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Fly-Fishing at the 4UR

This story first appeared 
in the San Francisco Examiner
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing... Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fisherman, and we were left to assume that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fisherman and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

                                                Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”


On a crisp, sunny September morning in the Rocky Mountains, a novitiate stood knee-deep in the riffles of a cold stream, just below the old mine, and began to cast for trout.


The rod moved in a rhythmic, four-beat pattern--the line above it curling like a coach whip in slow motion and growing longer with each lash.


In the calm pool ahead, near an undercut bank, he could see trout snap at real flies on the surface of the water, even as his own lure flew through the air on its way to imitate the bugs’ brief landings on the surface.


All his attention focused on the techniques of the hunt: the precise rhythm of the cast, the nimble handling of the trailing line, the soft landing of the fly, the correct reading of the fishes’ habits, the subsequent plotting of moves in the hoped-for strike and battle.


The fullness of his concentration was such that no linear thoughts entered his mind--certainly his life, its work and worries, did not intrude. The only sensations not related to the hunt came peripherally.


The clean smell of high-mountain, early-morning air and of pure water filled his spirit. The sun’s million gold coins reflected off the quick ripples. Most of all, the constant sound of pouring water babbled comforting and familiar, as if it might echo the flow of his own internal streams.


Water, the major ingredient of all life, flowed within the fish, the moss, the flies, and the fisherman. Water and life: the River. And he, unthinking but aware of the immense peace, stood smack in the middle of it.


                                    


It is the nature of fly fishermen (and men who write about fly fisherman; such as MacLean, Ernest Hemingway, Tom McGuane) to think of the sport in religious terms. But the feeling is all the more pronounced when the fishing takes place in a setting as magnificent as one's thoughts.


Such a place is the 4UR Ranch, a western shrine to fly fishermen and lovers of the outdoors, located in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado near the old mining town of Creede, about 40 miles from the source of the Rio Grande.


“Michigan has good fishing,” conceded 4UR guest Robert Steketee, “but it doesn't have this.” He gestured toward the mountains–-brilliant in yellow and orange aspen–-and toward the broad, pastoral river meadow in between. “This is spiritual.”


Steketee and his own guests lounged on the lawn of his cabin, drying out in the noon sun after a morning of fishing. His cabin, which Steketee had rented every September for decades, sat off by itself, a few yards from Goose Creek, a Rio Grande tributary that runs for seven miles through the heart of the 4UR Ranch.


“How did you do?” he asked, handing a friend of a Bloody Mary and observing the angler’s torn shirt and soaked pants.


“I didn't get any,” the novice replied. “They were there though. I could see them. They swam right between my legs, mocking me. I think I could've reached them and just grabbed one like a bear, but that wouldn't have been sporting.”


“What happened to your shirt?”


A falcon glided in the lazy blue sky. The unlucky novice watched them for a while before replying.


“I got hooked on the sport,” he grinned.


                                      


The 4UR has, since the early 1900s, been a guest ranch for affluent anglers, hunters, writers and those who just want to get away to a tranquil retreat with rich scenery and clean air. It is, for example, a favorite haunt of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White.


The ranch resort was founded by railroad millionaire William J. Palmer and named Wagon Wheel Hot Springs Resort. The current name comes from the four U-shapes (two W’s) in the original signpost. Natural hot springs bubble up on the property and are harnessed for use as a spa.


The closest town to the ranch is Creede, seven miles northwest. A raucous silver mining boom town in the 1890s, Creede is at the mouth of a narrow, precipitous rock gorge.


The main street seems little changed from a century ago. Among Creede’s citizens then were Bat Masterson, who managed a saloon there, and Bob Ford, the assassin of Jesse James, who was himself was gunned down in Creede. The town, with a summer theater company and a  “Days of 1892” mining festival, now caters to several thousand tourists in the summer before dwindling back to its real population of 600 in the fall.


Much larger than all of Creede, the 4,800-acre 4UR is like a kingdom unto itself; a huge alpine meadow bowl surrounded by rolling mountains on three sides and by a 1,000-foot vertical, deeply creased rock wall on the other.


The large stone and timber lodge–-with its bar, card room, fireplace, and dining hall–-sits at the beginning of the meadow. A big picture window looks out from an intimate barroom toward the majestic mountain bowl.

Antique rifles line the barroom walls. The books on the tables bear such titles as “Fear of Fly-Fishing,” “The Rivers of Colorado,” “Fly Patterns of Yellowstone,” and “Wade a Little Deeper, Dear.”


