by Pete McBride | May 22, 2013 | People
A coveted angling arc, the ultimate goal for aspiring fishermen.
Ski racer-turned-trophy fisherman Andy Mill showcases the day’s bait.
Casting call: Mill, who has produced TV fishing shows, once hooked a 500-pound marlin with a fly rod.
A natural at reading the river, Mill says, “All the great decisions I’ve made in life....They’ve happened on the water.”
Mill’s carefully selected flies during a spring outing with McBride include a blue wing emerger and prince nymph.
Mill dances with “Old Sam,” the colorful rainbow trout.
Catch of the day: The rainbow trout sports a belly plump with rust red, pink, and emerald green.
McBride and Mill grew up skiing the snowpack that transforms every spring into the flow they fish and float.
This scenic stretch of the Roaring Fork River sits one mile below the confluence of the Valley’s two Gold Medal waters: the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan.
Standing knee-deep in the icy, emerald-green water careening over a kaleidoscope of polished rocks, I am once again reminded of the magic of rivers. It’s early spring, and I’m a few yards upstream from longtime Aspenite and friend Andy Mill. We’re both quietly studying a deep trough in a “secret spot” near the Woody Creek Tavern. The current is folding upon itself in mesmerizing repetition, while eddies on either side dance a ballet with ripples and bubbles. The afternoon sun beams through the water, but the channel in front of us hides in the shadow of evergreens on the far bank. The only sound is the consistent gurgle of snowmelt moving downstream, and we both know there are some “lunkers” lurking before us. It’s the ideal afternoon at a sweet fishing hole on our childhood river—the Roaring Fork.
“See him, right there, by the rock?” Andy asks over the cigar clenched in his teeth. He quickly points with the end of his fly rod, his eyes laser-focused on the shadow line.
“Got him,” I respond softly, seeing the pink flash of a rainbow trout 15 feet in front of us. “Old Sam,” I mutter under my breath. “Get him.”
Andy casts his line slightly upstream. The two flies—a blue wing emerger and a prince nymph, tied 16 inches apart and roughly a foot below a small lead weight—disappear into the crystal, burbling water. Our eyes follow the line as it drifts with the current.
“Come on… come on, baby. Bam! There ya go!” Andy exclaims, grinning, teeth still clenching his half-smoked cigar. “Gotcha!”
The water in front of us quivers and then explodes. The fly rod arcs skyward and a fat fish leaps from the shadows, its belly plump with a bright streak of rust red, pink, and sapphire green. Black freckles cloak its back. Fish on!
Andy Mill and Pete McBride: "Just two souls fishing"
In the world of fly-fishing, Andy Mill is somewhat of a legend. He made a name for himself not on the Gold Medal water in which we stand, but producing TV fishing shows around the world and in competitive saltwater fishing tournaments chasing trophy fish: tarpon, bonefish, and permit. And some fishing enthusiasts dream, as I do, of catching one of each (the wily permit continues to elude me). Andy, however, calls such species to his fly like a siren. He is the only fisherman in the world to win major fly-fishing tournaments for all three—tarpon, bonefish, and, yes, the permit fish.
I’m a guy with a fish story. He’s the guy with the big fish story and the trophy to back it up.
He has landed tarpons the size of surfboards (his largest weighed about 170 pounds) and even hooked a 500-pound blue marlin with a fly rod. “The reel was screaming like an ex-wife,” he says, laughing. He landed an 800-pound marlin that was the biggest eye-opener of his life on conventional tackle. Throughout his fishing career, Andy has fished more secret holes in secret seas than most, perhaps even Hemingway’s Old Man. Off the shores of Panama, he fished with big-league enthusiasts like former President George H.W. Bush and the Panamanian and Spanish presidents, to boot.
But what is more special for me than hearing his stories or witnessing his fishing magic is revisiting our home river—together. It is an old-school reunion of sorts. “I learned to fish here when I was 9,” Andy says. “I’ve come home.”
So have I. I too grew up on the river before us—swimming, fishing, rafting. We both were raised in Aspen, where we spent our winter months ski racing—chasing speed and gates down the snowpack that transforms every spring into the flow we fish and float to this day.
When I was 9, I watched Andy in a World Cup ski race and mouthed, “I want to do that.” A generation before me, Andy paved the way for many ski racers who craved the rush of going 70 mph down a mountain. He competed in two world championships and two Olympics, inspiring scores of us. Like many, he also “ran out of body,” having shattered many joints and bones in his career. It’s one reason he was lured to competitive fishing.
As for me, my ski-racing career plateaued at a Division I college back east. My drive and talent were limited. Later, the call of exotic adventures and storytelling replaced my need for speed. For two decades, photography took me around the globe—from Everest to Antarctica and even fishing in Cuba—for magazine assignments.
Despite our diverse, peripatetic paths, it is immediately obvious that Andy and I have grown to realize one thing as we stand together, just two souls fishing: We are remarkably lucky to have such spectacular rivers in our intertwined childhood histories, at the doorsteps of our homes, and in view of world-class skiing. My appreciation grew when I saw the degradation of many foreign rivers while working abroad. It solidified, however, when I focused my cameras closer to home, on a two-year project following the length of the Colorado, source to sea. The goal was to witness firsthand what becomes of our shared watershed, that lifeline in the American West. And at the Colorado’s source, of course, there are two worldfamous Gold Medal fly-fishing rivers: the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan.
