When you’re stripping fly line in the Dolores River, what strikes you about the slopes of the San Juan Mountains looming overhead is their startling redness. The peaks, even the tallest of which has shed its usual snowcap this summer, are full of oxidized iron — quite literally rusting where they sit.
Thanks to the driest winter in 30 years, the spring thaw failed to flush ferrous sediment from the riverbed at our feet. Where the finely rounded freestones would normally shine various colors through the pocket water, when we fished there one day in July, the riverbed was the same crimson shade as the mountainsides above.
But this didn’t stop the trout from biting.
“Right there,” said our guide, John Warren, from Telluride Outside, an outfit in Telluride, Colo., “there’s always trout in there.”
You can’t see them, in only a foot or so of water, the way the surface ripples white over the uneven bottom. But you see them when they slam your dry fly. And you know they’ve got a wild streak the way they make a run for it.
When John netted that first fish, I saw why. It had the characteristic fleshy pink of a rainbow trout down its sides from head to tail, but the belly was a yellowish orange and its back was covered in dark gray spots.
Dubbed a “cut-bow,” it is the result of the crossbreeding of the Dolores River’s indigenous cutthroat population with rainbows that miners brought with them from further west over a century ago.
A few days earlier, as we had driven westward from Boulder and then down out of the mountains towards Grand Junction, my friend Clay and I had seen the wasteland the summer’s forest fires had left behind. The valley walls were riddled with the black husks of scorched trees. In places, the highway itself was even burnt and the yellow lane markers gone where the blaze had crossed it.
In Boulder, where we’d spent the night, a fresh fire poured a sooty cloud over a nearby mountain. When we arrived in Telluride that first night, winding our way along the mountain road to where it sits at the valley’s dead end, the smell of dry timber was constantly sharp in the air — a reminder that it had not rained there in months. We’d seen other signs endlessly since our drive began in Pittsburgh, Pa.; sagging, burnt cornfields from the western foothills of Appalachia through the Midwest to the brown grass and withered creeks of the prairie.
John, our guide, a fellow in his mid-20s with a ponytail and a tousled beard, is a transplant from Seymour, just a few miles north of New Haven. He came out to Telluride two years ago to ski during winters — he confessed, a bit sad-faced, that last year was rather stingy with slope opportunities — and fish during summers.
He also confessed that Colorado’s battle with the fires, as well as Sept. 11, had slowed the usually steady stream of fishing tourists booking trips with Telluride Outside.
But he promised that the recent dry winters — which were to blame for most everything Coloradoans might rightly complain about: the poor ski conditions, the sediment collecting on the river bottoms, the fires — really hadn’t hurt the fishing. If anything, the fact that the usual number of trout are dwelling in less water ought to make the fishing quite exciting.
True or not, this hypothesis certainly seemed to be borne out the day we took to the Dolores. By afternoon, Clay and I had each caught and released a half-dozen cut-bows and cutthroats each, mostly on dry flies.
As we rolled in John’s pickup back past the rusted-out, toppled-over, old mining structure that bears a new-looking sign reading “Welcome to Telluride,” the western wall of the valley cast a long, dark shadow across the town ahead. Thoughts of the day’s fish echoed in our minds like the tackle and boots clanking in the back of the truck.
The next afternoon, Telluride tasted rain for the first time in months.
Many of the locals danced, soaked, out in the streets to the music of water on tin roofs. We enjoyed it, too, knowing we’d soon have to retrace our route back east across the country and, soon enough, back to school.