It was not long ago - early September just past.
Business had again brought me to Colorado. I was
smiling even before I got to the rental car. The
sun was shining; the humidity was low; the air felt
fresh. I imagined Aspen trees just beginning their
turn to gold. Before I'd made it to my downtown
hotel I was hatching a plan to get my work done
quickly. There would be only a precious few extra
hours this trip, two half-days max; but it was early
fall, and early fall in Colorado is a time for fishing.
(Come to think of it, I have similar thoughts almost
anytime I find myself in trout country, but those are
Thirty-one years have passed since the happy days I spent
in college here on the Front Range of the Rockies. It
seems long ago, but it seems barely yesterday. Good old
days those were - good old days for sure. It's a bit odd,
what one remembers. The education I earned there was
difficult, but it has served me well. It's the foundation
for everything I've enjoyed in my life since. I prevailed,
and I prospered, thanks to that school. But when I recall
those days, my thoughts are seldom of the classrooms and
labs. They are instead of the stolen moments with an old
white Shakespeare Wonderod and a second-hand Pflueger
Medalist reel poking my way along the closest streams
trying to fool a brookie or a stocker rainbow. You could
do that back then.
Each trip back leaves me shaking my head at the continued
advance of development. The airport seems now to be
halfway to Kansas, but far out as it is, the city rushes
to encircle it like an evolving alien plague. The foothill
towns along the ragged scarp of the Rockies are no longer
separated by open spaces. Each now runs unceremoniously
into the next, and formerly quaint civic personalities
now appear "contrived." Brand new "retro" storefronts
and covered boardwalks, made to look old to suggest the
West, are revealed for what they are by the Starbucks
stores and mini-marts. My own little berg of Golden is
no longer "separate." My school is no longer on the edge
of the Frontier. It's been surrounded by city, and even
the too-steep-to-build-on hills that protected its western
boundary now have neighborhoods hanging off their sharpest
edges. Too often now a brown haze hovers over the big
city. The population seems to have doubled since I lived
here, and you'd believe half of the folks are fly fishers.
The good old days, indeed. I was lucky to have been
here - then.
But Colorado it remains. There are trout out there. And
a Texan has to take every chance he gets to chase one.
By design, the business of that day was efficiently
crammed into the first afternoon and evening. New
ads were discussed; new rod components were reviewed;
new commitments were affirmed. Fate provided a few
chance meetings with old friends and a couple of planned
encounters allowed discussion of a needed topic or two.
By late that evening I was convinced I'd done enough to
justify an escape.
I had more business the next day in Southern Colorado,
a plane ride away, but that plane didn't leave until
3 pm. I had a half-day. I needed to make it count.
The closest water, the only real option given the time,
flows down Clear Creek Canyon. But what would that be
like? During college we'd laugh at the irony of the
slogan for the "Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water" that
flowed into Uncle Adolph's brewery. I remember hanging
over the left-field fence during baseball practice trying
to spy the very occasional and very small trout or two
that had found refuge behind a certain rock. It was
rarely a successful exercise. The Creek frequently ran
an eerily-colored mix of mid-browns and strange greens.
There used to be an awful Jell-O salad we called "swamp
water" that was a fair descriptor for Clear Creek in its
full spring flow.
Some of the greatest mines in the storied history of the
State lie right up the narrow canyon that contains Clear
Creek. Much of the West was developed on the mineral
riches that came from those and other mines. The older
bars and shops along that creek still sport the fading
black and white photos that speak to the economy of the
time. The occasional shot shows long stringers of fat
trout laid out for the butcher. The good old days, I
guess. But water runs downhill, and the development
of the mines that opened the West also did a serious
number on Clear Creek. Sometimes Clear Creek almost
glowed in the dark.
A windy and treacherous road is also crammed into the
canyon. Back then that road gave us our only access
to the center of the state. We frequently sped its
length to get above and beyond the mines in an attempt
to find our fishing. We'd see the occasional tourist
by the side of the road casting in a usually futile
attempt to catch the 10-inch stocker that had been
put there for him by the State's hatchery truck. It
was a race to see whether that poor trout succumbed
first to the tourist or to the Creek itself. I do
remember one late fall day in the early '70's when,
for lack of time, I could not venture beyond the upper
reaches of Clear Creek. It was a day like this one.
I figured that casting and not catching was a better
option than not casting at all (and it was all better
than studying). I found myself in that tourist mode,
pulled out at a wide spot in the road looking at a
non-descript channeled run. I caught five left-over
summer fish, the largest about 12 inches. I was amazed
at my good fortune, as was most everyone else who heard
me speak of it.
