Our re-introduction to the state of Colorado began with the upper Rio Grande, especially near Wagon Wheel Gap and Creede. I felt a bit remorseful for passing by the Conejos River, an excellent trout stream that I’ll have to visit if I come this way again, but the Rio Grande was welcoming. Sort of.
Entering the big mountain river, I had only minutes to fish before another thunderstorm crept in like a bad competitor and drove me off the water, swamping an afternoon of possibility. Ah well, all we could do then was to head back downstream, passing by a pair of golden eagles near the highway, for a food and drink stop at Del Norte’s Three Barrel Brewery. Obviously it wasn’t the end of the world yet.
We had an entertaining camp-out in the Arkansas Headwaters Recreational Area with subsequent stops along the famous river. I did well there, especially after leaving the brawling muddy waters near Salida for the clearer, colder flows below the towering Collegiate Peaks. Rafting parties and kayakers were a constant sight on the Arkansas but most of the participants were mindful of an old guy casting about, not wanting a fly hook in their costume or inflatable craft. The brown trout were colorful and feisty.
En route to Denver to meet my son Brent and his wife, Catherine, at the airport, we hit a big storm while descending from the heights of Copper Mountain on Highway 91. Rain turned into snow (accumulating quickly) transforming into a fury of hail. The air temperature dropped 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the heights of that mountain to the bottom where we gladly sought sanctuary at a truck stop.
My son drove us from our downtown Denver hotel to a campsite near Estes Park, outside of Rocky Mountain National. In the big park (a second visit for most of us), I stopped to fish the Roaring River and Fall River in the hope of seeing more greenback cutthroats but all I caught there were brook trout. Eventually I would learn that a destructive flood, occurring several years ago, pushed out or destroyed the iconic cutthroat from this area of gorgeous streams but that the fish could still be found in places such as Dream Lake.
We joined the throngs of tourist hikers heading into backcountry sites such as Dream and Emerald Lake and, as much as I’m reluctant to admit it, the beauty of the majestic Rocky Mountains in this region made the long climb more than bearable.
When we reached the outflow of Dream Lake I stepped away from the trail and strung together my four-piece fly rod. Greenback cutties were rising in the crystalline flow and now everything made sense to me. Back at Fall River, the presence of water ouzels, the American dipper, had promised that cutthroats would appear before long, so I thought of the birds again and thanked them. Here the fish rose to carefully presented Pale Morning Duns, the largest of them measuring about 12 inches.
The drive to the tundra region at 12,000 feet-plus is always memorable along the Trail Ridge Road. While climbing about the marmot and elk-studded snowfields, we enjoyed getting lost in the wind-driven vistas toward the Never Summer Mountains and elsewhere. I added a couple of birds to my life-list there: the rosy finch and the diminutive white-tailed ptarmigan.
Next day, we traveled westward through the heights of the park once more, descending toward the Colorado River headwaters where we paused for a stretch and waterside ramble. Audubon warblers were busy scarfing up a heavy mayfly hatch above the river. We moved a young moose from the streamside alders (much to Catherine’s delight) and I told myself that if I ever came back to Rocky Mountain National Park I would have to sample the fly-fishing along this attractive young stretch of the Colorado.
[Next stop: hiking the astounding Dinosaur National Monument in Utah; fishing the mighty Green]