When I heard that the annual Rocky Mountain Flyathlon race wouldn’t be able to happen this year due to Covid-19, I was pretty bummed. I expected as much, but it was still disappointing to hear that one of my favorite events of the year wouldn’t be happening.
My mood lifted, though, when I learned about Running Rivers’ plan to keep the spirit alive during the pandemic: the Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge.
I’ll try not to beat a dead horse, since the Flyathlon is something you’ve probably heard about way too many times if you’ve followed along with me for a while, but the normal event involves trail running, fly fishing, and beer drinking during a fun-filled campout weekend with awesome people in the mountains of Colorado. There are several events each year, and each one is an organized event during a set weekend in the summer or fall.
The Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge addressed the issue of a large group gathering by turning the Flyathlon into a summer-long individual challenge that was more like a scavenger hunt of point-earning opportunities. Instead of getting a race time and time deductions for fish length, we were able to earn points by hiking/running and catching a fish in a single day. The longer the run/hike and the bigger the fish, the more points we earned. We also got points for helping the community, raising money for conservation, supporting local breweries, buying products from sponsors of the event, and other miscellaneous activities.
After our first trip to the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness just a week prior (where, by chance, we happened to cross paths with the Flyathlon founder, Andrew Todd. What a small world!), Mike and I started hatching a big-point-earning plan for the Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge. For the hiking and fishing portions of points, the activities must be done in the same day, and only one day can be submitted. So, we wanted to combine a long hike with the potential to land a big fish.
With a little internet digging, we had our plan. Not far from our previous backpacking trip, there was a trail that was long, but relatively (and I mean relatively) easy. It’s a bit of a stretch to call any long, mountainous hike easy, but compared to the other hikes in the area, this one had less elevation gain. And, like many trails in the area, there were multiple places to fish, so it also fit the bill for the fishing aspect as well.
We got to the trailhead the night before, aiming for an early start. Since the hike would be long, we needed all the time we could get. From a friend of a friend, we learned that the first lake we’d hit would have smaller fish. The larger fish were in an upper lake, slightly past the first lake and at a higher elevation. These fish were supposedly quite large, but also picky and hard to catch.
We decided the best course of action would be to stop at the lower lake and both get a fish on the board. This would guarantee that we’d both be able to log the hike and fish for points. Then, weather cooperating, we could continue up to the next lake to try for an upgrade on the length of the fish.
The hike and fish
We got our early start around 6 AM and made quick work of the first portion of the hike. The first couple miles were easy and didn’t require any breaks. After that, the incline got a bit more intense and our pace slowed. By the time we got to the first lake, the clouds were already becoming questionable.
We’d heard that the fish were smaller but eager at the first lake. Only half of this turned out to be true for us, as we struggled to interest fish with our flies. After around an hour of trying, we finally each got a fish on the measuring tape. Luckily, the clouds had moved on and we decided to continue up to the “go big or go home” lake.
The intel proved more accurate up top, as we could indeed see tanks swimming around, and most didn’t want anything to do with what we were throwing.
I eventually got lucky, and on a blind cast as far as I could throw, I spotted a large, yellow mass slowly ascending toward my fly. I got the hook set and started fighting what was clearly a fat, healthy cutthroat. When we eventually netted the beast, I knew instantly it was the biggest cutthroat I’d ever landed. I decided that getting a picture of the fish itself was more important than getting it on the measuring tape.
Unfortunately, neither option was in the cards for me. As I pulled the fish out of the net, it heaved one giant flop and threw itself out of my hands and back into the water. The only evidence of its existence is an extremely attractive photo of me panicking at its escape.
After that heartbreak, we kept trying to appeal to the picky fish without much luck. I did end up hooking one more nice cutthroat that made it onto the measuring tape, although it was still several inches short of the previous fish. What it lacked in size, it made up for in girth and color, and was still a beautiful trophy from our trip.
At this point, the clouds were back, and this time they meant business. We scrambled to get below treeline and spent nearly the entire hike back listening to thunder clapping right overhead.
All in all, our trip totaled over 15 miles, and we both had some nice fish to submit to the Socially Distanced Flyathlon Challenge. With more points to earn from fundraising, community work, and sponsor support, we were really just getting started. But, this was a great way to kick off both the 2020 Flyathlon and the summer, with lots of miles on the boots and some big cutthroats.