat eater. A lover of the woods. Part of this badge requires death to maintain my own honesty as a carnivore.

So be it.

The shot was swallowed by the snow and the bullet passed through.

Across the meadow was a raven. This happens often. Corvids will check in when I am in the woods, to see if I’ve killed anything. Shots fired will bring them also. It dropped off the snag and hovered just above the meadow to the edge of the woods.

The squirrel was skinned, quartered and cooling in my bag in ten minutes. I was two miles in. The woods grew quiet after the shot. It always does. The crow too, typically raucous, was waiting for me to leave.

I moved back to the field and walked its middle. No tracks, save for a deer moving before sunrise. Crust was kicked from each step. The rest was soft from melt. Back to the powder of the woods and growing shadow. The squirrel was no longer warm to my thigh. Day is lost quickly here. We are at the apex of winter. The coldest hours. Those that have made it, have reason to see spring. Less a few taken by crow, weasel, lion or man. The Winchester will be cleaned and oiled promptly. The knife will be sharpened and lubricated. Both will cut flesh. As long as I can be burdened.

Abert Squirrel Hunting6

Posted in Abert Squirrel, Hunting, Missives, Winter

Chasing Wraiths – Elk Hunting in the San Juan Mountains

    5 weekends. 9,800 feet elevation. North facing slope. Aspen-Fir Mix.

I got there the eve before opening day. I’d scouted the area weeks before. Most of what I saw were trees, hope and a 5×5 bull  spooked while bedding down in thick aspen.

Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 1

I raided winter’s stock of Ponderosa Pine for warmth. Building a fire was the first task, followed by the bow and pack. Followed quickly by the tent and bag. Then the beer. As the weekends wore on, it was a race against the sun forcing me to be more efficient. In the end, I was driving tent stakes in ambient sunset.

Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 4The Coyotes started in around 11. Their whines sounded like the end of a bugle and I had to wait for the fire to pause in its noise to be certain. And even then I wasn’t. I finished the evenings with a few drinks and a deep smell of embers. My camo was packed away with freshly cut pine boughs.

I was standing at the edge of camp just as the dim light began to grow through out the dark timber. Features came in waves until I could faintly see my boots. The colored vanes of my arrows pointing forward cut away any webs grown the night before. I would feel the ones I missed on my eyes as I moved through the silent woods.

The forest then would wake with squirrels alerting each as I moved from one territory to the next. An hour of this; each step becoming more confident, my wanderings grew from hiking in the dark to passed light through trees that forced me to be more present and lean in my steps until I made the wallow. Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 3

It was on a bench at 9,400 hundred feet. I had been watching it for the last two weeks. I sat and waited, fiddled with my camera and grew anxious. I stood up to warm my legs and as I did, branches broke nearby. Then several more. An elk had moved in, and was to use it until I was either winded or heard. I just listened to the retreat of the animal. I knew then, it would be the only chance I would have this trip. an hour into the season.

Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 5And that’s how it went. The remaining days would be spent on learning the area, watching the aspens change and looking for sign and mushrooms. Realizing that the closer you get to the shot, the smaller the chance. Lesson one, assume there is an elk around every corner. Lesson two, don’t get complacent. Accept the fact that elk bowhunting has a 10% success rate. I am on year 4 so I’ve got several more before I get even close to keeping the odds.

The nights were spent by the fire shortly after dusk. Shooting light is lost quickly when you are in thick woods. I started my way back with about ten minutes left. I would make camp at dark. The final half mile is even and through aspen, with few limbs to worry about. I mostly didn’t eat. I just had a fire and listened to the sounds of the evening.

Half way through the season, weekend number 3, I cooked. Something simple to keep me running the next day, as I would drop down further down the slope and look for more benches that may be used by other bulls or cows as the rut had not yet begun. At this point, no confirmed bugles. Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 5 (2)

The steak was good. The mushrooms were almost better. Almost.

The next morning I walked to the edge of the glade and down into deep aspens bent from lack of light. I inspected the line for areas of weakness and found a game trail. It zig zigged like a mountain road. I noted that while elk may run up hill or down, directly for miles, they still prefer not to expend energy unless warranted. I was thankful.

Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 9It was quiet and moist. On the flat ground above it was hot with direct sun. Here moss was thick. I took one trail after another until I was completely in the dark timber. A mile down and well beyond where another has been. Along the way I found Chanterelles.  I usually find them on flatter ground living with in lichen, sand and rocks. Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 11I regretted eating the steak last night. I stowed them away in my pack along with the sausage and cheese chilled by my frozen water bottle. They would keep till I got home. I would eat them in an omelet with cheese.

