TRAILS


 

 

TRAILS

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,032

I’m not a because-it’s-there hiker. I hike trails for a reason—fishing.

Some trails are old friends, and I know every bend and rise. Others are infrequently traveled, and, occasionally, some are new and exciting. I like the confidence of a new trailhead, before the uncertainty of the hike and the fatigue at its conclusion.

Tracks on the trail tell me all I need to know, like who’s here, who’s been here, what the weather’s been like, and which way to go at the fork—the other way. Smooth footprints belong to fly-fishers—old-timers still bitterly clinging to their felt-soled waders. Patagonia’s distinctive tread belongs to wet waders, and road apples and hoofprints are left by elk hunters scouting the fall hunt.

Sometimes a trail is blocked by downed trees or rockslides, forcing you to blaze a new trail. You think about going back for the axe in the bed of the truck and wonder if it’s worth the hump. It usually isn’t.

Some trails peter out on hillsides leaving you ledged up with no way to go but straight down. And some vanish on scree-strewn slopes and you have to decide if the destination is worth the risk—it usually is.

I bet I’m a real pain in the ass to hike and fish with now; I’ve heard rumors it wasn’t all that in the first place. I can’t push to the top like I used to. I sometimes have to stop, take aspirin, and wait for the pain in my chest to subside. I haven’t used the nitroglycerin pills yet. I’m too far from civilization to use them, as I’m unable to follow the second step of the instructions for their use—dial 911.

On steep climbs I have to stop every five minutes to get my breath and let my heartrate go down. I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to look around. I see in greater detail now. I’ve already seen a chipmunk and lizard that I’d’ve missed last year. The lizard bobs, checking the world out with a high-low visual.

I approach nature with more thought and patience, but only because I have to. Otherwise I’d still be moving fast, head down, ass up, face set in a determined grimace. I no longer observe the yearly ritual of keeping a few fish to remind myself of the original purpose of fly-fishing. (In some circles, that alone plants me firmly in camp with the highly condensed Pains in the ass.) Anyway, I’m not sure I have time to be screwing around like that. You Know. I don’t want to show up at my next gig with shit on my hat.

When I finally get to the creek, I spend as much time resting as I do fishing. But that has its rewards—I catch fewer but bigger fish now that I’m not churning up the creek in a mad dash to nowhere. I doubt I’ll be able to sell anybody on my new modus operandi, though.

It’s mid-summer, and long grasses are turning brown. Some wildflowers have gone to seed, others are just starting to bloom. The aquamarine slopes are covered in blue sage, and the smoky tree line is a mix of the soft green of aspen and the hard green of pine. I stop, pull leaves off sage, roll them in my hands, hold them to my nose; it’s the freshest smell in nature. I rub some on sunburned lips. (It’s not good for sunburned lips—I just want to taste it.)

A robin hops along in front of me keeping 10- to 15-yards ahead. When I stop to lean on my stick and get my breath, he waits for me. He stays with me for over a mile until we reach a fork in the trail where I head downstream and he heads up. He stops and looks back, waiting on me. I wave to him and thank him for his company. I’ve hiked with less companionable trail mates. I’m sorry our paths diverged. I hope I’ll see him again on the way out. Thanks to him I’ll remember this trail.

Trails are memorable for any number of reasons. Once remembered they’re mine, and I travel them anytime I want . . . in my mind. Next winter, when rumors of remote-cabin ax murders are whispered through the frozen valley, I’ll hike this sun-bathed summer trail again with my friendly escort.

I can see the creek below me now. This stretch looks promising—sun sparkled riffs, shadowy, mysterious bend pools. I’m breathing hard from the climb and wonder if I’ll be like Moses—allowed to see the Promised Land . . . but not allowed to get there. I’m down with it. I don’t have a choice, having reached an age where early-morning hours are spent trying to do yourself a solid—there’s the way things should be, then there’s the way things are. Most of the time they’re not the same.

