Quonnie Pond (R.I.)

Quonochontaug Pond, or “Quonnie Pond,” as it’s known to many locals, is a salt lagoon (or lake) located in southern Rhode Island. The pond, with its 4.5 mile shoreline, became my touchstone for saltwater fly-fishing in the state when I found the place with my daughter’s help (she who lives in Providence), along with plenty of research and miles of highway travel. Although Quonochontaug isn’t likely to win a beauty contest for natural splendor, it’s the wildest of nine such saline waters in southern Rhode Island and it functions as an important bird sanctuary and a nursery for winter flounder, striped bass, bluefish, and tautog.

at Quonnie Pond

I recently fished the pond in the middle of a long “5-day weekend” in early October. This coastal area is a long way from the rivertops and you might be wondering what a nice guy like me is doing in the backwashes of coastal America but, truth be told, I love the salt marsh habitats for their great diversity of life, and for the fact that they are seriously endangered by the rise of ocean levels. They also offer some fascinating birdwatching and fly-fishing opportunities.

west side, Q. Pond

Quonnie Pond is a touchstone for my small state wanderings, an ordering device that I’ve placed at the center of a whirlwind of experience there. It’s like an eye in the hurricane of sights and sounds along the coast. Out beyond the water, Providence glistens and pulsates with the blare of sirens, with the bonfires on the river at night (think gondolas and third-world music), with the taste of international cuisine and crafted beers, with the plight of homeless people holding signs at intersections. Out beyond the water, Newport wafts on the scent of seafood and the sight of sails, with the tours of Gilded Age “cottages” like The Breakers and Chateau sur Mer. Quonnie Pond, the tranquil hub, has an untouched barrier beach, a saltmarsh sanctuary for migratory birds, and large Victorian summer homes along its western shore.

The Breakers, a Vanderbilt summer “cottage”…

I walked out from the busy ocean breachway, from the rapid currents of the channel to the sea, from the speedboats and jetties and fishermen, to the deep clean waters well-flushed by the tides… The sand was firm as I waded slowly, easily, casting a Clouser Minnow on an 8-weight line, looking for sea bass, seeing little other than great flocks of cormorants,

a weeping European beech…

egrets, gulls, and geese. Sanderlings and yellowlegs fed nervously on the shore behind my back. A lone female loon appeared nearby, swimming underwater, surfacing 30 to 50 feet ahead. A stingray drifted toward my feet, its shell like a giant turtle’s, its long whip-like tail weaving behind a body kicking up plumes of sand.

Chateau sur Mer…

I don’t know where the striped bass were. I waded to the red buoys of the channel in the pond, to the deep edge where, ostensibly, the bass fishing had been good all season. Perhaps the big fish had moved on. Lacking the hunting capabilities of an osprey, loon, or skilled bass angler, I took a skunk on Quonnie, as well as on other sites like Charlestown Breachway and Kings Beach. That’s okay with me. Quonochontaug (don’t you love the name?) will sit with my thoughts through the fall and winter. Late next spring, when the stripers swim back on migration, I’ll know where to greet them; I’ll know where to go.

son, Brent, and Catherine, stopped at Providence en route to Maine…

the pleasant beach was a challenge…

I did some casting here, as well…

at the Armory, Providence…

migrating Monarchs by the thousands moved along the coast…

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Autumn Run: Four Strands

1/ The first full day of autumn brought the usual blend of premonition and seasonal promise. I drove to Lyman Run, thankful for the sweatshirt on a morning as chilly as the John Cale tunes, like “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend,” that I was listening to. Yeah, the hot summer days were fading now, replaced slowly by a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” a John Keats tune. A recent storm had ushered in the cold front. Air and water temperatures along Lyman Run would peak at around the 50-degree (F.) mark, equalized like the lengths of daylight and night-time hours on this date. I quickly caught a wild brown trout with a dry fly floating on a feeder stream, but the main stem of Lyman Run was not yet energized or productive.

