BREATHLESS IN THE ROCKIES
CONCRETE TO DIRT AND MOSSY ROCKS
Fishing in the Rockies is an unforgettable experience.
NICK HALLE—TROUT UNLIMITED—WEBSITE PHOTOS
he burning in my legs hadn’t gone anywhere. They still felt like two concrete weights hanging off my torso.
My head reeled and spun as if it were going to float off like a neglected balloon at a fair. Even when we weren’t climbing, my heart still pounded in my ears.
When my friend Charlie had invited me to come visit him in Colorado for the long weekend, the prospect of ruby-cheeked cutthroat and high mountain peaks was the only thing I could think of. Much to my detriment, I hadn’t thought once about the altitude.
I shook the last few drops out water of my Nalgene bottle down my throat and, in between labored breaths, asked something along the lines of “How much farther?” to Charlie and our two other friends.
They laughed and took some pictures of me slumped against the steep slope above the trail, offering some words of “encouragement.” I guess they’d accidentally left their sympathy in the truck.
Despite the disappearance of the valley floor, the brick-colored rocky summits of the Elk Range still towered far above us, visible through the gaps in the canopy of Aspen trees. Checking the altimeter on his watch, Charlie comforted me by informing me that we were at 10,000 feet.
“That about a quarter of the way up the mountain,” he said, failing to stifle his snickering.
As I spend much of my free time hiking and fishing the mountains of Virginia and Western Maryland, I had thought my time searching for cutthroat in the Elk Range wouldn’t be a herculean task. As it so happens, my confidence was misplaced — the Rockies would leave me breathless, in every sense of the word.
Living in Washington, D.C., I spend a lot more time walking on concrete sidewalks than dirt trails. But thankfully, I’m fortunate to have the beautiful forested peaks of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains — and the tumbling brook trout streams that run down their slopes — a mere two hours’ drive away.
Between Shenandoah National Park and the Washington & Jefferson National Forest, most of these mountains sit on public lands, making this natural playground accessible to anyone willing to put some miles and mud on their boots.
Every time I sit on a mossy boulder overlooking a gin-clear pool shaded by the endless hardwood trees that cover the mountainside, I’m reminded just how lucky we are to have these lands as my birthright.
Public lands are a uniquely American idea and have defined this country’s sporting tradition in stark contrast to other countries. Here, public lands ensure that the great landscapes of this country are accessible to all, regardless of their race, creed or economic status.
They aren’t hard on the eyes either.
So, when Charlie called me and pitched the idea of three days of hiking, fishing and camping in the Maroon Bells Wilderness – one of Colorado’s most spectacular public areas – I wasn’t exactly a hard sell.
As we drove up the road to the trailhead along a willow-choked creek that screamed “wild trout heaven,” the end of the valley came into view. From here on, there was only one way to go – up.
We parked the truck and, after a brief argument about who forgot the cooler and beers (Note: I strongly deny any and all allegations that this was my responsibility), we set out past the wilderness area boundary marker and headed up the winding switchbacks of the trail, weaving our way through the endless pillars of a massive aspen grove perched upon the steep slopes.
When at last we crested the final rise, our arrival heralded by the screeching of Pika scurrying among the talus piles above the trail, the little blue dot that we had looked at on the map silenced all of us.
Cradled beneath the barren peaks of the Elk Range, the electric blue waters of the lake stood placid save for the dimples of cruising cutthroat plucking spinners from the film.
We sat on a small bluff and ate our lunch of cliff bars and salami, watching the unhurried foraging of the lake’s residents, postulating about what the best way to entice them would be.
Then we pieced together our rods and went to work, struggling mightily to prevent our excitement from negating our efforts at stealth.
After a few fly changes and a muttered curse word or two, we finally brought a fish to hand. As we snapped a few photos, a father and his two children — all toting their fly rods in their backpacks—reached the shore of the lake right beside us.
The saucer-eyed look on the faces of the two young anglers as they watched the fish slip home brought a wry smile to their father’s face, and he and I exchanged a knowing glance.
As much as we wanted to stay longer, we eventually had pack up our gear and prepare for our long descent back to the truck. On our way around the edge of the lake to the trail, we passed our new friends and wished them good luck. The father thanked us, but the two young anglers were silent, focusing their attention on the still waters of the lake, intently scanning the cyan water for a glimpse of pepper-spotted flanks and rosy cheeks.
Nick Halle is Trout Unlimited's volunteer operations coordinator. He is based out of TU's headquarters in Arlington, Va.