I scan the sky for thunderheads and the water ahead to judge flow. The deep snowbanks that highlighted the ridges until the fourth of July are gone, and the water runs clear after the melt. I read the fast water for feeding lanes and study a beaver pond, hoping for the ring of a rise. I’ve been accused of watching for a rise in mud puddles. What can I say? I’m a fly-fisherman: in deception lies victory; in rhythm, harmony; in water, life.  I’ll check the beaver dam for hiking sticks on the way out. I give them away. People genuinely seem to like them. The beaver cuts have chew marks on the big ends and are always the perfect length. How do they know?

The creek reflects a cloudless sky before plunging into a narrow canyon, a deep cut   with sheer cliffs on each side. I can see whitewater below, leaping, frothing, and boiling into a glittering wall of sound. I’ll make a crossing to the trail that bypasses the rocky walls of the gorge and skirt the rim of the little narrows to the waterfall . . . there’s a trail I remember there.

© Robert Robinson 2016 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN PASTEL


LEFT FORK DIARY

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,299

May 22: spring in the high country. I’m hiking into the headwaters of the left fork of what was once—until the fire—one of Utah’s blue-ribbon trout fisheries. It’s a pilgrimage I make every year in the spring as soon as the trailhead opens, to see if I can; and in the fall just before it closes, to see if I still can. It’s a magical place, where sunlight plays with the aspen’s flickering shadows to suggest perpetual Saturday mornings. It’s a place where layers of bullshit get scraped down to the raw meat of character, and you can find yourself coming up short. It’s a place that dispels vanity by requiring me to look up at ridges I cannot reach. It’s a place where I stop, look around and say, “This, this is where I want my ashes dumped when I buck out.” And they will be.

I’m just upstream from the burn-scarred section that was closed for two years because of flash flooding that followed in wake of the wildfire. When I called the state biologist to see how long it would take for the watershed to recover, he asked me how old I was, and then told me it wouldn’t be in my lifetime.

The fishing sucked after the fire raged through. I hiked in about a month after the fire when the trailhead was closed; I needed to see the damage for myself. A layer of ash covered the bottom of the creek, and it was that ash that sucked oxygen from the water and killed most of the fish.

There are patches of snow on the far ridges today. Grasses are starting to green up, and the high quakies are starting to leaf out, while those closer to the creek remain skeletal. Willow branches are turning maroon, juicing up, coming out of hibernation. It’s the time just before wild flowers bloom, when the dominant colors are yellows of dandelion and purples of blue sage. Blue sage isn’t truly blue—it’s light green and silver mixed with the gray of dead stems, a blend that gives a purple tint from a distance.

I’m the first one in this year. I crossed a snowbank, and the only sumbitch tracks were mine. I’m breathing hard by the time I top the ridge overlooking the main branch of the creek. There’s a flutter in the front of my shirt—I hope it’s a cicada. It’s important that I make it all the way in, unimportant if I make it halfway out. I’d rather do the purple polka up here (if that’s what’s in the cards). It would be better than the alterative—rotting away in hospice, picking at bedsores and bad food, wrestling with bedpans and visiting angels with bad attitudes. Dying well is the best any of us can hope for.

The fire exposed rock formations and boulders I never knew were there; the ridges along the creek are covered with them. From a distance some of the crags look like quarried stone foundations of ancient fortresses. You have to get close to see they’re natural and not manmade.

There’s a rock I always stop to sit on. It has patches of black, reddish brown, and dusty green lichen. Some of it looks fuzzy and soft, but I don’t touch it to find out. I don’t want to damage it. Who knows, it may have been trying to grow here for a thousand years. I worked up a sweat on the way in; the wind is chilly now that I’ve stopped.

I saw bear scat on the trail. I’m not positive, but it looked like the pictures that came up on Google. Anyway, that’s what I choose to think. I saw one in here last year hauling ass over the ridge—nothing runs like that but a bear. I thought a lot about bears when I first came here, not so much now. I no longer bother hollering “bear” when busting through thick cover; I find it intrusive—not to the bears, to me. Ending up bear scat doesn’t sound so bad when you think about it; it would be kinda like having your ashes scattered—only with moisture.

I head above the feeders looking for clear water, but find the creek fogged up, bank-to-bank high, and running fast. There’s no chance of wetting a fly today, so I head back to a familiar spot to eat lunch.

