I’ve no idea how many hours throughout my lifetime have been spent staring at campfire flames. Perhaps at some point during this exercise, I’ll attempt a rough number, but for now, let’s just agree that it’s a lot. Collectively there are weeks, maybe months that have been lost into the dancing flames, the sparks lifting into black skies. From the shores of the Sierra Nevada’s high mountain lakes to the deep canyons of the Feather River, to the banks of my beloved McCloud, countless nights have found me kicking back in a camp chair or propped up against a log, boots warming on fire pit stones watching flames climb skyward. For a hundred nights the river has sung along with hissing, popping pine branches. And it’s been in these moments when I’ve pondered ALL life’s most persistent questions. It’s no coincidence that the flames have accompanied these times of rumination. I’ve made these fires to provide the venue for the questions and, hopefully, some answers too. I’ve run away to these river rock stages when I knew they were the only place I’d find solace, the only opportunity to ponder uninterrupted. It was to the fire I ran when my heart was most comprehensively broken, allowing myself to wonder if there was any need for a tomorrow. I could be found lost in the swirling yellows and oranges after my dad’s life ended abruptly, creating a vacuum of reason in my life. When my dear friend, confidant, and conspirator in so many questionable endeavors died suddenly and senselessly, I was, soon thereafter, sobbing, screaming into the endlessly dark night, throwing every piece of wood I could find into what became a massive bonfire along the banks of the McCloud River, berating the very notion of God and, if there was one, what a terrific, heartless asshole he is. I could also be found dancing, playing guitar and singing for the fire in times of great celebration, letting out great war whoops of love and gratitude for only the bear, cougar, raccoons and osprey to share
For over thirty years it’s been rivers I’ve run to in times of need, whether for processing sadness and hurt or marking moments of triumph and exaltation. My personal connection to water was chronicled in my first book, The Middle Fork. Those of you who suffered through that tome of drivel may remember this particular detail. And for those who wisely chose to spend their hard-earned fourteen bucks and, more importantly, their time, elsewhere, I’ll not repeat the entire passage herein for reasons two-fold: first, we’ve better things to do with our time, and secondly, it wasn’t that great the first time, so…. Let’s just accept that my attraction and affinity to all water is ancient, deep, nagging and holds the unlimited reward. The lure of the fire is perhaps harder for me to pin down. As kids, especially little boys, fire is an element of power, destruction, and rebellion. Most of us nearly took out the entire neighborhood at least once, right? Or was that just me and my childhood friend, Grey? “Don’t play with fire,” is a constant refrain when we’re young, ordered from on high with great authoritative zeal, rarely accompanied by any elaboration. Just “don’t”. Well, that was good enough for me. I’d torch anything. The dry, autumnal anise patch on the hillside below our house seemed as good a place as any to discover what all this “Don’t play with fire,” nonsense was all about. That ended poorly, with an overly imposing fireman confronting me and Grey, a charred book of matches thrust at our angelic faces. He was such an asshole. What did he, or anyone else, expect? Tell me “don’t” enough times and we all know what’s bound to happen. So I suppose my love of flame is and has been, somehow woven into my fabric, simply needing a less destructive venue. And there came along fly-fishing trips. Perfect. Spend the day immersed in nature’s greatest cathedral, on a primal hunt for the most elusive, beautiful creature, and the nights in a ceremony of fire. Boom.
On my mostly solo trips deep into the McCloud River canyon there was an hour or two every day dedicated to gathering wood. This was Satchel’s least favorite part. The beautiful, sagacious and incredibly patient Lab hated the time away from the river. It was hot, snaky, and loud. I developed techniques for taking massive pine branches and turning them into perfect sticks for the fire. No saw was necessary, just one granite boulder, protruding from the earth just so. The back of the 4-Runner, then the Nissan King-cab, then the Wagoneer, then the Outback would be filled completely with sticks and stumps. I knew, each season, where the best stashes were. And every day I’d proudly make a huge stack of the doomed wood before cracking open what would invariably be the best beer ever. The pit would be prepped before my evening fishing session so that a little stove fuel and a match would be all that was needed when I got back to camp, usually in complete darkness. As the years mounted, life’s complications deepened and my trips to the river dwindled, I came to understand that a “fishing” trip was less about catching trout and more about everything that came with each adventure. The fire was as big a factor as anything else.
