Ruffie's Adventure with Tony S - Rocky Mountains and Beyond

I feel like I had Ruffie so long this report needs a foreward...

The goal the Ruffie and I had in mind for most of our trips was to fish as much as possible in my favorite style: backcountry fishing (and to catch the biggest variety species possible, or course). Backcountry is a term applied to many outdoor activities with a variable definition. In backcountry medicine we define it as more than 1 hour from definitive care. For fishing I usually regard it was anything that is off the beaten path and difficult or time consuming to access. These areas are rarely fished and offer often unique opportunities. They could be accessed by any means but the use of motorized vehicles means that the distance traveled typically must be greater to achieve a backcountry experience.

Because of the range and extensiveness of the trips Ruffie and I took, I've broken it down into four installments.

 

Part 1 - Beginning the Drift Into Insanity

When Ruffie arrived in the Midwest we broke him in easy. My dad and I portaged him in to a remote northern Wisconsin lake on an overnight trip to peg a couple easy fish...


Ruffie reluctantly posing with a Bigmouth Green Carp


Ruffie scoping out his dinner


Dad's "guide shot" needs a little work...

For Ruffie's second Midwestern canoe adventure, my wife and I took him down a stretch of one of my favorite midwestern rivers. Paddling over one sandy hole we floated right above Queen-Name herself. I won't hazard a guess to her size but I thought Ruffie might leave me for her right then...

No sturgeon happened to come to hand though the usual suspects were in no short supply:


Ruffie with one of many feisty Goldens


Ruffie with the ever present Smallmouth Bass


Ruffie swimming with a Silver we had sight fished together


Ruffie with a ninja guard Shorthead that protected a nice River from a drifting worm


Ruffie giving it a try himself

On the last Midwestern backcountry trip, Ruffie and I took a bigger group - my wife, sister-in-law, and frequent fishing buddy Tom all hit my other favorite Midwestern River. Storms shut down our pork shoulder smoking but Tom and I still fished as much as we could. Conditions were tough but we pulled in at least two of my favorite Midwestern river dwellers:


Ruffie and I with a Mooneye


Ruffie with a Channel Cat

Then we headed for Colo-braska, just in time to spend some weekends in the Colorado proper high country...

 

Part 2 - New Heights of Insanity

 

When people think of Colorado, they usually think of rocky peaks, small streams flowing cold and quick, alpine lakes, skiing, trout, stands of Aspen and Lodgepole, and bugling Elk. That part of Colorado is what I like to call "Colorado Proper," loosely between Denver and Glenwood Springs the state lives up to the image it so often portrays.

So it was natural that Ruffie and I would make a couple trips to Colorado's high country to experience this aspect of the state, take in the mountain air, and catch some Cutthroat Trout.

On these trips we traveled by foot, packing as lightly as possible. By packing light we could access waters that most anglers ignore, a big deal in an area so highly populated - neither I nor Ruffie wanted to wait in line to be ignored by over-pressured Front Range trout.

"...not all who wander are lost..."

Our first trip into the high country was... a bust (fishing wise). We bit off more than we could chew in the time alloted and didn't even wet a line. Of course, it was decent altitude training for both of us...

For our second trip Ruffie, my wife and I went to a remote section of Rocky Mountain National Park. Anglers and hikers rarely come here and even the equestrians often do not make it to the lake where the trail ends.

We began our hike at approximately 8,000' above sea level, the trail climbed to 10,500' over the course of 9 miles before fading into the lake.

The conditions were... not the best for late August...

When we reached the lake by early afternoon as planned, we were greeted with a nice rainy-sleety mix, gusting winds, overcast skies, and a major temperature drop. These are cold waters, the best trout fishing is usually on sunny afternoons in these alpine lakes.

I worked my way around the inlet area and finally connected with a small female Cutthroat and proceeded to take mostly worthless pictures of Ruffie with her...

Seeing that this was not our day we headed up to the cirque above to check out the view.

After watching the weather Anne and I decided that it would be best to descend back to our camp about 2 miles back down the trail, Ruffie didn't have any objections...