The log is an old friend; I’ve polished it with my ass many times over the years. The tree fell long ago, its bark long gone, its color a long-dead gray. Big black ants crawl on it, and I take note—I’m always evaluating an insect’s worth as trout food. There’s a dead owl tangled in the jagged remnants of the roots and I check it for usable feathers—I’m always evaluating a dead bird’s worth as fly-tying material. Its wings are pulled back, legs thrust forward, frozen in time. It must have impaled itself diving on a mouse that lives in the log. Its death was sudden. It was a lucky bastard.

By the time I saw the creek was running high and muddy from runoff and unfishable, the hike had become a matter of pride. Even though I won’t fish today, I don’t consider it a dry run. I’d have still come. I’d come here a thousand times in my mind on those twilit days of midwinter, when snow pecked at the window above my desk, when the dog didn’t want to go outside, when spring was a fantasy. It’s not about the fishing—not here anyway.  Right now you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. It’s the places not the fish. We get it.” But if you live long enough to get as good with your fly rod as you think you are, when you break off the hook because the deception is the real victory and laugh out loud at a missed rise, you’ll start to satisfy your thirst for wild with the wild beauty around you. Fly-fishing will become the excuse, and your fly rod will keep you from heading off empty-handed and having to explain to your friends why it’s not about the fishing.

The trail out is tougher than it used to be. Well, it seems tougher. I’ve run into guys up here who didn’t look like they’d make it out, and I wonder if I look like that now. I’ve got a system—I stop at the top of every rise to get my breath and let my heartbeat get back to normal. It gives me a chance to look around.

I stop at the top of one rise to get my breath and spot a hummingbird sitting on a naked aspen branch. He’s here early; he’s been thinking of this place all winter, too. He’s dressed iridescently to the nines—green hat, purple tie, white vest, and blue tails. We’re close; if I reached out I could touch him, but neither of us finds the other threatening. A stiff wind ruffles his feathers, he bobs in the wind, and I speak to him. I thought about that and decided it was a good thing. Thirty years ago I’d have questioned my sanity, but I talk to trout—why not hummingbirds. Maybe I spoke to him to cut through the high lonesome, maybe I’m more aware of them now, maybe I’m just slower on the trail. I feel brighter inside when I see hummingbirds. I wear red bandannas in summer to attract them, and their sudden appearance never fails to clear my arteries. I once had one land on my finger. I wonder if I’ll get any credit for that at the pearly gates.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE BEND


THE BEND

By

Robert Robinson

word count: 1,386

In the spooky purple shade of late afternoon, when I was tired from the hike in and a day of wading and fishing, when it had that abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here look to it, the bend had always seemed like a good place to call it a day. But the unexplored has magnetism—like that abandoned house on the block when you were a kid—and the bend, cut by water and time, pulled at me.

No doubt it had been fished, but probably not by many. I checked the upper end several times over the years, but it hadn’t looked any more inviting than the lower end, so it went unexplored. At least by me. But I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. It looked like a tough place, though, and the BLM map confirmed it.

I checked the map several times, looking for an easy way in; there wasn’t one. The map showed stretches where the canyon narrowed, along with flats that were probably choked with willows. The map also showed several cricks dumping into the main branch from side canyons; on paper the place just looked fishy. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and determined to sack up and see how far in I could make it.

By taking the left fork at each confluence, I’d circle the mountain and come out on the dirt road a couple of miles above the trailhead. No way to get lost—at least in theory.

It wasn’t fear of the unknown that made me stop and turn around all those years; it was not knowing if I still had what it takes to get in and out of places like that. The other thing was, I didn’t know if the fishing would be worth the effort. Oh, I could’ve asked around, but I didn’t want to draw attention to a potential honey hole.

The bend didn’t look spooky in the morning light. On the right side, the slope was covered in Alpine and Douglas fir down to where the mountain scrunched its toes into a cliff. The steep left side was crowded with aspen and crags that jutted through the canopy like the broken teeth of a rock monster. A lone pine stood where the slope turned scree and dived toward the thick willows that lined both sides of the creek every chance they got. The creek bounced off the face of the cliff and boiled out through the willows, angry at the sudden change in direction, so wading up the creek had never been an option.  It looked like the best way in would be picking my way through the broken teeth on the left, so that’s what I did the morning I headed in.

Every year I hear about people falling off trails, having to be rescued or recovered by helicopter. I always wondered how the hell that could happen; as I looked down at the creek from the hillside, thinking I’d gotten myself ledged up, I knew how it could happen. People fall from cliffs all the time around here. It’s unforgiving country—unforgiving of stupidity, miscalculation, unpreparedness, and hubris. I should confess, though, there’s been several times it must have been looking the other way in my case.

I’d foolishly worn hip waders that day, which caused every foot placement to be accompanied by a corresponding pucker. What kept me moving forward was, once I got high enough, I could see an easy way down—if I could just get to it. I squatted and studied the hillside. I still couldn’t see around the bend, so I didn’t know how much creek I could fish once I got down. The thought of how to get back out hadn’t crossed my mind yet. It never does when you’re in that got-to-get-in-there mode. You’ll get out—you don’t have a choice.

I made it to the creek, found a fishable pool, and played with a riser until it took an Elk Hair Caddis. Catching that little cutthroat took the pressure off and justified the hike in. I couldn’t spend much time at any one spot; I’d calculated that it would take me at least eight hours to circle the mountain, but I’d have to hump it.

I hit three beaver ponds in quick succession once I got clear of the fast water at the head of the bend, making the obligatory casts at each before heading up the slope to get above the willows so I could see what lay ahead.

I’d suspected the banks would be lined with thick cover. And I was right. From my vantage point, I could see game trails crossed the creek at several spots, and it looked like I’d be able to make a few casts at each crossing. It’s ok to follow game trails on the flats; it makes getting through thick cover a little easier. But you never want to follow game trails up the slope; elk, deer, and moose have four legs and can go where you can’t—and game trails never lead back to the truck.

I traveled and fished like that for about three hours until I spotted a bench above where two creeks merged to form the one I was following. Getting above the willows so I could make better time, I headed for the point of land above the confluence.

The right fork looked better for fishing, but I needed to go left to keep heading in the direction I needed to. . . . So I took the right fork and wound up catching a couple of nice cutts. I pool-hopped along until the creek took a hard right into a side canyon.

The sound of whitewater rumbled from the canyon, and through a gap in the willows all I could see was churning foam and a series of falls and plunge pools. I headed up the slope so I could glass the canyon with my binoculars.

The steep slope on the right was covered in a thicket of willow, scrub oak, and young aspen.  A meadow lie farther up on the right, sprinkled with wildflowers—yellow Heart Leaf, white Yarrow, blue Lark Spur, and bright red Indian Paintbrush—and dappled in those grassy greens that give the illusion the sun is shining on a cloudy day. I’d be able to move easily through it, but I’d have to cross the creek to get there, and there was no crossing this little fast mover from what I could see. Above the rapids on the left was a fifteen foot cliff. A row of aspen lined the rim, and if I kept the aspens between me and the cliff, if I could find a way down on the other side, I’d probably be OK—too many ifs. Even if I made it I didn’t think I could come back out the same way. And with the creek too high and fast to cross, the only way out would be a tough pull straight over the ridge. I was too tired for all that; so I turned back, found a good sittin’ rock, and thought about stripping down and soaking in one of the plunge pools. I’d come back later in the summer, when the flow would be down and I could make the crossing.

I found a stout beaver cut and used it to spike my way to the top of the ridge, stabbing, leaning, pulling forward, stopping to get my breath, topping out in a stand of aspen. The dirt road lay below, and I watched diesel trucks belch black smoke as they struggled up the valley with their camp trailers, taking the Homo oblivious to their weekend wilderness adventures, complete with flat-screens, cold beer, hot showers, and gray water; some people never peck through their climate-controlled aluminum shells, never see what’s around the bend. Somewhere off to the right I could hear the distant, irritating sound of an OHV and remembered what an old elk hunter once told me—“Them four-wheeler riders ain’t so bad . . . once you gut ‘em.”

