Two tents, a tepee, three dudes, and a dispersed campsite positioned about ten rugged miles up into a mountain range outside of Kremmling, Colorado might have made this three-amigo maiden fly fishing trip a success. Or we’d die trying.
The fact that Brandon snores and Cory had a new (tiny) tent were solid enough reasons why this wasn’t totally weird and homophobic. There had been times in college when we shared a queen bed during the infrequent hotel stay in order to save money, so it seemed silly to sleep thirty feet apart when we didn’t have to. But it was the right and just approach for sleep sanity.
Cory almost flipped his truck when I gave poor directions on a steep and unused forest road. But after a short search we found a decent spot in the national forest to make camp. Once we were set up it did look a little strange that we didn’t all sleep in my plenty large enough David Ellis canvas teepee.
That evening it rained. And since there was a ridiculous amount of room in the tepee, we all hunkered down by lantern glow hoping lighting wouldn’t kill us on the first night of the trip. After Cory beat the piss out of us in cribbage and emptying a whiskey bottle, we retired to our separate tents and listened through the darkness to chainsaw snoring echo off the mountainsides.
Now I was glad to have my own tent as I wouldn’t have slept a wink with the Johnson buzz-saw in my ear. Since that trip we learned to bring earplugs which create their own white noise when properly jammed in the ear canal. It’s wonderful. I habitually carry a few pairs for the next time I have to bunk up shoulder to shoulder with a guy who sounds like he’s choking to death all night.
I’m not sure how we got free for a week. Somehow Cory had pulled strings with his lovely wife (with new baby) and mine set up plans with friends, still not enthused. Brandon wasn’t too tied down. He was dating a good-looking red head he would eventually marry and divorce, dodging a bullet. Cory’s situation was critical, so it was my goal that he catch some fish and have the best time I could give him.
The other stress was acting as the guide. This was Brandon’s first attempt at fly fishing and didn’t much care for fishing in the first place. Both bought a boatload of new flies, fly boxes, fly vests and other gear in Texas and likely had higher-than-appropriate expectations about the fish they were to land. With travel expenses, not to mention time off that was precious back then, it was a risk to put friendships on the fly line, but I’ve tried dumber things I suppose. Johnson spent over two hours in Denver getting his new flies in color-coded order and so forth. Then, he forgot the whole damn set up when we left for Kremmling. Classic Johnson.
Cory had a high school friend, Dan Cone, who was guiding out of ElkTrout Lodge a few miles outside of Kremmling, so we had a little insider knowledge which we hoped would pay off. Dan is a large-framed guy with an enviable guide beard and to us, an even more enviable career. He wore a huge panama hat that covered his broad slumping shoulders. This was a hat style I’d never seen as this was years before they were popularized by hipster fishermen and rafting guides.
He was a cool looking guy, especially when he smoked. Back then, Brandon, Cory and I were just starting out in our careers, not making much money, and wondering if we made the right decisions in life, while Dan lived in the mountains, fished all day, and had nobody to answer to when he came home late. And he wore a cool hat.
Dan has since moved back to the Hill Country in Texas and now runs Castell Guide Service out of New Braunfels, TX where he guides on the San Marcus, Colorado, Guadalupe, and Llano Rivers for trout, largemouth, smallmouth, and Guadalupe bass. Still living the dream. Still wearing that hat.
We ran into Dan at a gas station by chance on our way into Kremmling. His rig was easy to pick out. There were suction cup rod holders on the hood of his white Ford pickup but that’s par for the course in Kremmling. What set his truck apart was the obnoxious Aggie sticker on the back window. We pulled up and started asking him a stupid amount of questions. Where’s a good place to camp? What’s a good place to eat in town? Where should we fish? How do you catch them?
Originally, we planned on hitting the Colorado then shooting up to the Grey Reef area in Wyoming. Why, I have no idea. I had never fished in Wyoming and wouldn’t even know how to get there. Hell, I didn’t even know anything about where we were now. I was on track to be two friends short after this trip. But I had my own teepee, so that was nice.
Dan didn’t know where to camp, but we eventually figured that out. He did give us some pointers on the other two inquiries. He even invited us to fish with him the next day on some private water which we jumped at. Things were looking up.
The next morning, we skipped breakfast in camp and ate at what is now The Moose Café. Brandon and I ordered directly from the menu choosing a numbered platter like gentlemen. I’m not sure of the specifics of Cory’s order, but as he created his own elaborate custom breakfast for the young small-town waitress, it was clear by her body language he was baking her noodle. After her shift she would be looking at the want ads eventually changing her life course over a single order.
After paying out we met big Dan and drove out on washboard dirt roads with Choctaw Bingo blaring on the stereo. Dan had the combination to the gate lock that led to a large pond that did not look fishy to my rookie eyes. It was on his landlord’s place and we felt special just being invited. As we drove, he wisely suggested we stay in the area for the five days as there was plenty of water to fish without driving all the way to Wyoming. Of all the advice he gave us that day, I believe this was the one that saved the trip.
We started rigging up as he commented on our new, yet less than adequate gear. Pelicans circled overhead catching thermals. Dan said it was highly illegal to kill them but that they were rough on trout populations. Suspiciously a large one laid dead and rotting a stone’s throw away from the pond. Nobody asked any questions.