Ruffie and I stopped and worked a couple holes in the creek that that flows from the lake on the way back to the camp. We ended up landing 4 invasive Brook Trout in the quickly fading light. We figured that with Colorado's liberal limit of 14 brookies we could invite all 4 over for dinner...


Ruffie with the first of several Brookies, fat with eggs like two of the others we caught

We landed a male Cutthroat in the stream too, but again had serious technical difficulties with pictures...

Back at camp Ruffie fired up the alcohol stove so we could boil some noodles.

While I cleaned the brookies, my wife started up the campfire.

Ruffie tended to the cooking while we took care of a few things around camp.

A couple weeks later we made second trip to another lake that sees little traffic, dead set on getting a worthwhile picture of a Cutthroat. I wanted a better one for my lifelist and Ruffie figured he should get a good shot too.

The distance from trailhead to the lake is about half of the previous trip but the vertical gain is about the same...

I suspect the steepness might have something to do with the lake being less popular than others in "The Park."

We took a little side hike up from the inlet and found waterfalls were abundant in the steep ravine above the lake


Ruffie taking in the waterfall at the inlet


Another set of falls farther uphill from the lake


Ruffie and the view from a cirque at nearly 12,000'

Back down at the lake, we started working our way around the inlet casting blind. The conditions were about prime but we didn't see any fish. We suspected that it had something to do with the low flows entering the lake, so we moved around to the side of the lake catching a moderate incoming breeze.

Standing on a large boulder on the waters edge Ruffie and I looked for signs of life...

Then we saw him, a dandy male Cutthroat specimen (especially at nearly 11,000') cruising slowly, maybe 4' down over deep water.

I lifted the 2WT and shot the #10 woolly worm into the path of the Cutty. The fly sank slowly and the Cutthroat stopped in his tracks, suddenly he shot forward and inhaled the fly.

A brief but spirited battle on ultra-ultra-light tackle and we brought the Cutty to hand. Luckily the camera crew was handy...


I didn't measure him but surely a new PB for Cutthroat for me (I'd guess 15")


OK - things just seemed to go against getting a good shot with Ruffie and Cutty but this works...

Ruffie did see an abundance of Colorado wildlife on this trip as well:


Bighorns hanging out on steep slopes above the lake


A Ptarmigan on the trail back out


A bull Elk and his harem on the drive back out of The Park

Having checked out the classic Colorado experience, Ruffie and I were eager to check out the high desert, the extreme western slope, Uta-rado...

 

 Part 3- Insanity on the Basement Floor

 

 

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"

As roughfishers most of us flirt with insanity frequently. This goes double when chasing the more rare, poorly understood, or just plain fickle species.

Ruffie and I knew that in our Colorado adventures that we would need to visit Uta-rado, the high desert. There we would fish the fabled upper basin of the Colorado River, the last stronghold of many native species.

While the lower basin suffered a great loss with the disappearance of the delta, the upper basin remains held together by string and duct tape. The obvious issue of de-watering has made the upper basin the focal point of the native fish recoveries. By the time you reach river's end (long before the ocean) every last drop is used up. It has been well over a decade since the Colorado reached the Gulf of California and about eighty years since the last steady flow finished the journey.

"The last place a western state wants water is in a river."

Those interested in maintaining the native species of the Colorado River realized that the best odds were in the upper basin, where water must travel from the mountains to quench a thirsty desert populace downstream. De-watering will not likely be problem there.

Of course, the native fish still have many challenges. They have still lost most of their habitat. They still are rebounding from near extinction. In fact, the Bonytail is still considered "functionally extinct," surviving mostly on hatchery stocking. And there is the issue of exotic species. Northern Pike, Black Bass, and Channel Catfish round out the top three public enemies of the natives. Some reaches of the upper basin still have populations that are 95% exotic. I believe most of the best stretches are up to a population that is about 25% native.

This was insanity.

"Targeting" natives (except Cutthroat and Mountain Whitefish) is illegal on the West Slope. Of course, bottom rigging crawlers isn't illegal. To incidentally catch (and release) a native would still be against the odds.

What might we chance into?

