Another Day, Another Season

Fire had swept through the landscape several years past, and the stream’s course was a tangle of deadfall that regularly turned navigating its banks into an exercise in precarious balance, scrambling, and contortion. Other times required leaving the stream altogether for higher, flatter ground where stepping around and over the fallen trees became easier, before again dropping down to fish a conducive spot.

I didn’t mind these interruptions to the day’s flow, reveling instead in the challenge of such close-quarter fishing and the feeling of solitude, of being alone in the high country on a day when air and sky sounded a note of caution, of a season drawing to its close and, more urgently, a storm on its way.

Terrain and gradient conspired to create long stretches where the stream flowed fast and straight, forcing me to cherry pick where I fished, looking for places where beavers had slowed its course, their dams creating ox-bow bends interspersed with clear, silent pools. In this quieter water cutthroats would lie like ghost zeppelins against the finely silted pebbles of the bed, while along the margins of the stream smaller brook trout would hover, never straying far from the security of undercut banks, overhanging vegetation, or submerged tangles of logs and branches.

Casting accurately to these latter lies required luck and delicacy, combined with the mindset to not get emotionally attached to my fly. Multiple were lost to any combination of branches, snags, and poor technique, sometimes on successive casts. Interspersed with these frustrations came several fish, including one memorable brookie, its vibrant orange belly contrasting against mottled topsides of dark, smokey grey, and the inside of its mouth revealed black as night as I drew it to me and slipped the hook from its jaw.

Further upstream a log fallen lengthwise across the water had created a uniform, steady pour-over with a small pool below, heavily overhung with willows. Kneeling amongst the undergrowth, I rolled a cast out into the center of the pool, and a cutthroat, long and fat, rose guilelessly from the depths to sip it from below. My two weight bent nearly double as I brought it to shore, released it then rolled out another cast. Five times in the next six drifts, other fish rose to take the fly, pulling briefly against the hook before swimming away.

Surely that first cutthroat, large as it was, couldn’t have bent out the hook? I reeled in the line to discover that, in the process of releasing the first fish, I’d twisted the body of the fly one hundred and eighty degrees. Not only was the hook floating wrong side up, the tail of the fly covered the point, enabling the fish to slip off. One side of me regretted the lost opportunities, yet another acknowledged I’d still enjoyed the best part—watching the rise, watching the take, and feeling the fish on the end of the line. Fly corrected, I cast several more times, only to learn I’d outlived my welcome at this particular pool, as no further fish were tempted.

Shortly beyond this place, the terrain steepened, the stream flowing through a steep-sided cut dense with trees that had escaped the fire’s reach. I sat against a fallen log and took a late lunch, deciding upon my next move. Somewhere above this gorge sat the lake feeding the stream. If the day yielded nothing further, I’d like to set eyes on it. I knew a trail loosely followed the stream in the same general direction.

Judging sufficient daylight remaining, I found and took to the trail as it switchbacked into steeper country, away from the stream. These higher elevations had also escaped the fire’s reach, and the trail led through stands of pine, the ground they shaded muddy from recent snow. To my left a waterfall cascaded several hundred feet down the near vertical aspect of a granite cliff, a thin white veil against the hard grey of the rock. Gradually the gradient of the terrain lessened and the trail worked its way back in the direction of the stream, still flowing through the same steep-sided ravine.

Cresting one last rise, I at last looked down upon the lake. Long and narrow, its distant shore curved from sight against a backdrop of fir and snow-dusted granite. Drifts of ice pockmarked its surface, and a scattering of bleached logs clogged its outflow. The trail continued along the southern shore, the promise of more stream beyond to fish. I looked at the lowering sky, now darker and more threatening, and decided against continuing. Snow was on the way, and what lay beyond the lake would have to wait for another day, another season.

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A Cold Flat Tops Morning

The river below me reflected the blood red of a dawn sky, the countryside through which it flowed still a formless indigo. Propped up on one elbow, still buried inside two sleeping bags, I lay and watched as river reflected the fleeting transition of the sky overhead—red to orange then pale yellow then pewter—and the first rays of sunlight brushed the granite peaks beyond.

Overnight the wind had dropped, and with the calm had come the cold. I reached for my water bottle and, discovering it frozen, retreated to the warmth of my crib, only to be thwarted a few minutes later by the nagging of my bladder.
Pleased to have made it through the night, I rose and communed with a nearby pine tree, then stuck my boot several times into the side of my five gallon water jug to break the ice and pour sufficient into a pot for tea.

Back inside the camper the burner hissed gently while I added another layer of clothing then, steaming mug and map in hand, returned outside to sit in a camp chair. The next half hour was spent alternately watching the sunlight creep its way toward me down the mountainside opposite, and restudying the map I’d pored over last night under lantern light, confirming in my mind that the plan I’d hit upon then was still as valid as now, in the growing light of day.

The water below me, on the map called out as a river yet in reality little more than a robust stream, could wait for tomorrow. Memories of a previous trip to this part of the world several years ago had turned my mind’s eye upstream, higher into the mountains.

