Confessions of a Dude Ranch Fisherman
For the last three years, I’ve been working on and off at a dude ranch in northern Colorado. After eight years of teaching high school English and reading 120 essays each weekend, I was looking for new vistas -- and found one on the west slope of the Rockies. Although I initially pitched myself to the ranch manager as a wrangler, he took a quick look at my resume, saw that I fly fished, and hired me to handle those duties at the ranch. Although I had never been a “professional” fisherman before, I eagerly signed on. At age 55, I was off to Colorado and a new occupation.
The Home Ranch was located in a beautiful river valley some thirty miles south of the Wyoming border. The Elk River was not huge, but certainly more substantial than the mountain streams of the Sierra Nevada and southern California where I had cut my fly fishing teeth. Its icy headwaters began their steady drip some thirty miles east in the ragged, scree-laced peaks of the Continental Divide, which meant as long as there was to snow to melt, the river ran briskly. Watching the water race by, I’d try to wrap my mind around the notion that this river ran into another river, which ran into another river, which ran into another river, which ran into the Pacific Ocean some 1200 miles away as the crow flies and a lot longer as the rivers flow. Even more amazing were the resolute steelhead trout that thrashed their way up most of these rivers to spawn and die. As we used to say in the 60s, wow, what a trip.
I found that my fishing duties ran mostly to instructing. Behind the lodge, the brochure picture-friendly ranch pond lay nestled between a well-manicured lawn and charming grove of aspens. Because the pond froze through every winter, come spring a couple hundred 8–10 inch rainbows were trucked in. It was on this lawn that I earned most of my keep, teaching ranch guests the ABCs of fly casting. While most people freely admit that they have no patience for teaching, I like it. Having been confined to classrooms for fifteen years, it was nice, though, to do my teaching on the west slope of the Rockies and under brilliant blue skies.
While I spent the better part of my fishing work day on the pond, the ranch also owned a couple of miles of the Elk River. And when I say “owned the river,” in Colorado that’s closer to fact that in perhaps any other state in the union. In Colorado, if you own the bank of the river, you own the bottom of the river as well. If you own one side and someone else owns the other, then you own to the center of the river. What this means is that your section of the river is NOT accessible to the public. This differs from most states where the public has access to the high water mark, which essentially takes in the banks and shoreline. For instance, if, say in Montana, you can find some kind of public access to a river’s edge, you can then hike up or down stream, crisscrossing private property to your heart’s content. Yes, you can, in Colorado, float any water that is deemed “navigable” (which, in my understanding, is almost every river) and fish from the boat, but you’re trespassing if you get out and wade. Fair or not? Depends on whose perspective you’re viewing it from. For those fishermen driving up and down the road looking for rare stretches of public water on this river, the deal was not so good. For me, who had virtually sole access to a couple of miles of the finest trout fishing I’ve ever known, I couldn’t complain. As a matter of fact, selfish ol’ me was often downright ecstatic about it.
The ranch guests with whom I interacted could generally be divided into two camps: those who knew how to fly fish and those who didn’t. Those who didn’t could further be divided into those who had done some spin fishing and those who had never fished at all. Truthfully, as a casting instructor, I had a harder time teaching fly casting to spin fishermen than to total neophytes. The simple reason is that spin casting depends on heavy wrist action while fly casting requires virtually no wrist action at all. I would literally truss their wrists to the handle of the fly rod to keep them from bending it and spoiling the cast. The more complicated reason is that spin casters often had little or no patience to relearn how to catch fish.
And then there were those few who simply had no patience at all. I recall one gentleman, a major player in a major investment company, who, after barely an hour on the lawn and pond (mostly spent snagging his fly on the weeds behind him), abruptly set down his rod and, without a word to me, strode forthrightly back to the lodge. I felt a little bad -- as did his well-meaning wife who had convinced him to give fly fishing a try as a way to relax -- and a little pissed off at what I considered behavior bordering on rude. An hour later I came across him sitting alone on the deck and reading The Wall Street Journal. He looked up at me and shrugged helplessly, “This, I’m afraid, is how I relax.” I had to acknowledge his honesty and, as the week progressed, we ended up having many interesting conversations. In the end, I still couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for him.
