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Fish Tales: Lost Catch

Three short essays lamenting the one that got away!

Photo by Val Atkinson

Fiction: Fishing the Canyon by Charley Hester

Facing fear one trout at a time

Written by Charley Hester  

Charley Hester

Other Contributions

Fiction: Fishing the Canyon by Charley Hester
March 2010


THE FISHERMAN HAD ALWAYS BEEN AFRAID to fish the canyon. Not exactly afraid really; just apprehensive. It made no sense. He had fished the lower sections of the creek lots of times, covering the entire four miles from the mouth, at the lake, up to the footbridge on the trail that crossed the creek just downstream. The Forest Service signs left no doubt that the whole area was grizzly country; the canyon was no more so than anywhere else. Even so, he felt that the bear danger was greater there. Maybe it was the nearly vertical walls on both sides, giving the sense of having nowhere to go if something did happen. Perhaps a slight touch of claustrophobia. The canyon ran a little more than a mile, a stretch between two trail crossings with no reasonable way out in between. From what he could see, the water looked promising, with cascades, plunge pools, some nice little runs, and the occasional bend pool. But he didn’t know for sure.

Nobody ever fished there, as far as he knew. Still, he was pretty confident that the fishing would be good. The pools and runs would be small and the water wouldn’t be very deep, producing fish that weren’t very big — 8 to 12 inches, maybe a 14- or 15-inch “hog” hiding somewhere under a cutbank or a fallen tree. What he knew for sure was that they would all be wild trout — rainbows, cutthroats, and “cuttbow” hybrids, with colors so damn bright and pretty you had to stop and just stare when you caught one.

He had to go.

When he stepped into the water he was a little surprised at how cold it was. It was a warm, clear July day and he was wet-wading, wearing shorts with his felt-sole wading boots and heavy socks. He had wet-waded the lower sections of the creek several times and it had been a bit cold, but not a problem. Here he found the water to be so cold it was almost painful and he wondered if he could stand it long enough to fish his way up the canyon. For the moment the cold water distracted him from his apprehension about being there.

He slowly made his way upstream, talking out loud to himself, or yelling something from time to time on the theory that if a bear knows you are there, it will leave the area. Bears don’t want encounters with people any more than people want encounters with bears. With the noise of the rushing water, he knew this was futile but he continued to do it anyway. As he rounded the first bend he kept looking up and down the creek. He grew up in the country in South Mississippi, and learned at an early age to always be aware of your surroundings when you are in the woods. Later in life he had learned that was a good practice wherever you happened to be. Don’t take anything for granted, and don’t let too many things surprise you, and you will probably be all right.

He was glad to be alone; there was nobody else to worry about. He liked fishing by himself sometimes. He had read once that you can tell what kind of fisherman you really are by the way you fish when you are alone, with nobody around to see what you do. He thought you could apply that principle to the whole spectrum of behavior. If you want to know what kind of person you are, just take a look at how you behave by yourself, confident that nobody will find out.

He came to a small pool underneath a fallen tree and stopped a few yards downstream. He was using a dry fly, a size-14 tan Elk Hair Caddis, a fly that had worked well in the past when he fished the lower sections of the creek. He dabbed a touch of floatant on the fly and after a couple of false casts to dry it, dropped it near the foot of the pool. Sure enough, an 8-inch rainbow took it right away and he had his first fish of the day. He looked at the vivid colors a few seconds, then let it go. He loved the way rainbows, even the little ones, almost always jumped when they were hooked. They fight with a degree of courage and determination that most humans would do well to emulate.

Methodically he worked his way up the pool, casting, then dropping the fly about 2 feet further upstream each time. After a half dozen casts he dropped the fly beside the tiny cascade at the head of the pool and took his second fish, this one about 10 inches, another rainbow. He kept this one, cleaning it with his Swiss Army knife on a rock beside the cascade, throwing the guts in the stream and putting the fish in the ice bag that he carried in his backpack. He had learned that if you are going to keep fish, go ahead and keep them instead of waiting until late in the day. You never know when you will stop catching them and if you wait, you may end up eating beans or sandwiches for dinner instead of fish.

