If you go upstream far enough, past Last Chance, past the Box Canyon, over the dam on the Buffalo and then up through the slow waters near Pond’s Lodge, you’ll eventually find springs. Not the spring, because a river like the Henry’s Fork has hundreds. But you’ll find a place where water, clean and pure, wells up from the petrified bones of the ancient volcano. If you think of the Railroad Ranch as the river’s heart, then those furthest upstream springs on the Buffalo are a single capillary in the river’s lungs, pulling oxygen from the cool, clean air spilling over the sides of the caldera.
Only instead of oxygen, it’s oxygen mixed with hydrogen. Or it’s liquid sunlight. Or it’s Leonardo da Vinci’s “driving force of all nature.” It’s water, however you care to describe it. It gushes up from the ground and then follows the path of least resistance over gravel and through watercress until it joins with another flow, and another, and another, growing together into a handsome stream that slides past healthy stands of lodgepole pine and through verdant meadows.
Tim and I found the springs more than 20 years ago. The highest ones, the farthest ones—the ones we were looking for. I’m not sure we could do it again. It’s been a long time, and I’ve traveled enough dirt roads in the interim that my memories of that particular route have clouded over. There were a few straight stretches, and any number of twists and turns, and a handful of intersections that once made sense in a “guess I’d better turn left here” kind of way. Now, though … well, it would be tough to find again.
I do recall that when we finally got in close the clear-cuts turned to old-growth and down in the trees, at the bottom of a gentle slope folded like two hands cupping water, we discovered ours springs. Plural, because they were legion in that fairie-blessed spot.
If my recollections are accurate, David Hays, editor & publisher of the Island Park Bugle, once wrote something poignant about that exact same location. My copy of David’s classic Passion Below Zero is in storage, and his original newspaper columns are long since gone, but I believe he touched on something real—real, and yet sadly ephemeral—about the place. Which is ultimately the way of things in this human age. Nature doesn’t fare well under the heavy weight of progress.
Tim and I found ourselves in awe that long-ago day, but it was an awe tempered with purpose. As beautiful as that landscape was—and it truly was gorgeous—we were there to fish.
Our springs merged into a jump-across creek that, as fate would have it, was indecent with tiny brook trout. We’d thought we might still find rainbows up that high, but I don’t remember any. I do remember the brookies. They were incandescent, as if their gills were straining sunlight as well as oxygen, and voracious, and our considerable skills—hey, we were fly fishing guides, and we spent month after month on the water—were as unnecessary as if we’d each grown an extra ear.
We caught little brookies in large part because you couldn’t fish there and not catch them. There were too many, and they were too eager, and we, still youngsters at heart, were like two golden retriever puppies in a meadow full of butterflies.
That’s what I remember. All those finger-long brook trout, and drinking straight from the springs, and feeling like nothing important would ever change.
You’ve probably noticed this already, but fly fishing writers can get a little flowery at times. Flowery, and just a wee bit pretentious. I guess it goes with the territory. Instead of keeping things simple and straightforward, we try to roll all our perceptions and emotions and experiences into one huge, spicy angling burrito.
Sometimes we pull it off. Sometimes we season our work with just the right amount of lyrical imagery and our stories start to shine. But there are also times when we write as if every single fly fisher smokes a pipe and loves to quote Yeats and Byron. When I find myself penning lines about limpid pools and then waxing poetic about rising trout, I try to remind myself that a lot of folks read their fishing magazines in the bathroom. Here’s a news flash. It’s easy to stay grounded when a fair amount of your work ends up sitting next to the john.
I once spent the better part of three months trying to catch a trout. One trout. My first. And I’ll swear on a stack of bibles that there was nothing flowery or lyrical about the experience.
I was driving across Canada some years ago when an early morning disc jockey called up a man who’d won concert tickets from the station. I don’t remember the fellow’s name, or the band’s, or how far into the wee hours he’d partied after the show wrapped up. I simply remember that when the DJ asked him how he was doing that morning, the guy said, “I feel like dirt.”
That’s what getting skunked is like. You stand in the water and cast until your arm is ready to fall off, yet nothing happens. Nothing happens for days, for weeks, in my case for months. You feel like dirt.
Then one day you hook a fish. I tied into my first, a brown trout, on the Housatonic river below Bull’s Bridge. But that moment, which I’d been waiting for forever, wasn’t flowery or lyrical or poetic. It just felt right. And as happy as I was to hook and land that first trout on a fly, I didn’t really have an urge to shoot off fire crackers or dance a jig. I simply wanted to understand why that one cast was different from a thousand others, and why that particular brown ate my fly when no one else would.
(And whether or not the trout in question was playing with a full deck.)