Fortunately, human nature’s more easy going side usually prevailed and I had a fine and rewarding time helping the guests to “get the hang of it.” No one’s going to learn to fly cast in an hour or two, but it was a start, and progress -- punctuated by much laughter -- was made there on the lawn. I was reminded when I received my first fly casting lesson. It was many moons ago when my good friend and fishing companion Steve Cooper and I drove across Los Angeles to the sleepy burg of Montrose to buy our first fly outfits. Maybe it’s only fond memory at work, but I recall that the air was unusually clear and crisp that day as we headed to Ned Gray’s fly shop on Honolulu Avenue. Ned, long since passed away, was one the grand old men of fly fishing and certainly a legend in his time. Looking back, Steve and I know how lucky to have this day with him. Anyway, there we were, two 30ish year old, half-broke yahoos anxious to dive into this sport of fly-fishing. I reckon Ned could see that we didn’t fit into the wealthy industrialist/fly fisherman category. A lusty, warm-hearted man, he regaled us with stories of growing up and fishing in Mammoth Lakes, an area of the eastern Sierra where Steve and had been working for a few summers at a pack outfit. We were instant Brothers of the High Country. After lining us out with 6 weight glass (!) rods, plus reel, line and, I think, your basic fly vests, he insisted on giving us a casting lesson. We stuffed ourselves into his Volvo sports car (I remember it was red and pristine and purred; you could tell that Ned took pride in his ride) and headed out to the local park. There, on the lawn, Ned showed us the basics. Looking back, I can’t recall exactly what he showed us, but it was enough to get us going in the right direction, a direction Steve and I are still following all these years later. Thanks, Ned.
So, yes, at the ranch, the lawn was my friend. I would rig up the graphite, 5 weight rods with a piece of red yard rather than a fly and we would cast. As with a golf swing, I’d tell them, fly casting isn’t a “natural” movement, but with a little time and patience, it can be learned sufficiently to give you shot at catching a fish. At the ranch, though, time was one thing the guests didn’t have. They were there for a jammed week of activities and, for most of them, fly fishing was just a one-shot morning or afternoon curiosity. For others it offered their aching butts a break from all that horseback riding. I can recall being told way back when I first started fly fishing that it took ten years to get any good at it (an underestimate, I’m afraid). With the guests, I had two hours. So they’d cast on the lawn, aiming at dandelions, trying their darndest to pause after the back cast to let the line straighten out so to load the rod for the fore cast. Not easy. Even explaining it here sounds complicated. Did I stand behind the ladies and reach around their arm in order to help them get the feel of the cast? You bet I did. That’s one of the perks of teaching.
Before long, though, just as boredom began edging its way into the equation, the call of the pond -- sitting there so invitingly just a few yards away --would get the better of them, so I’d tie on some flies and let them have a go at it. To try to soften the frustration that I knew was coming, I would tell them that normally, one would typically practice on the lawn for a complete day, if not days, before hitting the water. They’d nod politely, then turn and resolutely start pounding the pond. For most, that first experience on the water ran primarily to untangling their lines after catching their back cast on the thistles that ringed the pond. If they did manage to get their fly on the water, it was with a fish-spooking splosh, or maybe just ten feet out when they needed to be thirty feet out. Then, if God smiled and they actually got a hit, they wouldn’t try to set the hook nearly soon enough -- by which time the fish was long gone. Sometimes, towards the end of the sessions, I would make the cast, hand over the rod, and hope a fish would hit so they could set the hook and play one. Sometimes, I would cast, hook the fish, then hand over the rod for them to play. (This, I quickly learned, was okay with kids and most women, but guys’ egos wouldn’t let them do it. They’d wave off my proffered rod with indignity. Heck, I can’t blame then, I wouldn’t have taken it either.) I must say, though, that almost everyone I worked with on the pond had a fine time, and some even got the hang of it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that at the beginning of a session I had each guest raise his or her right hand and take my fly fishing pledge: “I promise to have a good time today whether or not I catch fish, so help me God.”
While the big draw of the Home Ranch was its excellent horseback riding, for fisherman it was the aforementioned Elk River. The Scenic River. The Almighty River. The River of Big Fish. You couldn’t see it from the ranch proper, but it was out there, somewhere, its mystical waters calling to you. Indeed, a handful of ranch guests did come solely to fish the river. And many of those had been coming for years and didn’t my input at all. To the contrary, I would, especially in my early days there, tactfully ask if I could tag along with them and glean from their knowledge of the river.
