Opening the Portal

The calendar suggests it is spring in Colorado, however the memo to Mother Nature may have gotten scrambled in delivery. The weather has been squirrely with snow storms and dreary days outnumbering the bluebird, snowmelt-inducing sunny days. Despite that, the canals are open and the rivers are blowing out. The time for tail-water and reservoirs is at hand and the gem we sprung at last weekend like milk-starved puppies was East Portal at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

The first time I went down the East Portal Road was in the back seat of a rental van driven by a former Montrose city manager and current enthusiastic city ambassador. I was on a tour of local resources with fellow new community members. As we descended the 16% grade, he told the story of the Gunnison Tunnel and how the water made all the difference to the Uncompahgre Valley. The tale was great, his attention to the driving was questionable, and we arrived at the Portal with smoking brakes and uneasy glances between us. I forgot about that as I studied the interesting things the Gunnison River does when confronted with dams and diversions. Whatever obfuscations Montrosians and Bureau of Reclamation may throw at her, the Gunnison is a beauty and her mood at East Portal is uniquely quiet and alluring.

I expected this muse to be crawling with fellow first day of the season fishermen. The forecast may have deterred them. It was cold and damp, the kind of day you are grateful to use Tenkara rods so you have a free hand to hold your coffee mug. There were fewer than a dozen of us standing in the Portal that morning and plenty of room to spread out.d750_04292016-53

The rainbows and browns of the Portal are famously large and allusive. I don’t go there expecting to catch one. I go because it is a gorgeous place to harbor the hope of a trout on the line. But something felt a bit charmed last Friday. I attached the line and tossed my little peacock herl bedazzled kebari into the river with a higher than usual desire to actually visit with one of the Portal occupants. That’s when I noticed them–several large browns surface feeding in the bend. I made my move.d750_04292016-81

The brown that took my fly gave me a thrill. It swam swift and strong but my will to touch it was stronger. I may have jumped up and down some while bringing him in. In the net he made me giggle. As I expected, beautiful places have particularly special fish. We would stay until the snowflakes rained down and made us shiver. I would throw flies at several more big browns but no one else wanted what I offered. No one was catching despite robust feeding frenzied trout in the pools.


I may never catch another fish at the Portal but I’m looking forward to a season of trying. I would prefer that there be less snow falling from the sky next time I venture down that crazy road and I look forward to the lush green leaves coming in along the shoreline. I envision starry nights spent in the campground so I can have first light strikes at the river. And before any of that happens I better get busy and tie some more of my fancy little kebaris.


More fishing pictures: The Alcorn Collection

Vicariously Guiding

Some of my happiest days have been the ones spent outdoors with strangers. For a few years the dream was alive that I could at least be a part-time rock climbing and hiking guide. For me, nothing was better than seeing a person, especially the teenage girls, transform from nervous novice at the base of a cliff to a grinning enthusiast gripping on granite. Knowing that I had a part in creating that joy was the best possible adrenaline rush. And in the shared adventures the strangers became friends. I miss the hikes out from the crag to the vehicles listening to the chatter and the goodbye grins, sometimes hugs, at the end of the day. Guiding is a hard life, but it is a good life. A part of me will always wish it was my life.

I do not often get the opportunity to fill the happy guide tank any more. Living in Colorado instead of Oklahoma means there are a whole lot more gurus around and I’m just not getting in the game. And, to be clear, just taking someone on a hike they haven’t previously experienced can be a bolt of guide energy, no scaling of heights is necessary. I look now for the smaller changes to lead outside adventures. So it was a sweet success, albeit vicarious, last weekend when a friend took her Tenkara rod to spots we suggested, with flies I tied, and caught a trout on her first cast. I was not there, but the trout selfie provides sufficient proof of the joy that leapt out of the water. I will take it and treasure it as a team accomplishment, but mostly it was Christine’s moment. A moment she had several more times before calling it a day. I guess I’ll be tying more flies.

I need to remind myself that there are plenty of ways to guide someone to their outside happiness. I do not have to be there breaking trail, hanging ropes, or landing the fish. I can just be part of the crew that gives beta, encouragement, some kebaris, and maybe a Colorado brew when we all meet up to share stories. That is a pretty good life too.


Christine’s catch–if I’d been there she’d be holding it with a big smile for the camera.



Season Opener

There were about eight hours last week when I was in fishing limbo and I did not like it. Not having a current fishing license in Colorado felt a bit like staring at the ski pass on my coat the morning after closing day. The situation of lawful fishing is easier to rectify than scratching the itch to cruise groomers. I walked into the local CPW office, with stares of older men and taxidermy specimens drifting my direction, and I joyfully purchased another year of wishing for fish on my line. Although both individuals behind the counter selling licenses were of the blonde female persuasion, I had a distinct feeling that the men in line ard750_04012016-194ound me thought I was the wrong type. Newsflash: it’s 2016 and wives do more than fry the fish and make the potato salad.


I started to forget about the curmudgeons as I snapped the belt on my waders and walked toward the water an hour later. My opening day was spent on the Uncompahgre River with red willow branches lit like fire on the shore as the smell of valley farmers burning ditches wafted over.  I stood in shallow, clear water spilling over rock bars that will soon disappear beneath snowmelt torrents. It was a glorious early spring day in the San Juan Mountains. Now it is clearly time to leave ski boots at home but always take the fly rods in the truck.

A new season starts and I’m thinking of lots of rivers and lakes for us to visit, some remote and some at the road. It is actually true that I’m the principle fish griller and I do make a mean potato salad, but we have an equal opportunity marriage and both of us get the distinct pleasure of trying to catch dinner. Or we do what we did on opening day—stop at the grocery store for some local beef. Those little rainbows need to keep swimming.d750_04012016-115

So happy 2016 fishing season boys AND girls!

For more fishing photos please click the links and check out our galleries.


Backpacking Jones Hole


I don’t normally broadcast fishing destinations. We all covet the secret spot, the stash of fish in a pretty place that no one knows about. Yet I feel like keeping this to myself would be a sin, the feral Baptist in me rears its head.  Thou shalt not prevent fellow anglers from having a great little backcountry excursion – it’s in the good book, right?

This trip is time sensitive for those willing to carry their home on their backs. Once the river rats kick into gear for the summer on the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument the rules change and us land-based adventurers lose out. But if you can get there before that happens the camping where Jones Creek meets the Green is extraordinary. And the fishing is sublime.

It’s a remote trailhead.  Before you head there, stop at the visitor center and get your permit.  We had to convince them it was appropriate, but eventually they conceded. The road winds away from Vernal, Utah over ranch land on a plateau. Then it drops sharply p7700_05032015-232down to the trailhead at the Jones Hole National Fish Hatchery. If channels of easily p7700_05032015-10spooked baby trout don’t amp up your backpacking mojo, then perhaps the steep red cliffs of sandstone around you will do the trick. Once you start walking you enter the monument and encounter the creek. Almost immediately you want to start fishing. We, however, opted to keep walking and saved our fishing time for the end of the trail.

The hike involves rock art, fantastic cliffs, abundant animals and a gravitational pull of the Green River. The Fremont painted some fantastic things on the rock walls, to include a really fancy elk.  And because you have to do this trek in the spring ahead of river rat season, you get wildflowers. As we approached the confluence of the creek with the Green we were greeted by a crowd of bighorn. They moved on and yielded the terrain to us for the night. We graciously accepted and established home before eagerly approaching the pool in the creek with our rods and line. Large, beautiful trout were equally gracious in D5000_05032015-1062accepting our flies. It was joyous fishing.

The Green rushes in waves past the campsites at Jones Hole. The fishing is best in the creek. The sunset margarita hour is best beside the river.  The sun kissed the canyon rims good night and we tucked in with visions of morning creek fishing in our heads. We were not disappointed with the morning fishing or our green chile scrambled eggs. And then we retraced our steps up the hole to the hatchery. We saw one other pair of fishermen during our 36 hours in paradise and they were day hikers. If you can spend the night, it’s worth going through the hoops for a permit.

Here’s a link to more of our Jones Hole and Dinosaur National Monument pictures.



There’s a Dam On My River

Raised in a state that enjoys abundant clean water stored in thousands of natural lakes carved long ago by glaciers, I grew up hostile to the concept of strangling rivers. And, the good fortune of all those sparkling lakes meant I could carry my monkey wrench and rant against concrete.  Fifteen years in Oklahoma with its turbid faux-lakes locked behind dams only added to my fervor. The red silt water of Soonerland left boat clothes and kayak gear stained a crappy crimson. Warm, windblown, and prone to bloom with algae, those reservoirs stored water resources but did not inspire me to lay down the hate.