This day I was driving to a new spot, but clearly a
spot on that same creek, below those same old mines,
and now pounded round-the-clock by the rumble and shake
of constant traffic on the new Interstate, barely a
long cast from its bank. This spot is protected by a
widened floodplain and a stand of trees, and the owner
has clearly seen fit to restore some of the natural
character of the stream geometry. But, it's still
Clear Creek. I arrived to several surprises. The
first was that it was - well, . . .clear.
I got onto the water at 8:15 am. By 8:30 the first bugs
were showing, and the first trout were rising. Shocked
is a better word than surprised. The stream proceeded
to provide a full-blown Baetis cycle. That was backed
by a strong and constant midge hatch, and as the sun
finally hit the water, a sprinkling of left-over summer
caddis appeared to round out the menu --- on Clear Creek.
By noon I had worked only about two-thirds of the half-mile
stretch. I had landed nearly 25 browns, rainbows and
cutthroats, and missed half that many more strikes. I
needed only a brookie (he was there, I saw him) to complete
a "Rocky Mountain Slam". Almost all of the fish were taken
on the surface as specific targets during an incredible and
prolonged rise - as classic in character as any I've seen
on any river. Perhaps a third of the fish were 14" or more,
and the topper for the day was a glorious 22", 3.5 pound
rainbow, fat as a football. From Clear Creek - amazing!
The date at the airport loomed large and I smiled again
at the irony of this stream as I ran some "pure" Creek
water across my face and through my hair to freshen up
a bit for the flight. I stuffed my gear into the bags
in the trunk of the car and within minutes was on that
Interstate headed back to the present. I could not help
but think of the "good old days." At least as it pertains
to Clear Creek, that definition might need some modification.
(Come to think of it, that beer has seems taste a little
But this story does not yet end.
My next business was in south-central Colorado at the
small town of Creede, another of those storied mining
towns. The flight was a commuter shuttle to Alamosa.
From there it's a two-hour drive up the valley of the
Rio Grande River. The final approach for landing passed
over formerly arid flats. Today these lands are literally
covered by a mosaic of green circles produced by the huge
center-pivot irrigation systems. Fields from quarter-sections
to full square miles showed patterns as crazy and uniform
as might the stitching on a grandma's quilt. The valley
water at work. Who could need that much hay? Is this the
best we can do with this resource?
The drive up the valley of the Rio Grande is impressive.
It always has been. As I drove, I remembered - this time
days as far back as 50 years. When I was young we lived
in the Texas panhandle. Southern Colorado and Northern
New Mexico were the closest points of relief from the flat,
hot, dry and featureless existence of the "northern" Texans.
We would vacation in those areas every year, usually in June
or July. You'd have thought that everyone in our state did
the same thing. Maybe the Colorado natives didn't notice,
or maybe they didn't care, but it was almost as though
Southern Colorado was ceded to Texans for the summer. The
banks of the Rio Grande from Del Norte through South Fork,
into Creede and beyond sprouted cabins, modest vacation
homes and trailer houses as though they were weeds growing
in response to some unusual fertilizer (green, I suppose).
The Texans (and others) came -- and they fished.
My Dad taught me to fly-fish back in the '50's on small
streams and rivers that were tributaries of the Rio Grande.
He had a couple of old department store bamboo rods, a
leather fly wallet with a few snelled wet flies, and maybe
one additional fly box with an assortment of others. I
don't think we had patterns that numbered beyond a dozen.
Our selection then included the Wooly Worm, Grey-hackle
Peacock, Grey-hackle Yellow, Royal Coachman, House and Lot,
and Dad's favorite, the Parmachenee Belle (he called it a
"peppermint"). We fished Wooly Worms (best in black with
a grey hackle and red tail) or peppermints when the fish
were not "jumping", and any of the others when they were,
hoping to take a fish on top. It was an early education,
but hardly days of fly-fishing sophistication.
We were pretty representative of the average Texan on the
stream back then. In truth, we probably employed a little
more finesse than most, with our long 'fly poles,' and all.
In addition to our flies we carried little Hildebrandt and
Colorado "spinners," safety-pin-like, light wire
contraptions that could be placed in front of the fly to
provide some "flash." We had a few small Daredevil Spoons
in red-and-white. We carried a supply of snelled size 12
Eagle Claw bait hooks and size 14 gold salmon egg hooks;
plus a small jar of "real" salmon eggs that we shared.