And it still is. Only now mostly the wood is store-bought, either by legal restriction or lethargy. There are places I camp where gathering wood is a no-no. There are places where there is little or no good wood to gather. And then there are times when I’d just as soon buy it at Safeway, where, believe it or not, there is ALWAYS a two-for-one sale in progress.
Just last week we took advantage of that sale the day before taking a trek out to a little known brown trout tailwater a ways east of Bend. When I say “we” I mean me, Eddy the Aussie, and my twenty-three-year-old son, Jasper. He has just returned from a month and a half in Chile and is preparing for his first season as a fishing guide. One of those elements fills me with great paternal pride, the other with an indescribable horror. Between these two endeavors would be a little fishing trip, father, son, dog, firewood. ‘Merica.
We were well provisioned. There were six bundles of wood in the back of the truck. Two bottles of brown booze. A half-dozen six-packs. Enough food for three nights and four days in the remote, almost unheard-of canyon. There was also a quiver of fly rods and a lot of little flies. We were set.
Last Monday morning, after driving into a lovely Central Oregon sunrise, we entered the canyon hoping for two things only: a decent campsite and some rising trout. We found only the first. The second would wait a bit. Under a breezy blue sky, the renowned Blue-Winged Olive hatch was not just scarce, it was nonexistent. So we fished various rigs in likely water and hoped for the best. The first swirl of an eating fish gave a reason for hope. It happened in very shallow water at the tail out of a long pool. At the time I had on a Parachute BWO with a Bead-wing midge under it. This combo has proven effective out there before, but on this day got little love. I worked higher up into the pool and switched the rig to a Ruby Leech trailed by a little olive Soft Hackle. On one of my first retrieves, as I was beginning to lift into a cast, there was a splash right behind the leech. It was one of those moments when your brain isn’t quite sure how to process what’s happened. A few scenarios rush through the psyche. One: maybe a fish just ate a natural, coincidentally right next to my fly. Two: maybe a fish chased my leech and made one, unsuccessful lunge at it just as I went to cast. Or three: maybe a fish went after the “hatching” soft hackle. And maybe it actually got it. And maybe the little fly is still in its mouth. In which case stripping in some line and setting the hook would be a good idea. And so, in a somewhat dumbfounded way, that is what I did. And, what do you know, scenario three was spot on. I’m really not sure which of us was more dumbfounded, the fish or me. Let’s call it a tie. This fight was brief. The fish was only twenty feet away when it ate, and it never made a move to get farther from me than that, perhaps the result of its no doubt circumstantial confusion. It folded into the net after maybe thirty seconds, beautiful, masculine, breathing hard with a tiny olive Soft Hackle between two teeth. “Well that’s a first,” I announced to only the fish and canyon. Yea, in all honesty, I don’t recall ever fooling a fish with that exact presentation. Not an easy one to replicate.