Both of these flowing gems earn their medal status from the high quality of their fisheries and thus have catch-and-release restrictions placed upon much of their runs. And each is fed by the runoff from ski areas and 14,000-foot peaks, essentially all the snow on the western side of the Continental Divide. But despite their picturesque, clear-water beauty, both are dammed and heavily diverted. In fact, more than 40 percent of the water in both rivers is sucked off before either one passes Aspen or Basalt.
Threats to Our Rivers
Water in the West is a precious commodity, and it’s no different in the Roaring Fork Valley. As snowpacks have dwindled under the heat of drought and the impact of climate change, river flows have dropped consistently throughout Colorado and the Southwest over the last two decades. Last summer, the Crystal River ran dry by Carbondale, and the upper Roaring Fork River ran through Aspen at levels just above a trickle. Meanwhile, the lion’s share of the Roaring Fork’s flow was siphoned off in tunnels to eastern Colorado, fulfilling the prior demands of an equally thirsty Front Range.
The tailwater from Ruedi Reservoir creates the world-class fishing on the Frying Pan. It meets the Roaring Fork in downtown Basalt, and from there their waters move northwest, pick up the Crystal’s flow (if any), and join the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs
While people flock from around the world to play on our local rivers, few realize that the rivers are changing and that, downstream, the mighty Colorado—the river that shaped the Grand Canyon and continues to shape the lives of 35 million people across seven states and Mexico—runs completely dry. For 6 million years it didn’t. It ran to the Sea of Cortez, but in the late ’90s it stopped entirely. Not a single drop of its flow, the same flow that originates above Aspen and Basalt, has kissed the sea since.
Recent water shortages have heightened awareness of the problem throughout the West, and solutions for restoring the Colorado’s delta flow are being explored. New laws have even been signed, but the river remains tapped out. A recent study of the Colorado River Basin says greater shortages can be expected.
For some, a dry river delta downstream is too far away from our watery havens to be a concern. But good fishing needs good water. And the demands for that fresh water are becoming greater, not just downstream but on every mile of every Western river. If there were ever a time for the old Western adage “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting” to be proved true, today could be it.
A Resource Worth Saving
Last fall, Aspen endured a toxic debate over a proposed hydroelectric plant that pitted environmentalists against themselves and neighbor against neighbor. Water shortages and the politics of water fracked the community in two. As demand continues to grow, more such conflicts will most definitely follow.
But on this one sunny afternoon in April, Andy and I remain focused on a challenge simpler yet often equally daunting. We are not trying to figure out Western water. We are just trying to convince Old Sam—the mythical, ever-wise, and ever-growing brown or rainbow trout—to bite our prince nymph and its miniature barbless hook.
After seeing the explosion of water and color before us, I am thinking we might have actually finally done it. The fat rainbow on Andy’s line is fighting like an old bull. I walk downstream, clumsily weaving and stumbling like a drunkard thanks to the wet rocks (we saved the beers for after fishing). I am hoping to position myself for an underwater photo of this monster.
As the battle grows in intensity, the line quivers. “Don’t lose him!” I holler. The fish is a beast. If anyone can get Old Sam, it’s Andy.
Then, just as I’m ready to look Old Sam in the eye, pop! The line suddenly snaps. The drama ends. My trout legend will live to swim another day. I am sure Andy, the fishing legend, will fish another day, too.
I listen to the orchestra of water flowing all around me and watch Andy go back to work, tying a fly and then casting again. There are always more fish to catch in these waters. I’m inspired once again to stop and watch this pro, not on skis going downhill at 80 mph as I did as a boy, but on the river, going zero.
Catching fish is fun. That’s the point. And, most argue, bigger fish equal more fun, but neither of us frets too much about the fish count. The act of fishing itself isn’t half bad. Andy reminds me when explaining why he quit competitive fishing: “I got bored with only chasing big fish. Now I like coming here, to my roots. It’s about being on the river and listening to the water tumble over the rocks.”
“I don’t catch as many fish as you, so I must listen to a lot more water,” I quip. We laugh.
But for those who spend long hours by moving water, there is some truth to the power of rivers. Any excuse to sit by one, or stand in one, is good. It clears the head and makes you feel young. After just a few hours, Andy and I joke about feeling like kids again.
A recent study calculated the economic value of recreation on the entire Colorado River, including all its tributaries, like the Roaring Fork and the Frying Pan. The number was staggering. These flowing rivers produce $26 billion annually from fishing licenses, rafting trips, picnics, and more. Apparently folks are willing to pay a lot to feel like kids. For perspective, if the Colorado River were a company, that number would put it on the Forbes Top 200 list, ahead of Progressive Insurance and US Airways.
In light of the many demands for water—irrigation, consumption, storage, and energy—that our rivers fulfill, it’s good to remember the value they offer when they simply flow.
“Ya know, Pete,” Andy says, as much to himself as to me, between casts, “all the great decisions I’ve made in life….” He pauses, then casts again. “They’ve happened on the water…. It’s the best place to hear your inner voice.”
I let the thought float downstream a bit and glide over a rapid.
“When we’re both back in June, let’s fish again, then drink beers at the Tavern,” I say, looking downstream.
“Good thinking,” he agrees.
photography by Pete McBride