A river runs through it

The movie A River Runs Through It is filled with stunning, pristine mountain streams and forest glades which server as the backdrop for great fishing scenes. Although the story ends in tragedy, the sweeping panoramic vistas touch something deep inside all of us who love and cherish the mountains.

The San Luis Valley is defined in many ways by the great river, the Rio Grande. It has shaped not only the mountainous areas surrounding us but also the wide fertile valley stretching out below, a compilation of countless eons of rain and snowfall runoff. Destructive in its raging floods; life giving in its supply to area farms; the river lives on through abundance and drought.  

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St. Louis is always east

In today’s world of instant information, it’s hard to imagine the days when explorers came west with just a horse and a gun. Somehow they were able to traverse great distances without getting lost.

I recall a story about a mountain man being asked by a greenhorn if he had ever been lost. The grizzled old mountain man replied, "I was never lost but was temporarily disoriented for three weeks." That in and of itself would scare the pee jabbers out of most of us, but a three week wandering was a mere inconvenience to him. The mountain man went on to say, "I was never lost as I knew St. Louis was east of me."

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All quiet on the forest floor -- almost

Last week I celebrated the anniversary of nabbing my first bear.

Now, this wasn’t just a story. It was epic. I had always wanted to get a bear and when I successfully drew a license, I anxiously spent months scouting in preparation for opening day.

 Like any great dream, though, daily life intruded.

When September rolled around, my mother, choir director at our church, pleaded for my tenor voice on her planned anthem for Sunday rather than going bear hunting on opening day. My mother reminded me of the Andy Griffith song about the preacher who went hunting on a Sunday morning. When he encountered a bear, the preacher found himself sitting in a Sycamore tree, praying,

"Oh lord, you delivered Daniel from the bottom of the lion's den
You delivered Jonah, from the belly of the whale and then,
The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace so the good books do declare
But  lord, if you can't help me, for goodness sake don't help that bear”

So, not wanting to tempt the Lord, I went to church and sang. Following church, other things blocked my plans and more delays were encountered.

So that is why it was 3 p.m. before my girlfriend, Paula, and I headed out for a nice evening hunt. The weather was perfect and the wind minimal as we exited the truck near Del Norte Peak. We walked ever so quietly for an hour expecting to see a bear around every tree. We finally found the location where we had seen bear signs previously and sat down for what I expected to be long evening vigil.

Suddenly, I heard chomping sounds and knew a bear had to be close chewing on something. Scanning the forest I could detect nothing and finally turned toward Paula to find the crunching was her eating Cheetos.

After a reprimanding look, quiet settled down over the forest -- almost. The sound of zippers from her pack sounded like thunder echoing across the canyon. Another reprimanding look, then she took her phone out and started Googling something. Later, she said she was looking at what to do when encountering a bear. I had brought a gun along to shoot one, and she was going to take the bear shopping online.

Finally, tiring of the Internet, she decided to take a nap. About 20 minutes of quiet settled over the forest before her eyes popped open and she signaled she could smell something. I had smelled it, too, but had remained quiet hoping the bear would show itself and she would remain silent and still – preferably asleep on the forest floor.

But if you know my Paula, quiet is just not in her vocabulary. She likes to communicate. Thinking something was about to happen, she started texting every new update to friends on Twitter and Facebook. I am sure the look on my face would have been priceless as I tried to comprehend all the busy work emitting from our blind when all I wanted was to sit quietly and hunt. At 5:31 p.m. she suddenly felt compelled to show ME the texts. At that moment a bear stepped out into her view.

“Bear, Bear BEAR!” exited her lips and the bear, not conditioned to shouting from an Internet-connected woman, took that as a cue to run away through the aspens. Instinct took over and I got my gun up and on target and asked her how big it was.

“250 to 300 pounds” she replied.

“Shall I shoot?" and before Paula could answer, the bear was on the ground and my hunt was over. It was an amazing shot and an instant kill which I was thankful for.

At 5:33 p.m. we had our bear. Her Internet savvy did pay off, though, as she contacted her folks and others to help get the bear out. I have some health issues and so having help was both a godsend and necessary as I cannot lift a lot of weight.

The bear proved to be a dry female with no cubs and had so little fat the biologist were afraid she would have starved over the winter. I was pleasantly surprised at how mild the flavor was. The meat was appreciated for the winter and we were able to share it with many friends. For me, my first bear hunt lasted just 90 minutes and ended with success. This year, though, I’m leaving the Cheeto-eater behind taking care of Cooper.

