Tuesday, August 21, 2012

This Ain't My First Rodeo

For whatever reason my favorite saying during our trip was, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” Not sure why I started saying it. Maybe I was tired of my three teenage sons “smarter than dad” attitude. Maybe it was in response to my wife’s questions. Maybe it was just to be funny. For instance, leaving the Denver airport in our rental vehicle I stated, “This ain’t my first rodeo,” and promptly missed a turn taking us through a scenic tour of the ongoing construction at the Denver airport.

When my son and I headed out on the mountain bikes and my wife said, “be careful,” I thought, “this ain’t my first rodeo.” Maybe not, but I’m sure lots of folks at the ER were probably thinking it was. I guess even experienced cowboys get thrown off the horse or bull now and then.

A fair cast...about 60 feet, but that loop could be tighter!
However, when it comes to fly fishing, “this ain’t my first rodeo.” I’ve been fly fishing for about 30 years. At a minimum, I fly fish weekly…during peak times much more than that. When I went to the Bahamas for the first time the guide asked how far I could cast…I told him, but he didn’t believe me. “This ain’t my first rodeo.” I got up on the bow of the boat and easily cast 80 feet. “Ok…you a good caster,” he said in that Bahamian accent.

And that’s my dilemma. When I fish with guides, especially ones that don’t know me or my skill level, I’m always hesitant to speak of my abilities. You don’t want to brag, but I also don’t like having the guide do everything for me. I hope that taking me fishing is a bit of a break from the sports that fly fish only once or twice a year. That kind of cockiness puts pressure on me, and can put people off, but doggone it this ain’t my first rodeo.

Fish on...and landed!

Yet when it came to landing BIG trout on this trip, I felt at times like it was my first rodeo. I can’t tell you how many times I lasted less than 8 seconds in the saddle. Oh sure…I had no problem casting on this trip, even with my broken collar bone. My percentage of hook-ups were high...trout refusal rate low. Part of that success was the guides. They knew what flies to tie on…but I still had to deliver them.

So let’s say you are a good caster and put the fly where it needs to be. The guides have the right fly tied on your leader and so the fish eats. You still have to time your hook set just right, battle the fish, and get them to the net. There’s a lot that can wrong. And it did go wrong, with every really big fish I hooked this trip. 

Not quite 24 but certainly worth smiling about!
By my count, I had hooked at least a dozen trout that went 20-24 inches. I landed 10 of those. No kidding…this ain’t my first rodeo you know. I also hooked at least 6 or 7 trout that by the guides estimates were over 25 inches! I got a whopping zero of those to the net.

“Damn, Terry,” said my guide Shannon, “how will I get your picture with a mega-trout so that you can show it to all your fly fishing buddies, make them drool and want to come out here to fish with me? I thought you said this ain’t your first rodeo?”

But that’s the beauty of fly fishing…despite how good you are (or think you are) it still takes a lot of luck to get a fish, especially a trophy to the net. Big fish are big for a reason…they have been able to outwit their predators. They know diving deep into the aquatic weeds may free them. They know that a jump and a gill rattling head shake may loosen that fly in their mouth. They understand that rocks, sticks, logs and other obstructions spell doomsday for any leader.

A 'Bow with shoulders but still just shy of 25!

So, while you are up above applying side pressure, bowing when they jump, keeping their head up, letting them run…they are down below diving for cover, shaking their head, jumping and twisting, getting into your backing. With a little luck, one of you will be smiling when it’s over. During this trip, I wasn’t smiling as much as I had hoped.

At one point during this trip, I had what looked like a 27 incher just seconds from the net. My guide John was literally reaching to net the fish when the fish decided he had one more trick up his sleeve. The fish headed toward a stick-up…I countered and turned him. John reached, the fish swam towards me, quickly and jumped. I wasn’t expecting a jump…the fly came flying back towards my face. The fish swirled and splashed the water with his tail as he swam away as if to say, “this ain’t my first rodeo.”