Then, I’d hiked several miles up into the wilderness area. The trail first skirted a reservoir then cut deeper into the high country. There, this same water that flowed below camp was little more than the width of an irrigation ditch, flowing skinny over dark cobbles with the occasional calm pool. The fish that day, a combination of neon brookies and vibrant cutts, had been alert and spooky yet willing to take a dry fly presented with subtlety. Late in the afternoon I’d turned back at a place where the countryside steepened and the stream became a series of falls tumbling through a narrow, snaking ravine tangled with deadfall. Would the stream fish as well this time as then, I wondered, and what lay up country, beyond that ravine?

I loaded a skillet with bacon and hash browns and, back in the camper, prepared my pack for the coming day: extra clothing and first aid at the bottom, waders and boots stuffed next, small chest pack with a single fly box and a couple of spools of tippet, knife, reel, water filter, and a lunchtime beer, leaving enough room in the top for a lunch I’d throw together last thing, and strapped to the outside a rod case containing my two-weight.

Few aromas in this world can compete with that of bacon sizzling in cold, high country air. Returning to the grill I cracked a couple of eggs into the skillet and placed a tortilla over the lot to warm for a few minutes. The subsequent burrito, liberally drenched with hot sauce, was soon engulfed, washed down with the dregs of my tea.

The sun, by now fully clear of the ridge tops, bathed the day with the promise and melancholy of fall. Stands of bare aspen stood stark among needle-pointed fir, while patches of snow from the season’s first storm lay watery on the ground. I looked toward the distant mountains and, pack cinched snugly, began to hike up the trail.

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There’s Nothing Decent Up Here

The last shades of pink and orange faded from the mountain tops, and silence settled over the forest about us. We hung waders and boots to dry, then I set a pot of canned stew on the burner while Cave squeezed fresh lime for the margaritas. The liquor began to melt away the ache in my muscles, and we spoke of the day, of the beauty of a brook trout’s markings, and the guilelessness of a high-mountain cutthroat when tempted with a dry fly.

Nothing Decent

From the corner of my eye, movement—a white orb bobbed up the hill towards us, upon closer inspection a stetson, softly glowing in the last light of the day.

“You fellas got an axe?” the newcomer asked without preamble. “Looks like it might get chilly tonight.”
We’d noticed his arrival in the meadow below upon our return. I’d wondered briefly at the power of the human herding instinct. Hundreds of square miles of public land about, and he’d chosen to set up within a stone’s throw. I looked beyond him to his camp below—truck, trailer, ATV, expedition tent, full camp kitchen including overhead lamp, firewood stack… Some salesman at Cabela’s had just met his monthly sales target.

“Sorry mate,” I replied, “we’re not doing a fire. Makes it harder to see the stars.”

He stood and looked slowly about, as if to satisfy himself as to the veracity of my response. While he stood, all boots and buckles, his hat continued to glow white in the lingering light of the day. He pushed his jacket back off his hip to reveal a pistol in a holster. He tapped the grip with his trigger finger and continued.

“You guys see any blue grouse up there? That’s what this is for. I see any, I’m gonna get me some.”

“Huh. I didn’t know there were any around here.”

He noticed our waders, drying from the rope we’d strung between a couple of trees. “How’s the fishing?” Without waiting for an answer he continued. “I was up this way in the spring, May sometime. It was OK. Didn’t catch anything decent.”

Caveman, who up until this time had been keeping counsel with his margarita, studiously ignoring the intrusion, looked up at him for the first time, fixing him with a stare known to silence a barroom. I was grateful we were only on our first marg. Wars have started over less. “What’s decent to you?” he asked.

The stranger shrugged, holding his hands a vague distance apart. “You know…decent.”

“You’re right.” Cave gave him a “bless your heart” smile. “There’s nothing decent up here.”

“Well, wish we could help with the axe,” I intervened. The stew was beginning to bubble in the pot, and I lifted the lid and gave it a stir.

He touched the brim of his hat, bade us a good evening, and turned, heading off downhill.

Cave drained his marg and reached for a beer from the cooler between our chairs. “Nothing decent,” he chuckled, scratching his chin and shaking his head.

A few minutes later, we heard the thud of an axe, a few minutes more and a generous tongue of flame reached into the night from the meadow below us. We ate in weary silence, each replaying the day according to his perspective, and turned in with the darkness, content to leave the dishes for morning. Somewhere out in the night, coyotes yipped and howled, and I thought of Tex, curled up in his tent, fumbling under his pillow for the safety catch.

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A Hole The Size Of Texas

The smooth face of the earthen dam spans the gap between two flat-topped mesas a half-mile distant, the mesas pockmarked with snow on their northerly aspects. From the bottom of the dam issues the river, flowing in a series of braids and riffles that then come together to form a fishing hole the size of Texas. The river reflects metallic beneath an overcast sky, and in the early light of a cold Sabbath morn, the faithful are gathering.

Among the patchwork of tussock lining the bank one angler sits cross-legged, contemplating the intricacies of tying knots with cold fingertips and translucent tippet. Next to his rod on the ground rests a generous pack – it seems he has few other plans for the day save what lies immediately before him.

