Featured Photo: Native Colors

Featured Photo: Native Colors

Friday, December 30, 2022

Colorado 2022 Day One: The Devil's Backbone and Keyhole

Our first full day in Colorado came earlier than expected. Since we had pushed so hard on the drive out and arrived ahead of schedule, we had more flexibility than we had anticipated. This proved to be a good thing on many levels. 

First and perhaps most importantly, we were able to sleep in as much as you can with a baby in tow. Next, we were not rushed with our grocery trip. Usually, I am getting to a grocery late in the afternoon and in a big rush to get on to my camping spot before dark. This time, we were able to take our time and make sure we had all the necessities for the next few days of camping. Of course, we also had groceries close to our first camping spot, but the prices in Estes Park would be MUCH higher than those in Loveland. It was in our best interest to get as much as possible before heading into the mountains. Finally, extra flexibility meant that we were going to be able to hang out with a good friend of my wife's for more than just a quick bite to eat. 

The night before, I had studied maps of the area and tried to think of a place I hadn't hiked but wanted to. The Devil's Backbone came to mind rather quickly and plans were set for lunch and then a hike. Leah's friend Wiz showed up around lunch. Panera was a treat since we knew that we would be eating camp food for the next couple of weeks for the most part. Afterwards, we drove out to the Devil's Backbone Open Space just outside of town. The heat was oppressive, so we made sure to put up the sunshade for the baby and take plenty of water. While longer hikes are possible, we decided to simply hike up and see the Keyhole on the Wild Loop trail. This would allow us to see the main geologic feature up close and get us back to the safety of the AC in the car sooner rather than later. 

This was the perfect warmup hike for Leah and me. We needed to acclimate quickly because of the big plans we had for the next day or two hiking wise. Already in decent shape, this hike was more of a short walk/stroll except for the heat. A couple of quick miles makes this perfect for people without much time or for those who don't want anything big. Here are a few of the highlights from the first half of the hike shot quickly on my cellphone. 

Yellow wildflowers along the Wild Loop trail at Devil's Backbone

Cumulus clouds float above the Devil's Backbone

Wide open spaces on the Wild Basin loop trail at Devil's Backbone Open Space

The Devil's Backbone begins to come into better view

Wildflowers along the Wild Basin Loop Trail at Devil's Backbone

Finally, the trail wound up into the shadow of the Devil's Backbone itself as the trail approached the Keyhole. This is a neat window through the Devil's Backbone that overlooks the next valley beyond. The shade was a welcome respite from the heat. The baby was fast asleep for her midday nap at this point. Those were the days when we could put her in the kid carrier and expect her to fall asleep quickly. 

The Keyhole at Devil's Backbone near Loveland Colorado

After relaxing and visiting in the shade for a bit, it was time to head back to the car. We made good time and the baby started waking up right as we got back. Of course, she was anxious to get down and explore, so we let her stretch her legs before the drive up to Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park for our first night of camping. 

On the drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park, we would have the first in a series of unfortunate but memorable incidents on this trip. That is a story for another day, however. 

Prominent Devil's Backbone rising above Loveland Colorado

Monday, December 26, 2022

Western Adventures For 2022

This year, my family and I made it back out west after a year off. In that time, we added a new family member which would make this trip both richer and also more challenging. That also had a lot to do with why we missed a year. In case you forgot, the last time we were out west was for our epic trip to Glacier National Park for a TON of hiking and northern Idaho for my quest for a bull trout. Those stories encompass some of my all time favorite adventures, so we had high hopes for this next installment of our western adventures. 

The first challenge of traveling cross country with a one year old was how to keep her entertained and also not lose our minds with her fussing. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to break out one of my favorite traditions, driving late at night cross country. This is something I've been doing ever since I started traveling out west and have done many times since. On some of the trips, it was a most of the night type drive, with a couple of hours spent in a rest area. Occasionally I would even drive straight through the night without stopping. For this trip, our plan was to just take advantage of the first hours of the night. We figured the little one would fall asleep shortly after sunset and give us some uninterrupted driving hours. The goal was to find a hotel somewhere around St. Louis.

Well, like most well laid plans, things went awry. The baby slept beautifully which made our traveling much more pleasant. We stopped for supper around sunset at a rest area in southern Illinois along I-24 just north of Paducah, KY. A quick picnic included some time for the little one to run around and burn a little energy. After that, she went to sleep easily enough. 

By the time we were approaching St. Louis, it was getting late enough that we were ready to stop and get some good rest for a hard drive the next day. My wife started checking for hotel accommodations online. My first inkling that we were in trouble came when I asked her what she was finding and her reply was a looooong time in coming. Apparently there aren't enough hotel rooms in the St. Louis area, or maybe there was a big event going on that we didn't know about. Either way, there were no rooms to be had. 

As I was starting to get a little tired already, I told my wife that I wouldn't make it that far. She thought that she might be able to drive farther, so we just kept moving. By the time she took over in the middle of Missouri, I was shot. With some instructions on where to go, I crawled into the back seat with the baby and tried to get some shut eye. 