Another, smaller fish ate the soft hackle just as Jasper was wading up from the pool below, having caught nothing yet. We talked tactics briefly and then he went a couple hundred feet upriver and began casting, effortlessly into the middle of the run. It would only be a matter of time now. The dog was staying with him, most likely wanting to watch the more interesting, aggressive angler. She’s suffered through enough sessions with me. Jasper worked the dry-dropper for a bit then switched to a similar rig as mine. On one long cast, he let the flies sink and just as he began his retrieve, the line jerked suddenly, and he was hooked up. With these fish, these wild brown trout, it can be difficult to gauge what’s on for the first few seconds, or minutes in some cases. Could be twelve-inches, or twice that. Their tendency is to give firm tugs and headshakes, perturbed more than panicked. And, as often is the case out on this remote, almost unheard-of river, we were fishing fairly light tippet for fairly large fish. In Jasper’s situation, he didn’t know which fly the fish had taken and so, wisely, didn’t horse it too hard. He’s just come from Patagonia, as I mentioned before, and spent his time down there casting large dries on heavy tippet, so this was a slightly unfamiliar and different dancefloor, and he was adjusting brilliantly. Watching my spawn play a nice fish just doesn’t get old. At some point, maybe a minute into the fight, we both realized that this wasn’t a small trout. I reeled up and went to join him and the dog. Another minute and we got our first glimpse of it. And two minutes later he had it in the net. Sadly, neither of us had our cameras, so this one would go undocumented. But I will attest to it being a damned fine fish, any day of the week, on any river. It was in the seventeen or eighteen-inch range, but far more impressive was its girth and proportion. This was a healthy, strong fish. And in its toothy beak was lodged a tiny soft-hackle.
We fished for another few minutes before deciding to find a site and “build our house”. It was fun poking around the canyon, cold beer wedged between legs, some music playing, searching for a campsite with two primary functions: some shelter in case the weather went south, and decent water within a short walk. We passed on a few potential spots before deciding on one near a narrow stretch of pocket water between too long pools. We unloaded the truck and began “building”. A kitchen was set up under a couple Hackberry trees. The tent would go in a small clearing nearby. We’d brought a nice North Face tent from our shop “camp” that I had set up once before on a client trip. That day I do not remember it being a difficult procedure. With Jasper, after a short night’s sleep and a long drive and a beer or three, erecting this beast proved an almost insurmountable task. In retrospect he and I should feel fortunate that nobody nearby was armed with a camera phone, obtaining shamefully incriminating video of us. That’s not the notoriety either of us seeks. We did finally overcome the complications and celebrate with another cold beer.
That afternoon, as I hung around camp, Jasper wandered down to the river. A little while later he called up, through the otherwise quiet canyon, that fish were rising. Shortly thereafter I joined him where the pocket water empties into the long, barely moving run. Indeed, there were fish rising, primarily on a midge or emerging BWOs, neither of which made much sense, but there they were, “bulging” as much as anything else. That’s a term I like for a rise that isn’t a committed surface eat, but rather arise form emanating from a fish taking something an inch or two beneath. And that’s what we were seeing. A lot. The small channel was packed with fish. They were eating constantly. And so it stands to figure that anglers such as ourselves would proceed to slay, right? Wrong. The only one we got was a skinny sixteen-incher that wolfed down the Griffith’s Gnat I’d put off the back of a Sparkle Dun. Otherwise, we worked over actively rising fish for an hour and a half with no love. Nada. And that’s just not what we’d driven all that way for. No, we’d gotten our asses out of bed at 4:30am to drive five hours to catch us some fish, dammit!
Not long before darkness overcame the canyon, the fish stopped feeding, or at least in a way we could see. Our hands were frozen. The forty-two-degree water had seeped its cold into the waders. And we were done. The walk back to camp was quiet and brief. Once there we got out of waders and began burning some wood. For dinner that night we had planned the old favorite of steaks, spuds, and corn, the last two of which required coals to cook. The steaks would go on the little grill. We got some music going, and as I prepped food, Jasper began feeding the fire. It would take a lot of wood to get the heat where we needed it for cooking. And the night was already getting cold. Not sure if you’ve ever spent time in the high desert in early March, but no matter how pleasant the days might be, the nights will be properly cold. This fire would serve more than one purpose. Before long the spuds were wrapped in foil and placed next to the ever-growing bed of orange embers. Jasper would rotate them periodically with the long-handled tongs. He was DJing as we sat, beers on the little camp table between us. The night was dark now, offering a thickening blanket of stars. The fire crackled and popped, sending small sparks floating skyward. To hell with the fish. THIS is why we’d come. We can catch fish anywhere, anytime. I leaned back, rested feet on the side of the river rock pit, and gazed into the heavens.
