By Sam Larson
When I pull into a parking spot, when I finally see the stretch of river that speaks to me, I tend to lose my calm. The tailgate opens, my gear tumbles out, and I’m lost in trying to do three things at once, to get my waders on, pack my gear, and string my rod. For a few minutes I bounce back and forth before I get so far into getting ready that I start to trip on my waders, or my line gets wrapped around the tangle of gear lying on the ground, and I force myself to pick one task, any task, and just finish it. Get my waders and boots on, to start, pack empty Rubbermaid tubs back into the car. String up my rod and then get it out of the way, off to one side against a tree. James is calmer, usually more collected, more deliberate in his path to readiness.
I possess a hopelessly zero-sum perspective to outdoor activities. If I’m doing something, then I’m clearly not doing something else. Time is finite, and my weekends are limited. So why wait? If I’ve made the choice to sink this Saturday into fishing, have driven all the way up above Leadville and gotten here before 8AM, why would I wait? The last time I fished the South Platte near Deckers there was a group of older anglers, all long-time friends from the sound of their conversation, who parked close to each other and set up an 8x8 pop-up and camp chairs on the side of the road. One or two of them would wander off and fish for a bit while the others stayed and talked, lounged in their waders and made sandwiches. The ones who were fishing would get replaced by another couple friends when the first few wrapped up their rods and headed back to the cars for a sit in the shade. Maybe later in life when I’ve reached that pinnacle of angling zen, when I know that I can catch any damn fish whenever I want and that another 20 minutes on the river just doesn’t matter but time with friends really does. Maybe then. For now I’ll hop around a gravel pull out one-footed in my waders while trying to eat a sandwich and run line through the guides of my fly rod.
The Ark up high is a different beast than the Ark down below Salida. Nearer to Leadville it’s a picture-perfect meadow stream, a wide, smooth river that curves back and forth across the valley bottom. Things are just getting started up here. The deep, fast sections below, the Brown Canyon above Hecla Junction, Tiger Lily, and so on, those are far away. Up here the river is mannerly and playful. It could be in Montana or your backyard, with riffles, mid-stream stones, and the bar mountain peaks cutting above treeline on all sides.
Of course the first thing I did was fall in. While James walked upstream above the bridge by the pullout, I scrambled down the bank to fish the long eddies behind the bridge supports. What looked like riverbed gravel had a thick coating of slime on it and, something like ten seconds after I got into the water, I followed through with a Three Stooges-style windmilling pratfall and hit the ground. I managed to keep my rod out of the water and didn’t drag the tip or break anything, but my elbow and knees took a beating and, judging by what I could feel while walking back towards that shore after my fall, I had a few cups of water slopping around in my waders. After I walked off the pain from the fall I settled into catching fish. The Ark always has brown trout, though sometimes they’re harder to catch than others. This morning, early, and with no one else around, they rose lazily to skated caddis. They weren’t hard strikes, but not sips either, just a business-like taking of food. As we both neared a dozen fish apiece James and I began to run into other anglers, stepping out of the river to walk up and around stretches of river already lined with people casting. At first it was just a few other people but as the day got on the walks got longer and longer, ending with a memorable half-mile along a frontage road where we simply couldn’t find a place to get a line in. The only likely spot had a thick screen of brush in front of it that, once I fought through it, hid a trio of anglers and a guide, none of whom were pleased at my abrupt and crunching entrance to the river.
The Ark is a big river, it stretches from Leadville all the way down to Pueblo, and it seems that you should always be able to find a spot to fish but not that afternoon. We left the water without anger or a sense of triumph. It was a good day, with a dozen and a half browns in the net apiece, that could have gone on for a bit longer if we’d felt like battling the crowds or walking more than fishing.
The crowds left me to ponder when the thing you’re doing is more important than the way you’re doing it. Spooking a pool for another angler never feels good. And seeing every likely spot for a quarter mile ornamented with another angler is a defeating experience to say the least. Were there trout on every stretch of the Arkansas, lingering beneath overhanging willows and cutbanks? Likely, though I saw less and less of them as the day went on and I’m not sure if anyone else did much better in the afternoon. In the face of pressured water you could hike for miles, but it wouldn’t change the fact that, even if you’re catching fish, you’re still doing it in a crowd of people. We called it quits, figuring this particular birthday had been celebrated appropriately. There is always another year, or another river, and the trout will still be here the next time I haul myself out of bed and make the drive to the Ark for early morning rising trout.