The season continued on until the leaves had changed completely in my woods. Even the undergrowth among the pines transitioned. As each weekend came and went the woods looked different until I was standing in a grove of pure gold. While watching the transition was deafening week after week; the change completely found me stunned. I didn’t make it to the hunting grounds until mid morning on the last day. Knowing that the elk I’d seen five weeks prior was probably miles away, with harem, compelled me to enjoy the final day and sit quietly in the grove that lead to the pines. Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 16As the summer was dying and the Autumn was gaining strength the breeze found its way to the amber leaves that spilled from the canopy. It was too beautiful to leave. Too beautiful to dismiss. Hours. Bow hung, pack shed. The season was over. While legal until tomorrow, I stayed and watched Fall’s completion.

Next year would be different. Each time I do this the experience finds its way into my bones; my mind. Before too long enough knowledge will begin to pour back out. I will learn enough. Earn enough to take from the woods. The elk will be easier. The wind will be better and I will have the patience to wait. The Aspens will still change, and chanterelles grow. I will watch them and pick them. In between pursuit and success.

Elk Bowhunt San Juan Mountains 2014 18

Posted in Camping, Chanterelles, Elk Hunting, Hunting, Missives

The Road to Yellowstone – The Desert Southwest

8.5 Hours to Yellowstone from my front step.

 

Until now, this place was more myth than real. Heard about it during the fires nearly twenty years ago. The wolf introduction too. All of it, taking place in some Eden land where grizzlies still lived. Fountains spewing water and gas. Elk Killed for sport by wolves. They way things had been well before white man stepped foot on this earth. Save for the roads, cabins and restaurants laden with collectibles and souvenirs. But it was a long way to Yellowstone.

Utah. I know; up to Moab. Beyond that it stays good until Salt Lake. 6-25-14 Yellowstone 054reNearly Two hours of bare knuckle boxing with trucks, locals and those passing through. We stayed south of Price the night before to prepare. It’s been a long time since I rolled through city traffic. I was softened by the small town pace. I was ill equipped.

Still though, we made it through. It wasn’t until an hour north of SLC that we settled back in to the groove of driving, talking and fishing. We would drive to Pocatello and set up in a room close to a river. From there, we’d fish straight on through to Yellowstone.

Idaho opened up north of SLC like a primrose at dusk. While north of Salt Lake was wide, this was wide with water. We made it to Pocatello by two and scouted water. It all looked good. Anything new looks good.

Idaho has high water laws, unlike Colorado. The idea of fishing private with out a rod fee made us grin. We returned after getting legal at a small gas station that had an acceptable selection of beer, considering its size and location. We returned to the river to find three trains waiting for track coordination to move. We stayed in the cabin of the vehicle for an hour. It rained most of the time so it 6-25-14 Yellowstone 112rekept anticipation and complaining to a minimum. Shortly after the rain moved on, the trains moved and we were clear to access the water.

It was a long hike. Even though the trail was weak, I had to move up a mile to feel as though the trout were fresh and unmolested. Along my way, I saw a mouse, for what ever reason, pitch itself into the water and swim towards an island. At some point I lost it. Either by drowning or taking, the mouse was gone.

I threw on a mouse.6-25-14 Yellowstone 116re

Nothing. It was day light and by my history, mouse patterns don’t produce well in full sun.

We moved up further to a bend. It was deep off the bank and only streamer fishing was really sensible. Casts were tough with dries. Even though there were risers, the throat of the run made it impossible to get a good drift with a caddis, as the risers were on the other far bank. I moved one fish that day. Actually several. But only one was of consequence. I was fishing a white circus peanut tied by a friend. The wake to the fly was impressive. It didn’t eat though. We moved back, slowly there afterwards. Unfamiliar places compel to be at the ready by dark. I finished the evening missing two small fish. I was rusty.

We moved on from there. Further north towards Yellowstone. The plan was to hit the tribs on the way. Bad plan. Only a few tribs Snake River Brown Troutwere open. The remainder were closed for the cuttspawn. We fished one stretch of the Snake River though and did well on browns and whitefish. Having gotten skunked the previous day it was a good trade. We finished the day along the Snake. It was still off in color and there wasn’t much going on. A few midges and smallish fish. I fished a streamer with a sink tip line. I had a bump, I think. Can’t be sure, could’ve been a rock. Probably was.

 

The day was closed along a loud creek, still high from a banner year of snow. Steaks were served as warm as they could be in the cool evening. Flatirons. Cheap, fast to cook and bloody if done right. New beer was had, plans were made and the stars kept us company over a6-25-14 Yellowstone 373re pine fire.

Stars Over Snake River ValleyWe’d be on the road again tomorrow. It was to be this way for a good while. Until the trip was done. This was a scouting mission. The more water hit, the better the plan next year. Things were tightening up already. And we were only on day two.

