Saturday, November 5, 2016

Home Waters Part 1

July 24-29, 2016
Southwestern Uinta Mountain Streams, Utah

I've got my leg propped up on a couple pillows, elevated, and am lying/sitting with poor posture on my couch as I have everyday for the past week and a half. I am looking at an article from Field and Stream. The author has been planning this 'life-list' trip into the South Fork of the Flathead River of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and finally gets to see his trip come to fruition. It's familiar to me, all except the fruition part. Envy doesn't creep but washes over me. I can hardly stomach looking at the photos of massive bull trout and gorgeously-colored westslope cutthroat trout, all set against the backdrop of a pristine wilderness.

For the past year, my wife and I had been planning a week long backpacking trip into the Bob to walk and fish. About a month and a half before the trip on a training hike, my heels communicated to me that they weren't happy. Melody compliments my calves when she hikes behind me (what a pervert), but my tight calves have spelled doom for my achilles. Because of the strain put on my achilles day in and day out, my body decided it needed to reinforce that area of my foot, and it did so in a very backwards but common way, by building up the bones in both heels resulting in massive bone spurs. The pain in my feet got to the point where I could not wear traditional shoes, and I knew we needed to call off the Montana trip while I waited for my first surgery.


I couldn't walk long distances, but I could still wear sandals, which meant I could still stand in a river and fish all day. While fishing local streams near town, the cold water actually did me a bit of good by bringing the swelling down in my heels. In searching for an alternative to the Montana trip, I looked into a handful of streams coming out of the southwest Uinta Mountains here in Utah that I'd been curious about for some time.

We stopped in Ogden and picked up some flotation devices for down time, Melody a giant cupcake and I an inflatable lounge chair which would keep me half submerged. Our destination for the next 2 nights was a reservoir campground. The campground is a popular one, but we made it in on a Sunday afternoon that wrapped up a holiday weekend. Our campsite overlooked the reservoir and the mountains around us. After the drive, it seemed like a good idea to float in the water for a couple hours. Melody climbed aboard her plastic pastry and I took a brief swim before reclining in my floating chair. A few bait fisherman were trying their luck on the opposite shore along the creek inlet. Voices carried well over the water. "I had a real big one on, lost him at the last second," remarked one of the older ones no less than 15 times. "But he was big, oh, rest assured, I can guarantee it." The others nodded yawningly and we whispered our own mockery. "Big as my leg I'll tell ya, and teeth as long as plantains. Studied medicine at Stanford, actually, real smart fish, no wonder he got off, big as a pine tree I'll tell ya." Our mockery put us at a karma deficit and we spent the next half hour out of the water removing blood-sucking leeches from one another.

I couldn't resist rising fish on the inlet and strung up my fly rod. I must have had 30 strikes on my dry fly before figuring out what was going on. The fish must have been 2 inches long and too small to take the hook. This was confirmed when a kid down the shore from me landed a tiny crappie that must have been only a few inches itself. There were definitely bigger rainbow and cutthroat trout in the reservoir, but they would elude me, even when I fished from a dock in the wee hours the next morning with a sink tip line and streamers. Not a huge letdown as I was here to check out the creek.

That morning we fished the headwaters of our creek, tiny water. Little Colorado cutthroat trout took my dry fly on numerous occasions, but the 10-15 foot wide creek made casting more effort than it was worth for 6 inch fish, beautiful as they were, and we headed down to the tailwater below the reservoir.


The creek ran low and clear over iron infused red rock which grows bolder the further downstream you go. The creek doesn't look like much and the only cover seemed to be 3 foot deep runs and plumes of brown moss growing in the slower water. Melody strung up her brand new fly rod and joined me. We walked through a maze of willows and tall grass calling out to rattlesnakes. I saw a fish of considerable size spook when we entered the water and was glad to know we were not alone. I put my dry fly in the middle of a slow run and a brown trout in the 16-17 inch range came up for it. He got downstream of me pretty quickly and got off my hook, but it was nice to see a good fish come up in this small stream. I managed to land a 13 inch brown a few casts later, and then Melody and I spotted a fish rising for food at the top of the run. I instructed Melody to cast her fly to the top of the riffle feeding into the run about 5 feet in front of the fish. She stalked the fish to within about 20 feet of it, made a couple false casts, and hit her target just right. We watched the fly float down the riffle and the brown trout moved a foot over to take it. Melody landed the trout and christened her new rod, repeating the feat quite a few times that afternoon.