Snow dazzled on the far ridges—there’s never enough nowadays. I shaded up awhile, wondering at the detours, sidetracks, and restarts that put me under those aspens, looking at snow in July, with another canyon to explore.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

THE SURVIVOR


THE SURVIVOR

BY

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,202

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.”

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SKUNKED


SKUNKED

By

Robert Robinson

Word count: 1,077

I’ve had fifty fish days. I’ve caught twenty-four inch cutts on gossamer tippet with a four weight bamboo rod. I’ve pounded ’em up to my own hand-tied dries when there wasn’t a fish rising for a hundred miles. I’ve floated big rivers and fished high-country headwaters and caught fish. I’ve been trapped by late spring snows and dodged summer lightning. I don’t have anything left to prove.

Anyway, that’s the kind of smoke I was blowing the other day when Appleton called to get a fishing report.

“That bad huh?”

“I couldn’t get a rise if I doped my fly with Stink Bait.” I told him. “I even thought about running a dropper.”

“Whoa! Don’t do anything you’re going to regret.”

“Look,” I said, “maybe we’ve gotten too hung up on the catching part. I mean, fly-fishing should be about the inner man, not how big or how many fish we catch. It should be about communing with a well-crafted fly-rod, finding the rhythm and poetry in a delicate cast, letting the beauty of the mountains and the sounds of the stream cleanse your soul. . . .  You know, rediscovery. . . . Getting back to nature? . . . You still there?”

“. . . Who else have you been talking to?”

“Nobody.”

“Good. Call me when the fishing picks up.”

Appleton was one of the first to go with barbless hooks. He became unpopular with the river guides when he tried to get the local fly-shop to go barbless. I’ve even known him to break the hook off and fish with an impotent fly when he got tired of catching fish, just so he could see the rise. He’s caught up in the corporate rat race now, and it’s hard to get him out if the fish aren’t biting.

I often get skunked when we fish together. I usually have the place scouted and let him take the lead as we head upstream, so the fish are spooked by the time I come along. Sometimes I’ll catch up to him and he’ll be sitting at a nice looking bend pool that he’s saved for me. He’ll point his rod at the hole say, “Let’s get the skunks out of the boat.” I don’t think he really wants me to catch a fish; he just doesn’t want to be seen with a guy who isn’t catching fish.

After Appleton hung up on me, I realized the danger I had put myself in. Word could get around that I’d zened out, shaved my head, and was wandering the backcountry wearing a loincloth and sprinkling ashes. My solitary life-style and the ensuing lack of . . . let’s call it female companionship, would be blamed for my moral decline. There would be a meeting; I would get voted off the island . . . or worse. The last time my friends thought that I’d spun out, one of them tried to fix me up—it was love at 425 pounds.

The next day I had a twenty fish day and was able to abandon my new religion and start wearing pants again.

It’s in the early spring, between the first warm days and the big runoff when I usually get skunked. The creeks are running high and off color, and the trout are hugging the bottoms of the deep pools in a state of suspended animation. You can catch them if you bump them on the nose with a Copper John or Pheasant’s Tail, but I’m stubborn about using dry-flies. I figured that since I was a fly-fisherman, and thus a member of the most hated demographic among fishermen, becoming a dry-fly purist, the most hated demographic among fly-fishers, would be a natural progression.

In my fly-fishing infancy, I’d become frantic when getting skunked. The level of panic seemed to be in direct proportion to the amount of money that had been spent on stuff. I had the best in sporting equipment, and I still wasn’t catching fish. I looked marvelous, but I obviously needed more stuff.

Back then, when my skill didn’t match my equipment, I’d fish for twelve hours at a stretch without seeing a rise. I fished like that for three days once in a pouring rain, stopping only for short breaks to crawl into my tent, where I poured. On the afternoon of the third day, I found myself standing in the middle of a muddy creek with my nose running, cold, wet, holding a bleached-out, six-inch German Brown in my pruned fingers, thinking what miserable specimens we both were of our respective species.