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cutbow Bass!

My latest installment from our Way Out West Adventure at The High Lonesome Ranch...

Sunrise at The Homestead Cabin, High Lonesome Ranch

While at the ranch, we stayed at The Homestead Cabin.  It was a cozy 3 bedroom log cabin, a part of which was one of the original ranch buildings.  It had been renovated, was very nice and very cozy.  Within steps of the front door was a spring fed pond, small, but it did hold trout.  Down the road a piece was a larger pond, part of the stream that traversed the valley.  That pond was deep, with lots of edge where the moss and aquatic vegetation grows within inches of the water surface, creating great flats. Those edges and flats were prime hunting grounds for the trout that lived there. I fished this pond several times before breakfast. I typically used streamers here, but one particular morning I decided to try a hopper pattern.

This particular morning was the first since my mountain biking mishap. We were scheduled for some horseback riding. After breakfast, I accompanied Julie and the boys to the corral and snapped a few pictures while they got used to their horses.  All of them had some riding experience and even though I was about to go fish, I really wanted to ride with them.  There is just something about a women in boots and jeans…I guess that’s the Texan in me.  Even Aaron, born in Texas, agreed. In fact, he stayed after they finished riding to help one of the young lady wranglers brush horses, put away tack and saddles and what not.  Later in the week, one of the ranch staff remarked to me that Aaron must really have an interest in horses since he spent so much time helping.  I thought to myself… “nope, he just had a lot of interest in that cute girl wearing boots and jeans!”

"Hello, I'm Mr. Ed"
With the family headed down the trail, I headed back to the Homestead, grabbed my five weight and headed to the big pond below the cabin.  I caught a couple of fish but soon realized that while I could cast just fine, stripping line with my right arm was tough, but landing a fish was even tougher.  Why didn’t I ask for a guide that morning?  Why?  Because I’m hard core and thought I could handle it all myself.  That would cost me later that morning.

On the Trail
With the sun up a little higher, bug activity and cruising trout activity was on the rise.  This pond has some nice casting platforms built around it and I stationed myself on one that gave me access to one of the mossy “flats” as well as the edge along the deep water.  I saw what appeared to be a nice fish rise just as he crossed that edge.  I laid out a cast and the hopper went plop.  The fish swirled and I set the hook.  “Ouch,” I said out loud as I used my right hand to pull the slack fly line tight.  I must have “hit” that fish too hard…he broke off.

The big pond below our cabin

I managed to get another hopper tied onto my leader and caught a couple of fair fish (fair here would be awesome back in NC).  The fish pounded the hopper pretty good and I realized I didn’t have to strip strike the fish and the fish would run enough so that the slack line would disappear and I could play them off the reel.  I thought at one point… “Sure wish I had one of those Martin automatic reels!”

Cruising over the Moss
I looked at the flat area again and saw several fish move in and feed.  There was what seemed like a big push from a big fish within casting range.  I cast the hopper.  The hopper went plop.  The fish turned.  The fish hesitated. I twitched the hopper.  The fish moved closer.  I twitched harder, just like I was working a bass bug across my home river, The Eno. The fish charged, kipped jaw open wide, his nose sticking out of the water.  Strip, strip, strip I kept that fly moving and then it was if a bomb went off in the water!  Next thing I knew the fish was into my backing, but fortunately he headed towards deeper water. I dropped my arm out of my sling and began to battle this fish.  He made several long runs, jumped and danced on the water. It was a spectacular display but I had no one there to share it with me.  At one point the fish headed for the moss.  I stuck the rod butt into my belly and put the heat to him.  I kept his head up and he turned again for deeper water.  The fish had one more jump…a gills flared, head shaking, tail walking largemouth imitating jump.  Soon the fish lay exhausted in the shallow water at my feet.