Dinner was as good as ever. The big T-bones were tasty, the spuds cooked fully and mashed into a pile, and the corn was especially perfect, tons of pepper and butter having cooked in as it baked in the foil. After we ate, we shifted from beer to whisky. The fire remained our source of heat and entertainment as we sat digesting and talking. Jasper shared stories from his recent adventure in Chile, having fished some of the finest trout water in the world. I was there many years ago, so I could imagine some of what he told me. Other parts of his trek I could only dream of. But I loved this time with him, uninterrupted, to hear about the trip. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to tell him how I’d cried for a half hour after dropping him off at the airport, nor how frightened I was when he was struck with brutal food poisoning right after arriving in Santiago.
I honestly don’t recall what time I tucked into the tent. I do remember feeling done; that it was time. A few minutes prior to getting into the sleeping bag, I went in and fired up the little Buddy Heater and brought the still-damp waders and boots in. It was already in the twenties outside, promising to get colder still. And so with little fanfare the dog and I configured into a spooning position and I was out.
A couple hours later I awoke to sound of the heater sputtering with the last fumes of propane. I shut it off and went back to sleep for a bit. A while later I put another canister in and fired it back up. No matter how good the tent, the cold air was invading, persistent and possessing teeth. We were as well-prepared as could be and there was no suffering, but the heater was coming in quite handy when turned on. I didn’t doze off this time, instead just turned the heater up full blast for maybe ten minutes, then shut it off and passed out. The dog and Jasper were blissfully unaware of the commotion.
By 6:30 I was awake and reading by headlamp. Eddie was stone-still, only wanting zero deviation from her current situation. I quietly laid the waders out on the tent floor and cranked up the heater again. And read a little more.
As the sky began to lighten, I ventured out into the frigid morning. After creating an almost comical amount of steam while peeing, I ignited a flame under the coffee maker, which I’d had the forethought to prep the night before. That’s some veteran experience shit right there. Without much thought, I began construction of a fire over the still-warm coals from the night before.
With strong, hot coffee in a thermoflask, a small fire crackling and little else to do, I sat and read, intermittently gazing upon the sunlight creeping down the east-facing canyon wall across the river. Sometimes its progress was notable and encouraging. Other times it seemed to stall completely, impossible for five minutes at a time. I munched chocolate “Donettes”, extra crunchy from the morning’s freeze. That is one delicacy reserved for camping trips.
Jasper eventually emerged from the tent into the windless, crisp air just as the sunlight reached camp. He sat with me by the fire having cereal, letting the day wake him at its own pace. Not long after, a guy drove past camp and parked above the run down river where we’d worked over the rising fish the previous evening. “Hmmm,” I pondered aloud. “Didn’t know anyone else knew about this river.” Jasper just grunted, still finding his voice in the new day
We wadered up and crossed the river near camp. There’s an ancient, Native American hunting trail on the other side, rarely used by “modern” man. We followed it downriver, twenty or thirty feet above the flow. When directly across from the guy, we slowed and waved. No response. Boy, you’d think fellow adventures, so far from any known point on the map would be friendlier. Farther down we found access to the river and began fishing. I was slowly retrieving a leech/Soft Hackle combination and Jasper was rigging up a dry-dropper. A few fish were working midges just sub-surface, but there were no bugs visible. We worked that area for a bit with no takers before heading farther downriver, perhaps to an area not seen by human eyes for hundreds of years. The wild and remoteness practically assaulted the senses. In a large bay, just before the river pinched into a narrow slot, while casting a small Double-Bead Peacock Stonefly -commonly referred to as a “Cheeseburger” and in this instance meant to imitate a skwala (or winter stonefly, whichever you prefer)- during one painfully slow retrieve, I felt that sudden, electric jolt. As slow as the fishing had been, there was a moment of disbelief before allowing the real possibility that a trout had eaten my fly to creep groggily into a reality. But that is precisely what had happened. And eventually, I actually began to behave as such. This fish fought hard in the utterly still water of the pool, bending my old nine-foot three-weight from its worn cork. The Battenkill reel gave quick, shrill cries with each run. After a couple minutes the fish lay in my net, another classic, masculine beauty. In the late-morning sunshine, the fish shown and sparkled, the myriad hues catching and refracting light, the toothy jaw containing the size 10 nymph. Jasper had decided to fish the moving water below so he wasn’t there to admire this one with me. And aside from the guy upstream there probably wasn’t a living soul for a hundred miles, so just the fish and I, and the ancient canyon, to appreciate the moment before the calm release. Then all went silent as the Trout Goddess nodded approvingly down.