Nowadays, early spring fishing really is more about getting into the mountains, shaking off shack fever, and picking out the wind knots that form in my head during the winter. When you hike for an hour to get to a stream and find it running high and muddy, you can turn around and hike back out, or find a good sittin’ log and enjoy the scenery. I don’t pass up a good sitting rock or log when the fish aren’t biting. I know I can tie on a nymph and catch fish, but that’s not what I had seen myself doing all winter. I look around more, and wonder what I missed while I was pawing for answers in my fly-box, or squinting at an aquarium net. I think it’s because I can go fishing whenever I want to now that my attitude changed. I can always come back and try again tomorrow. Most people can’t do that, and I remember that sense of urgency, being limited to a Saturday every now and then, or one week in the summer.

I’ve never been a lip ripping, don’t make me take my pants down, trophy-trout hunter. I’m satisfied with my little high-country cutts, so on those fishless, early spring days, I find myself going through the motions just to get the kinks out of my cast, watching young Stoneflies crawling on my leg and only thinking about changing over from an Adams, just happy to be alive and still able to make the hike in. In a few days the streams will run clear and the fishing will be as good as ever, so it’s not bad sitting in the Sun, warming the knotted muscles in my shoulders, and thinking about the good day I’m having doing no harm. Not bad at all.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

BACK IN THE SADDLE


This is a rewrite of “Saddle Up” I was asked for.

BACK IN THE SADDLE

By

Robert Robinson

WORD COUNT: 1,336

I turned onto the dirt road, trying to remember the directions I had been given. A right fork, a left fork, a bridge, a sheep camp, and something else had been mentioned.

The sheep camp didn’t surprise me, this being sheep country, but using one as a landmark seemed dodgy. I was pretty sure sheep camps moved with the herd. I was wishing I had written the directions down when I spotted the sheep camp coming up on the right. The sheepherders had a horse down on its back with its legs sticking straight up in the air. One herder was holding the horse down, while the other was attempting to shoe the horse. All participants seemed to be in distress, and all were sweating. I mentally checked off sheep camp.

The road looked good, but I knew that could change and it could become nothing more than a glorified game trail just around the next bend. Adding to the pucker factor, I was dragging a horse trailer with my horse, Red, who was bouncing back and forth and threatening to throw us off the road.

I was to meet up with my friend Cody for some camping and fishing. Cody was a cowboy; not the boot scootin’ feather in the hat Nashville kind, but the bull strong, hog ugly, snuff dippin’, bulldog a wild horse and never spit kind. Cody belongs to a subculture of fly-fishing that considers the horse a requisite accoutrement to the sport. Cody and his brothers sold horses and took great pride in matching horse to rider. They had experienced horses for inexperienced riders, inexperienced horses for experienced riders, and for people who don’t like to ride, they had horses that didn’t like to be rode. Cody had spent most of the winter convincing me that in order to get into the really good fishing I needed a horse, and that I needed to buy that horse from him.

I found his camp: An old truck, horse trailer, and tent situated in front of a huge fire pit. Although it was noon on a hot day in July, Cody was standing by the fire drinking a beer. I have noticed that no matter how hot it is, if you build a fire, people will stand around it, an oddity that probably dates back to the dawn of time deserving further study. I hobbled Red, setup my tent, and moseyed over to stand by the fire. After some small talk, we decided to saddle up and ride over to the creek and do some fishing.

I followed Cody up a trail that soon lead onto a narrow ledge overlooking a 100-foot drop. I was glad when the trail took a hard right and headed up a steep grade, but just as I was making the turn Cody’s horse shied at something, spooking Red, who took off going backwards as hard as he could for the edge of the cliff. I jumped off and got Red stopped just before he stepped off into the abyss. I walked Red up the slope until we were at what I considered a safe distance from the drop-off before remounting.

When I caught up to Cody, he was sitting in front of a pile of deadfall beyond which was a little meadow that sloped down to a thick stand of willows. I could hear the creek gurgling below.

