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.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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8 Responses to Western Field Notes #2: High Passage

  1. Bob Stanton says:

    That’s peculiar. I’m used to seeing mostly brookies in your hand, with the occasional brown or ‘bow. Must be different past the 100th meridian. Can’t wait to read about the rest of the trip!

  2. Brent says:

    I still have powerful memories of my first time seeing the Rockies, and being within an environment so much grander and more expansive than anything I’d ever imagined. And it was right there along Brush Creek that I first smelled the western fir and spruce woods. A beautiful place, and I’m glad you got to go back and angle those cold waters.

    That said, I don’t remember you climbing the peak. You didn’t summit, did you?

    • Yeah that smell of fir and spruce simply resonates through the years and strikes one immediately upon return. I’m glad that it made a strong impression on you and acted as a doorway into the grandness of it all. The place is worth revisiting, too. I think you and I hiked about a mile of the Lake Charles Trail before turning around. Earlier, I made the 3-hour climb to the lake at 12,000 but stopped there short of the summit.

  3. plaidcamper says:

    This is elevated indeed, Walt! High hiking and fishing, mountain serenity and productive streams – the west is a wonderful place to be. Even waking to a frost in summer is fine when you know you’ll warm up shortly.
    Great pictures to go with your words, and if I did fish, I’d avoid fishing any place called the Toilet Bowl, no matter the reputation, never mind the crowds…
    Looking forward to further field reports as they come!

    • Hey Adam, coming to think of it (and it doesn’t require a lot of thought on my part), a fishing hole called the Toilet Bowl seems a little incongruous with the, uh, elevated spirit of the beautiful mountains. Thanks for noting that right off. It’s always great to hear from someone such as yourself, who knows the wonders of the mountains and beautiful coastal regions of this continent.

  4. Bob says:

    I too got to enjoy Independence Pass when serving as the pit crew to my son during a downhill mountain bike race in Snowmass. Fished Roaring Creek & Frying Pan or a couple of days. Although I never fished Brush Creek, I enjoyed a few small mountain streams as well. Loved it.
    Kinderhook, Virginia, Pennsylvania – It’s interesting we’ve fished/traveled so many of the same places. Anxious to hear o the rest of your trip!

  5. Mountain biking through Independence Pass must have been extraordinary, for your son and for yourself, as well. Quite the gradient, and with wonderful scenery. Bob, we’ve certainly fished & traveled many of the same locales. That’s fun to think about. As for the rest of this particular trip, it’s chronicled both before & after this post. Enjoyable. Please keep in touch!

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