By Sam Larson
James had turned 31 so we decided to go fishing. What else was there to do, really, at the dawn of another decade? From the foothills up over Loveland Pass and then onward through Leadville we pushed the leading edge of the weekend’s traffic. Our pre-dawn start meant we had the highway to ourselves, but behind us we could feel the tide of people, and dogs, and cars, hot, hissing rubber on highway asphalt. Linger too long at home or swing through the Downeyville Starbucks and you’ll get trapped in it, surrounded on all sides by family roadtrippers, dodging swaying camper trailers that persist in kissing the white line but don’t quite come over into your lane. We spent the first stretch of the drive in silence, like usual. The dark had the faintest tinge of morning with the sun just touching the rocks at the top of the I-70 corridor. We’ll each have a cup of cooling gas station coffee in the dashboard cup holders and maybe we’ll have the radio on, or not. Things broke loose sometime after the Eisenhower Tunnel, once we’d made the fast drop past Silverthorne and turned off at Copper Mountain, headed up Highway 91 to Leadville and beyond. By then we could taste the day. We started thinking about favorite bends, or the scope of the day, trying to force the future into an acceptable mold for our hopes. What we think of as a “good day”. Nuggets of fishing wisdom passed between us.
“Likely start with a hopper-dropper. Can’t go wrong with that around this time of year. Tan Chubby Chernobyl, maybe a Pheasant Tail off the back.” If you’re speaking then you’ve just said something important, something that others need to hear, something that you’ve gleaned from your experience and knowledge. If you’re listening then you’d likely just nod, accepting the wisdom as offered. These are stale sayings, nothings, words to pass the time because we know that whatever the water is when we get there, we’ll fish it. The first conversations before rigging up are a spell, something to conjure up a best-case scenario. We want dry fly fishing. We’d accept swinging wets. We’ll nymph if that’s what the day offers, but we won’t go home and brag about it.
Memories start to rise through the conversation as well. The fish that broke James off last year. “Remember the time you fell on your ass while trying to scramble down that bridge footing?” I shipped water into my waders but didn’t break the rod, small blessings when the trash talk from my buddies hurt worse than my skinned knees.
At the top of Highway 91 the molybdenum mine loomed large, stark towers and squared off buildings below the terraced side of a mountain. Colorado has a gold rush mining history, yellow piles of tailings slowly fading into the trees above Idaho Springs and the crumbling remains of 19th century mills, but big mines like this are shocking. Busy men and women could piloting steel-handed machines have knocked the top off a mountain and we see the products of their rummaging around inside. Come up here, or the mine at Jones Pass above Empire, and it’s clear what someone can actually do given time and engineers, tractors, and dynamite.
After the mine the drive into Leadville sped past. There were lakes, and more mountains, a surplus of mountains in fact. Even for a pair of Colorado natives the scope and scale of the Rockies can be intimidating. Below us now, ninety minutes behind us at highway speeds, the Front Range stood safe and stolid, the same low peaks and Flatirons we saw everyday. Up there, at the top of the Rockies, the peaks were fresh, and sharp, and strange, crisp against a too-blue sky. Treeline sat directly overhead, a mere handspan above the horizon as seen from the driver’s seat of my car. The headwaters of the Arkansas threaded back and forth alongside the road. There are cutts there and we’ve fished for them, feeling silly while pulling four-inch fish from tiny pocket water. But they’re cutts all the same and thus something to be seen and experienced. The big browns of the Arkansas can’t make it up there, it’s either too cold or too skinny. It’s all for the best, we decided. There are spots for big fish and spots for little fish, and this is a spot for little fish.
At the Safeway in the center of Leadville the lone cashier sipped coffee behind the register and stared at us and a few others, all clearly day-tripping, all clearly not local, all clearly off to do something other than work all day. I’ve never lived in a mountain town, only been a regular visitor, but in the boredom and the short, early morning attitude of the locals I can sense a resigned frustration pointed squarely at the million and one yahoos who raced through their town every weekend. We collected our double handful of sandwiches, Gatorade, chips, and trail mix and mumbled thanks to the cashier as we headed back to the car. There was breakfast and lunch, roadside snacks, and fuel for the ride home. We never buy enough. Fishing trips like this end with a silent car, hungry and tired riders, and a day’s worth of trout chasing v-shaped wakes through our minds, or rising to slash at foam hoppers and caddis. We loaded our haul into the cooler, snacked on a handful of GORP, and got back on the road. The Arkansas River was close, minutes outside of town for the higher stretches, and it rolled, riffled, and tumbled down through Buena Vista and Salida, and even further on ito Pueblo. We’d stop at the first turn-out, or the second, and see where the river took us.