She fished ahead of me as I got my fly line into an impossible tangle that would take a bit of time to undo. After 15 minutes and many 4 letter words, I hiked up the stream to meet her. Fire Fish, a brown trout so aptly named because of his orange and red tipped fins, took my dry fly and darted behind me, burying his head in a bed of moss. (Ocean run steelhead, which I have never fished for, are said to bury their heads under a rock when they spook, covering their eyes, but not much else of their bodies, kind of like a kid saying, "You can't see me!") Fire Fish took a bit of wrestling, but I managed to land all 18 inches of him in waist deep water. Perfect-sized trout, big enough to put a bend in my rod, but still small enough to dart around and not just use its mass to try and overpower me, though I'm not one to complain about bigger fish, wink wink. I hadn't before seen a brown trout with such a vivid orange body or fin tips outside of the spawn. I wondered if the hue of the red streambed had anything to do with it.

The day before, we had happened upon a trashed campsite near this part of the creek. Today, after fishing and eating our lunch, we returned to said campsite, aptly labeled in sharpie the 'phucking pig palace' by a paper plate stuck to a wooden post. A good 50 square feet of campsite was covered in Bud Light cans, toilet paper, plates, plastic bags... you name it. Almost as disturbing as the actual trash was the boastfulness about it. We managed to fill about 15 small trash bags, which barely ended up fitting in the car, to dump at the campground. There had been some deranged people partying in these woods, and I am glad they didn't return while we were there.


We enjoyed a campfire that evening and headed to bed as soon as the sun went down in preparation for the next day's water.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Highline Trail (Part 2)

July 14-17, 2015
Wind River Range, Wyoming
70 miles from Big Sandy to Green River Lakes

The third morning was the chilliest. The ground was frozen, a thin layer of glass, and Melody and I struggled to put our hiking clothes on over our underwear. Our toes thawed out in our shoes as we moved around, packing icy gear and shoveling cold cereal into our mouths. It was a fairy tale walk through a thin spruce forest with the lower Cook Lake to the east and large peaks making themselves more visible as we slowly climbed toward Lester Pass, our twelve and a half thousand foot highpoint for the trip. The terrain became increasingly alpine- scree fields, short shrubbery and bunchgrasses, tarns everywhere. One such lake was built into the very tip-top of a mountain.

On the pass, we encountered the best vantage point of the trip. Granite peaks in every direction but the valley west. To the north were the tallest peaks in Wyoming, many 13ers. Most easily identifiable were Gannett Peak and Fremont Peak, the first and third largest peaks in the state. In Logan, the mountains are relatively easy to identify from the valley- all that is needed is an accurate map. Here, I could’ve spent all day working out the who’s who, but I repressed my typical inquisitiveness to bask in the daunting spectacle of a hundred haunted mountains. The downside of achieving a highpoint is that you can’t stay there forever. It tends to be the windiest, most exposed part of the hike, and on a day like that day, we had a lot more to accomplish. Melody and I picked our way down the switchbacks, enjoying the company of stunted conifers and Indian paintbrush. As we sunk lower into the basin, the highest peaks were hidden by mere 12,000 foot hills. After passing a few more bodies of water, we ended up just above where we'd planned to camp the night before, Little Seneca Lake. Approaching the 50 mile mark, our feet started to develop some hot spots and blisters. We duct taped our feet on the bad parts and prepared to catch up on mileage lost the day before.


