Guest Blog Post by Troy Hythecker
One evening I was sitting in my recliner searching the internet on my phone and I somehow stumbled upon a strange event called a "flyathlon." As an avid fly-fisherman and middle-aged athlete looking for a better reason to get in shape, I was curious enough to click on the link and discover more. As I poked around the site, I saw pictures of people running and catching fish with a Rocky Mountain background. I found myself wishing I lived closer to the Rockies so that I could participate in the event, but as an Iowa resident I resigned myself to the possibility of someday scheduling a vacation around a flyathlon.
A few weeks later, I caught word that there would be a flyathlon in the Driftless area! I was so excited that I would have the chance to participate in such an exciting event so close to home. I set a reminder for the registration date and was one of the first to sign up. I stepped up my daily jogging and got in better shape to be sure that I could run the 5 miles without stopping. Since I had never fished Paint Creek, I showed up a day early and spent some time fishing along the race route, finding the holes and seeing if I could entice some fish to chase my flies. I had some success locating fish and was confident in my flies.
The next day, the flyathletes started rolling in to the campground. We enjoyed chatting, sharing stories, all of us excited and a little unsure of what to expect. We sat around a crackling campfire with a cold craft beer and discussed our strategies for the race, shared stories of catching trout, discussed our favorite creeks and had a great time. We went to bed and woke up the next morning, took the hay rack ride to the start area and before we knew it, the BB gun was fired into a can of beer to start the race and the race was off!
I ran a couple miles to the first hole I had scouted, and after a few casts and drifts, a nice 13" rainbow went for my black wooly bugger! I fumbled through my pack to find my race bib, snapped a picture, carefully released the fish and started jogging down the trail. My heart was thumping from the excitement of landing the fish so quickly and then I realized, "Maybe I could win this thing!" I kept jogging along, straining, switching my rod from one hand to another to get comfortable and then before I knew it, I rounded the last bend and the finish line was in sight. As I huffed and puffed down the last quarter mile, I decided to give it one last kick at the end just like I did back in my glory days of running track. I finished!
After catching my breath, I grabbed a nice cold beer out of the cooler and waited for the other people to finish. As it turned out, I was the second to cross the line and a person behind me caught the biggest fish of the day which leapfrogged him above me, so I finished third. After the race, we went back to the campsite, enjoyed an amazing BBQ meal, distributed the prizes and swag, and we went our separate ways.
For the next several years, this would be my routine... eagerly wait for the email anticipating when the next date would be, set a reminder to sign up when registration opened, do some running to train, show up at the event, meet great people, enjoy the event, and do it all again next year... until 2020.
Like we all have experienced, 2020 has been a disappointing year with almost everything I enjoy being cancelled. For a while I was holding out hope that perhaps the flyathlon might be able to go on as normal since it was in the fall, but then the inevitable happened and the news was announced that the flyathlon as it was would not be happening this year, but it would be a "socially distanced" flyathlon.
I tried to get excited about it. I still set my reminder and signed up as soon as possible. I had visions of making this the year I would crush it with fundraising, I would go fishing several times until I caught that 20"+ Iowa brown trout and would run a half-marathon the same day. I'd figure out the points and maybe I could win this year.
But that wasn't meant to be. Shortly after the flyathlon started, some good friends of mine were in a bad car accident and nearly lost their lives. Their kids started a "Go Fund Me" to help with medical expenses and to replace their lost wages, and I couldn't bring myself to share a post asking money for trout when people I loved were fighting for their lives. Without the specific date on the calendar, I lost a little bit of the drive to keep my running mileage up and without the anticipation of gathering together with great people in the driftless, the flyathlon went on the back burner and I lost interest.
I did meet up with a friend for a couple days of trout fishing and caught a beautiful 16" brown a couple weeks ago, but I forgot my race bib at home and my back was too sore to run. With only a week to go until the Halloween deadline, I had raised $0 and the opportunities to fish were dwindling. After looking at my crammed calendar, I only had one window of opportunity- a few hours available on a Wednesday morning that I could take off work and flex some time so that I could make a quick jaunt up to my most-frequented stream, catch a fish quickly, get back to work, then go for a run in the evening. My wife and I discussed whether it was worth it or not, maybe I should just not do it this year, but in the end I decided to go and keep my streak of competing in every Driftless Flyathlon alive.
I arrived at Catfish Creek (great name for a trout stream, right?!), slipped on my waders and briskly started walking to my dependable honey hole, carrying a Febreze scented trash bag along the way to pick up any trash I could find so that I could get some points for the community service project. I got to the hole, tied on a size 16 red Copper John behind a Frenchie and sure enough, I caught a pretty 11.5" rainbow after just a few drifts. I snapped the picture, released the fish and meandered down the stream to see if I could find a bigger one while stooping to pick up some litter along the way.
As I walked back up the hill to my car, I thought about the flyathlons gone by and the disappointment of this one. I missed the camaraderie and conversations, the adrenaline at the start, the pulled pork sandwich after the finish and the whole experience of being together with great people in the heart of the Driftless. But even though this flyathlon was different, I discovered some unexpected lessons.
The simple act of taking a garbage bag with me to pick up a few pieces of trash changed the whole experience for me. Instead of just seeing the stream as a resource- something that provides me with solitude, pleasure and an occasional trout, I felt like a steward- that in a small way, I had a part to play in making the stream a better place for the people who would walk the same trail in the future. Over the years of competing in the flyathlon, I'm not as motivated to try to win, the "wins" are meeting a new person and sharing the experiences with others, and passing on a passion for fly fishing to people who are just learning. My hesitation to ask people for money when there are so many other pressing needs has been overcome- if people want to give, they will and if they don't, they won't. Even if they don't give, my simple act of sharing and asking will raise awareness about a precious resource that we often take for granted.
Although the 2020 Driftless Flyathlon was not my favorite, I will always remember it and the unexpected discoveries I learned along the way.
Guest Blog Post by Bryon Powell of irunfar.com
What an odd year it's been! I raced two on-snow ultramarathons last winter before having March's White Mountains 100 Mile cancelled just a week before it was to take place. From the Hardrock 100 to the Middle Creek Flyathlon, such would be the case with my in-person racing for the year: canceled! Fortunately, Running Rivers stepped in provide me with two sources of inspiration: the Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge (SDFC) and the standing Troutman challenge.
As a recovering attorney (don't hold it against me!), I'm a rule follower... but I also look to see where advantage can be found within regulations. With my skillset (good runner, crappy fisherman), the SDFC's rules suggested that I cover a lot of ground while more or less catching whatever fish I could quickly land along the way. That line of thinking quickly led to me considering a run from in or above Leadville, Colorado downstream along the Arkansas River for as far as I could make it in a day. Somewhere along the way I'd a quick fish on be on my way. Fortunately, my plan evolved!
Last autumn, I attempted the Troutman challenge for the first time and failed miserably. With races and work travel off my calendar for the summer, I caught a case of Troutman fever. I tried Trout from below the Rio Grande Reservoir to Cunningham Gulch and, then, that route in reverse. I tried from Molas Pass to above the Rio Grande Reservoir... and back. I believe it was on my sixth or seventh attempt of the year... an intended recon-only outing on the Piños River that I finally ran a successful Troutman. Not long after, I was crewing my wife on a Nolan's 14 attempt in the Sawatch Range, when I fished Chalk Creek. A few days later, I had another Troutman there. It was at this point, I began considering fishing Chalk Creek during my long SDFC day. What if... I tried to Troutman... during it?! Could I Troutman AND run 100 miles in one outing? There was only one way to find out! (Over the next few weeks, I made a few additional Troutman attempts. Failing along the Piños and from Purgatory to Cunningham Gulch via the Animas, while succeeding on another attempt based around Purgatory, up to Hermosa Creek and down to the Animas.)
Well, I couldn't shake the Troutman 100 idea and I started my attempt at 6th and Harrison in Leadville (the start of the Leadville 100 mile run) at midnight on Wednesday, October 7th. The night run from Leadville to Buena Vista was blissful. Just me and silence and the stars. I was a bit wrecked (fatigued glutes) by the time I got to Wright's Lake where I started fishing 45 miles into the effort.
The fishing of Troutman was more challenging than expected. The rainbows weren't biting down low early and they're less common the higher up Chalk Creek one goes. I started off fishing two spots that had yielded rainbows within minutes just two days earlier. In 90 minutes of combined fishing, the lower spot yielded nothing while the second spot was nothing but browns. I tried another fishy spot toward the Mt. Princeton campground. More browns, no bows. Another couple hundred meters upstream and brown, brown, brown, brown, brown. I was about to move on when I decided for five more casts, as they should be rainbows mixed in here. The next fish I hooked was more acrobatic and I saw its silvery flash. Finally, a rainbow, which I landed before moving on.
