By Diana Rupp
The low clip-clop of horses’ hooves and the creak of saddle leather were the only sounds as our small mounted expedition—consisting of two anglers, a guide, and packhorse carrying food and fishing gear—made its way up a narrow trail, the tall blue peaks of the Flattops Wilderness looming against the cloud-studded sky. We had been chatting excitedly as we left the ranch buildings behind and began our climb into the national forest, peppering our guide, Eric, with questions about the day’s adventure. Now, though, we had all lapsed into silence, each of us immersed in the beauty of the early morning and the promise of the day ahead.
What could be better than a fishing adventure in the wilderness backcountry? I couldn’t think of anything as I guided my sure-footed bay horse, Rebel, along the trail. Ahead of me was the broad rear end of the patient pack horse, led by Eric on his big gray, Smokey, and behind me rode my friend Chantelle on a palomino named Magic. On either side of us were magnificent fields of colorful wildflowers—monk’s hood, sego lilies, columbine, and alpine wallflower. A couple of chunky, white-specked spruce grouse ran ahead of us on the trail, ducking into cover. Summer was at its zenith in western Colorado, but low, dark clouds on the horizon were a reminder that the high country was not a place to venture unprepared, even at this time of year. We all had rain gear rolled up and tied behind our saddles, and a fleece jacket was tucked into my saddlebags alongside my water bottle.
Our destination was a small creek that was filled, Eric told us, with hungry cutthroat trout that rarely saw a fly. After about an hour and a half of riding, he turned off the trail and we followed him down a brushy slope that led to a deep canyon. When it got too steep for the horses, Eric called a halt and we dismounted and tied our four-legged transports to a couple of junipers that clung to the side hill. He unloaded the pack horse and I transferred my wading boots and fishing gear to my pack, and with cased fly rods in hand, we slipped and slid our way down into the canyon. We could hear rushing water below. At the bottom, the small high-country creek sparkled invitingly, and Chantelle and I quickly donned our neoprene socks and wading boots. Eric said the trout here weren’t picky—“Any big dry fly should do it”–so I tied on a large hopper pattern and waded into the creek. This far from civilization, we had the water all to ourselves.
The creek was a series of alternating holes and riffles. Thick brush on both sides made the fishing challenging, but Eric knew the stream well and guided us down the banks to places where we could wade in. The technique was to stand in the middle of a shallow riffle and make a long roll-cast to land a fly in the deeper pool upstream. On my very first cast, a trout rose immediately, and in my surprise I set the hook too quickly and missed it. On my second cast, the fish engulfed my fly as soon as it hit the surface, and this time I was ready, raising the rod tip and enjoying a fast fight with the feisty fish. I netted the trout, a brightly colored wild cutthroat, and quickly returned it to the water. A few minutes later, on the next hole downstream, Chantelle landed one that was nearly the twin of mine. We were in business!
After an hour or so of fishing we were famished, so Eric fired up a camp stove that had been carried in by the pack horse. He heated up a batch of tasty homemade chorizo, which we folded into soft tortillas and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. We ate our lunch sitting on rocks on the streambank and soaking up the sun. Rejuvenated, we continued fishing, catching several more beautiful cutthroats and an occasional wild brookie, and missing and losing several more. As Eric had told us, the fish were not picky and would take just about any dry fly that landed gently above their heads—but they were quick learners, and if you missed a strike more than once, the game was up, and you’d have to move on to the next hole.
All too soon, it was late afternoon and time to head back, so we broke down our rods and tackled the steep climb out of the canyon to make our way back to the horses, who were drowsing on their lead ropes. By now it was late afternoon, and the storm foretold by the dark clouds we had seen early that morning was moving in. Chantelle and I donned our rain gear as Eric re-loaded the pack horse and thunder rumbled ominously. We rode back up to the trail in a light but steady rain as lightning flashed around the peaks in the distance, the horses looking ahead alertly and picking up the pace.
Fortunately, the center of the storm passed to the west of us, and when we were about halfway back to the ranch, the rain slackened and then stopped, and the sky began to clear. From our vantage point high on the ridge, we could see where the stream we had been fishing poured its clear water into a lake far below us. As we rode closer, a double rainbow arced gracefully above the glimmering blue water. We reined in our horses to pause and take pictures. It was a perfect end to a memorable wilderness fishing adventure.