It was the first cutbow I had ever caught. The fish was a thick, football shaped trout.  I wanted this fish to be over 24 inches long and based on its weight it should have been. However, I understand that cutbows tend to grow stockier for their length. The fish had that translucent golden hue like many cutthroat species, with a red lateral strip of a rainbow. A gorgeous fish in anyone’s book. Quickly I grabbed my smart phone to take a picture. The phone seized up and I had to reboot it. More importantly I had to reboot this fish. I sat down on my backside and gently moved the fish back and forth in the water. It took several minutes but he finally swam off, giving me one more tail splash as if to say “nice job!”

My collar bone and right shoulder ached from the fight and the difficulty reaching down and releasing the fish. Before I released the fish, I did get a measurement… 22 inches, but more importantly I estimated about four pounds!

Sometimes you gotta play hurt

But I have no picture…except the one permanently etched in my mind.

Whether you believe the size or not, it doesn’t matter. What was unique for me was the way this fish behaved…just like he was an Eno River largemouth from my own backyard. It was as if this fish was simply trying to make me feel at home because I was alone that morning, injured and concerned that the majority of the rest of my vacation would be spent sitting around doing nothing because of the broken collar bone.

I did spend the next 30 minutes just sitting; waiting for the pain to ease, reveling in this wonderful place. I looked up and there was a ranch vehicle bringing Julie and the boys back to the cabin. “How you feeling?” Julie asked.

“I’m fine…caught some fish,” I responded.

“You’re hard core…can’t believe you are fishing with a broken collar bone.  Catch anything worth writing about?”

“Yep…a cutbow bass!”

Sunday, August 5, 2012

He’ll Be Comin’ Down the Mountain

Waiting for the Take
It was day four of our 10-day trip…the second full day on the ranch. We spent the morning fishing up at the highest elevation pond called “Sawmill.” This pond was full of big trout and skinny water. These spring ponds are full of vegetation…algae and “moss.” Large trout cruised in and out of an area with only inches of water above the moss. It was ambush central. Shannon, our guide, positioned me to intercept these fish…some would come within 15 feet others about 30. As long as you led the fish and didn’t line it, they would take. The problem…they dove for the moss or screamed across the pond…either way you had about a 1 in 10 shot in landing a fish.  I landed two that morning, but had at least 10 fish hooked. My biggest? A 24 inch bow with “shoulders,” but the ones that got away were much bigger. I’m still having nightmares…wet nightmares…me standing in my skivvies casting to cruising trout nightmares…trout refusing my fly and swallowing me nightmares.

Fish On!

Adam Had to "Catch" This One Twice!
Oh yeah?! You try to land a 25-inch plus trout on 5X tippet using a 5-weight rod…see if you can beat my 20% success rate…go ahead try it…I’ll go with you.

My son Aaron landed a nice one from this pond. Heck…my son Adam landed a nice one from this pond, although he pissed Shannon off because he kept dropping the fish while Shannon tried to get a picture. The ranch (and guides) wants those pictures. That’s how suckers like me get hooked...and suckers like you. I know you want to go…just say the word, I’ll go along.  I’ll even bring the beer.

Aaron and Guide John with a P-I-G Hawg!
Yo Boys...Now, This Here is a Fish!

Speaking of beer…did you know that beer would have prevented a serious injury while I was vacationing? It’s true…here is how it happened.

I Should Have Listened to the Trout and Drank Beer
Our guides dropped us off at our cabin after a full day of trout fishing and clay shooting. Since our guides were now off the clock, we offered them a cold one… small compensation for putting up with my 3 teenagers all day.  At first they were going to accept, but one of the guides remembered that he promised to pick up his daughter and said they would catch us Thursday after fishing. No problem I thought.

It was about 4pm and I was still up for something before dinner. So rather than drinking a couple of beers I asked my son Aaron if he wanted to go mountain biking.  He said yes. Had we instead drank beer, I wouldn’t have gotten on that bike.  Had I not gotten on that bike, I wouldn’t have ridden up Cross Mountain. Had I not ridden up Cross Mountain, I wouldn’t have had to ride down Cross Mountain. Had I not ridden down Cross Mountain, I wouldn’t have wrecked. Had I just stayed at the cabin and drank beer I wouldn’t have broken my collar bone. There is a moral to this story…I’ll let y’all figure out what that moral is.

