‘Overnight lows of minus thirty degrees are common, levels at which the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit becomes irrelevant. This valley is spared most of the forty or fifty feet of snow which will fall on the surrounding peaks, but not spared the winds which quickly sear an exposed face or hands.’
Reading this edition of the Piscatorial Raconteurs when it is published in mid-December, many will be hoping for one final outing to a river or lake before surrendering to the demands of the holiday season. Unfortunately, there will be no such opportunity on Tarryall Creek in the Rocky Mountains. You can fish for trout all year in Colorado if you wish; ice-free water can be found in tailwaters below dams and in faster sections of streams descending the lower flanks of the Rockies, but Tarryall Creek is frozen.
Seasons change quickly and dramatically in the mountains; indeed, some years it feels as though spring or autumn are skipped entirely. My last fishing was at the end of October. The water had a chilling bite to it. Neoprene waders had replaced the quick-dry trousers of a month earlier. I fished a favourite small blue winged olive pattern until the last occasional natural was a fading memory, then made the dramatic change to a simple streamer pattern for the final couple of outings. The same modest sized brown trout succumbed intermittently to either deception, proof enough that this most noble of quarry stoops readily to cannibalism. For me, there is a peace to this fishing, the frantic pace and abundance of summer now long past. Fishable water is limited at these low flows, and each cast is savored. These memories must tide me over through the coming six months.
My companions in nature do not have the luxury of such peace – for them, urgency is unavoidable. The familiar formations of geese fly high overhead, the power of their wing beats audible at the ground. The last migratory songbirds have left, leaving just their few, hardier year-round friends. Beavers have turned their attention from feeding and family obligations to the building and reinforcement of dams. Deeper water is critical to ensure that the bottom remains ice-free through the winter so that they can access their food stashes on the river bed.
The brown trout spawned in October, another distraction for my final outings with a rod. Lighter patches of streambed signal where silt was cleared. For several weeks a line of suitors is arranged behind the hens as they prepare to lay their eggs onto the clean gravel. If my clumsy presence disturbs and scatters the mature trout, their place is immediately, if only temporarily, assumed by three and four inch juveniles. The boldness and opportunism of youth.
By early November, ice starts encroaching from the river banks as the nights lengthen and overnight temperatures fall far below freezing. By early morning the usually clear water has assumed a cloudy opalescence with the flowing water carrying ice in suspension. Rocks just a few inches below the surface have lost their definition. Initially, sunny days will reverse this, but as the month progresses the ice becomes permanent and expanding. In the slack water behind the dams, ice cover is thin but already complete. Elsewhere, the open channel narrows and by the turn of the year, with only a few, narrow exceptions, ice is solid from bank to bank.
Through January and February, the ice continues to thicken to a foot or more, insulating the remaining flow and deeper holes. The hard, sharp ice transmits and amplifies the sound of flowing water below, welcome reassurance that fish and eggs can survive until spring. For three or four months the river serves as a convenient pathway, far easier to navigate than the adjoining willows where snow drifts will accumulate.” Each morning the surface frost or snow carries the clear and distinctive tracks of deer, coyotes, rabbits, and an occasional mountain lion.
“Brutal” is not used lightly to describe winter high in the Rocky Mountains. Overnight lows of minus thirty degrees are common, levels at which the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit becomes irrelevant. This valley is spared most of the forty or fifty feet of snow which will fall on the surrounding peaks, but not spared the winds which quickly sear an exposed face or hands. For thousands of years, our ancestors were strictly seasonal visitors to this valley. Native Americans – latterly the Ute Indian tribe – enjoyed the rich big game hunting in summer before migrating lower for the winter. The US acquired the land west of the Mississippi in 1803, and westward expansion from the founding eastern colonies began immediately. Even then, visits by explorers and trappers to this region were rare and dictated by the weather. The change to a year-round population can be dated precisely to 1859 and the discovery of gold in the adjoining mountains and gulches. Mining work was wholly impossible for six months of the year, but a prevailing lawlessness demanded that physical occupancy be maintained. The land I now fish was first settled in 1867. Having failed to strike it rich in both the California and Colorado gold rushes of 1849 and 1859, William Farnum, with his wife and four children, settled for farming the Tarryall valley instead. The original cabin is long gone, but the graves of two sons overlook the creek, dead at 17 and 28 years old.
Sheltered in a rudimentary log cabin at best, winter was then strictly a matter of survival, and though modern conveniences have eased the burden considerably, survival remains a fitting sentiment in January each year. Then, as now, it will be mid-March or later before Tarryall Creek signals with groans and occasional sharp cracks the impending break-up of the ice cover.
Writing & Images Paul Adams – Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, Winter 2021