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Cast a Spell

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Fly-fishing wasn’t Jen Murphy’s idea of a thrilling adventure sport, but an excursion to Colorado’s Taylor River awakened a deeper connection to nature and her dad

Photos by Eleven Experience

Kokanee Lodge overlooks a trout-filled pond — the perfect warmup spot for novices to cast before graduating to a semi-private stretch of the Taylor River.

You either get bitten by the fishing bug or you don’t — and my dad got bit hard. Old photos show me strapped to my dad’s back, dangling above a river as he reeled in a bass or trout. As soon as I could walk I was handed a child-sized rod with a Snoopy bobber that I disinterestedly dragged through the water as my dad cast nearby. Most little girls played with Barbie. I made Barbie-worthy fish bait. I’d sit beside my dad at his fly-tying desk and help him attach bright pink feathers and adhesive eyes, and then wrap holographic tinsel around the hook.
Despite my dad’s nurturing efforts, I didn’t catch the fishing bug. In fact, I found his beloved hobby downright boring. Eventually I left home in New Jersey to attend college in Boston and the great outdoors faded into a childhood memory as I settled into a career in Manhattan. When my dad passed away from cancer, I was left grasping for a way to keep our father-daughter connection. Now that he was gone, I desperately wanted to get to know him better. Although I didn’t inherit my dad’s fishing obsession, I did inherit his love for the wilderness, and when I moved to Colorado I decided it was time to give fishing another go. I needed to understand what my dad loved so much about a sport that seemed so snoozy.
My dad once told me the key to a successful fishing trip is a great guide, and I had heard that Taylor River Lodge employed some of the West’s top talents. This newest property from Eleven Experience — a collection of exclusive adventure lodges — debuted last fall, 15 miles southeast of Crested Butte, Colorado. I lose my cell signal as soon as I hit the dirt road that leads into the Taylor River Canyon. An enormous gate swings open to reveal what’s best described as a cross between a fly-fishing paradise and a grown-up summer camp. I immediately sense that both my dad and I would have loved it here.
I check into one of eight wood-and-chink cabins tucked under tall shady trees; Antler-accented lamps, mounted trophy trout and other traditional Western décor are refreshingly complemented by worldly touches, like Moroccan textile headboards. The main gathering space, Kokanee Lodge, overlooks the property’s trout-filled pond — the perfect practice area for a novice caster like myself seeking to graduate to the lodge’s semi-private stretch of the Taylor River. My guide, Moose — nicknamed not for his size but because his mom would go moose hunting while pregnant with him — tells me there are 5,000 trout per mile in the Taylor and Gunnison rivers, which sounds like good odds to me. In the gear room, he suits me up in top-of-the-line Simms waders, a fly-studded fishing vest and polarized sunglasses to help me spot the “hogs,” as Moose refers to the fish.
We start with casting lessons on the pond. “You’re all loosey-loose,” scolds Moose, referring to my wrist when I cast. He patiently shows me how to deftly flick my wrist rather than throw my arm like a pitcher when I cast. We spot a half-dozen brown trout across the pond and I land my fly just in front of them. Moose begins whispering his mantra, “C’mon fish,” and I try not to feel pressure to land a bite. I’m startled when he yells “hit it,” then realize I’ve got a fish on my hook. Unlike my dad, who at this point would have yanked the rod from my hands, Moose coaches me as I reel in my trout, instructing me to let the fish run so it tuckers out. When I get it close Moose scoops it into the net, and I beam with pride. My adrenaline is surging from my battle with this 6-pound trout. For the first time in my life, I share the same excitement my dad must have felt every time he hooked a fish.
Taylor River has plenty of non-fishing distractions, ranging from a climbing wall, archery, BB gun shooting and ax throwing on property, to white water rafting, hiking and mountain biking on property. But, I can’t think of any activity I’d rather do than fish and am thrilled when Moose suggests we try our luck along the river the next day. We walk a few hundred meters across a bridge and wade into the water. Moose assesses the conditions and selects the appropriate fly for my hook. He points to a deep patch of water and tells me to land my cast right in the center. The current immediately takes my fly downstream, but he instructs me to stay relaxed and keep casting into the same spot. I get a few nibbles but no bites, so we change up flies and wade upstream. This time, on my first cast I hear Moose yell “hit it” almost before my fly has hit the water. My line quickly unspools, and I fight to reel in the slack. “That is a big fish!” Moose is yelling. I feed off his excitement and hold my ground, cranking my reel to bring in the whopper rainbow trout. Moose nets it, and I can hear my dad saying that he’s a beauty.

Taylor River Lodge has plenty of non-fishing distractions, on- and off-property, but catching a rainbow trout is the main lure.

We fish until my wrist can’t do anything but go all loosey-loose when I cast. Unlike my other fishing experiences, at Taylor River I’m rewarded with a glass of white Burgundy at the horseshoe-shaped bar and a steam, sauna and massage in the Bath House. Our alfresco dinner that evening is grilled trout. I’m just as much in awe that I could have caught this meal, as I am that I truly enjoyed every minute of my time on the river. Maybe it was the magical setting? Maybe it was my patient, enthusiastic guide? Maybe it was the promise of a classy drink and pampering after my adventure? Or maybe I really did inherit some of my dad’s fishing DNA. My time with Moose makes me realize that my dad’s obsession wasn’t catching fish, it was a passion for getting back to the land — for being so in tune with nature that you can sense what the fish are biting, what the fish are thinking. I may never become a fish whisperer, like Moose or my dad, but after a few days of battling “hogs” on the Taylor River, I’ll never call fishing boring again.

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