I had placed my lodging reservation only days in advance of my arrival, a mistake I will not make again. Evidently the bookings where so numerous that finding a unit for my month-long stay was difficult. After a lot of hemming and hawing, at the other end of the line, my accommodation was met. While on the phone I also inquired about the fishing half knowing what to expect, of course the fishing was good, it was the other half that was unexpected. The river was flowing well above the norm of 850 to 1000 CFS, in fact it was flowing at 3000 CFS, which I was told is the upper threshold of safe wading; anything higher would require a drift boat. However, that flow would be maintained until May 1st well after my departure and then increased to 4000 CFS. This was to make room for the unusually high snow fall which was 180% above normal. I felt as long as the 3000 CFS was not exceeded I would be in good shape. Even if this was the upper threshold of safe wading I felt confident. You see, I consider myself an avid wader, and even at my advancing age I feel that I can hang in there with the best of them. Not that many years ago I had survived a dunking from a capsized canoe and managed to swim to shore. Now at first you might question the relevance, but allow me to expound. It was during duck season, it was freezing, I had all my gear on including waders, I was thirty feet from shore, and I was in ten feet of water. The initial shock, and panic, was both instantaneous and simultaneous, when I found myself completely submerged. The revelation appeared a lifetime afterwards. I was not sinking, I was actually buoyant. I am living proof that a pair of waders full of water will not take you down, contrary to what I was led to believe; but trying to swim to shore is another matter. Anyway, the perceived challenge only served to intensify my excitement.
My Thursday afternoon arrival was met with quite a surprise; on second thought I think it was more of a psychological trauma. As I entered the fly shop/convenience store, which also serves as office for the motel, I found myself witness to a rather heated discussion. The dilemma was whether someone should or shouldnâ€™t contact the future arrivals to recommend cancelling their reservations. You see, only minutes before my arrival they had received an E-mail from some state regulatory agency stating that the flow would be increasing to 4000 CFS on Monday. It appeared that they had misjudged the snow fall. I immediately inquired at the fly shop about wading the river at the 4000 level and it was reiterated as extremely hazardous if not impossible. So here I am; its late Thursday afternoon and I have just driven 1500 miles to find out that I will not be able to fish come Monday. To top that off, I had secured a non-refundable airline ticket for my son Justin from Denver to the local airport. The plan was to pick him up on the last week of the stay and drop him off in Denver on my way home. Other than a few weekends on Coloradoâ€™s Frying Pan and Roaring Fork we havenâ€™t spent a week together in years. Needless to say, we were both very much looking forward to this trip. It seemed that both my hopes and my heart were being swiftly carried downstream. I found myself grasping for anything to keep this trip afloat and time was of the essence. I considered the ten-hour drive to the Pan but I knew that lodging would not be available because I had inquired previous to this booking at every motel in Carbondale and Basalt. The skiing season was still going strong and the price for lodging anywhere near Aspen is astronomical. I was here to stay come hell or high water.
After forking out the sixty-one dollars for the annual non-resident license, my blood pressure was beginning to rise; I considered that a little spendy for three days of fishing. I decided that the best thing to do was go unpack, and then take a drive down to experience the water first hand. With the unpacking done I hopped into the car for the short drive to the water. From the parking area I hiked, in search of a spot Iâ€™d done well at the last time I was here. It took me a while to get my bearings, as the path was intersected with many; all narrow and closely confined with high entangling brush. I finally came to the small finger inlet Iâ€™d remembered, but the inlet proved impassable, due to the high water. I was forced to find another way around, through the dense maze-like brush, and on my third attempt finally found a vantage point from which I had a good view of the river. Normally this area would attract numerous wading fishermen, but as far up or down river as I could see, there wasnâ€™t a single wader in sight; all I could see were drift boats. I took a step off the bank, and found myself seriously lacking the necessary stature of an NBA giant. Several miles of what had, once been, some of the most fantastic fishing I have experienced, had been transformed into a raging torrent and was off limits to me. Oh S***! This left about one mile of river below the dam, consisting of the upper flats and braided water. So, I hiked up river to take a peek, and was given a glimpse of salvation. Thank you, Lord, wading fishermen.
My next stop was the Sportsmanâ€™s, a convenience store with the added benefit of attached restaurant and bar. My kind of place, as a matter of fact my favorite place, off the water. It is here that I will spend the majority of the evening hours, my only source of sustenance and refreshment for the next month. The owner, and my very good friend, Bill, will profit greatly. You see Bill and I share a common interest, which was discovered rather quickly on my last trip. Yes, we are both rather fond of the late evening Olive hatch, which occurs only here at Billâ€™s during the early season. There is one very important added benefit, well maybe several if you include the fact that I have been accepted and befriended by all, and that is, this is the place were the guides hang out. It didnâ€™t take me long to figure out that the guides too enjoy the late Olive hatch. In fact, I have personally fished this hatch with most of them, and let me tell you, I am better than most.
After the obligatory hello, how are you doing and whatâ€™s new, I sat down to business. The first order of business is to buy everyone a drink. After that, you can drink the rest of the night, for free. The second order of business is to work the crowd. My plan was to concentrate on the guides, the gals would have to wait; I do have my priorities. Some guides are rather tight lipped, not unlike some fish I know, when it comes to free information; but hand them a free drink, and their mouths begin to open up as if thereâ€™s a hatch on. However, my reward was met with some consternation. Fishing is slow, wading is tough, about to become dangerous, and all the guides are in drift boats. OK! Iâ€™m here, Iâ€™m here to stay, I have three days to fish, and then its guide and drift boat at 350 dollars a day. OUCH!!! It was looking like I shouldâ€™ve opted for the alternate destination, but it was too late now. Ahhhhhhh! I had one remaining ace up my sleeve. Fish the damned Olive hatch for the remainder of my stay. I conferred with Bill and he assured me there werenâ€™t enough Olives.