Each day as we'd start to the stream we'd stop at the
barnyard to dig a few worms using the old shovel provided
there for that purpose. Dad had saved a flat Sir Walter
Raleigh pipe tobacco can for each of us. It made me feel
pretty big to get to carry one. (Later I graduated to a
Bob Betts Bait Box that went onto my belt). We each had
our own wicker creel, carried with the full intent of
bringing it home full of trout laid carefully in wet
grass. Any and all of that paraphernalia were fair
play - all on the fly rod for casting or "swinging" the
hardware or bait through the holes and riffles. Now
those really were the good old days.
I think the limit then was 10 fish, maybe even more. The
clear intent of every Texan on the stream (and, fairly,
those from the other states as well) was to bring home a
limit - every day. We didn't always accomplish the total
feat, but we did well enough. By the end of the week Mom
got tired of cooking them and we got tired of eating them.
We always froze a bunch and took them home for later.
Everyone did. It was big news in the area if, during the
week, anyone caught a fish of, say, 17" or more. If a
20-incher had been landed during the entire summer a photo
was proudly on display at the local sporting goods or the
lodge desk. Every "big" fish caught was carried around
camp to be shown off. It's just what we did.
By the time I got to college 15 years later hardly anyone
fished the Rio Grande. It had been fished to death. No
one every caught anything worth talking about. The summer
Texans had shifted their focus from dragging bait and
hardware through the river to trolling the lakes of the
region for stocked rainbows. The Fish & Game Department
did their best to keep them happy. Eventually kill
limits and other restrictions were placed on parts of
the Rio Grande but I never heard anything of it, and
never considered it to be a destination for my trips
to the state.
I made Creede at nightfall, had a great dinner with
friends and spent a restful night breathing splendid
Rocky Mountain air. I was up early and at my
appointment by mid-morning. My host had suggested
some time with rod in hand if we got things covered
in time, so business was concluded by early afternoon.
We got onto a stretch of the Rio Grande about 2:30.
We had 3/4 of a mile to cover downstream to a bridge
and only about 2 1/2 hours to do it. The weather had
turned blustery and overcast with wind and spitting rain.
Within the first 30 minutes it was evident that the fish
weren't hitting dries or nymphs -- or maybe it was just
evident that the Rio Grande was still. . .the Rio Grande.
I switched strategies to my fall favorite - stripped
During the next two hours, as I made my way quickly
downstream through deep runs, shallow riffles and
undercut banks, I landed at least 15 fine browns.
Ten of them were over 17" long. My associate caught
as many including one rainbow well over 20". I had
one truly fine fish that stopped my Muddler dead in
its swing mid-current and with one quick head-shake
broke me off without ever moving from his position.
It was beyond amazing. The Rio Grande is back. Dusk
was catching us and I was late for dinner. As we drove
back to town my friend stopped at a spot from which we
could peer over the bank and watch two 25"+ rainbows
that live safely behind an "impenetrable" rock on a
high bank near the road. The Rio Grande -- back indeed.
So, the point, you ask? Well, maybe there are a couple.
The most obvious is that, left to Her own devices, Mother
Nature does a pretty good job of restoring Herself - and
She can do that in fairly short order. (Thirty years -- or
fifty years -- is really not a very long time. . .as time goes).
Hopefully we're learning what we should (and should not) do
to help Her. We've certainly seen what we can do to hurt Her.
She knows best. Are there "modern" threats -- unlike pollution
or over-fishing -- that should concern us? Probably so.
Do we even know the nature of the threats in the future?
Not likely. I wonder about the affect of so many people
on the water, even if they release the fish caught. I
wonder about the focus upon and the cultivation of a "large
fish" mentality. What will result as the competition for
water grows? We should pay close attention. What article
may my son write in 30 years?
Another point. What of those two days I spent recently?
Surely, the definition of the "good old days" needs to be
re-thought. People say that perception is reality. Is
perception also 'relative'? (I think) I miss much of what
"things" were like back "then." I miss the simplicity; I
miss the black-and-white photos - the memories. I miss the
fact that I'm much older now and that I didn't fully
appreciate what I was doing then (all of those "thens").
I wish I could do much of it again - and that I would pay
attention better. But. . .as far as the "catching" is
concerned. . .well, it's pretty hard to beat right now.
I'm going to remember the "catching" of these recent two
days with a different perception than those of the past.
Maybe the "good old days" are now -- for lots of reasons.
~ Harry J. Briscoe
Harry J. Briscoe is a geologist who works in the energy
industry. His is also the President and principal owner
of Hexagraph Fly Rod Co.
He has been a fly fisher since childhood and is trying
his hardest to fish in neat places around the country
and the world. You can reach him at: