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Connecting Canyons and Coulees

Article by Paul Vertrees

My work, as with anyone’s, is limited by the hours in a day.  From time to time it pulls me away from the things I hold dear; family, backcountry, and… writing.  My writing suffers from that once in a while, but I try as best I can to return to it when I have something I feel is notable to share, which may or may not be as notable as I think, and more times than not probably isn’t, except in my own mind.

Having visited the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin recently, where I participated in the Midwest Tenkara Fest as a presenter and vendor, and also where I fished for trout for the first time east (if only slightly) of the Mississippi River, and finally where I joined up with several very good friends on the banks of meandering spring creeks and revisited old friendships.

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This is a story about the driftless (or is it a proper noun, being a “place”?)… The Driftless… but it’s also a story about my own semi-desert, ruggedly mountainous, and just south-of-central Colorado canyons at home.  It’s most certainly a story about what fly-fishing author, Ted Leeson, calls the “intimacy of scale”.

I had been interested in The Driftless for some time; fascinated that such a place existed in the company of dairy cows and Amish farmers.  I suppose the years I spent living in the rolling hills of northern Missouri, during assignments in the Army, gave me an understanding of all things Midwest… of hunting whitetails, quail, turkeys, and morel mushrooms, and of misty river bottoms filled with rows of soybeans and corn.

However familiar from past experiences, The Driftless is also distinctly different than my previous time in the Midwest.  Here in The Driftless there are clear, cold spring creeks, and there are trout!  Here in The Driftless there is also that small-scale familiarity with the landscape, and although it’s vastly different than my own canyons here at home, it’s also very much the same.

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I grew up fishing small water, and to this day that’s where I feel most at home.  As a kid I learned how to cast on a ten-foot-wide creek in the Colorado Rockies, one choked with willows and water birch.  Looking down that creek was like looking down into a tunnel, with the upper half of the tunnel leafy and green, and the bottom half of it wet and clear.

There were lots of 7-9 inch brook trout in there, and if you played your cards just right, you might catch one that would go 12, but I can count the number of times that happened, in the span of 18 years spent growing up on that creek, on one hand and still have a thumb left over.  Coming of age on water like that left an indelible mark, and small, tight, difficult places are where I’ve spent the last 40 years fishing my best.

The rugged, narrow, rocky canyons here at home are a great lesson in small water tenkara.  These are the places I refer to generically as “The Canyons”, and they define most of the fishing I do on my own, on those days I’m not guiding clients.   The landscape surrounding the canyons is a labyrinth of nearly bare, rocky, extremely vertical mountains where mule deer, Merriams turkeys, mountain lions, and a scattering of bighorn sheep live among the pinon pines and cactus.  At night ringtails, those little raccoon-like bandidos, scurry around the rocks, and on quiet mornings the descending notes from the canyon wrens flow down the walls.

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These are tiny, quiet canyons that become intensely violent each year when the massive mountain range to the west sheds it’s white winter coat and releases snowmelt some sixty miles downstream.  My good friend and Arkansas River fly fishing legend, Bill Edrington, refers to the headwaters of the Arkansas drainage as “fourteen-thousand-foot-tall ice cubes”, and for good reason.  Good fishing water in the canyons runs at about 25 cubic feet per second, and during peak runoff each year it quickly changes to around 300.  Car-size boulders and hundred-year-old cottonwoods are dislodged, sent tumbling downstream.  Once every few years, some brave soul carries a kayak overland to the canyon, launches, and attempts to ride the creek to its confluence with the next river.  Some make it, some don’t.  Early summer in the canyons is a dangerous time, and both the trout and I seek refuge.

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However, the time just after the ice recedes up until runoff, in other words springtime, is a magical time in the canyons.  These rocky cracks in the earth freeze nearly solid each winter, and the only places the trout can really survive are the deepest bend pools and huge pockets among house-sized boulders.  I often wonder how many trout stack up in dormancy in those places all winter, lining up side-by-side, in a near-coma, waiting for winter to release its icy grip.

Shifting gears of thought and landscape… I recently read the amazingly well written and crafted book, Jerusalem Creek, by Ted Leeson, in preparation for a trip I took to the driftless region of southwest Wisconsin.  Everything Ted wrote about in respect to the small water and scale of the driftless resonated with me, although I live and fish in a dramatically different small-scale place.  Ted’s Driftless is landscape covered by verdant rolling hills and farms… farms totally devoid of the “yard art” and junk so common on the Midwest farms I’m accustomed to.  It’s covered with small, deep valleys called “coulees”, flattened ridgetops and plateaus, and miles upon miles of small, gin-clear spring creeks.

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The coulees and creeks are tiny places you can lose yourself in… just like my rugged, semi-desert canyons.  Where the Driftless spring creeks are surrounded by green hill country and grazing dairy cows, the canyons I call home are hemmed in by towering granite walls, nearly barren except for the scattered cholla cactus and pockets of pinon pine and rocky mountain juniper in the steep washes coming down the sides.  The only green existing in the canyons are the strips of riparian habitat lining the creeks themselves.  Seen from a thousand feet above on the rim of the canyons, the serpentine creek looks as if someone drew a thin green line on either side of it with a piece of chalk.

At first glance, the creeks in the Driftless and in my home canyons seem as different as night and day.  However, once you spend some time watching them, not fishing them, you realize more and more that they have very much in common.  I’ve found  myself guilty of rushing to deploy my tenkara rod and start fishing without really WATCHING water for a while, allowing the creek to divulge its secrets.  Once I really took the time to really watch the water, I noticed that the triple crown of small water features… pools, pockets, and edges… are all there in both places, and there in abundance.

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Where the comparatively slow waters of the spring creeks in the Driftless cover most of those features with glassy smooth pools and runs, although they’re still there, the rushing Colorado canyon creeks shove them into your face with protruding boulders and rock-scoured cottonwood logs.  The trout are still there in each as well, stacked in the bottom of deep bend pools, suspended solo in small pockets, and hidden behind rocks along the edges.   The intimate smallness is there too, and it’s that commonality that draws me to both places more than anything.  The beauty lies in the smallness.

Intimate smallness.  Like Horton discovering Whoville, tenkara anglers (or any anglers for that matter) can discover amazing treasures in the smallest and narrowest of places like the canyons of southern Colorado and the coulees of southern Wisconsin.

It’s that smallness that seems to direct one’s focus and attention, and the tinier the creek the greater the focus.  The screams of red-tailed hawks high on the granite walls along the creek would certainly get lost in the air and space of anything wider, just as the busy rustling of mice in the thick pasture grass along a Driftless stream would surely drift into nothingness, save for the protection of the overhanging hardwoods and narrow span of the creek.  I’ve found my 10-power hand lens much more useful than binoculars in both the coulees and canyons.  Matter of fact, the closer I look at both the coulees and the canyons, the more I learn their secrets.

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I’m not the only tenkara angler who’s noticed the connections between canyons and coulees.  My good friend, Dave, shares my fascination.  You see, Dave hangs his hat in southeast Minnesota, a stone’s throw from The Driftless, having only an hour’s drive through farm country and the Mississippi River between his home and Vernon County, Wisconsin.  I’ve had the pleasure of guiding Dave on some adventurous tenkara trips here in my little Colorado canyons, and in turn he introduced me to The Driftless.  He and I have had some long conversations about the landscapes and the water in both his backyard and mine.  So, not only are the canyons and coulees connected by the beauty of their smallness, they have also provided a connection between two tenkara anglers who absolutely love small, tight places where twelve-inch brown trout are king.

Canyons and coulees;  soft valleys and sharp cracks in the Earth.  Two distinctly different landscapes with a whole lot in common, and the closer you look, the more you will find.

Paul Vertrees was one of the first professional tenkara guides in the US and works as a guide for Royal Gorge Anglers in Cañon City, Colorado. He writes on his personal blog, Tenkara Tracks, as well as various online and print publications.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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