Jesus and Tarpon

Every time my better half and I finally tuck our three girls into their sleeping bags for the night, we step out of the tent with a sigh and pour ourselves a whiskey cocktail then drop exhausted into our camp chairs.  We gaze up at the stars struggling against the fading light in the west.  The campfire rages.  Relaxation.  Finally.

The whir of my laptop was a sound I couldn’t even conjure up in my mind.  It was possible in that moment I’d forgotten what I actually did for a living.  That’s good whiskey and great company for you.  When the campfire is warm and we are deep into conversations about life, minor annoyances like careers and money seldom fit into our trains of thought.  All that matters in the darkness is the sharp crackle of the warm fire sending orange embers towards the materializing Milky Way above, decompressing our stressed brains. 

Time to go to Helen’s.

While we sank deeper into our camp chairs discussing the cosmos on one such camping trip last summer, just beyond the blaze in the darkness, the snowmelt in Florida River splashed happily over exposed boulders with waterline marks that in a normal snowpack year wouldn’t have been visible.  Pools had emerged in places that hadn’t been pools before.  The Colorado winter drought was still present it seemed.

No, we aren’t the camp hosts.

Not far from where we were camped, abnormally large swaths of the forest still smoldered from some of the worst wildfires in Colorado history.  The climate was still trying to tell us something, yet we plodded on against its fiery messages.  I repressed my anger at the federal government for my own sanity, and I let the soft gurgle of the river wrest my thoughts between the rigged three weight in the tent and what might be waiting for a well-drifted Elk hair caddis just under the surface.

Chainsaws are a great way to wake up other campers.

The next morning, I drove down the washboard gravel road with the windows rolled down.  The breeze slicing through my outstretched fingers while I navigated the curved mountain road with the other hand.  Dogs probably look at us when we do this and wonder what the hell we are thinking.  I believe it is the same reason they hang their heads out the window with tongues wagging in the breeze, smiling that unmistakable dog smile.  Neither of us know why, but we both know we love it. 

As I steered through dense forest, the iced Tin Cup whiskey and coke in the enamel cup in my cup holder clinked with each rock in the road.  I thought about luck, experience, religion, and my mom.  As usual, I tried unsuccessfully to convince myself that if I didn’t catch any fish, I would still be happy with just being in the forest alone surrounded by all its beauty. 

Using reverse phycology on the Universe is something that has been part of my fishing and hunting ritual for most of my life.  I’m over the dreaded forty-year mark now and beginning to think it’s complete bullshit as the results vary widely.  That mental approach has followed me into my spiritual mind as well.  Now that I don’t prescribe to religion in general, I expect that some sort of miracle will occur when I least expect it.  I do believe miracles happen, or do I?   

There I was, fishing a beaver pond in the heat of a Texas afternoon, and I hook a beautiful Golden Trout. No, a tarpon.  Yeah, a tarpon!  Then Jesus or Allah or Buddha or an elephant with a bunch of human arms reaches down and scoops it out of the water with a gilded net and snaps a picture of me and the fish with my I-phone. Holding out for a miracle doesn’t mean I’m crazy or anything.  It’s just my way of continuing to try and trick the Universe.  No tarpon or Jesus yet.

Later in the day after a trip into Durango for flies at Duranglers and ice cream, we pulled into Helen’s Country Liquor Store for supplies and a restocking of ice.  Inside we ran into our camp host who, like most camp hosts, was a colorful fellow.  Ratty clothes stuck to his sweaty skin which was homeless person tan from living in a campground all summer.  We had met him the day before while we made camp. He’d pulled up to our spot on a dusty four-wheeler with a small mutt on the front and an even uglier one on the back. 

Helen’s. If they ain’t got it, you don’t need it.

Naturally, he commented on our outfitter wall tent setup which does seem a little out of place for an established pay campground in the summer.  Then he drove on with his mops and brooms poking out the back of his sweet ride to the toilet facility that needed his attention.  Today he was in Helen’s buying random bottles of booze and a weird smattering of things he must have needed, for some reason. 

