Hooked on Rock Snot
For the past decade or so, I’ve been traveling to Colorado in July to escape the agonizing humidity of Florida. There’s something weird and wonderful about wearing wool socks and flannel pajamas in the dead of summer. But I digress.
I had an epiphany and realized that fishing is fishing, whether you’re in Costa Rica or Colorado or Florida.
For the past decade or so, I’ve been traveling to Colorado in July to escape the agonizing humidity of Florida. There’s something weird and wonderful about wearing wool socks and flannel pajamas in the dead of summer. But I digress. As I have meandered through the stunning mountain peaks and technicolored wildflowers, I’ve often scoffed at mountain fishermen in all of their khaki outfits pursuing fish the size of hot dogs. I mean, I hoss up 20-lb. snapper and 40-lb. amberjack. Even the speckled trout I catch in Florida dwarf your typical river trout. Basically, I considered those guys well-dressed weenies.
My prejudice toward river fishing took a hit this summer when a local friend, Chris Kopf, invited me to fish some private water (translation: lots of fish) and loaned me his prized 5-wt. fly rod. I hate to admit it, but my 10-year-old saltwater fly rod is crap. The line literally has mold stains on it. Yet I still catch lots of trout and redfish because they are plentiful and I don’t have to be a stealth machine. The action on Chris’s fancy new rod blew my mind. The line shot out like a greased pig at a Louisiana BBQ and the casting action was practically erotic. Little did I know, I was getting sucked into the evil khaki web, especially when I started catching fish. Sure, they were small, but I was stoked, because fishing moving water is a helluva lot trickier than dropping a hunk of squid into 200 hungry red snapper. If fishing is art, mountain fishing is the Guggenheim.
By the next day, after grooving on the private water, I’d morphed into a stream-fishing zombie. I found myself stumbling around in Dragonfly Anglers in downtown Crested Butte, Colorado. All the river stuff looked so damn cool now. I even tried on a pair of $450 waders. I settled for the unedited version of A River Runs Through It for $39, with never-before-seen footage of Brad Pitt learning to fly fish. You just can’t go wrong with vintage Pitt. There were a bunch of other unshaven fishing dudes (for some reason, men don’t shave in Colorado) shopping harder than Junior Leaguers on Black Friday. Since I’m in the Guy Harvey family, I’m freakish about T-shirt art, so I started reading all the shirts they were wearing—blue marlin in Panama, bones in the Bahamas, tarpon in Boca Grande, gays in Key West—oops, not all about fishing, I guess. They were spouting stories of catching permit, snook and sharks, yet here they were in Colorado getting pumped up on little fish wieners. Then I realized…I’d become one of them.
One shaggy goatee asked a nicely trimmed grey beard about “the seminar on rock snot.” I leaned in close to make sure my ears were working. Turns out an Ivy League professor from Dartmouth College was in town to discuss Didymosphenia geminata, commonly known as didymo, or by its fishing slang, rock snot. Books describe it as “a species of diatom that blooms in freshwater rivers and streams that have consistently cold temperatures.” If you’ve ever waded in a Colorado river, it’s definitely consistently cold, even in July. (Side note: try to stay in water less than crotch deep.) At the seminar— oh, hell yes, I went—I met expert Brad Taylor from Dartmouth who gave a gripping talk on rock snot. He even had rocks with said snot attached so we could poke our fingers into it. He explained that didymo provides a home to the oligochaeta worm tubifex, which causes the dreaded whirling disease in trout. Usually, these worms are washed downstream in fast rivers, but climate change seems to have allowed rock snot to grow more frequently, thus more habitat for the bad worms. Taylor’s research is extensive, complex, and essential, but the basic premise is that mountain rivers and their fish are threatened by the growth of more rock snot. And, Taylor said, there’s not much we can do about it.
The seminar was given for a couple of dozen big money donors to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and was hosted by Henry and Sandra Estess from Dallas on their 2,000-acre ranch. It was a little like something out of Downton Abbey. We had a catered lunch on real plates with flatware, and fresh lemonade in crystal glasses. Picnic tables draped in white tablecloths were perfectly positioned under the shade of towering cottonwood trees next to the gin-clear East River. This was not my usual Budweiser-guzzling, bloody T-shirt fishing clan, but I’m learning to roll with the Heineken crowd, too.
If you’ve never heard of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, it’s a rustic, off-the-grid, mountain community where really smart science geeks come every summer to study all facets of high altitude nature from wildflowers to beetles to, as in Taylor’s case, didymo. Founded in 1928, the RMBL was built in the now-defunct silver mining town of Gothic, Colorado, and is now a growing collection of labs, greenhouses and cabins, all near 10,000 feet in altitude. The lab pumps out an amazing amount of scientific research (more than 120 master’s and doctoral dissertations have been produced there) and, according to its website, is “home to one of the largest annual migrations of field biologists in the world.” Their work is especially relevant to mountain fishermen because changing climate is causing the snow to melt earlier, creating new threats, like the spread of rock snot.
Before my friend Chris turned me on to river fishing, I didn’t give it much thought except what a waste of time it was. But I had an epiphany and realized that fishing is fishing, whether you’re in Costa Rica or Colorado or Florida. All those dudes I saw at the fly shop were fishing freaks. They’d cast into a mud puddle in a parking lot if they thought a fish was in there. Suddenly, the term, “Complete Angler,” made sense to me. I started packing a fly rod with me everywhere I went. A couple of days later, Scott Smith, a buddy from Shreveport, Louisiana, and I four wheeled up a road that had more loose rocks than a river bed; then we climbed up another 1,000 feet to an amazing emerald lake with snow still at the edges. We cast for about 30 minutes until a hiker came along and told us the lake didn’t have any fish. “But it looks very, very fishy,” we protested. “Altitude’s too high,” he replied. “No fish.”
We believed the guy, but we both just kept right on casting because—you know what—you just never know. Then, like a miracle, the clouds parted, a rainbow appeared, a 12-point buck ran by, an eagle soared overhead and an angelic voice said, “You guys are hopelessly hooked…you are complete anglers.” It’s true. I wouldn’t lie about that.