Sunday, March 29, 2009

Colorado 2008 - The Cuttslam

This trip started at 3:00AM in Parkersburg, WV with a 2-hour car ride to Akron and a three-hour flight to Denver. My partner on this adventure was a good friend, a fellow-native salmanoid lover, bamboo rodmaker, and a very good photographer.

After picking my younger brother up just outside Denver, we were in Rocky Mountain National Park catching those beautiful greenback cutthroat by 1:30PM MST.

This was waiting for me at my brother's place (Thanks Becca!):
The fishing was just as it has been the previous two trips into this stream - beautiful greenbacks in every pocket and all more than willing to take a small elk hair caddis. Phil caught his first greenback in short order - my brother and I had caught them on previous adventures into this stream - Stage 1 of the "slam" was then complete.

Phil's First Greenback:
After a few hours of fishing, we happened upon another pair of fishermen. We had no idea we were fishing used water and you couldn't have proven it by the numbers. Between the three of us, we were well over 50 fish in a few hours.

It was a good thing we were successful in a short period because I noticed the altitude was starting to affect Phil. When the natives are active, you typically have difficulty keeping up with him but he was sitting with his head in his hands - time to get down from altitude (9,500 feet).
Day two put us north of the park in search of greyling and fishing with one of Phil's fellow bamboo rodmakers. This adventure would start near the 10,000 feet barrier and it started slow. It must have taken well over an hour (wet wading in 45 degree water) before we even moved/spooked a fish.

Phil and I usually fish close to each other for the photo op's but we split up for a short period of time When we got back together he showed me the first greyling of the trip on the LCD panel of his camera. I am not a competitve fisherman but I don't like finishing last - even it is just out of two!

That one fish must have been a good omen because after that it was lights out (until the storms pushed us off the water). We had to have been near the 50 fish mark again with just two of us today. My guess would be 70-80% of those fish were greyling with the remainder being greenbacks - I did break off a very nice greenback trying to keep it out of a root ball.

This was everything I wanted on my little 1wt boo!

It was a hoot sight-fishing for those guys! That fluorescent aqua dorsal fin stands out like a sore thumb in that crystal clear water.

Caught a few more greenbacks:

When the storms pushed us off the water, we hiked back to the vehicle, where we ran into Phil's rodmaker acquaintence. We also ran into a couple of the biggest bull moose I have ever seen. On the way home that evening we also ran into a group of immature and ewe bighorns.

Day three of the adventure had us fishing with my brother on the west side of the national park chasing brookies. A short two-mile hike put us in the meadow section of what I have affectionately termed brookie heaven. This stream has slow moving holes with pods of up to 20 brookies.

I usually stop counting fish before I hit five, but this is a stream you can easily hit triple digits. I started with a small hopper but they seemed to just swat at the fly. I switched to my "go-to" fly, a size 18 EHC and again it was game on. I had one hole I caught seven brookies before putting the remaining fish down and one other hole I caught fish on three consecutive casts.

There was a trend that developed on the west side of the divide. At about 2:30-3:00 every day the skies would cloud up, the storms would roll in, and the skies would open up. On this day we spent over an hour under the cover of an overhanging rock while the thunder and lightning boomed through the high meadow - along with a little sleet and hail.

Let me tell you thunder sounds much different when you are in the clouds that create it!
Once the storms rolled through, we tried to fish in the rain but the temps had dropped significantly. Even in raingear I was cold, so we made the decision to head off the mountain. I didn't hit triple digits, but 57 in a little over three hours wasn't too bad.

We set up camp in Timber Creek campground, which we had to share with the resident herd of elk. They were present for dinner that evening and again for breakfast the following day.

Day four would be the ultimate test of my brother's endurance. The trailhead is 9,000 feet and it is 3.5 miles to the stream. If successful, this would be the final piece to his Colorado Cuttslam - the Colorado River cutthroat.

Once hitting the water, the fishing was slow but it was still early and the temps were still low. Once the temps start rising the fish count did the same. Phil and Matt both landed numerous Colorado River cutts, completing phase two for Phil and phase three for Matt.

Matt had caught the third and final cutt, the Rio Grande, on a September 2006 trip to the lower part of the state.

After "checking the box" on this day, we continued to push upstream. We fished some of the highest gradient water I have ever fished - it was like fishing in a stairwell!

Fishing Straight Up!
We pushed on to a very interesting section of this stream - the meadow section.
This meadow section is quite different than the meadow section of the previous day. This water is only two feet wide and in most places it is deeper than it is wide. If you can thread the needle and get a fly on the water, something will take a swipe at it.

After playing in the meadow section for a little while, I recommended we head out before the storms roll in and we would be hiking five miles in the rain.

Day five had Phil and I headed to the southern border of the state after the Rio Grande cutthroat, with a stop at a bristlecone pine stand.

Windy Ridge Bristlecone Pines
This stand of bristlecones contains trees that are over 800 year-old! It was humbling to stand among those ancient beings - some of those trees were 300 years old when Christopher Columbus stepped on the new continent!

After a brief tour of the bristlecones, it was on to the stream I had identified for the last leg of the slam.

