Flies left behind offer lesson on how to fish small streams

GUNNISON — “I smell smoke,” said my companion, skirting a narrow ledge, climbing hand-over-hand toward the small cave still 200 feet above us. “Do you see a fire?”

Curiosity, I guess, compelling us to leave the comforting stream way below, its slip of water like a ribbon of mercury draped amidst folds of green, scaling a lichen-covered rock wall to a dark hole in the sky.

As we climbed, the smoke became noticeably stronger and when we finally looked out from the eye of the cave, the voice of the stream muted by distance, we saw a haze covering the high peaks surrounding us.

“There’s a huge fire somewhere,” it was duly noted in our climbing log, the words smudged when the water bottle dripped onto the page.

Half-a-thousand feet later, we soaked our hot feet in the stream and breathed deeply of the fresh air, cooled by the willows and massive sentinel cottonwoods. The fly box came out, as did a 3-weight rod and a fist-sized reel older than both of us.

Most of the flies — the patterns anyway — were generations old, a reminder that anglers who waded before us had the right ideas about what attracts a trout’s attention, even if those fly designers lacked the technology of modern materials.

Royal Coachmen, Humpies, Renegades, the venerable Adams and even a caddis or two were drifted effortlessly across gentle currents, under overhanging trees and behind water-slick boulders, where brook trout shorter than the average ball-park frank snatched the bugs from the water.

A few flies were left as offerings, tangled high in the clutch of branches that snagged them on the back cast or as they whipped sidearmed not quite far enough under the aforementioned underhanging branches.

I was working on one such tangle, gazing forlornly at a favorite fly dangling 15 feet up on the edge of leaf-covered branch, pondering the chances of recovering it, when my companion again spoke.

“I think the fish are a little deeper than that,” she said, the snicker barely noticeable.

This small stream is one of several that head from the high country around Gunnison.

They all have water this time of year, thanks mostly to last winter’s snowpack followed by a wet June that recharged springs and small aquifers. They all also have beavers.

“We’ve been fishing beaver ponds all summer,” said Travis Snyder of High Mountain Drifters guide service in Gunnison. “It’s something to do on our days off.”

A fishing guide’s day off normally isn’t spent at Wal-Mart. Instead, it’s spent fishing for fun, not income, since sportsmen with fat checkbooks who prefer to regale their buddies with tales of 40-fish days aren’t as quick to mention the 40 fish might have weighed 10 pounds, in aggregate.

Small-stream fishing is a labor of love, and often takes as much effort.

Untangling flies, or at least watching your back cast, roll casting, flipping the fly bow-and-arrow style to a target smaller than most people’s 401(k). Wading in shorts and sandals, slipping on mossy rocks, finding the shucks of long-gone bugs from memorable hatches now only a memory.

Branches slapping your face, wild roses clawing your legs, the last (and hardiest) of the year’s mosquitoes dodging kamikaze-like into your neck and arms.

Beaver ponds, some cozier than the neighbor’s gas-hog SUV, each holding a fish or two, including one — an unexpected cutthroat trout where most residents are the prolific brook trout — that when stretched along your rod pushes the limits of the foot-long mark, a leviathan in a land of Nemos.

The big rivers still lure us. We’re headed soon to the Gunnison River, since the Bureau of Reclamation recently announced a drop in the flows to around 600 cfs for September.

“It’s been pretty high all summer but that’s a perfect level for wading and fishing,” Jerry Schaffer of Western Anglers Fly Shop said.

But never overlook or underestimate days on small streams.

After all, a big river is just a collection of small streams, and you learn to read a big river by paying attention to what you find on a stream 12 feet wide.

Call it home schooling for anglers.


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