Cody eased his horse through the deadfall with me right behind. I had almost made it through when Red made four long jumps out into the meadow and started to buck. He bucked a couple of times, then setup into a spin—tossing me out of the saddle. I landed hard but managed to keep ahold of the reins. Cody was sitting there looking rather relaxed considering what had just happened. He was leaning forward on his saddle horn and looking bored. I knew the “cowboy way” demanded that I get right back on and as I put my foot in the stirrup I asked Cody, “How did I look?” To which he replied, “Good for the first couple of jumps.” . . . I climbed back aboard and as quick as my butt hit the saddle Red went into another spin, flinging me off again. As I was about to mount up again, I noticed a dead tree limb stuck under Red’s back cinch. I pulled the limb out and was tightening the cinch when Cody said, “We ain’t going to get much fishin’ in if you and Red don’t quit messin’ around.”

“We’re good now.” I told him, and we headed on into the creek bottom.

We crossed the creek over to an island where we hobbled the horses, strung up our rods, and took off up the creek, taking turns casting to pocket water. We caught five or six trout apiece until we hit an open flat where two creeks came together. After agreeing on a time to meet back at the horses we split up; Cody took the right fork and I took the left.

Fishing alone has its drawbacks. The main one being that should you get into trouble, you’re on your own. Fishing alone in bear country can be a little spooky, something that you have to get your head around. I had decide long ago that I would rather get eaten by a bear than lay around dying of some terrible disease; besides, on this trip if anything got eaten it would be the horses, and after the crap that Red had been pulling, I was down with that.

I had managed to cover a lot of ground when I realized I would have to hustle to get back to the horses by the appointed time. When I got back to the horses, Cody wasn’t there yet, and it was only after I had my gear packed that he showed up. Cody said we needed to reach the main trail before it got dark.

We were mounted and had begun to move off when Red took three giant leaps forward, landing us in the middle of the stream. I looked over at Cody, who was resting on his saddle horn, looking bored, and said, “I think this bastard wants to buck again.” “Just take the hobbles off,” he told me. I dismounted into two-foot of water, which filled my boots, and felt around until I had the hobbles unbuckled. It was now pitch black. We crisscrossed up the slope searching for, but not finding, the trail. At the top of the hill Cody took off with such an air of confidence that I asked him if he had found the trail. He said, “Yeah . . . but not yet.” We reached what looked like a meadow and as we started across Cody told me to watch out for old down fencing and piles of barbed wire that could be laying around.

Cody had just hollered back that he had found the trail when I heard the ping of wire. I pulled Red up, dismounted, and began running my hands over his legs trying to see if we were tangled up in barbed wire. In the darkness, feeling down his back legs, I found that both of Red’s hind legs were standing in a coil of wire. Working blindly in the dark I was able to get us free.

As we made our way back to camp we passed campfires here and there, but Cody said we should give them a wide birth, as the firelight would ruin the horses’ night vision. I didn’t know that horses had night vision, but I was glad to hear it and assumed Red had stepped into the coil of wire for the hell of it.

When we got back to camp, we cared for the horses and Cody sat me down by the fire, handed me a beer, and began giving me some much needed instruction on horsemanship.

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

SPRING CROSSING


SPRING CROSSING

BY

ROBERT ROBINSON

Word Count: 1,243

I stood looking at the snowfields above me with a bad feeling in my guts. Where the swollen creek cut its way through, the snow was four-foot deep; I’d never get through. I’d just get wet if I tried, and staying dry was a priority now. Technically it was spring, but a guy could still get toe tagged winter kill up here. The slope leading up to the snow-banked ridge above me was gushing from every rat hole. The whole mountain was a sieve. I looked back at the tree line from which I had emerged and started thinking about gathering wood for a fire and spending the night. I could split a power bar with my dog Touch, bank up a fire, and wait until the wee hours when the runoff froze again. We could cross the creek then, when it  would be at its lowest, but we’d still have a five mile hike to get back to the truck—and we’d be wet. . . .  I’d screwed up. Ignoring the deep snow I could see on the ridges above me, I’d entered an area bordered by water on all sides during the spring melt.

The thermometer had read twenty-nine degrees that morning as I drove up the canyon. It was the time of the year when one side of the road was showing the green-up of spring while the other side was a scene from a Christmas card, with snow still hanging in the trees and covering the ground. I had stepped across the little creek that morning.

