The Life and Times of a High Desert River

thinking of summer…. so I dug out my journals to see what I could find that would ignite a memory of warmer days out of doors…. this is a revision from an entry in the summer of 1991, all rivers and fish are depicted as they were and shall remain anonymous

In July, summer steps in with authority, dispelling all of June’s fickle weather. A summer rhythm is established that will wear and tire into perpetuity. And it all starts one evening – July 11th. The day lingers in heat, the sun hangs all afternoon, and only reluctantly gives way to the horizon. Sunset now requires patience.

The river snakes across the valley, meandering so tightly in places that only a thin bridge of soil separates the channel from itself. Here, a cast either forward or back will fall onto productive fishing water. This evening I go about my usual routine, wandering the banks, waiting for the sun to set, watching for the first fish of evening to rise up and sip in a passing bug. In June, the Pale Morning Duns dominate and are standard evening fare along with the waning Brachycentrus caddis emergence. But something is different late this afternoon. The earliest bugs and fish of the evening are nowhere to be seen. So I continue wandering upriver, crossing into new water and ever hopeful that the heat of the day has only pushed things back a bit and not shut it down entirely.

Farther upriver, I come across a confluence where a smaller side channel re-enters the main channel. Since the main channel is not easily crossed here, I am forced to wander up the side channel. The water in the side channel is thigh deep with willows lining both banks. In places, the upstream wade is like walking through a hallway – completely cut off from the wide open valley beyond. Water slides silently though a maze of bright green aquatic vegetation, waving in the soft, shallow currents. The long filaments feel cool and soft brushing against my legs — maybe a tickle, more like a massage.

I don’t remember if I saw the fish or the bugs first. Small caddis, some sort of micro-caddis that I once knew the genus of, but it doesn’t matter: small and brown. They are either returning to lay eggs or are slow to take flight. They float for a bit before taking wing, providing opportunities to waiting fish below. I quickly swap out flies for an oversized Elk Hair that I crudely clip down to size. The head of a large brown trout tips up to a passing caddis. Lying in a small, open slot between the aquatic vegetation, the cast is not easy, hampered even more by the willows lining the banks. But the first cast falls perfectly – the results of daily casting in difficult water for well over a month now. The fly floats softly into the open slot just as the head appears to gently pull it in and down. The brown trout is a summer best – 18” head to tail. The caddis get thicker and the first crickets start to ratchet up their evening song. The thigh deep water continues on and each fish is a seeming carbon copy of the last. I reach the top of the side channel, where it leaves the main channel, with one more fish topping 21 inches just as night takes over and the day concludes. Seven fish in total, nothing smaller than 18 inches and almost every large, rising fish spotted and cast to was caught.

The caddis hatch would last two weeks and never would approach the magic of the first night. Then, one night, just as it had appeared, it was gone, only to be replaced by a tricorythodes hatch and spinner fall the following morning. That was when the side channel became a routine staple each and every morning I had away from work. By 9 am, the first spinners would be on the water. And while the side channel may not have been the most productive water from a numbers or even size standpoint, the charm was its small size, shallow, weedy water, technical casting requirements, and, ultimately, one fish in particular. Where the river pushed under the willows, and further under the bank, a fish would show some mornings and not the other. Its rise was only the slightest of dimples, better heard as a soft kiss rather than seen. At first glance, it was easily dismissed as a juvenile fish. But after landing that same 22” fish three times over the course of the summer, it was clear that the largest fish may be the hardest to spot during the trico fall.

The tricos would carry on through the summer into September. They were the staple. When thunderstorms would roll up the valley, the occasional PMD or baetis would bring up a fish or two as would the evening caddis. But nothing will ever compare to that first evening when I wandered on to the side channel just as summer kicked into full swing.

Postscript. Brings back memories of freshly turned legal drinking status, fly fishing daily, haunting the bars by night where beer, whiskey and flirting with the women were the order of the evening, alternating between spittin’ tobacco, smoking non-filter cigarettes, and who knows what else. Some good memories and some I just cringe at thinking about…

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