That first fish was a milestone. Still, it turns out that my “no trout” period was as much a gift as my first fish. Why? Because it tied me to essentials like humility and patience and it taught me that there’s more to life than instant gratification. Now if I could only figure out a way to express those exact same sentiments without sounding all pompous and holier-than-thou.
I know. Fat chance.
Tim, Steve and I drove to River X. That’s not what I typically call it, but since I promised not to reveal its name, River X will have to do.
It’s not a big river—less than 50 feet across in spots—and the cobble bottom mimics half the trout streams I’ve fished over the years. The banks are low and grassy with a handful of tipped-over lodgepole pines lying helter-skelter and any number still standing straight. It’s an unexceptional place, and the major road that runs alongside doesn’t inspire much in the way of confidence. In fact, it looks exactly like the kind of spot a million Yellowstone tourists have beat on over the years. Even worse, the only trout visible in the slow, clear water are four-inch brookies, which should tell you everything you really need to know.
Except it doesn’t. There are browns there, too, and some of them are extraordinary. Big, certainly, but that’s not what we were after. We wanted tough. You’ve heard the term PhD fish? Well, we had PhD fish out the front door on the Henry’s Fork. We wanted impossible fish. We wanted fish that would push our skills to the limit; fish that maybe fifty guys on the planet would have a chance of catching. I can’t speak for Tim or Steve, but I was driven by curiosity. I’d heard the stories and I wanted to know if I measured up.
Let’s take a few steps back. In those years, fly fishing was my life. I guided most days during the season, and on those I didn’t, I fished. I’m not saying this was a good thing, or admirable—hell, it most likely indicated a major flaw in my psychological makeup. But I was like a baby reaching for the brightly-colored mobile swaying over his crib. I may not have led a balanced existence, but I was sure enjoying myself.
Tim was pretty serious about it, too, having moved three quarters of the way across the country just so he could scratch his angling itch. He was, and is, an unbelievably talented fly fisher. Steve, bless his heart, made us look like school boys. He was The Old Man Of The River; a fisheries biologist turned guide turned piscator. And the fact that he’d agreed to take us to this particular spot was halfway up the scale between gift and miracle. I’m not kidding. If memory serves, Steve once hooked and landed seven different browns on River X. All in one summer, all on small dry flies, all over 25 inches. How many guys do you know who’d take you to a place where 28-inch brown trout sip PMDs in crystal clear water? Hell, just thinking about it makes me want to describe the water as limpid and the trout as druid-taught leviathans. And for once I wouldn’t be overstating the case.
Anyway, we parked out on the highway and wadered up as motor homes and station wagons drove past, then walked the 50 yards in to the river. I could probably write a book about the next four or five hours, but the crux of it was that we got our asses kicked.
We found any number of large rising trout, but every single one required both persistent perfection and a complete and utter absence of mistakes. A shadow, or a tiny bit of line spray, or a flash from a rod … anything at all that was out of place and they’d simply disappear. On top of that, your fly had to be an exact replica of the natural and your drift had to be impeccable. And assuming you did everything right on every single cast, you were still pretty much screwed.
They just knew. There’s no other explanation. Those fish knew what we were doing and the bastards toyed with us all afternoon. My one moment of glory came when a brown the length of my arm rose up through three feet of water to nose my emerger before refusing it. Steve’s luck was about the same. Tim hooked and landed a little one—an 18-incher. As if you could call an 18-inch brown “little.” But you know what? It was glorious. It was wonderful. To this day, that one-sided ass kicking remains some of the finest angling I’ve ever experienced.
That last statement may be difficult for some of you to understand. And as much as I’d like to explain, I’m not sure I can, other than to say that I fished as well as I possibly could and I did so alongside Tim and Steve, who are two of the very best.
Just thinking about that afternoon makes me smile. Lord, those were tough fish.
Jones was there, and he saved my bacon. It was the last day of our week-long trip to British Columbia, and I hadn’t hooked a single steelhead. We were fishing in the middle of an ancient forest with patches of snow glistening on the river banks and bone-colored alders mixing with sentinel spruce as far as the eye could see. Honestly, the landscape could have been lifted from one of those old Bev Doolittle paintings where light and dark trunks merge in the distance to reveal unlikely forms among the shadows.
It was February of ‘05. I can tell you that with certainty because I left my new digital camera in the rental rig, positive that it was jinxing me. Fishermen can be superstitious at times and it really seemed as if the camera I purchased to take pictures of my soon-to-be-born son—Kian came into the world a month later, on March 14th, 2005—was the source of my skunking.
So that’s easy enough. If the camera is the problem, leave it in the truck.
The steelhead swam into my life an hour before dark. He took my fly gently—there was no strike, the line just stopped—and then he proceeded to blow up my world. Billy had a nice chromer on across the river, maybe a 15-pounder, but nothing like the one I was fighting. My steelhead was the fish of a lifetime, the kind that makes all the connecting flights and motel rooms worth it, the kind that haunts your dreams and then exceeds them by a factor of ten. In my case, he was also … well, the word I’m looking for is tenuous. Without Jones, who came running downstream and then charged into the tail-out to keep my fish from heading back to the ocean, I wouldn’t have had a chance. None at all.