A bit later, up near camp, I found some big fish working midges in impossibly shallow water. I wasn’t rigged up for them; something told me that the Cheeseburger would have a spooking effect were I to lob it in there. But before re-rigging, I just watched. These fish were in the 18-20” range, roaming water ankle deep, tipping their golden-brown beaks up to eat size twenty-two midges amongst exposed river rocks no more than three feet off the bank. Super fun to watch. Jasper and the dog showed up and we strategized potential approaches. In the end, he cast a little dry-dropper rig over them for a few minutes, until they all spooked into the deeper, safer water of the run. Then we went up to camp for a well-earned beer.
The hard truth is that we still hadn’t figured out how to best fool the fish. To have been out there for over twenty-four hours and only have a handful of fish to claim would simply not suffice. For the second straight morning, the Blue-winged Olive hatch didn’t materialize. The day had warmed to a comfortable mid-fifties. The sky was perhaps too clear. There was no wind to speak of. On a “normal” day out there, I would expect at least a semblance of a hatch. There were fish cruising around “bulging” on the occasional midge, but the BWO has traditionally been the show. So what did I do in the face of this new and unexpected challenge? I left. Yup. Jumped in the truck and hit the road. In all truthfulness, and at the risk of sounding like a pathetic mama’s boy, I had to exit the remote canyon to find cell service to call my mom. She’d had surgery the day before and I wanted to find out how it had gone. While out amongst civilization, I would procure more firewood and propane. We do what needs to be done.
My foray out was as brief as I could make it, but I was still off the water for a couple hours, such is the extreme isolation that comes with rivers such as this. Back at camp, I unloaded and stacked wood for a few minutes, rewarded my efforts with a cold beer, then slid back into the waders for an afternoon session. Impressively, the guy who had pulled up while we had coffee in the morning was still there, his truck having become part of the landscape, and the man, a statue of his former self, thigh-deep, staring at a bobber with an intent typically reserved for something far more reverential. I approached the river just below camp, where the riffle water enters the run. And there, to my near disbelief, were Blue-winged Olives flying all over the place. And in the river there were trout eating them. A sense of normalcy regained. A Sparkle Dun was affixed to the end of some leader and tippet, tapering down to 5x, a little dab of flotant applied to said fly and then a cast was made in the general vicinity of the eight big fish rising. Highly technical stuff. One of the eight had the charity in its heart to slide up and eat the fly and then all hell broke loose. This fish was not a brown trout. It was a rainbow. And it was large. The moment brought to mind a couple things. One is that as much as I find brown trout cool, they really aren’t the hardest fighting fish, nor are they usually the hardest to fool. They are the schoolyard bully, picking on and dominating anything they please. They develop a reputation and thrive on it. But bullies are the easiest to dupe, typical possessing less than stellar intelligence and balance in my not-so-limited experience, making them less of a challenge to fell. And then once they’re down, a couple swift kicks to the back of the head and they never bother you again. There, you didn’t think you’d get such a valuable life lesson out of this story, did you? The rainbow trout is a different story altogether. They are the complete package. What they might lack in the novelty factor, they more than make up for with tenacity, guile and strength. And this one that had just eaten my size twenty fly was getting on with earning every inch of its reputation. Several spectacular leaps were followed by a series of tippet-torturing runs. It did a three-sixty around a mid-stream boulder and then burrowed hard for the weedy bottom. We ended up maybe fifty feet down river from where it had eaten before the fish folded into the net. This ‘bow wasn’t huge by any definition, but in that river, in those flows and with that little bug in its jaw, it was mightily impressive. The brawl had been five times heavier than any brown trout. As it lay gasping in my net, I thanked and congratulated it. The fish eventually swam free, back into the murky current, no doubt to the awed applause of the stunned brown trout, none of whom have the slightest inkling of how to do what the rainbow had done.