After arriving on the stream and setting up camp, it was a quick trip to the stream as the storms brewed in the head of the valley. We fished some very nice looking water and did not move a fish. We ran into an older gentleman (from Ohio) who did not move a fish in five hours. He told us he didn't know what was wrong as he put it "this stream used to be lights out". As we were talking, another angler stopped by and expressed the same sentiment. We asked this guy for another alternative, he gave us a name with a wink, and we were off.

This stream would put us over 11,500 feet (the campsite was 10,700). Phil was able to complete his slam while landing a very nicely colored cutt. I caught what appeared to be a cutt-mix of some type and another that appeared to be a Snake River fine spot???

NOT a Rio Grande Cutthroat:
Day six would put us on another headwater stream that I had tried to find on a previous trip. We were unsuccessful finding either of two trails into this stream, so we made the decision to bushwhack into the headwaters.

Conejos River Valley
Let me tell you, bushwacking over 10,500 feet in Colorado is MUCH different than 2,000 feet through the hardwoods of West Virginia!

Our Destination Below!
We were able to find water and we did catch a few Rio Grande cutthroat, but with the treacherous hike ahead of us we made a short day of it....and it wasn't easy!

TRUE Rio Grande Cutthroat!

Day seven put us heading a little further north with a change in plans. I had gotten word the kokanee salmon were starting to gather in preparation for the fall spawn. I had never caught/seen one and we had a day to spare, so what the heck.
With some good internet bulletin board assistance and advice from Devin at Conejos River Anglers we had directions on exactly where to go and how to fish.

Upon arrival to the stream, it was easy to see the salmon pooled up b the hundreds. These fish were still "green" and neither of us knew what we were in store for.

Deep drifting red copper John's and red pheasant tails, we were able to hook up with a few. When you hooked up....HANG ON! Now I have caught decent size smallmouth bass and even a few nice trout, but nothing I have ever hooked in over thirty years of fishing has EVER fought like that.
A 16-18" fish on a 4wt and 4X tippet was everything you wanted. After three hours, multiple hook-ups, and a few landed we called it a day. We didn't quit because we were tired of catching fish, we quit because it was all our forearms and hands could handle - mine felt like rubber!

From this stream it was up and over the divide to another trailhead and the challenge of another 14er.

Campsite at Mt. Elbert Trailhead
(that's our destination in the background)

Our Route:

Day eight started in the dark with a temperature of 36 degrees. Ahead of us was 4.5 miles straight up with a destination over 14,400 feet - the second highest peak in the lower 48.
Nearly four and a half hours later we were standing on the summitt in the presence of another Mountaineer. About 100 yards from the summit, at the junction with Mt. Elbert's southeast trail, we ran into a fellow hiker wearing a WVU hat - what a small world.

On Top of the World!

Mt. Elbert's Neighbors
Mt. Massive (14,421 feet)
La Plata Peak (14,336 feet)

We spent about thirty minutes on the summit before starting our hike down. You would think the hike down would be easy - NOT! The trail was so steep, it made even the downhill an adventure. The trip down took well over two hours, but when completed it was one of the most satisfying adventures I have ever taken on.

Relief & Satisfaction!
After a nice big burger in Leadville, it was back to Denver with everything on our task list checked off.....greenbacks, greyling, brookies, Colorado River cutts, bristlecone pines, Rio Grande cutts, kokanee salmon, and Mt. Elbert.

With one day remaining, we decided to simply be tourists. We decided to head back into Rocky Mountain National Park to see a few areas I have yet to visit, mainly Old Fall River Road.

But first, we had a pilgrimage of sorts to make. We had to find Mike Clark's shop in Lyons. Mike is a very accomplished bamboo rodmaker, but probably more famous as a fishing partner of John Gierach.

I had been through Lyons several times but had no idea where his shop was located, and it is located on Main Street.

We found the shop and it was everything we thought it would be. There were Mike Clark rods, Bob White prints, AK Best-tied flies, and autographed Gierach books. I could have spent several thousand dollars in there, but I would not have survived when I got home. I did make out with an autographed 20th Anniversary of Trout Bum, an autographed Fly Fishing With AK Best, and a half-dozen of AK's flies.

Trout Bum
AK's PMD, St. Vrain Caddis, Western Green Drake, & Mellon Quill:

From there we made a loop through the east side of the park, back to Estes Park, then back to Matt's to catch the WVU game. I decided to take an alternate route from Estes Park to Lyons along "Gierach's St. Vrain" and I'm so glad I did!

We had great views of RMNP's only 14er (Long's Peak), Mt. Meeker (13,995 feet) and the canyon of the South Fork of the St. Vrain - and I'm sure at some point we had to have driven past John Gierach's home....and WVU won too.

RMNP - Old Fall River Road

RMNP - Trail Ridge Road
Long's Peak (14,255 feet) & Mt. Meeker (13,995 feet)

Gierach's St. Vrain Canyon (w/ crazy people included)

What a trip!

The link to the video:
Colorado 2008 - "The Cuttslam"

Also, check out Phil's photo collections:
Vandalia Image Works


1 comment:

Cutthroat Stalker (scott) said...


Great post! Sounds like a heck of a trip.

-scott c