In Colorado, a club gets fishermen on dream streams
Looking for world-class stream fishing without fear of a rancher with a shotgun? Colorado's Rocky Mountain Angling Club gets you there.
The New York Times
Joining the club
Rocky Mountain Angling Club (800-524-1814; rmangling.com), based in Wheat Ridge, Colo., has a $120 annual membership fee, and a $350 initiation fee. If you join Trout Unlimited's Yampa Valley FlyFishers chapter for $17.50 as I did, the club waives the initiation fee. Daily rod fees are $45 to $130, but average about $65. Members can bring paying friends and can rent cabins on several ranches. The cabins range from pioneer-rustic (B.Y.O. pillowcases) to deluxe log cabins in remote settings.
Do your homework before planning a trip. Colorado's unusually low snowfall last winter — 66 percent of average — coupled with an extremely warm, dry spring, has made organizing a fishing outing in Colorado a bit challenging this summer. Some rivers have been closed to fishermen; others are still open but are running low and warm — less than optimal conditions for fishing. In other spots, though, low water means the fishing is the best in years.
Looking to wave a rod somewhere new? Here are three Rockies resorts — from a 120-year-old resort to a gussied-up trophy ranch. Each has its own sticker price — and a fisherman to match.
FOR THE BARGAIN (TROUT) HUNTER
Almont Resort, outside Gunnison, Colo., sits where the East and Taylor Rivers join to form the Gunnison, which has some of the biggest populations of brown and rainbow trout in the state. A functioning resort since 1893, the casual Almont has 15 cabins and four vacation homes on 90 acres. Think families. Reunions. Texans escaping Dallas summers. Cabins start at $110; guided fishing starts at $215 here or on the Lake Fork, Arkansas and Rio Grande Rivers, all within an hour's drive. 970-641-4009; www.almontresort.com.
FOR THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, IN WADERS
In 2007 Jim Manley, owner of the boutique investment bank Atlantic Pacific Capital, bought a century-old working cattle ranch in the Anaconda-Pintler Range near Philipsburg, Mont. His new passion project, the Ranch at Rock Creek, is Hemingway-meets-Ralph Lauren: The rustic-chic spread features horseback riding, archery, pistol shooting, mountain-biking on 10 miles of private trails and movies on a 24-foot movie screen. At night guests stay in the nine-room Granite Lodge; one of a dozen log homes; or a luxury canvas-walled "cabin" along Rock Creek, which is home to several species of sport fish and is known for its salmon fly hatch in late spring/early summer. More blue-ribbon trout rivers are a short drive away. Who's fishing here? One-percenters on family vacation from California and the Northeast who've flown the private jet into Butte and are learning to fish on the ranch's five stocked ponds. Germans and Britons drawn West by an abiding cowboys-and-Indians fascination. Fish-crazy investment bankers on a bachelor party. Rates start at $950 per day, all-inclusive. 877-786-1545; www.theranchatrockcreek.com.
FOR THE DIE-HARD TROUT SLAYER
"We are in the place in Montana where there are no tourist attractions," said the guide Dan Leavens, of his Stonefly Inn in southwest Montana. No Yellowstone National Park. No trophy homes.
"Just five different blue-ribbon trout fishing rivers within a 30-minute drive," according to Leavens, who bought a tired roadside motel a decade ago and remodeled the six cabins and built a restaurant. The routine here is simple: Rise at dawn, fish hard, return late to a cold beer and a chunk of Montana steer around a table that seats 20. Expect comfy but not cushy — and none of those Big Sky dude ranch frills.
"You're not going to pet a horse," said Leavens, known to all as Rooster. "We're busy tying flies at night."
June's salmon fly hatch on the Big Hole is the stuff of legend, but there are other reasons to come here: namely, the Madison, the Beaverhead, the Jefferson and the Ruby Rivers. Last summer Rooster guided 35 days without seeing another fisherman. Six-night, five-day packages are $2,295, including everything but alcohol and guide tips. 406-684-5648; www.thestoneflyinn.com.
Northern Colorado was still rubbing the previous night's Independence Day parties from its eyes as I parked beside the rancher's fence, pulled on waders and strung my fly rod. In the valley the drowsy river was a silver twist among green willows. The air smelled of wet sage, and black cattle stood like chess pieces in the distant fields. Beyond them the 12,000-foot peaks of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness had lined up for morning's roll call, their summits lighted up like match tips.