He bellied up to the counter with whole milk, Camel lights, vodka, peppermint schnapps, beanie weenies, and orange Gatorade.  When he sat it all down, he looked at the pile as if noticing it for the first time, and said to the clerk, “Think I can make a good cocktail with any of this?”  The young clerk raised his eyebrows and laughingly said, “Why not!”  This put all us patrons in a joking mood and somehow connected us as if we had been neighbors for years.

The Magic Worm Blower hanging next to the counter that said “Increases the Size of Skinny Crawlers” in exploding letters on the package caught my eye so I threw it into his pile and asked both him and the clerk if this stuff worked on anything else worm-shaped.  The jokes continued a little too long about male enhancement as my wife rolled her eyes, having heard her share of dick jokes living with me for almost twenty years.

That evening, back at Florida River, there was no hatch that had any consistency, but I knew what typically swam in all high mountain streams in Colorado.  They’d wait for a well-placed dry of just about any pattern in the seam between the smooth and rippled water, then pounce like a cat on a grasshopper.  The Tin Cup had given me a sense fly fishing know how, and slightly less confidence in my flip flops on the mossy round rocks. 

Resident Brook Trout

Yet I knew it was worth scrambling further along the boulders risking a twisted ankle.  Eventually I felt like I was seeing a river that few get to witness due to its ruggedness.  There was no trail because the sheer cliffs hugged the water-starved river so tightly. A broken ankle here would have meant a very long crawl back to camp.  I decided to slow down a bit, to stop and breath.  I took in the flora, most of which I know the names but many I have yet to learn.  Moss clung to the wet grey granite cliff walls as water dripped between the cracks and down to the creek.  No whirring laptops. 

An unmistakable dimple formed on the surface of the water in a small pool at the base of the wall.  I guessed all the fish in this feeder creek to the Animas topped out at six inches at best.  Brookies and maybe Browns if I was lucky.  I was correct in my guessing after I landed a few hand-length blue spotted brook trout.  I drifted a mosquito pattern though a bathtub-sized pool and with a take that made my eyes widen, I hooked a healthy 14” brown on 7X and somehow landed it, hands shaking. 

Chubby Brown, red spots galore.

Who the hell uses 7X tippet anyway?  I can barely tighten a knot on this spiderweb thread without snapping it in half.  But stubbornly I persisted.  The next pool produced another brown of the same heftiness.  I don’t know how the tippet held up, but the light was fading, and I didn’t want to take the time to switch to something more girthy. 

I scrambled a little further up over black boulders and fallen logs to the next pool. In that glassy clear water, a small rainbow blasted out of the water for my mosquito, with a red stripe so straight and dark I decided it must be some unidentified trout species (it wasn’t). 

Not a Redband Trout, but exciting anyway

I took a shot that I hadn’t spooked the whole pool and made another short cast with my limber 3 wt.  There was a quick splash and a short fight into hand.  It was a smaller fish, but it wasn’t a brookie.  I examined it closely but wasn’t sold on anything until I turned it over in my hand.  That’s when the ruby red marks on it jaw line gave it away.  A tiny gem of a wild Colorado Cutthroat. 

A tiny surprise

I snapped a couple photos over the water for proof to my buddies around the country who were all participating in our own version of The Big Year contest, then released it back into the clear water.  I remember saying aloud, “Hell yes” to the mossy canyon walls.  Then I reeled in slowly, deliberately and took a deep breath gazing at the tall pines silhouetted against the changing sky above.  And here in all this silence and beauty, my diluted brain pondered for a moment why Jesus hadn’t landed it for me.

Published by willbarch78

I grew up in the middle of nowhere Texas. The nearest Walmart was a full two hours away. My family still runs a ranch back home that I grew up on, but at some point in my treasured youth I hung up the idea of becoming a cowboy, and pursued my passion for architecture. Today I still find myself trying to fit in to a life that has treated me with the average ups and downs one can expect after a certain number of years. My wife and I moved to Denver after attending Texas Tech School of Architecture in Lubbock as we needed a grade change from the Llano Estacado. We camp with our three growing girls all summer and into the fall while I write and create and fly fish to maintain sanity. Life is moving fast as our careers and children progress in all areas, so being outdoors with each other keeps us mostly grounded.

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