Six years ago I took my first winter fishing trip to Colorado’s Big Thompson River Canyon. Finding myself on the river’s icy bank, standing next to a15-foot rock wall, I listened. The sound of the river melded with the gentle breeze that rustled the trees just beyond the riffles. The sun was bright on the high canyon walls and snow reflected the energy from above. I was captured by the stillness.
Breathing quietly so as not to disturb the tranquility, I realize that fishing at that moment would only take away from the transcendence beauty. So I stood for a few minutes, closed my eyes and allowed it to be. A shiver crept up my spine.
Here in the cold grip of winter, the setting—though often brutally cold and windy—is magnificently beautiful. The snow on the walls provides a frosting effect and helps define the various crags and rock outcroppings. Occasionally a herd of Bighorn sheep will be roadside foraging for food.
On sunny days the snow reflects the warmth, which is penetrating and welcome. At times the sky is cast in passing clouds and with each changing moment, remains perfect. When the wind stays down, the snow muffles all sound, except the soft gurgles of the river, which has quieted due to the lower flows. The surrounding silence is so incredible that it’s almost deafening.
Teaming with life, the river moves with less energy, succumbing to the winter season. The fish are present and are usually willing to play. On many days there are hatches of tiny bugs that keep the fish satisfied and remind me that no matter how small, nothing is insignificant and that each has its place.
Winter also keeps the crowds down and although there are only a couple of miles of open water, it is easy to find solitude. When there is company along the frozen banks, most are willing to share. A fellow angler landing a trout brings smiles to all.
As winter slowly releases its hold on the river, the water begins to flow freely. Early spring brings more hours of sun, slightly warmer temperatures and the reminder that the cycle of life above river will soon begin again. Wildlife return to the canyon in earnest and the sound of nature becomes a welcome addition. The snow that still hugs the rock walls melts during the day, and then refreezes at night, creating ice forms which, like life, change from day to day.
Activity in the canyon increases as both people and nature welcome the slowly warming days. These early days of spring provide some of the most enjoyable times in the canyon. The river flows are still minimal as spring runoff has yet to begin in full. With the melting ice, favorite stretches of water become available, and the angling pressure remains low.
The fish are awakening from their winter doldrums and are more aggressive for the flies being offered. The cold days of winter with fewer fish give way to larger catches and even bigger smiles.
Early summer begins with heavy runoff and for a time much of the river is not fishable. The annual event helps move debris and sediment out of the river to provide an ecosystem where the fish can thrive. Though I miss the rhythmic interludes of casting and catching, all things must cycle, so I lay my rod to rest. The reprieve lasts a few weeks, sometimes longer, but the warming weather and longer hours of daylight give me hope that my time off the river will be short lived. But the river knows only itself.
As I re-enter the canyon I find that what was old, is again new. Although the basic shape of the river has not changed there are new wrinkles carved along the shore. A logjam creates a new holding spot and a shallow riffle has been created where deeper, smoother water once flowed. It is here that old friends meet again and though we see the changes, we recognize the original spirit that drew us together.
The first few trips of summer are about rediscovering the joy and the experience of learning. New moments remind me of the old moments. Later in the summer, the “hoppers” return to the banks, providing high-energy food for the fish and constant companionship for anyone who wanders by. The spiders have spun new webs, which are full of the bugs that escaped their watery homes and the fish that try to eat them.
The weather is warm and the fishing fun. Short sleeves, cutoffs and river boots (without waders) provide a freedom not enjoyed during the bundled winter and spring trips. The cold water against my legs brings relief from the stifling temperatures as well as from the bustling city routines. The flowing water reminds me that each moment is different, that change is the normal rhythm of life.
Early fall fishing brings a decline in “tourist anglers.” The shared moments of the previous season with fellow anglers begins to give way once again to the solitude we all seek and need. Colors in the canyon come alive, signaling that winter’s return is not far off. River levels begin to drop. Areas not easily accessible during summer’s high flows beckon a cast or two. The fish are still looking up, aggressively snatching dries off the surface, gorging in preparation for winter.
The sun radiates its warmth and early evening sunsets paint what is visible of the sky above. As the fall cycle nears its end, trees become barren and the greenery soon fades. Again the river changes as rapids become riffles, small riffles become dry and fallen leaves move slowly down stream in the flows that still remain. The fish begin to pool up, just prior to moving into their wintering holes. As the river awaits the first snowfall and impending ice-up, we welcome the return to the quiet, the cold, and the solitude, knowing that below the surface, life and its source will still be found.
With the onset of winter in Colorado once again, much of life heads to warmer climates, or pursues activities indoors, protected from nature’s cold. And once again, the Big Thompson River and its canyon becomes a beckoning place of solitude and beauty.
On this day, I arrive to find nearly an inch of fresh snow has blanketed the banks of the river. The temperature is well below freezing and not a breath of wind can be felt. The small flakes are falling slowly, as though they want to hang in the air forever, knowing the ground will be their final resting place. I stand and breathe easily, my breath hangs in the still air, melting a flake or two. Out of the corner of my eye I see the first rise of the day and smile, knowing each fish I land is as unique as the flakes that are drifting down around me. Laying my first cast down on the water I am again grateful for this river, and what it has given to my soul.