So fish we did. And fish I did. What a wonderful gift to be able to fish a great river day after day – and get paid to do it! As the river revealed itself to me in crafty bits and pieces, I’d accompany guests not as a guide, but as a fishing companion. In other words, I wasn’t there to stand at their shoulder all day pointing out exactly where to cast and tying on new flies for them. Not that I wouldn’t help them in any way I knew how, but it was more informal than that. I’d fish along with them, always giving them first shot at the good spots, offering whatever advice I could, but more often just chatting with them as we enjoyed a day on the river. And, truthfully, I think a beginning fisherman can learn a lot by watching a better fisherman. So it was a win-win situation all around.
But, like most rivers, even for the experienced the Elk didn’t yield its bounty easily. First and perhaps most challenging was the prospect of wading it. It was a freestone river, but could have easily been called a freeboulder river, as the bottom was jumbled mosaic of smooth rocks from bongo drum to 50 gallon drum size and bigger. No nice, forgiving gravel here, my friend. Add to this a consistently swift current and a coating snot-slick moss, and you’ve got yourself one bad-ass river to wade. I don’t have enough fingers on my two hands to count the times I’d take what I thought was a sure step only to have my boot slip and twist mercilessly in the seam between rocks. Next moment: boom, I was down. It felt like someone reached out and body slammed me to the bottom (fortunately, the river was rarely over waist deep, and drowning was not really a worry). Cursing and drenched, I’d stagger to my feet, feel gingerly for injuries (i.e. bruises, scraps, stretched ligaments), check gear (my poor, battered, but ever-faithful Ross reel is beginning to look like I dropped it in a garbage disposal), and, lastly, my dignity. I could almost hear the river chuckling at my “misfortune.” She might let you reap some of her bounty, but by God she’d exact her price. And, through pain and chattering teeth, I’d always make a point to tip my cap and laugh along with her. River: one; fisherman: zero.
So it was that many a time an older guest would take one or two hesitant steps into the river, consider a moment, then retreat gingerly and cede that this river wasn’t for him. Because of the tree-lined banks, you had to get into the water to have any kind of cast at all. For beginners, fishing the Elk often became simply the challenge of not falling in. Back at the pond, I’d already offered that the river was no place to learn how to cast. Better to stay on the lawn and then fish the pond. But many had seen A River Runs Through It and were dead set on hitting the river. And, as they were paying a whopping sum to stay at the ranch, who was I to say no? The result was often a zero fish day plus a humbling glimpse into the beautiful vagaries of Mother Nature (driven home, perhaps, by a good dunking or two). If I saw them fishing later in the week, it would be on the pond, and I would encourage them with a hearty “You only have nine years and fifty-one weeks more before you get good!” Smart ass.
But there were those fishermen, a few beginners but mostly those with a fair amount of experience, who, either by skill or dumb luck, succeeded on the river. Now, if you told a non-fly fisherman that you only caught one fish in a day, they’d probably shake their head in commiseration. But when you would then tell them that it was a good day, they’d probably think you were either pathetic or downright loony. But believe me, on this challenging river, one good fish can make one good day. Heck, on a river this pretty, no fish can make a good day. Wild 18-20 inch rainbows are par for the course, interspersed every now and then with a brown that made it up from the larger river below or a brookie down from the high country. And, yes, you’ll get your share of whitefish, often monsters, but with little fight in them. Yes, catching a whitefish is better than catching no fish at all, but not by all that much. The chefs would always claim that whitefish were great for smoking, but I never could get the cigarette papers to stick together (rim shot thank you).
Nymphing is by far the most effective method of fish the Elk. That being said, I, like many diehards, would almost always start with a dry. Sometimes – bang – a fish would take it and I’d think, whoopee, dries are happening. But then no more. Maybe the fish was just bored and took it out of pure curiosity. Anyway, before long I’m tying on a nymph and, for good measure, another smaller one behind it as a dropper, with maybe a split shot pinched on to help get them down in the flow. The section of the river I like best is pure pocket water. And even though the water is usually crystal clear, the uniformly swift current and mottled bottom means no sight fishing. No way are you going to find a feeding trout finning lazily in this current. To make matters even more difficult, you rarely if ever see rising fish in the Elk. Now, on the surface (pardon the pun), this doesn’t make any sense. Fish must rise, right? Bugs land on water, fish see them, burst through the surface to grab a tasty morsel. Simple. Only, in my three seasons on the river, rarely I see what you would call a classic rise. If anything, every once in a while a fish would whack the surface one time and that would be that. If you could get a dry tied on quick and lay it on that spot, you might very well get a hit from that fish and life would be good. But such occurrences were infrequent at best. Fear not, I have a few theories. One: because I’m fishing with guests in the late morning and early afternoon (so as to not miss a meal), hatches are seen less frequently. Two: there’s enough food sub-surface so that trout have no need to rise to feed. Three: the sons-a-guns are hiding from me.