Tomorrow would bring more.

Bitch Creek was closed. As were all Teton tribs. This made it easier on us. No water to fish left us with out temptation to stop and fish along the way. There is a lake that begins the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. Our cabin awaited. There are big fish in this lake and midges the size of dimes. Very much different from the San Juan River and Animas. Stuff that comes off there can fit on the head of a pencil eraser.

Fishing Henry's Lake IdahoWe made it there in good time. The wind was up which was expected. We checked in, scouted the water and chose a spot with good coverage, on the west bank. It was still too damned windy to do anything other than get wet from blowing water and clip my ears with streamers. regardless, it was a pretty lake and it reminded me of being back up in the upper peninsula.

The following morning we hit the Park. It was a short 45 minute drive to West Yellowstone and then a mile through the gate.

The pictures I’d seen, the stories I’d heard… it didn’t really matter; nor did they prepare me. Sure, there were thermals there. In the distance, clouds of sulfur and white/yellow deposits 6-25-14 Yellowstone 619re on the ground, but…

Every piece of water was open to trout fishing. Checking maps and worrying about private water was a non issue. This is what I took mostly away from the winding drive over the famous water. There is something special about knowing you can pull over and fish. So, after the gratuitous and rather short lived sigh seeing, which included catching old faithful bellow, we resumed fishing.

6-25-14 Yellowstone 712reThis being an area that lacks nothing in regard to privacy, I am compelled to be justified in hotspotting. Furthermore, nothing spectacular was taken on any of these streams, so, if you want to catch a lot of small and rather pretty brown trout, the Firehole is where it’s at. For the first few weeks of June anyway. Following that, they move into the tribs, as so named, the water gets too warm from all the thermal activity to support trout through the summer.

We then moved onto the Madison. More water that was unmolested and though there were prints in the mud, we had a good two miles to ourselves. We were just off the road. We had left the caddis hatch of the Firehole river to find no activity on the Madison, just a few miles away. So we waited. Waiting for the HatchAn hour into it, and the same light caddis began to emerge. We worked the far bank with some success. Larger browns here, and a few rainbows as well. No Cutts. We had about two hours of fishing light remaining and the hatch came through in waves. Each one stronger than the previous. The fishing was getting good and the larger trout began to rise.

Madison River Rainbow TroutWe took several fish. There was lightening moving in from the west though. We kept on though. The valley was wide and there weren’t many trees. Feeling exposed. I was reluctant. Ten years ago, I would have stayed out there but getting older does strange things. After a decent brown was taken we figured it was time and so we reluctantly moved back towards the vehicle. A shame; the fishing has steadily improved as the evening wore on. It made it easier to leave knowing there was more fishing to be had in the following days.

Madison River Brown Trout

 This was a scouting trip. Yellowstone would be the furthest north we would go. We headed back through West Yellowstone to a Cabin along the Henry’s Fork. Tomorrow, that would be our river.

Day 5. Henry’s Fork. Most of these rivers we were to fish were hit largely because I wanted to see them. Because I had read about them. The Henry’s Fork was very much, one of those rivers. I really didn’t care much if we caught anything. Whic6-25-14 Yellowstone 916reh was good; because we didn’t. The water flowing out of Henry’s Lake was still a bit high so the Canyon section was running fast. That wasn’t why we didn’t have any luck though. There was plenty of good water and aside from the three boats we saw post up across the river for a few hours (they didn’t do well either) we had plenty of space. There were Drakes, Caddis and Stones. Nothing approaching a blanket hatch, but certainly enough to justify a few rises. Pteronarcys Taking OffI saw none aside from a decent brown right when we got to the water.

Regardless, it was a fine 8 hours spent relaxing, taking photos and just being in the moment. As the day wore on we decided to move back up the ridge to the rig and bail. In a canyon, the wife and myself compelled us to play it safe. Besides, we don’t dig bears and the Park was just over the ridge to the east. The hike back up produced a slightly out of focus (low light) Osprey reminding us we Osprey with Troutgot skunked the only way an osprey could. We were good with it. It was way more his water than ours and there is something to be said about simply putting in the time. A day on the water does not a home stream make. We finished off the evening on Buffalo Creek. A fantastic piece of water with a wonderful Drake hatch. The fish were small. So small that I opted to put the rod down and take photos. The was mostly reflected as the sun had set moments earlier. The beer was calling us back to the cabin. So be it. Skunked on the Henry’s Fork. I liked the way that rolled off the tongue. Tomorrow was another day. And we were quickly blowing through the precious week we had allotted for this trip. Green DrakeThat is a horribly sinking feeling. When the trip is closer to being over than it is to being started. 7 rivers and one lake in 5 days wasn’t too bad though. And we had one more to hit. Before that, beer and fire.

Mack's Inn Cabin

 

 

 

 

In an effort to finish strong, we left the best for last. Nothing will be said about this water other than it contains large fish that eat streamers readily. A certain code has to be maintained. I didn’t find it on my own. It was told to me by a friend. Because of that, it is not my information to share. Even if it was. I wouldn’t. The final day gave us both the largest fish of the trip. The largest of of her life thus far. 6-25-14 Yellowstone 1030reHer first Snake River Cutthroat as well. It took a yellow articulated streamer tied by the same friend that told us of this water. On a 6wt, sinking line with a 4ft leader. .014″ no taper. It wasn’t getting away. Mine took a black streamer by the same tier. A mixed breed. Cuttbow. Snake River Cuttbow

Both fish were released with out incident.

The drive back to the four corners the following day went smoothly. Even with a 1.5 hr drive through Salt Lake City.

It will take some time to distill the events into a more targeted trip next year, if we make it. There’s talk of a trip to Alaska. Also down south. There’s time yet. We’re still young.

 

 

 

Posted in Camping, Cutthroat Trout, Fly Fishing, Missives

Something of Value…

6-15-14 West Fork 017re The Stoneflies haven’t really happened yet. Not the Pteronarcys anyways. Which is what we all are waiting for. It is why I went to this river. I was too early. Again.

The advantage of missing the hatch is that the trout are still there. And in as much of anticipation of the bugs, if not more, than I am. No question they’ve been feeding on them for a week, as we are close. For the dry fly fisherman, having them drift two feet under the film is just not that same. But the trout are there. Waiting. Triggered.

Camp was made; rods threaded and in lieu of bushy ostentatious orange flies full of foam and deer hair, I tied on a heavily weighted leech pattern. Black to accommodate the falling flows and clearing water.

It was slow. The fish hadn’t yet settled into a feeding pattern. Still arranging their holds and lanes. Running nymphs through select runs made to sense to me. With meat, I could cover a lot of ground in little time, and take the fish who were willing, rather than trick those who weren’t.

6-15-14 West Fork 139reIt wasn’t until the end of the day that I had a hook up. A small bow that sat just off a drop point. It was a sluggish take and was landed in under a minute. I released it back into the run and it didn’t move much until I touched it.

That evening, I wondered if I had gotten there too early in the season. Last weekend was the same; fish were slow, cold, and I didn’t do well. They were there, just dealing with the temperature changes from run off and still cold nights.

6-15-14 West Fork 054re We drank and ate and talked about the day that evening. Steaks with corn and twice baked potatoes. Mostly the night was covered in rivers past. Hatches missed and caught. ‘The green drakes are coming’, the stones before that. We had no illusions. It wasn’t going to happen tomorrow and while the river was full of fish, dry flies weren’t going to get it done.

The moon was stubborn. The fire continued to get fed and the drink was poured, but it wasn’t until well after midnight that it finally showed up. Slowly crawling up the back of the mountain until its shine fell on the bare shale a thousand feet above us. And even with the anticipation we held as each leaf above us was hit, it was dull with cloud cover and the shadow never really left the light.

 

I owed the event a photo, regardless of its disappointment. 6-15-14 West Fork 077reThe evening continued until the the pine was gone and cooler was vacant. We settled in after dousing the fire and containing the perishables from bears, coons, skunks and mice. None would visit us that night. And as the strung rods teetered on the tent, the few embers dying and the water beside us dropped and cleared. Tomorrow would be better.

Visibility was growing from yesterday’s foot to today’s yard. And in the morning, it would be the clearest it’s been in two months. It will be the warmest now in equal time as well, and while tomorrow may be better, today; in the wee hours as I fell into my bag I accepted that today, well before the sun rose I, would have the best chances in recent months to land something of value.

Morning came with a haze. The river and woods allowed it. It always does. Coffee had, river watched and wader donned we moved back into the fluid. Meandering water as it drops provides a great many lines. Too many, to spend pitching nymphs. I ran a streamer through the deep water and left the riffles alone. They hadn’t yet made it there. By ten I landed two browns.

6-15-14 West Fork 106re The pool was deep enough to hold more so I sat. As much as they say that fish will move for streamers, such is not the case in high, cold water.It’s not quite as bad as nymphing, but close. Even though I know the fish had seen my drifts, it wasn’t until I put it close to their nose that they’d take. Maybe it was because they were fat or maybe some algorithm created from a millennia of selection, they wouldn’t move unless it was close.

 

I picked up five fish from that hole. All over sixteen inches. The largest one close to twenty. I had fished the same line ten times. On the last cast, I plunged my rod tip in half way to keep the leech down. I hooked up just as the leech left the bottom. The largest of the bunch.

