We saw their tails first, walking up the river with hands on boulders, and watching the water with each careful step a little further ahead. They swayed in the current. The river bottom was gold pebbles. At first squinting helped pick out the black spots on their backs. A touch of blue swirling in the seam just behind the eyes and then long red that waved like flags planted in the stones. I cast to them while my friend watched. Beautiful rainbows in a beautiful canyon. He moved back to the sand along the bank and watched while I made my casts. Standing there, he waited, then moved upstream around the bend.
I started with scarcity and circled back. Throughout the years I acquired all manner of fly fishing gear and paraphernalia and most of it went in my fly fishing vest. I bought the vest when I started. It seemed like the right thing to do. And I paid very little for it. I filled the vest partly because I did not know what I needed and partly because I did not know what I liked, but as I spent more time on the river I settled into a rhythm and learned the difference. It became less about quantity and more about function. This discovery came with my introduction to the fly fishing lanyard and a realization that, on the river, less is more.
“There’s four nice fish in this hole.” He said it as we pulled over along the side of a narrow dirt road. I did not ask how he knew. I am a bit envious of the fly fisher who knows a stream inside and out. Those that have re-caught fish. That know all their spots. Where they tuck in behind rocks or sway downstream from dead drifts. That name the trout they catch. Each day on the river is still discovery for me. Maybe someday I will know a stream that well.
“I’m hung up.” My brother looked back from the bow of the drift boat then picked up line to cast while I bent the rod deep and gave a few jerks. We were anchored at the head of a long cut bank along the Big Hole river. Wet grass dried in the breeze and a grey sky rolled against the hills beyond the bank. I needed a long cast upstream and quick mends to get the flies down and I had been bumping bottom here and there since we stopped. My father watched from his hunched forward position while I worked to get free from above him. Nothing doing. I reeled in all my line and grabbed it tight, then repositioned my efforts with the rod to work angles that might free the hook. Satisfied with my best efforts I stood resigned to break off and lose the flies. In that moment the taught line slid. A few inches maybe, but upstream. I was quiet, and then, “I can’t be hung up. The line just moved.”
I had two goals on the river that day. First, catch trout. Nothing new there. Second, scout a place to take my five year old son fly fishing. My first objective influenced the second. Thus, I drove the shortest distance possible to a Colorado trout stream and sought a shallow stretch of water that would be close to the truck and fish well.
It was not the first time I had found myself in this situation on the river, and it would not be the last.
The first time I fished Mammoth Creek, I drove past them. The fences were weathered grey and white cedar bleached by the sun. Faded and torn, the old coral melded into the tall grass along the river. Part of the landscape. I noticed them just before the gravel road took me up a small hill behind wide oak trees that reached over and made a tunnel for my small white truck. I drove on until I knew that those worn posts had been the landmark. “The Corals”. Then I travelled further through the beams of light that penetrated the trees and strobed off the white gravel until I found a spot where I could make a three point turn and drive back through my dust cloud towards The Corals and access to the river.
When I pulled off the road and parked next to the South Platte River, I knew I was returning to a special place.