I unhooked the barbed-wire gate, stepped past the "no trespassing" sign and headed toward the North Fork of the North Platte River in search of monster trout. There was no need to watch my back for a rancher with a shotgun and a short fuse: This stretch of Eden was mine alone, and I was completely legit.
This wish-you-were-here moment was brought to you by the Rocky Mountain Angling Club, a relatively little-known group whose members have access to waters on 46 private ranches and properties in three states, including some storied stretches of trout-filled water. Nearly all the properties are in Colorado, a state with world-class fishing but whose infamous water laws can frustrate the out-of-state visitor.
In states like Montana and Washington, fishermen are usually allowed to walk along a river's waterline even if the surrounding land is private property. Not so in Colorado, where landowners own the shore and the earth under the river, too. Anglers and rafters can float navigable waters in a boat, but they can't touch bottom — no hopping out to wade, no dropping anchor to heed nature's call. And private property can be vigorously enforced — with phone calls to the authorities, tickets for trespassing and, occasionally, confrontations.
That doesn't mean the state is locked up; far from it. Colorado has more than 23 million acres of public lands on which there's lots of fishing. Yet knowing where to go to find a great fishing spot that's also legal, and that's not so popular that you're casting your Chernobyl Ant into another angler's creel, can be tough for the visitor, especially one without the funds to pay for a guide.
Here's where the Rocky Mountain Angling Club comes in. The 20-year-old, mostly family-run, club holds leases on about 80 miles of creeks and rivers, including on some of the state's greatest hits — the Gunnison, the Arkansas, the Yampa — as well as pleasant tailwaters within a short drive of Denver. Other properties include 23 lakes and ponds and a few spots in southeast Wyoming. And members get a discount to fish Ted Turner's luxurious Vermejo Park Ranch in northern New Mexico.
"We always tell them we won't guarantee that you'll catch fish," Pat Barz, the club's semiretired vice president of operations, said. "But we do guarantee that there are fish there to be caught."
I first heard about the club when a fishing guide from Vail let the secret slip last winter over apres-ski beers in a British Columbia ski lodge. His words lodged in my mind through the long, slow days of spring snowmelt. As fishermen go I'm still a tenderfoot, albeit an enthusiastic one, even after a decade of fishing. My waders leak, and my cast resembles a man swatting flies. What I know as much as any pro, though, is the value of a quiet piece of river, and big fish that aren't much smarter than I am.
High-end clubs that stock a few miles of river with trophy "hogs" for the exclusive delight of the Orvis set are hardly new. What's different about the Rocky Mountain Angling Club is the amount of fishing waters available, and the huge variety of locations. Then there's the price: Membership in private clubs can easily run thousands of dollars; even hiring a guide for the day to gain access to private water can run $400. The club, however, is not just for hedge-funders on holiday: Members of the Rocky Mountain Angling Club pay a one-time initiation fee of $350 (see sidebar for how to get around that); an annual $120 fee; and a daily "rod fee" each time they fish, which averages about $65. The landowners, in turn, get a share of those fees — an incentive to keep their land undeveloped.
"It wasn't meant to be exclusive," Barz said. "We have members from all walks of life, including college students."
Last year, each of the club's 1,750 members fished the club's properties just 1.3 days on average. Use is usually restricted to two to four rods per day per property. All of this means lots of uncrowded access to fine fishing waters.
To vet the club's offerings I mapped a July road trip through northwest Colorado with two friends: Stephen Matera, a photographer, and Peter Scheetz, a lifelong fisherman with an elegant cast. Together, and then by myself, we flogged the waters of five ranches starting near Aspen and moving north to Steamboat Springs and the Wyoming border.
Glenwood Springs was an odd place to start getting away from it all — a full-blown tourist town of knickknack shops, rafting companies and restaurants on the Colorado River. The town was a good place for us to meet and begin our trip, however, and its brewery was a bonus. Unfortunately, during our stay at the well-appointed Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge, we never did take a restorative dunk in the lodge's two-block-long medicinal hot springs pool. Colorado was in the grip of a brutal heat wave, but we figured we'd be standing in water all day.
Our first morning we drove 10 miles south to Carbondale to Gianinetti Spring Creeks to meet Kara Armano, a local friend and an expert fly fisher. The Gianinetti ranch was a curious mashup of bucolic and urban, a broad patch of meadows threaded with two miles of spring-fed creeks, hard by the Roaring Fork River and busy Highway 82. (At one point I looked up to find myself fishing beneath a Comfort Inn sign.) A few century-old trucks and farm implements melting into the earth lent a rusting Ozymandian poignancy to the place.
