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2018 Flyathlon report: No fish, but I caught so much more

Fly fishing is not my first love, but it’s close. I’ve been fortunate to travel the state and catch lots of fish. Big fish, little fish, flashy, colorful, fighting fish.

On Saturday it felt good to trick a stealthy trout into taking my fly on the low-running Lake Fork of the Gunnison River, which must be close to the middle of nowhere. The occasion was the 2018 Flyathlon, a loose competition that involved running 10 miles up and down a beautiful river canyon, while also attempting to land, photograph, and release one of its shy, finny residents.

My old fly rod joined the dance as this trout surged in the current. The fishing had been difficult. Three shiny trout had earlier said hello and then disappeared into the blue-green water. But this one … I figured my luck had changed.

The Flyathlon is the creation of Andrew Todd, a fisherman and runner who manages the nonprofit Running Rivers, which serves to protect and grow Colorado’s wild greenback cutthroat trout population with river restoration projects and other important work that ensures clean-running water and creates healthy environments for all water-living creatures.. This year, the Lake Fork Flyathlon raised about $18,000, a record, I think. It felt good to be part of it. And I'm grateful for several friends who pitched in to contribute $470.

At the start of the “race” each fisherman-runner is given a paper ruler printed with their names and the event logo. The idea is to place caught fish on the ruler and snap a photo, then release the fish. Bigger fish equal more time deducted from your overall run time. You can catch one, or stick around and try for more. But the clock is ticking.

Knowing that all the fish were a little stressed from the low water, I quickly prepared my ruler and turned on my cell phone camera while maintaining gentle pressure on my new friend darting about at the end of my line. I could tell this wasn’t the biggest fish in the river, but plenty good enough. And I knew he’d appreciate less time out of the water. With everything ready for the photo, I raised my rod to draw the fish near.

And then it was gone, slipping away like a falling aspen leaf. I wasn’t disappointed. That’s fly fishing, and we’d each performed our parts in this artistic collision. And so that’s how my Flyathlon ended. In some races, runners will earn a “DNF” … did not finish. I came home with a “CNF” … caught no fish.

Of course, a guy can’t spend the day fishing without sharing fish stories with friends. We all retired to the home-base campground for a catered meal from Front Range Barbeque – man, they laid it out – plus some good craft beer (I don’t drink, but that left more for everyone else) and plenty of fish tales ...  I’m talking BS like you’ve never heard, and lots of laughter that echoed off the hillsides.

From there I moseyed on to Ridgway and the Orvis Hot Springs where I feel comfortable with the naked hippies and old folks – I fit into both demographics, so …. The sunset and the warm water set my mind adrift like a dry fly on the riffles, and I bathed in the quiet.

The next day I drove over Red Mountain Pass with good coffee from Ouray and my camera at the ready to capture the fall colors.

Motored on to Durango where dear heart Valerie waved to me from across the park. We spent some soulful hours goofing around downtown, hitting more hot springs, working on a jigsaw puzzle, and playing guitar during the late-night quiet hours at a nearby campground. I expected either applause, or to be kicked out. Neither happened and we giggled like school kids beneath a million stars.

The drive home provided plenty of opportunity for reflection. Colorado had delivered again. And though I caught no fish, I arrived with a full heart and memories of river sounds, warm, soaking waters, and meaningful connections with reclusive trout and beautiful people.

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