Voices from the River: Cool runnings

Wild Basin.

by Randy Scholfield

Forecast: Hot and dry. Random outbreaks of wildfires. Until further notice.

Yes, the heat is on. Of course, there have been the occasional infusions of mountain-cooled thunderstorms of late here on Colorado’s Front Range, sweeping in and dumping rain and clattering hail (most cars in our neighborhood look like they’ve driven through an asteroid field), but then it quickly reverts to the overall theme: hot and hotter.

So hot and dry that Colorado Parks and Wildlife has issued voluntary fishing closures on several popular destination rivers in western Colorado. Anglers are being asked not to fish sections of the Crystal, the Roaring Fork, the Colorado River and the Eagle rivers during the hottest parts of day, after 2 p.m. A similar closure on a popular tailwater section of the Yampa below Stagecoach Reservoir was just lifted, but only because of a timely release of water negotiated by a water trust.

It’s happening on many other streams across the West where lingering drought, fires and climate weirdness is taking a toll on our fisheries.

Welcome to the new normal.

With these kind of temperatures, even fish that are handled correctly can die from heat stress when the water approaches 70 degrees.

What’s an angler to do? There are bad alternatives, such as joining a bowling league. There are good alternatives, including fishing early in the day and fighting and releasing fish quickly.

Another good option: Go to higher, cooler elevations in the mountains and fish backcountry lakes, creeks and headwaters.

I did just that recently, deciding on a spur-of-the-moment afternoon outing up to the Wild Basin area of Rocky Mountain National Park, a wonderfully wild, unspoiled place just over an hour’s drive from the steaming congestion of Denver. I could feel the temperature and my blood pressure receding the higher I drove into the mountains.

I tooled along back roads, pretending not to be lost. Stopped in tiny Jamestown for a beer and snack at the Merc, a funky venue with a Keep Boulder Weird clientele. A short drive farther up the road, and I parked my car, rigged my rod and made my way down the trail and through the willow thickets to emerge on a sparkling stretch of the North St. Vrain headwaters. No one else was in sight. The stream glimmered in the afternoon sun, seemingly flowing directly out of the lair of the mountain gods.

I began casting along current seams near the shaded bank and immediately got some lightning-fast strikes on my lead dry that I missed, making me laugh out loud.

I made my way upstream, exploring pools and cutbanks along the way, basking in the backdrop of jagged peaks and slow summer clouds. I was wet-wading, by far my preferred mode of fishing, but had foolishly worn shorts instead of long pants. Soon the deer flies found me and attacked my ankles and shins mercilessly, causing me to look, to a casual observer, like I was performing some obscure limbo dance in the middle of the stream, holding the rod in one hand and now and then reaching back to swat violently at my ankles and hop around as needling pain shot up my leg.

So much for a stealthy approach.

No matter. After a while, I tuned out the swarming insects feasting on my blood—I wasn’t about to run for cover or bug spray, which of course I had left back at the car. I was here and now, focused on the strikes and takes on the end of my line and the light and sounds of this glorious place.

As I worked my way upstream, I caught a few brookies and returned them to the water, watching them pause, gather themselves and then dart off across the streambed. I gathered myself, too, and looked around. All was right with the world.

I had come around a bend and was just sizing up a beautiful deep pool with an array of woolly holds when I noticed the moose. Just across the stream, a cast away. A huge bull moose, with an enormous rack, munching at a clump of streamside grass and eyeing me steadily. He looked like he had a rocking chair balanced on his head. I didn’t want to end up sitting in it.

I immediately and slowly began backing off, heading upstream, watching for any signs of aggressiveness, my mind going over the stories of enraged moose assaults and what to do. Had I violated his personal space? Challenged his moose machismo? But this moose seemed perfectly content to sit on the bank and munch grass and share his little piece of paradise.

I passed a few hikers and anglers upstream, but it seemed remarkably light traffic for a Saturday afternoon in RMNP. After another hour or two of wading and fishing, I headed back to my car.

I drove back down the mountain, back to the heat-sapped lowlands, happy with the thought that this cool green place of moose and wild trout was here, waiting for another day.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s director of communications for the Southwest.





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