Despite the buzz of traffic, the creeks were peaceful. Tall grasses and wildflowers guarded their banks. Algae waved beneath the water. Bold white clouds that looked as if they had escaped from a John Ford soundstage sailed overhead.
The ranch's owners knew what they were doing here. They'd manicured this place just enough — scything a few paths through the tall grass for human access, while leaving the grass untouched along the banks to give the fish cover. Though the creeks themselves were only eight or 10 feet across, the owners had added rocks to create pools as much as 6 feet deep. My club handbook said trout exceeding 18 inches lurked there: pigs in a bathtub. I glimpsed long shadows ghosting through the deepest holes.
I tied on a big foam grasshopper fly, made three casts over the grass and into a riffle ... and fooled a 16-inch rainbow trout to the surface. Five minutes later Kara reeled in a 14-inch rainbow.
"It's going to be a good day," she said as she released it. (Fishing at club properties is usually catch-and-release.)
I walked up the stream and hooked into another hard-fighting rainbow. Peter — a gentle, genteel man who looks ironed even in waders — clapped politely.
"It's tricky fishing," he said, untangling his line from the grasses. He got his chance soon enough, landing a brown trout with pink polka dots, then hooked into a football-fat rainbow that broke off when it saw the net, taking half of Peter's rig with it.
"Eighteen inches?" I asked after an appropriate moment of silence.
"I'm sticking with 28," Peter replied.
Two other fishermen arrived: white-haired men in a Range Rover who smoked cigars and seemed as though they could have fished wherever they wanted. They yanked trout after trout out of their corner of the property before leaving at lunchtime. We fished until the heat chased us into the Mi Casita cantina in Carbondale for enchiladas and beer. A family-friendly town of 6,400 that was once a bedroom community for Aspen, Carbondale has since developed a mountain town/hippie vibe in the shadow of twin-peaked Mount Sopris.
Later we returned to the ranch to try our luck on a stretch of the Roaring Fork River, which abuts the property — part of the longest piece of gold medal water in the state. The trout here go wild each summer during the river's famed hatch of green drake mayflies, but this year's drought had spurred the insects to arrive early, and we missed the frenzy.
Overall, between the spring creeks, the ponds and the river, we landed and released perhaps 15 trout on our first day. I hooked more daisies than fish. But counting seemed almost vulgar. The day was too nice to reduce to a number.
The White River, our destination the following day, was a question mark. Google knew next to nothing about it. The angling club called the river, which begins in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area east of Meeker, "one of Colorado's most productive rivers."
We woke early again and drove a gravel byway through the Flat Tops mountains, waving to sleepy Peruvian sheepherders on horseback. We arrived 90 minutes later in a snug valley where aspens met sagebrush at the river's edge.
The three-quarter-mile stretch along the upper White at Sleepy Ass Ranch, a small donkey and horse farm below the one-blink village of Buford, was the kind of river I was more familiar with: a freestone river, 50 feet wide, cobbled with pink and gray stones. Shallow riffles led to deeper pools. Willows crowded the banks.
Peter immediately caught three whitefish, those bottom-feeding bane of trout hunters. I walked upstream, where the river deepened and slowed, and tied on a fat, rubber-legged stimulator with a tomato-red belly. Cast. Cast. Nothing. A few steps upstream. Cast. Cast.
The fish came up for the dry fly slowly, almost lazily, with the entitled nonchalance of a fat man reaching for a profiterole. It was 20 inches long, and so wide-bodied that I imagined that I'd hooked the fender of a '57 Chevy. He fought hard. Eventually, one of the landowners appeared. Behind him, several kids were stuffed in the car. We told him we were on our way upriver. He shook his head and pointed downstream.
"Just yesterday a five-pounder broke my rod in three places. I'm headed to Orvis to get another," he said.
We shook him as quickly as was polite and beelined to the so-called "Donkey Pool." In the next 15 minutes I hooked into three big boys, including one that ripped the line from my reel. I lost all three.
