“The selective trout is that uncompromising creature in whose spirit the angler attempts to read his own fortune.” – Thomas McGuane
As we crossed state lines into Wyoming, I remembered why I didn’t think going to that particular river would be the best place for a float trip. At that time, the U.S. Federal Government was shut down as a result of its inability to break a political stalemate. Stinson and I were en route to a national wildlife refuge, and trespassing on federal land means a fine, or jail time.
The place where we were unlawfully headed is an angler’s haven for large-bellied brown and rainbow trout. The land is a refuge for an entire high desert ecosystem, untouched apart from a few two-lane roads that lead the outsider into it like a Siren’s call. It’s a place that is remote and unpopular, and I was confident that we could float through undetected.
As my thoughts raced alongside the disappearing highway, I realized that everyone employed by the federal government was furloughed, which includes the officers, so there wouldn’t be anyone to enforce the law. I abide by laws, generally, with only a few I can justify breaking. I’m not cut out to be the Sundance Kid, but when the law interferes with a lifestyle, I then lose respect for that law and will disobey — not because I get a rush from breaking laws, but because it would be unnatural not to.
If I were truly spooked by the thought of being arrested and fined while floating harmlessly down a river in fifty-year-old drift boat, I would have gone home.
“Pull over that boat!” I could imagine the officer yelling with grunts of frustration between words as he struggles through the thick vegetation guarding the edge of the river.
“For what?” Stinson would yell back, as he makes a nicely looped cast to the rising fish.
“For trespassing on federal land!” He’d yell out of breath, trying to keep up with our floating drift boat.
“We’re fishing, not trespassing,” I might say.
I’d have to eddy the boat into the place where the officer would be standing with a stale look on his face. He’d be in his power stance with one hand resting above his gun and the other on the radio as he informs dispatch that he’s got, “Two suspects trespassing in an old wooden boat.”
“Are they armed?” Dispatch would ask.
“Copy, consider suspects armed and dangerous. They have two five-weight fly rods, a flask of whiskey, and a filet knife.”
He’d then inform Dispatch of another trespassing party: a grazing sow moose and her yearlings.
Stinson’s personality is magnified when he’s on the water. The river brings his attributes and, oftentimes, his malfunctions to the surface. Stinson’s a hardworking fisherman, one who won’t give up until he’s found what the fish are taking, one who doesn’t give up on people either. It’s easy to become discouraged when fishing for trout, especially when they’re not active, but Stinson is the fisherman who encourages new tactics, gets things rolling again. Stinson’s game is not dry flying; his game is all subsurface, and it becomes valuable to have a fishing pal like him. He brings an awareness of what might be happening below the river’s surface onto the boat.
I find wonder and a blind sense of adventure when arriving at a new and unfamiliar place in the dark. It is true that rivers carve amazing places, and arriving at those places in the dark allows for mystery. With a hint of moon, I can make out the basic topography of my new surroundings, features like canyon walls and the slow hills that roll out to the moon. With the morning sun, details will be filled in–though at night they’re lent to wonder.
“Man, it’s cold. Bust out the whiskey,” said Stinson.
“Read my mind.”
I clawed through my backpack in search of the bourbon, but with no luck. The thermometer on the truck’s dashboard read eight degrees above zero. I palmed my forehead in disbelief when I realized I had left our warming remedy on the kitchen counter.
“What’s fishing going to feel like without the hangover?” I asked Stinson once we were settled in the tent.
“One less thing we have to deal with, I guess.”
I awoke for the first time since I can remember on a trip without the dry and stale taste of the previous night’s bourbon in my mouth, and then I heard the rumble of the river that put me to sleep. At the first sign of light, I unwillingly de-cocooned myself from my frost-covered sleeping bag and rose from the frozen misery.
The heavy fog dampened everything. I was hydrating simply by inhaling. To warm up, I jogged and whirled my arms on my way to find a place to launch the boat. When I got to the riverbank, I first noticed how high the east bank was compared to where I was standing. It leaned over the river, a natural subway, but instead of the commotion of speeding trains and cramming of people, sand crumbled from a cut bank, and a dipper lightly hopped rock-to-rock looking for its breakfast.