Things change when your perspective uproots to the Colorado River system. Dams, diversions and tunnels are the reason there is a town here to call home. I have not started hugging the silly things but I have developed a peaceful co-existence. I never thought I could admit to being okay with a dam on my river, but I am.

nik1_02212016-85.jpgThe Uncompahgre River runs through the Ouray Ice Park. Normally it is a slight flow beneath solid ice bridges at this time of year, but it has been a crazy warm few weeks. The river has punched through and taken back the edges where climbers can safely stand as ice crashes down. The rusty water gushed past us yesterday and we commented that we could have worn our waders. Not long after, we decided it was too warm to climb and set off to go stand in the river rather than try to keep our crampons out of the stream.p340_02212016-231

The Uncompahgre is a fishless, polluted, and frolicking stream through the canyon and on north through Ouray County. Then it enters Ridgway Reservoir and something wonderful happens. The river that leaves that dam is an entirely different species—tailwater. The water is crystal clear, which makes it extra challenging to catch the giant trout that live within its margins and deeps. It is a special day when you can land a fish from the Uncompahgre at Pa-Co-Chu-Puk. Yesterday wasn’t that special, but it was delightful to be up to my knees in a clean river playing a beautiful song.

I cannot imagine the Uncompahgre River without that dam.  Strangely that does not bother me. I have discovered there is value in storing water, in appropriately chosen locations, and that the rivers that emerge from the belly of those beasts can be extraordinary fish habitat. The black and white I used to be confident in has acquired many hues. There are rivers that should flow free, but not as many as I used to believe.


A girl, a dam, and her river.

Reality TV and Fly Time

I have been waiting for this season for awhile. It is a new year with lots of fishing time ahead, but first I need to put a whole lot of flies in our fly boxes. My enthusiasm for this particular time involves my peculiar predilection for tying flies while binging on reality tv. As a new crop of would be idols hatches and vicious tears fall down bachelorette cheeks as they stalk poor Ben, I’ll have my hooks set on the clamp at the tying desk. This is prime time for bug making!
While I spin thread and local grouse feathers around my hooks I can’t help but wonder if the gurus at Bachelor don’t need to consider a true reality tv version. Maybe find a Western Slope hunk and have the ladies fight for a mountain existence. They are forbidden from going to Telluride as it is a little too posh for what I have in mind. This would most definitely need to involve fly tying and fishing, and the fantasy suite definitely needs to involve self-inflating sleeping pads and headlamps. Pretty sure even the Denver girls in this season’s crop would struggle with what I have in mind. Even better would be to have a mountain girl try to find her soulmate from a flock of dudes. No more helicopter picnics and hot tubs in bizarre remote locations. This chick wants a guy that can hike in to a natural hot spring, then catch a few trout and cook them over a campfire.
Idol auditions have ended and a local girl is on her way to Hollywood. I’ll root her on while I wind peacock hurl for flair on my otherwise simple kebaris. She lives up the North Fork of the Gunnison where apple orchards and cherry trees cover the hillsides. I want the flash of peacock to catch the eye of a judgmental trout. She needs the judges to see the sweet simplicity of a pure voice and sassy country soul. I hope we both succeed.

Tying flies is enjoyable busy work on any given evening, but it seems especially productive when juxtaposed with these shows. It’s the anti-fluff, rationalization, justification–I pay my penance for watching by getting at least a half dozen new creatures in the box. And by the time the last idol is crowned, I’ll be out fishing with the peacock bedazzled kebari.

In the Stream

I am a timid wader, and why that came to mind in the middle of a ski run was a puzzle at first. Then I stopped and watched the riders and shredders whiz by me in their zippy colors disappearing around a bend, and I realized that groomers are just rivers of snow forced into a mountainside by machines.  The more crowded the run the more I seek solace at the edges and this first day of the season there were few runs and lots of giddy gilders. I was wading timidly again, that’s why I was thinking about fishing. I worry about forces upstream that might push against me.

After realizing my timidity streak was translating into less fun on the mountain I pushed back into the stream.  The river holds more danger than the slope, but neither deserves the power to undermine my joy. The current of the stream is more predictable than snowboarders from Texas. I’ve been plowed over twice (in my five years of skiing), not something I wish to experience again, with a ski pole busted in two as the energy that hit me continued cluelessly down slope. That created my tendency to obsess about what gravity was shoving downhill at me. With the strongest current on the slope at the middle, I hid out where the flow was less packed. But I’m tired of wading on skis. It is time to take center stream and give up the anxiety of what could happen. My super power should not be extreme capacity to worry.

New cleats, better polarized glasses, and an attitude adjustment improved my wading this summer. I stepped deeper to reach the pockets and placed more trust in my balance to roll with the wiggle of the rocks. I have never taken a swim in my waders and hope to keep it that way. But staying dry cannot come at the expense of casting my fly where the fish hang out. If I can push myself in moving water, surely I can push myself on the hill. I am the moving force and I have the capacity to joyfully ride my own river of snow.

 My new super power will be smiling. I can aim for carefree flowing, but my other attribute is being a realist. So caring less and going faster is a good goal.