Time to get your hands dirty and your water clean. Clear Creek needs your love again this year because some people just aren’t getting the memo about the ill effects of trashing the planet. Seems to me another show of organized action is in order. This year we are doubling our efforts and teaming with other like-minded folks and cleaning up over 2 miles of riverbank, bike trails and riparian areas.
When: October 8, 9am – 1pm
Where: Twin Lakes Park. 226-318 W 70th Ave., Denver, CO 80221
Our friends at Adam’s County have been amazing over the last two years in helping organize pick up of all the bags and debris the volunteers have been yanking out of the creek. They’ve also provided trash bags and much needed support in getting through the red tape associated with other lovely government entities.
It’s easier to sign up than throwing your McDonalds bag out the car window. And your arteries will thank you. What can be better? Getting exercise, cleaning up your planet, free food and booze, and winning prizes. Sign up and pass along to other cool folks!
Let’s just start out by clarifying nobody got a rash or tetanus from the South Platte River water which leads me to believe the water is a bit cleaner than I had given it credit for. Unlike most river cleanups, this effort by our friends at Protect Our Rivers combines hard working volunteers on foot and on water. Yes, a massive flotilla starts a few miles up river and pulls out shit loads of junk along the way. It is a spectacle to see rafts, kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards all drifting down an urban river piled high with bags of junk.
Mind you, the South Platte is completely man-manipulated at this point but efforts over the years by Denver Trout Unlimited, state and federal government, and many others have put a ton of time and money into reviving riparian habitat and water quality. Within those efforts, small rapids have been formed to increase oxygen into the water, hence a few hold over trout year round in odd places like in front of REI.
To hear a few other strange urban fishermen tell it, you can hook smallmouth, largemouth, carp (obviously), and even walleye out of this river. So as gross as it looks in certain places, there are signs of life.
Last year I put in with my 9 year old and our silly looking hand-me-down raft with everyone else and the first thing she pulled out of the river was a five dollar bill. Everything else was just gravy after that. We navigated the few plunge pools and I drug the boat through the shallows for about 4 hours and she never once complained.
We were surprised at one point to see two kayakers come to a horizon on the river, lift their paddles above their heads, scream, then disappeared from view. We looked at each other and gulped. I paddled backward to see if I could get a good look at what lie ahead and told Harriet to get low and hold on tight. Under the bridge at Denver Water Headquarters is about a thirty foot mossy concrete spillway that terminates in a roaring pool, then boulders, then more rapids. The nose of the raft went over and I pulled the oars in knowing once we started down, we no longer had control.
The crushing wave at the base came full on into the boat and soaked us both to the bone, but mostly my daughter up front. She screamed a scream I knew not to be pain, so I maneuvered through the pool and down the next set of rapids with more water splashing like a tidal wave into the raft, finalizing the soaking of our trash bags, and everything that wasn’t in the Yeti Cooler.
I immediately beached the raft while we excitedly recounted what we had just survived. An experience where you fear you might come home without a child can lend some perspective on one’s decisions in life, but we both agreed we’d 100% do it again. I’m a slow learner.
This year the Protect Our Rivers Platte River Cleanup is on April 29, 2023 and the signup is here. Once again there are excellent sponsors and beers at Odell afterwards. You can’t beat that.
Note there are big plans coming to the Denver South Platte over the next 10-20 years. Projects like The River Mile will see the redevelopment of Elitch Gardens into a more urban and more connected to the river development. $350 million with an “M” are set to be spent on river restoration in Denver and Adams Counties by the Army Corps of Engineers. Read more about it on Denver.gov here. Looking forward to see everyone at the cleanup. Don’t drown!
No kidding. The 4th annual Clear Creek river cleanup is on the calendar. I know, how can we already be thinking about this? Well, because trash buildups happen every minute and we are behind, constantly. But never fear! You all have made an incredible difference over the last three years and as the word continues to get out, the difference you have made continues to be inspiring! Sign up below!
Last year we had a record turnout, and cleaned up twice as much area as we had in the past. Adams County continues to support our efforts in the most incredible ways and the sponsor list continues to grow. The gratitude we have for these like minded folks can’t be expressed enough, but they will have to settle for a post or two and a hand-written thank you card. They all know what we are doing isn’t easy but is 100% necessary.
It is such a pleasure to walk down the bike path or stalk huge carp in the creek and see the difference we have made. Yet, every year spring runoff and the occasional flash flood exhumes tires and weird shit from decades of neglect. Which is why we return year after year to work our butts off to put the “clear” back in Clear Creek.
So put October 7 on your calendar and pass the word to your friends and neighbors. Free food, cold drinks, cleaning up your earth, and building community. What the hell else could you ask for on a Saturday?
More to come as the year progresses and sponsors sign up. It’s the best time you can have doing a little volunteering.
It was a sunny day at Twin Lakes Park on the banks of Clear Creek. 105 dedicated volunteers filled bags for 4 hours and cleaned over 2.5 miles of river. That’s the condensed fact sheet. The impact of trash and crap cleaned up out of the creek was measured in thousands of pounds. Adams County folks were mighty surprised to drive the bike path to pick up all the bags and tires and filth. They likely needed to make a few trips, but as always, were happy to do it.
The morning started out in the best way possible, with heaping piles of breakfast burritos and Prodigy coffee. Protect Our Rivers set up their tent and put out the vibe while everyone signed their lives away by way of the waivers, hoping not to contract an STD (or worse) from the freaky junk laying around. After all the speeches and distribution of trash grabbers supplied by The Greenway Foundation everyone was off to the races for a chance to win some sweet prizes.
Prizes for the most plastic bottles is always quite a competition. Second place went to a cool hardworking guy who picked up 327 bottles. He is now the proud owner of a Riversmith Riverquiver! Damn. The first prize was a brand new fly rod and reel from Trouts Flyfishing. The winner picked up a whopping 486 plastic bottles! He claims he didn’t plant them there, and I do know the guy, and he is trustworthy. People were coming in with a bag of bottles saying, “Hey, we picked up 40 bottles,” all excited. Sorry, but you gotta do a little better next year! That said, an estimate put the total plastic bottle count in the 1,800 range, and we didn’t come close to counting them all.
Other prizes were handed out for dirtiest volunteer (she had to burn her clothes), most tires picked up (15), most disgusting item (a treasure box of dildos, crack pipes, pills, and a rosary), and many other contests. After all the big prizes were handed out, there were plenty of caps, gift certificates, and random donations to raffle. Earth-loving businesses like Rep Your Water, Anglers All, Grand Salon, Stranahan’s Whiskey, and so many others donated prizes and Adams County donated tons of blankets, bags, and umbrellas to give away. Damn near everyone won something. It was crazy!
Meanwhile, the dipsticks at King Soopers missed our lunch order, somehow, but thanks to Great Divide and Epic Western, all the adults stayed calm and had too many laughs while pizza was ordered and delivered. Next year, it is pizza. Always dependable. Thanks Italy or whoever makes the claim nowadays.
In year number 3 it felt like the work we have done is paying off more and more and having more volunteers helps more than anything. Everyone keeps saying events like this are much more fun and impactful than a big gala where people just dish out money. Here we come together outdoors and perform something tangible. As disheartening as it is to see the amount of junk, we know that every piece we pick up brings Clear Creek one step closer to being a success story.
Someone asked me if we could do a cleanup in the park they lived next to. My response was for them to organize it and make it happen. (I think that’s what I said. Had a few strong Epic Westerns by that time). But I’ll stand beside it. Organizing folks is easy when it comes to doing a simple act such as a cleanup. There are businesses out there who want to help as well, so if you just pick up the phone, you’d be surprised by how easy it is to pull in a few donations and food or coffee or whatever you need. Just do it. That’s the moral of the story for year 3. Just do it. (Thanks Nike)
It occurred to my friends and while the conversation turned to our various childhoods that every town, be it large or small contained off-the-map locations that held a certain treasure. On the outskirts of one of their towns sat a crumbling hospital the feral boys on bicycles referred to as “The Insane Asylum”, given the name because of the heebie jeebies it gave to those brave enough to crawl through a broken window. Once inside, the unlit maze of dilapidated offices and exam rooms littered with broken furniture, animal droppings, and littered beer cans sent their imaginations doing summersaults.
Another friend recalled an abandoned house being slowly eaten by termites complete with overgrown landscape and boarded windows. In my nearest town, there sat a WWII era military truck slowly returning to earth, tucked between two equally shabby industrial barns. Behind the cab was a spacious armored compartment complete with a rusty steel hatch just begging to give us tetanus. In all of these hidden, off-limits locations held a small yet spicy trove of dirty magazines. Crumpled from years of curious fingers flipping through the faded pages. Where they came from we could only speculate. They could have been stashed there by a kid whose father’s collection wouldn’t miss an issue or two, or a very “lucky” kid who had his own subscription and a duty to share with us less fortunate, or perhaps an unlucky bastard who got caught with them under his mattress and needed a place to hide them from mom.
