Panning for trout
Lately, my life has become a blur of responsibility, worry and ennui.
Between work, planning for a September wedding and trying to keep up with everyday chores, I’ve run into a wall.
I guess this is what life’s like as an adult — some door prize.
In your early years, the golden summers crawl by slowly, allowing you to set out for endless adventures. You even have the time to reflect on the joy, sorrow, fear and wonder of each day.
But as we age, and responsibilities stack upon us like Jenga blocks threatening to tumble, we fall into that gray area known as routine.
We work, check email, politely nod at one another, eat, go to sleep and awake only to do it over again. We fret that one political party or the other did something that is life-altering … for this week at least.
We watch those weeks turn to months and eventually years.
Our lives slip past, with only that precious week or two of freedom (vacation) to mark the time’s passing.
Surely some respite was available that didn’t involve a 15-hour flight to the South Pacific.
I needed a map.
Not a treasure map or a map to a lost city, though those would be nice, but one offering an expansion of my comfort zone.
I’d get a new map, point to a lake and go. No planning was needed. I’d just find a place to get away, relax, and come back rejuvenated.
It turns out that the map I bought didn’t send me very far from the known, but still guided me to what I was seeking.
I raced up the Fryingpan Road past Ruedi Reservoir toward the Hell’s Gate area. But instead of turning left and heading over Hagerman Pass, where I usually like to explore, I took a right and drove up CR 505.
My Trails Illustrated map for Holy Cross/Ruedi Reservoir ends just south of the intersection, and I wanted to travel further.
My new map — Aspen/Independence Pass — led me in the direction of the Fryingpan Lakes.
I’ve heard stories of the area, and know that the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness is a raw, exquisite region.
According to the map, it’s 3.9 miles from the trailhead to the lakes, though hikers with a pedometer later told me it was closer to 4.5 miles.
The trail began with a slight climb through a dense and damp coniferous forest paralleling the Fryingpan River. Sweat poured from my brow as the humidity was stifling.
I got a late start and knew I had to hurry if I wanted to get some quality time fishing for the lakes’ resident cutthroat trout.
The path was well maintained, but rocky and stitched with roots. I kept my pace, led by my dogs, but remained focused on my foot placements trying to avoid a painful trip and fall.
Fifteen minutes or so in, the forest opened up into a wide meadow. I was overwhelmed by the aroma of wildflowers and fresh, cool air.
It was like escaping from a dark cavern after weeks underground. The bluebird sky overhead capped a world of emerald beauty, studded with yellow, pink, red and purple. Bees lazily bounced from flower to flower, while varmints announced our arrival from high upon the rocky ridges above.
The trail was one of great transition as we hiked along, alternating from thick forest to open, meandering meadows.
All the while, the Fryingpan flowed past singing its never-ending song.
The sun was bright overhead, but darkness surrounded the periphery. Thunder taunted me, daring me to continue on my quest. I pressed on, but kept a keen eye out for the flash of lightning.
Next, we came upon a wooden bridge — which later I would guess was the halfway point — that crossed the river.
Again, the trail transitioned, this time from the west to the east side of the Fryingpan.
It continued on through towering lodgepole pine and aspen and crossed a rocky expanse, all the while gaining elevation gradually.
The sweet smell of water became stronger as I came upon the first lake. It was a bit windy, so I couldn’t see if any trout were rising.
Some friendly campers told me that the middle lake was the place to fish, so I walked another quarter-mile to its rocky edge.
The lake was smooth as glass and crystal clear, betraying the trout much to the fisherman’s advantage.
The mossy green-tinted water shimmered with sunlight, as cutthroat trout danced on their tails while snatching at the insects above. Everything was in a pattern; the bite was hot when the sun was out and would slow when clouds shrouded the lake in shadow.
I had set out in search of solitude and found a fisherman’s paradise.
Tossing my fly gently upon the water’s surface, three fish swam eagerly toward the offering. A violent splash and I was hooked up. The 12-inch cutthroat fought valiantly and was released quickly.
Each cast, trout would rise and pop the fly. Some I hooked, some I missed, all I enjoyed.
Some of the larger fish were a tad more weary, but one was a bit more aggressive than the others.
It snapped my fly, and my drag screamed with urgency and elation. The fish left the water several times, allowing me a better glimpse.
It was darker than the others, with hues only seen in dream. The bronze and red fish made run after run, and began to twist itself in the line.
Unfortunately, I’d have to hold this fish and untangle it from the leader. The trout, which I found to be an oddly colored cutthroat, was magnificent.
While only 14 inches or so, it fought like a fish twice its size. I gently laid it down, untangled the line, popped a quick photo and set it back into the water. It hovered for a few seconds and then shot off like a missile, seemingly no worse for the wear.
It was the only fish of the day that truly tested my reel and one I’ll remember until my dying day.
Thunder rumbled nearby, waking me from my pensive state. The day was getting long, and I still had miles of trail to cover.
Cursing the fact that I wasn’t set for an overnighter, I packed up and headed back down the trail as quickly as my aching, rubbery legs would carry me.
As exhausted as I was, I still felt good.
Something as simple as a new map had changed my mood and my outlook.
This adventure was about transition: Day to night, antsy to weary, known to unknown, angry curmudgeon to smiling fisherman.
Wilderness has a magical transformative power — one many of us don’t enjoy often enough.
As I approached the Jeep, deer were feeding on grasses on the opposite side of the river. My dogs, too tired to notice or care, hopped into the vehicle without a raising an alarm.
Loaded up and sitting in the driver’s seat, drops of rain began to fall on my windshield.
I started the car and drove home into a different world.
— Collin Szewczyk is outdoors editor for the Post Independent. He will be thinking of that cutthroat for some time and realizes that 120 miles roundtrip sure beats a 15-hour flight in a pinch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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