The hatch petered out soon thereafter. The fish went back to eating the occasional midge. The air quickly cooled as the sun lowered. We fished for a while longer, then got back up to camp. And then we set about burning some wood.
That night we spent several hours sitting around the fire, eating dinner, drinking whisky, talking story, or doing and saying nothing at all. I think for both of us there was plenty to contemplate, more than enough orbiting our respective realms. That was our time to let it be. For Jasper, here he is on the precipice of a whole new life, one of unlimited potential, but also of grown-man responsibly. As well, he’s decompressing after a month and a half of movement through a South American country, his first such foray into the unknown. I remember in my wanderlust days what that was like, the coming home, the acclimation process. It can be disconcerting. And, as always, there’s a girl. She creeps around in the shadows until moments such as these, when a canyon without motion or sound envelops you in darkness. The only animate texture being flame. The only sound is that of wood turning into ash. Then she comes to the fold, curtains drawn theatrically back in a whispered scream. In these moments she cannot and will not be denied. I know. I’ve had her visit me just like that. And she’ll have all three acts of the play. There is no looking away, even if you want to. So this is where Jasper was as we sat. I think. Maybe he was just drunk and high and didn’t want to talk to his dad. That would be just as understandable.
For me that night was a bicker and row between all the mundane shit that infects my thought process; you know, work, bills, trucks and boats, scheduling, blah, blah, blah, and something far deeper, far more sinister and in demand of soul searching. Just a week prior our trip, and while I was balls deep in the Redmond Sportsman’s Show, a young man, who I knew only through our fly shop and friends, but someone who whenever I saw him lit up the room, had been up at Mt Bachelor snowboarding with a friend. The day was epic, deep powder, not a ton of people around, just a couple homies living a life exalted. One wrong turn, one tree, one moment in time when the last breath left a body. A life ended just as it was really beginning. And all the shrapnel that flies from the moment. I’d found out the worst way, by reading the damned paper. I was so head down in all my daily crap that I hadn’t learned of the accident till a day later. My hands trembled as I read. Michelie had just come downstairs and I stood there in stunned disbelief. I flipped open my computer and checked Facebook, still hoping there would be no word, that it wasn’t really him, that this was all some screwed up dream. And there in the first few posts were a couple acknowledging the news, the reality. This guy was the same age as my son. The same age as several of my guides. The same age as a bunch of the fishy fuckers I love so much around here. He was a fishy fucker himself. But he was way more than that, and you only needed to listen as the word reverberated through the community to understand that. This was a young man whose loss was being mourned far and wide, with incredible intensity.
For the last few days, in quiet moments he came to me, always that boyish smile, the bright eyes, the copious passionate enthusiasm men of Latin heritage seem to possess without effort. A sweet soul. The kind of young man our fucked up world needs more of, not fewer. I pondered into the fire that night, knowing that the answer wasn’t there, but allowing for the process. Just as so many times before, I looked for some reason, some excuse, something tangible to hold onto if, only to destroy it. Yea, there is anger in me. I find the Universe, with her unbridled sidekicks’ Fate and Fortuna, a heartless lass. I don’t believe in the scale of chance, that there is a yin for a yang. I can’t comprehend if there is some bigger plan we’re all a part of. But if there is one and taking this guy out of the equation is part of it, then the plan has gone utterly off the rails. Take me, for fuck’s sake. I had my go and did shit with it. Hell, I tried to take myself out of it as a young man, more than once. And I wasn’t alone in these moronic endeavors; there were people with me. I was that much of an idiot and an asshole. And yet through all of my bluster about our God-less world and my undaunted belief that we are no greater than ants on this planet, my dispelling of any concept of anything holy in our lives, I’m still here, doing squat.