Fast forward: The fishing was difficult, acerbated by the turbid conditions caused by the increased flow. Monday was met, as promised, with an increase to 4000 CFM. This further hampered accessibility, limiting me to even less available water. However, I was still able to fish, but the success was confined to the lower single digits on most days. There were however, some short-lived midge hatches, which bumped the numbers up into the double digits, and exposed a few fish pushing twenty inches. Compared to the reports I was hearing from the guides, I was doing very well.
During the evening Olive hatch I had met and befriended Mike. Mike was in his mid to latter twenties, was here through the summer working as a welder on the pipe line, and hailed from Tennessee. He was thus referred to as Tennessee Mike; I on the other hand was often called Wisconsin. Mike had never done any fly fishing, but since this famous river was close at hand, he procured the necessities. One evening at Billâ€™s, while Mike and I assumed our usual positions propped up against the bar, Mike tipping Wild Turkey, me sipping a gin clear favorite appropriately floating an olive, Mike posited an invitation. He had reserved a day long guided drift boat, all expenses paid, and I was included should I wish. I said, â€œMike let me buy you a drink and Iâ€™ll think about it.â€ My mind was made up before he concluded expounding on further details. I had never fished from a drift boat, preferring to wade, but this would open up miles of fishing opportunity. I humbly accepted his gracious offer.
Sunday morning, Mike and I watched, as Dan the guide launched and prepared for the day. Dan asked who was going to take the bow, and Mike, rightfully so, claimed possession. I was comfortable with this, being adept at casting, and thought it advantageous to occupy the back seat, where I could maintain a watchful eye; well aware that Mike was probably inept, with fly rod in hand, due to his inexperience. Dan then asked if we had a preference to fish dries or nymphs. I immediately chimed in, that I was here to learn, and would leave that to the guide; confident that he would choose the method more likely to produce fish. We rowed out and dropped anchor, Dan then asked Mike to hand him his line, from which he removed all leader, and started from scratch attaching a new tapered leader, tippet, nymph, dropper and appropriate weight; I remember not the selection. Next it was my turn, all the while Dan was explaining to Mike the necessary technique. While Dan was finishing up the last of my knots he asked if I was familiar with the figure eight knot as he showed me the tie. He said it was his favorite because it was simple and fast. I saw that it was simple and fast to tie but I wasnâ€™t sure if he meant fast to hold. With completion of all preliminaries the fishing started in earnest. It didnâ€™t take me long to prick the first fish, and it didnâ€™t take the first fish long to reciprocate. Yes, it was lost, but showing promise as we had only just begun. Mike was making great progress; he had advanced his casting into a perfect puddle cast, all at the tip of his rod. I watched as he continued, with brute strength, to puddle more and more line. Dan pulled anchor and moved to the next spot. Again, I was struck with a repeat; I examined the bare end of the tippet and found the squiggly remains of a knot come undone.
From here we started the drift, basically still fishing with the boat in tune with the current, requiring the necessary mends but much less casting; Mike was improving but still had a penchant for excessive casting, which more often then not, allowed me to take a few casts from shore while Dan tested the integrity of his knots and patience while untangling from the brush. Lunch time approached with half the drift behind us and not a fish caught. Dan pulled into some quiet water and handed out sandwiches and a choice of beverage. Mike passed, on the beverage, producing a half pint of Wild Turkey and settled in, offering to share. I abstained, but Dan eagerly partook. With the contents of the Wild Turkey, diminished beyond the point of no return, Mike proceeded to improve on his casting skills, shortly before we weighed anchor. He said he felt like he was getting the hang of it, Dan agreed, but I was at a loss as to what â€œitâ€ was.
The vast canyon we were in is plagued, daily, with wind blowing up canyon against the rivers current. Today was no exception as to the expected wind, but today was exceptional in that the wind was to unleash a fury, one of which I, Mike, and Dan will always remember. Fishing became impossible; any attempt Mike made to cast resulted in catastrophe. I did my best to defend myself, ducking, weaving, shrugging, and posting my forearm defensively. When Mike wasnâ€™t completely ensnared in his own line, he made sure to entangle both our lines into an inextricable mess, always leaving me the dirty work. This more often than not resulted in a complete rerig, which had now become my responsibility. Dan was fraught with manning the oars, any hesitation in stroke resulted in the boat heading in the wrong direction, his job now was focused only on getting us to the last pull out ----- before dark. I could see he was struggling. Mike and I were resolved to cease all fishing. I think if one of us was to hook a fish Dan would have promptly severed the line with a knife. There was quite a chill in the air but Dan was now stripped to his tee shirt. Mike produced, what remained of his Wild Turkey, and proceeded to polish it off. I sat pondering about what could have been.
As we rounded the last bend, the wind forcing us against the opposite bank to which the pull out sat, I couldnâ€™t help but think Dan wasnâ€™t going to make it. In a final effort, with victory gleaming in his eye, Dan made land. I watched the completion of the final stroke, heard the exhalation of his last breath, and felt every muscle in his body go limp. The truck and trailer were waiting, and the pull was completed. On the way back, Dan turned to us and said, â€œIâ€™m sorry you didnâ€™t catch any fish and I hope you donâ€™t judge my ability on this poor performance. I will be glad to do this again at no charge.â€