That afternoon we sat in the shade of a cabin on the farm and dozed and chatted in the kiln heat. We agreed on the main problem with this property: access. Unlike at Gianinetti Ranch, here willows and barbed-wire fences kept a fisherman from much of the river, unless he waded upstream through the grabby current. Even a few stiles, or steps, over the fences, and a few portals hacked through the willows would be an improvement, Peter said. He wasn't sure today was worth $90. Others have different concerns with the growing pay-to-play trend in the Great Outdoors, especially in Colorado.
"When these clubs provide access that otherwise wouldn't exist, that's a good thing," Randy Hampton, spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, an agency that has been working in recent years with landowners to buy access easements for all, told me. However, when businesses compete with the state to open these areas but provide access only to those who can afford to pay, it raises questions about the commercialization of wildlife and has the potential to harm efforts to get new people into outdoor sports like hunting and fishing, said Hampton.
On the other hand, under the club's model the rancher gets money and incentive to keep his property undeveloped and accessible to fishermen. A business thrives. And fishermen get a cool experience at a reasonable price.
That evening we drove about 80 miles on scenic byways north to Steamboat Springs, a ranching burg-cum-ski town of 12,000 outdoorsy residents who squeeze in as much fishing, biking and rafting as possible during northern Colorado's short, sweet summers. Before the drought had closed some rivers and jumbled our plans, we had hoped to rent a cabin in the Flat Tops and fish there. Steamboat turned out to be a great alternative base, however; it sits within 75 minutes' drive of numerous Rocky Mountain Angling Club properties, and has plenty of restaurants and hotels — not to mention the weekly Steamboat Springs Pro Rodeo Series from late June through mid-August.
We'd planned to fish the Yampa River below Lake Catamount, where the size of the trout is said to be rivaled only by their number. But the Yampa near Steamboat was a tepid trickle, with a voluntary recreation closure in place.
So we gave the club a call and soon were headed 11 miles west of town to Camilletti Ranch, where the Yampa was broader than in town. Above the river hide-colored hills humped off toward the green peaks of the Park Range. It was an expansive, Western, take-a-deep-breath kind of place.
River monsters live at Camilletti. My handbook talked of trout over 24 inches in its half-mile of pools, runs and riffles. It warned, too, of shrewd fish and challenging waters. Uh oh. Peter and I were about to find out just how difficult the fishing was: We stripped woolly buggers back and forth through the deep holes. We plopped chunky hoppers on the surface. We flogged the slow water and we flogged the fast water. Nothing.
Then, at 10 o'clock, Peter noticed swallows fighter-planing over the water downstream. They were feasting on something.
"Pale morning duns!" he hollered from across the river, suggesting that one of the early-summer insects was hatching there. Circles of rising fish puckered the water. It could have been raining for all the dimples.
We scrambled to tie on new flies. Within five minutes I latched onto an 18-inch rainbow. Within the next 20 minutes three more rainbows parabolaed our rods. Then, as quickly as it began, the feeding frenzy shut down. Crazed by success, we tried everything. But whatever magic turned the fish on was spent.
The last morning, with Peter and Steve departed, I parked at the Wattenburg Ranch outside the town of Walden. It was dawn. Below me was the North Fork of the North Platte River. Cattle called in dewy fields. Coyotes yipped at a failing moon. The tableau could have been a Russell Chatham painting.
The two miles of the river that slither through the upper ranch didn't seem like much — maybe three or four feet deep, and so tortured with oxbows that on my map the river was a writhing snake.
"You can catch 16-inch fish anywhere," a guide at the Steamboat Flyfisher fly shop said when I told him where I was headed. "You go to the North Platte for one thing." He didn't have to say more: I knew the stories of the 30-inch browns that sulk under those "cutbanks" that the twisting river chewed into the shoreline.
There was just one problem: This was expert water, and I was just that novice in leaky waders. I worked my way downstream chucking streamer after streamer toward the cutbank and stripping it back with little jerks to imitate a swimming bait fish. But those browns didn't want anything I tossed their way. In four hours I caught just one (modest) fish. A duck quacked its verdict from the tall grass.
Here's the sacrilege: I didn't mind at all. I spent half of my time looking at the scenery instead of fishing, happy to have the place to myself. I watched a heron unfold and lift off on origami wings. I watched cattle graze on the shadows of drifting clouds. I finally understood why I'm so crazy for fishing: It's a license to be 8 years old again, when I used to ramble in the forest outside my house for hours, following no path, picking up squishy things, forgetting about everything else until my mother's dinner whistle called me home.
When I'm fishing, I'm always 8 years old.