Lifelong angling buddies, Ed Weber of Rochester, N.Y., and Gary Giudice from Norman, Okla., are fly fishing their way up the spine of the Rocky Mountains following mayfly hatches. They started in the White Mountains of Arizona and will end on the Bow River of Alberta, Canada. This blog follows their trip.
ESTES PARK, Colo. — All trout are good, but some are just better looking.
In many cases, the more rare the trout, the prettier the fish. Such is the case with the greenback cutthroat found only in the central part of the Colorado Rockies. Best I can tell it's the rarest of the North American trout.
Ed and I have been on the road most of a month looking for neat places, interesting people and trout. Greenbacks were something we've wanted to catch. Little did I know what a major commitment in time and energy it would turn out to be.
Estes Park is small town near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and has a few too many go-cart tracks for my taste. Trendy restaurants, stylish boutiques and even two shops that sold nothing but Nebraska football memorabilia — no place for an old fly fisherman. I never saw even one Nebraska license plate.
It does have a few great fly shops, however. Which begs the question, I suppose, what makes a good fly shop?
To me there are three major things I look for:
1. Friendly, knowledgeable staff. Knowledgeable staff is fairly easy to find in almost all shops, but friendly? Not so much. Snooty fly shop people are a pet peeve of mine. There's no room for them in the fly-fishing business. Perhaps they'd do better selling Cornhusker hats.
2. Lots of product relative to the local fishing conditions. This sounds like something they all would have, but it surprises me that some don't. And when they don't, they may tend to sell you something that's great for the Catskills but sucks for the Sierras. And they are in the Sierras, for Pete's sakes.
3. Books, maps and hatch charts. Every fly shop worth its wading socks should have all three.
Anyway, Ed and I walked into one, Estes Angler, with the simple question. "We want to catch some greenbacks," Ed said. "Can you help us?"
"No problem," said this young guy named Mike. "You two look like you can fish. Llet me show you where you can catch all you want."
How does one look like they can fish, I wondered? Perhaps it was more the way we smelled.
At any rate, Mike and the shop owner, Grant Rollo, sent Ed and I on a "short hike" up the Roaring River inside Rocky Mountain National Park. Rollo said that he often gets guys in the shop that only want to catch greenbacks, so that our request was not all that unusual. They sold us a dozen flies, a map and we were off.
The short hike was two miles straight up the side of a mountain. It most likely was a short hike for many of those flat-bellied kids you see crawling all over the mountains of Colorado, but for Ed and me it held the potential for nightmares. We took a breather at most every switch back. There is just not enough air in the high country!
We hiked above the Roaring River falls to the nastiest pocket water imaginable. Getting to the small creek was tough but not a major issue.
Keeping a fly in the pockets could wear out the stoutest of fly fishers. A fly would be in good position about a second, rarely more. Strikes from the greenbacks were quick but hardly seen or felt.
In a blink of the eye and they had tasted the fly, determined it was not worth eating and spit it out. Tough fishing. The good side of this type of angling is that these fish are not very selective and they were plentiful, at least on this river. Catching them only took moderate skills.
These fish were stocked. Prior to the stocking, every living creature was removed. The bugs came back soon and the fish were stocked shortly after. They are thriving, growing and reproducing. Good news for a fish that's few in number.
Every one we caught was like a precious jewel and immediately returned to the water. We tried to do it without even touching them. What a thrill to catch greenbacks.
Ed's and my first fish were no more than 4 inches long, and we were still thrilled, squealing like little schoolgirls. With a little more walking up the mountain, bigger fish were found. Eight to 12-inch fish were the norm.
Greenback cutthroat trout are the most beautiful fish I have ever caught, bar none. Reds and oranges that no photograph could do justice. They should glow radiant even in the dark. Wow! I was surprised that none of the ones we caught had a green back and only later was I told that none of them did.
Down off the mountain we came, back to the go-cart tracks and ice cream cones. It was kind of a sensory overload. From beautiful wilderness and wonderful little fish to gaudy storefronts and crowds in just a few miles. Time for us flat landers to get out of here.
We headed farther south to the land of the Rio Grande cutthroat. Rios are threatened, not like the greenbacks that are endangered. They too live in the high streams for the most part, away from the roads and a tourist with a can of worms. And they rival the greenbacks in their beauty.
Another fly shop and a hand-sketched map and Ed and I were back on a switch back trail with another two-mile hike up a mountain. The hike started at 9,000 feet. There's even less air at 9,000 feet.
We were trying to get above another falls, this one on a pretty little creek called Lake Fork of the Conejos River.
As much time as I have spent fishing in Mexico, I should know Spanish ... but I don't. I've always thought that Conejos meant, well, one thing, only to find out it translates to rabbit. Most folks who fish the main river call it "Bunny Creek."
Many years ago, perhaps hundreds, a landslide blocked the Lake Fork of the Conejos. A small lake and waterfall were formed. Everything above the falls was killed out then restocked with the rare little Rio Grand cutthroats.
They also are thriving, beautiful and easily caught. We hammered them but treated each with the care they deserve. Catching them is akin to catching a dream. Another glorious day in the mountains and another trout off our life list.
We have yet another spot to fish before we head out of the high country. Anthony Bartowski, who lives up near Denver, called. Anthony is a good guy who happens to be one of the best PR guys in the country. He's chucked it all to become a trout guide again.
I envy him in his skill as a professional public relations practitioner, excellent angler and the courage to do what he wants in life. He also wanted to take Ed and me fishing for the day. He said we would catch big ones and lots of them. Where, I asked. I'll tell you when you get up near Denver, he said.
The unknown is no longer scary to Ed and me. We've grown to like it.