In those few moments, I witnessed the river carve away small boulders and watched chunks of sediment fall and cloud the river. Moments of gentle commotion reminded me that though the area seemed at rest, a river is very much alive. I then saw a few serrated jaws breach and ripple the surface: The fish were rising.
The ambience in which a trout feeds is as important to that fish as it is to the angler. And ambience can be ruined for a trout when a size twelve wading boot steps in its hole and kicks up sediment on the river’s floor. Or when the shadow of a sixteen-foot drift boat engulfs the trout’s sun. Think of ambiance as it relates to a trout’s dining experience in the same way the ambience of your dinner out with a lover can be churned up when you notice his or her previous partner glaring at you from across the room.
When I returned, Stinson broke down our camp, and I cooked up some breakfast. As I was prepping the boat for the trip, I heard the crunch of snow under a set of truck tires and figured we were busted. My eyes darted through the trees for a white DNR truck. Who else would venture into twenty-degree weather on federally closed land? Then I saw two other fishermen launching their boat into the river, and things made sense. I approached the two men, asking if they had seen the large NO TRESPASSING sign.
“Must have missed it,” said one man smirking as he loaded the boat with his fly rods.
“Yea, so did I. Tough to read with it frosted over,” I said.
“You know what? That really pisses me off,” the man who had introduced himself as Mert said.
Mert was an average looking fisherman. It was cold as hell out, so he wore a hat, and I would wager that he was bald. He told me he didn’t give a damn about what the law says because he was “just fishing.” Mert then went on a moral tirade about how law is taking what’s ours to the protection of the river we were on, then to issues with fish ladders and the migration of salmon in Idaho. Mert’s ideas were justified though. We were, after all, releasing all the fish, which was virtually harmless to the fish and their environment. I sometimes believe fly fishing to be the most delicate way of observing and being fully a part of a river system, and that sense of connection is what inspires many fishermen to become stream and river activists.
Mert was knowledgeable and enthusiastic in his speech, which seemed rehearsed; Mert was a political spokesperson for the restoration of “his” rivers. He’s the kind of fisherman whose enjoyment of rivers encouraged a campaign. The kind you see at a fly fishing exposition with a table set up, looking for signatures for rights to private water or the deconstruction of dams. I respected Mert from the start because I don’t have the courage or charisma like he does to campaign as he did, and I don’t think his fishing partner did either because he was rolling his eyes and leaning on the boat, wanting the spiel Mert had probably told a thousand times before to be over so he could fish.
But Mert’s spiel went on, and he told me that he’d been coming to this section of river for more than thirty years. He warned that the fishing is tricky, especially in the cold weather. Mert told me that the river is ever changing, and that there are times when he floats all day and doesn’t catch a single fish, and that for his first three years coming to the river, he never caught one.
“It will take time,” he told me, “but after you figure out the secret behind the river, every fish you catch will be a fish to remember.”
I had fewer hopes of catching one of the river’s big fish because of Mert’s description of its difficulty, but I was eager to prove that it shouldn’t take three years to catch a fish on a healthy stretch of river like this one.
He told me that the river has its requirements, that before I could catch one of its fish, I’d have to put in a few weekends worth of work. As if I had to pay my dues, as if the river would have to haze me. It was all so convincing, like getting information from a local guide shop. As Mert and his partner were prepping their boat for the trip, I took a few casts with a dry fly along with Stinson, and in the first few attempts, we were simultaneously hooked up with two small brown trout. Mert glanced up from removing a bungee cord.
“In your first casts, you guys have caught more fish than in the three years I’ve fished this place,” he said. I reminded him that those trout were only six inches. “Those are still fish,” he replied.
I found Mert more a conservationist conversationalist than a fisherman. Maybe he liked the idea of fishing because it remained the best approach to experience the outcomes of his hard work as a protector of waters. His genuine nature and dedication to rivers convinced me that he wanted the river to remain a secret. So, I decided, if I ever told anyone about it, I wouldn’t name it, and I wouldn’t name the plateau it exists on, either.
