There is still warmth in the afternoon sun. It will be another hour before it dips below the ridge to the west. I sit on the grass bank, feet resting in an inch of water.
It is mid-September in the Colorado mountains. Another warm, sunny day, but a couple of recent mornings saw a ground frost. Local rancher’s race to cut, dry, and bale the hay that will tide their cattle through the coming winter. Afternoon rain showers are a rancher’s nemesis. On the valley floor, the ground cover and willows have assumed a spectrum of autumnal yellows and reds.
Rancher’s race to cut, dry & bale
The aspen groves are mostly still green but have lost their summer luster, and individual leaves are yellowing. Peak fall colors – a popular tourist attraction – are forecast for only ten days away. The south facing slopes – always dry and sparsely covered – are bleached grey after weeks of sun. Migratory birds are conditioned to these signs and those that haven’t yet headed south are gathering in flocks to prepare for that ordeal.
The signs of winter’s approach are unavoidable, but my focus today is on the last warmth of summer. Flows in Tarryall Creek have declined steadily since early June and are now painfully low, the bed exposed as a bony skeleton. Water temperatures are elevated, but the colder nights have started the decline which will culminate in ice two months from now.
Small fish in the shallows spook easily and alert their bigger, hidden cousins to my intrusion. Insect activity peaked some weeks ago – hatches are now patchy and the olives small. The trout are well fed, at least by mountain standards, and cautious. To catch regularly I must resort to size 20 hooks and fine, quill-bodied flies. These are a pleasure to hold, but an optical challenge to knot on the tippet and to follow in moving water.
For two mid-afternoon hours on the creek I fish sparingly, focusing on the shallow, faster riffles. Even more so than usual, most of my time is spent on observation and reflection. My reward is half a dozen fish unhooked, and as many again were missed or escaped from the small, barbless hook. The usual Tarryall fare – four brown trout between seven and twelve inches. They are at their prettiest as spawning time approaches, a deeper, golden yellow, very fitting for autumn.
The two rainbows are stocked fish that have migrated down from an upscale fishing lodge a mile upstream. Often dull, flabby, and lethargic, today’s two have had several months – perhaps a year- to harden and wise up to life in the wild. The largest, a pleasing 14 inches, was holding in clear, slacker water. Twice it rose to inspect and reject my blue-winged olive quill. With no confidence that a third cast would change the outcome, I added the smallest twitch to the fly and that overcame the rainbow’s caution. A #20 fly lodged in the edge of the upper lip made the fish look bigger than it measured.
There was more water I could have fished, but I was content. A final, modest brown rose where I had hoped at the lip of a drop-off. It fought beyond its weight and was unhooked without leaving the water. A defiant flick of the tail splashed my glasses as I lent to release it. Hopefully not, but if the weather and my travel commitments conspire otherwise, this might be my last trout of the year. If so, it is a fitting finale.
There is still warmth in the afternoon sun. It will be another hour before it dips below the ridge to the west. I sit on the grass bank, feet resting in an inch of water. On the opposite bank, beavers continue to add to their pile of willow sticks during the evening and overnight hours. Some distance below the nearest dam, the stripped, white sticks identify this as being a feeding rather than construction site. A familiar, short cry alerts me to a red-tailed hawk above, two of them in fact. They glide apart on thermals for two or three hundred yards, then accelerate down to meet and execute graceful, choreographed rolls around each other, nearly entangling their talons. This can serve no purpose other than play, which makes the spectacle all the more enjoyable to watch.
I turn my head to follow the pair as their game moves slowly to the south. Focused still on the red-tails, I glance to see a different bird fly into a shrubby water birch 30 yards away, set back from the creek. A little unusual, but I think nothing of it at that moment. Minutes later I start a slow walk back to the cabin. Feet from the birch, a bird explodes from the long grass, brushes the lowest branches and flies low and fast across the adjacent meadow. The angle of the bank denies me more than a brief glimpse, a couple of seconds at most. The size of a kestrel – either the European or American variety – but darker on the back and with a barred tail. A small dark object, almost certainly a bird, held firm in its talons. Later I will consult the guidebooks: I could offer a confident identification but must honestly instead settle for it being a merlin, or more likely a sharp-shinned hawk based on the latter being much more common.
That final brown trout, the two hawks playing, and another hunting successfully. A magical few minutes, and with only a short walk back to the cabin, I can relive it over a beer in the last of the afternoon’s sun.
Writing & Images Paul Adams, Colorado, Fall 2021