Watchful through the fish cleaning process, he walked upstream past a shallow riffle toward a small pocket of deeper water behind a good-sized boulder in the middle of the current. He looked up and down the creek, and out of habit checked both sides even though he knew the canyon walls were steep enough that he didn’t need to worry about anything coming down them. He yelled occasionally as he walked, even though he could barely hear his own voice and knew very well that no bear could hear him. It gave him a sense of actually doing something to deal with his fear, and kept him from thinking how cold his feet were getting. As he approached the boulder he dropped a cast into the calm water next to the current. It looked like a place where at least a couple of fish should live, but if any lived there they weren’t at home. He tried again with no success, and then moved on. He liked to keep moving when he fished these little creeks. He still took time to stop and enjoy the beauty; if he was catching fish he would stand in one spot all day. He wasn’t one to move for the sake of moving, but he usually knew when it was time to go.

He came to a fallen tree that was straight across the canyon, pretty much from wall to wall. The trunk was about shoulder high with branches hanging down; thick enough that he couldn’t go under it. The water passed under the tree in fast, plunging cascades with lots of rocks. He surveyed it and found a place near the left bank where he could climb onto the trunk. He couldn’t climb down the other side at that point because there was a steep cascade that was almost a waterfall, so he would have to make his way toward the top of the tree, across the creek to a point where he could climb down onto a rock.

The top of the tree was lower than the base and the trunk slanted downward at roughly a 30-degree angle. He would have to make his way across using only one hand, holding the fly rod with the other. There were tree limbs sticking up as well, and he had to weave around them as he inched his way across. He had never been a patient man, but he knew better than to get in a hurry and do something stupid. The water wasn’t deep, but he understood the power of moving water. If he fell, the pressure of the fast water could pull him under and the tree branches could hold him there until he drowned. He also knew enough to let the fly rod go and hold on if he started to fall. He couldn’t sit down and scoot across because of the limbs, but had to stand or squat and step around each one. Toward the top, the tree and branches were smaller, and would give a little each time he moved, giving him shaky footing. Several times he lost his balance, but regained it quickly, sometimes by sitting down, standing still, and sometimes by just holding on. After what seemed like a long time he made it to the rock and climbed down, exhausted and a little shaky. He sat on the rock to catch his breath and have a drink of water; then looked up and down the creek before heading on upstream.

At a small run just below a riffle, he missed two strikes before taking his third fish; a 7-inch rainbow at the head of the run. Just upstream he noticed the canyon wall on his right curved away from the creek for about 100 feet, leaving a relatively flat area that was covered with thick underbrush and a scattering of spruce and fir trees. There, on the soft bank he saw some fresh-looking animal tracks. He couldn’t tell for sure what they were, but they were too small to be moose. In addition to bears, he was a little wary of moose, too. He had heard of cases where they had trampled people, and the last thing he wanted to do was to corner one in tight quarters such as this canyon. These tracks looked like deer or possibly elk, so he moved on.

He came to a logjam at a point where a tiny tributary joined the creek, plunging down at a very steep angle, almost a cascade all the way down the mountainside. The only way to continue was up and over, so he started to climb the 10-foot high pile of logs. The deadfall had been washed there by the spring snowmelt to form a solid mass. Some of the trees were rotten and he moved cautiously with each step.