We had hiked around to the back side of the reservoir, me casting out to the edge of the ice, Touch swimming out to the splashes of my Wooly Bugger. The day turned gorgeous and warm and I started to think that I’d overdressed.

At noon, I hiked up a slope and found a log in a little meadow where I sat and ate my peanut butter sandwich. I gave Touch a dog biscuit and we stretched out in the sun and took a nap.

Long before we got back to the little creek we’d crossed that morning, I heard it. The latte colored creek was now out of its banks and raging. Where I’d stepped across it that morning, it was now twenty-yards wide and chest deep. A rush of adrenalin hit me, and I was ashamed I knew the color of latte. My only chance to get out of there before nightfall was to head up stream and hope I could find a place to cross. It would be a steep climb, and if I couldn’t find a place to cross I’d wind up spending the night. I started to think I’d underdressed.

I had a survival kit on me; a first-aid kit with a couple of power bars; some bullion and instant coffee; and a bag of dryer lint with a couple of ways to get a fire started. I had one of those old army canteens with the metal cup that I could boil water in. As long as I stayed dry I’d be ok. I took my jacket off and tied it around my waist to keep from sweating and started the climb. We headed up the creek looking for a spot to cross until we were above the timberline and found our way blocked by the deep snow.

On the way up I’d spotted a pine tree that had been washed into the creek and had wedged between two high cut-banks. That down pine would be my best chance to get across. I still had two hours of daylight to make something happen. As I headed back to the down tree, I began working out a plan.

I figured I could cross on the upstream side of the tree by bracing against it and inching my way along. I’d use my jacket to make a bundle for the stuff I didn’t want to get wet, and if I got to the middle of the creek, I’d throw the bundle on across so I’d have both hands free to finish the crossing and get up the steep bank. Once I got wet and had thrown my bundle over, I would be committed to the crossing; I wouldn’t survive the night wet without a fire. I had one problem: The banks were too steep there for Touch to climb up. Touch is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and she’d rather swim than walk, so I wasn’t worried about her getting across, I just needed to find a place where she could climb out. It would have to be close to the tree so I could start across quickly or she would try to get back to me. Getting her to cross without me wasn’t a problem. I could throw anything over and she’d go after it.

I took down my rod and tied it into my bundle, praying that if I perished in the crossing, whoever found my high-dollar bamboo fly-rod wouldn’t be a bait fisherman. Leaving the bundle at the down pine, I walked up stream until I found a place to send Touch over. I took my shoulder bag and slung it across and Touch jumped in and started after it. I hot footed it back to the tree, grabbed my bundle, and slid down the bank next to the tree into waist deep water. The force of the water slammed me against the tree and I could feel the gravel washing away under my feet. I started thinking that this wasn’t a good idea. If I lost my footing, I’d be swept under and held down by the tree and drowned. I had to go with it now though. If Touch seen me retreat, she would jump in to get back to me and she would be swept under the tree. We would both drown then, as I would go in after her. That would be an automatic reaction. I mean, it’s not like rescuing a spouse, significant other, or fishing buddy, where you have time to assess the risk and go find a rope—she’s my dog.

The water was chest deep in the middle of the creek and I only stopped for a second to sling my bundle on over. After my hands were free, I made it the rest of the way across and clawed my way up the bank. I was covered in mud and soaked from the chest down.

The temperature would drop as soon as the sun went behind the mountain and I figured that we had about an hour of daylight left. We were still four miles from the truck, but we could make it in good time by jogging and power walking. I poured the water out of my boots, gathered up my gear, and headed down the mountain. About half way back to the truck my feet started to hurt; wet socks and slip on ditch boots suck for hiking. I managed to make it back just after the sun went down. The temperature had already dropped thirty degrees, and when I pulled my boots off, I had several blisters the size of silver dollars on both feet. I started the truck and sat there with my head on the steering wheel waiting for the heater to warm the cab. I looked over at Touch and said, “We got lucky this time girl.”

© Robert Robinson 2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Robinson and <flyfishingthehighcontry.com> with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.