2/ I love the deep woods for the way the forest brings the ego to its knees, and for the way it reconstructs a balance in the seeker of solitude, the wanderer who needs to see the wild resurface in his or her life. I love the deep woods for the magic that’s imparted there, and for the hint of danger, too. The act of balancing the wild and civil elements within the self may be only short-lived but, as long as tumbling water sings of rocky passages or the wind strums its way across the hemlock boughs, the balance there is real.

3/ My late September visit to the West Branch Genesee responded to the sudden clarity of air and water, but there was little to remind me of a similar visit at the same time, 31 years ago. I wrote a poem then (from The Wild Trout (1989), including these fragments: “September willows/ line the banks and mask/ the corn fields and the woods./ Raccoons leave gnawed cobs/ and pawprints. Muskrats lengthen trails/ beneath the asters/… Three brook trout/ seize the fly./ Fog regains the valley./ Twig by twig/ the silent birds/ move south.” There’s little animal sign today. No brook trout appear. A singular vireo flutters silently. At least one hatchery brown and a rainbow have survived the summer heat and flooding waters. Best of all, I came close to landing a big brown in the wild section, after it rushed a Prince nymph from a hide-out in a great white pine tree’s undercut.

4/ With the intentness of a heron staring through the pond scum in the rain, I fished a favorite mountain brook for native trout and found what I was hoping for. The wild stream was flowing full but clear, and the brookies were eager to seize a drifting nymph or a floating dry. I fished upstream through the state forest for about two hours, catching and releasing numerous trout. The fish ranged from small young-of-the-year (a good sign) to hefty adults with spawning hues, prepared to dance the gravel beds in water song, the work of continuity and survival of their kind. September closed its shop here, balanced on the slopes between two seasons, but with autumn coloring the spirit in shades of a wood duck’s intricate plumage, a brook trout’s speckled sides.

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Down by the (Genesee) River

Anticipating heavy rainfall over the next couple of days, I decided to fish my home river again. I hadn’t touched base with the upper Genesee in New York for a while, and I needed to get reacquainted with its pools and riffles and to see how the aquatic  life was doing. The sky was overcast; the air felt cool with a promise of rain; and the river looked inviting.

upper Genny, w/ invasive knotweed growth

I quickly raised a brown trout to a dry fly (Blue Quill spinner) but then came an hour where nothing more could be taken at the surface. I fished across the border into PA (multiple licenses) and switched to a Prince nymph which connected with a 15-inch brown trout offering to have its photo taken in exchange for a quick release. Being a kind-hearted so-and-so, especially in these days of grim political news and severe flooding problems in the eastern U.S., I said, no problem; it’s my M.O., whether you’re a stream-bred fish or an alien from the hatchery.

I walked back into New York State, expecting the rain to fall at any moment. Just before reaching the LaBarre Pool (where a third trout would come to hand), I saw an odd sight, like an apparition– a white dog on the roadway by the gravel pit. The animal, looking so much like an Arctic fox that I felt unsettled, ambled around in circles before pausing to glance at me then running off. I didn’t know what to think, but the dog really took my mind off fishing for a minute or two.

land of the White Dog…

I thought of a close elder now in hospice care in Colorado. I’m not the superstitious sort, but I know that reality can get a little spooky on occasion, even in the warm embrace of Nature just before it rains… I checked my watch, as if I needed to know the time.

season of the shrooms…

Down by the river I refocused my attention on the roots of things, like fishing the watershed of home because it’s there.

on Dyke Creek…

Like inspecting the tree roots of a washed-out hemlock where the brown trout took my nymph pattern.

Where a strange white dog and I crossed tracks one quiet evening.

Where the fly line pulled off of the Pflueger reel and flew out to another riffle courtesy of wrist and bamboo rod.

Slate Run in the mist…

Where the face of time gave a grimacing look and then relaxed…

yr basic Green Weenie…

I heard the words of Neil Young’s song flow in a blistered rendition by Roy Buchanan. I didn’t hear them at the river but I heard them close enough to make a vague connection.

T. & T. Classic, Pflueger reel, and mushroom…

No, I didn’t get dragged over the rainbow nor did I shoot my baby (thank you, White Dog) but I’ve been around long enough to understand that the late Roy B. remains one of the finest electric guitarists of all time…. His bluesy notes reverberate like a river’s current in a lair of trout.