Now, kind reader, I have an admission to make. For as many years as I’ve been fishing, my etymological savvy is sorely lacking. Even the danged word still stumps me: is it etymology or entomology? Being an old English teacher I should know better, but, hey, we all have our shortcomings. As math and chemistry baffled me in my teens, so the science of aquatic insects does so today. A couple years back I finally bought a little pocket guide to bugs that whittles it down to about as simple as possible, but I still find myself blanking out on the difference between a baetis and a midge. (Or are they the same? Hmm...) At the risk of sounding a total nincompoop, I can identify a mayfly and caddis and stonefly and perhaps a midge, but usually find myself ignoring the finer points of hatch matching when I’m on the water. I have my favorite flies, typically ones that have worked on this stretch of water before. That’s what I buy and that’s what I use, hence my sparse palette of patterns. Wait...did he say “buy”? Yes, Virginia, here comes admission #2: I don’t tie my own flies. Shame on me. But I do own all the necessary doodads to tie flies, and fully intend to return to the practice any decade now.
Perhaps my lack of study stems from the ocular fact that what I see hatching 95% of the time on this river are little tiny bugs that don’t scare up trout one to the surface. So I ignore the all critters and go about tying on whatever strikes me. I do, though, feel a bit chagrinned when I read fly fishing writers who toss about those wonderful Latin names (how can you not adore the sexy, almost pornographic sounding “Flavilinea”?) while I am limited to such prosaic terminology as “a smallish brownish bug,” or the proverbial “little black thing.” Ouch. I’m heading to the library right after lunch.
Revealingly, fly fishing magazines are rife with articles titled something to the effect of “The Only Six Fly Patterns You’ll Ever Need No Matter What Kind of Water You’re Fishing In or What Kind of Fish You’re Fishing For In No Matter What Part of the World.” I figure that if a have a handful of three or four of these patterns (am I chintzy or what?), I’m prepared to hit the water. As a member of the “fish-the-fly-until-you’re-just-about-down-to-the-bare-hook club,” I can get a hell of a lot of mileage out of one $1.85 bead head nymph. And the number of times I’ve put myself in harm’s way to retrieve a fly snagged in a tree I can’t even begin to count.
While I may not sound like much of an expert (do you really trust people who claim to be experts? It’s a little like PhD’s who insist on being called “Dr.” Uh, no thanks), I do have my talents, and by virtue of plying the same two miles of river day after day, it graciously revealed many subtleties to me. Whether guiding or instructing, each group I worked with brought its own rewards. With the beginners on the pond, it was sharing their delight when finally, after hours in the baking rays of high altitude sun, they successfully cast, hooked and landed their first trout on a fly. With the intermediates I took to the river, it was the laughter and handshakes following the netting of their first river-sized rainbow. With the experienced fishermen, it was reveling in their accounts of big fish caught and released. All true? Well...I always believed them. Lastly, the trout, as always, were beautiful.
So that was my job for two summer seasons. Not too shabby. This last year I returned once again to the ranch, but not to handle the fishing duties. As a full-time wrangler, my turf was barn and back country rather than pond and river. Chaps and cowboy boots replaced waders and studded soles. No more casting sessions on the lawn, no more scouring the weeds around the pond for my last Dave’s Hopper. No more praying to God to let this hapless investment banker catch just one little trout. This year it was teaching would-be cowpokes to handle their horses and introduce them to the grueling pleasures of an eight hour ride.
Did I fish? You better believe it. But it was on my own time and never enough -- until my last couple of weeks before heading home. It was fall and the colors dazzling and weather ideal. No guests were fishing. I had the water all to myself. The fish were often, but not always, cooperative. Who would have it any other way? On my second to last session on the water, I was on fire, netting half a dozen beauties and losing as many more. Then, on my last day in Colorado, I managed to land but one little rainbow. I netted it, slid out the hook, admired its glistening colors for an instant before it flipped out of my hand and darted off. Perhaps, I mused, we’ll meet again some other day. Then, in the fading light, I tipped my hat one last time to the river...and went home.
Lake Oswego, Oregon, 11/4/05
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