I caught a fish, so I quickly disregarded the idea that I’d have to put in years of work to bring one in. I had new hope that Stinson and I would hook into one of the large trout known to lurk in these waters.
That day, I fished out of a drift boat for the first time. Instead of seeking advice from the conservationist, I asked his friend, the quiet oarsman who seemed more of a fisherman, for some pointers on reading water and controlling the boat. He told me to follow his lead for the first few miles and that I’d figure it out. So we launched at the same time, and I mimicked his every dip of an oar. After a mile or so, I had the basics down, and Stinson wanted to try rowing. I then had the chance to fish, and on the first cast out of the drift boat, I caught a nice sized rainbow trout on a prince nymph.
“Get out of town!” I heard Mert yell from upriver.
Finally, some warm light punctured through the tight pockets of the low hanging white blanket that chilled even the warm wood of the drift boat. But with the sun, my experience on the river turned into one of those days when trout feel more selective. They’re rising on the surface and flashing on the bottom, a river feeding frenzy. The angler will throw every imitation he has in his arsenal of flies, and not a single one will work, which is sort of what Mert was getting at. On days spent standing in a river with no luck, fishermen can justify in fits of madness and frustration that the trout are toying with them. At this point, they’ve reached a mindset so drowned in discouragement that it makes them believe it’s not only the weather, the fish, the river, but rather the entire universe working to thwart their efforts.
Stinson put his rod down and watched from the anchored boat as brown trout, or the occasional Kokanee salmon, rose for pale morning duns: He was conducting a field study. Hands-off learning. I imagined he was seeing each brown head rise, studying the aggressiveness of one trout or the un-athleticism of another. He knows which of those rising fish are the large ones, the ones that take flies with delicacy. The other ones that make too much commotion on the water’s surface are the fish eaten by birds of prey. On the Wyoming plateau, bald eagles and ospreys pluck rowdy fish.
After rowing for a good while, the motion became natural, and my mind wandered away from rowing and into my own thoughts. I tried to justify myself in the eyes of the law if we were to be caught. There’s an odd sort of security in being a fly fisherman. It’s all right if you beat up a couple of drunken punks with your fishing buddy outside of a bar in Park City, Utah because that’s not who you really are — it’s what you turn into when you’re not fishing. The police won’t care either because they’ll know by looking at the flies stuck in your hat that in the morning you’ll be as harmless and delicate as ever as you cast an October caddis under hanging branches to rising brown trout. They’ll know that you are more spiritually in tune with the world around you because in the morning, through those red eyes, one probably black, you will be observing life closely, microscopically, again like you do when you’re on the river.
After navigating the river for a few hours and watching Stinson fish for too long, I had the idea to eddy the dory and fish a nice hole on foot. We had drifted a good portion of the river, and I’d wanted to fish for a while. I tied on a large prince nymph and casted it into a shallow rip. I was sort of half-ass fishing because I was doubtful that the large imitation would fool a fish in the hole. Then I noticed a large fish hanging in softer water, closer to the bank of the river. The rainbow trout was flashing and rolling subsurface–feeding on nymphs.
This is that moment when anglers lose consciousness of everything around them except the fly rod in their hand, the airborne line sliding through its eyes, and a feeding, camouflaged trout they’ve been straining eyes for so long to observe. The sound of a nearby rapid echoes down to nothing more than a buzzing in the back of a fisherman’s head, and the only water they hear is the water flowing through the gills of that fish they’re observing so intently. The words of a nearby fishing partner become as intelligible as a babbling spouse, and the instinctual response to that person is a softly mumbled “yea,” so as not to break the concentration.
“The tug is the drug,” Stinson says to express his idea that catching fish is catching fish, no matter the tactic. And I mock him with the phrase, “Dry fly or die.”
Stinson likes catching fish. He’ll tie on any fly to get a fish on the end of his line. Without sounding too purist, I’m more interested in catching a fish with the exact insect it’s feeding on because I find it more rewarding to observe a hatch of insects on the river and then imitate that hatch with accuracy.
