High Country Haven by Gabi Suggs

High Country Haven by Gabi Suggs

It’s the place that I look forward to fishing the absolute most. When I’m stuck inside in the dreary blur that is winter, hiding from feet of snow, there’s a mental countdown I have; hashing out the days until the high country will once again be accessible, thawed, and ready to fish. 

 

I struggle to share my passion of fly-fishing in the backcountry with social media. It’s this back and forth mental argument I have with myself. Are these places that are so sacred to me and my family deserving of what could be unworthy eyes? Are they worth sharing photos of? But I’ve convinced myself that in the hearts of the public are where these places belong. By shedding light on their untouched beauty or by drawing more people out in search of them, these places stand to be protected. Now more than ever, our public lands deserve the limelight to shine bright on how truly special and completely irreplaceable they are. 

 

My husband caught his first fish on the fly, a native Colorado River Cutthroat, when he was four years old. He did this in a place that so few people in the entire world know of, you could probably count them all on one hand. Years later, he would choose to be baptized in the same high mountain stream. I find my heaven on Earth way up in the mountains of Colorado, where Cutthroat swim in the same stream they have for likely all of their existence. It’s a place that fills my heart with such warmth that can only be replicated by the taste of the sun ripened wild raspberries that grow alongside its bank. Its frigid, snow melt water quite literally takes my breath away as I wet wade up its winding course. I could forever be happy catching fingerling fish the colors of the setting sun, never tiring of their delicate wonder. Miles in with sore feet and heavy shoulders, I feel most alive. I feel cleansed of city living. I feel closer to the Earth. This is the place that my husband first took me to learn to fly fish, and it’s where we’ll take our son when he too is ready. My first fish was a native Colorado River Cutthroat, my son’s will be too. And one day I hope my ashes will be spread here to become a part of this remarkable landscape, for I will be home.

 

My love for and my attachment to a place like this comes from something deep rooted and I believe, ancestral. The places we fish and the places we hunt are meant to hold such weight on our souls. They're meant to be kept sacred for a reason. Back when my ancestors roamed the Northern Plains, their hunting grounds were their livelihood. For me, my fishing grounds are where I find solace. They’re where I go to rid my eyes of all the atrocities mankind is capable of making of his surroundings. Nature always seems to do right by the Earth, but such is not always the case for human nature. As sportsmen and women it is our responsibility to leave places like the high country better off than how we find it, so that future generations can bask in all its glory as we have been able to. Taking up a hobby like fly fishing and enjoying it to its full potential comes with the responsibilities of being a steward for the environment.

 

“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, since whatever happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth.” -Chief Seattle, 1835

Broken Thirds

Broken Thirds

To start this story, I have to go back at least a year. I moved to Colorado to play professional soccer. In this job, your future is unknown and it has loads of turnover year over year. For that reason, most players decide to keep their residence in their hometown state. For me that is Indiana. There I grew up loving St. Joe river small mouth, migrating mallards, and rutting whitetails. Our offseason, starts in mid October so I am usually able to head home and spend some serious time doing what I love. Well, this year was different. I live in COLORADO and that means world-class trout streams and ELK.  As I went to the DMV to change my residency, by no means was I thinking about the law… rather I was thinking about the $49 in state elk tag versus the $600 out of state price tag.

As I settled on the team, I learned a few of my teammates had a shared interest in elk hunting. Plane rides, warm ups, and pregame meals were spent discussing elk. Our off days, we shed hunted and scouted. It is safe to say that our teammates who didn’t share our passion soon would sit at other tables hoping to not be bored by our conversations.

My hunting partners Josh Suggs and Josh Philips both had tags in their home states (New Mexico and Washington respectively).  Thankfully I drew an archery tag in a unit close enough to home where I could hunt during the soccer season (we don’t get many days off).

In August, my dreams of elk magnified. I watched just about every YouTube video and read every article in hopes of making my first year a success but fully realized that the odds were against me.  As I shot my bow on a nightly basis, I just hoped I would hear the majestic bugle…that would be amazing for me.

It turned out that I was going to have 3 Sunday / Monday hunts in September given my soccer schedule. So let’s get to what everyone wants to hear.  So far I have hunted two days… Saw elk the first day but never closed the gap. Exciting nonetheless I had to get back out there!

On Saturday, the third of September, my team had a game against the LA Galaxy.  As I prepared for the game, I was worried my mind was elsewhere since I spent all day packing my gear, reviewing maps, and planning my hunt. Thankfully, we came out flying and put the smack down against LA and won 3-0. Let me remind you that it is said that soccer players run 6-8 miles a game. Usually it takes me a couple days to fully recover.  After the game, I quickly exited the field to shower up and hit the road with Josh Philips. We drove one and a half hours to our starting spot. It was 11:30pm when we got there. BUT we wanted to get a good vantage point for the morning hunt so we decided to hike in a few miles so our morning hike wouldn’t be as brutal. Up and over a few mountains and we finally pitched our tent around 1am. To be honest, I didn’t sleep to well. The excitement was too much!

4am the alarm goes off. We eat a little oatmeal, pack up, and slowly start making our way to the top of a ridge where we would sit for the morning.  Just a mile or so before we got there!

As we navigated under the starlight, we both stopped in our tracks as we heard a bugle at 5:30am! Wow, what a bolt of energy that gave me! Once we got to the top of the ridge, we had an amazing vantage point and sure enough, right as the sun came up we start hearing multiple bugles. I looked at Josh in astonishment and said “DUDE. Call back!”

We heard 3 elk that morning, but only one wanted to talk back. What an amazing experience. I won’t try to describe what it is like talking to elk, rather encourage you to experience it for yourself. I will never forget it. He was far away so we spent the morning slowly closing the gap and trying to see if we could get eyes on him, but he wasn’t moving! We were not calling him in, he just wanted to let us know he was there.  Around 8am the chatter between man and elk stopped and we had a pretty good idea of where he was at, but tentative to try and make a move.

Thankfully, we backed out around 11:30am for a quick lunch and tried to decide the best plan of attack. Little did we know, Mother Nature had other plans as a hailstorm came storming through the valley forcing us to find refuge under a few boulders.  The excitement of the morning seemed like a dream and we both kept saying “Wow, that was amazing.”

As the storm passed, we made our way to another ridge and decided we would slowly work our way towards the morning music, stopping at predetermined vantage points to glass the area. As we sat atop a giant boulder with our Vortex mono-scope, Josh quickly spotted something.

“Holy s***, I think I see elk.”

“Good one man…”

“DUDE. It is a herd. There are like 20 cows!”

“Your kidding, where!!?”

We spent the next five to ten minutes watching the herd trying to determine where they were going and how we were going to get to them. They had to be about a mile away as the crow flies. As I stared on in amazement of the herd, I spotted him. “BULL!” At this point, I really had no clue if it was a nice bull or not, but I knew there was a bull and I was guessing by his body size, he was the herd bull.

With the wind from the storm blowing directly in our face I knew we could get over there fairly quickly. I wanted to take advantage of the perfect wind so we swiftly walked up and down the ridges until we spotted them at 400 yards. At that point, stealth mode was initiated. Every step was accompanied with a massive fear of making too much noise. I can NOT blow this! We closed the gap to 150 yards.

On this ridge, I got a good long look at him. He was big. Way bigger than any first year hunter should deserve to encounter. To be honest, I was shaking and couldn’t keep my binoculars still. Without talking Josh knew the plan of attack and I slowly army crawled and scooted closer to the herd. Slow. Methodical. Mind racing.

The wind started to change and I looped around to the bottom of the next ravine out of sight but worried that a swirl in the wind would bust me. As I got to the bottom I notice the herd moving the opposite way I anticipated but knew the bull was at the back of the herd and I still had a good angle on him if he responded to Josh’s bugle.

As I got into what I thought was a good position, I let out a cow call in hopes Josh would pick up on my signal to let out a challenge bugle. Before he could, I heard the grunts of the bull up on the ridge. I knew I was close.

Soon after, Josh let out a call and was immediately countered with a heart wrecking and ear-piercing roar. I guessed I was 75 yards away with no visual. A few seconds later, a few cows started barking and before the herd bull could let the canyon know who was boss, Josh let out a challenge bugle just on the opposite ridge. The bull knew he was close and did NOT like. In fact he was pissed off. The sound that followed left me trembling in awe. I kid you not I could feel he roar vibrating through my nervous body.   As he wrecked through the trees in front of him, I knew he was on a string and I was a full draw with a storm of emotions making me worry that my heart beat was too loud.

My guess was that he would stop at the bottom of the ridge where I had multiple trees ranged at around 40 yards. As my heart pounded out of my chest I finally laid eyes on him and he was moving fast… real fast and grunting the whole way.  He was headed straight towards Josh and I was there to intersect him.

As he stormed pass where I thought he would stop and where I had ranged, I let out a cow call to slow him down. He slowed down and I let an arrow fly. My guess was that he was at 40 yards…. I put the arrow right over his back and he hardly noticed. He was pretty fixated on the “bull” named Josh Philips.

With no time to be devastated, my instinct took over and I regained a steady hand. I re-knocked an arrow and drew back. He stopped. Stared me down. I took a deep breath and squeezed the release. This time, I put an arrow through him. The shakes magnified as I watched him trot to the next ridge. My heart and mind raced. Was it a good enough shot? How could I be so stupid to shoot over him! Lord God, please let this animal die. JESUS, please help me out!

Unable to stand, I sat down and tried to calm myself down. 5 minutes later I hear a crash! Still skeptical I signal Josh down. He didn’t see me shoot him, but defiantly heard a crash.  After some time, I found the arrow and decent blood. Still emotions of all sorts flooded. We decided to sneak to the top of the ridge where I saw him last. As I got to the top, we immediately saw him. I killed my first elk and it was a bull.

As I approached the animal, I was in awe. I put hands on an elk of a lifetime. A 7x7 with broken thirds on each side.  I stared in admiration and gratitude and finally celebrated with Josh like we had just won a championship.

Somehow we had service and I called my brother. Emotions overflowed as I wished he were there and as I reflected on my Grandpa who got me into hunting. I’d say it was a spiritual experience, but whatever you call it, I was incredibly grateful for this elk.

At this point it is 7pm. We call Sugg’s as he promised to help pack an elk out if I got one. (Thank you to his wife, Gabby ( IG @sagerising), who allowed him to go even though they had a date night planned).  The work began.

We were about 2.5 miles from the car, running on no sleep, and had already hiked 12 miles that day. Two trips through the night with a few coffee breaks we finally got 400 pounds of meat and the head out of the wilderness at 6am. The hunt-of-a-lifetime.

We made it happen with a little passion and hard work.  Thank God for good friends, good health, and bugling ELK!

 

Jordan Burt

 

300 Pound Man Rule

300 Pound Man Rule

There is a place in Colorado, Nunya River, where canyon walls extend thousands of feet and river flows hardly ever go lower than 1000 CFS. The river is big and so are the trout. You go here in hopes of landing a trophy. Worst-case scenario, you feel insignificant in the massive canyon walls…in a good way.

I love this River. It has everything I love about fly-fishing; however, there is one problem. The canyon walls make it hard to fish a decent portion of the river without access to a boat.  A big problem for someone who abides by the “300 Pound Man Rule.”

The rule is simple: do not fish where a 300-pound man could fish.

Is it ridiculous to need solitude and untouched water? Probably, but it is beside the point. My rule has helped me escape crowds and find GPS coordinates that I will only give to my unborn son. This particular trip the “300 Pound Man Rule” got me into trouble.

With the excitement of a child on Christmas day, @fishingjosh and I reminded each other that we needed to focus on our job that Saturday night and not get too distracted by our upcoming trip. We play professional soccer for a living and our current lifestyle is dependent on our success on the pitch. Despite our mind being elsewhere that night, we got a W and jumped in our truck to make the 5-hour drive to Nunya, fantasizing of rising browns. 

Surely and clearly, we drove to the roads end only to know for sure that we made it by hearing the sound of the raging river. As we were greeted by the milky way, we were also greeted by a full campsite.  We sunk back to reality when we realized that most of these parties were fisherman who had the same idea as us. As we negotiated to share a camping spot with a nice young couple who needed our camp stove, we pitched our tent with the game plan of making a big hike at daybreak to escape the 15 other campers who where also dreaming of trout sipping mayflies.

We woke early, skipping coffee and oats to make a trek downstream. Only a quarter mile downstream, we realize that the easy path down the river is over. “What do you think? Want to give this trail a go? Maybe we can get around this bend.” In all honesty, it really was just a rhetorical question because @fishingjosh knows my rule and would honor it despite coming off a broken collarbone only two weeks earlier.

Unsure, @fishingjosh agrees and we start a trek upward. All was good until we started to make the decent.

As we get to the top of the canyon, we started to descend to the river with hesitation and anxiety due to the fact that we could not see our route down. A grade so steep it is not even worth mentioning because it would be labeled as a fish story to most.  On top of that, it started to rain. Was this foreshadowing one of us tumbling out of the heavens to an all too rocky river bottom?

Step by step, it got more slippery. Step by step, it got more technical. Step by step, we began to curse at the next step down.

Soon our steps turned to climbing. Wadding boots and all, each of us carrying two rods and Josh nursing his busted collarbone.  Here, no 300 pound man could survive let alone get out of this without a broken leg. Going back up was not an option as the rain made everything slippy and climbing up would have been impossible.  In any case, we came to a point where we had to hang off one boulder and hope that we would land on the narrow ledge below. Shaking out of fear, we dropped.

We both made it. From my perspective, I was stoked. I know we would be fishing water untouched! From @fishingjosh’s perspective, he was pissed. Blaming all of this on me and my dumb rule!

As he simmered off, he got his line wet with a small size 18 yellow dun to a back eddy and was accompanied by a 19 inch brown with the girth of a baseball bat. The anger soon turned to joy and we hit one of the most prolific hatches I have ever seen. Big fish rising to small flies.

As we got lost in joy of these fish and this river, we later realized…. we needed to get back! No way would we go back the way we came, the up and over was way too dangerous. Our only option… to swim. As we stripped to the nude and held our gear above our heads we picked a spot up stream where we estimated that we could get across fast enough despite the fast current. If we didn’t make it across in time, we would be met by a fast riffle full of rocks and deep pools. Although our body was in shock from the cold mountain water, our adrenaline allowed us to make it across despite loosing a single wading boot.

Our time back at the campfire was very quite. We need to warm up. We also needed to reflect on the risk we took. Were the risks we took worth it? You be the judge. (picture)