As we went around the table we couldn’t believe that each of our towns was graced with such a place. We assumed every town in America, nay, the world, had these adolescent hiding places. There also seemed to be an unspoken rule about these places we all had in common. Nobody told anyone about the stash and it was only to be visited on extremely rare occasion. We also agreed that this was a genius idea. If an adult ever found this place with it’s heinous trove of erotic nudity, the blame would land on literally not one soul, barring a fingerprint kit. And even that would have been inconclusive, and would have incriminated every teenage boy within a mile radius.
Much is the same with discrete fishing holes. Those bodies of water that sometimes are unnamed, unmapped, unspoken. Under a busy inner city overpass, a farm pond with easy access and cover, or even an unassuming puddle in the middle of a very public park. At first, there seems to be nothing to blink at, but once investigated such places can reveal the presence of other fishermen. A discarded Styrofoam cup with dirt and worm remnants. A Y-shaped stick poking out of the sand. Or even a few beer cans and cigarette butts surrounding a knocked down patch of weeds next to the bank. These are the hiding places that tell the right set of eyes something more is going on here.
I’ve yet to find a discarded Playboy in such locations, but I’m keeping my eyes open. If anything, it will be a back issue of The Drake.
Dispersed camping is sometimes the best test of a marriage. Packing, meal prep, miles of rough roads with only the Colorado Gazetteer and hope to decide the boom or bust of a weekend in the wilderness can put an unnecessary strain on the bond between two typically easy going people. Add three restless girls and a car sick dog and you have a classic case of marital peril.
Camping around Winter Park is spotty since our last bout of wildfires with some previously wonderful areas being turned to ash and others closed due to restoration. But I’m decidedly stubborn and have been known to take unnecessary risks to secure a camping spot, so we took one such risk on a couple forest roads that ended in almost jackknifing the trailer in abrupt turnaround situations.
After a couple of disappointing dead ends, I saw a road up to Meadow Creek Reservoir that looked promising, but an area that would likely fill up fast due to its proximity to what looked like a popular weekend reservoir. We bounced up the road on a Thursday afternoon through puddles and potholes with butts clenched, snippy comments, and low expectations. Yet, luckily for the future of our union we found several vacant dispersed sites just waiting for us to create our makeshift home away from home.
Meadow Creek is a lazy little tailwater cascading over beaver dams with pocket water just begging for an elk hair caddis and a 3 weight. A cow moose paced the valley around our site all weekend as we kept a close eye on each other.
The site we ended up at was deep and had plenty of room for archery and exploration. The creek splashed just outside our tent flaps with a soothing white noise from mother earth.
I filled up the hummingbird feeder with homemade sugar water on day one and by day three it was completely empty. Some of the little fighter jets buzzed startlingly close to our heads, some even venturing into the tent for a quick inspection.
The mosquitos attacked us now and then so a trip into Murdoch’s farm store in Fraser to buy a electric fly swatter tennis racquet made the fight a lot more entertaining. Of course I had to test it on myself and the loud zap on my finger made the girls double over with laughter and almost made me piss my pants.
The reservoir got crowded on Saturday but is a special place to paddle board and fish with a spectacular mountain range background. Supposedly there are Tiger Trout in this lake, but I couldn’t figure them out.
The brook trout in Meadow Creek were plenty fun and I got spoiled catching them, almost resembling I knew what I was doing. By the end of every fishing outing my fly was completely chewed to pieces. And not just from the brambles I hooked it in.
To get there, head west on 83 right before Tabernash, CO and drive up 84 to the left towards the reservoir and start looking once you High Lonesome Trailhead parking pull off.
Reserved campgrounds. Some can lead to breathtaking views and pure existential experiences, and some just suck. Depending on your site, the Arapahoe Bay paid campground can be either one. Maybe we are just the luckiest bunch of campers in the country, or maybe our research lends to better decisions. I tend toward the latter. In the case of this particular campground, we hit pay dirt. Some of the campsites are stacked up on top of each other, but if you are willing to hump your gear up a steep rocky trail there are some gems that don’t put you next to that couple who get knee-walking drunk and fight all night then have equally loud make-up sex.
Our site perched at the summit of a small hill about 100 yards from the parking area with 360 degree views of the mountains and Lake Granby granting us exceptional sunsets over the sparkling water and without nosey dogs and generators next door. Our enormous wall tent fit snuggly on the tent pad and looked light a lighthouse when illuminated by our lantern after sundown.
Our spot was likely the most private in the whole area but still a short rough walk down to the lake and the vault toilets (which the camp host kept spotless). Chipmunks and hummingbirds were our constant companions over the weekend and the occasional bald eagle or osprey hovered overhead fishing for their next meal.
A short drive away was beautiful Monarch Lake. It gets a little busy on the weekends so getting there early to grab a picnic spot along the shore is advised. This little jewel of a lake is perfect for paddle boarding, canoeing, or float tube fishing for stocked rainbows and supposedly monster browns. We caught some rainbows from the float tube and since they are stockers, we fried them up for appetizers in the evening.
Colorado is obviously filling up with people, but it’s nice to know there are still places you can escape to and fill your lungs with clean mountain air and unparalleled scenery. You just need to be willing to get out there and find it. Or stay at home. That’s totally fine with me too.
John Geirach was just cruising around the massive showroom floor like a wise old brown trout, being very selective about what he might want to take home. He looked haggard. Like he just drove straight to the show after mouse fishing all night. But he’s John Geirach and doesn’t give a shit. Curiously enough, like most celebrities, he blended right in with the rest of the bearded sunbaked fishy looking characters like he’s not a legend. But like the biggest fish in the pool, the others stared out the side of their eyes, watching his every move. What flies caught his eye? Is he going to buy a Clackacraft? Will he sign my book if I don’t spook him? He, like most easy going writers is just as nice as his writings portray, and if you wait a minute he’ll be cordial about taking the time to John Henry your copy of his books.
I have to wonder though, as I’m not a published writer, when someone asks you to sign their book which you wrote, is there a feeling that this autograph is being requested beyond your years? Like a Micky Mantle card, that will have more value once you’re gone? Kind of morbid to think about, but I think there might be some truth there as creepy as it might be.
As a courtesy, all the writers have set aside some time to perch at a special booth for a while signing their works, so unless you just have to talk to any of them, it won’t cut into their shopping time if you can catch them at their allotted time.
Every year, I take my daughters on what we call a Sticker Quest. Every vendor and guide keeps a hefty stack of their custom stickers at their booth and since I’m there to spend money I haven’t made yet, and my girls don’t want to buy anything but a new Down River Raft we can’t afford, a sticker scavenger hunt is the best way to keep them interested. They collect stickers like they are on a mission to cover our entire truck.
It takes a fair amount of self control to refrain from buying gear for the sake of gear. Like walking into a fly shop for hooks and coming out with a new Scott Rod. Self control must be exercised. I recall in the movie Tin Cup when Kevin Costner loses his mojo and buys all those self-help gimmicks to find his swing again. Do I need a rod holster or the newest knot-tying tool? No, but when inundated with miles of the latest gear, fighting off the purchasing endorphins is a very real struggle.
The best fly tiers in the country congregate at this show stacked up like pearls on a string, tying perfected versions of every fly you can imagine, and then some that you can’t imagine a fish not falling all over itself to inhale. These legends of the craft sit hunched over fancy vises lit up like an operating room while their mouths and noses appear wasp-stung swollen through huge magnifying glasses. Staring too long as they effortlessly loop in fur and feathers could be described by a novice fly tier like myself as “dreamy”.
In this very diverse crowd, one look that never fails to impress is the bushy facial hair. The diversity of beards reflects biblical times, or a craft brew fest. One could pivot from bird watching to beard watching in such a crowd. Fishiness is somehow assumed by the length and scraggliness of the face salad. The longer the scruff, the more Permit to hand such a guy is likely to have tallied. The clean shaven must surely be weekend warriors and wannabe guides.
Once because I had tickets for all three days, I brought my lovely non-fishing wife along hoping she and I would find a connection through trout-spotted attire. After weaving our way through the first few yards of the crowd all she said was, “Lots of swinging dicks.” I laughed, but then took her to the Women’s Exhibit which has continued (thankfully) to grow through the years. As far as 50/50 on the water, there are still some things left to be desired, but the numbers are trending upwards thanks to such groups as United Women on the Fly, Damsel Fly Fishing, and Reel Women Fly Fishing Adventures, and a growing number of vendors targeting the female crew who can no doubt out-fish most of the guys.
Upon entry, I always find myself signing my life away for a chance at a trip of a lifetime. If an all expenses paid trip to Patagonia requires my social security number, I’m not batting an eye while carelessly throwing those numbers out into the universe. Mother’s maiden name? Info for my third grade teacher? Here you go. (Sorry Mrs. Webster)
Every year since my fishing buddies and I have visited the show we end up talking very seriously for an hour about a new boat. And they have them here. Down River has displays of sixteen footers just waiting to be smashed against a boulder. Visualizing myself rowing down the Arkansas while two of my friends are doubled up on twenty-inch browns is easy when you are surrounded by enormous printed images of fat colorful fish and gear beyond one’s wildest imagination.