 

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The Break-Off

The afternoon was hot and humid. The long holiday weekend was coming to a close; the family gathering had been energizing and fun. It was time, now, to bid farewell to the summer season with an hour or two of fishing in the shaded riffles of the Slate Run gorge.

The water temperature was on the warm side, 68 degrees F. (my upper limit for trout). I attached a 6x tippet and a small Red Ant to the leader and began to cast comfortably with  Chester, my three-year-old bamboo. The upstream wade was an easy one. I quickly caught two brook trout colored like the first trees in an autumn’s turning.

I approached a long glassy pool. A steep cliff rose from the left bank and a pine woods opened on the right. I was feeling hot and tired (and a little sad to see the summer end)– like an old fishing rod, a nameless 1930s wand, perhaps. Luckily, I had a young and spirited instrument in hand, a good split-cane that would pull me through. If I was feeling rough and worn out like an older stick, well, I could still throw an easy line despite my spirit’s fraying silks, a broken tip, and drying varnish.

Not much was happening at the pool, so I started to reflect… It had been a good summer.  We had traveled out West. Back at home, I had an opportunity to start and finish the first draft of a new book that I’d had in mind. And now, school was ready to commence again.

Suddenly I saw the swirl of something just below the surface– out there, near the middle of the pool… Not quite believing my luck, I thought about the summer past, as if to dispel an illusion of a big fish near at hand… Yeah, there had been a lot of rain. As a consequence, my outings had been fewer but, actually, I had done okay. Tim and I had caught big browns one rainy late-night on Oatka Creek. And I had recently enjoyed the upper forks of the Sinnemahoning. I was ready to move on with the autumn promise. But, wait… Wasn’t I feeling like… an old bamboo?

Chester, the young split-cane dude, wasn’t about to let me wallow in self-pity. No sir. He delivered that artificial Red Ant to the middle of the pool, three feet to the right of where I’d seen the surface swirl. A large trout drifted over to inspect the morsel and… take it.

First Fork Sinnemahoning

The fish was strong and heavy, but I gained control and played the give-and-take while putting all the action “on the reel.” As the trout came in close, I could see bright autumn colors and presumed the fish to be a German brown, a recent migrant up from Pine that had sought the cooler temperatures of Slate. On the other hand, the trout could have been a large stream-bred fish since, by most reports, Slate Run was fishing stronger every season.

First Fork brown…

You can see where I’m going here… yep, the fish broke off. The thread-like tippet snapped at the barrel knot and gave the raison d’etre for this writing. I could curse that breakage (actually, I did curse it at the time) but I quickly acknowledged that I shouldn’t get complacent; I needed to take more time with knots; it was only fishing, etc. There was no reason to succumb to a late-summer funk. A new season would be on us soon. The fishing would get better. Chester and I had work to do.

wild brown, PA….

Looking back… a Snake River fine-spotted….

Looking back… the Rambler in the Colorado Rockies….

 

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Drifter

My opportunity to fish the Driftless area of western Wisconsin was more like a homecoming than it was a clear response to all the good angling press the region has received over the last few decades. I spent my high school years in La Crosse, Wisconsin but had to leave the area after graduation, before I could fully appreciate the outdoor benefits that came with living there.

Surprisingly, I can still remember some of my existence in Wisconsin. I hunted small game near Viroqua in 1967, and even trapped muskrats that year in the Mississippi River sloughs. I still have my stamped fishing license from ’67 but I don’t recall ever casting a line for Driftless trout when I was young. Clearly, in 2018, it was time to make amends.

The last wave of glaciation never drifted into the southwestern part of the state, so the soil is rich and loamy, a boon for dairy farming, especially in the past century. I don’t think the brook and brown trout fishing was much to get excited about when I was in high school– if it was good, I was too preoccupied with other things to really care– but the angling took off later when environmental issues came to the fore, when landowners, state officials, and groups like Trout Unlimited started working for stream improvements and the benefits derived from recreational pursuits.