There are a few things I remember from that night, including some confusion on the Kansas turnpike that ended with us having to drive through a toll booth because we didn't have the right ticket to pay our toll. That required some "fixing" later on, but it eventually was taken care of without any penalties. In between the catnaps, I also remember lightning and some heavy thunderstorms that we managed to mostly dodge in between. When Leah finally pulled into a rest area in central Kansas around 3 or 4 am, I was still shot and she was getting pretty tired. We both slept as well as you can in a car that is overloaded with little wiggle room, but I was feeling much better when the sun started to come up around 6 am. 

We hit the road into a bright day with endless possibilities and soon had our first fun experience with the baby. With COVID and a general preference for eating at home, we hadn't had her in a restaurant yet. That changed at the Junction City, Kansas Cracker Barrel. She thought it was great having someone else bring us our food and we were glad to eat after a long night. We were in for a treat as well. Cracker Barrel is not typically known for being vegetarian friendly. As vegetarians, we have learned to work around that. Now, they are at least making some token steps towards accommodating other dietary preferences. We enjoyed the Impossible Sausage (plant based imitation sausage) with our hash browns and scrambled eggs. Thanks to Cracker Barrel for offering that!

After breakfast, we headed out feeling content and wide awake thankfully. The hilly part of Kansas soon gave way to the wide open plains. I always enjoy driving across the plains. The big views are a tremendous part of the appeal. I don't know if I would enjoy living there long term or not, but even the consistently strong wind is enjoyable at least in short bursts.

Wide Open Spaces in Kansas

The rest of Kansas flew by. The 75 mph speed limits out west are fantastic. As someone who enjoys speed, it is nice to be able to roll around 80 mph without constantly looking over my shoulder for the local tax collectors. We stopped for lunch in Colby, KS at the Oasis Travel Center. They had an amazing playground that was perfect for little bit to run around and play. While I normally don't like taking 45 minutes out of my day that could have gotten me much farther down the road, she needed to run around, and it was all worth it to watch her have fun. 


Not long after that lunch stop, we crossed the line into Colorado. Our first camping reservation wasn't until the following day, so we needed to figure out a plan. This time, we didn't wait until the last minute, having learned that lesson the hard way our first night on the road. With a hotel reserved in Loveland, Colorado, we kept rolling into the late afternoon and right up to a Red Robin in Loveland. Little bit had gone from never having eaten out to doing it three times in one day! Each time was better than the last. She got a kick out of having food brought to us ready to eat and liked the French fries way too much. 

The last adventure for the evening was watching her experience a hotel room for the first time. She loved everything about it, including jumping up and down on the bed. She's small enough now that we can get away with that. 

Not much more than 24 hours after leaving Tennessee, we were in Colorado and ready for the adventures to begin. Since we drove through the night instead of stopping as planned, we had freed up an additional day. Leah had a good friend who recently moved to Denver, so we made plans to hang out with her and hike the next day. We watched the last of the twilight fade over the Front Range, and then went to bed. Exhausted but glad to be a little ahead in our itinerary. We were excited to start hiking, camping, fishing, and otherwise adventuring...

Twilight over Loveland Colorado

Friday, December 23, 2022

Lucky Buckeyes

Luck. Some people have it. The rest of us try to obtain it. Some through fancy rituals, others by mere chance. Most anglers I know will tell you they aren't superstitious. I know I'm not. But I also know that once a hat loses its luck, mojo, charm, whatever you want to call it, I switch it out for a new one. On some days, I'll pick up a lucky buckeye from along the stream and throw it in my pocket for good luck. Just in case, you know. 

As a guide, I see all kinds of luck and skill on a daily basis. There was the one guy who was fishing the Smokies with me for the first time and caught a twenty two inch brown trout within the first few hours. At the time, he immediately tied me for fish over twenty inches caught in the Park. I've since gone on to break that number several times over. At the time, however, I only had one to my name. That goes to show you how uncommon those big ones are. 

Another time, a lady who wasn't very experienced was fishing in the front of the boat while her significant other was in the back. At one point, she turned around in the casting brace and was having a full blown conversation with us while her flies and strike indicator dangled under the rod tip in front of the boat. Not only did she hook a twenty inch rainbow trout that way, she also somehow managed to land the fish. Most experienced anglers would have blown that fight. 

Then there was the time that a friend/client brought a new guy on the boat. The new guy proceeded to catch two huge brown trout in addition to big numbers and lots of big rainbow trout. The largest brown put him in the running for the Trout Zone Anglers guide trip Fish of the Year. It held up through the rest of the year also. He has since become a good friend and regular client as he keeps trying to recapture the magic from that first lucky trip. 

Of course, most anglers are like me and have at least as much heartbreak as they do luck. One of my favorite heartbreak stories happened along the Gunnison River below Blue Mesa Reservoir. My buddy Trevor and I were on a long camping and fishing trip. This was in my college years and we were on one of many grand adventures I had back then. We had stopped there because of the rumor that large trout were sometimes present just below the dam. After an hour or two of fishing with just a couple average trout to show for our efforts, we were ready to head out. 

As we walked back up the trail, two cute college age girls came down walking the other direction. As young guys who hadn't seen a good looking girl in a couple of weeks, we both were more than intrigued at these lovelies out in the middle of nowhere Colorado, but the brief encounter was forgotten when I spotted a huge rainbow trout just a few yards further up the trail. Looking down the hill to the water, I was certain this was the largest rainbow trout I had ever seen. At least, it was the largest one that I could get to. Anyway, I informed Trevor that I was going to romp down that bank and catch said fish. "Yeah, okay..." was his reply.

Hooking the fish turned out to be rather easy, but I hadn't accounted for what would happen next. When you're hooked up with 15+ pounds of trout on 5x, you're along for the ride. This is the moment you need a healthy dose of luck. Some skill definitely won't hurt, but you need more than skill at these moments. The rest of the experience was mostly a blur. I do remember jumping from rock to rock, running downstream at breakneck speeds trying to stay with that fish. I also remember watching the backing feeding off my Orvis Battenkill reel while it screamed in protest. Seeing my backing on a fish was a new phenomenon at the time. 

What I really remember, however, was screaming at the top of my lungs incoherently in a high shrill voice while I chased the behemoth. Right as the line went limp, I looked up and sitting on a bench above me were the two cute girls watching the screaming idiot spectacle. Trevor was just grinning like the cat that ate the canary. I could only hang my head in shame and head back up the trail, this time making a beeline for the car without looking further for more giant trout.

With background stories like that, you can't blame me for looking for the lucky edge. Thus, once a hat starts to look ragged and a streak of bad luck rears its ugly head, the hat usually gets the blame. With a new hat on my head, my luck usually turns. Occasionally, other items get blamed for bad luck, however. 

There was the one time that I was fishing with my wife where I lost two or three really nice brown trout. I started thinking it had to do with the rods. I won't mention which ones, as I have others by the same manufacturer that I love and don't want to throw anyone under the bus. However, I was convinced that the rod tip was getting too much vibration while playing the fish and allowing the hook to work loose. Needless to say, I quit using that rod. Funny thing is, I've lost plenty of other fish over the years on different rods. Clearly, the operator has at least a little responsibility, but as an angler, you always look for something else to explain things away. At the same time, you continue searching for that little edge.

Some people try avoiding certain things that are presumed to bring bad luck. For example, if you've been fly fishing any length of time, you probably know that a banana in the boat is bad luck. Some guides are so serious about this that they question their clients at the beginning of the day to make sure no one has a banana. Of course, then there was that time that my good friend Gary caught a monster brown trout on the Caney. After the required pictures were completed, we sat a few minutes to calm back down. What did Gary do? Pull out a banana, of course, and proceeded to eat it as part of his victory celebration. Seriously.


Other people aren't looking to remove bad luck as much as bring good luck. For many anglers, that comes down to the never ending search for a magic bullet fly. As a fly tier and designer, I continually tweak my patterns, trying to find the perfect combination of ingredients that fish cannot resist. A few flies have come close some of the time but never all of the time. Other things, like new fishing hats, are probably mostly desperate grasping at straws, but I still maintain that a lucky buckeye is always worth having in your pocket. 

I've shown these to many friends and clients over the years with varying levels of acceptance. Some people quickly go searching for their own lucky buckeye. Just in case, you know. Others chuckle, but are probably secretly thinking I'm crazy. Then there are the ones that throw you off a little. 

One of my favorite times was with a husband/wife set of clients/friends that were fishing with me in the Smokies. We were walking alongside the road to a secret stream access point I knew about. I was feeling good about the location choice, I figured we would find some good success. As a guide, however, I was still looking for any additional edge we could find. 

You can only imagine my delight when I spied a lucky buckeye laying practically at me feet. Here was the perfect good luck charm that we could carry with us for a while, then return to the woods when we were done fishing. I picked it up and started explaining the significance of my find. The husband and wife nodded seriously and he almost reverently took it from me to examine this mysterious hunk of good fortune. His wife was also intrigued, and being the kind and devoted husband he was, he decided to give her the good luck for the day. He carefully handed the treasure to her. She looked at it carefully, and appeared to appreciate its significance. We walked a few feet, when out of nowhere, she chucked it off into an impossible tangle of rhododendron while her husband, and I both nearly wept at the loss. 

To this day, that is one of our favorite stories that must be recounted anytime we fish together. Oh, and we did find a few fish that day. However, each time we missed a fish, or didn't get a bite from a particularly juicy spot, we lamented the lost buckeye. By the end of the trip, I think all of us were ready to go crawling through the rhododendron to find it. 

So, what do you do for good luck when fishing?