Already in the water, an angler works the vee between two braids, standing upstream of the confluence and nymphing tight and close into the turbulent water below him. He moves with the sure-footedness and animation of youth, changing his position in the river without aid of a wading staff or need to look where next to plant his feet. Suddenly his rod tip bows. He lets out a stifled victory yell then, angling his rod toward shore, splashes his way across the braid into calm water, where he proceeds to play the fish until it fills his net. With a fist pump he kneels in the shallows, gently removing the hook and line from fish and net before scooping a gentle hand under his catch and releasing it back to the river.

A man and two women, clad in waders, beanies, and jackets, and each clutching a child and fly rod, emerge from a clump of willows onto the rocky shore of one of the braids where they stand, taking in the scene. A ubiquitous yellow lab follows them, tail high and tongue lolling. After a couple of minutes discussion, they decide to cross the braid to the same calm water and small beach where the young angler still kneels, checking his line for abrasions. Halfway across the braid, one of the women, an infant strapped to her chest in a carrier, slips on the slick rock and falls backward, half sitting, half kneeling in the flow, which threatens to sweep her off her feet. The man quickly passes his rod to the second woman then reaches to grab the first. For perhaps thirty seconds they teeter mid stream before the woman regains her balance and stands, infant dry, and they complete the crossing.

Oblivious to the predicament of the family, the young angler looks up from checking his line to see another fisherman, having watched him land his fish, and displaying little awareness and less understanding of etiquette, taking advantage of his absence to wade across and stand right where the young angler had until recently been casting. This interloper quickly unstrings his rod and begins to cast, with much enthusiasm but little apparent technique. The young angler shrugs, and turns to speak with the family.

While the interloper froths the water, a lesson is taking place on the far bank. One fisherman, beanpole straight, instructs his diminutive sidekick on the intricacies of the tension cast, letting the fly rig drift down below him then flicking it upstream again with an economy of movement. The taller one bends in an exaggerated stoop as he intently stares after the indicator as it floats downstream. The diminutive one then tries, tentatively but with a look of earnest concentration.

“I’m ready,” says Caveman from the bow of the boat, where for the last several minutes he has been contemplating a series of knots of his own. I sit up straight in the seat and haul on the anchor rope. Several more anglers arrive on the far shore as I ease the boat back out into the flow, to join the faithful on a cold Sabbath morn where four braids of the river come together to form a hole the size of Texas.

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Riding the Rainbow

The tires rolling across fresh snow made a muffled chirp, reminiscent of the soft trill of a flock of grebes, floating on a northern California lake. I thought of that lake, of that most recent summer, and of how quickly the seasons themselves roll, one seamlessly into the other.

The gradient of the two-track became steeper as it wound up the tapering valley, into the clouds that ghosted through the pines, their tendrils trailing like wispy fingers through the boughs. On a steeper pitch my rear tire spun out on a patch of ice, unseen beneath the mantle of fresh falling snow, forcing me to dismount. I laid my bike down and took the water bottle from its cage. The valve had long since frozen shut, necessitating unscrewing the top. I drank a few sips then stood, and listened. No sound, save the soft murmur of the stream that ran next to the road. Somewhere close a tree creaked against its neighbor, creaked powerlessly against the inevitable. Nothing really dies, I thought, that same tree composed of elements present at the very creation of time.

A soft breeze sighed through the trees. The snow eddied and swirled. The forest stood silent and stoic, indifferent to its beauty. My back began to feel the chill as my sweat cooled. I realized I needed to keep moving up hill, toward the trail. I came to a stream, frozen over, and picked my way across, gingerly from snow-covered rock to snow-covered rock, using my bike as a crutch, the sound of the water gurgling from beneath the opaque veneer of ice.

At the trailhead, I leaned my bike against a fallen log, placed hands on knees and gasped for air, trying to restore the equilibrium between my muscles’ demand for oxygen and my lungs’ ability to deliver it. Taking a chocolate bar from my pocket, I bit off a chunk, thinking one mouthful would suffice, underestimating the craving for calories and sugar that physical exertion in a cold climate creates. Next thing, the wrapper lay crumpled, empty in my hand. My stomach, like a dry sponge, soaked the sustenance. I shivered. Time to move on.

The trail formed a thin ribbon through the forest, laid up and down according to the contour of the land. I rounded a blind corner where, years previous, an early-morning encounter with a bear had given me an appreciation of the speed with which such animals can move, and the role blind luck plays in survival. On the dryer, south facing slopes, dense pine gave way to stands of scrub oak, their rust-colored leaves hanging limp, awaiting the next breeze to shake them loose and settle them to their final rest.

For several miles the trail so wound. Fallen trees criss-crossed a frigid stream, the snow gathering on their topsides standing out like searchlights in the gloom. Finally I reached a junction in the trail and turned downhill toward home, gravity now my friend. Here the trail was less well defined, the snow concealing its landmarks. I followed it in part by instinct, in part recalling its course from those seasons when it is laid bare on the forest floor. Not another soul around, the soft hiss of the bike’s tires on fresh flakes my only company. The snow began to pick up its intensity, and soon my tracks would be covered over, and once they were gone, had I really even passed this way at all?

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