The San Juan worm fly pattern works extremely well for rainbow trout. We both know this and will resort to using the dirty worm tactic if fish aren’t feeding aggressively. Frequent fishermen can drift their imitation of a trout’s dinner in a hole they’ve fished over and over and land a good trout. When the angler complicates things for himself, as any artist will do, days on the river will become more rewarding. A fish that indicates its presence with only a few gentle ripples in a dull-dusk light tucked into a grassy bank is a rewarding yet complicated fish to catch. A complicated fish can be spooked by a fisherman’s poorly presented cast, his shadow, or his boot scraping the river’s rocky bottom.
The act of fishing even without getting into the entomology of insects, the different species of fish, or understanding weather patterns and water temperature is already a way one can complicate life. I don’t need to fish. Fishing only layers more complication onto my life. I fish because fishing adds an addicting complexity. This complexity, however, doesn’t take a toll on my living; it rather becomes my lifestyle. Fish and their environment, whether it’s the ocean or a spring creek running out of the high desert, do invite the angler to breach his own abilities and make a life out of those challenges.
On the last section of river, we passed some free-range cattle grazing close to the river’s edge. For no real reason, Stinson and I began yelling at them. I think our yelling was some crooked means of relieving the frustration we felt in losing a few large fish to light leader and poor communication. At one point, I even yelled, “ Fuck you, cow!” Strangely enough, our immature and random assault on the self-esteem of the cows greatly raised ours, and I encouraged Stinson to tie on some heavier line and try again.
Only a moment later, Stinson was into one. He was on the fish, and I was on the oars, navigating past sleepers and shallow rapids, all while keeping the bow directed at the fly-line, taut by Stinson’s fish. The communication between us, two anglers, was organized and calm. Without saying, we knew how large the fish was. We hadn’t been able to bring it to the surface for over a half hour.
“She’s finally giving up,” Stinson said eventually.
“I’ll keep the boat where she needs to be,” I replied, as calmly as I could.
For another fifteen minutes or so, I watched Stinson. I was confident we would land the fish. Floating backwards down a lazy section of river, my view panned as the boat spun. Through a window created by the arch of the fly rod bowing from Stinson’s trout, my eyes caught on a frame-stopping sight: the sun falling behind red rock pinnacles, miles away.
We were just two anglers on a sixteen-foot boat at the mercy of the flows of a green gash in the desert. What we were doing was suddenly tiny. And that moment sparked a singular realization: Fishing isn’t as big as I make it out to be. Yes, fishing is becoming my lifestyle, but the vast view I saw through that frame brought it all back in: We were only fishing.
The glare of red sunset on silver caught my eye, draw me back to the river. I saw its flank first as it rolled under the water’s surface. At the big bastard’s first breach, I netted it, but it didn’t fall in the net. Its size too great, the fish refused to fit inside and instead balanced on the wood frame over the mouth of the net until I was able to grab it with two hands. I passed the powerful rainbow trout to Stinson, whose lit face I won’t forget.
Our situation became big again. It wasn’t the fish’s size that made it big; it was the roar of virility that came from both our chests. A roar that clamored through sagebrush and over those pinnacles. It echoed our dominance over the plateau. It was the fish’s beauty, the patterns and stripes painted camouflage onto its flanks and speckled its fins, a product of the place where it lived. It was just as Mert had said, a fish to remember. Those few vivid moments were a time when the greed of fishing disappeared, when awe, execution, and happiness slowed the flow of living into frames that engraved themselves upon a fisherman’s memory.
MATTHEW WERNER is a freelance writer born and raised in a small town in Massachusetts. He is a recent graduate of Westminster College of Salt Lake City, where he earned a degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Werner works as a carpenter when he’s not writing about his experiences and mishaps in the outdoors. Werner currently lives with his yellow Labrador Ruger in a poorly built tree fort somewhere in the canyons of Utah. | All images in this essay are courtesy of Vail Valley Anglers.