We did some research. Many lists state 14 species native to the upper basin but it is likely 12 in actuality. Here is the list:

Coldwater Species
1. Cutthroat Trout
2. Mountain Whitefish
3. Mountain Sucker

Warmwater Species
4. Flannelmouth Sucker
5. Bluehead Sucker
6. Razorback Sucker
7. Roundtail Chub
8. Humpback Chub
9. Bonytail Chub
10. Colorado Pikeminnow

Micro Species
11. Mottled Sculpin
12. Speckled Dace

Of the remaining two "species" that are often counted, one is a subspecies of the Dace and the other, the Paute Sculpin, has a taxonomy that seems checkered at best.

"...that is about where the trout stop and the ugly fish take over."

Our first trip to the western waters was planned. My wife, Ruffie and I were to paddle into a canyon deep in the high desert. Here the river's tremendous waters have carved canyons down to the basement floor of the state of Colorado. The deep bedrock exposed by flooding waters that historically could have reached 400,000 CFS. Now flood waters are lucky to break 30,000 CFS.

On this late season float the waters ambled along at 3,500 CFS.

The sun beat down on us. Would one gallon of water per person per day be enough? We paddled on towards our destination. A canyon that would take us a half day of solid paddling to reach. Here, we knew, we would find one of the last strongholds of the Humpback Chub. Maybe we would catch one mixed in with Channel Catfish?

We ran several rapids, each more imposing than the last. I will admit that none were severe enough (at these flows) to be of a serious worry. Other than looking imposing they were pretty easy to negotiate. I will admit to being nervous at first. The difficult rapids in the midwest are often rock gardens with relatively small water. This stretch had few rocks (not that one could see in the sediment laden waters) but many imposing standing waves. Once in the rapids they proved very enjoyable, if a touch wet...

Finally the clay heavy waters deposited us in the canyon. It was much deeper than the rest of the river, but still narrow enough to cast across, guarded by white water, and filled with steep walls, bizarre whirlpools, and many more boulders than the rest of that stretch of the river.

No surprise that the first fish on the line was an invasive species...


Ruffie with a Yellow Bullhead

With the unlimited regulations on exotics in this stretch of river we invited the bully to dinner...

We found some more dinner guests in the abundance of these invasive fishes:


Ruffie with public enemy #1, the Channel Catfish

Then near dusk it happened. We were fishing a deep pool with moderate current. Just after landing a Channel Cat there was a rap on the other rod. Sweeping to hook the fish it was obvious it wasn't very big...

But it wasn't a Cat either

Being a juvenile and out of such deep and murky water, the ID was a little foggy. I took a bunch of quick pictures and released the fish.

I had my suspensions, but later a second fish and a lip ID shot would confirm the identity of that fish...

This one was an adult specimen...

The Flannelmouth Sucker. In many waters the most successful remaining native to the upper basin, in others completely extripated. Not common hardly anywhere and in decline but they are still holding off the endangered list.

As darkness fell the bite tapered off and a hatch of white Mayflies took to the air.

Unfortunately, the next day we would need to paddle out. Nothing worth mentioning would be caught the second day, though we would witness a morning hatch of jet black mayflies.

Excited by our previous trip, Ruffie and I looked into accessing the canyon again. Paddling, by far the best way to access the canyon, was out as my Wife wasn't coming on this trip.

With some research we realized we could access it by land. While not ideal, it could be done. So a plan was hatched and soon after acted upon.

We parked the car on the plateau...

Mountain biked as far across the countryside as we could...

Once that became impossible, we switched to foot travel through a side canyon...

Once in the main stem canyon we hiked up stream to the area we had fished previously. We spent most of the time with at least one line in the fast water. Often very deep water or white water. At times we tried fishing the second line in the eddies, side channels, backwaters, or tight to mid-stream boulders.

Near dusk we watched another white Mayfly hatch, and a River Otter patrolling the shallows.

We lost count of the Channel Cats landed...

Then we hooked something different, the fight reminded us of a small mooneye...


Ruffie with a young adult Roundtail Chub

Ruffie noted that this chub looked quite different than the Roundtails Hengelaar had caught in Arizona (I had shown him the pictures). Of course, Hengelaar's are likely a separate sub-species. Also this was a young adult individual, those Hengelaar caught were likely very old as the Gila species can be quite long lived.