We left our Wildcat Mountain campsite early in the morning and visited Viroqua, Wisconsin and its Driftless Angler Fly Shop where the help that we received for my ensuing day was excellent. The folks at the shop have everything for the visiting fly-fisher, and their guidance for my first look at the Driftless water was… essential. We were soon on our way to Coon Valley and the charming coulees where fly-fishing with barbless hooks not only makes good sense for many of us but also is required as part of the catch-and-release regulations established for particular sections of the streams.

The weather on that July day was horrible– hot and humid, with the morning punctuated by thunderstorms that only seemed to irritate and madden the mosquitoes and blackflies while enhancing the sultry air and darkening sky. I had asked a local dairy farmer if I could fish his pastures, and he was fine with that, but I got turned around and frustrated with fencing obstacles that barred me from trout rising in the pools, so I hastened a retreat from the barnyard and its herd of inquisitive Holsteins.

Leighanne and I went for lunch in Coon Valley, and after that our situation improved. The weather remained hot, but the afternoon looked better for a friendly get-together with the trout. I found an attractive stretch of meadow stream (sometimes reminiscent of a spring creek in the East), with pools and riffles, and a water temperature of 62 degrees. A stiff breeze seemed to banish all the biting insects, and the streamside cows acknowledged me as just another crazy angler. I was wet-wading, and all was sanguine with the world.

I quickly caught and released six wild browns on a small Black Ant. Several of the fish were not only colorful but easily a foot in length. A couple of larger browns were hooked and lost, as well, and I had a feeling that some hefty trout inhabited the stream. Chester the fly rod had a healthy work-out on this Driftless afternoon, and I’m glad I didn’t need him to intimidate an angry bull. It was time for us to head on home, with a brief stop for some local wine and cheese, and even a photo op with sandhill cranes.

I’m glad I drifted into the Driftless after all those years away. Although you might suspect I’m prone to understatement, I will say, it was better than a class reunion.

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Close Encounters of the Western Kind

Fortified by our recent finds in Yellowstone country, my wife and I continued on our homeward route through northern Wyoming, drawn by the geography and myths of the land, toward Devils Tower and South Dakota’s Badlands. I was looking forward, as well, to a stop for trout in Wisconsin’s Driftless country, but that would have to wait for a while. The unpeopled spaces and the wild dimensions of Wyoming held us in thrall.

Devils Tower rises dramatically from the valley of the Belle Fourche River in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming, an igneous butte that stands 867 vertical feet from base to summit. The Tower, long considered to be a sacred place by Native Americans living in the region, is comprised of fluted columns of stone with hundreds of parallel cracks from top to bottom. Climbers are drawn to the Tower from around the world.

In 1906, Devils Tower became the first national monument when President Roosevelt officially recognized its significance in the landscape of America. Long before that, the great formation had played a part in the sacred rites of indigenous people such as the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux. Native American ceremonies continue there today, especially during the month of June.

The Tower, an eroded mass of igneous rock, had uplifted from earth some 60 million years ago as magma rose through layers of sedimentary stone, eventually eroding into what we saw today– a huge green-gray butte ablaze with white feldspar crystals in the early morning sun. As we walked around Devils Tower on the 1.3 mile trail developed by the Park Service, and as we poked in and out of the scree, we felt humbled and in awe of Earth’s tremendous powers.

As a fly-fisher I could look up at the vertical columns of six-sided stone and be reminded somehow of a tapered bamboo fishing rod, hexagonal and exquisite in design. As a birder, I could peer at the upper heights and summit of the rock and see the flights of peregrine falcons (and competitive prairie falcons, too) that nested there and fed on the numerous rock doves of the Tower. As tourists, we might have been reminded of the Indian legends that connect with the origins of the place…

Devils Tower, in the years following the debut of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977, saw a big increase in tourism at its site. I’ve never bothered to watch the movie, myself, but observing several rock-climbers working slowly toward the summit on a beautiful early morning in July, I could understand how the Tower was appealing for the narrative of a tale in which aliens made contact with the common folk of planet Earth.

Just before entering the South Dakota Badlands for our second visit to the national park, we stopped and spoke with a Native American artist who was working a wind-swept post near the southern sector of this broad American landmark. We enjoyed a friendly discussion of social and political matters, as well as the craftsmanship involved with his trade. My wife bought me a lovely gift– one of the jeweler’s handmade “charms,” an elk tooth that I wear around my neck to keep me close to the Western spirit.