Every time the fish ran down, Jones did a jig in the river, stomping and splashing and making one hell of a commotion. I was doing my best, too, but the strain was spider-webbing the ferrules on my 8-weight. If I’d put an ounce more into that rod, it would have blown up. Jones, bless his heart, saved the day. That steelhead didn’t want any part of the big bear jumping around at the bottom of the pool.
We landed him. Honest, we did. Jones tailed him, and then I held him for a couple of photos, which, in an ironic twist, Jones took with the $10 disposable camera he’d thrown in his vest for the trip. We didn’t have a tape, so we measured him against the rod. He went three full finger-widths past the second guide, which put him at approximately 43 inches.
I’ll tell you the crux of it. When you’re holding a fish like that, it doesn’t matter that he’s on the far side of 40 inches. It doesn’t matter that he’s fat as a Christmas goose and would tilt the scale towards, if not upwards of, 30 pounds. All that really matters is that you, through osmosis, through cradling him in that icy clear water, can share in his magic for a second or two. He’s the Lord of the River. Who could ever fault you for hoping some of his mojo rubs off?
Everybody wants to fish when the bugs are littering the surface and the trout are rising on the tail end of a warm spring day. Turn it around, though, and see what happens.
My friend Craig and I were on the Missouri in January and we spent the day dodging chunks of ice that were floating downstream in the leg-numbing current. Tom and I hit the same stretch at the end of October, and while the water temps were decent, the wind blew so hard we wished that we’d packed kites instead of fly rods. Tim, Lynn, Braide and I fished the South Fork of the Snake one summer in heat that would wilt a Bikram yoga instructor. And yet as far as I can tell, there were only two common denominators—the fishing was tough and I really didn’t care.
Or maybe I did care. After all, given a choice I’ll take good results over poor every single time. But I didn’t stay home, which is the meat of it. There’s something about fishing—and I’m drawing a distinction here between fishing and catching—that gets in your blood, that leads you back to the river regardless of your expectations. Not to get all wild-eyed about it, but standing in the water and casting a fly rod is addictive. It’s also as close as many of us will ever get to a true state of grace.
And that’s what it’s about, more often than not. Grace. Some of us experience it at Cairns Pool on the Beaverkill. Others touch it on the Henry’s Fork, wading knee-deep through bonefish flats. For an awful lot of us, it’s wherever we happen to find a quiet spot away from the crowds, be it on a handsome spring creek or a remote steelhead river or a little brook that runs forgotten past the edge of town. We don’t need much. A place to wade, a place to cast, a flat spot on the bank where we can sit in stillness and watch the water flow by. Maybe a few shade trees, or a little sunshine, or maybe just a fly rod that’s as much an old friend as it is a piece of graphite or bamboo.
At some point, sooner for some, later for others, most of us realize that it’s really pretty simple; that we can boil it all down to one short, declarative sentence. We love to fish.
People will tell you that there are five distinct stages of fly fishing. First you want to catch a fish. Then lots of fish. Then big fish. Then difficult fish. Then, when you’ve done it all a thousand times, you just want to go fishing.
Maybe I’m an angling dyslexic, but it’s not quite that simple for me. All those elements – one, big, lots, tough, whatever—get jumbled around in no particular order. Sometimes one pops up, sometimes another. There are days when I want to catch big trout on tiny dries. There are others when I’m happy to sit in the sunshine and watch the swallows work and the rainbows rise. All I can tell you for sure is that I’d be lost without it; a dried husk, a stonefly shuck abandoned on the riverside rock of life.
I suspect that’s why I’ve become so fierce about the sport and why, often as not, my writing resembles preaching with a 16-pound sledge. If we can’t save the sweet-water places from the never-ending march of human progress, then we’ve failed at a task as important as I can imagine.
Which leads me to an interesting thought. Perhaps there’s a sixth stage of fly fishing, a stage where all the hours we spend on the water and all the days we spend away grow into a special form of cognition. Call it empathy. Call it awareness. But whatever the name, we begin to realize that we’re related to everything around us. Mitakuye Oyasin, as the Lakota say. We’re all part of a greater whole.
There’s comfort in that belief, and perhaps a way forward in these uncertain times. When we love our rivers and streams, we fight to preserve them. When we enjoy a deep and abiding connection with the planet, we do what we can to protect it. Wouldn’t it be something if we turned the tide and saved the best parts of our world, the spring creeks and steelhead rivers and bonefish flats, for our kids and grandkids? As a fly fisherman, I can’t think of a better gift for future generations, or a finer legacy to leave behind.