And so these are the thoughts, the internal rants that sometimes accompany a quiet fireside hangout as emotions swirl in concert with flames. In my experience, it is a quest well worth undertaking, as potentially emotionally cumbersome as it may be. I’ve allowed this chain of thought full reign many times. To my mind, there is no blasphemy, no overt challenge to anyone else’s belief system. Just my own disenchantment, a sad, timeworn disillusion. On this night though, with Jasper quietly at my side, I may have choked back the deep sigh that welled in my chest. I may have quelled the urge to grunt my spite at the elements that control whose turn it is and isn’t. Instead, another stick of wood carefully placed atop the embers and flames. Another moment of respite. One more allowance to gaze uninterrupted as pine became ash.
I retired before Jasper that night. He was still pondering. I was done. My limit of compassion was exceeded. The only, simple craving was for sleep, a silencing of the awake brain; a need for subconscious take-over. So I crept into the tent and lit the Buddy Heater. I can’t tell you when he joined me in the tent, nor can I relate what Eddy’s take on the whole thing was. I can simply report that I was blissfully relieved of my here-and-now, far off into the next dimension within seconds of laying down. And it couldn’t have been any better.
The next morning was a carbon copy of the one prior. I arose early, made coffee and a “hand warmer” fire, ate a few chocolate Donettes and read. The guy-turned-statue from the previous day did not appear, and so with little fanfare, I donned waders and headed for the river. I had, the night before thought with relative intensity about what the fish were doing, why it had been so tricky to get them to eat, what it was they were eating, and what potential fly combos might best illicit an eat. And now, you pour soul, you will be privy to this thought process. So, if the fish are indeed making their living eating midges, then what phase of the lifecycle would be most appealing? If from the moment the little bug detaches from its rock, it begins a slow wiggle toward the surface, it would stand to reason that the nymph is making posthaste upwards, flexing, contorting and pulsing in such a way as to make it potentially unappealing to the fish simply by moving too erratically. If then the little bug begins approaching the surface, it slows just a little in order to get its “landing gear” in place, perhaps then it is most appetizing and vulnerable… Nerding out enough for you? I’ll go on. So, if the fish are keying in on the bug just before it gets to the surface when it’s moving slowly, half in and half out of it nymphal shuck, then how does one best imitate that. It occurred to me that if we used a dry-dropper rig with a couple flies underneath, said flies would have to “behave” in that particular way the natural is. And it would stand to reason that the natural, at that phase of its hatching is slowed, almost stalled out, anywhere from a foot to three feet down and suspended, but still moving just a little. A weighted nymph, like a tungsten bead Zebra Midge, would hang too much, down in the zone but having no life. An unweighted nymph or cripple wouldn’t sink at all and therefore not be in the fish’s target. And even if that fly was drawn subsurface by the aforementioned Zebra or a little split shot, it would still have less life than the natural. In my twisted, tinkering mind I devised a plan by which there would be two midge nymphs, one very slightly weighted -just enough to sink- and the other entirely unweighted. These would be placed under a skwala dry and affixed with lighter than normal fluorocarbon tippet, both for less visibility to the trout but also to allow the most natural movement of the flies. Super nerdy. Effective? Dunno, let’s go find out.
Yup. That morning was a revelation. And not just for Jasper and me, but for the guys who mysteriously appeared in the desolate canyon and dropped in on our run only to watch us catch all the fish while they caught one. I will admit to not being, shall we say, precise in my description of what we were using when they asked. I will also admit to using another tactic that morning which worked pretty good: The Ruby Leech with a Soft Hackle off the back caught a few. But the majority of the morning was spent staring at an over-sized skwala sitting practically motionless in the pond-like run. Most of the takes were almost imperceptible, just a slight twitch of the dry fly. I’d say that at least half the hook-ups were on guesses that the fly had been eaten. Many times, a fish would give one of the nymphs a nibble, me muttering, “Come back and eat it. You know you want it…” before succumbing to the temptation. And sometimes the skwala just suddenly vanished in a way that left zero suspicion as to what to do next. As much as staring at a barely moving dry fly/bobber is far and away my least favorite tactic, ever, on this day it was the best way to fool fish, and after the previous couple sessions, that is what we needed. So we carried on with it until a sense of ennui overcame us and we went back to camp to drink beer.