In the end I sulk home and re-work the gunwales on my eleven-foot liability of a raft. Besides, it was free, and I like the character of the baling wire and duct tape. Add a few new Abel Reels stickers to the frame and it looks like it’s seen some times. And it has. Last year on the Bighorn River in Montana, on what was the last day of tough fishing and worse weather, Cory rowed us backwards into a bank just before takeout. The three glorious homemade PVC electrical conduit rod tubes jammed into the dirt taking the full weight of the loaded boat. Two of the three snapped instantly. The one that did not was the only one with a rod in it at the time so thanks goes up to the fishing gods. Currently I’m working on a new design that includes slightly more duct tape.
I found myself chatting up long time donor to my river cleanup Garrison Doctor of Rep Your Water about the obese rainbows of Jurassic Lake I’d seen him on “the Gram” hoisting out of the water. When I mentioned Jurassic Lake he forgot he was there to peddle his wares and eagerly jumped feet first into how that lake is like nothing on the planet. I stood there smiling, wearing one of his hats, nearly salivating with envy. But that’s how fishermen are. Once the topic of such magical places are brought up, there’s no stopping them from reliving the whole experience.
Dave and Emily Whitlock are always busy signing books and incredible paintings, but genuinely enjoy chatting with everyone who stops by their booth. I’ve never seen two people who smile that much.
This year all these characters are congregating for the 2022 Fly Fishing Show at the Gaylord of the Rockies Convention center February 11-13. It’s going to feel like getting a guide for a single day in the Seychelles knowing this is your only shot at glory, and in this case, amazing deals on a bunch of gear you may or may not even need. So fun, regardless.
My grandad had this old creamy brown flat bed Dodge feed truck. A purely utilitarian piece of equipment. Zero aesthetics. This was before he could afford a proper push button feeder so it was piled high with fifty pound feed sacks of the same color of the truck. Dusty tan. The grime and splattered cow shit that caked every inch of the beast all blended into the authentic ranch palette effortlessly.
Short lengths of rusting baling wire, fencing pliers, eerie dark bottles of animal medicine, and a beat to hell .22 rifle bounced around in the seat between us from early morning to whenever we’d get home, which was never early enough for a restless kid like me. I loved being out doing ranch stuff, but mom was a good cook and the house was always filled with savory aromas followed by damn good food and a warm fireplace. And the heater in the Dodge could be a bit finicky.
When our feed routes passed through town, dread washed over me. Civilization meant other old men with hours of time to kill. These old men had a tendency to be in their driveways working on something, or otherwise arranging decades of junk in various barns in particular order known only to them. And if Jim (what I called our grandad) saw another old timer, it meant getting home for dinner and sorting baseball cards would be delayed an hour, minimum.
It would often start like this. Jim would throw it in neutral and roll into some huge gravel driveway behind an overall-clad wrinkled old codger and blare his horn to see if he could give the old fart a heart attack. If the noise scared his buddy, he’d laugh his hearty laugh exposing yellow, scattered teeth. He’d amble out the creaking pickup door and slam it shut behind him while I sat there dreading the inevitable lengthy exchange.
“I’ve got one fer ya today! You ever seen one of these before?” Turning it over in thick dusty fingers, the farmer now suddenly historian, would eye the object before reckoning, then reckoning some more. “I reckon that’s off the gear box of a ’48 John Deere combine, like ole Hilmer used to have.” Who the hell Hilmer was, I could only guess. Definitely some other old guy who had met his end, probably due to a “reckoning” aneurism. “Yeah, I thought that too, but see this piece sticking off it; that’s kinda bent over a little? That just don’t look quite right.” At this point in the conversation (in my mind) I’d be rolling my eyes screaming “Oh, Goddammit. Just agree to disagree and let’s finish feeding these fucking cows before they starve to death!!!” But, no. At this point another object would appear, then another, until I was wondering if Jim had forgotten about his hungry bovines, or his bored to death grandson.
I’d finally snap out of my daydreaming about Nolan Ryan rookie cards or the tall skinny blonde lifeguard from the pool that summer when I’d hear Jim say, “Well, I best git back to work.” The other guy would agree and say “Well, good talking to ya. See ya tomorrow maybe.” (God, I hoped not) If so, I was going to fake diarrhea, walk home, and price all my baseball cards in an outdated Beckett Baseball Card Pricing Guide. Even that sounded more fun.
What was gained for having sat through an hour long back and forth about a chunk of useless metal I wondered? Learning patience with elders? Maybe. Quietly suppressing rage and frustration? Totally. But these days, when I do a river cleanup, I’ll find some strange object that came off of something else and ponder it for a minute. But only a minute. I’d never bore someone to death in a quest involving tireless figuring and reckoning on what its purpose was before coming to rest in the river bed. Was it for mining? Part of a machine? Who the hell knows?
I’ve probably missed many golden opportunities to carry some unidentifiable object into a museum to have a lab coat clad researcher jump out of their chair and proclaim I had found such and such thing that changed the course of history. Only one other like it had ever been discovered. It was developed in the 1800s by Hilmer So and So, and I should feel extremely lucky to have discovered it.
Maybe I should embrace the old man in myself. Learn to enjoy the mundane. I mean, I was brought up where the small things were all there was. It seems I made my decision to surround myself with a lively city probably to burn off some of that pent up energy that fermented in those years bouncing around in the feed truck. But last week I picked up (with tongs) a vibrator off the road at our local park. A little jarring for a city implant to stumble upon. But I don’t think I’ll bring it by a friend’s house to chat about its origins for an hour. Then again…
This weekend we loaded up the truck on a Friday afternoon to camp. I would typically never, ever, consider camping on a Friday because at that point all the good dispersed spots would be taken by childless youngsters fully outfitted with expensive REI gear on unemployment. My wife and lifelong camping partner and I would argue about who took too long to get off work or something else that placed us in this situation. Thankfully, a friend had reserved a pay spot for us months ago, and it was just sitting there waiting for us park the truck and drive stakes. The only grief I received was for forgetting Baileys for our coffee.
The site was nice, a little closer to strangers and their noisy offspring than we’d like, but it was flat, had a bear box, and fires were allowed here with Stage 1 fire restrictions in place. If we had dispersed camped, a campfire would have been out of the question. Nobody likes $1,000 fines. And here comes the pros and cons and just differences between my beloved Dispersed camping and Pay Campgrounds. Below is a somewhat comprehensive list I’m sure I’m leaving some important things out of. But I’m writing this so my mind is all that is getting dumped. Let’s just jump right into it.
Pay campground Pros:
Completely reserve-able in advance at recreation.gov. No driving for hours trying to find a place while the sun goes down and the frustration ensues.
Usually a flat area for your tent. Not always, but usually.
Campfires allowed during Stage 1 fire restrictions.
Bear boxes sometimes provided, but not always.
Easy access with any type of car. Your Prius can get there, no sweat.
Firewood can be purchased from the camp host so you don’t have to scavenge.
Toilets. They always have vault toilets, cleaned daily by the camp host. Which is nice, but these echoing dungeons of sewage are still gross.
Fresh water is usually provided by pump at campgrounds, sometimes a little off-color, but harmless.
PAY CAMPGROUND CONS:
Camping right next to strangers who fight (or screw) all night, get shit face drunk and party too late, kids who don’t know camping etiquette, and dogs who don’t either.
You are not going to have privacy from your neighbors.
The vault toilets smell terrible if you are downwind.
Not typically on water. Sometimes pay campsites are on lakes but are usually a good distance away from a water source. Most are close to water, but usually a trek to get to, and then everyone else is there being idiots, scaring away all the fish.
The fire pit grills are never cleaned. So much grease and dingleberries cling to the bars, I’ve still never let our food touch them.
It Ain’t free. I’d much rather put that hard-earned cash towards a bottle of Stranahan’s.
DISPERSED CAMPING PROS:
Remoteness. You can really stretch out and let the dog off leash and wander around.
Make the campsite your own. Pitching your tent to capture the best views is all on you. Creating a fairy garden, or horse shoe pit, or capture the flag are all in bounds.
Spread out your stuff. We always set up the archery range, kitchen, hammock, etc. wherever we want and have plenty of space between ourselves and anyone else in the area.
Creek camping. More often than not, a pay campsite is not next to water, because everyone would wash their dishes in it or lose their trash in it. Dispersed is typically close to a stream or river which provides fishing and frolicking.
Quiet. Pay campsites are never quiet. Dispersed is almost always filled with silence, minus our own children or distant coyotes howling at sunset (which is awesome).
Self-sufficiency. When you know there is no toilet or fresh water for miles and miles, one tends to conserve what fresh water you haul in, and toilet paper.
