Paul Adams – A grand slam

Looking downstream towards the gorge

Wildlife, of course, is scarce in these conditions. A small herd of elk crossed the trail earlier, scratching through snow to reveal only sparse sage and grasses, too little to give them pause. There’s will be a long, tough winter – most of the elk and deer migrated to lower elevations many weeks ago. A lone coyote is silhouetted on a ridgeline a quarter mile in the distance, choosing the wind-blown or crusted snow that will support his weight

It is mid-January in Colorado, and I am settled into an extended break from fishing. I could travel to find fishable water – perhaps a trip to England for some piking if the travel restrictions weren’t so onerous – but I enjoy the different opportunities afforded by winter. Fly boxes have been restocked and organized, and order returned to my fishing vest. A couple dozen of the simplest nymphs and emerger patterns have been tied, at a pace that values my talents well below the statutory minimum wage. My typical pile of reading material is turning over faster courtesy of cold, dark evenings. Winter recreation in the mountains inevitably involves snow, with Nordic skiing being my chosen exercise. For this I must provide my own propulsion, and the equivalent level of exertion can be varied between a gentle walk and a strenuous run.

Today I skied four miles up Brush Creek valley. In summer this is a 4-wheel drive road, but now it is buried under feet of snow. My course starts along a broad, flat valley bottom; ranching country, where hardy Black Angus cows are sustained through winter on hay, and only shelter indoors during the worst of storms. An hour after the sun first hit the valley this morning, their backs still glisten white with overnight frost. From there the valley climbs and narrows, becoming a steep and deep gorge after a couple of miles. The trail is uphill overall, but dips to cross the stream in one place and hugs precariously to the side of the gorge, the aptly named Death Pass. The course of the stream is obvious, but with winter’s heavy snow accumulating in the bottom, water can only be seen and heard in short sections of rapids. After ninety minutes of modest exertion, I ski through a small grove of aspens and the valley abruptly opens into a rough, natural meadow, my turn-around point for today.

Wildlife, of course, is scarce in these conditions. A small herd of elk crossed the trail earlier, scratching through snow to reveal only sparse sage and grasses, too little to give them pause. There’s will be a long, tough winter – most of the elk and deer migrated to lower elevations many weeks ago. A lone coyote is silhouetted on a ridgeline a quarter mile in the distance, choosing the wind-blown or crusted snow that will support his weight. A handful of crows and magpies, in twos and threes, are typically vocal as they investigate this latest intrusion.

Bush Creek on a typical winter day

It is a typical winter day, with blue skies in the valley and only a whisper of cloud topping the distant peaks and ridges. The thermometer reads -6 degrees Celsius as I set-out, but in this high, thin air the risk to guard against is sunburn rather than frostbite. During my round-trip, I exchange greetings with half a dozen other skiers, plus a couple of dogs and owners close to the parking area. For long periods the only sound is the rough glide of skis over frosted snow and the flexing of ski poles under load with each alternate step. An occasional gust of wind skims a layer of granulated snow and ice crystals – a soft, pouring sound reminiscent of sugar into a bowl.

The meadow in winter

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In summer, this same valley is busier with jeeps, ATV’s, motorbikes and mountain bikes. Busier, but hardly busy. On a typical day I might expect a vehicle or two every ten minutes. Not a tranquil wilderness, but a bold, beautiful landscape any time of the year. As this is only a few miles from home, it is very familiar country for me, visited on foot or bike when skis aren’t required.  Although the scenery and exercise are my usual priority, it is my habit – perhaps now a ritual – to fish Brush Creek once or twice a year in late summer or autumn. No earlier, as the snow leaves muddy trails in spring, and as snow melts at progressively higher elevations it keeps the water high and coloured well into July. By September the stream conditions are ideal, and I am reminded that I have only another month – two at most – before winter will return.

The upper meadow that I visited today is where I fish each summer. I could drive my pick-up truck to within 100 feet, but it’s a rough stretch of “road” and instead I always walk the final mile. Again, I traversed Death Pass and, without snow covering the stream, the gorge rings to the sound of cascading water. White foam glistens for the few hours that the sun is high enough to pierce the bottom. The gorge is fishable, but this would involve a serious commitment with no safe exit for a mile. I always choose the easier option further upstream.