We made a long drive through the Badlands. First of all, I saw a burrowing owl perched on a fence post, and it seemed to say, Come along and fly Our Way. Pronghorns were encountered, lots of them, followed by some bison and, perhaps most interesting of all, groups of roving Rocky Mountain sheep. As for the landscapes that contained us all in a great variety of arid forms and color, they really have to be seen in person to believe the beauty of their “alien” character.

note the sheep in the foreground…

 

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Outward Bound, and Back

Before leaving Yellowstone, Leighanne and I stopped for a walk through the incredible Norris Geyser Basin featuring the massive and unpredictable Steamboat Geyser. Luckily for us, the geyser had erupted recently, shooting off steam and water to heights several times that of Old Faithful, thus staying active with a vented morning afterglow. It was a great reminder that the whole of America’s first national park is an active volcano of sobering dimensions.

Madison River

Having learned that the salmonfly hatch, the huge western stonefly, was occurring on the Yellowstone, Madison, and other rivers of the region, I was reminded also that I’d never been able to fish these northern rivers quite this early in the season. July 8th might be kind of late for this oversized stonefly in some areas, but on the Madison River in Montana it was coming off by the mountain-load. It was hatching so strongly, in fact, that the three-inch fly didn’t seem to really interest the well-fed browns and rainbows of the river.

Steamboat Geyser, Yellowstone…

In my two days of fishing the wind-swept Madison with its backdrop of the sunlit Gravelly Range, I raised only one fish to the #6 dry fly, but that one was a monster. The fish rose from the evening depths, and it almost took. Fast water has a way of insuring that an angler’s strike be made precisely at the critical juncture if the fish is to connect and come to hand.

the so-called salmonfly…

That said, I did fight a 17-inch Madison rainbow to the net (and caught a few smaller fish on the West Fork)  that took the relatively modest #12 Adams. Go figure. Then, after a mosquito-plagued camp-out near Ennis, Montana, we proceeded through historic Virginia City for a quick stop at Twin Bridges, the place where Winston fly rods are produced and where the Ruby River joins the Beaverhead. My introduction to the high and muddy Beaverhead was memorable, thanks to a heavy, headshaking brown that took a Muddler Minnow and stretched to nearly 18 inches along the rod.

drifters on the Beaverhead…

I was interested in finding clear water, so I thought that the Missouri headwaters might be worth inspecting. The drive to the famous tail-water north of Helena seemed too far and too exhausting, though, at this point in our journey, so we opted for a visit to Bozeman where we spent the night and then prepared for a revisit to the Gallatin River which I hadn’t fished since 2001.

one of the many surface-feeders on the Gallatin…

It was a fine day on the Gallatin. The sun was out; the hatching bugs were everywhere– Pale Morning Duns, Tan Caddis, Salmonflies, and even the Green Drake– and I was ready for the rise. In the lovely canyon reaches up near Big Sky, I caught rainbow after rainbow and even one wild brown. No cutthroats, unfortunately, and no fish larger than about 14 inches, but the trout that came to hand to be released were lots of fun. Additionally, there were bald eagles, American dippers, western tanagers, and even a “hatch” of 20 or more magpies that kept flying over the river, one side to the other, capturing imagination while I waited for a trout to rise.

Beginning our long trek home, we reentered Yellowstone National Park and experienced numerous places that we hadn’t seen before, exquisite locales such as Grand Prismatic Spring, the stark beauty of the eastern burnt lands, the snow-streaked mountains near Sylvan Lake, etc. Yellowstone is so large and varied that it’s guaranteed to show you more on each visit that you make. The big advantage that I saw in visiting this region early in the summer rather than waiting later in the season is the presence of birds and wildflowers in all their glory. The biggest drawback is, of course, the crowds that you encounter; and if you’re an angler, there’s the issue of heavy water.

yellow columbine, Pebble Creek, Yellowstone…

The Absaroka Mountains and the canyons of northern Wyoming were impressive and invited the spirit of exploration. The North Fork Shoshone River begged me to add it to my Angler’s Bucket List. Fringed gentian, larkspur, tufted evening primrose, and sunflowers formed alluring banks of color along the highway. The Big Horn Mountains and the rock formations east of Cody floored us with red-faced Triassic freshness and a pre-Cambrian antiquity (two to three billion years of age). As for the long distance views from the high plateau of the Big Horn Mountains, they should be a mandatory experience for politicians and other power-grubbing Egos in the world who need a bit of a reality check. I’d recommend it, as long as the bigwigs don’t get shipped to the place en masse.

in the Norris Geyser Basin..

