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There wasn’t another angler in the canyon that day, and had I known how close the fire was and how fast it was moving, I wouldn’t have been in there either. I know I was the last one in there before the fire moved through, as I had to pass through a roadblock on my way out that night and they weren’t letting anybody else in. I got some strange looks from the Rangers that morning as I was stringing up my rod, but a Ranger had assured me the night before that the main canyon was in no danger.
The fishing that day was fantastic. I wouldn’t have pestered those trout had I known they only had hours to live—had I known they would slowly suffocate from the ash and silt that turned that clear mountain stream the color of chocolate milk. At noon, I sat on the bank and ate my PB&J sandwich as ash from the fire fell around me and the sting of wood smoke made my nose run. It was the eerie orange hue the canyon took on and the spooky silence that finally made me pack it in and head for my truck. It took another seven days for the fire to burn through.
The devastation came later, when subsequent rain storms sent flash floods and debris flows raging down the burned out side-canyons, blowing out the road, silting the creek, and choking the fish. The logs and boulders that washed down the mountain—coupled with the human efforts to keep the road open—changed the course of that creek forever. I doubt if I could even find the spot where I ate my sandwich now. When I called the Utah State Biologist, he told me it would take decades for the stream to recover, and it wouldn’t happen in my lifetime.
The fire had started from a lightning strike on the left fork and had moved down the creek and into the main canyon, leaving the upper section untouched. About a month after the main canyon burnt, I hiked into the headwaters a couple of miles and fished my way back out without seeing the first sign of a fish. The bottom of the creek was coated in ash about a quarter-inch thick—the fish had suffocated.
I thought about that creek all winter, so as quick as the snow came off I hiked in there to see if the spring runoff had flushed the ash out. The stream was running clear and the coating of ash was gone, but there still wasn’t a sign of life in the water.
I had given up on finding any fish and was walking along absentmindedly dapping my fly ahead of me when I got a rise to my Adams at a deep bend-pool. I got a good look at the trout and figured it to be around eighteen-inches long. The biologist told me that there were no plans to restock that drainage until the ground cover had grown back enough to stop the mudslides and debris flows from choking off the stream, so I knew that fish was a holdover from before the fire, a survivor.
That summer the area was hit hard by drought. The stream became a trickling ghost of itself. I hiked in there four more times that summer without seeing another fish. I couldn’t see how the big fish would survive the low, warm water, let alone the meat fishermen that descend on the high country to clean out the pools when the water gets low; after all, this is Utah by God, where the people were told by a prophet of God to profit by the land and they damn well do.
That next winter I spent a lot of time wondering if the big trout had died. I figured either some worm soaker or the drought conditions had finished the big guy off, but I wanted to find out, so as soon as the trail opened up that spring I hiked straight to the bend pool where I had last seen the big fish.
I broke the hook off a #16 Adams; I just wanted to say hi without adding to the big guy’s problems had he somehow managed to survive. I was startled when I got a rise on my first cast. Wanting to be sure it was the same fish, I spent some time casting different flies and watching the rises until I was satisfied that it was him. On one of the rises, I clearly saw the bright red slash under its gills and I laughed out loud, delighted it was a native Cutthroat. I fished the creek for a couple of miles above and below the pool without seeing another fish. After that, I started leaving my fly-rod back at the truck.
That summer I realized fly-fishing was just an excuse. It wasn’t the fishing for wild trout that kept me coming back to that place, it was the place itself and the way the shadows made it seem like every day was Saturday, it was the sounds of the creek probing through the narrow canyon and the wind fluttering the quakies, it was the anticipation in the cumulous clouds that formed strong shapes and peeked over the rim of the wounded canyon. All too often that summer those clouds quickly massed, turning from fluffy white to gunmetal blue, thundering, flashing, dumping deadly rain onto the burn-scar, sending a wall of water and debris down the canyon that left boulders the size of cars and mud six-foot deep on the main road. Heavy equipment was brought in to clear and repair the washed-out road, and D-9 Catts were left sitting overnight in the middle of the creek. What was once a blue ribbon wild-trout-fishery became the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
The shadows, sounds, and drama of the clouds had always been there, but I hadn’t noticed. They were new to me now—and fragile. The ease with which that ancient canyon had been destroyed scared me, and I felt small. The pursuit of wild trout that first drew me to the high country seemed insignificant. All these years I had been missing something, and now some of it was gone, but the big Cutthroat had survived, and in that I found hope.
I hiked in there several more times that summer with my dog, Touch, to check the stream conditions, and I saw a few guys in there fishing, but they never stayed long. Then one day Touch and I were taking a break on our way out when this guy and his young son came up the trail. I asked how the fishing had been and the boy proudly showed me the big Cutthroat he had strung on a willow branch. As he held it up for me to see his dad beamed, “It’s his first fish on a fly-rod, and he caught it all by himself.”
“Yeah, and it was the only fish we seen all day,” the boy added, grinning from ear to ear.
I grinned back and said, “That is a nice fish.”
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