Voices from the river

Voices from the River: The icon of 'Septemberfest'

The icon of “Septemberfest,” the brown trout. Photo by Chris Hunt

By Scott Willoughby

Summer’s unofficial ending began the way it always should. With a truckload of kids, dog and angling accoutrements, Labor Day weekend started in reverse, backing down the busy boat ramp below Flaming Gorge Reservoir to roll an amply-provisioned raft off the trailer and into the fabled trout waters of Utah’s Green River.

It’s billed as the season’s last hurrah, a three-day frolic through an unimaginably scenic landscape, riding on air atop a flowing liquid emerald. Fishing is encouraged by the glut of trout visible in every eddy, but hardly required. The kids are beside themselves simply being here. There will be time for fishing, just as there will be s’mores.

To me though, this unofficial ending resonates as a beginning. The brisk morning air, shifting weather pattern and, frankly, less crowded and chaotic spaces come as a welcome declaration that many a sportsman’s favorite time of year has arrived. In the high Rockies of Colorado that I call home, September marks the opening of archery hunting seasons for mule deer and elk, wing shooting for dusky blue grouse and some primetime stalking of the predacious German brown. And that clearly calls for a celebration.

In the Bavarian old country where many of our alpine traditions originate, the season at hand has long been celebrated as Octoberfest. Being that we’ve managed to bump it up a bit, thrown in National Hunting and Fishing Day (Sept. 22), National Public Lands Day (also Sept. 22) and bundled it all together in Public Lands Month, it feels more appropriate to designate an entirely new celebration.

So for the next 30 days, give or take, I shall be reveling in “Septemberfest.” And you all are invited to join the jubilee. Like any festival worth its salt, Septemberfest demands an icon. As fate would have it, in addition to Adolph Coors and the architectural stylings of Vail, Germany also gets credit for gifting Colorado (and much of the world) with brown trout. So Salmo trutta offers a pretty compelling argument as said icon, at least out West.

While not native to the local landscape, these hardy, wild gamefish have seen our state through some hard times, whether by bolstering the trout population — and, in turn, wildlife management revenue — in the aftermath of unregulated overfishing of native cutthroats, helping meet the eager expectations of anglers in the face of whirling disease and, in years like this one, an above-average ability to adapt in low water conditions.

“In high water years, the brown trout fishery suffers. That’s all there is to it. But in low-flow years, the brown trout fishery flourishes,” said Greg Policky, the former Colorado Parks and Wildlife aquatic biologist credited with managing the Arkansas River to Gold Medal status. “Nobody wants to see a bunch of low-flow years. Even if it did create a phenomenal fishery, the costs are just so great throughout our society in this drainage. But (among trout anglers) there’s recognition that low-flow years do have a silver lining to them.”

In addition to Septemberfest, the face of climate change might well include a kyped jaw and haloed freckles of black and red. The arid heat of summer aside, September is when the brown trout truly begin to flourish. And with any luck, our rivers will too. Cool nights, waning sunlight and occasional rain showers have relaxed surrounding fire restrictions by a stage, with the hope that lingering river closures could soon follow.

While most Colorado rivers remain low (thus the Green River road trip), the dog days are behind us, replaced by a trace of skim ice in her water bowl at dawn and even a sporadic dusting of snow on the high peaks that account for Colorado’s myriad headwaters.

As we pant our way toward the equinox, September’s yield awaits harvest. We don’t see steelhead in Colorado, and our kokanee salmon are landlocked and stunted. But the aggressive pre-spawn browns of autumn can measure more than 30 inches and their piscivorous tenacity toward a well-swung streamer can provide an electric jolt capable of carrying any angler through the bitter frost of winter. In the gloomy reality of our climate’s new normal, we certainly can use something to celebrate.

So in the spirit of Septemberfest, I’m hereby extolling the virtues of brown trout. And, just for good measure, public lands brown trout in particular. So raise a rod tip, and perhaps a stein, strap some waders onto your lederhosen suspenders and step into September.

We’ve got a lot to look forward to.

Scott Willoughy is the southwest sportsmen’s outreach coordinator for TU’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project. He lives and works in Vail, Colo.

By Chris Hunt.