Story written by Paul Vertrees,
Photos by Randall Haynes
Driving up an asphalt artery in the dark of a Friday evening, I was trying to shake off the hectic pace and content of a full work week. This artery was leading me, as it had countless times before, to the very heart of Colorado, and ultimately to that home away from home I call The Stomping Grounds. I’ve memorized every twist and turn of the road, the locations of the rare and lonely homes along it, and the rhythm and pace as familiar landmarks fly by. In the dark, all I had to lead me north were road signs, distant ranch house lights, and the topography I knew by heart.
I drove until I found the camp my good friends, Patrick, Randall, and Ori, had set up along a road at the top of a high pass. Inside the glowing tipi were good friends, good food, and a huge bottle of the very best small batch Kentucky bourbon. Patrick always knows how to make a friend feel welcome!
The next morning we hiked down from 11,600’ for several miles, stopping frequently to soak in the stunning view.
Reaching the first brook trout in the stream, we deployed our tenkara rods and quickly caught fish. A former tenkara client of mine, Ori had really caught the tenkara bug since I guided him this past summer. His casting skills had improved considerably, and he was letting his Ayu put his self-tied sakasa kebari right where he wanted it. I was working a modified killer bug with my 11’ Iwana. I had recently started tying my killer bugs with a different colored yarn on heavy scud hooks. They were working like a charm.
We fished our way down to an old outfitter’s camp, one that Patrick and I had been using for quite some time. That night we celebrated the autumnal equinox with a feast of grilled brookies and rice. We topped off the evening with a kotsuzake ceremony, paying tribute to those orange-bellied brook trout and the rare cutthroat that the tiny stream has offered up to us over the years. Sipping trout-infused sake from a titanium cup at eleven-thousand feet, in the company of your closest friends, is truly a gift. We talked deep into the night until the campfire died down to coals.
Brookies over a campfire.
Kotsuzake, fish-bone-infused sake. A tribute to the fish, the idea of not wasting any of it. It is better than it looks.
Hanging out by the fire at night:
The next morning was dedicated solely to fishing our way back upstream for two miles. It had been two years since I’d caught a cutthroat out of this stream, and I was ready for the next one. I’m always cautiously optimistic, because it took many, many years for me to ever catch the first one here. Thousands of brookies, just a handful of cutts. What I didn’t count on was an encounter with my first golden trout in a stream I’ve been fishing since the late 1970s. There’s plenty of gold in the Stomping Grounds…gold in the trees, gold in the willows, gold along the banks of the stream, and one finned flash of gold in the water.
After reaching the top of the fishable water, we decided to bushwhack a mile of deep, dark timber, full of steep blowdown. We were still unsuccessfully hunting dusky grouse. We knew that ptarmigan were being taken up top on the tundra, and we had feathers on the brain. After all, I still wanted to tie a kebari with the soft hackle from a nice grouse. After a mile of deep timber gymnastics with full backpacks, we emerged from the ridge birdless.
It was cold and windy when we finally reached our trucks. After snacks and beers on the tailgate, we shook up, made promises to get back out soon, and parted ways. Heading down off the pass, I knew this had been the best celebration of the equinox I’d ever had. There’s always a certain sadness when I leave the backcountry, like I’m going to miss something important by leaving. Pointing my truck south into the evening, I followed that same familiar black artery back home in the dark.
Paul Vertrees is an avid outdoorsman who spends much of his time in the backcountry of Colorado. Paul is a Tenkara USA Certified Tenkara Guide who guides for RIGS Adventures, out of Ridgway, CO.