Fire pits. There is nothing less romantic than a steel fire ring. When we camp, one of the fist items on the list is to rebuild the fire pit stones, or move it to a better location, or create a new one altogether. This hearty effort makes the campfire that much more special.
Fire wood. Spending $8 on a small bundle of firewood hurts when you know it’s just going up in flames. But cutting and splitting an enormous pile of firewood to burn at bonfire strength is extremely rewarding. “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” – Thoreau.
Freedom. Our kids have learned to drive on dispersed camping trips because there are miles of empty roads and no people. Best to learn here than in town where there is much more to run into.
Peeing outside. With no other campers in sight, I love just walking a long way from the tent and just whipping it out without a care in the world. Can’t do that in a campground. So I’ve heard.
It’s totally free!!!
DISPERSED CAMPING CONS:
Fire restrictions can really suck and you don’t want to mess with writing a huge check, or worse, starting the forest on fire and winding up in jail.
Fresh water will have to be hauled in. But the thing is, if you run out, someone in the nearest town is always going to let you fill up your jug.
Rough roads. Washed out or washboard roads will keep the big rigs and small cars out most of the time, but they will also play hell on your nerves after a half hour of getting bumped around.
Just finding one can be tough if you don’t get away early enough. Especially now with everyone wanting to camp. My advice, don’t go during peak season. Spring and Fall and Winter will make the campsites a lot easier to find.
Pooping outside. I hate pooping. No matter where I’m at. But digging a deep hole, aiming and firing is not my favorite. I’d rather use a vault toilet any day.
So there it is. All tied up in a bow for you to make your own decisions. Truthfully, there is a time and place for both methods and both can provide outdoor bliss. I love to disperse, but the stress is sometimes a bit much when you aren’t finding a good spot, it’s getting late, and your marriage is falling apart along a bumpy dirt road. Therefore, maybe a mixture of both is just a wise decision to balance your adventurous life outdoors, and put less stress on your relationships.
“Are you going to fish the White River?” Tell any fly fisher you are headed to Arkansas and you will immediately hear all about floating a nymph under a bobber to monster brown trout down that river. Yawn. Sounds like watching an amateur golf tournament on TV. Sure, there will be some memorable shots, but overall it will be what you expected, and you’ll flip the channel while scratching an annoying itch in your belly button before downing another beer.
The thing is, Arkansas is a treasure, especially if you ditch the Instagram and dip your toes into the other beautiful rivers in the northwest corner of the Natural State. Yes, I had read all about the famed White River but luck would have it, I wasn’t really within striking distance of that boring old trout stream. Arkansas, to me, was where one could be challenged by beefy smallmouth bass chasing a middle-finger sized streamer in crystal clear water while buzzards circled over towering limestone cliffs, and banjos dueled in a distant holler. I wasn’t far off.
The massive jet black carrion-eating turkey vultures did soar ominously through the suffocating humidity, but banjos, nary a one. The thing about places this far off the beaten path is you just can’t get a feel of it until you pull into a remote gas station after thirteen soul crushing hours in the car and breath in the bubbly cashier calling you “honey”.
Granted, there were some homesteads along the road which could have been mistaken or likely doubled as junk yards complete with ugly dogs, an ugly house, and ugly kids. Some even flew a shredded Rebel flag, putting on full display a level of lily white ignorance I gladly don’t witness in the middle of a blue city out west.
Otherwise this part of Arkansas is undeniably beautiful. Every shade of green and vastly uninhabited, with quaint general stores selling local pottery, honey, jelly, and beer by some of the sweetest, friendliest folks you will meet. People here use the word “neat” to describe everything from hiking trails to gift shops and even other people. “Yeah, Barbara down the road there owns a neat little handmade soap shop. Been making soap for forty years. She’s a neat lady.”
Vacations involving the opportunity to fish are a bit like camping trips. I start doing way too much research, get a little jittery, and tie way too many streamers. But a vacation with my dad? I hadn’t done that in over 20 years. The last trip I remember taking with my old man was the day after I graduated high school. It was a haul-ass trip to Yellowstone where we camped for a few nights, saw Old Faithful, and came home exhausted.
It wasn’t completely uneventful. I rode most of the way in a 6’X2′ sleeper mounted with baling wire to the tool box, complete with a duct taped passage through the back window of the old Dodge into the cab. We slept in a spur maker’s yard in Jackson Hole, WY one night in a tiny tent which I was forced to exit in the middle of the night due to Dad’s chainsaw snoring. Uncomfortably sleeping in an unkept yard in an old sleeping bag, I was not so gently woken up at 3 a.m. when a cold mountain rain began spitting on my face. Eventually I ended up back in the pickup just before sunup, angry and tired. We bathed with naked Europeans in a remote hot spring, saw some bison, and when the Dodge blew the transmission in Cheyenne, I slept in my first, but not my last Super 8 Motel.
There were many years in fact when you could say Dad and I didn’t much get along for various reasons (besides the snoring) which I later came to terms with after realizing life is, in fact, short. I realized how similar our interests were after being away on my own for a few years and I quit blaming him for my own self-absorbed adolescent confusions. A trip to the Ozarks and a new non-western wilderness was an exciting concept for both of us, and our families.
Arkansas hadn’t been on my radar but when I looked at the photos of the river we were staying next to I noticed the absence of rod tubes on the vehicles in the parking lots and I got hopeful. In Colorado, every other Subaru and 4Runner has one jutting off the roof like an erection, for trout. But it looked like Buffalo National River was more of a playground for canoers and kayakers and maybe just a handful of fisherfolks. Which meant I should definitely tie some more streamers.
From the Colorado plains to the Ozark Mountain range, the scenery and humidity changes dramatically, yet both were welcome after seeing Kansas for too many hours. Once we finally got settled in our cabin, we made our way to a put-in on the river that was nearly empty as it was mid June, and the water was low, so nobody was floating. We all pretty much dove in to cool off but with discipline I rigged up first.
In typical fashion, Dad and I fished separately, not even thinking about it, the distance between us going unnoticed. Through my years of angling I’ve recognized when I approach water with rod in hand, everything and everyone disappears. I find myself casting flies alone, look up and wonder where everyone else has gone, and how far away is the truck?
As Dad waded into the river, he quickly vanished upstream, eyes focused on the stones in the riverbed, hunting artifacts. I’ve seen him do this a million times. When we’d go arrowhead hunting back when I was a kid he’d step out of the truck and wouldn’t look up for six hours. He would methodically pace a farm field sometimes stopping to wipe the dirt from a chunk of flint, analyzing it, stuffing it in his pocket, followed by more pacing. Arms behind his back, one hand grasping the wrist of the other, hunched over with eyes darting over the freshly tilled soil. Much like myself on a river. Cast, retrieve, two steps, cast, retrieve, on repeat like a skipping record. Then I look up and it’s dark, and I’m alone, frustrated at the impatience of the sun.
When we finally came back together later in the afternoon to make sure the kids hadn’t drowned, he said he’d caught some fish that he’d never seen before on his spinning rig, one being a rock bass. And that’s how we seem to fish “together”. Same river on the same day, not knowing what the hell the other is doing. I had a feeling one or more of his pockets was also full of interesting rocks.
There were hikes to incredible vistas and waterfalls, stories from years past, and great food washed down with cold beers. The last day was decidedly a river day and we enjoyed the cool water until thoroughly pruned. Before heading back to the cabin and whiskey and fireflies and family, I clipped off the white streamer that had produced a few chubby smallmouth and a rock bass with its wild red eyes, and dug into my warm water fly box for the smallest bass popper I had and tied it to the 5x tippet in the shadows of the limestone cliffs. Knowing this would be my last few casts in this magically foreign landscape, I let out line and allowed the popper to float in my wake, and I turned my gaze upwards for the first time in hours.
Dark shadowy green canopies of the hardwoods I could scarcely identify clung to the rolling hills like a biker’s thick beard. Only a few songbirds flitted among the branches then vanished into the darkness of the canopies before I could identify them. Three hundred foot tall sheer limestone cliffs at the river bend rose vertically with black and grey water stains streaming their cheeks like prom night mascara.
A light breeze came off the crystal clear water hitting my cheeks and reminded me that I was a fisherman, and not some casual observer. While boundless beauty surrounded me, there was also hundreds of long-ear sunfish waiting for me below the film, so unlikely in this place with their magic mushroom trip patterns and iridescent Texas sunset colors splashed across their tiny scales.
I set the little green popper skyward and laid it down in the silvery reflection of a long slow moving pool about the size of a football field. The charging wake, splash, and hookset delivered instant adrenaline to my brain and immediately balanced the scales of what fly fishing is to me and what arrowhead hunting is to Dad. A fully immersive environmental and spiritual experience; as long as you look up now and again.
The smell of burning plastic plates in a campfire was one of those nostril burning aromas that I associated with a campfire when growing up. Back when I was younger and better looking, plastic was this incredible product that found its way into everything in our lives. Plastic cups, plates, and utensils became a staple at parties, campouts, baby showers, weddings, and literally every get-together held for any reason under the stars, and still are. When the party was over some strong fella would set down his Lone Star beer and hoist a 50 gallon plastic trash bags full of plastic cups, plates, forks, spoons, and knives over his shoulder and walk proudly to the dumpster with it over his shoulder. He’d look around the crowd to make sure folks were seeing this act of chivalry like he had just performed open heart surgery with a pocket knife. The ladies who actually did all the work would look up and force gush their thanks through clenched teeth just enough to make Mr. Helper’s chest bulge.
Amazingly with all the information on just how cataclysmically awful single use plastics are for our health and our environment, we Americans still choose convenience over common sense. The older generation would say shrugging, “Well, that’s just how it is,” which I’ve noticed is a common go-to for inconvenient truths especially when it comes to litter and recycling.
Growing up in our tiny western village, there wasn’t (and still isn’t) any waste management services because a population of under 30 residents obviously can’t sustain such an operation. The transfer station (recycling center) was a full 30 miles away but who would want to haul their junk that far then pay for it to be recycled or just buried in another county? Inconvenient as hell. Therefore, someone with a bulldozer attachment on their tractor pushed soil aside creating a shallow pit where the townsfolk would come to throw away all that plastic and everything else from car batteries to deer carcasses. In the ditch digger’s infinite wisdom, he had decided digging this dump about twenty feet from a creek was a solid idea.
Once in a while when the wind wasn’t blowing, the Volunteer Fire Department would set it ablaze with the water tank truck waiting just in case one of the embers set the surrounding pasture on fire, which it did on several occasions. Black pungent smoke and embers would rise into the atmosphere, because “it ain’t hurtin’ nothin’.”
When the pile of unburnable junk got too high and started blowing all over the place, the tractor man would dig another trench next to the old one, using the new soil to cover up the old pit and its contents, to be discovered by future archeologists or I assume, aliens. Sweeping it under the rug, year after year while battery acid and cans of paint slowly seep into the water table a few feet away.
“That’s just how it is.”
Maybe it is convenience that has driven us to Keurig capsules and double plastic bagging a gallon of milk with a perfectly good built-in handle. But my fellow earthlings, we have a choice, and that choice whether you know it or not is a vote. Every time we don’t use our own bag at the grocery store, we vote. If we decide to buy organic, non-GMO products, that is a vote for a farmer making just a little bit less than his neighbor. Every time we bike to work instead of driving, that’s a vote for cleaner air. Exercising is a vote for your health. Buying a sleeve of Solo cups for a keg party, that’s a vote. A vote for or against the only planet we have.
Years ago we voted against our camp ware being single use plastic, and started investing in something timeless. Enamelware. Immediately I became an enamelware slut. If Best Made was having sale I was buying bowls, cups, plates, and even more cups in bulk. And not just for us but as Christmas gifts for family members and gifts just because for friends in our camping community.
We became aware after a few uses these handsome vessels didn’t only hold hot coffee, hearty chili and strong whiskey, but a metric ton of memories. Some of our best memories. I’ve never sipped a high ball out of a plastic cup and been soothed by the dull knocking of ice cubes against its soft, lifeless walls. But the delicate clinking of the same ice against steel and baked enamel congers memories of deep campfire conversations and tipsy late evening escapes to a tiny mountain stream for one more brook trout on an elk hair caddis by headlamp.
Without a doubt, I love the Best Made brand (sold to Duluth Trading), but if you want the absolute sexiest and most original of cooking and eating and serving goodness then go with the classic Falcon line of products with its wide selection of unique colors and endless array of shapes and sizes. They still make the classic of classics; white with the blue rim, which leaves me rationalizing why I need a $10 espresso cup, which I don’t. Other amazing makers of this snazzy stuff includes Crow Canyon and Riess. You can even get your cups personalized by some great folks on the internet. Want to reduce your footprint even more? Look on Etsy or Ebay for cool vintage stuff, or even your local Goodwill store.
If my rant against plastic didn’t convince you to get on board the enamel train, then take these arguments into consideration because you are obviously a stubborn son-of-a-bitch. Enamelware, besides making you look like a camping/picnic professional, is eco-friendly, lightweight, durable as hell, naturally non-stick, shatter (kid) proof, and easy to clean. It can go from the oven to the table, or campfire to your lap (with care not to burn your junk of course). And if it ever does wear completely out, it’s steel and therefore recyclable.
The thing about a product that will last 100 years is there is literally no excuse for not making such an investment. Since I’m a nice guy, I’ll do the math for you. Spend $15 on 100 plastic cups twice a year for 10 years. That comes to $300 and 2000 plastic cups in the landfill forever. Buy a set of 10 enamel cups for $100 (on the high end) one time and they will be passed down through generations donating to hundreds of memories with each chipped edge. A total of ZERO cups in the landfill.
You know that heavy tinge of guilt you feel every time you throw a plastic cup in the trash? Once your camping or picnic box is outfitted with enamelware, that’s a feeling you’ll never have again. So do it for your planet, your children, your conscience, or your love of timelessly beautiful objects. But whatever you do, do it with intention. Because no one can argue it isn’t the right thing to do.
Ever picked up a random piece of trash and won a $150 Patagonia bag? How about a 4 banger roof rack River Quiver from Riversmith? Or maybe you like ice cream. Our great friends at Scoops Homemade Ice Cream have some prizes you might get all over your face. If you said no, then you have to come to the 2nd annual A Cleaner Clear river cleanup! Last year we gave away some pretty outstanding prizes for folks who came in with strange objects, sometimes phalic in nature, some of them I’m positive were pieces of a crime scene. Nevertheless, trading a little community service for fly rods and other ridiculously cool prizes seems like reason enough to attend this year as the prizes keep getting better every day.
This year we were going to focus on the area we did last year due to some Jeffco red tape. We will hit Adams County again this year across from Napa on 70th Ave. We will try to hit a different stretch of Clear Creek every year because they all need help. It’s a river that contributes to our recreational aspirations, drinking water, and Colorado’s beauty. This dear river gets neglected to a point of shame therefore it’s up to us to do our part to bring it back to its former glory.
This year we will all meet up at the Napa parking lot (2101 CO-224, Denver, CO 80229) at 9am for coffee and breakfast then disperse along the riverbanks and highway to fill as many bags of crap as we can before noon. We’ll meet up for lunch (from Moe’s Barbeque!) and prizes will be given away for things such as most plastic bottles picked up, strangest object, most reusable object, most masks picked up, etc., and we’ll come up with other categories along the way. Last year someone brought in a mattress and won a guided fly fishing trip with Blue Quill Anglers! Pinch yourself.
Remember that time you booked the trip of a lifetime to Thailand and a pandemic shut down the entire planet, except for the Trump Kool-Aid drinking South Dakota part and you decided to check out camping in another state instead? I mean, the Black Hills are sort of like Thailand. Except for literally everything. But 2020 was a bitch and at that point, South Dakota was pretending like all was well (before they led the nation in Covid-19 deaths) so we packed up and headed northeast into the unknown.
The drive from Denver is reasonable and we saw a lot of Wyoming-esque landscapes. Rolling hills dotted with America’s fastest land animal, the pronghorn antelope went on for hours until we gained elevation into an island of towering ponderosa pines and into the Black Hills. We had reserved a spot at Grizzly Creek Campground and had a sweet spot right at the end along the aptly named Grizzly Creek, which I suspected held some sort of cold water fish.
The campground is very close to Mt. Rushmore, our most blatant slap in the face to Native Americans imaginable, so there is a bit of traffic on the road and oddly in the air as well. It seems that ogling the presidents towering over the landscape isn’t cool enough so you can buy a helicopter ride to examine their scalps as well. The choppers flew over often enough we stopped noticing them. The campground itself is very clean and green and not large enough for anything larger than a car so it keeps all the RV folks at bay.
Custer State Park (seriously, we can’t change the name?) is just down the road so we drove through extremely thick fog in what I assume was beautiful landscape with sweeping vistas, but all we saw was the forest through the fog until we were lower in the valleys. Fog, to me, is rare enough that it is beautiful and mysterious all in itself, but adding a narrow winding strip of road with eye of the needle narrow tunnels, the drive was incredible, and probably completely different on a sunny day.
Sylvan Lake in the settling fog leaned toward the eerie, yet serene. It was worth hiking all the way around the lake and exploring the towering rock formations some with spots of chalk from the rock climbers that were attracted to them.
The Black Hills hold some of the most beautiful scenery in the lower 48, yet if you are just bored of natural beauty, you can always find an amusement park or t-shirt shop (currently with discounted Trump on the back of a Tyrannosaurus Rex shooting machine guns shirts). And Mt. Rushmore, of course, is there and it’s impossible to miss. Crazy Horse is also down the road as a rebuttal, and will be more slightly more representative of our nation’s struggle once finished. But back at camp away from the tacky little towns and desecrated mountains is where we enjoyed most of our time. Cutting wood, hiking through unfamiliar forests, and casting dry flies.
Fiddle ferns unfurled their spindly tentacles along the creek between Ponderosas so tall it seemed they had never seen a forest fire. Nobody else fished the tiny creek because it was congested with growth and the fish were too small for poachers to eat. I strung up my nimble 3 weight with a size 16 Yellow Sally and caught brook trout every day that were longer than my hand and beautifully spotted, and wild. I would sneak over to the creek each night after I poured myself a glass of Arcola Whiskey just to watch them rise.
“Mama, I’m freezin’ (mama, I’m freezin’), I wanna go to the su-un (to the sun) These icy winter breezes (winter breezes) are chillin’ all my fun (all my fun)”. Yes, Village People. F’ing yes!
When I was doing what I could in high school to fit in and attract “babes”, I was expected by my friends, my family, the entire town, and those babes to participate in every sport our dirt poor little school could support. I loved most of those sports and still do. The training, the excitement, and the comradery elevated my youth and for the most part, kept me out of trouble. But there was one extracurricular I was never built for. Running track.
Sprinting and jumping and hurdling, never placing in a single event. Track meet after miserable god damn track meet. To make matters worse, something deep inside me came up before every mile relay or awkward triple jump attempt. It was an overwhelmingly potent dose of nerves. And what ultimately, physically came up was my breakfast. Every. Single. Time.
Anyone who knows me at all also knows I’m one of those rare cool cats who pukes his guts up regularly and violently, sometimes even in public. Illness and booze, oh, and spinning carnival rides all do the trick. But with track and field, there was no reason for me to have butterflies. And certainly no reason to throw up after every race like a grass eating dog. I knew damn good and well there was no podium in my future so why the nerves?
I was once forced to run the two mile as a “jackrabbit” which meant it was my job to run a crazy fast first lap to trick the opposition into believing this would be my pace for all eight laps. This would smartly let my teammates maintain a normal first lap pace while gassing the rest of the field. Being a sacrifice felt slightly noble to my weak fourteen year old mind, so smiling slyly at the starting line, I crushed a 57 second first quarter mile outpacing the crap out of the field, then gasping for thin dusty west Texas air I pulled the reins hard while everyone glided past me, one by one.
At the pace of a shopping mall speed walker, I casually jogged the rest of the race as every other runner lapped me not once, but twice. As one foot fell in front of the other under the buzzing vapor lights, a storm moved in about midway through the race with 30 knot winds peppered with snow flakes that pelted my hairless cheeks like tiny ninja throwing stars. The mercury hovered around freezing without the wind chill factor (always present in the Texas Panhandle) so a teammate who had long ago finished the race (and was likely “lacking” on babes), felt sorry for me and grabbed my ridiculous three foot long stocking cap on one of my trips past the grandstands, handed it to me, and I pulled it on tight.
Other races needed to be run while I was slogging around the track, so the organizers requested I continue my final laps in the outside lane until I was finished (making my race even longer I immediately realized). Every time I passed the stands I’d raise my arms in triumph as if I were a track hero coming off an airplane from winning the Olympics in Greece. The few die hard parents waiting for their kids to run other events cheered me on until I finished that glorious eighth lap. Immediately I stumbled over to the nearest trash can and blew chunks which mingled seamlessly with the piles of discarded and now frozen Frito pie remains. Needless to say, with my puke breath and sweaty hormone musk, the bus ride home didn’t see me sitting next to any babes.
The reason I’m relating this piece of cruel adolescent history is to make sense of the anxiousness experienced the first time I went flats fishing in the Florida Keys. Before even stepping on the airplane in Denver I become a slave to my own grandiosity, self-doubt, panic, and ego. My day on the water was scheduled for the last full day of the trip, and I tried to enjoy the preceding days doing touristy things, enjoying the happiness of my children in the warm Florida surf, and not fretting about my strip set. I’d caught plenty of carp before, so what the hell was I so worried about?
The night before embarking into the calm ocean, I tried to explain to my wife over half a bottle of incredibly delicious Florida distilled rum what I was going through mentally. She brought it to my attention that my own ambitious goals (and money) on the line were antagonizing me, and I was putting far too much pressure on myself. Squeezing in a day of fishing on a family trip had me experiencing guilt in the first place, but in my mind, catching a gamefish in saltwater was now or never. The self-inflicted pressure of bringing to hand a bonefish, tarpon, permit, barracuda, or redfish on the fly with only a handful of hours to do so had me on a razor’s edge. The family could feel it.
First of all, social media displays dream fish on my feed so relentlessly that I have to believe every fish in the world has at one point had a hook in its face, so I assumed I’d at least land around twenty bonefish and a tarpon or two. But not being completely ignorant and also being myself a posting whore of only the great moments of my own life, it was assumed there could be disappointment hidden in the internet’s dark corners.
There is a certain level of honesty I keep with myself so the world can seem a little less disappointing. It was January, and there wasn’t a good report for the Keys in January of any year according to my friends at the Internet. But it also didn’t say catching fish was impossible, and I consider myself an underdog, and a decent fisherman, so I took the time of year out of the equation mentally. The wind had been gusty in the days leading up to my outing, but the tendonitis in my casting elbow felt almost nonexistent, so I took thrusting impossibly long casts into the ocean wind off my list of worries as well. What was it I couldn’t shake then? Was it that I’d eaten four pieces of Key Lime Pie the day before and might shit limey cream cheese all over a stranger’s boat deck? Nope. (although I should have worried about that in hindsight) No, the culprits of my angst were my old friends Inexperience and Time. Neither of which I could do a damn thing about.
That morning, I woke up early, and walked halfway across the island staring at the flats, full of anticipation and my old friend, nerves. I noted a small barracuda just off the sea wall across from McDonalds and my hopes rose. My guide was a very nice guy who I should have tried to get to know a little more, but I was oddly unfriendly, almost socially inept. Looking back now, he must have noticed how anxious I was. I forced questions like, “how long have you been guiding down here?”, and I forced statements like, “If I’m doing something stupid, please yell at me”. That was my idea of keeping it light. Other than that, I didn’t want to chat. Or throw up. We were on the clock and my eyes and brain were beyond ready to make that first cast, which didn’t come well until after noon.
There were a few shots at big barracuda late in the afternoon, and a lemon shark followed my streamer all the way to the boat, but we didn’t see any other fish to really cast to. That day on his boat made me realize how easy trout fishing actually is. The ocean in its vastness can spread fish for thousands of square miles, while in a river, they are between the banks with few places to hide. It made trout fishing immediately seem easy, which scared me a little bit. The world holds trout in such high regard, yet here I was staring at an endless body of water where one had to search for hours just to see a fish, while mountain fishing clubs can buy trout to stock their section of private water with, knowing they will be there for their clients in the morning. There is no stocking the Keys with bones. Which is why I tipped my guide well. It all seemed impossible.
My other realization was that I have become an okay trout fisherman because I’ve put in the work. You must put in the work. As Wendell Barry says “good work is our salvation and joy.” After getting windblown, cold, and wet, with the same amount of fish netted as babes on my high school bus rides, I stepped off the skiff and back into the reality, still puzzled by the endless ocean.
The reality being that if I wanted to ever catch fish in salt water I’d have to put in the work. Learn the fishery. Understand tides and temperatures, get sunburned, spend the money, and in a sadistic way, practice happiness. I thought back on the many fruitless outings when first taking up trout fishing and how many times I struck out. But also remembering being absolutely happy. Happy to be in beautiful unfamiliar surroundings, watching, and learning. It seems I’d forgotten those days, yet had I reflected on the lessons learned long ago on those beautiful trout streams before my Key West trip, the Fishing Gods may have smiled on me and my willingness to fail, happily.
It must be the last day of our camping trip because my sore fingers are punctuated with pitch black parenthesis of dirt under every nail. The sloshing coolers are a little less heavy than they were four days ago, and my hair has the consistency of a stiffened grimy dish rag. When asked to begin packing up, our offspring complain about not being allowed to stay in camp just one more day. I love that. Yet with sloth-like obedience they roll up sleeping bags and take orders and bicker before we say our heartfelt goodbyes to the forest and our temporary home among nature’s splendor. The events that led up to this serene moment were quite the opposite. There were raised voices, general confusion, and heated arguments about cooler organization. The selection of clothing for three children was a series of outright civil wars which threatened to sabotage the trip altogether. Threats were made. Doubts were had.
Preparation: It has come to my conclusion over two decades of dispersed camping if you are not well researched and confident in your destination, the camping gods will sneer in your stupid face in the form of full campsites, fire bans, or roads that simply do not exist anymore. Therefore, it is imperative that we know exactly where in the millions of acres of national forest we are to end up. In the past, when we were childless and had the luxury of time and fewer little people to drive us crazy, we would literally pull out the map, look at it for a bit and hit the road. We had the luxury of fewer fellow campers back then too. It was nothing for us to leave at noon on a Friday and mosey into the unknown just enjoying the drive. We wouldn’t set up camp until dark, skip dinner, and fall asleep with stomachs topped off with Jim Beam and Coke. (not Diet Coke either) Add complaining children and hundreds of thousands more inhabitants and demanding careers to that equation and being prepared (and leaving much earlier) is all you can do to keep a trip from going straight to hell.
