October 27th, 2003

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The Good Old Days?
(One Weekend 30 - and more - years later.)

By Harry J. Briscoe, TX

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 other stories).

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 better lately).

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 streamers.

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

About Harry:

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: hexagraph@hexagraph.com

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