Best of times Worst of times
I haven’t written in a while which is bad, but the reason that I haven’t written is because I have been so busy fishing lately, which is not good but … … great. Just another example of what a “best and worst” summer and fall that I have had, but fortunately the good outweighed the bad, and in the end that is all we can ask for.
It was a long dry hot summer and by June I was hearing about a small forest fire called the “West fork Complex” near the town of South Fork, Colorado area. I hastily went to my trusty “inciweb” site to check the locations of the fire and track the extent of the damage. The location was closer to my beloved forest, mountains and streams of the Creede area than I had ever seen before. As many of you know I have a cabin in the Creede area and have been going to that part of the world since I was 5 years old, which is some 46 years now, and consider the area to not just be part of my life but part of my soul. I began to check the status of the fire first thing in the morning and then later each evening worrying and praying each time. But instead of being quickly contained it just kept growing and expanding, the worry in my heart and soul was expanding with every new inch of map space that now had red fire lines drawn across it. Streams I had fished for half my life were now threatened. Places I have loved and written about were now literally on fire, and there was nothing I could do but sit in the Georgia heat and worry helpless and scared. A friend sent me a link to a photo essay on “The Drake” where people were camping and fishing one of my favorite streams and literally had taken pictures of the wall of flames heading down the canyon toward one of my favorite campsites…… it literally made me cry. But while knowing that places I loved were burning was bad … … it just kept getting worse. The fire jumped the mountain tops which it very rarely does and actually began the decent of the Rio Grande valley. My 78 year old Mother, true to her nature, was still staunchly entrenched in the cabin refusing to leave despite the constant fog of smoke and the noise of helicopters and fire crews doing their best to protect the forest and the river. She called one night nearly in tears to report that she could see the flames clearly in the distance not just as a glow but actual shooting flames visible from the porch of the cabin. I heard the fear and concern in her voice all the way to the depths of my heart which had suddenly plummeted to the bottom of my toes, but there was nothing we could do, simply pray for God’s help and trust in the hard work of the valiant and courageous fire teams. When the fire crews knocked on the 25th of June asking yet again for her to evacuate we decided that the best thing she could do would be to leave, a decision I know nearly broke her heart, but she was up there by herself and there really wasn’t anything she could do to help the situation. So she drove away from the cabin she and my father had planned so many years ago not knowing if it would be there when she returned or not………
Fortunately for us the winds turned and several days of thunderstorms hit, turning the tide of the fire. Certainly not putting it out but turning it back on itself and stopping the 10,000 to 15,000 acres a day progress it had been making. By the end of June more than 200,000 acres had been burned but it was at least not advancing anymore. My Mother went back for the 4th of July as they had started to let home owners back into the area but while everyone tried to make light of it, the holiday was grim. We were all far from out of danger yet. Here was the scene from the front of the cabin on the 4th of July.
I had scheduled a vacation to Creede for mid-July many months ago so I did what all of my stubborn Davis family does … … I just plowed forward hoping for the best. Soon enough I found myself sitting on a plane watching a brilliant glistening white cloud bank surrounded by a sky so blue it almost hurt my eyes, not in rapt wonder of the beauty of what I beheld but in breathless anticipation of what my mountain paradise would be and what it would look like when I arrived on the ground in Colorado. I was comforted as I drove through the mountains from Denver that everything looked normal and as pretty as I remembered. It was with great trepidation (I got one of those readers digest vocabulary things for my birthday) that I first drove across the river at Del Norte. It looked pretty normal with the late afternoon sun glinting in a spray of light across the surface. I smiled to myself thinking this would be okay after all. I continued driving until Wagon Wheel Gap when I finally couldn’t take it any longer and I stopped for a closer look at my river. As I stepped out of the car, the first thing that struck me was that wonderful smell of a stale “morning after” campfire. A smell not wonderful by itself but ingrained in so many, many mornings waking up listening to a river in a tent it smelled good to me … … until I realized that it wasn’t the smell of a campfire but the smell of the air … … heavy with the bitter twang of a forest fire. I noticed the low level of the river and how smooth and easy she was flowing, thinking again how unscathed everything was. Then it hit me I should have been seeing rocks below the river water that was gliding by in the shimmer of the dropping sun, but I couldn’t … … I reached my hands into the water relieved at the cool clean bite of the temperature but shocked at the smell of ash and smoke as I sniffed the water and realized that it was not clear at all it was the color of smoke, a ghostly opaque smoke color not the crystal clear mountain water I wanted to see. My heart dropped and my fear mounted for the brown trout I know and love.
I was in shock the rest of the way to the cabin but was relieved that from the front door of the cabin I couldn’t see a great column of smoke just a few columns of smoke rising hazily off in the far distance, the cabin was at least safe. After hugging my mother and sharing a few moments of joy at being together and talking briefly of our concerns and struggles of the fire, I found myself on the porch where my blood pressure drops and my heart beat slows to match the flow of the river. From a few hundred feet above the river and a setting sun reflecting off the water like diamonds scattered on black velvet it looked perfect and pristine, so much so that my heart wanted to believe it. And with sunset views like this it was easy to imagine that all was right with the world. And based on the fact that I was standing at the undamaged cabin I guess it was.
So with a concerned heart, and a couple bourbons to quiet my fears, I feel into a deep sleep listening to the roar of the river from the bedroom window. I could barely finish breakfast in my anxiety to go check on my river. As I got closer to the water the smell of ash and smoke became more pronounced. The water was low but almost black with dark rings of greasy ash showing on the high water mark of each rock. As if a dark fog were flowing at my feet tainting even the rock with its presence. I almost didn’t rig my rod based on the depressing state of the water and the river as a whole, but somehow I remembered the brown flowing silt of spring run-off and countless other rain drenched chocolate milk streams I had caught fish out of so I rigged my rod and stumbled out into the river trying to wade by braille through water I couldn’t see even an inch into. The first few holes that I fished were some of my favorites and I knew that they usually held a lot of fish, but I didn’t even draw a tap. My spirits were starting to fall despite the beauty of the scenery around me.
I was lost in sadness and remorse at what had been done to my river when suddenly it happened, almost without conscious thought or reaction from me, the indicator slide sideways in the water and I hit a slip strike out of instinct and found myself fast to the throbbing hum of energy that I know as a Rio Grande Brown. I quickly landed this one and then several more in succession and my mood turned positive faster than a blue norther racing across the west Texas caprock. A pair of lovely little rio grande brown jewels now sparkled in the crown of my memory and thanks to cameras the annals of my photo journals as well.
But as pretty as those fish were and how much better I felt it was still a chilling reminder when I decided to take an underwater shot just for curiosity sake… … the result speaks for itself.
The rest of the day turned into as normal a day as could be expected fishing in that type water, but I couldn’t quite escape the sense of melancholy from the damage that I knew must be upriver to cause this. However, the scenery was indeed gorgeous and fish were caught and some even fairly nice like this one.
That evening found me and my mother sitting out on the deck, watching the unspoiled wonders of the world … … from these marvelous hummingbirds … … … to one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my many years in the mountains.
The beauty of the sunset was like a miracle for me, it was as if God was also saddened by the destruction and wanted to share some beauty to inspire hope, like a rainbow in a thunderstorm. With that thought I once again fell asleep to the sound of the river.
I couldn’t face another day of black water and the road that leads to my favorite unburned fishing spots was still closed by the forest service so I had to find some new water to fish. I thought of all of the wonderful places I know to fish in this area but most of them were either burned or blocked by burn. A few days back an internet friend had heard my desperate concern for this area’s watershed and had dropped one of his favorite “secret” spots on me to help me fill fishing days if the river was marred by fire runoff. So that was where I headed. It is amazing that here was a fairly large creek right under my very nose and I had neither explored it nor even heard of it as a fishing destination … … so yes there are still unfound and unspoiled waters out here. And thank you to my internet friend … … he knows who he is … … but then again I did give him a magical place even if he had to find it by his own perseverance and good luck … … and as to this stream all I will say is “head west young man head west”. I had no idea what to expect when I drove up on a clear crisp summer morning. The stream was pretty but flowing over a moss bed and running shallow so I thought maybe a few small fish might be available at best ... … but then I have never turned my nose up at small fish or for that matter at any fish I might be lucky enough to catch.
The first few holes passed with no noticeable trout life and my expectations began to waver … … when suddenly my dry disappeared in a swirl the size of a sink. I jumped so high in shock I wrapped line around myself like a mummy and never even began to get a hook set. I made myself stop for a minute after I had all of my flies and line gathered back into my trembling hand and stopped to let my racing heart slow down and to let that monster get back into feeding position. My next cast was text book perfect but nothing moved by way of a strike, same for the next five. I felt myself grow frustrated at my inept fishing abilities and that botched hook set, so my next cast splat down on the water with all of the grace of falling “june bug” when all **** broke loose… … without even realizing it I had line peeling off my reel to the accompaniment of sounds only an old hardy can make. My surprise didn’t last long as instinct once again took over and I found myself in a battle with a fish much larger than I had imagined would even “be” in these waters much less have hoped to “catch”. Eventually the small water left the rainbow with nowhere to run so I ended up with yet another fish picture opportunity.
And soon several more truly fantastic fish for this size water followed. Yet more fish pic opportunities so I tried to get a few variations of different fish pictures than my standard one hand, drooping fish and wrist shot.
And the scenery for this particular stream was as good as the fish and that is saying a lot.
After a wonderful day on the water, I bid adieu to my new found truchas friends and headed back toward the cabin. On my way through town I heard the best news of the day though, the road to my favorite place on earth had been opened up today and I would get to go there on this trip after all………. Great news ……. The bad news is I would have to drive through the fire desolation to get there. Once again “Best and Worst”.
The next morning found me driving slowly along the river as I headed toward the reservoir. The damage that was visible literally made me sick to my stomach. There were numerous places where there were burnt trees inside the lawn watering circle of someone’s beloved cabin. It made me realize how much we owe in debt to the work of the forest service fire teams and what a truly amazing job they do. The tree line all the way down to the far side of the river was burned. Not burned out completely just dark black patches burned as if by a branding iron into the bright of the green aspens that were still visible in places. As I turned off the highway toward the box canyon the damage began to get more severe. I had trouble imagining what this hellish inferno must have looked like to the teams on the ground trying to defend the canyon lands. But I sent a prayer skyward in thanks to all they did for this forest anyway. As I turned up toward the small “road canyon reservoir” lakes my heart caught in my throat at the clear reflection of the damage.
The area above the box canyon was even worse.
Then the true horror of it hit home as I rounded a curve to one of my favorite overlooks, I have a fall color picture of this very spot hanging in my office and I must admit there were tears in my eyes as I took this final fire picture and there are tears in my eyes yet again as I type these words and post these tragic before and after shots
All I could hear in my head is my forestry department son’s voice about how much better this forest would be after this fire, the elimination of the dead stand beetle killed trees would be a positive thing for this forest and in the end it would be stronger and prettier than ever and on an intellectual level I truly understood that …….. but on a purely selfish level I knew that those positive changes would never occur in “MY” lifetime … … and if this forest would never be the same in my lifetime, then I had truly lost one of the most important things in my world. But then again, the lives of men are short in terms of the time lines of forest and the time lines of my life are even shorter than that of most men. On one hand the best news is that the forest will recover and the worst news is …….. I will never see it back in it’s prime.
But a few miles later and I drove out of the burn zone, parking my car at my favorite trailhead. This particular stream and this particular trip has been a highlight of my year for a very, very long time. My boys first went to this stream with me almost 15 years ago. They know this is where I eventually want my ashes scattered, in short it is a place that is very, very near and dear to my heart. As such I can’t tell you the gratitude that I felt when I got away from the trail head and realized that it was totally untouched from the horrors of fire that I had seen below. I have written of this stream so many times I won’t rewrite the beauty and the fishing but will simply post a few pictures to show that once again it performed far above any possible expectations and that it is truly worthy of my love and devotion.
A slam as always:
And scenery beyond compare:
And a few varied and different images just for the fun of it. Check the dropper and see who hooked who on the first picture and then a couple of a cutty pics in a new light and a brown flashing true gold in the water of the Colorado hills.
Well I had enjoyed three great days fishing the Creede area, I had three days still to go on this trip and a good friend had insisted that I needed to branch out because of the fire and hit some new water in Colorado. And his suggestion was that since I was an Arkansas boy … … the Arkansas River drainage ought to be the perfect place to start my new water searches. As I headed out of Creede I was moved to take a couple pictures and I sincerely wondered at the logic of leaving this beauty ………
But then I got to my destination and ran into this type scenery and “I knew that my friend had written the perfect country and western song” … … oh sorry got carried away there my friend had made the perfect camping suggestion.
I found a camp site a short wander from a normal camping area and was pretty sure that I would have the solitude I craved even in an area that gets a bit too much use. The view was off the charts but even that couldn’t sway me as I knew it was time to head out and fish.
The campsite from the river was just as good and I hoped the fishing would be even better than that. If you look closely in the first photo you can see the tent behind the tree in the middle.
And as to the fishing I will let these tell you for yourself
The fishing was so good I really wasn’t even thinking about it, just casting wading and soaking up the world around me catching fish in spite of my poor fishing and poor concentration but most of all thoroughly enjoying my time on the water and thoroughly appreciating my friend who sent me here. No matter how many times I have reached out for fishing opportunities from my friends I always seem to luck out and find a friend willing to share a personal favorite and send me somewhere that becomes one of my own personal favorites. And if some of you happen to figure out where I am fishing please don’t tell anyone as that will be the last location advice I ever get if I accidentally give away something important. I fished until it didn’t feel honorable to fish anymore because I wasn’t even focusing on the fish anymore. So I stopped and grabbed a few more of what I hope are classic river shots and headed back to camp.
I went back and poured a bourbon, lit a cigar and grabbed the camera for a few sunset shots.
Cooked me a steak and took one last final sunset shot before turning in for the night
I fell asleep that night counting my blessings for being allowed to even visit this wonderful place much less getting to call it home for a few days. I woke refreshed and relaxed the next morning only to realize that the sunrise hadn’t diminished the beauty at all.
The fishing the next day was relaxed and easy, not in terms of number of fish but in style and fishing lust. I had reached that point in the week where I was enjoying the fishing but I didn’t have that driving lust … … just a love and respect.
I actually found myself spending part of the afternoon spending time focusing on the camera and some attempted unique shots instead of one more brown. Hard to believe it is me typing these words and with a windy 20 degrees outside as I do type these words I wish I had those moments back to fish harder……… not really … … in the end we follow what we truly want to do … … when we want to do it.
I know this is going to be a shock to some of you but I found myself back at the camp with a very generous share of bourbon in a tin coffee cup and not enough energy (or maybe not enough desire) to go pump more creek water… … and as such I cannot be held accountable for the artistic integrity of the upcoming few shots as my leisurely evening ended up with a cork bottle top being consumed by flames….. and as at least a few of you know … …. that means an empty bottle by morning.
If I were a betting man I would bet on the side that I slept pretty soundly that night… … although I must admit the details of that night are a little hazy… …. Actually I am not sure I have memories of taking the fire shots…….. but according to the camera it did appear I had fun… … and I did awake with a smile on my face. But in case you were wondering if I answered the bell the next day here is a morning after shot……… and a better place to sweat out a hangover I must admit I haven’t found yet.
For my last day in Colorado for the year… … even now that causes me pain to write those words. I decided to fish a very famous and difficult section of the main Arkansas river where the fish are reportedly shy and finicky and success is measured in refusals not in landed fish. And as you guys can tell from my posts over the years, I am a tried and true small stream fisherman and tend to automatically go to small, hungry and aggressive fish versus large, overfed and picky fish any day of the week. But I decided I wanted a challenge … … to make that even more fun I might have been a little hung over and out of sorts when I pulled into the parking lot. There were more TU stickers, Orvis gear and high, high end $$ rods in that parking lot than I could count. So I laughed to myself when I decided to skip the waders and just wet wade the **** thing. There were about twenty people spread heavily over the first four holes that I walked past. I just couldn’t quite bring myself to elbow my way into the throng of anglers so I just kept walking. The good news about being stubborn is that we just keep walking even if we don’t want too… … solitude is more important than the pounding in my head.
I saw some gorgeous water that was finally empty for a couple of holes so I dropped in and began to fish. I was throwing a dry/dropper and fished about three great holes in all of the classic positions but didn’t even get as much as a flash of refusal. I was coming up out of a hundred yards of classic slow brown type water where I had batted zero out of zero, when I saw some boiling fast fairly deep water rushing by in a long deep riffle, well I was walking by I flipped my dry dropper in and I will be ****ed if that 30 inch dropper didn’t get just absolutely clocked by a nice little brown.
As I rounded the bend at the top of the picture the water looked like this……… focus on the water if you can even though the scenery isn’t bad either.
Well even in my hung over state I realized that this wasn’t dry dropper water, even if every fisherman I had talked to today had been talking midges and slow pools … … **** this looks like old chuck and duck water to my old Georgia boy self … … but then I am not much of a trout fisherman as you guys already know. I forced my hung over blood shot eyes to focus long enough to retie a good old fashioned deep winter North Carolina double lead, double deep nymph rig. Figuring that this would be a waste of time but small and delicate on top hadn’t exactly been turning the trick either had it. And how did that work you may ask … … well as my old daddy used to say “even a blind sow finds an acorn eventually“. And these are just a few of the riches I stumbled upon.
As I was walking out of the river happy as boy who has to leave Colorado in a few hours can be, I ran into a few expert fly fisherman who told me how if I had fished the littlest midges in the slow pools like they did I might have caught a one or two fish like they did, one even told me he had caught one that was almost twelve inches long. As they say God protects idiots and drunks and those that know me best have still not been able to agree on which of those terms suits me best … … but it was a **** of a fishing trip … … and even more fun as an adventure. Thanks to those of you who offered advice and potential locations, hopefully I have kept your confidences to your satisfaction.
P.s. … now that the writer’s block is broken I have recently taken trips to Wyoming, Nantahala, “the bird” and even have an upcoming trip to the White River in Arkansas that will need long winded photo heavy reports so more to come soon for those that have the patience to read of my adventures.
Wow, perfect inspiration for a day of tying flies. Glad your mother and her home were safe.
Great post! I never tire of reading your posts (short stories).
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