Thanks to the Federation of Fly Fishers Gulf Coast Council, and Lady Luck, we celebrated our diamond anniversary with a long-awaited return to the Centennial State and the best it has to offer.
Brooks Bouldin, former owner of The Angler’s Edge fly shop and High Lonesome Ranch, had donated a two-person, five-day, four-night fishing package to the GCC that was raffled off over several months. The intent was to raise funds for various projects, such as Project Healing Waters.
Such a deserving cause, Brooks had no trouble convincing me to buy a bunch of tickets, even though I never win anything.
When my name was pulled, I suddenly discovered friends I didn’t know I had. Too bad for them — my best friend was going!
For 20 years, all or various members of our family had been out West, but to Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and other states. We had no clue what to expect in Colorado.
Over the next couple of months, we made our arrangements. High Lonesome is located in Debuque, on the western end of the state near Grand Junction. Our plan was to fly into Denver and travel west along I-70, exploring along the way.
For example, on our first night, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in the historic gold-mining town of Idaho Springs. Gold can still be seen in Chicago Creek, as specks in the riverbed. However, it was the golden color of the aspens along the drive to nearby Mount Washington that we found to be the real treasure.
Another stop was the lovely town of Silverthorne, where the clear waters of the Blue River teem with nice-sized trout.
When we arrived at Debuque, we drove north from the Colorado River valley and into an area of high plains and mesas, where green pastures and colorful aspens greeted our arrival on the 300-square-mile High Lonesome Ranch.
After acquaintances with staff and guests on hand, we were directed to our lodging about a quarter mile up the road. The Pond House has spectacular views of mountains and fields with deer and turkey (and, we’re told, occasionally a cougar!) along with a 2-acre pond filled with rising trout. Those trout almost kept me from eating my first dinner.
Glad I didn’t miss that dinner! The entree was a seafood peaya, the best I’ve ever had.
In fact, all the meals at HLR were as memorable as the fishing. Aunt Linda Doden was queen of the kitchen for breakfast and lunch. A native of Tallulah, she owned a bakery for many years. The biscuits, breads and pastries are all made from scratch, and her homemade granola is to die for!
Aunt Linda was a wealth of information, and she gave it out as often as she could. For one, all this wonderful, fresh fruit provided to us each morning came from the nearby Palisades, known as Colorado’s fruit and wine country. In fact, all the wines served at dinner came from the Palisades, home to over 70 wineries.
Dinners were prepared by Jordan Asher, a young Houston chef who had been plucked by the ranch owners, Paul and Lissa Vahldiek, also of Houston. The evenings began with wine and conversation in the large den of the ranchhouse, then proceeded to the dining room where such fares as kobe steak, grilled salmon and burgundy braised-beef awaited.
All steaks, pheasant and other game are harvested right on the ranch, and most of the veggies come fresh from the valley.
General Manager Scott Stewart told us during our first dinner that, while HLR is a working ranch, it’s mission is to sustain the western Colorado ecosystem through public and private partnerships, eco-tourism and sporting activities.
The activities include horseback riding, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, wing shooting, big game hunting, shooting clays, hiking, birding, fly fishing and more.
We got a taste of wildlife watching our first morning. At first light, we accompanied Scott and a lady guest up a dirt road, crossing through several ridges and valleys, and finally to the edge of the piedmont overlooking Grand Junction. Along the way, we spotted elk, deer, a coyote and countless upland birds. All before breakfast.
After breakfast, we met our guide for the week, Shannon Branham. Shannon is an accomplished speycaster, salmon guide, elk hunter and jack-of-all-trades. Early on, we felt the kharma with Shannon, and it turned out to be mutual.
Shannon took us to one of the 18 ponds on the property that are filled with big rainbows, browns, cutthroats and brookies. Since Lisa hadn’t been flyfishing for awhile, I suggested a quick lesson, and Shannon proved to be a proficient instructor.
Perhaps too good.
After the first day, she had landed most of the big fish, just missing out on the ranch’s famed “24-Inch Club” on not one but two rainbows. I was settling for numbers of 16- to 20-inch trout, but most of mine were on dry fly.
The next day we hit another pond, larger and deeper, with lots of character. We started out on nymphs, but after a lunch break, switched to baetis on top.
Shannon found some big fish cruising in one cove. I quietly approached from a low ledge, on hands and knees, spotted one fish, and observed his path. When he turned away, I cast the size 20 dry to a spot in his path, then waited for his return. He lazily swam up to the fly and ate. The battle that ensued made my beloved redfish look like wimps!
The rainbow was big enough to make the 24-Inch Club. I was awarded with a pin that evening at dinner. It was an elite list; only eight names the previous year. And yet somehow I felt disappointed that Lisa hadn’t earned this award.
On our third day, Shannon took us up the valley to a narrow pond that had all four species, in hopes we would land the ranch’s other fishing merit pin: the Grand Slam. We might have earned it, too, had it not been for the elks.
We could hear them bugling. Shannon told us the rut was on, and asked if we’d like to get closer up the mountain to see them “in action.” We accepted, and next thing, we’re climbing up 1,000 feet to the top of a ridge.
From our vantage point, we could see a big male, trying to protect his harem of eight gals from a young upstart with a small following of his own. It almost came to blows, but the youngster finally backed down. But then he spotted us, and made a small charge our way. Shannon carefully took us back down — fishing seemed a whole lot safer!
The fourth and final fishing day proved the most productive. Rain the previous night had awakened the flora and fauna with renewed vigor. It seemed the trout were everywhere and willing to eat our flies.
Lisa again caught big fish after big fish, but it was I who reached a milestone. Around 2:30 p.m., I landed a 13-inch brookie. Not a great fish, but it was the fourth species of the day for me, worthy for the Grand Slam pin that evening!
As great as the fishing was, as fantastic as the food was, as beautiful a place as HLR is, it was the people we met, both hosts and guests, that made our stay so memorable. Many of the guests were couples like ourselves, with the exception of one small corporate group that was using the ranch to hold a conference (with afternoon activities, of course).
After breakfast that final morning, we said our goodbyes with tears in eyes and a promise to return someday soon. We then returned to Denver via a detour through the Grand Mesa and Roaring Fork Valley, amidst more trout-filled lakes and rivers, scenic vistas and majestic peaks.
I’d done the “lodge thing” a couple of times before. It’s not cheap, and has never been worth the money. HLR was a different experience. A five-night fishing package is $2,400 per person. Perhaps not for everyone, but for the couple celebrating that milestone anniversary, it’s the best gift you’ll ever enjoy.