Coming soon– Devils Tower, the Badlands, and the Driftless of Wisconsin…

sculpted horses in a field, Montana…

tufted evening primrose, Wyoming…

Sylvan Lake, Yellowstone…

sulphur springs, Yellowstone…


 


 

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My Corner of Wyoming

Our return visit to Alpine, Wyoming was a good one. We joked about retiring to this village, if we could afford its balanced charm– its small size, the hub of three rivers, with fly shop, comfortable motel, saloons, and crazy red-white-and blue eatery, not to mention its fantastic mountain scenery. For about a year, I’ve been dreaming to fish the Greys River nearby, and was glad to find that the river road, closed for months because of a landslide during the winter, was reopened and ready for exploration.

Due to mountain run-off, the Greys was flowing high at 1350 cfs, and certainly wasn’t wade-able, but it didn’t take long for me to achieve my goal of catching and releasing the beautiful and gutsy Snake River fine-spotted cutthroats here. The Greys River flows for 50 miles or more through the Bridger National Forest. I caught my first small cutthroats on one of its rapid little feeder streams, and then in the heavier water of the delightful Greys, I hooked and landed an 18-inch fine-spotted that took a conehead Muddler Minnow. I was on my way.

The forests and snow-capped mountains above the Greys took the colors of cutthroat trout by their subtle light-orange fins and raised them into the sublime. Every landscape seemed buoyant. The western tanagers flew above the riverbanks and added their own brand of color to the place. Gentians, gilia, and lupines starred the meadows near the road.

And what can one say about the neighboring Grand Tetons National Park? You’ve seen pictures of those towering peaks, now try to imagine walking in among them, away from the crowds, on a clear and comfortable summer day… The Snake River, the very life-blood of the Tetons, captured our imaginations, too. Bald eagles chased an osprey carrying a trout over the river and eventually succeeded in robbing the smaller bird when the trout was dropped and then snatched up quickly by a feathered interloper. Down below, among the grasses of the riverbank, a family of otters cavorted and did not seem overly concerned by a small party of kayakers passing by.

We had a camp-site on the Gros Ventres River near the park. I fished unsuccessfully for cutthroats on this water pouring off the mountains, high with spring run-off. I had better luck on the Snake, itself, below the big dam inside the park. I fooled another nice fine-spotted cutt (with a streamer) and quickly released it. Earlier, my wife and I had enjoyed a beautiful walk to Leigh Lake, directly under the majestic peaks of Moran and Grand Teton.

bull moose along the Gros Ventres…

If that wasn’t enough, the next morning I saw my first timber wolf while traveling up the road to Yellowstone. I’d seen a large animal cross the highway ahead of the car that we were following. The car moved on but we slowed down long enough for me to turn and look into the woods. There, some 30 feet from the road, a beautiful wolf, colored something like the hackle of an Adams dry fly, looked me squarely in the eye, and man, I was ready for the national park!

Leigh Lake, Grand Tetons…

We snatched what might have been the last available camp-site in the park, at Pebble Creek, 10 miles from the Cooke City entrance, and got serious with wildlife observations. Bison, of course, were everywhere. The trout fishing on Soda Butte and Pebble Creek was poor because of run-off, so on our second day in Yellowstone I elected to try the Firehole River (70 degree, or 200-degree water, depending on where you thrust your toes) and found it lots of fun for rainbows rising to a dry fly. The Gibbon River, too, was productive as long as I stayed clear of its steaming sulphur springs.