The best kept secret to doing research is Google Maps. You can literally create your own map with endless layers and icons for places you have been, places to try out next, or best place to find good coffee. You can create your own map for literally anything. I’d share mine but then I’d have to kill you. Dispersed camping is a gambling man’s game so zooming into the satellite images following forest service roads squinting for what looks like a fire ring or pull-off is by far the best way to find these little jewels in the vast wilderness when you need to kill a few hours at work. I’ve even added fishing spots, what I caught, and what flies I caught fish on to my maps. Again, I cannot divulge this delicate information for reasons mentioned above. Murder and all that.
One the Road: Leaving the comforts of our urban setting to drive hours into the mountains seeking respite from normalcy and summer heat always feels like the evacuation from Chernobyl. There’s an endless flurry of haphazard organization, checking off mental lists, asking each other if we remembered to feed the cat, and hoping we have everything we need so we don’t have to buy it in some random store on the way to wherever we are going. At least five times I pace quickly out to the garage and upon getting there, totally blank on what it was I came to find. It seems this is a human quality that my oldest daughter and I share. But excitement drives us on, anticipating cool air, clear mountain streams, and long hours with a good book in a lazily swinging hammock.
Once our truck tires struggle against asphalt, tensions rise in those critical first thirty minutes while thousands of other motorists jockey for a safe spot on a squeezed highway winding up grade into the Rocky Mountains. Loaded down 18-wheelers chug loudly in the right lane over towering passes with their red flashing hazards blinking into the rising sun. Finally, a single span bridge at the top of one hill frames the towering Continental Divide in the distance, still speckled with frozen ice and snow left over from last winter’s blizzards. There is a long exhale from both us parents in the front seats and my knuckles regain their color.
Navigation: Finding a road with pull-offs and fire rings doesn’t require GPS, just basic map skills but it helps to have a dependable navigator riding shotgun, especially for me since I get lost in my own neighborhood. This also needs to be the type of person who once at a campy looking area, must have the patience to say, “Let’s keep driving and see what’s up here,” when the driver has had enough and is ready to take the first site they see, just to get the F out of the car. No, to get the kids and the dog out of the car. On nearly every occasion this balance of power has worked out to our benefit. It is worth stopping for a minute to hop out and do a two-minute walk around a site, then drive to the next to see how each one feels, because once settled and set up, it hurts pretty bad to hike up the road to find a site with everything your current site does not have. But taking down a full camp and setting up again is rarely an option. Rarely.
You may exit the ride: From the minute we begin the research to finally settling on a site and putting down tent stakes, the process takes on the feel of a rickety old wooden roller coaster. There are highs and lows, excitements and let downs, strikes and gutters, and the off chance that the wheels rattle off and everything comes crashing to the ground in a ball of flames can feel very real. But once committed, you must find that confidence and let angst and fear ride in the back seat until you feel the chill of that first camp cocktail in hand and camp setup commences, because then and only then, does that anxiety dissipate into the campfire smoke and the ride is over.
What a trip this was going to be! Two new dogs, 5 kids, two rafts, and camping in March. We were going to get this camping season started early in 2019 come hell or high water. The road from Denver to the Utah desert was long and Ned’s (our energetic canine) car legs were shaky from the start. The winding mountain roads were much too much for his young stomach, hence he threw up until he was empty, and followed that up with explosive diarrhea in the back floorboard of the pickup. We went through a package of pee pads and all the paper towels over a few hours of hell on earth. At Glenwood Springs we had to stop to reassess the situation. I was all for tying him to an intersection stop light with a sign that said “Free Dog” but was outvoted.
Our friends were having a rough morning with their hound as well, so the boys swapped cars and the ladies had the pleasure of Ned and his seemingly endless bodily functions. Eventually after many disgusting emergency stops, we made it into the scenic canyon and finally into the town of Moab, UT breathing a sigh of relief. All the campsites along the river were full, being spring break time, so the backup plan was to drive further West and explore another canyon with several first come first serve campsites. We finally came to a good one with tons of open spots and vistas out of a John Wayne movie. Many good meals were prepared over the next couple days and cocktails by the campfire each night reinforced our family friendships.
Day 1 was going to be so fun. We both brought our rafts to float the mighty yet slow-flowing Colorado. The river in the lower 8 miles is flat water with no rapids. We had done part of this float the year before but wanted to make it longer this year. The warm sun was baking the cliffs and our backs and there was not a whisper of a breeze when we put in. Perfect conditions for a leisurely flotilla.
The ladies shuttled the cars while the boys and kids set up the rafts and loaded them up. We disembarked on a fun trip in very chilly spring water with both boats filled to capacity with kids and dogs and coolers. As we turned the first corner in the river, a stiff wind hit us square in the face pushing us back up river like little little paper boats. The only thing to do was to turn our backs to the wind and row against it, for eight grueling miles. The bright warm sky also decided to grey with low warmth blocking clouds adding a remnant of winter to the air. By the time we crawled out of the boats at the ramp, our hands looked like hamburger meat with blisters and blood, and our entire bodies were completely spent. It felt like we had run a marathon, on our hands.
All that idle complaining out of the way, the kids and dogs seemed to enjoy the rafting and we were all ready for a quesadilla at the Quesadilla Mobilla food truck. We walked around town the next couple of days just being tourists, and we visited Arches NP to hike and check out the amazing arches and spires. On the last day, we decided a long hike to Morning Glory Arch.
Without the heat of summer, the hikes were easy, and the cool wind quickened everyone’s pace. Highlighting the trip was a long hike to Delicate Arch which none of us had seen before. There is a reason it is on the Utah license plates. Tucked away from the roads and any views really until you are almost walking up to it, this deceivingly large freestanding wonder would appear enormous in any other landscape, yet in the vastness of the Utah canyons, it feels, well, delicate.
Directions: From Moab coming in from the north, take a right onto N 500W Street. Follow it straight through town to Kane Creek Blvd. and turn right. Follow this road which becomes dirt all the way to the campground. It looks like there is dispersed in the area if you keep on driving. Bring plenty of water if you go in Summer.
After taking three wrong turns on unfamiliar snow-packed roads we found what looked like the road we were hoping would lead us to catching enormous wild trout. You know what that road looks like. There was only one set of tracks in the snow and if we met that other car the drive in reverse down the winding snow-packed single lane road would have been scary as hell. Luckily when I slid the truck into the tiny trailhead parking lot the other guy was walking back to his rig, a sad looking nymph rig in hand. He had Kansas plates, long curly hair, and was definitely a little bit on the stoned side. It was 10 a.m., Black Friday.
Without us asking how the fishing was he was all, “Yeah man, I tried nymphing but the ice flows were just too heavy man.” I was stringing up an ugly black streamer I had tied with bead chain eyes and black marabou and pretty much nothing else. But I’d seen this little fly swim through the current before, and I liked it. Jigging it along an ice shelf should do the trick, if I was lucky. The younger fella pushed his snow board helmet out of the way and broke down his rod saying, “I tried a streamer too, but the ice was just too gnarly. I’m heading up to the Colorado.” We older and wiser gentlemen bid him good luck and wondered why he was leaving when it was finally the time of day winter fishing really heats up.
I had played golf a week before this fishing excursion and the friend I was with asked why I would do such a thing as fish in the dead of winter. Oddly, I hadn’t ever thought about it. It’s just something one does who is dangerously obsessed with anything. Anal retentives are gonna clean, fishermen are gonna fish no matter the season. No judgement passed.
Trudging through snow to a mostly frozen stretch of river is simply beautiful and the kind of quiet only winter can provide. The kind of quiet a person needs to hit that hard to find reset button. Like an old digital watch, it will take some doing to find it, but it’s there, and worth finding. Once the frigid water presses your waders into your legs along with sub-freezing mountain air all that “happy just to be here” shit goes flying out the window.
It starts with the dinner plate sized ice burgs floating bumper to bumper down the narrower than usual river that grab at your fly, and line, and every little wind knot. But then there’s a break and the water mostly clears for some reason and that’s when you realize the upper three or four ferrules on your rod are frozen solid. So you clear them out with your rapidly numbing fingers.
After cleared out, you look down to see your whole eight feet of leader and three feet of tipped resemble on long diamond necklace, and weighs just as much. We having fun yet? The next task between four-letter-words steaming out your mouth is clearing the ice off all this portion of the fishing apparatus. With index finger and thumb nail, you run your pinched fingers down the line spraying ice chips in your already frozen face.
At this point the ice had returned in full force to the water, so I naturally cracked a beer with my two buddies and admired the stillness of this winter scene saying stupid shit like, “better than being at the office,” and “that sun sure feels good.” Stating the obvious is a fly angler’s strongest suit and we can’t seem to help ourselves. “Bet the fishing before this land was settled was amazing.” Oh shut up already and drink your beer!