6-15-14 West Fork 126reOne day I will measure my net. And even with out the stoneflies en masse, the water was healthy and primed. Much of it was high and the trout were still settling in. We got them as they moved. Next month, things will be different. Water lower; warmer. The stones will be out and my footsteps will be further from the flows. Summer is coming. It’s just not here yet.

6-15-14 West Fork 133re

Posted in Camping, Fly Fishing, Missives, spring Tagged |

The Coming of the High Country – Rio Grande Cutthroats

The rivers are still bulging in Southwest Colorado. Which is fine. There is the burden of honesty that comes with all knowledge of the natural world. Even if it conflicts with our own desires. This region needs water. It needs snow. It needs rain. And so, though fishing may not be perfect now, the creeks deserve flushing, reservoirs require a filling and those in the lowlands revel in filled ditches and spraying fields. Even if it’s in the middle of the day.

The flows have peaked. We are now descending. The river and creeks now undergo a change. Daily. Pools and holes that once were too deep to fish are fish-able. Glides become pocket water and soon will merely be pools. Transitioning water. We are in the thick of it.

You never know what you are going to get. Typically the higher elevation streams peak at midnight during run-off. So being on the water in the morning can produce all things in the same stretch. The caveat of this is, you may be off by a day, or a week. The fishing may be slow too. Run off begets snow-melt begets frigid water. Insect are down, aside from stones and midges and the trout are down, still navigating their transitioning environment.

 

We hiked along the creek for sometime. Once the valley opened we fished the meadows. Fish were present. Mostly sunning in the shallows; what few riffles existed. 6-7-14 Lake Fork with Jim 089reDespite it all, only one fish was picked up in the three miles of water we covered. We continued up the drainage. The creek we fished originated from a lake. A juvenile bald eagle was there ahead of us, as were several pairs of geese with young. The eagle’s presence explained, it drifted off to a tree opposite of us.

6-7-14 Lake Fork with Jim 107reThe lake was still. It was just after 4pm. We wandered the banks, the trees some of us fishing, others lounging, others simply being glad we’d stopped hiking. It was shallow along the bank. Rocks could be spotted thirty feet out. This did not look like a trout lake to me. But it was.

An hour had passed and we hadn’t any luck on the lake either. We began to gather our packs to head back down the creek. Then I heard a call. Across the lake. In the southwest corner, the action had started.

A midge hatch.

The next two hours of fishing more than made up for the hike and fishless creek. 6-7-14 Lake Fork with Jim 151reThey weren’t huge fish, but the males were colored up pretty. We fished beetles and ants on the surface, casting to rises and using slow retrieves. A lake that was ten minutes before, quiet and inactive had changed into a series of boils peaking 50 at one time. Half the rises were just off the bank, well with in casting distance.

 

After over an hour of this, with the light beginning to cast more shadow we had decided the day was full. The gluttony began to wear on us and we’d decided it was time to drop back down. That is a good feeling; leaving water when fish are still rising. Those are Rio Grande Cutthroat Troutgood days. The hike went surprisingly fast, even with the impending blisters from Chaco’s that were not designed for the ten mile trek.  Back at camp just as dark had taken over, a fire was prepared, steaks removed from the cooler and the morels we found the week before were placed in foil with butter and garlic to simmer. Home-made hominy was heated as well. It rained a bit that evening. We didn’t mind. Lightening to the north reminded us of the coming fire season, but none of us spoke of it. For now anyway, the ground was moist, the waters high and high country fishing had just begun. We are about to set off for another trip here in about an hour. A river sitting at about 8,500 ft el is waiting for our arrival. The water should be clearing and dropping and its stonefly season here in the southwest.

6-7-14 Lake Fork with Jim 209re

 

 

 

Apologies for the banal title. Google’s SEO must be sated.

 

Posted in Cutthroat Trout, Fly Fishing, spring

Black Ghosts and Goose Eggs

colorado snopack 5-29-14The Southwest has managed decent snowpack. Last weekend snow fell above 10k feet. We are better off than last year. The monsoons are predicted to be heavy this year. It will be a good wildflower season. As it is, the foot hills are thick with delphinium, primrose, grape and pea. Iris are bedding next to oak and sage in some areas.

At elevation it is still early spring. There are few areas the heat hasn’t found and the rivers are slower to rise. Last weekend a valley creek had barely enough visibility to fish.

It was 11 inches before I lost the tip of the flyrod in the murk.

In two hours, it rained, hailed, snowed and was sunny. I had received some classic streamer patterns tied by a friend a few days before. Six in all. Most of which would be tea totaled through out the season. The black ghost I would fish. I doubt this water had ever seen jungle cock.