a Tetons meadow near the cabin of the late naturalist, Sigord Olson…

We were lucky to see a second wolf on this visit– a black-phased female on the Lamar, not pleased by the fact that a line of tourists on the highway prevented her from crossing to her den beyond. When a warden informed us of the problem, we got out of there quickly, and in time to see our second grizzly bear of the season, this one prowling along the Gibbon River.

a female black-phase timber wolf, Lamar River valley…

One of my favorite sights of the day involved a big bull bison that we watched as I stood fishing in the Firehole. The old fellow meandered slowly up the highway by the river, lumbering along at a bison’s summer pace, replete with irritating flies, and forced a long line of automobiles and RVs (intent on reaching Old Faithful before its “scheduled” eruption) to stop. To stop cold in the summer heat. To wait until he was good and damn ready to move off the road. A few impatient vehicles tried to slip by him but he figuratively flipped them off by shaking his massive head while stomping on the road.

last leg of a bison, Lamar River…

Meanwhile, Leighanne sat and chuckled in her roadside chair, and I found another rising trout to cast to near the boulders of the river.

Soon– Montana.

Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat, Greys…

western tanager, Greys River…

Grizzly, our second of the day, Gibbon River…

Grand Teton…

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Western Field Notes #2: High Passage

Driving from Buena Vista, Colorado’s fine beer and pizza terraces, we climbed past Mt. Elbert’s snowy patches and over Independence Pass. We stopped for a tundra walk at 12,000 feet in altitude; the wildflowers and breath-taking scenery establishing an inspirational tone for the journey to follow.

I had plans to fish the famous Frying Pan River in the mountains near Basalt. We took a camp-site at Ruedi Reservoir which, for me, was most notable for a western fox sparrow singing sweetly in the shrubbery nearby. The evening river of this tail-water fishery had a very cool 45-degree (F.) temperature, but the wild browns were rising to a Black Ant that I drifted on the pools and riffles, as well as to natural mayfly spinners settling in from the waning light of the canyon.

Let it now be said, I declined the opportunity to fish the infamous Toilet Bowl– the big plunge pool at the base of Ruedi Dam, the site for trout the size of a proverbial football, rainbows that gorge themselves on Mysis shrimp, and the place of crowds competing for the hook up. No, I opted for lonelier pools and riffles downstream of the Bowl, beneath the dazzling red sandstone cliffs and canyon walls. My choice for fishing didn’t make me a better angler, but I think that I enjoyed the outing more.

Next morning I was back on the water searching for big trout I’d seen during the evening hours. The river flowed at 42 degrees. No fish were rising but I managed to fool several more brown trout– colorful, feisty specimens, 15 to 16-inches long– on an olive Woolly Bugger. The canyon grew oppressively hot by late morning, so we leapt from the Frying Pan and drove toward an Eagle River tributary known as Brush Creek.

The Yeoman Campground in the White River National Forest is about 17 miles from town and situated at about 9000 feet above sea-level. I had camped there 22-years ago with family and enjoyed the mountain serenity, the aspens and blue columbines, and the fly-fishing. Now the campground seemed larger, but the beauty remained intact. Fools Peak, a mountain I had climbed (and written of in my book Sand & Sage, 2010), lorded over the valley from its vantage on eternity.

East Brush Creek has a gravel bed, deep undercut pools and riffles, and is a delight to fly-fish for its numerous wild brook and brown trout. As in my previous experience, the trout rose handily to my dry fly offerings, particularly to a Royal Wulff or a Rusty Spinner. Leighanne and I did some hiking in the deep forestlands of Fools Peak, as well as on the 3-mile loop trail of Brush Creek, but declined to revisit beautiful Lake Charles nestled in the summits at around 12,000 feet.

On our last morning at camp, we dressed hastily in bone-chilling cold. Frost covered the blooms and vegetation along Brush Creek as we began our final hike at this location and waited for the sun to bathe the valley in warmth. We entered the forest and felt more comfortable in the sweet tranquility offered by the creek, the fir trees and the caroling Swainson thrushes.