On the other side, he stepped back into the water, pleasantly surprised to find that the water temperature was easily 10 degrees warmer. Grateful that his feet felt better right away, he looked upstream to a section with some easier walking, with sand or gravel bars on one side or the other, easy crossing, and some decent looking holes. One place had a 30- or 40- foot run under some overhanging trees. He managed to leave two of his flies in the trees in inaccessible places, but he took six fish from that one hole, all “cuttbows,” two of which measured 13 inches. He kept the two larger fish, and now he had enough for a dinner. He didn’t stockpile fish in his freezer, but had no qualms about keeping enough for a meal. As he was climbing over a pile of boulders to get around a rough stretch of water he saw a tiny plunge pool, no bigger than a washtub, under a cascade. When he dropped his fly there he took his largest fish of the day: what looked to be a pure Westslope Cutthroat that measured a full 15 inches. The beauty of the fish was stunning, as it was rather dark, with the spots concentrated toward the tail, and brilliant, almost fluorescent orange underneath the gills and along the belly. The fight with the fish was short in those tight quarters with no room to run, and it had plenty of life as he removed the hook. He held it in the water and looked at it for a few seconds, and then it was gone.

As he reached the end of the rough water he came to a talus slope alongside a stretch of water that was mostly shallow riffles and didn’t look very productive. He had started to get hungry so he sat down on one of the larger and flatter rocks, took off his backpack, and took out his lunch. For the first time all day he thought about something other than fishing. Thoughts of his everyday life began creeping into his mind, but he quickly pushed them right back out. No room for negative stuff out here. He sat there appreciating where he was and what he was doing. Most people he knew would never even consider coming here and facing their fears. The most dangerous thing most people ever do, he thought, is ride in an automobile. He finished lunch, put the trash in his backpack, picked up his rod and headed on up the creek, maintaining a vigilant eye up and downstream.

He changed flies several times, going to a Royal Wulff, to a Sparkle Dun, to an Adams Parachute, in sizes 14 and 16. All had drawn some attention from the fish but they seemed partial to the Elk Hair Caddis, so he had switched back. He didn’t try any wet flies or nymphs because the fish didn’t hesitate to come to the top, and fishing dries was simpler and more fun. The water was so clear that he could see the colors, appearing almost neon as they raced toward the fly with an innocence that stemmed from hunger and naïveté. The food supply in these little creeks is not abundant, and at this altitude the growing season is short so the fish can’t afford to pass up many opportunities to eat. He loved the aggressive, enthusiastic way they approached his flies.

He came to another soft dirt bank with animal tracks that were obviously moose. The tracks headed up a little drainage off to his left, and they didn’t come back out so he figured that the moose was still up there. He moved quickly farther up the creek.

As he rounded a bend he saw the first decent-sized pool, maybe 40 feet long with fish rising. He watched long enough to determine that the fish were eating Caddis, and then he eased up near the tail of the pool. His first cast was no good; the fly started to drag almost immediately but on the second cast he caught a feisty little “cuttbow” about 9 inches long. He snaked it out the tail of the pool, and released it downstream. Then he watched for a minute until he saw a rise-form that looked bigger than the others. He managed to drop his fly right beside the rise ripples and sure enough, his fly was slammed almost immediately by what was probably the biggest fish he hooked all day. The fish ran the length of the pool, making three jumps along the way that would have been the envy of any rainbow, and shook the fly loose on the third jump. That spooked the hole and everything stopped. Just like that.

Before he came to the next hole he found a tributary stream flowing in from his left, almost as big as the creek he was in. He looked upstream and started to fish up it a ways, just to see what it was like, but he was getting tired and it was getting late so he thought better of it. “Know your limits,” he told himself. “It’s another creek for another day.”

Right after he started walking again he noticed that the canyon walls were falling away to the east, and the stream made a sharp turn in that direction. As he climbed over some boulders and around thick brush he looked up and saw her standing on the footbridge where the upper trail crossed the creek. He was through the canyon.

“How was it?” she asked as he climbed up the bank by the bridge.

“Even better than I had hoped,” he said. “The bushwhacking was a little rough in places, but damn well worth it.”

“Any bears?”

“Not even a sign.”

“Would you do it again?”

He put his arm around her waist and they started to walk up the hill.

“Next time you go with me,” he said.

Photo by Val Atkinson