Run. Fish. Beer at the Rocky Mountain Flyathlon

    Inside the Rocky Mountain Flyathlon, a quintessentially Colorado triathlon of sorts that makes river conservation fun.

    Photo by Craig Hoffman Photography

    As fly-fishing casts go, this one held great promise. I simply had to make it work there on the rocky banks of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River.

    It was mid-September, and a million willow chutes—placed there to ensnare my fly line, I was sure—crowded behind me as I practically crawled into position. This all required a bit of trickery, as the game became this: Place a bean-sized dry fly the weight of a bread crumb atop a roiling trout stream using an invisible leader, 15 feet of floating line and a 35-year-old graphite fly rod. Then watch the fly as it bobs along the surface, much like a tiny sailboat.

    A sharp flick of my Eagle Claw rod launched the fly, leader and line into position. The fly may have represented a grasshopper or caddis fly. The trout would make that determination. Fishermen simply call it an attractor pattern, a collection of colorful deer hair and feathers artfully tied to the shank of the hook.

    The sun bore through the clear water, illuminating submerged rocks in the shallow places. In deeper water, I could see only blue and green. And that is where the brown trout appeared, lazily rising toward the surface. Conservative estimate, 16 inches from stem to stern. Not the biggest fish in the river, but not bad.

    Up he came, shining in the light like a new penny. I tried to keep my cool and allow the fly to skate naturally along the water’s surface. I remember my exact thoughts as the trout took aim and the moment played out.

    “Yes, yes, YES! …”

    “No, no … NO! Come back.”

    I voiced additional colorful, satisfying words as well, lamenting the missed opportunity.

    The big brown had nosed the fly—literally touched it—then turned back toward the cold depths. Gone forever. And that’s all good. That’s fly fishing. And on that day, I had a larger purpose than simply catching fish.

    I was a participant in the Flyathlon, a unique competition that combines fly fishing and trail running—and craft beer. The annual event raises money for the nonprofit Running Rivers, which strives to protect clean mountain waterways and the wild trout that swim in them. It is a distinctly Colorado event.

    The format at the Lake Fork competition works like this. Up to 60 participants—some good runners, some skilled fishermen, some neither—step to the starting line with fly rod, a pocketful of flies and an extra bit of leader. Run 10 miles along the river. Expect to get your feet wet. Catch a fish along the way, or not. Take a photo of the fish on a paper ruler provided by the race organization. Release the fish. Run to the finish line. The bigger the fish, the more time is deducted from your finishing time.

    Then everyone drinks beer and spins grand tales of the one that got away, like the finicky brown in deep blue-green. The entry fee is $100, plus a required fundraising minimum for Running Rivers.

    “I think of it as conservation through recreation,” says event founder and organizer Andrew Todd. “We’d like to turn outdoor enthusiasts into outdoor activists.”

    Angling for a bigger entry at the Flyathlon. Photo by Craig Hoffman Photography

    There are two such events in Colorado this year. The Middle Creek Flyathlon near Saguache took place in August. The Lake Fork Flyathlon runs Sept. 14-16. Fishermen are encouraged to arrive at a prearranged campground on Friday. The competition, followed by a catered dinner and ruckus party, is Saturday. Sunday is for breaking camp, slamming coffee, shaking hands and promising to return.

    “The Flyathlon is a blast,” says Travis Duncan, who ran and fished for the first time last year. “You’re guaranteed to meet good people who care about Colorado’s water and its fish. The event encourages you to think about what kind of fish are in our water and what is native to our state. And I love that they’ve tied in drinking good beer with it as well.”
    It’s a relaxed vibe. The Flyathlon begins with Todd’s kids shooting a can of severely shaken cheap beer (Pabst Blue Ribbon last year) with their BB guns. Everybody runs when the foam flies.

    There is no need to rush. The Lake Fork run follows a gentle gravel road, and the morning trip down the canyon was so pleasant I delayed the fishing until about the fourth mile. After missing the hefty brown, I tied on a bug called a prince nymph, fished below the surface where the fish usually feed, and caught two smaller, but scrappy, rainbow trout in a few minutes.

    I’ve fished Colorado’s lakes, rivers and streams for many years. I’ve caught and released many trout, big trout, colorful, wild trout. These waters and these fish form a glimpse of the state’s environmental health. I am the recipient of the good health, mental and spiritual well-being that wild places and experiences instill in a person. So I’ll return to the Flyathlon. I’ll be an outdoor activist.

    And I haven’t forgotten where that brown trout lives.

    Find the Flyathlon