I sampled the trout stream one more time and came to the same conclusion I arrived at 22 years before: it was one of the most beautiful and productive brook (and brown) trout streams I’ve ever fished. Unfortunately it’s no longer noted for its native cutthroats which, hopefully, still survive in the upper reaches on Fools Peak. Nonetheless, it was good to come back to this wild place on the high ground of sunny Colorado.

We were ready for the nine-hour drive to Alpine, Wyoming. The Snake River country, the Tetons, Yellowstone, and Montana were on my mind.

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Western Field Notes #1: South Platte River

I’m no expert on this Gold Medal river southwest of Denver. In fact, I just made my first visit to the South Platte in beautiful Colorado. My introduction to the famous trout stream below Cheesman Reservoir was made, in part, by a patio view of Pike’s Peak near Colorado Springs.

Pike’s Peak, view from patio

As an easterner, I’m always struck by the redolence of cool mountain air pervading the western landscapes. That wonderful aroma of mountains and desert, accompanied by birdsong (and by traffic noises that I try to minimize), wafted in my direction, as if from distant Pike’s Peak. It’s a privileged recognition, certainly– secure, for now, from the ravages of forest fire and urban turmoil, and I saw the mountain as the hub of something new rolling my way.

The elements of nature seemed to radiate from this peak, and with them came an invitation to fish a new river nearby. So I went to tiny Deckers on the South Platte, with my better half. The exploration of these fresh environs slowly brought a sense of place I hadn’t felt since my last trip to the Rocky Mountains.

I wasn’t surprised to find a crowd of fly-fishers working the river that reportedly was moving at 150 cfs, about half of its typical summer flow. In recent years, forest fires have blackened large areas of the South Platte slopes and canyon country and diminished the greatness of the wild fishery, but I was here for better or worse and ready to fish.

This tailwater flowing out from Cheesman Reservoir contained huge quantities of grass and moss that fouled the fly hook on all too many casts. Nonetheless, the big fish were present. I’d anticipated these well-fed trout that have seen almost every kind of artificial fly imaginable and, yeah, they were finicky as hell. The South Platte isn’t widely known as a dry fly paradise, but I tied on a dry Adams as a strike indicator and then attached a nymph dropper to its hook, my best hope for the river.

What ensued was some of the strangest fishing I’ve experienced. Pods of large trout seemed to follow me like puppy dogs wherever I tried to wade. Many of these fish, about 15 to 20-inches long, hung around my toes or heel, picking up whatever morsels I kicked out accidently from the riverbed. To have a wild 20-inch rainbow poking around my feet, with other fish right behind it, felt surreal. They almost dared me to try and scoop them up with a net and, by the way, they weren’t interested in any imitation flies, either.

Well, I did manage to fool one nice trout with a tiny bead-head imitation. Judging from the lack of action that I saw in other anglers, I felt okay with my results. I made plans to return the next morning for an upstream visit to Cheesman Canyon, a beautiful mountain site where the fishing could only be better.

Actually, the next day’s fishing wasn’t much improved. It was beautiful, though, despite the burst of air temperature into the 90s (thankfully the air was clear and dry) and a heavier release of water from the upstream reservoir. I made the mile-long hike to the river through a forest of pine trees followed by a steep descent into the canyon. Once again, there were plenty of fly-fishers present who had braved the heat and the promise of a rough climb out of the canyon. The water was darker than before, and the drifting vegetation (in need of a serious flushing) plagued nearly every cast we made, no matter what fly was offered.

on the trail to Cheesman Canyon…

For me, the point of all this was to gather details from a new place (other than collecting the drift of grasses in a trout stream). Details– like the observation of a cut-bow trout in the net, of a Swainson’s hawk soaring over the canyon, maybe an American dipper flying short-winged over river rocks, or a first view of scarlet gilia blossoming along a mountain road. A fresh sense of place can be developed, enlarging the human experience, adding a new room to the house of life.

If I ever fish the South Platte again, I’ll travel closer to the headwaters above the Cheesman Reservoir where the canyonlands and higher meadows offer excellent opportunities to the visiting angler and river explorer. My next stop, however, will be on the Fryingpan River and within the mountain enclaves near Eagle, Colorado. Then on to Wyoming and Montana.

Stay tuned.

inside the canyon…

above timberline…

 

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