The junction we took east leads to one of the most popular areas in the Winds, Titcomb Basin, but after walking in that direction, in the face of Fremont Peak, we hung a left. We continued over a series of small passes to Fremont Crossing, a roaring river, and, ¡oh my! the first bridge on our journey. From there, the trail led up into the interior of the range, past the Jean Lakes and Elbow Lake. We encountered a girls group fly-fishing off the shore of Lower Jean Lake. I was envious. When passing over one of the inlets, I spied on some golden trout feeding in the current. No time to fish, not yet. As we sat by the creek eating lunch, the wind picked up and started to carry with it some ominous looking clouds. The next couple hours would be a race to get below treeline and avoid hiking above and exposed during a thunderstorm. If the storm was anything like the storms of the past day, we would not want to be turned into human lightning rods, standing tall in an open valley. I made a comment to Melody that we needed to keep a steadier pace. She responded by hauling ass, and then I was the one needing to get a move on.

The storm never showed. The wind kept blowing, gusts to 50 miles per hour maybe. Not intolerable, just not enjoyable. Our hands were dry and eyes watering. We were lucky to have such scenery, but that noise. Gusts for hours, and not easy to hold a conversation. The lighting shifted by the minute. When clouds moved in, the tones of the granite mountains dulled and the lakes took on a deep blue. Small waves whipped along the water’s surface. The gale pushed the waters and pushed against us as we made our way from one lake basin to the next.


Above Elbow Lake, marmots peeked at us, making their way between rocky bases. The wind continued and now any hopes I had of fishing Elbow Lake were quashed. The Elbow Creek drainage led us down back below treeline where lodgepole and whitebark pines, spruce, and thickets of willows protected the creeksides. Elbow Creek joins forces with Pine Creek at the second bridge of the trip. The creeks dropped swiftly from a steep gradient, and we crossed it again on our way to Summit Lake, a possible home for the night. A porcupine waddled out from some cover and we pursued it for candids. What a creature, yellow butt and funny walk. It would be extinct if not for its spiny defense.

Wind is perhaps a fly angler’s worst enemy. I fished from the shore of Summit Lake for a whole ten minutes before giving up and just enjoying the view. Melody took a short, hard nap. The days were starting to add up for us, but in spite of having camped behind schedule the night before, we decided to push on to a further site. This was our last view above treeline. From here, the trail dropped into Green River Canyon, the headwaters of one of the largest drainages in the Great West. Melody’s pinky toe was giving her some issues, a sharp point of pain which seemed so menial on the surface, but made every other step a stinging journey. We taped up the toe and dropped into the canyon, tall evergreens on all sides of us. The great thing about having such a windy day was that we did not have to deal with any mosquitoes, but being among the timber, the bloodsuckers returned, as did our mosquito nets. We found a previously used campsite out above the trail and creek and posted up for the night. Melody was unintentionally comical setting up the tarp. Every spot in the dirt she went to stake seemed to have a foot of rock below it. All those rocks can make a fatigued person pretty grumpy and I joined her in cussing out the ground trying to down a stake. The weather was so good and warm that we knowingly did a half-assed job of staking the tarp. The mosquito net hung down on our faces and our sleeping pads squeaked with every toss and turn. It’s amazing how well you can sleep when you are truly exhausted.


The last 13 mile stretch of our 70 mile walk was mostly downhill. The day was overcast. A whitetail deer hopped across our path and very quickly up a steep canyonside. When the trees parted, there were views of Gannett Peak. We came across a camp, 3 gents, who we chatted up for a few moments. They were headed up to the interior of the range to follow the mostly trail-less Highline Route (different and more difficult than our path, but following the same north-south trajectory), which traverses some of the highest passes in the region, mostly above treeline, and with a good possibility of complete solitude. I would like to follow this route one day. We crossed 3 more bridges over tiny, tiny creeks (more like unnecessarily placed boards), laughable considering the crossings we made bridge-less-ly earlier in the trip. The switchbacks led us down to the canyon bottom and we had our first view of the Green River. It is no wonder it is named as such- the river is shaded turquoise green with sediment built up by its glacial headwaters down to the Green River Lakes, where most of the sediment settles out. Apparently, the river in this stretch does not support aquatic life, at least not the type of life I can catch on an elk hair caddis pattern. The sediment in the water deems it impossible for much sunlight to get to the river bottom, making it tough to support aquatic insects (trout food). I have not verified this conjecture, but it makes sense to me now, as I could not garner any attention swinging a wooly bugger from the current into some very promising looking holes.

