April 23, 2015
This is an update of my “Amazing Dream Fishing Vacation.” It will constitute Chapter 4 in my new book in progress—with some modifications.
“April is the cruelest month,” to quote the poet, T. S. Eliot.
My Amazing Dream Fishing Vacation started off okay with a 9 hour drive to Denver. I got to see both of my old houses where I grew up. The stupendous growth of Denver is mind boggling, but I made my way around okay (except for my GPS leading me to a place I didn’t want to go). I felt guilty for taking the trip since I had so many duties back home and my wife was not doing well. But I thought I deserved a great fishing trip.
My great friend Jim Muzzulin (the best fisherman I have every known) and I left Denver in snow and slush heading toward Casper, Wyoming to fish for “huge” trout in the North Platte. Since I have had trouble hooking and landing big trout I was looking forward to some good lessons in the art. A night shifter, Jim slept for the first few hours as I plunged through snow, rain, and finally extremely dense fog. After the weather cleared Jim woke up and took over the rest of the drive.
We started fishing at Gray Reef below the dam. Several others shared that cool, misty afternoon but most seemed to be just flailing the water. I rigged up two tiny nymphs and stepped into the water only to discover my ancient hip waders had developed huge tears in the rubber. Quickly I found a rock to stand on above the freezing water. From there I could only roll cast but I managed to get my flies out into the large eddy next to the rushing water. A fish hit immediately on my first cast and I worked it close to my rock perch. I tried to net the dark red rainbow with my new, too small ghost net—as Jim so kindly pointed out earlier. “That’s a little small for these fish.” I finally gave up and hoisted the fish by the line. It was probably sixteen or so inches and I released it untouched. The rest of the afternoon was futility.
We drove back to Casper and tried to find a cheap pair of waders for me. I finally had to settle for a crappy pair from a dumpy store that were a little too large and way too expensive for the product. Oh well. That’s what I get for not taking my good waders.
The next morning we drove to the North Platte Fly Fishers and met our guide at 7:30 a.m. I wore only three layers of fleece, windbreaker and jacket thinking I could peel them off when the mercury hit 50 degrees. Guess what? That never happened.
We put in at Governor’s Bridge and pushed off into the wind and drizzle. We drifted probably two miles without a fish and the guide expressed dismay that we hadn’t had a touch yet. The wind increased and some sleet pelted my face in the front of the boat. Meanwhile Jim caught a fish or two in the back. Mile after mile went by without a strike on my similar rig. Eventually we pulled over on an island and the guide changed my rig up a bit. While we were waiting Jim caught another fish there. I tried in vain feeling more comfortable out of the boat and casting to likely spots. That is much more my style of fishing.
We stopped for lunch (and Jim caught another fish) and I began to get very cold and started shivering violently. The guide had me strip my layers off and loaned me a long underwear shirt, had me put my fleece over that, then gave me his heavy Gore-Tex parka. Since he was rowing, much younger than me and in far better shape, he wasn’t as cold wearing less. I was quite surprised that I got that cold. I used to never get cold, even in sub-zero weather. I guess slowing circulation does that to a person.
After lunch and a change of flies we started getting into fish. Jim and I had both pointed out that blue winged olives were hatching all over the place and the guide finally put on a zebra midge. Jim caught several more on the midge while I actually tied into two. I barely got to see them as the guide netted them behind me and released them. But they were not huge fish, just nice ones. I missed a few more and then the weather got nastier, the wind rose (as if it could blow any harder) and it started to rain rather heavily. We pushed faster through the last few miles and I was near hypothermia as we landed.
Back at the shop we got some welcome coffee and I reluctantly gave the guide back his long underwear shirt—after all, his grandmother had given it to him. All the guides and some of the clients were drinking beer and reliving their days. Jim and I headed back to the hotel and needed showers.
The next day we drove back up to Governor’s Bridge and tried from the bank for awhile. It was cold and drizzling again and the water was up and discolored. We got nuthin’. Then we went back up to Gray Reef and I waded out to my same spot as far as I could. Fish were jumping and rolling all over the place eating bugs. I tried several different flies, but could not reach the edge of the current where the activity was taking place. Without the ability to backcast so close to the high bank I had to roll cast as far as I could. Jim, of course, had a prime spot and caught several fish, then worked up closer to the huge eddy and caught a few more.
I made the decision to go back to the bank to work behind Jim to get into the current a bit. In my usual clumsiness I stepped on a slanted, slick rock as my boots slid down the side and I gracefully sat in the water, then slid in clear to my shoulders. Freezing, I scrambled out and hiked back up to the truck. There I stripped all my clothes off in front of God and a couple of young kids following their father, changed into dry duds and took down my rod. The river had defeated me. I stood and watched Jim enjoying fishing for awhile until he took pity on me and we headed back to Denver.
My wonderful adventure was not over yet. After a great meal of elk steaks and a good night’s sleep I left the gracious hospitality of Jim and Joanie and headed toward Trinidad and my cabin. Snow had been hitting South Denver for awhile, but seemed to be over. Then at Castle Rock it started in earnest and made the Palmer Divide a bit treacherous. But I arrived safely at the cabin a few hours later.
My cabin. What a dilemma! EVERY trip yields a new surprise, usually with the plumbing. I spent big bucks three years ago to have all new plumbing put in the cabin. Then two years later I spent even more to have a cistern installed because my well was not reliable anymore. Although I carefully drain my pipes each time and everything had worked fine just five weeks ago, I opened up the valves to prime the pump. To my surprise water squirted out of a crack in a valve. For some reason it had not drained completely and had split when it froze. So I spent Sunday without water. This is old hat to me. Many days and weeks have been spent without water over the past fifteen years.
