Paul Adams offers a rather different ‘Opening Day’ from way up in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains

June 16th. I should be settled beside a channel on the Kent marshes, in the company of two fellow Piscators, watching bubbles around a quill float.’

Instead, I am five thousand miles away at home in the Colorado mountains. For a second consecutive year, the annual ritual of opening week on the rivers of Kent and Sussex has fallen victim to COVID and the associated restrictions. There has been no opportunity for me to fish in England for over a year, but on this date it takes on an added poignancy.

Bordering Pike National Forest and Lost Creek Wilderness

My cabin in the mountains is primitive but comfortable. The magic is its location. Turn right out of the door, and 100 yards across a meadow is a freestone stream, home to hardy trout. Alternatively, turn left and within half a mile you have crossed our private property, Pikes National Forest, and entered Lost Park Wilderness. These official US public land designations are well named. For the ambitious, a five-mile walk will ascend three thousand feet to rock peaks and ridges above tree-line.

Tarryall Creek

It is a rare day for me that doesn’t start with a walk. Today is no exception. I follow no set route or established path. Briefly I may share a game trail, but otherwise I’ll improvise a meandering loop that will circle back to the cabin in a couple of hours.    

Leaving the valley floor and heading north-east through the National Forest and Wilderness is my staple. The climb is steady rather than steep. Springs and occasional storm flows have cut ravines into the main grade down to the valley floor, so I can choose from several ridgelines or greener bottoms. The latter hold more wildlife, but that includes mosquitos this time of year, so instead I choose a ridgeline.

Today starts unseasonably warm in the Rocky Mountains, five or six degrees centigrade. The dew that settled overnight burns off within minutes of the sun clearing the hills to the east. To the south are light clouds, low to the horizon, but otherwise the sky is unbroken blue, the typical clear, dry air of the mountains.

The distant peaks will spawn ugly thunderclouds later in the heat of the afternoon, but the valley is usually spared. This is arid country. The soil is sparse, dominated by eroded granite from the adjacent peaks. Grasses are short and intermittent, offering no obstruction to the gaudy pinks and orange of flowering penstemon and paintbrushes. More discrete are the mountain ball cactus, varying in size from a thumbnail to a fist and choosing only the sunniest aspects. Pines and firs on the ridges are well spaced and often stunted. Only on north-facing slopes do they assume the dense cover and shaded canopy of a typical lowland forest. Occasional, skeletal pines-some little more than stumps-stand as charred relics, victims of lightning strikes.The deeper soils and more reliable moisture in the ravines support a denser and deciduous mix of aspens, hazel and shrub willows.

Victim of a lightning strike

Birds are constant company. Rarely exotic, but always welcome. Flocks of mountain chickadees; sparrow-like, in constant chatter and motion even at this early hour; gray jays nicknamed ‘camp robbers’ where human activity provides their easiest meal, but here they must forage high in trees.

A hairy woodpecker-black and white, one of the more discrete members of this family-works high in a tree which has succumbed to age or the elements. Rapid-fire tapping followed by a pause to inspect its handiwork. A piercing, monotone call snaps my attention skyward to a lone red-tailed hawk, circling on the first, weak thermals of the day. More accustomed to seeing these birds in pairs, I expect the partner is on the large, untidy nest that I saw high in a nearby grove of aspen trees this past month before they budded into leaf.

The common large mammals of the Rocky Mountains are mule deer and elk. Bulls will at times be solitary or in pairs, but more typically both species move in herds of mixed age and sex numbering ten to twenty, sometimes coalescing into a hundred or more.

Common they may be, but elk and deer roam widely across this expansive terrain and make full use of the cover provided by topography and vegetation. They arrive quietly, ghost-like, onto the valley bottom right before or shortly after nightfall. By first light they have usually retreated back to higher ground and their chosen cover.

They are a regular sighting on my morning walk, but never something to count on. No surprise or disappointment that I see none today, especially in June when both species are calving, and attentive mothers rely on the deepest cover to protect their young in these vulnerable first days. Something was moving among the aspens in a ravine below me today, probably deer, but I saw no need to disturb them further.

The looping return to the cabin continues in the same, uneventful vein. It is t-shirt warm now, and the descent takes any exertion out of the final mile. Today’s walk has one final surprise, though again it is modest. One of nature’s quiet pleasures rather than big thrills. In the short grass is an elk antler, a natural “shed” dropped in January or February after it served its war-like purpose in last year’s rut.

Fresh elk “shed” 

Not one of the largest-those of six or seven “points” and three or more feet in length-which delight interior designers. Five points; a natural brown, so a recent shed rather than the white of those left undiscovered to bleach in the sun. Not worthy of a spot above the cabin fireplace, but cut into six-inch sections, it will be enthusiastically received by several dogs that I know.

The flora and fauna that thrive here are hardy and opportunistic. They must endure a short growing season, brutal winters and violent storms. Today, this early summer morning, we were all granted a reprieve.

Not yet mid-morning, I relax with a coffee outside the cabin, and the wonders of modern technology provide me with updates from England. There too it has been warm; the tench have proven stubbornly elusive. A visit to the pub was assessed to be the most productive use for the hottest part of the afternoon. Confidence is high for the evening session. Here, the stream is running fast and high with spring snow melt, not conditions that I typically fish. But the level is falling, the color starting to clear. The angry channels are edged by slacker pools behind boulders or fallen trees. The trout are surely hungry after a long, icy winter and ahead of the abundance of summer. Perhaps, here, as in England, there will be an evening session, even if motivated by hope rather than high expectation.

All Writing & Images Paul Adams, Colorado Summer 2021