Q: What is the plus side of fishing for fish that aren’t actually there?
A: Being in the middle of an idyllic mountain-forest-river scene while doing so.


I packed up my fly rod and we continued along the river, which picked up so many creeks on its way to the Green River Lakes. If you have ever seen pictures of the lakes on a postcard, they are probably backed by Squaretop Mountain, accurately named. The short hike of 13 miles seemed to take forever. We were entertaining thoughts of hamburgers and kettle chips, showers and soft sheets. We had originally planned to spend the night at the campground near our outgoing trailhead, but to-hell-with-that turned into the new plan, a night in Pinedale at any hotel we could find. Walking alongside the lakes, we came across the ranger in charge of the campground. He’d caught some nice fish on a spin rod and I was looking forward to trying the part of the river below the lakes. He recommended a spot near the bridge crossing over to the campground, but a family was already working the water there. Santiago waited for us all in one piece in the parking lot along with a cordial note from the shuttle service at the Great Outdoor Shop who had added a few gallons of gas for the drive back to Pinedale. Melody and I stripped off our shoes, socks, and liners from our swollen feet and congratulated ourselves on a great trip. Melody finished reading Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in the car and I hobbled down to the stream to try my luck. At this point, the little pains had compiled and the front of my left shin felt like it had a nail driven through it. I paid for every step upstream. I found a nice riffle and casted toward the top of it and off to the side. I watched my dry fly drift by and let my line swing about 30 feet in back of me and hang. The fly plunged under water and I struggled for the next few minutes to land a 20” rainbow trout on my wet fly, a zebra midge, which is a pattern fished below the water representing a mosquito-like insect at the larvae stage. Bingo. This made up for all my previous fishless days. Over the next twenty minutes, I would land three (and miss three times as many) more rainbows on purple haze (which mimicks a mayfly), 18”, 16”, and 14” fish, an acceptable regression. Catching them made me less of the putz I felt like going to the Winds and passing up countless opportunities to catch willing mountain fish. Time to pack it up, get some well-earned real food, and make plans to come back the next day.

Melody and I checked into our hotel in the early evening, had glorious showers, and made our way to the best reviewed Mexican restaurant in town, Los Cabos. Nothing like enchiladas, margaritas, and Dos Equis to heal your bones. I was so tired that I left my credit card there and didn’t realize it until a week later. We brought pints of ice cream and pints of other things back to the hotel, and partook in customary reruns of Seinfeld and Friends.

The next morning, we drove Santiago out back to the Forest Service boundary and walked toward a promising looking run coming around a slight bend in the river. It was raining, a little dark, and I didn’t expect there to be much of a hatch coming off the water, so I chose to swing a streamer across the current and behind me toward a log lying in a mellow stretch of water, a perfect spot for fish to take cover. My streamer of choice, a black wooly bugger, can imitate all sorts of things- a baitfish, leech, or anything else that moves through the water to attract a hungry fish. I worked my way downstream a bit, but only had one serious take the next couple hours, a fish that looked to be 18”. He took the bugger about ten feet in back of me. I hate to lose a fish like that. But let’s rewind, because the real story that day is about Melody who works more magic with a spinning rod than I have ever seen anyone do. She fished upstream from me and aimed her lure- a brook trout spinner, best spinner ever made- toward some mellow water behind a boulder. It took all of two minutes for her to her to hook into a monstrous brown trout at 22”. We netted the fish and Melody, perma-grin in full swing, held the behemoth out in front of her. She lowered Mr. Brown back into the water, returning to the current to get bigger for next year. The next couple hours after catching daddy, she caught mama at 16” and baby at 14”.


I am proud to be out-fished and out-hiked by my lady every time.