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.