Image00002The Geese that survived the winter are paired up. Hard to spook. Quiet and stubborn in announcing their presence. I spooked a lone bird from her nest. She took off and circled over me as I made my way past her young. Upstream I watched her touch back down, inspect the condition of her eggs and resume brooding.

I am amazed so many eggs are left, though being on an island helps. Aside from coons, there are many creatures that will swim for a meal. The otters are not up this high. Yet. Image00003With the return of order I continued on running a streamer into the head of pools letting the water take the fly down through the throats of the slow runs. If the trout are feeding the nice ones lie just at the drop off from shallow to deep. They’re the first at the table.

The Ghost hung a fish after the second cast. The water was cold and the brown fought just long enough to know he wasn’t going to win. 0x tippet in 40 degree water almost always wins in Colorado. The advantage of dirty water; you can get away with more.

The brown was released. It was a decent fish for a stream that averaged twenty feet wide. Image00007There are holes in it 6 feet deep in low water. The beauty of wide valley creeks. Undercut banks, snags and anomalies of hydrology. There are several full grown trees in the water that have tipped years ago. These are prime holds. I expect them to hide fish well over twenty inches. Probably browns. All of them. I have yet to make it here in the pitch; when a mouse would be most effective. I have one on my hat that would work just fine. This summer, or early fall just after elk season. Or maybe during.

The walk back to the jeep was in snow. I had opted not to hunt that day, due to the poor weather. I had read turkeys hold up in the pines during off weather. Making it back to the jeep, I broke down my rod but left my waders on. Even with the hike up the ridge and out of the valley I was cold and wanted more for heat than dry. When I slammed the tailgate shut, in the snow and hail a tom gobbled back through bare aspen.

That could have been my bird if I had brought my shotgun. I am glad it wasn’t. I am glad I didn’t. Next year I will kill one. This year, I am through the season and don’t have that worry.

Image00006

 

 

 

Posted in Fly Fishing, spring, Turkey, Winter

The Final Gasp

It is snowing.

The lot was bone dry before now. Tulips, grape and the daffodils have been flowering despite it.

5-8 snowpackThe snow that’s falling will add to this. Fires will again be a factor in the coming months. There is still much beetle kill in the Rio Grande and it is moving our way. The big one is going to hit us soon. It will probably hit east again as well.

Turkey season is coming to a close, with one week remaining. I am bird-less thus far. Before the season started, I had decided this year I was not going to hunt to kill, and I hadn’t thus far. It’s been many years in a row I’ve taken a bird and this season I needed a break from killing one. I still went out for the experience and exercise.

 

Last weekend I was there before dawn. Set up at the roost. During the previous week, the Toms had hooked up, so pulling one away from his harem was tough. But I managed it.

The bird was 200 yards away and never did come in to that site. We had to move to cut it off. While it was well with in range, other complications did not allow a shot to be taken. Such is hunting. There’s still time.

The bluebells, mallow and delphinium are blooming, as are the Pasque’s though I haven’t been high enough to see them yet. The geese are done mating and sitting on eggs right now. As are many turkeys in the lower  elevations. Those higher are still in rut and are available.

Snow totals not yet up. We are still well below average but these past few showers will help. As I drove home I saw that snow was falling on the La Platas. Above 11,000 feet.

 

 

 

Posted in Hunting, Missives, Turkey

State of the Region – Colorado Snow Pack

It is mid-winter. My front yard is nearly snow free. I am at 7,506 ft elevation. This is no good.

As with last year, and the year before, Southwest Colorado is below average in snowfall. Last year we saw fires from it. In the middle of June there were four at one time. One to the west, two to the east and one south. Luckily, the town of Southfork was spared. There’s an excellent flyshop there that also happens to sell groceries. I’d hate to lose that. Between Pagosa and Southfork most of the trees are dead.

It seemed to have happened over night. Or at the very least, in one season. I was heading up to Wolf Creek pass in June of 2011. Entire slopes were brown. Only the smallest of trees were spared. So when the fires erupted last year, I was afraid the whole forest would burn, and it almost did. I was to meet a few friends that drove up from Arkansas. They were already a few miles in camping along a creek. I had been watching the reports all day. It had grown from the wind, and another had started a few miles to the south north and west. As we drove out of Durango, there was a flashing sigh stating that wolf creek pass was closed. I kept on going. In Pagosa Springs I realized the direction of smoke was very damned near where I was to hike in, and also, where my buddies were. I called into the Sheriff and they had seen their vehicle, but no people. Arkansas plates. I told them they’re coordinates and they dispatched a team to go looking for them. Luckily, as it was getting dark they found them on the trail a half mile  from their vehicles on their way out.