The angle of the hillside eases to signal an abrupt top to the gorge. Here the scramble from the trail to the stream, with a rod and net, is only undignified rather than dangerous. Ahead is half a mile of meadow, but twice that distance of meandering water. The stream is typically 10-20 feet across and knee deep in these low summer flows, but with deeper bends and holes of three or four feet.

The dominant vegetation is willow bushes – in places it is an impenetrable cover well above head height, but in summer the deer, elk and beaver graze actively and open up access to the stream. At the top of the meadow, Brush Creek branches into the East and Middle Brush tributaries, and both revert to steeper and tighter terrain. With snow cover for half of the year, the growing season is short. By September, the lush greens of summer have already softened to the muted reds, orange and browns of autumn.

The beavers were busy last year. Several dams raised the water level immediately behind by two feet or more, enough in this shallow valley bottom to impound water to a width of 200 yards in places – a rich and varied habit that offers both opportunities and challenges for the angler.

Last summers busy beaver activity

The setting alone rewards any fishing trip, but the main attraction of Brush Creek is that this short stretch can be relied upon to yield three species of trout – browns, brooks, and cutthroats. Browns are the most common, or at least succumb most readily, with brook and cutthroats vying for second spot. Each bend or flat holds primarily one species, in a pattern that defies any obvious explanation. Befitting the tough conditions and short season, the typical fish is small, 6-8 inches. I usually fish the whole meadow – a relaxed three or four-hour effort – and can expect to catch all three varieties. Perhaps 18-20 fish unhooked, more than that missed to fast strikes or acrobatic leaps as small fish clear the water and throw the barbless hook. But each strike carries the hope of something bigger, with all three trout occasionally reaching a foot or more, 14-inches being the biggest I have unhooked.

For Brush Creek I forgo my usual choice of cane rod. The hike in, scramble down to the stream, scaling of dams, and pushing through willows are a gauntlet of opportunity for a broken rod tip. Instead I use a carbon rod where any damage would carry less fiscal and emotional cost. If the wind is light, I fish a 1-weight rod, often it’s only outing of the year. More toy than tool perhaps, and my more usual 4- or 5-weight would be no less successful, but there is a novelty and satisfaction to this unfamiliar action, and a wild, 12-inch trout puts a bend in the rod to satisfy this fisherman’s vanity.  

For flies, it is my usual quill-bodied parachute olives. These are hungry and unselective fish, more likely to be spooked by a clumsy angler than injudicious fly selection. It is rare that there is more than a sporadic hatch to match, so I’ll vary flies between shades of brown and grey, sizes 14, 16 or 18, chosen for little more than my mood. On a successful afternoon, the fly sees enough attention to be well-shredded and replaced once or twice. A “worn out” dry fly is a most gratifying souvenir, retired and hooked to a shirt pocket with a rare pride.

A worn out fly

This September afternoon held a surprise. Local wisdom holds that rainbow trout populate the gorge, the inaccessible, rougher water. If so, one would expect some to visit the more relaxed water of the meadow section, but in a dozen or more visits I had never caught one.  Until today, when the third or fourth cast in the first pool above the gorge, was hit hard by a rainbow – a lithe, silver 10-incher.

The beautiful brook trout – one of four possible trout to catch

At the very start of my fishing afternoon, not only had a theory been validated, but the rare prospect of catching four varieties of Colorado trout now looked inevitable. The local angling “grand slam” – to use an American sporting metaphor – and bragging rights in local fishing circles.  For the next three hours I caught the typical bag of brown and cutthroat trout; but no brookie. I spooked a shoal, and at least one departed acrobatically mid-stream, but no honest catch. Defeat beckoned from the jaws of victory. Finally, in the last 100 yards of meadow, amongst a tangle of fallen trees and braided water, salvation. As small a fish as could feasibly eat a #16 fly, all of five inches, but the unmistakable mottled body, pale spots and golden belly of a wild brook trout.

The relief was far greater than the occasion should warrant. I waded rather than fished that final few yards before scrabbling back up to the trail. A 30-minute walk back to the truck in sodden shoes and trousers, with scratched forearms and a hint of sunburn. Perfect.

Writing & Images – Paul Adams, Colorado Mountains, Winter 2022