The next few hours aren’t especially clear to me. We messed around fishing here and there, catching a few, luxuriating in the beautiful afternoon. But I suppose there’s just nothing that sticks out. A bit later though, we found a spot that blew our minds. There is a really nice run between some shallow stuff that looked promising, so we went to have a closer look. While standing on the exposed river rock at the bottom of the massive back eddy, looking for rising fish in the run, Jasper exclaimed, “There’s one!” I continued watching the moving water, not seeing what he was. “Oh, another. And another.” I told him I wasn’t seeing it. “Not out there, Pops. In the eddy.” Well, would you looky there. While I was focused solely on the water you’d expect them to be in, that fishy effer kid of mine saw something most of us wouldn’t. The angler has become Jasper. Out in the off-color water of this eddy, which was really more of a lagoon, fish were bulging softly. A lot of them. The faintest wind chop textured the surface. From one side of the eddy to the other, in shallow water and deep, from the upper end to the area at the bottom where we stood, if we watched the water for a few seconds, a fish would swirl. Within minutes we were in there casting to them. Jasper took the low end and I waded out on the bar between the eddy and main stem. Shortly thereafter we began catching fish. Quite a lot of them actually. We had doubles and back-to-backs. We gave each other a hard time if a strike was missed or a fish was lost mid-battle. Several times, while one of us was distracted by a big rising fish or the other of us being tied into a nice one, the dry would disappear and we’d have to alert the possessor of said fly. It was about as much fun as I’ve ever had with a fishing buddy. At one point we doubled up and Jasper tried for the fish-in-each-hand shot but unfortunately, the larger of the two brown trout didn’t cooperate. We have a cool picture of them both in the same net. For a couple hours the fishing was just about nonstop good. There’s no way of recalling exactly how many fish were caught in there. I’d hazard to guess a dozen or so each, ranging from 15-20”. I was schooled by something really big. Jasper landed the biggest one. It was just silly, giggle-inducing fishing fun; a session I’ll never forget.
Back at camp that evening Jasper fished while I prepped dinner and began burning more wood. We ate tortellini with onions, peppers, spicy Italian sausage and pesto with toasty bread in front of the fire as darkness once again descended on the canyon. We spent another night feet propped on river stones, feeding the blaze with more wood than necessary. The pile dwindled through the hours, but we wouldn’t polish it off, regardless of our efforts. And once again, there were extended periods when words weren’t spoken. It occurred to me at some point that in Jasper’s twenty-three years as my favorite human, we had never done this: hang out, just us, day after day, doing our thing, together. Night after night fireside with no agenda, nothing that needed to be discussed. Accompanied by ancient spirits singing along with zephyrs and nesting golden eagles. And I’d like to imagine that for thousands of years, far before we came to screw everything up with dams, pollution, and noise, that generations of hunters and gatherers sat near this river, under these stars, watching flames dance in post-ceremonial silence. I imagine the true natives of this land sitting alone, in pairs, small groups and tribes, cross-legged, leaning silently towards the warmth, reflecting on the day they’ve had, focusing on what lay ahead and how to best prepare, girding for whatever battle they’d face. I can hear the exact soundtrack they did, cracking and popping of wood, a gurgling river, the screeching call of a hungry eaglet stashed in a cave two hundred feet above.
So, back to where we started. Back to the fire and all it’s meant, not just to me, but to many before and after. It’s these times of unspoked celebration that resonate deepest within me. And now I know that Jasper can allow the same contemplative moment, delving to places in his soul left unbothered in day to day life. I know he understands the inner dialogue and that the fire can hold just as many answers and questions. I find a great deal of peace in knowing that he too appreciates the yellow, red and orange dancing flames licking at a black, canyon sky.