So what really happened up on Cross Mountain? Depends…do you want the story I remember or the story that my son remembers? How about both?

Cross Mountain...Say a Prayer Before You Head Down

We readied the mountain bikes…good bikes that the ranch owns. Specialized rock hopper hard tail 26ers. Not quite the 29er stump jumpers my son and I own and ride regularly, but good bikes. Aaron and I are not newbies to the sport. We ride frequently, and have ridden far more knarly trails than what we ended up riding this day. This wasn’t my first rodeo. We weren’t going to ride anything we couldn’t handle.  Sure, there were no designated mountain bike trails at the ranch, but there were plenty of two track and horse trails…nothing to lead you to believe a crash was eminent.

So we headed out a valley road with nice easy climbs and descents. We had plenty of time before dinner and when I saw a switchback trail headed up Cross Mountain, I said, “Let’s see how far we can go up before I run out of breath.” The trail was wide enough that it was not very technical…except for the climb a relatively easy trail to negotiate. We made it up several switchbacks when the thin Rocky Mountain air literally sucked the oxygen out of my lungs. My legs were screaming for a break and my mouth was drier than a West Texas dust storm. So we stopped, drank some water and decided it was time to head down the trail. Here’s where the two stories diverge as if we took two different trails down the mountain.

We Headed Out this Valley Road Towards Cross Mountain

I started down the trail and noticed that the dirt was very loose, deep and difficult to keep traction.  I eased my speed through the first two switchbacks. Gravity kicked in again and as I started down the next section a black bear bolted across the trail in front of me! Just then a mountain lion lunged over top of me, across the trail chasing the bear! His back paws clipped my helmet and I started to skid. I pulled back to straighten the bike when I realized why the mountain lion was chasing the bear. They were both being chased by a Sasquatch who had an empty Jack Links package in one hand my younger son’s hat in the other (I told them not to mess with Sasquatch, no matter what the TV commercial showed!) As I straightened myself, Sasquatch stopped in front of me and I swerved to miss him and lost control of the bike. I went down hard. Ole’ Sasquatch put on the hat and just laughed. 

Ok…so maybe that’s not quite how it happened, but I use that version at the bar and there is someone that always believes it.

The truth is we started down Cross Mountain trail and we did notice some loose stuff along the way. As I headed down a straight stretch I hit some loose sand and the back wheel fished tailed. I tried to pull it back, when according to my son I hit a rock. The bike slid out from under me and gravity took care of the rest. I hit the ground hard, right shoulder first. My head hit the ground hard too and perhaps that’s why I have a different rendering of the crash. Fortunately my helmet saved me from further injury (or was it attributable to my hard head?). I sat for a moment while I assessed the damage.

Another View of Cross Mountain...If You Squint You Can See the Bear, Mountain Lion and Sasquatch!

It’s called the mountain biker inventory…when you momentarily sit after a crash determining what still works and what didn’t. I could see. I had ten fingers and toes and all my limbs still attached. There was no blood. I knew that I had either broken my collar bone or at best case dislocated the shoulder. I had some movement and didn’t feel any protrusions, but it did hurt. About that time the adrenaline really kicked in and I told my son I could ride back to the cabin. We walked the bikes down the trail to the valley road where I gingerly rode the mile back to the cabin.
My Fractured Clavicle
From there ranch staff took Julie and me to the Grand Junction ER. Grand Junction wasn’t originally on our itinerary so that was a plus in the site seeing category. X-rays revealed a pretty good break, but the doctor…knowing I was on vacation…said, “We’ll put you in a sling and on pain meds to keep you comfortable. Since you are left-handed, I don’t see why you can’t keep fly fishing while you are here, but no more biking, no horseback riding or whitewater rafting.”
And fly fish I did.