I was south of town and on private water. Summer was winding down and the lighting had already shifted. The cottonwoods were starting to change and there was that early autumn smell you could catch a whiff of in the afternoons. The river was at the lowest it had been all year and we have had a great snow pack, so everything had been lush and hatchy all year.
With an invitation to work this section of the river and after making small talk with the owner, I decided to put in at the house and work my way up to the boundary about a mile up river. Without fence lines, I was told the boundary is loosely marked by the oxbow, and left there, was a small glade with an old dilapidated tee-pee. I know the tee-pee wasn’t an artifact but rather a remanent of a time when the hippies settled in on the cowboys here. Kind of ironic because the history of this place is rich. It was at one time Ute land, Spanish land (who actually named the river) and before that the Anasazi. Contemporary times rumor it now to be settled by the Californians and whoever else since the covid housing surge.
Time was of the essence and with the sun in my face as I headed up river, I knew daylight was limited. This was more of an exploration of this stretch and logged for possible future times. Much of this area was pocket water with a few good runs here and there between large boulders the size of my mid-sixties Volkswagens that I was obsessed with in my latter teens and early twenties. I was just hoping for less pressure on this stretch rather than in town where this poor river and fish get pounded regularly.
I was applying the five cast rule of hitting an interesting spot with only a limited amount of casts and then moving on. My rig was set with what I refer to as standard issue; 5x leader with 5x tippet at 18” with a size 16 beadhead pheasant tail followed by 24” 5x tippet with a size 18 zebra midge. For me, always a good starting point this time of year.
The Basalt boulders were stained from the water levels... some almost pure white and others had a slight orange tint to them while the notorious electric green algae swayed in the current. There were a few holding spots that yielded good strikes and brought 3 wild browns to the net. Definitely a confidence booster for new water as I made my way up river. Each time I found a spot, I also tried to get a bearing from where I put in and where this oxbow was. Shockingly this distance felt a lot longer than I thought, but fortunately, I could walk the rivers' edge on sandy banks and cobble.
I was two hours in when I finally came up on the tail out of the pool where the oxbow presented it self. This was a massive pool, maybe 30 yards long with a nice sandy wraparound bank and a large rock cliff for the far bank. The pool held a few mid-sized boulders and, while great for structure, it provided multiple feeding lanes, all with foam buffet lines like what I imagine in Vegas casinos as the 'betes-riddled guests line up at the trough. Glancing inland, I spotted the glade... thick with yellow cottonwoods and dense with tall green grass. Too dense to spot the tee-pee but I knew this had to be the place. I felt the temperature drop as if to be a reminder of the sun sliding behind the west ridge, my time was now limited beyond man made consequences, truly I was held by the earth and its agenda.
I took aim at the bottom of the pool and tried for the nearest shallows right off the beach. Then, I proceeded further out into the feeding lanes, taking my time to tread lightly and be observant. Moving out into the larger water is where I spotted the first pod. Sipping peacefully under the surface and on occasion taking from the top, all without a care in the world. I counted a cluster of 5 pan size browns seemingly to be taking turns at the buffet as the sun buried itself behind the ridge. We were all in shade now and the temp dropped quickly to something comfortable but also indicated a cooler night ahead. I paused to cast and held my breath for a possible betas hatch, notorious on this river, but it never came. As the cool light settled in, I re-rigged for a wet pheasant tail with a black midge as my trailer, switching out my depth-charged beadhead rig I’d been using before.
As in the Rockies, once you lose direct light, its time to be aware of how fast it gets dark. Reminding myself of this I decided to back down from the feeding pod a bit so I could, if one would let me, pick off from the back of the pod. This would give me a chance at the rest if I should hook up and not spook the rest of the members of the pod. Sounded good anyways and I couldn’t afford to go scout the upper sections for other pods.
First cast out after stripping line downstream for an estimated guess at distance, now a quick mend to let these wet flys do their thing just under the film. The current was nice and easy and very even through the column without an awkward drag. I was happy with just that, and with a grin of satisfaction, I enticed one of the browns from the back to gain interest and to commit. My connection from my fly line to my leader straightened out like a shot at lightning speed and lifting my rod tip, the brown knew he was fooled. He bolted for the distant bank, probably to the lair, and all the submerged boulders that lived beneath the surface. I was able to get the fish on the reel quickly. As this all unfolded, our game of push and pull was dictated by palming my Ross Animas like old-fashioned drum brakes, nice and slow 'till you feel something without locking it up. It kept him from the boulders and, during the first pause, I took a few steps down river away from the pod. This sparked a reaction that made an average-sized brown act like a crazed Kokanee breaching and tail standing across the pool, so I let off the brakes and let him run. It wasn’t far before I could gain some control and repeat my previous action of taking a few steps down and closer to my side of the bank.
I had about 10 feet of leader including tippet before my fly line, and we were now at a truce with maybe 15 feet of line in total. That's when I made the decision to draw my net and strike that classic pose, rod in one hand vertically stretched out and away as far as possible from my body while kneeling down to scoop up the fish with my net hand. His head was above water and docile on a slow course for my net, when I ran out of room and the line slacked for a split second. This was his chance to make one last bolt and, acting like a Kokanee and/or a "Tarpon head shake", he was off within a millisecond.
I vividly remember kneeling down frozen and dumbfounded. Time was stuck on pause, no breeze, no sound of the river and I don’t think I was even breathing. I still held the pose, my net still submerged while my rod extended as far out as it could possibly be. I noticed a little flash from the flashback pheasant tail drifting by my feet as I stared into the water. This broke my trance and I belted out in laughter. The pause button relieved of its duty, and all of a sudden, I felt the breeze, heard the river and promptly proceeded to fall on my ass in about one foot of water. Barbless.
As always, tight lines.