San Juan National Forest FireI received this photo in a text later that evening, on my way back home. They had been up there two days and completely unaware the fire had grown and moved very quickly in their direction. The evening before they had seen the red over the ridge and decided to bail the next morning. They packed up and fished their way back to their rig. Towards noon, it moved quickly from the winds and it climbed into their valley. It had been with in a half mile of them.

 

The next morning I checked out the growth of the fire and the coordinates I was to meet them had been overtaken.

 

So, barely with February here and snow pack down, I am waiting and hoping we get more. Much more. co_update_snowWith luck, the high pressure system hanging off the pacific will yield and both the Sierra’s and San Juan’s will benefit. There’s elk to calf, trout to spawn and mushrooms to grow this spring and summer and the drought has been tough on all.

Posted in Missives, Winter

The River Otter

Lontra canadensis was re-introduced into my little river in 1975. The Dam was completed in 1985. Shortly there afterward, US Fish and Game stocked the new tail-water with brown trout and Snake River Cutts. In their wisdom, they stocked two fish that were not native to the basin, or the region for that matter. The brown trout grew big.Pre-Spawn Brown Trout For a while. Then the drought came. It was only a matter of time. Trout really have no business at elevations of 6k at this latitude. Were it not for the water from the reservoir dumping a constant 40 degree flow, they never would have taken after the stocking.

Any place that holds a good supply of crayfish, typically represents the lower stretch of which trout can survive. There is that perfect seam though, where the crustaceans are plentiful and the brown grow large because of it. Typically just a few miles of river, but those are good miles. The Drought changed all that though. There haven’t been good flows for four years now. The rock snot is piling up and choking the rock bed. The insects are mostly gone, in all but the fastest runs where the algae can’t take hold. Mostly midges. They’re always the last to go.

Enter the river otter. Swimming River OtterSince its re-introduction to the river system, things have more or less maintained a balance. There were holds the trout could sustain in higher water. Now, with the flows to a trickle the otters have had the advantage.Cleaning up on all twelve miles of the greenbelt. Piles of scales and crawfish shells litter the banks. The river was with out a rise, in my last ten outings.

I still bring the flyrod though. On days when I am feeling good, I lace it up and even tie on a dry. The spillway still has trout. It’s deep enough to provide cover. They spawn just downstream of it. With luck, the extreme upper reaches will bounce back, even with the drought.

Soon, either way, it will become a warm water fishery. A few years back there was an overflow and fish from the reservoir were dumped into the river below. You wouldn’t think they’d survive the hundred foot drop, but many did. At the time, the water was too cool to sustain them, so the small mouth and carp moved downstream into the canyon. They’re still there. Waiting for one more year of drought. One more should do it and they’ll be established. Its about thirty miles of river, between where they are and where they can go. If not this summer, then next. I will start throwing poppers and lingering into the evenings more. Eventually I will get a take that reminds me more of warm, moist Midwestern nights than this desert southwest.

Such is the way of mother nature. The otters are cleaning up the river. Removing the cold water species, which are more susceptible than the suckers and dace that should be there anyway. River OtterEven the smallies don’t belong there, but they’ll be more difficult to thin out. Until then, I will wait for their arrival with my 8 wt and some deer hair mice.

And to the otter, I say…continue on. Keep it up brother otter. This river is more yours than mine. Even if the trout were big and even if the mayflies were beautiful to see in the late summer dusk.

Posted in Fly Fishing, Missives Tagged , , , |

Hiatus

While it is still possible to get out, there is one great limiter. The High Country; miles back, on some lonesome single track in the Weminuche. There is little there in winter. A few tele skiers who’ve earned it; lynx and hares. The larger animals have long since migrated to the low country. I know, because I pass elk and muleys every day on my way to work. The lowlands are packed. There are still a few big bulls up there, taking a chance that the snow won’t kill them, but its a gamble and many will pay the dearly.

Snowshoes not withstanding, the ability to set foot on bare ground above 10,000 ft elevation is several months off. Unless you restrict yourself to south facing slopes, which are currently calving some serious boulders along highway 550 in the San Juan National Forest. So, for the purposes of ameliorating my need, desire, what have you, to get out and breath thin air, I will submit a past trip. In total, probably several. It depends on how well I can mitigate my longing for open spaces, open water and a campfire.

Weminuch Wildnerness Views At over 488k square acres, it is the largest wilderness in Colorado, and it is right in my backyard.    There is well over 50 lakes up there as well, of which I have seen less than half. Most of them are stocked, but not for many years. This is a good thing. It means, if there are trout in these lakes still, they are able to manage healthy populations of various sizes. Unfortunately, very few of them contain our only native fish, the Colorado River Cutthroat. Many have westslope cutts, brookies, browns and rainbows. But the trout don’t really care where they’re from and most days, I don’t either.

