Big Blue Rainbow
Brian G. Angevine
It was a crisp, sunny afternoon and we had hiked many miles the previous day, so we just moved a mile or so up the trail on the third day in the wilderness. We were camped on the edge of a steep, fifty-foot bank down to a small mountain stream at timberline. In those days I fancied myself quite a trout fisherman. Unlike my Kansas companions, I was raised in Colorado and spent many years learning to catch the high mountain beauties: Rainbows, Cutthroats and Brookies. I was eager to show my prowess.
I had purchased a two-day license in Montrose, Colorado with the promise from the leader of our pack trip that I would have some time to fish. Most of the first day had been spent in preparation and travel to the backcountry with a testy little hike along the Fall Creek trail to our first campsite. There were ten of us, by far the largest group I had ever joined on a backpacking trip. We were caught in a sudden mountain downpour the second day while struggling over the 12,600 foot saddle between the twin 13,000 foot pinnacles of Silver Mountain. Altitude sickness and a touch of hypothermia caught a few of our party, and being the oldest member of the group, living too many years in Kansas, I had my share of troubles. The exhaustion of that second day left no energy for fishing.
By the afternoon of the third day I was experiencing a little despair that we had not been near a creek long enough to exercise my casting arm. Immediately after pitching camp, I headed down the steep hill to the rushing Big Blue Creek, fly rod in hand.
Big Blue was a typical mountain cascade. It was about ten feet wide at its widest point and tumbling headlong in a tumultuous rush toward equilibrium in some distant meadow. Icy-cold water with no slack pools promised little in the fish catching department. But I tried tossing a few flies here and there anyway, only to see my line sweep by in a frenzy of white water. No slackening of the torrent appeared upstream, so I worked my way down the rocky bank toward the slightly flatter spot a few hundred yards below.
I finally stumbled out of some bushes to discover a small logjam that some poor beavers had tried to shore up. A very small pool below the jam slowed the water briefly before it continued scrambling through what passed as a meadow. Ah! My first chance to see if there were any fish in the stream. I dabbled whatever I had on the end of my line, probably a blue quill or ginger quill, along the edges of the current eddying around the pocket of slower water. Immediately a flash darted from the shadows and my fly disappeared in a swirl. I was so shocked at the size of the fish and the broad red stripe on his side that I missed the strike completely.
Pulling my slack line from the water I cast again and again to various spots in the pool. My pounding heart must have drummed out a warning, because there was no response from the big rainbow who had claimed that territory. I tried several more fly patterns with no result except a lot of useless exercise.
Finally, admitting defeat, I worked my way downstream casting to the somewhat less frenetic water through the meadow. While I spooked a few fish from under banks, I got no more strikes.
The sun was waning and I had to try again for the big one. It was obvious that I could not approach the bank of the stream without warning the wary fish. Flopping to my belly, I crawled the last twenty yards or so and concealed myself behind a low bush. Although I could not see the water, I stretched my rod over the top of the bush and let my fly dangle wherever it happened to be. A light bump—missed again. Several more tries convinced me to change fly patterns. After several changes and some probing inspections by the fish of each offering, I was convinced he was interested, but not willing to really go after whatever I had on my line.
By that time I worked my way through my fly box to a Royal Coachman that I had tied myself. I never really believed that the beautiful pattern imitated anything in nature, and was probably created more to catch fishermen than fish. But I tied it on. Once again stretching my arm out over the bush, I dabbled the fly someplace unseen on the water. Immediately a thrashing weight bent my rod. Well prepared this time I set the hook and jumped to my feet.
The fish was every bit as large as I had imagined. He charged around his confining pool trying to dislodge the fly, jumping and spraying water all around. Fearful of breaking the hair-like leader, I followed him on his run downstream into the faster water. I fully expected to lose him when the rushing torrent was added to his already considerable weight, but the fight went out of him quicker than I expected. As he tired I cautiously led him near a sandbar at my feet. Usually fish will give a last charge to get away when they see their captor, and he was no exception. Lacking a net I had to play him carefully until I could pull him onto the sand.
Flipping him up the bank with my hand I admired his iridescent brilliance and aggressive, undershot jaw, typical of a big male Rainbow. It must have taken him many years to reach such size in a small, high mountain stream. At that point in most of my fishing trips I would have been appreciative of his ability to survive, thanked him for the thrill and replaced him in the stream to dominate the tiny pool for a longer time. But on this occasion after boasting of my fishing prowess, and having no witnesses around, my pride dictated otherwise.
` Regretfully I killed him with a quick blow to the head. As my father taught me I gutted him at streamside. I estimated his weight at over three pounds, and probably closer to four. Lacking tools of measurement, and the blurring of memory over the years, all I can say about his length and girth is that I had to cut him in half to get him in the skillet back at camp. It took a long time at that altitude to fry half of him at a time, and all of us stood around waiting with mouth-watering anticipation for the result. All ten of us enjoyed a few bites of his tender, pink flesh, and plenty was left over for me to fill up on.
Although I hated to remove such a magnificent survivor from his favorite haunt, I did make way for a new generation of dominant male in that stream, and proved my ability to my friends. What made it even more special was catching him on a fly of my own manufacture. I’d like to say that I caught many more trout on that trip, but time and geography allowed no other attempts. We climbed Uncompahgre Peak later on the trip and hiked a grueling, injury plagued (for me) hike out of the wilderness the day after that.
I have many memories from that trip. I passed from youth to middle age on the journey. My knee gave out on the long side-hill trek around the flank of Uncompahgre Peak, but I pushed on anyway. I climbed the tallest peak of my life on one bad leg and experienced the terror of waking in the middle of the night lacking enough oxygen to breathe in the thin air at 13,000 feet. It was there that I realized that I was “over the hill” and could not do the macho things I had done in my youth. But the pleasant memory of catching one of the largest trout of my life, in a most unlikely stream at timberline, remains as a high point.
It’s strange that I haven’t told this story more often. I think I still feel a certain sense of guilt at killing a magnificent creature of the wild just to prove to my companions that I could do so. I have no qualms about keeping a few fish to eat from some of my fishing trips. But somehow, the Big Blue Rainbow was a little different; a little, no make that a big, special!