The plumbers came out by 10 Monday morning and fixed the valve. From now on I will leave the cap off after I have drained everything. Why are lessons like this learned the hard, expensive way? That morning I had been working on jacking up the corner of my front porch. The boards had rotted out and I shored them up for the time being with extra rot resistant boards until I can rebuild the flooring. I was in a short sleeved shirt and sunshine. By the time the guys had finished replacing the valve I had to put a jacket on. When I got ready to paint the porch that afternoon it was raining and snowing a bit.
Tuesday morning was my time to go fishing. Since I needed to buy a paintbrush I chose to fish the Purgatoire, Reach 3, in town. It was a nice day but I wore a jacket just in case. I fished from LInden bridge up to Noah’s Ark without seeing a single fish except for one chub. I seined the river with my new net seine and found not one bug in the water. Then I stirred up the bottom and found a few tiny tan nymphs and a huge grub of some kind. It was about an inch long and ugly, like the “rock worms” my uncle used to seine in the Cheesman Canyon. They caught huge trout on those things. I tried tiny gold ribbed hare’s ears, flashback copper johns, all kinds of stuff but never saw a trout. It was like the river was dead.
I gave up, went to WalMart and then hit the stream above the lake. I rigged two tiny nymphs and used a large yellow strike indicator. Fish hit the indicator! I could not entice them to hit the nymphs. Downstream I hooked a fourteen inch rainbow on a tiny RS2, but the action was very slow. I tried an egg and rolled a large rainbow but failed to hook it. Heading back upstream I tried a tiny yellow and gold wire nymph. I happened to see a fish rise across the river in an eddy. I missed the strike the first time, but tossed it back in several more times and caught it. Another 14 inch rainbow. That was the end of the action.
I painted my porch the next morning and got done just as the rain and supposed hail swept down from the southwest. It was to be a violent storm according to the radio, so I covered my car with some padding. The storm swept rapidly by with thunder and wind, but dropped not a spit of rain. I guess it just missed me because it looked like it hit Trinidad pretty good.
I had planned to leave Friday so I decided Thursday would be a fishing day. I debated whether to hit the upper Purgatoire or drive to Pueblo. The lure of big fish won out. I left at 4 that morning and drove up there. On the way I invoked the presence of my Dad and asked him if he wanted to fish that river with me. He had never fished it and I thought he might help me out a bit. I was in need of some fishing success to assuage my ego. I even sent a mental message to Jim to give me a hand.
When I stopped at a filling station in Pueblo I found a nickel and felt it was indeed my lucky day. Little did I know the form my “luck” would take.
I drove up to the turnout by the ponds where I had great luck twice before, but the other two times I went with Jim I caught only one fish.
The water looked great and I calmly rigged my rod and suited up. I was trying not to rush and make mistakes. There was nobody else around. I strolled down to the river without tying on a fly. There were itty bitty pale morning duns flitting around and I put my seine into the riffle. Nothing. I stepped into the water and tried again—nothing. Strange! There should have been some nymphs free floating. I stirred up the bottom and—nothing. I decided to wade across and hit the bend where Jim caught the big one.
I stepped carefully into the current with my unrigged rod in my left hand and my wading staff planted firmly in the rocks. Three cautious steps deeper into the swift current and I paused. One more step about hip deep and my feet were swept away by the current. Face first in the freezing water I scrambled and flailed for a footing to no avail. I felt my dark glasses wash away and grabbed to make sure my regular glasses were still on. My head went under and I almost lost my hat. Four times I tried to get a footing and couldn’t and my attempt to kick toward the shore failed. Scraping my fingers raw trying to grab rocks failed miserably. I finally gave up and flipped over on my back and rode the current.
I knew there was an eddy 150 yards downstream with a dead tree in it. I thought I could at least grab a branch. Luckily I made my way to the eddy and stood up. The water was chest deep, but I stood there for a moment catching my breath and spitting out river water. Finally I felt able to walk to the steep bank. I was mostly out of the water but didn’t have the energy to climb just yet. A few more moments and I made my way up the bank and to the car.
No dry clothes this time. I worked and worked to strip off the water filled boots and shed my soaked fleece. In the car I started the heater on HIGH and sat there for probably ten or fifteen minutes. The top section of my expensive Sage rod had pulled loose and was lost in the river. But, in all, I lost some sunglasses and a rod tip. Not too bad for almost drowning. Maybe that was the luck I expected—I didn’t die!
This old man is FINISHED with big water. I wet a line in the Arkansas but failed to put a hook on it. I wet a whole lot more. I ruined my phone and stopped in Trinidad to buy a new one. Then I sheepishly called my wife and let her know I was definitely coming home on Friday. From now on I will limit my fishing to the relatively safe South Fork of the Purgatoire—although that is the place I almost died before. My fishing trips will be short and I will endeavor to stay out of the water as much as possible. I will be satisfied with the 13 inch browns in my little corner of the world. To hell with big fish and big rivers.
Norman MacLean’s relatives used to worry about him fishing the big river when he got old. But he wrote a GREAT book about the lure of fly fishing and moving water, one that made me want to take it up again. I have enjoyed a lot of days on the water in the past 15 years, and I expect many more. But I will not take risks anymore.
I made a ton of bad decisions on this trip. The first was to go at all. I knew I shouldn’t because of they way things played out at home. I guess this was my punishment for leaving my poor wife and my needy town when my presence was necessary.
Why do lessons need to be learned the hard, expensive way?