Most of the Boletes are spent at this elevation in September, but typically spent  by then, I’ve got my stash of Boletes, Chantarelles and even a few Pleurotus if I am extremely lucky. But; they are still nice to see. Weminuche Wilderness Boletus EdulisAmanitas are also usually in decay and also ridden tooth marks from mice, deer and ground squirrels.

The climb on the bench is mild. Sheep bah from the valley to the east, five miles as the crow flies, but as with thin air their cries travel. Once you are above treeline, which is about 11,200 at this latitude, there isn’t much to dampen the sound. Rock slides a mile away sound like they’re coming down in front of you. Not much is private up here.

 

We are to hit two lakes. One above treeline, the other, 700 feet below. Both in bowls. The first is locked in a scree slope with the tail of it falling over the into the lower lake. Weminuch Wildnerness looking down at parrot peakThe trail to it is a nightmare. 700 vertical feet in under a half mile. Google Earth tells me that’s about 30 degrees of slope, but it feels twice that with a pack on. We hang at the lake above and throw streamers at post spawn cutts. At this elevation, the lake is cool enough to allow trout to cruise the banks in the middle of the day. Mostly granite bottoms aside from where a feeder creek flows into it. Flashes of red catch the light, then the fish takes form.

Wimenuche Wilderness male colorado cuthroat troutThey are in color most of the year. Life slows to a crawl up here and so they are either always in preparation for, or finishing up their mating. Get above treeline ten miles from the nearest road and I guarantee anything you catch is going to be absolutely stunning in color. Brookie, Bow, Brown or Cutt. The cutthroat most of all.

 

With fish caught and released, we break down our rods, stow away our gear and look over the edge of the waterfall. Parts of the trail are washed from spring run off. There will be loose rocks. Pep talks aside, we don our packs and drop over the edge to the lower tarn.

Weminuch Wilderness looking down at Emerald LakeIt is slow. Kicking any rock loose may hit the guy below, so we move in stages. One guy hikes, then stops and waits for the other. Its important to find a good trail mate. We make the upper valley floor with out incident. I am compelled to squat there and pitch my tent in a marsh. I really don’t want to move another step, but after some sensible conversation offered largely by my partner, I acquiesce that sleeping in a marsh was second to sleeping on dry land. No matter how far off it was. The lake looks like a glove and camping on the peninsula would be best for fishing. More shore typically results in more fish. Fly rods pose a disadvantage on these mountain lakes. Most of the fish are feeding out of range during hatches, so a streamer works best. Even with the best double haul, a spooled line runs 90 feet. And that’s tough to do with stunted firs at your back.

Camp went quickly; fire started Weminuche Wilderness Female Colorado Cutthroat Troutand rods laced. Three hours of sunlight on a mountain lake is eternity. Fishing was relegated to sitting on rocks, stretching and eating. Finally once the sun dropped behind overlook point midges emerged and we were able to cast to cruisers. Griffiths gnats. Size 18. These fish are not educated. They may see one or too long rods a year. What the fly rod loses in distance, it makes up for in stealth. San Juan flies cast to fish that would probably take an elk hair caddis. We took our fish and finished the night with oatmeal and a beer each. Even with the weight and the distance, there is value in bringing a comfort from home. 12oz is worth it and a small price to pay. Best bar in town.

Weminuche Wildnerness Ska Brewing Blond AleSleep came easy.

There are few things more perfect than hot coffee in 35 degree temperature at 10,000 feet. Oatmeal was prepared. Camping with hot coffeeHot water poured directly into the wax lined pouch. Just stir. Steam from coffee, oatmeal and the fire helped me forget I had to melt the ice from the kettle moments before and that most Americans were still asleep under down comforters. The gift was this though. The lake was still in shadow. Trout had once again begun their feeding to fatten up for the 8 month lock down of ice for a ceiling. They would be spawning soon. 9 months from now. We have another day here before we need to head back. Much of it will be spent walking the banks of this remote lake and talking about how the hike down wasn’t so bad. Sitting on the ground listening to the quiet of this place made me wish we had loons in the mountains. I imagine their curdling song would echo for minutes back and forth between the peaks we sat with in.

In the upper valley, a lone elk bugled. The rut has begun. Soon the aspen’s will be gold and the valley will begin to slow. For now, it is still alive with life. It is a good place to be. We have one more day before we have to leave. My pack is lighter for the hike out. We’ve caught fish, connected once again to this place and my dreams will be filled with subconscious recounts. Success.

Weminuche Wilderness Emerald Lake

 Winter is still deep as I write this, and the embers in the stove are calling for fuel.

Posted in Camping, Fly Fishing Tagged , |