Catching fish in such a wintery river seems to be achieved in two ways. One is nymphing the usual locations where they should be. They are holding under the ice shelf and patiently wait on something to float by, then pounce. The other location these trout hold is exactly where you wouldn’t expect them to. Up against a bank in very shallow water. Out in the middle of a fast-moving riffle. Or right at your feet. My best luck in catching trout in this tough time of year is to streamer fish to every last hole and piece of slow water in the river. Yet they are seemingly everywhere and nowhere all at once. A good swing, if you can manage it has been my go-to for big fish and it’s a perfect way to get a streamer under an ice shelf.
Swinging streamers does ice up your rig quickly though, but resting the fish while cleaning off the icy mess is probably what they need anyway. These fish are conserving as much energy as possible, so giving them time to forget about you trying to put a hook in their mouth never hurts. And when that magical moment does happen and a trout decides it’s hungry enough to swallow your fly, the fight usually isn’t one for the books since they tend to be a little lethargic, yet it is fishing and you have frozen your ass off and trudged through knee deep snow drifts to get to this point. So hoist it high for that feeling of accomplishment (or photo op), but return it to the water immediately. This time of year, a fish needs to be handled and played to the minimum otherwise they won’t catch their breath.
So get out there and enjoy the quiet, the solitude, and the chill of a beautiful winter river. That reset button is just waiting to be pushed.
Since we hosted the Clear Creek river cleanup in September (A Cleaner Clear), there have been a large amount of folks asking when the next cleanup will be and how they can get involved in the future with others. This makes my heart soar like a hawk. Just to hear that folks are passionate about volunteering for anything is a beautiful thing. Especially when it comes to our environment. So many of us grind away our days in the rat race chasing the almighty dollar, feeding our families, and trying to save up enough for a good bottle of whiskey every three days or so. It’s worth noting there are many folks out there who make the time to put on such events besides myself.
Renowned fly fishing guide, author, and all-around nice guy Landon Mayer was gracious enough to talk to me about the successes he’s had hosting the Clean The Dream event which celebrated their 5th year in 2020. “I’m really proud of what it’s become,” he said about the event which this year alone welcomed 260 volunteers and countless incredible sponsors. This year’s success, mind you, was during COVID 19 and certain uncertainty, and he still crushed it. Check it out on his Instagram or sign up for his newsletter.
He also noted that he’s been to a lot of other states and “Coloradans are so cool about protecting what we have. We are all very proud of our rivers and lakes, and as a whole are dedicated to protecting them.” When asked if he had advice for anyone who wanted to organize a cleanup, his advice was to stick with it. “We started out with 21 volunteers that first year,” following up that you should avoid getting discouraged if at first you don’t get very many volunteers, or sponsors. Just keep promoting the cleanup as much as you can in any way you can. People genuinely want to volunteer. “In the case of rivers and lakes, these bodies of water give us so much, and giving back to something that gives us so much is part of our responsibility, and is my motivation.”
Who thought such a thing could be so rewarding? Well, there are a lot of folks who put forth the effort to organize their fellow Earthlings to get outside and do something tangible like river and highway cleanups. Slapping a sticker on your bumper it seems, just isn’t enough for some folks. If you feel like you are one of these folks, you are in good company. And to tell you the truth, if you have a phone and a little will power, you can organize your own!
Step 1: Find your passion. Is there an area you ride your bike, walk your dog, drive to work, hike, or fish that you visit on a regular basis that you wish was a little less trashy? Make this your focus. Pick a manageable area that a group of volunteers could tackle in a few hours. A Cleaner Clear focused on a mile of river from one bridge to another with 100 volunteers for 3 hours, and it was just about right. I’m not going to do any math here, but use some ratios or something here.
Step 2: Contact the jurisdiction. Find out if your project is owned by the City, County, National Forest, etc. Contact those folks and tell them your plan to organize a cleanup, when it is, and where it will happen. You will be amazed how much they will want to help you. We received prizes and trash bags from Adams County for A Cleaner Clear, and they came by all morning to pick up all the bags and haul them to the dump and to be recycled. It was too easy.
Step 3: Pick a date. I would suggest a Saturday morning or afternoon, or all day depending on your project.
Step 4: Send out an invite in whatever way you want (Evite, Google Forms, etc.) to all your friends and coworkers directly, then post it on social media once a week until everyone gets totally stoked. Be sure and send out the invite well in advance to avoid excuses. Start talking about it several months in advance.
Step 5: Procure swag! Sure people are happy to help clean up disgusting junk on the side of a highway or river, but throw some prizes in there and you will have folks really interested in your project. Why? Because everyone loves winning great prizes. I would suggest calling restaurants, local shops, and other small entities to ask for donations such as gift certificates, product, and anything they would be willing to donate. Explain that you will have a lot of folks at the event and that you are promoting local businesses and you will tag them all over your popular social media feed. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t bat a thousand when making calls and sending emails to businesses. Just move on to the next one and like fishing, you’ll get a bite here and there. If you are excited, they will feel it too and be willing to help you out. We gave out prizes for several different categories such as Strangest Item, Largest Item, Most Reusable Item, Most Plastic Bottles, and Most Inappropriate Item. After that, just give the rest of the prizes away using raffle tickets. Call it a “Drawing” not a raffle, otherwise you have to get a gambling license. Thanks lawyers.
Step 6: Provide refreshments. Landon Mayer, for his Clean the Dream river cleanup provides a full on barbeque lunch every year for 200+ people which is incredible, and donated. If you can secure a donation of food, the easier it will be. Prodigy Coffeehouse donated coffee to A Cleaner Clear this year and we used Thrivent Financial to pay for breakfast burritos and lunch/beverages. They have a sweet program where you can apply for $500 a year to pay for events or items for the event. Look them up.
Step 7: Give clear directions the day of the event. Climb up somewhere high where everyone can hear you once gathered. Tell everyone where they are cleaning up, times for coming back, where to leave trash bags, safety, waivers (if you have them, or if the jurisdiction requires them), etc.
Step 8: Have fun. Walk around and check on everyone. Act super surprised when someone shows you something strange like a bloody mattress or soiled underwear.
Lastly, trust that you can do this on top of your day job. Focus on making a few calls a day to procure donations, and don’t get down if you don’t get a ton of support. Persistence is the key to any great success. And ask for help. Have someone serve lunch, someone else collect waivers, pick up the food, and so on. There will be moments of panic, but in the end, it will all be worth it.
Good luck out there and please shoot me any questions you have regarding anything at all. Love to support your project in any way! – Will
I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Looking the part is half the battle in any activity. But don’t think for a second I’m buying tight grey baseball pants for my old man softball league. My jean shorts are accomplishing both forty-plus style and total abandonment of being cool any more, thank you very much. Fly fishing on the other hand requires looking the part. And the more I’m immersed in the sport, I realize there are some items that really say, “That dude thinks like a fish”. Now don’t go out and buy Brad Pitt’s whole A River Runs Through It outfit, because first, it’s not the 1920s and second, you are definitely no Brad freaking Pitt.
One decoration that will help you look the part though is facial hair. Preferably a glorious coarse flowing beard. Being unshaven portrays you are either a guide or at least could be a guide. Anything over 2″ constitutes a river rat in my books. A shorter scruff and you are just a guy who can’t commit. William Shakespeare’s opinion about beards: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man.”
The other is leathery face skin. I competed against a couple fishermen in the Mile High 25 by Anglers All who had sunglass tans that looked borderline unhealthy. But they beat the crap out of our team. Therefore the look denotes the skill. Women on the other hand are in a class all their own. Add a local fly shop cap to a pair of Simms waders with a couple of braids and you’ve nailed it.
But when on the water, there is one item that really completes the modern day look of a seasoned fly fisherman. One that also tells people that you ain’t here for the little ones either. It’s the Fishpond Nomad Mid-Length Net. Sure, the Nomad Boat Net is longer, but save that one for the boat. If you are anywhere outside of a drift boat, the Boat Net would make you look like you are carrying around a pole vault pole. The Mid-Length Net is perfect. Slide it in the belt of your waders in the crease of your butt, and it sticks up past your head just right so you are ready to net that monster double digit Cutthroat for your fishing partner, your client, or yourself.
Before I had this net gifted to me at Cottonwood Camp at Montana’s famed Bighorn River, I was carrying around a cute little wooden landing net. One time before I had my Nomad Net, I hooked into a carp that was longer than my arm and I fought her all the way to the bank three times only to awkwardly try to net the thing with my baby net. Each time I tried to scoop her up she would flop and blast back into my backing for another fifteen minutes of wearing us both out. Finally I had to just net her massive fish head and I sort of shoveled her muscular flopping body onto shore. Real professional I tell ya. Norman McClean would not have approved.
So in summary of yet another wordy gear review, if you have a net that isn’t a Fishpond net, you are probably going around looking like a hack. Get one here or at just about any fly shop in the USA.