Both the Rio Grande and South Fork are dark and ash filled. I did catch some browns in the Rio Grande on #5 Rapala lures in the Perch color. Flies continue to produce well on the clear streams not affected by the fires. A new hopper hatch was seen so those and Elk Hair Caddis in olive color are working well. For a dropper I like a Pheasant Tail or Prince Nymph on about 18” of leader below the top fly. All the lakes, except Shaw, are producing limits daily on the new bead shaped Gulp baits. For more info you can contact me on my blog.

Get out there now and enjoy Nature’s show. Paula, Cooper and I will look for you on our travels.

Summer fading quietly

While walking the forest this week, I began seeing the tell-tell signs of autumn. Flowers, grass, berries and mushrooms while still abundant are slowly ebbing into fall displays of color and the scent of ready-to-fall leaves waft through the forest glens. Change is upon us and that means change in animal behaviors, too.

One of the sure signs of Fall is the beginning of the rutting season for deer and elk. From my scouting hikes, it seems that the moose and elk have already shed their velvet. The deer, however, still show signs of antler growth.  

As many of you know, bull elk, buck deer and bull moose grow antlers every year. The antlers will be encased in a soft velvety tissue as they grow. About this time of year, the males have a sharp rise in testosterone levels which will trigger a shutdown of blood supply to the velvet. They then begin to rub the velvet off on small trees scattered throughout the forest. This precedes a rush to the breeding season which generally starts 10 days prior to the fall equinox, Sept. 22.

As the animals move into this cycle, they become less wary and are easier prey for the hunters and also provide excellent viewing and opportunities for hearing the big bull elk bugle. There is nothing quite as thrilling as the eerie sounds of a big bull as he challenges all comers to a fight over the harem of females he has assembled.

Last year, I had the pleasure of being within 100 yards of five bulls as they bugled at one another. We had crawled in to get closer to their battling when suddenly I saw movement on the ground. Two pine martins came scooting along the ground playing and tumbling along. Pine martins are small forest animals that look like a long mink and they flowed along the ground like waves in the ocean. They reminded me of the Disney movies about otters as they played. 

Saturday, I took a walk back into one of my favorite areas that has small meadows intermixed among aspen and spruce. Earlier in the summer, when dry conditions prevailed, the larger animals had moved out of this area to places with better food supplies. With the return of the rains and subsequent increase in foliage, I saw a remarkable change in activity now.

Elk, deer and bear sign was everywhere. I especially saw lots of bear activity evidenced by logs split open and cow patties turned over in search of grubs. We set a trail camera on one of the water holes there and were rewarded with a great picture of a black bear that came by the camera.

It reminds me of a time when I watched a bear claw a tree. He made short work of the bark and literally tore the tree to shreds quickly. I am not sure the reason for this, whether to sharpen or clean their claws or maybe just because they can. No matter what, they sure can open car doors quickly!

With hunting season upon us, man adds another variable in the changing environment. Hunters will "put pressure" on elk and deer and force them to move down into safe havens closer to town. About 10 years ago, we had just bought a brand, spanking new car. We were driving from the country to town during the rut, when a whitetail doe ran out in front of us. No one was hurt, but the car with only 1000 miles on it was totaled. Those stories are all too common around here as evidenced by the road kill on Hwy 160. Last week alone, I saw coyote, deer and fox hit by vehicles on the highway already.

While big game is on the move and a bit unpredictable, fishing is still good. The summer tourists have returned to their winter abodes and so the lakes and rivers are seeing less pressure. Shaw Lake was opened last weekend and reports are good. Those fish must have been wondering where everyone was for the whole summer. Be sure and call the local Forest Service Office to see if it’s open before you drive up to fish, though.

The rivers remain murky due to the rains and fire damage but a #5 or #7 Rapala in perch color is producing some great fish in all the waters. Spinners, spoons or other flashy lures also produce in these cloudy waters. The clearer streams are producing fish on small caddis patterns with bead head droppers.

So no matter your activity this season, be watchful for wildlife as they change their patterns and density near you. The berries are abundant, mushrooms still flourishing and viewing opportunities for both flora and fauna is at their peak. Cooper and I will be out there finding all of these on the golden days of late summer and expect to see you out there in our glorious mountains.