The orange and red sunset was hot and breezeless. The evening choir of Cicadas were mid-way through their performance, as the lead Cicadid beat his drum-like tymbal membrane and kept the perfect rhythm for his ensemble within the valley, while perched high above in the Cottonwood next to camp. In the immediate background, behind our REI Co-op Passage 2 tent came the sound of scurrying squirrels and mountain jays, jumping through brush and bushes while racing to collect pine cones and various nuts as day light quickly faded.
Isolated from the nearby hiking trail, we had managed to setup camp near a flat bench of open land, jutting out above a riparian area enclosed in towering Ponderosa Pines, Cottonwoods, Willows, and Shrubs that were now in full bloom and abundantly fragrant. The lush surroundings completely masked our camp and provided an exceptional blind to the occasional passerby – struggling upwards and onwards on the rugged hiking trail. The smell of budding Sagebrush amid freshly sprouted Pine trees from the nearby ridge wafted through the narrow clearing and into our primitive campsite as we setup for the long night.
We swatted at several mosquitoes that were divebombing us as we sat in our collapsible camp chairs, sipping on semi-cold drinks, finally relaxing after the day’s strenuous and grueling hike. We were fully engrossed by the ongoing Cicada recital – in fact, we had been suspended into a profound trance. As we took in the scenery – the backdrop of Colorado mountaintops loomed large in the small valley we had hiked into. Fully detached and disconnected from civilization after several days of backpacking and fly fishing – we were settling into the nomadic lifestyle with ease.
Tomorrow we would hike down off the mountain and continue further into the wilderness to try our luck for Rainbows at a secret beaver pond complex that few people knew about. They called it ‘Complex B’. It was rumored that within this beaver pond complex, lurked monstrous and freakishly sized Rainbows and Brook Trout. Our mission was to see what was there – to check it out, to confirm or debunk the rumors.
The sun had just slipped past the tallest dark purple peak several miles away, springing to life tall and ominous shadows that danced around the campsite, menacing us with the dark and eerie unknown that existed just a couple meters past the safety of camp. The Cicadas had called it a night and ended the show; the Squirrels and Jays had suddenly gone home. We had complete stillness now. The silence was broken by the small camp stove hissing to life with the steady reassurance of the warm food to come.
By now, our headlamps were clicked on and a small LED lantern hung over our cook site as we began the final cleanup preparations before retiring to the tent. As we sat there, all our senses abuzz and alert, our momentary ecstasy was unexpectedly shattered with a deafening BOOM. The sound of terrifyingly close thunder rattled and shock the ground like zeroed-in artillery – INCOMING. Then another. And another.
Concealed from view and floating towards us within the nighttime sky, creeping forth from behind the steep forested ridgeline and taking us by complete surprise – was a massive thunderstorm. The colossal thunderhead, with the top reaching upwards to the base of the stratosphere – at roughly 50,000 feet – was about to let loose on us.
The tiny two-person tent pitched amongst the towering Ponderosa Pines was illuminated multiple times with each bolt of lightning, crackling down to the ground in a web of white electricity. Like a disco-tech strobe light, our camp took center stage as the sudden thunderstorm came roaring to life. There was a disturbing feeling hanging in the air as there was no wind, rain or any warning sign accompanying this storm – only the sudden appearance of this uninvited and unwelcomed guest.
We dashed back to the tent, throwing our gear and packs under the safety of the rainfly. We switched off our head lamps and watched the light show.
The lightning strikes were dangerously close now. Only a couple meters away, along the hiking trail, a bolt of lightening struck a large boulder. The shock wave from the strike and tremendous crack and boom left us momentarily deaf – for several seconds afterwards, all we heard was a ringing in our ears. As the storm slowly moved across the valley, we saw at least 4 different strikes that hit the ridgeline across from us, a mere 50 meters away. With each strike, we could see the entire valley as everything lit up – the pointed canopies of the Pines, the wafting rain shaft, and surrounding mountains – all from within our tent. Then as the momentary flashes disappeared, we were left in pitch black darkness. It was surreal.
As the storm unleashed hell, all we were able to do was wait it out inside the tent and hope that we would be spared the worst. The wind blew hard, and the rain came down in buckets. The riparian area was now resembling a full-blown lake and we were in danger of being submerged in water. As we peered out from the unzipped corner of the door, shinning the flashlight and battling back the driving rain, we quickly saw – what was previously our cook site – now was under at least 1 foot of water. This wasn’t looking good.
Surprisingly, just as we began preparing to transfer the tent by packing all the gear and plucking up the stakes, the rain stopped, and the storm vanished beyond the valley. As the storm moved away, the lightning continued off in the distance and the booming thunder slowly gave way to only a distant rumble. We had survived.
We broke camp early the next morning. We were battered, soaked and tired. We slowly dried things out and gradually set off towards the beaver pond complex. The hike was slow going and muddy. The mountains were awash with fog and mist, and the trail towards our destination was almost entirely flooded from the rains. Along the way we saw frogs and toads everywhere. It was a good sign of things to come. We made good time though, and eventually, after several hours on the trail had arrived at ‘Complex B’. Upon arrival, we setup another camp and stowed our things. It was time to see what was here.
Geared up and ready to fish we set off further down the trail towards the most coveted spot in Complex B, the deepest pond, also known as ‘Rainbow Bunker’. As we stalked up to the edge of the pond, we immediately noticed a couple of giant fish cruising the shoreline.
Nervous with adrenaline flowing, I unhooked my custom self-tied frog popper and began false casting. With enough line out on the small 4-piece 5wt, I threw a gentle cast that landed near the entrance of Rainbow Bunker. With this being the first cast, I was ready for whatever- my anticipation and excitement set to max.
I stripped hard, sending the popper digging into the water. It shoveled up and displaced a large amount of water, then, crashed back up to the surface. As I waited to strip again, the green and yellow popper suddenly disappeared below, amidst a large boil and splash that sent water high above the surface of the pond. Before I could even set the hook, my fly line shot through the guides, and my drag sang loudly.
The rumors had been confirmed.
*This post can also be seen at ColoradoFishExplorer.com