While trying and failing to look like we knew what we were doing, Brandon asked what we would be throwing, and Dan said, “Callibaetis,” as one landed on his big hairy forearm. He showed us the beautifully delicate bug which I remember admiring like it was something rare, at which point he smashed it and flicked it into the breeze saying, “Die, little dude,” as if it were a common hideous house fly. I was almost appalled.
On his free advice we attached droppers to our dries (that we had to borrow from him). We’d never heard of doing this, but it seemed like bobber fishing to us and he was nice enough to guide us on his day off, so we agreed. The four of us took positions around the pond and started casting to the rising fish.
I don’t believe in much, but I do believe in beginner’s luck and I had it that morning. The first fish I hooked was a legitimate trophy rainbow that barely fit in my tiny landing net. The colorful hen exploded out of the water doing summersaults and tail walks all over the pond while Cory kept shouting at me not to lose it. The second fish was equally large, and Dan opted to net it for me with a huge net I assumed was reserved for wild hogs. I honestly tried to be cool about catching two trophies the first morning while nobody else caught a thing, but I’m sure everyone was annoyed. I would have been.
After Dan decided it was “too hot” to catch anything at the pond he took us to a tiny creek on ElkTrout property. We drove up a dirt road for several miles in a valley that looked like it got hayed hard in the summer. While we kicked up a cloud of late July dust, Dan told us that Steven Seagal had come elk hunting in the area a couple years back but was banned from hunting in Colorado indefinitely after that infamous hunt.
The tall tale goes that Seagal wanted to hunt elk with a knife. Seems extremely ridiculous to try and stab a thousand-pound animal to death that you can’t fathomably catch, but maybe it’s just me. So, he hired a local with a snowmobile. It was told that he road on the back of the machine with Bowie knife in hand while the driver chased a cow elk until she couldn’t run anymore and Kung Fu Steve leaped on her back from the snow machine and put the blade through her heart.
He did a movie called “Above the Law” and I’m sure he fake-punched and kicked a whole lot of actors in the face in the film. Maybe he had a lot of pent up aggression. Or maybe he is just a dick. Or maybe, just maybe, the story is fabricated. The guy did drive a tank through his neighbor’s house while intoxicated, so maybe it isn’t far from the truth. Either way, in true gossip fashion, I have repeated the story to a few fishing buddies when we visit that area.
Upon arriving at the upper stretch of Troublesome Creek, we got the low down on what flies to use and how to fish a tiny creek. It was pristine. No trails. Eager little brown trout in every pocket, pool, and riffle. They were easy and we caught plenty of them. We fished in the shadows of the deep canyon walls all afternoon. I wandered back downstream and watched as Cory hooked a fish at the same time his rod came apart. There was line and rod parts all around him in the current with a tiny brown making matters worse. It was a comical sight.
We hadn’t seen Brandon in an hour, so I kept walking downstream. Stretched out on a gravel bar with his camo hip waders as a pillow, arms crossed over his chest, he was snoozing in the sun catching a notable sunburn and no fish.
We hit the Colorado in four different spots that week, all with limited success. On the last day of the trip, we explored the William’s Fork up from the confluence of the Colorado. There were rising fish everywhere there should have been, but it took me an hour to finally get one to take a mosquito pattern. It was a 12” beautifully colored brown, but by the way I celebrated you would have thought I had caught a unicorn.
Upstream, Cory was dropping a blood midge under a stimulator. Suddenly he hollered at me to come over. In his net was an enormous wild rainbow. He was laughing and panting at the same time while trying not to let it flop out of the net and into fishing lore. High fives were given, and I snapped a photo of him holding it up with a grin on his face he kept until he made it back home. That photo was later published in the Lubbock Avalanche Journal in some “show us your fish” promotion.
We met back at the confluence for a lunch of cheese and summer sausage watching clean waters come together. That afternoon, we tried nymphing the long deep pool at the confluence. The water was fast with currents running in all directions so attempting a drift was a joke. I sat down on the rocks where a skunk chased us earlier in the day and tied on a huge hare’s ear nymph with a clinch knot. My tippet was 2X (i.e., heavy) so it wouldn’t have mattered if I had swung a whole rabbit through the pool. Luck was all I had going for me at this point.
On my second cast the giant glob of hair and hook came tight to something and I figured it was a log jamb. I was a novice in the cutest sense of the word when it came to setting a hook, so I set it again just to make sure I was going to lose my thousandth fly of the trip. This time it moved sideways with a massive surge and my rod tip hit the water surface. Cory and Brandon were watching from the gravel bar and their eyes got huge when I looked back at them.
To this day I don’t know why I looked over. For guidance or more likely to physically say “Holy shit guys. Are you seeing this?!” In that very moment my rod tip shot up and the line went devastatingly slack. I’m aware of many times I have dropped to my knees after losing a big fish and it is a fact this was the very first time it happened. I could hear Cory say behind me, “Oh shit” in as tender a tone as he could muster.
These were our last moments on the river before we waded across, back to Denver and our boring jobs and unimpressed wives. Since that day, I don’t tie anything but an improved clinch knot and I never holler or even look around when I have a fish on because I’m all out of beginner’s luck.