The creek, stocked with savvy trout (a catch-and-release program makes the fish experienced and wily) is divided into 15 “stations,” each about a half-mile long. Fishing parties draw for their choice of stations on the river each day, which ensures each party a private half-mile of trout infested river each day.


The 4UR takes no more than 50 guests at a time from June through September. (July and August are the busiest months, September the prettiest.) The guests, from all over the nation, come every year on the same dates without fail. The result is an ongoing reunion of old friends (newcomers are quickly assimilated). If a regular guest is missing, others are concerned and want to know why.


The Kirkpatricks, Sue and Jack, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, visit every year like clockwork. Jack, 51, has come to the ranch for the past 40 years; his father for 30 years before that.


All this is a testimony to the addicting and enduring allure of this retreat. With each passing moment one becomes increasingly relaxed and awed by the silence and stature of the setting, as though nature hushed in reverence to itself.


“There's something about this place,” said Sue Kirkpatrick. “It gets in you. You always come back.”


                                   


Ed Wintz never left. Wintz, 60, grew up in the Creede area and has been foreman at the 4UR for 37 years.


Wintz is the quintessential cowboy. He wears chaps, boots, spurs, a vest, a red bandanna and a tan, western hat. He is lean, strong, soft-spoken, understated, hard-working, somewhat shy; a man who knows his way around animals, tools and weapons and is secure in his place in the outdoors.


On horseback, one fresh, cool morning, Wintz strode through the mountains overlooking the 4UR and, only after his guests’ insistence, told the tale again.


“Well,” Wintz said, pulling up his horse, “I'd been hunting bear all summer with a bow but hadn't got any. I heard this noise one morning on the porch. The dog was barking like crazy. I got out of bed and looked out and there was a black bear eating out of the dog's bowl.


“I went to get my bow. I figured I'd get in a shot while the bear was running off. It would be my last chance to get one, I figured. Only he didn't run off. He ran at me. I ran in the house and strung the bow about the time the bear hit the screen door. He was up on his hind legs at the screen and I shot. I remember the sparks flashing where the arrow went through the screen.”


The shot went through the bears’ neck, and it fled with Wintz-–in pajamas–-pursuing through the cold darkness. Eventually, Wintz killed the bear, which measured 19.25 inches across the skull, a record bow-kill at the time. Later, Wintz posed with the bear for a local newspaper. A reporter asked him why, since a gun rack was nearby, he didn't use a rifle instead of a bow.


“I didn't want to wake the kids,” Wintz replied.


Wintz, asked about the wisdom of using only arrows and a bow to hunt bears, said he thought it was only fair. He even wondered whether his “recurve” bow might be too much of an advantage.


“Some of these new bows are beginning to get away from being primitive weapons,” he said. “My son in Canada only uses a long bow,” he added with a flicker of pride.


Oddly enough, a preference for primitive weapons–-whether arrows or hand-tied fishing lures–-might be thought of as a gesture of peace between man and nature; an acceptance to play more closely by nature's hard, but fair, rules–-and by doing so, to come closer to finding one's own place in the forest. Wintz, for one, would very much at home.


The horses climbed higher into the mountains, eventually reaching a spectacular, thick aspen grove. The bright yellow aspen leaves fanned out from the top of the white-bark trunks and quivered in the slightest breeze. Lighted from above, they created a vibrating canopy of gold, like fire or electricity. Wintz pointed to claw marks on the trees. “That's bear marks. Cubs playing around.”


Before noon we reached the ridge crest and could see in one gaze the entire valley and its cradling mountains, the ranch’s guest cabins, the old mine, the long broad creek, the opposite cliffs where guests could trapshoot.


The view presented an overwhelmingly quiet panorama and made it hard to say what one thing was best about it. A person could feel peaceful there; feel the simple, primitive, honest memory of an older self. A self that hunted and was hunted and accepted that as fair. A self that knew nature was secured in his place in it.


Sometimes a person can almost see that older self in the quick moving shapes of fish, or in the ripples of the 7 mile Creek, or in a running horse, or in the mists of natural hot springs, or behind shimmering aspen leaves. That a person listens and gets quiet inside and out.


                                   


Earlier in the day, Rock Swenson, an avid fisherman who manages the resort with his wife, said, “You know, sometimes I just go through the motions of fishing and just stand and look around.”


“Eventually all things merge into one,” McLean wrote, “and a river runs through it.”


It does here anyway.