Later, a cutthroat was even harder to come by. After hours of fishing for cutties near St. Elmo (with handfuls of brookies and a few browns caught), I decided to haul ass 2,400' up to Baldwin Lakes in hopes of catching a cutty before dark. I still can't believe how much of that climb I ran. I fished some plunge pools on the climb with no luck. I did get a strike when the terrain opened up into an amazing cut-bank, s-turn meadow... but the fish were beyond spooky in the crystal clear, glacially-paced stream. So, up to Baldwin Lakes it is. Although, I've never been here, I head straight toward the second of the lower pair of lakes. I see it and my heart sinks. Fish are hitting the surface, but I swear the glassine water looks 10" deep 40' out. How the heck am I gonna get a fly on a fish without spooking it?! Recognizing the futility of simply flinging my fly waterward, I circle the lake looking for the inlet stream. When I find it I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's little more than a trickle into the larger puddle of a lake. Still, it's my one shot, so I pulled out my tenkara, lay down on the rocky shore between the inlet and the lake, and get to casting. Twenty casts in, I get a slow strike and the end of the ripples the stream sending into the lake, but fail on hookset. The same thing happens a few casts later. Another couple casts in and another slow strike. This time I wait. A second slow strike and a third. The fourth strike's a bit more forceful and I finally try to set the hook. Fish on! And it's a cutty. I quickly land it with my heart racing and a huge grin on my face. This last-ditch longshot panned out!
I quickly pack up and head out for the rocky five-mile descent to Chalk Creek Rd. I hit the road and my wife's car just past the marathon mark. I take a chair and pull out an AleSmith Speedway Stout I'd carried for 192 miles of previous failed Troutman attempts and 10 more miles this day. It takes me a while to down the 16 ounces, but I do so happily. I finish the beer and, with it, close out this Troutman in 11:28.
I get up and continue running down the Chalk Creek drainage and, then, the highway toward Poncha Springs. I manage 93.6 miles before my SDFC 24 hours are up. Still wanting to complete the Troutman 100, I walk out the remainder of the 100 miles on the Salida cutoff while dealing with anterior tibialis and stomach issues.
All in all, I'm psyched with the effort and experience. It was a gorgeous day throughout, the Sawatch Range and Arkansas River Valley didn't disappoint, and Meghan was an incredible crew. Thanks, too, to all of you who shared some love along the way!
Guest Blog Post by Stacey Wall
I’m posting my flyathlon adventure in Rocky Mountain National Park as a tribute, in hopes that the East Troublesome fire has not destroyed one of the most beautiful spots on the planet…
My flyathlete husband Dan and I spent five days in RMNP this past July, revisiting a trail we explored over a decade ago! We entered at the North Inlet and hiked a counterclockwise loop on the North Inlet and Tonahutu Creek Trail. The first day was a gradual climb to Ptarmigan, followed by an epic day two with 12 miles and 4500 ft elevation change over Flattop Mountain following a stunning high alpine trail. Just a mile or so past our next campsite was Haynach Lake, perfect for a very quick cold swim and a long fruitful morning of fishing for cutthroat! Full disclosure: I didn’t run, although I’m counting this as my flyathlon run considering the added effort of carrying my backpack! The next two days were a gradual descent past Granite Falls to Big Meadow. Along the way we encountered mountain goat, elk, marmot, moose, and countless birds. Zero humans, the perfect socially distanced wilderness adventure.
Thanks to Andrew and the Running Rivers Board, and to all of you flyathletes for contributing to the cause preserving our native trout habitat.
Run. Fish. Beer. 6 feet apart.
Guest Blog Post by Patrick McCue
This is my third flyathlon—the Iowa version. The one that requires a disclaimer—there is trout fishing in Iowa (there are people in Iowa). The first two were spectacular community events a few miles north of where I’m standing now, alone in the dark in the parking lot at Effigy Mounds which may soon be Iowa’s first national park. I would love to be swapping beers later with fellow flyathletes, but we’re all aware of the recommendations against that. Working at a hospital, I feel like even more like a biohazard. I know I won’t see anyone this early, that’s the point, but I will get to see the sunrise over the Mississippi River by the time I turn around. It’s cold and dark, but it feels fantastic. This is my first fishing day since March.
The other reason for standing alone in this parking lot in the dark is that I promised I’d be back home by early afternoon. I have a three month old, which is the primary reason that fishing has been scarce this year. His name is Henry and his fingers are the perfect size for tying size 22 dries, but his coordination isn’t quite adequate. To run, to fish, and to beer all before noon required a 3am alarm, which really isn’t an odd time to be awake lately.
