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Long before reaching the mouth of the canyon, I begin catching glimpses of the river. I strain to see past Farmhouses, through cotton woods, and over willows, trying to judge its color, level, and promise. Once in the canyon, I snatch glances while negotiating the twists and turns of the canyon road, a road designated on the map as a two lane, but that’s either an outright lie or somebody’s idea of a joke. It’s open range, so I keep my eyes peeled for cattle, trucks pulling horse trailers, and mounted cowboys who greet me with level, no-bullshit gazes and a nod.
The turnouts are big enough to park a truck, but give you the feeling that the whole cha-cha could slid off into the river—a 30- to 100-foot drop depending on where you park. As far as angler’s access, I just walk back and forth along the road looking for a way down till I finally take the plunge at a spot I’ve rejected at least once as too risky.
I first fished here thirty years ago. A river guide told me about the place, and I drove half the night in a driving rain to get here. Arriving in the wee hours, I found a turnout, laid down on the seat, and went to sleep. I woke to find I was parked in a slide area. I saw it right off, because of the big yellow sign I was parked next to that read “SLIDE AREA.” I stood in the rain, looking down at the river, wondering what I’d done to piss that guide off.
I seldom see other anglers here. If I see anybody it’s usually climbers. They call it bouldering and come from all over the world to climb here. Even if you don’t come here to climb, if you fish here, you end up climbing boulders. The climbers come equipped for climbing, with climbing shoes, rosin bags, and even a pad they lay down under their climb to break their falls. The angler does his climbing in waders and fishing vest, juggling his rod from one hand to the other as the situation dictates.
The boulders often have well-placed hand and foot holds that look easy enough to scale, but you usually find a sheer drop-off on the other side with no way to go but back the way you came. Going down is harder than going up, and I’ve had to toss my rod down into the willows in order to free up my hands.
Some of the boulders are in loose piles that shift under your weight, presenting the potential nightmare of getting trapped between shifting rocks. There are pitfalls—places where deadfall collects that look solid, but aren’t—that hide holes six- to eight-foot deep.
The color of the water is a striking aquamarine, and I’ve been told the color comes from the heavy limestone content. Deep bend-pools are separated by stretches of fast water that are deceptive as to depth and power. But the river’s cobblestoned bottom offers good footing, except next to the bank where a thin layer of silt collects during runoff, making the rounded stones slick as a gut.
The volume of water depends on the needs of local farmers and changes from day to day—where you crossed yesterday may not be where you cross today or even later the same day. The DNR web-site has a disclaimer: “Fishing can be hazardous in the spring when large volumes of water are released from the reservoir—anglers should exercise caution.”
A friend of mine was sitting on a rock, casting to risers, when his foot slipped off and he was dragged into the water. His waders filled and he was pulled under and swept downstream. He managed to grab a rock and crawl out, ripping his waders to shreds in the process. I could see the fear in his eyes and hear it in his voice as he told the story a few days later—he refuses to fish here alone now.
Choosing which rod to string up is based on wind. Unlike back east, the wind is always a factor when fishing in the west. I’ve found rods made with a Phillipson taper work best in windy conditions. I also favor a rod that is long enough to keep my fly above the willows. A nine-foot six-weight with a Phillipson taper has the length to keep me out of the willows and the stones to buck a stiff head wind and land the occasional hog that you run into here.
Today the willows are swaying to a light breeze, but there are no guarantees it will stay like that. The wind here changes, going from a whisper to a 20-knot gale, from gusting up the canyon to down the canyon, in a heartbeat.
Pulling on my hip waders, I’m struck by the raggedy-ass vision I must present to the young climbers. They’re more like memories of waders, providing none of the functions normally associated with the item, being worn merely for the footing gained by their felt bottom soles. They’re the old canvass waders, made when men were men and preferred waders made in the USA. They started out chest waders, but ended up hip waders after I cut them down one night in a fit of genius that seemed like a good idea at the time. In spite of my almost daily efforts to repair them, they leak profusely. But they are noble waders—each hole, splotch of sealant, and blood stain obtained honestly by crawling into casting position, climbing over rocks, and busting brush in pursuit of trout.
The descent to the river is normal—I bust my ass once—and I head for the tail of a particularly productive pool. I move into position, false-casting and feeding line until I think I’ve got the distance and promptly dump a tangled mess into the middle of the pool, putting down all the fish in the lower half. I pick out the wind knots, take a deep breath, and angle forward until I’m in-line with the face of a giant boulder that makes up the whole left side of the pool, finding the rhythm of the rod as I move. This time I manage a respectable presentation.
My Adams lands gently at the head of the pool, riding high on sparkling grizzly and brown hackles. The current carries the fly into the slower water and spins it into a back-eddy. I make an upstream mend at the same time the fly disappears with an audible gulp. Raising the rod tip to set the hook, I get that ol’ familiar feeling that I’m either too fast or too slow—until I feel the weight. I take a moment to watch the rod work, its ripened wheat color throbbing against the dark green of a Ponderosa Pine—sweet.
The fish makes a run upstream, turns back at a rocky fall, runs past me into the fast water at the tail of the pool, and dives for a sunken snag by the right bank. I turn my rod reel-up and manage to turn the fish back into the fast water midstream. The trout, tired now, lets me guide it onto a rocky point below. It’s a beautiful 13-inch cutt, and I take a moment to admire its colors before releasing it, telling it how wonderful it is and how glad I am to see it. Watching it disappear into the depths of the pool, I feel a sense of loss.
I find a spot where I can eat lunch, scan the river for rising trout, and watch for thunderheads moving in over the canyon’s lichen stained rim. The weather turns fast here and can go from a sunny 50 to a snowy 30 degrees in a matter of minutes. The weather changed so fast on me once that my ears popped. It started with a light drizzle, turned to pounding sleet, then driving snow in the time it took me to walk 500-yards. By the time I had my rod down, the snow was 4-inches deep. The slopes are covered with house size boulders; scattered stands of willow; tufts of grass; a mix of ponderosa pine and cedar; and loose clay that becomes slick when wet, making felt bottom waders worse than useless. It’s a narrow canyon, so when you see a storm peeking over the rim, you need to un-ass the area and start climbing out.
After lunch, I move along casting to risers until I see a place to make my climb out. I zigzag up the slope, finishing the climb on hands and knees by tossing my rod above me, crawling past it, and reaching back to pull it forward. I reach the road exhausted. The truck is a white speck in the distance, and I know if I focus on it, it will seem like I’ll never get there, so I look down at the river.
I see fish lying in pools overlooked, reasons to come back. And I will come back to this rough canyon. I’ll come back because it’s hard, and it’s only in the hard places that I find the wild. I’ll come back to convince myself that I still can, because each time I come away just a little unconvinced.
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