After dark we would nab another:

Eventually the bite died and Ruffie and I turned in for the night.

The next day we hiked out but gave a short session to fish a likely looking side channel before leaving.

Only one fish would show, coming off a boulder created current break:

A much more respectable Roundtail. A downright nice sized one for the upper basin. The Roundtail has a wider distribution than the Flannelmouth but otherwise their stories are similar. Both species are in decline, doing much better in some places than others, and totally extirpated in some reaches but still they hold on better than many of the natives.

Hard pressed to expect a better finish to our trip together we headed back to Colo-braksa. We said our until-we-meet-agains and Ruffie left to go visit Pat_The_Nat on the east side...

 

 Part 4 - Miscellaneous Debris

 

 

This is the story of the trips that we took that do not fit anywhere else. All are day trips and little side projects but still deserve an honourable mention.

Ruffie arrived in Wisconsin in mid-July. He had just missed an epic trip to one of Minnesota's premier backcountry destinations the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Sadly the fishing was not the exciting part of the trip... To top it off, after the trip Ruffie and I were stranded without a vehicle. We would end up being stuck until the beginning of August.


Ruffie wasn't happy about this news but he didn't mind the local fare...

Our first side project would come in early August after an overnighter on a Midwestern river. We had planned to smoke a pork shoulder while fishing some fast, hard-bottomed runs but an electrical storm rolled in and pushed us out early. So back at the home base Ruffie, Tom, and I rigged up the horseradish tube smoker...

Ruffie approved.

Not long later we met up with Avidfly for some night fishing. The plan was for some Gar chasing but Ruffie and I got there early and pegged off a couple small species before Avid arrived:


Ruffie with a Greeny


Ruffie with the mythical Orangespotted Sunfish...

It started getting dark so we met up with Avid at a different spot, we watched another thunderstorm roll by but it stayed far enough way for comfort. No gar would find their way onto a line tonight, it was dead quiet. We did land a few of these guys though:


Ruffie with a Sauger

All too quickly our last day of Midwestern fishing was upon us. It was somewhere in the ballpark of 1 million degrees and the humidity was just shy of 132%... So of course Ruffie, Tom, and I hit the river...

Early in the morning we caught some of these guys:


Ruffie with a Yellow Perch


Ruffie with the first of 40,000 identical Freshwater Drum

As the temperature rose we switched spots and the bite slowed. Ruffie hung out with some barley pops in the cooler the rest of thel day, said something about the weather not being fit for man nor sturgeon.

A few fish still came out to play:


The author with a respectable Golden Redhorse


Tom with a lifer Silver Redhorse

Then Ruffie and I headed to Colo-braska, my wife to follow shortly after...

Ruffie took the change in scenery kind of hard...

One day shortly after that my wife and I took Ruffie to the highest point in Colorado (the second highest in the contiguous United States). At 14,440' I suspect no sturgeon has made it so high before, though the slacker didn't hike any of it.

Itching for something Ruffie could relate to, we hit a Front Range stream in search of a Longnose Sucker. Bouncing nymphs along bottom in the deep holes produced nothing but this guy:


Ruffie with an "exotic, low down, Longnose Sucker eating" Brown Trout

Seeing our fishing buddy crush some Rainbow Trout, we figured we'd give in and do some upstream dry fly fishing. Don't worry I did not inhale, and neither did Ruffie...


Ruffie drop-kicking an exotic Bow-bow

When I told Ruffie that we had a big trip coming up where it would help to have a rod for handling heavier sinkers, he volunteered to help right away.

Fortunately, we had a blank laying around that I had been planning to build on that would be about perfect. It was designed as a medium power downrigger blank - 8'6" long, 2 pieces, heavy enough to handle 15-20lb mono and sinkers into the 4 or 5oz range with ease. All that and a tip section light enough to detect light bites. All in all a great blank for Channel Cats or light sturgeon duty or very heavy sucker rigs.

I taught him to wrap guides and ferrules...

We opted for the obvious choice of the cord wrapped grip, we built up a cork tape base underneath to make the grip diameter larger and more comfortable.

A simple spiral wrap is great choice for a casting rod on a blank like this, for course we had to test it (and the basement door)

Some pictures of our finished work: