Like most teenagers, I had a number of posters up in my room. Along with Michael Jordan soaring towards a slam dunk and the Nirvana smiley-face, I had one from Sage fly rods. In lighting conditions that emulated sepia tones, an angler stood on the banks of a winding river. The water wove through a meadow as massive mountain peaks rose up in the background. Lying in bed at night, imagining myself in that scene was just as fantastical as being able to dunk a basketball.
Living in the east, accessing big, remote, wild water is the exception. There are rivers that meet two, or even all three of those qualifiers, but they are a precious few. Out west, the list of rivers that fit this bill is endless. At least that is the way it can seem to a young man used to mountain creeks and slow, warm water rivers.
It wasn’t a big destination trip that finally took me out west. My then-girlfriend’s, soon to be fiancé’s (now wife’s) family lives in Greeley, Colorado. They saw the aforementioned progression coming into focus, so off we went so I could visit the hinterland.
And I was given permission to bring a fly rod.
We spent a few days up in Estes Park. The picturesque village of Estes sits on the eponymously named lake (an impoundment of the Big Thompson River), and is surrounded by the summits of the Rocky Mountain National Park. To the west lies the Continental Divide, with countless valleys, ridges, and meadows in between. Creeks of various sizes crisscross the landscape. Some tumble quickly down steep mountainsides, creating fast-moving plunge pools. Others slowly meander through the grassy fields, splitting and rejoining themselves in a complex braided stream system.
Fishing the headwaters of the Big Thompson in the Moraine meadow was last minute, thrown together, and a little bit hurried. This wasn’t a fishing trip, after all. And although the river wasn’t big, wild, and remote like my Sage poster had built all western water in my mind up to be, it was very memorable.
An angler takes in the entirety of the experience, either deliberately or subconsciously, every time he or she steps into nature. The first time in a foreign environment, those observations can range from novel to distracting. Ragged crags and elk herds are new sights for an eastern fly fisherman. But, it only takes one dimple on the creek’s surface to rapidly snap the attention and focus back to the central purpose of being outside.
Trout are trout. The distinctions between brook, brown, rainbow, cutthroat, and any other species or strains really are minimized in small creeks. Opportunistic fish rise to dries and big fish chase streamers. Flies are flies. The buggier, the better for these fish – in both dries and in streamers. Time on foreign streams, in the meadows or canyons, begins to homogenize with experiences back home. In a good way. The dissimilarity is there when contemplated, but the casts and strikes don’t always allow for measured contemplation. Afterwards is when the sweeping grandeur of the vista, the same-but-different scratches from streamside vegetation, and nuances of the fight with the fish crystalize.
That first day I think I exclusively caught brook trout. How ironic is that? This nonnative (some would say invasive) char also blended and synced my first western fishing experience with what I knew from home.
Fly fishing somewhere new isn’t about doing something new, it is really more about experiencing the broader spectrum of the passion that we have for nature and our quarry. The poster in our room, the pictures on social media, and the presentations at angling shows aren’t selling a new product. They are unfolding pages of the map that lay just outside of our personal borders. To us, those waters are essentially uncharted territory. Instead of a compass and sextant, our fly rod and box of flies take us where we need to go. And for every one of us that fish, there are always more places that need to be mapped.