As my brother Mike manhandles his pick-up down a corrugated dirt road toward the High Lonesome Lodge outside DeBeque, Colorado, I gaze out the passenger window and wonder what could coerce a life-long Mainer to these hillsides on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains. I didn't have to wait long for my answer. Just past an antique, single-room school house, we arrive at the lodge and I meet Buzz Cox, the aforementioned Yankee. He tells me he misses "the friends, the loons, and the smell of October." Instead, he lives in an area better known for "dust, mud and boogers." Why? Simple - phenomenal fishing.
Well, all right, there's more to it than that. The lodge, a scant 35 miles from Grand Junction, is an unadulterated escape for the hook and bullet crowd. The area itself boasts spectacular-yet-rugged high desert panoramas with imposing mountain peaks that reach up to expansive, pale blue skies. You'll even find foliage come autumn. The sunrises and sunsets are capable of prompting aches of insignificance among the best Impressionist painters. At the lodge, which doubles as a working cattle ranch, visitors can indulge in target shooting, wingshooting, big game hunting and horseback riding. There's also Aunt Linda Doden's "no one goes home hungry" cooking (trust me - her meals are no small inducement). But if you ask Cox what the draw is, fishing is the first word out of his mouth.
"You've got so many places to fish - spring-fed creeks, moving water, still water - and the variety of fishing is incredible. Just incredible," says Cox, the operations manager at High Lonesome.
Owned since 1996 by a Houston couple - Lissa and Paul Vahldiek - the ranch grounds cover 13,000 acres, with 13 miles of streams and beaver ponds, and 19 managed ponds. The water serves two purposes, says Cox; to supply the fisheries, and to irrigate the ranch. "Ranches have had to expand to survive, either by getting into the outfitting business, or dude ranching, things like that," he says. "It's such a tough, tough country to ranch, that you have to diversify."
Though tough for cattle, the region, with its abundant bug life, is ideal for fish farming, says Cox. Our band of three stops by in early autumn, but the fishing season runs from April through September. An hour after our arrival (and a hearty lunch of pork loin sandwiches in gravy on homemade sourdough bread), Cox bundles the crew into a lodge SUV loaded with enough Orvis gear to make any angler salivate. On our way to our first cast of the day, Cox drives past the lodge's breeding pens, containing countless pheasant and chukkas, and breeding pools nearly overflowing with Kamloops Rainbow trout and Yellowstone Cutthroats. Mike, the most accomplished fisherman in our group, is nearly shaking with anticipation. If he was a dog, I'd be worried about his hindquarters falling off.
A short while later, Cox pulls up next to a winding little creek in the picturesque Dry Fork Valley, overgrown in spots with brambles and bushes. At our backs is an imposing landscape of limestone and sandstone rising up to 8,000 feet, creased by erosion, and dotted with pinyon, juniper, greasewood and sage. With the dexterity of a surgeon, Cox uses his big, meaty hands to attach what looks like a rogue piece of laundry lint to an impossibly fine 5-weight dry floating line.
The lint is actually a fly fishing lure, a black Wooly Bugger. Cox, in a deep voice coming from a round face framed by a Santa Claus beard, says this lure is a smart choice for the huge trout that patrol these slow-moving waters. I nod, happy to defer to Cox's expertise in all things fishing. After all, I'm a raw beginner, having cast a fly line only once before in my life. Cox, conversely, brings more than a dozen years of experience to the job.
Cox hands me the rod, and patiently instructs me in the art of casting. If the top of my head was 12 o'clock, Cox tells me, then the rod only moves between 10 and 1 o'clock on the dial. Since there's no weight attached to the line, other than a light-as-air lure, the proper technique is essential to carry the lure more than 30 feet away. The trick is to use the line's own weight to create momentum. I swing the rod forward, hesitate to let out the line, then snap it back, encouraging more line, hesitate again, and snap forward. Done properly, the flowing arc of the line can be mesmerizing, almost soothing. The sequence is repeated with an almost Zen-like patience and grace. I'm not so adept. But Cox, with a few well-chosen words, calmly tutors me, and I begin to get the feel for casting's unique rhythm.
Mike and Dalton, both far more experienced than me, start pulling in trout at an alarming rate. "Cast and catch, boys" shouts Dalton, obviously pleased with his haul. "Cast and catch." Still, the only keepsakes we take are photographs - all the fishing at High Lonesome is catch and release.
At our last stop, one burly 23-inch trout, circling lazily about 40 feet away, grabs my eye. Cox recommends a beetle lure. As the fly lands with each cast, it draws attention, but no strike. Finally, I put the fly within a foot of the fish, and it bites hard. I snap the rod, and the fight is on. This fish is not coming in quietly, and for the next four or five minutes (I'm not really sure - it seemed to last forever), it ducks and spins and jumps, trying to lose the hook, bending my rod like a willow branch. Just before Cox can slide his net underneath it, the fish breaks off the line, not five feet from shore. For a moment I empathize with Santiago in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." But the sensation is fleeting, and I welcome the flush of exhilaration.
That night, we swap tales of the day's adventures. The guest book serves as testament that we're not the first to discover fly-fishing's mother lode at the High Lonesome. "Over 156 fish in four days!" says one entry. Another: "170 fish total, 32 over 20 inches!" Aunt Linda serves up a country gourmet feast of pot roast and barbecued baby back ribs, fried ocra, baked, stuffed potatoes, tomatillos and carrot cake. Within hours, we'll all be sound asleep, our stomachs nearly splitting, in the rustic but luxurious accommodations of the main ranch lodge. Despite the great food and the great company, I'm preoccupied with my close encounter with "the one that got away." A half-day after the fact, I can still feel the adrenaline surge of that electric moment when fish hits fly.
"That's what we live for here," Cox, with a satisfied grin, had told me during dinner. "The set of the hook."
For more information on the High Lonesome Lodge, call 970/283-9420 or visit the lodge's web site at www.highlonesomelodge.com.