To this point, I’ve read a few other trip reports. Like another flyathlete group, I have run over Pawnee Pass west of Nederland, CO. My route today won’t compare, but the trail sign does warn of 300ft elevation gain in the first half mile. That’s worth one bonus point to my flyathlon total. Plus, it makes me feel like a legitimate trail runner.
Off I go up that first 300 feet, and I’m in my heart rate red zone immediately. I don’t typically wear a fancy watch when running, but I need to track this run and my wife’s teal Garmin is buzzing on my wrist telling me to slow it down. It is worried about heart attack. I know I am supposed to warm up, but who has time for that when there are baby diapers waiting to be changed by two this afternoon? I do trip once on a root in the dark which is a bit embarrassing, but more worrying because I’m a dad now—elderly—so I need to be careful. Before long, I’m at the turn around point. I’m overlooking the Mississippi, barges passing below, sun on my face, and cool air helping to slow my thumping heart. It is my first time back to the Driftless, that odd pocket of hills and dales in the upper Midwest filled with coldwater trout fisheries, since March, since Henry. It is uplifting to be here, it feels right, it gives me a sense that my identity is still intact and fulfills the vision I have of myself—you know, Simms hat, slightly unshaven, drinks craft beers sitting in the back of my Subaru. (If only I had a Tacoma…)
But there’s no time for standing around. I need to maximize my fishing time because it will be very embarrassing if I go fishless. I did this on my first flyathlon. In fact, many of us went fishless that year so there was no shame around the campfire that night, but it is harder to explain later to family and friends—“the water wasn’t quite right”, or “they were really picky fish”, or “I’m just not good at fishing”.
And the first fish I catch is a stocked rainbow. Who cares? I might have cared at one point, but this is the first fish I have caught in months. And it is in my net before I’m untangling my line from a bush or tree overhead (note to visitors to the Driftless: creeks can be small and the same fertile soil that produces more corn than any nation needs produces some bushy banks).
The day couldn’t be more beautiful. Nobody else is on this stretch of stream, a heron passes over and then a hawk too. I catch some more fish, none to write home about, but they are forgiving of my rusty casts and they make me smile when I’m sitting in the back of my Subaru with a craft beer, wiping my brow under my Simms hat and enjoying the resurrection of such an important part of my life and looking forward to the days when I have traded in changing Henry’s diapers for convincing him trout fishing is indeed more interesting than Fortnite or untangling his line from countless bushes while hoping that he isn’t watching my casting form too closely as he takes up fishing and as he learns to love the sound of water weaving through riffles and gulping past submerged boulders or the sight of a trout rising on the far bank or the sunrise coming up over the stream or the taste of riverside coffee or whiskey or beer or the taste of dirt when he face plants from catching his toe on a tree root trying to run up a steep hill at five in the morning or the sense of satisfaction he will have when he ties his first size 22 dry for dad to cast into a bush or tree.
Guest Blog by Katie Burgert of Fish Untamed
After taking my first trip to the Sangre de Cristos for a quick backpacking trip over the 4th of July (where I unexpectedly crossed paths with Andrew Todd, as he mentioned in his post below!), I was itching to get back to the area. The relatively light hiking traffic, lakes in every drainage, and eager fish made it an angler’s paradise.
We decided to head back to the Sangres the following weekend to get our Flyathlon entries. The goal was to find a drainage with a really long day hike and the possibility of catching a decent fish. A bit of Googling led us to the Xxxxx Lakes, just south of our previous backpacking loop.
The trail was marked as 13.7 miles roundtrip, perfect for getting some Flyathlon points and for earning our post-hike beers. We set out just after 6 a.m. According to the logbook at the Wilderness entrance, we were the first group of the day, and one of only two groups currently in the Wilderness area.
Despite the length, the trail was pleasantly flat. Not flat flat. But, compared to other trails in the Sangres, it might as well have been. The gradual ascent from start to finish kept our heart rates up but still allowed us to chat about the deer, waterfalls, and wildflowers we were seeing along the way.
The first lake we hit was Xxxxx Lake, which was relatively shallow and had an amazing backdrop. A quintessential pyramid-shaped mountain stood in the background, and this mountain divided the upper two lakes, Xxxxx Lake and Yyyyy Lake. A friend of a friend who’d been to the area before gave us some intel on the fishing. According to him, the lower lake was packed with small cutthroats, while the upper lakes held larger, pickier ones. Based on his information, we came up with a fishing plan. Considering the length and altitude of the hike, getting stormed out was a real possibility. While we wanted to catch the biggest fish we could, coming home fishless would have killed our Flyathlon plans. We decided to start at the lower lake and hopefully get a fish on the board regardless of size. Then, if the weather held out, we’d continue up toward Yyyyy Lake to see if we could catch a lunker.
The fish in the lower lake were harder to catch than we anticipated. They seemed wary of everything we threw, and after 45 minutes or so, we’d only landed one fish each. That was fine by us, as we had bigger fish to fry (not literally). After getting our photo evidence, we packed up and started up one of the only steep trail sections of the day. The word “trail” is a stretch for this section. It was mostly a line of trampled grass passing by occasional cairns, clearly not a heavily used area.
Yyyyy Lake appeared to be much deeper than its lower partner, and we could immediately see massive fish cruising the shelves. The advice we were given rang true, as these fish were quite picky, often rising near the surface only to turn away at the last second. Many also swam by without giving our flies any attention at all. I gave up trying to cast to fish I could see, since they seemed to be just as aware of my presence as I was of theirs.
On a long, blind cast way off the shelf, I finally got what I came for: a slow, methodical rise from a massive fish. After a long fight and barking some netting instructions to my boyfriend, we finally landed it. It filled the net and then some. Unfortunately, as I lifted the fish for a photo, it mustered one big flop and sent itself back into the lake. While I wish I’d been able to submit it for points, I’ll settle for the memory of watching my biggest cutthroat to date (based on measurements of my net, I’m guessing between 19 and 20 inches), sip a small dry fly from a glassy lake.
Not long after, I was able to land one more fish from Yyyyy Lake, another nice cutthroat that ended up becoming my submission fish. At 16 inches, it was no monster, but its plump belly and vivid colors still made for an awesome catch and photo. A storm sent us packing after another couple casts, and we spent the long walk back trying to stay dry and keeping the dog calm while thunder cracked overhead.
We rewarded ourselves afterward with a quick stop in town for burgers and our first sampling of Rocky Mountain oysters, a great way to cap off a memorable fishing trip.
Guest Post by Ashley Rust
I am lucky enough to say that I have been a participant in the Flyathlon since the beginning, back to the beta-phase, when our great leader, Andrew Todd, was fleshing out the idea and organized an unofficial trial run. Every year since, I participate, volunteer or support the Flyathlon in some way and every year I walk away totally inspired. This year was different, it is 2020, but I still walked away uplifted and inspired.
Gwen Nelson, an old friend from Creede and a fellow Flyathlete and I encouraged each other to register for the first ever Socially Distanced Flyathlon and made plans to meet later in the summer. I hadn’t seen my friend since leaving the Middle Creek Flyathlon last summer. The day came and we met at a trailhead outside of Buena Vista.
My girl, Gwen had done her research and found a trail to a high alpine lake with cutthroat trout in it. The trail for Kroenke Lake, shares a trailhead with Mt. Harvard and both are well utilized and well-maintained trails. The trail to Kroenke Lake was gorgeous with a lot of exposure to North Cottonwood Creek, which is a good sized stream with a lot of fishy habitat. However, our destination was the beautiful cirque lake 8 miles up.
We got caught up as we hiked, covered it all as girlfriends can do and arrived at the lake midday. It was full of people but there was plenty of room and fish for everyone. After setting up, trying a few different flies we both joyously caught some gorgeous cutthroat trout. It was my first time catching our state’s beauty on a fly, and to add to the kismet, I used a packable Rolling River Anglers rod created by a Running Rivers board member which I purchased at a Rare-Fish-Rare-Beer fundraiser a few years ago.
We finished the day with our feet in the Arkansas River, the local Eddyline beer in our hands feeling elated. It was a highlight of my COVID summer. Thank you Flyathlon for getting me out on an adventure and for introducing me to the joy of catching our mighty natives.
Guest Blog Post by David Fawcett
I started fly fishing about a year ago, and hadn’t really run for about 10 years until March, when I started running with my daughter as her soccer training went virtual due to Covid isolation. Running felt great as my mileage increased, and trout fishing provided a great escape from the realities of the first half of 2020.
This made me super psyched when I found Flyathlon and the Socially Distant Flyathlon Challenge. It gave me license to create an adventure, set some goals, train for something, and do some good in the process.
The Minnesota Driftless has over 700 miles of designated trout streams, including 221 miles of angling easements on private land, plus access in Minnesota State Parks and State Forests. Some of my favorite creeks range from street to sidewalk width. You can catch native Brook Trout, naturally reproducing Brown Trout, stocked Rainbow Trout, and the pretty rare Brookie - Brown hybrid Tiger Trout.
I started my challenge day early, parking at the approach before sunrise. Corn all around, no moon, stars and planets still glowing. I brewed up some coffee in the Jetboil and sipped it until it was light enough to start. When I got to the stream, it was lower than the last time that I had been there, with a slight stain in the pools. The stream-side vegetation was a lot taller too, overhead in a lot of places. A hot day, but the water temp in this Driftless spring fed creek was in the low 60s.
No rising fish in the first pool, so I rigged up a #18 rusty brassie below a local favorite heavy Pink Squirrel variant. I caught a really small Brown Trout at the top of that pool, and was relieved to have at least circumvented the DNC (Did Not Catch) designation. Some more Browns in the 10” range took the brassie as I headed upstream, and then things shut down despite changing my approach several times.
My designated turn-around point was a rock at the top of a pool where I had been about a month before with an awesome local guide. We had watched a good-sized trout sit up against that rock and gulp insects off of the surface as they floated by. We had both made casts to the fish and coaxed it to strike, but neither one of us was able to connect with it.
On this day, I stopped at the bottom of the pool and watched the rock for a while, but there were no rises. After tangling up my double-nymph rig to the point of no return, I cut it off so I could just tie on a new one. As I started, from behind my back, I heard it, “slurp...”.
New plan! I attached a #18 Missing Link Caddis that I had tied myself, and after several attempts, placed the long cast where I wanted it. The fly drifted right past the Brown, and he grabbed it. I kept him out of the late-season vegetation, landed him, took some quick pictures, and made sure that he was ready to swim away so we can play the same game again next time.
What an awesome start to the day! Fishing alone on a beautiful, isolated stream, and for the first time, catching a trout on a dry fly that I had tied myself. Confident that I would not be able to top that for the day, I wrapped up my line and hiked back out to the car.
For the running portion of the challenge, I headed over to Whitewater State Park. The park is 100 years old, with the Whitewater River and another trout stream running through it. There are some really spectacular overlooks on the bluffs, and some cool Depression era CCC construction in the valley. You can also fish for trout in the park all year round with a catch and release season after the traditional season ends in September.
When I started to scope out a place to run, I realized that Whitewater had about 12 miles of trails, and it really was a classic representation of the topography, geology, and fisheries of the Minnesota Driftless.
I started on the Dakota trail in the valley, ran up past a couple hundred million years of paleozoic rock, and deposits of rock dust ground up by the Late Wisconsin glaciers that missed this part of the state. From the top of the bluff, I headed back down to the floor for an out and back along Trout Run Creek, and then up a few hundred stair steps to the rim and on to Inspiration Point. I worked my way counter-clockwise through the park trails, with several more trips up and down the scarp. I hit 10 miles, realized that I had enough to complete the full 12, and then finished my run at the swimming beach for some natural cryotherapy, soaking in the cold, spring-fed pool.
After driving back home I wound down with a False Pattern from Modist Brewing and a Garden Rager from Wild Mind Artisan Ales. I am already excited for the Driftless Area Flyathlon in person in 2021!
Guest Blog Post by Flyathlete Adam Pate
Distance: 28.13 miles
Elevation Gain: 6,898 ft
Flyathletes: Ben Wostoupal, Jonathan Neugebauer, and Adam Pate (author)
With little training and lots of ambition, we decided to run the Pawnee-Buchanan Loop in the Indian Peaks Wilderness last Sunday (August 9th, 2020) and fish Pawnee Lake along the way. Following standard adventure-planning protocol, we concocted this plan only a few days prior over a couple pints at Upslope Brewery in Boulder, CO. “It’ll be great!” we said. “It’s only slightly longer than a marathon,” conveniently leaving out the fact that we’d also be going up and down the equivalent of 4.5 times the height of Empire State building, completely self-supported, and with all of our fishing gear.
We met at the Long Lake Trailhead near Brainard Lake at 5am, finished our coffees, and set out with our headlamps on toward Buchanan Pass. Despite being able to taste the smoke from the forest fires raging in Grand Junction, we were setting a good pace until I got my foot snagged on a root that ripped a 2” hole in the top of my right shoe about a mile and a half into our run. Fortunately, I had some tape in my first-aid kit and was able to patch it up. By now, as the sun started to peak out, our mantra was quickly becoming “If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough”, so we stashed our headlamps, delayered, and kept cruising up to Buchanan Pass. Upon reaching the pass, we welcomed the strong wind while we chowed some food and slugged our waters. “10 miles down, 18 to go,” we said.
The backside of Buchanan Pass was a blast. The trail was well-defined, albeit fast and loose, but the downhill single-track running that this section had to offer was a dream. It began in the high alpine and switch-backed down into beautiful meadows of wildflowers and perennial spring creeks as the headwaters fused together forming Buchanan Creek. Around mile 15 or so, we were running low on water and our bodies began to creak like rusty machines. “We’ve got to be getting close to Pawnee Lake, right?” Jon asked. “So close,” I replied confidently. I was wrong. We still had another 5 or 6 miles of grueling uphill trail to go. Stubbornly refusing to stop and fill our water bottles from the creek that we must have crossed four or five times, we trudged onward as our vision hazed from either dehydration or the ever-present smoke from the forest fires.
Finally, at mile 22, there it was. Beautiful and picturesque, it looked like an oasis. If you haven’t been, Pawnee Lake is a remarkable place. It is a sub-alpine lake with conifers and cliff bands lining the Northwest shores and exposed scree and rock outcrops lining the Southeast shores. Needless to say, the stoke was high. We kicked our shoes off immediately and soaked our feet while making absurd dad noises and old man grunts. After guzzling as much water as our bodies could absorb, we got to business. We each tied on a different dry fly and began casting. Within two or three casts each, we all had caught beautiful cutthroats ranging in size from 8-12”. We could’ve fished for hours, but, alas, the climb up Pawnee Pass loomed over us like a specter of eminent pain. “The sooner we do this, the sooner we get back to the car and the cooler full of ice cold beer,” I said, more trying to convince myself than the other two guys.
Fueled by pizza, pb&j sandwiches, pickles and coca-cola, we set off on the final climb of the loop—a mile-long, 1,500 ft climb through scree and talus up to Pawnee Pass at 12,500 ft. About half way up, we stopped for a breather and sat down of some boulders. Those boulder felt so comfortable that we could’ve lived there forever. I even began to imagine what ptarmigan would tasted like. It’s basically a mountain chicken, right?
After what felt like an eternity, we approached the pass, stopped for an obligatory photo with the sign and made our way down toward Lake Isabelle then to Long Lake. The last few miles to the car felt like a blur, but we ran all of them. After about 11 hours, we had finally made it. We were done.
Guest Entry by Driftless Flyathlete Dave Kuntzleman
After hearing that the Driftless Flyathlon (my favorite event of the year) would be cancelled and it would be replaced with a virtual Flyathlon this year, I quickly decided it was time to do the Chicago Carp Marathon. It’s a ridiculous idea I had been kicking around for quite some time- and now I had no excuse not to do it.
I started out on a nice cool Friday morning on July 31 and was on the road at 6:15 to see the sun coming up over Lake Michigan. The route for the day would follow the shoreline of Lake Michigan up, cross to the Chicago River and follow it down to the fishing spot, then cross back to Lake Michigan and take the trail back towards home- combination of mixed use trail and streets with a little bit of “Chicago single track” thrown in for good measure.
The first 15-or-so miles clicked off pretty easily. It was a beautiful morning as I set an easy pace listening to the LM waves crashing on the shore. Chicago is flat as hell so I threw in a few hill repeats for some “elevation gain” over at Mt Trashmore (65 feet…) on my cut west to another trail along the Chicago River.
I hit my canoe at mile 15 “the turnaround” so I had to have to the traditional whiskey shot. Except in this case it was a local barrel aged Malort- Chicago’s finest liquor. Nothing better than a 9 am shot! I got the canoe in the river and paddled down to my favorite carp flat. Solo carping in the canoe is always tough but it’s doable. I gave myself about 3 hours to fish the area before I’d give up and begin the trek home. My goal was a 24+ inch fish.
An hour-and-change of seeing few large fish and having no good shots at them had me a little anxious. But this is how carping tends to go. I finally decided to just take what I could get and take the pressure off. So I presented to the next fish I saw and quickly stuck an 18”er. Got the photos I needed and was feeling better. But I still had plenty of time so why not try for an upgrade? Soon I saw her- a solid fish cruising looking for a meal. It took a couple casts to get it right and she sucked the fly down on the drop! I set the hook and she tore off towards the middle of the river and deeper water. I started back paddling my canoe off the flat while attempting to keep tension on her. I cleared the flat and tightened up the drag just as I started to see backing coming off the reel. A few minutes and another line peeling run later I managed to bring her in and she’s in the net, in the boat and onto the tape! Just the fish I was looking for- a fat 29” carp! I quickly snapped a few pics and got her back into the water. She gave a good splashy kick and she was off! Mission accomplished and feeling good! Time to head back to the ramp and finish the back half of this run!
On the way out I happen to see a couple tossing something off the pedestrian bridge into the river. “Great” I think “Now I have to go pick up after someone.” I roll over to the bridge to find something that I wasn’t expecting- a Santeria sacrifice. I paddle up on a dozen of yellow roses and four headless chickens floating in the water. I leave them alone. Here’s hoping it helps their loved one recover from whatever is ailing them. The local snapping turtles- most the size of garbage can lids- will take care of it, regardless.
I got back to the launch and get the canoe put away. Now it’s time for the home stretch! Just 11-or-so miles to go with a stop along the way celebratory beer! I head east back to the lakeshore for a few miles, hit Cricket Hill for a few more mini hill repeats (not worth it) then head over to Half Acre Brewing Co. I manage to snag an open patio seat and enjoy a Steve (Kolsch) and a The Art of Holding Space (a 3% “hydrating” table beer).
With the final part of my Run- Fish- Beer finished it’s time for the last mile home! Overall it was a great full day enjoying my 3 favorite things.
Guest Blog by Paul Kusnierz
This morning I participated in my first (socially distanced) flyathon. It was a good one and I think I might be hooked.
At about 6:30, I found myself at the trailhead. When planning this outing the previous night I had grand visions of doing a 15 mile run and catching a 6” redband rainbow trout… but it was too late for me to run that far and still be at my work desk at a reasonable time. The creek I chose to fish comes out of the foothills. While the creek starts at an elevation of greater than 5,000’ among fir and ponderosa forest, it quickly descends to the valley floor where sage and rabbitbrush reign, and it gets hot, 100+ hot. This creek is small, dries up in places, and only contains redband rainbows.
I had heard about these fish and though I’ve driven over the creek many times, never even seen it due to the thick riparian vegetation. The trail started out above the creek with some nice rocks to scramble over (at least that’s what the mountain biker ahead of me was trying to do) then quickly found its way next to the creek. For the majority of the 5.5 miles in to where I planned to fish the slope was relatively consistent but with plenty of short steep spots to slow me down and make breathing a bit more difficult. As I ran, I took in everything I could while remaining upright. I saw bluebirds fly up the trail, observed the handiwork of some beavers, watched the vegetation around me change from grasses and shrubs to trees, and noticed that there is a lot of sand in the creek…
This sand is likely the result of the roads and trails that are ubiquitous in the watershed. While I suspect that the much of the sediment is the result of legacy road building and logging, there were multiple locations where the trail was definitely contributing. It was a reminder that even when in a beautiful place with few people, things aren’t always perfect. I’m thinking some volunteer work to shore up the trail and reduce sedimentation is in my future.
When I reached my planned fishing spot there was some bumbling around before I caught a fish. The creek was choked with brush and I had to remove the leader from my 7.5’ tenkara rod so that I could drop the fly into the creek without getting caught on anything... pieces were lost. However, once I got the parachute blue-winged olive in the right spot, I had a fish on. The 5.5” fish was on the bib for a photo and back in the water quickly. With that I turned around and headed back down the trail. I had planned to only catch one fish (if I caught any) and stuck to it. Knowing that I was going to put in a solid trail run, having landed a trout from a new creek, and assisted by the mostly downhill grade, running out was a breeze.
I did drink a tasty local beer after the run, albeit after my workday. It gave me a chance to consider the morning’s activity. I really like creek fishing. The fish are usually plentiful and willing to bite and competition from other anglers isn’t a concern. Running along that creek before and after fishing gave me a different perspective than driving up and hopping out of the truck to fish. I saw what was great about the creek, but also what could be better. This creek is very small and conditions are tough for it’s inhabitants. I wouldn’t fish very often; probably only as icing on the top of a good run. But whether or not I fish it, that creek is a special place, like so many others that are out there to be discovered, explored, and protected.