I have kept journals of some of my more memorable fishing trips so that, some day, when I’m sitting in my wheelchair at the nursing home needing my diaper changed, I can remember what it was like.
I was on a solo trip to Idaho one September. My brother and I made many 10-day trips out West to Idaho, Montana, and Yellowstone over the years, just camping out of a car. There were no blogs or YouTube videos back then, so we drooled over the pictures and articles in Fly Fisherman magazine while dreaming of the West.
This was when a lot of the rivers we fished were relatively unknown and un-pressured. We had many of the places practically to ourselves. But, that started changing when the movie A River Runs Through It came out, and the sport suddenly became increasingly popular.
My brother couldn’t make it on this trip, so much of this is from excerpts I wrote in a journal for him, as he was forced to endure a mundane existence at work back in Massachusetts, far from the rivers we loved.
I drove two days up by myself from Colorado, where I was living at the time, in my faithful truck I had named “Silver.” The trip was uneventful. The highlight of the drive was when I passed a gray heap of something in the road with a bent leg sticking straight up from it. It looked exactly like Wile E. Coyote after he fell off the cliff chasing the Roadrunner. I guess these things really do happen out West.
The heavy fall smell in the air of changing vegetation and trees was intoxicating as I arrived at Kelly Creek. The river was followed for miles by a road and a trail, providing easy, unlimited access and easy casting. The water was crystal clear with colorful rocks. Gorgeous. All catch and release.
This was my favorite time to be there. This is when most of the crowds had dissipated. (But this may no longer be the case after talking to someone at the Deerfield). The fish were plentiful, always hungry and willing to play. At least 15 to 20 fish a day, ranging from 10″ to 17″ is common.
My first plan was to backpack in four miles for a few days and fish two branches of the river.
That afternoon, when I arrived at the parking lot, I met Lyle Phelps at his Bear Creek Outfitters horse corral. He had just sold his operation (he was 71) to a new guy and “he and his dog were getting all pissed off,” as he put it, because he was supposed to meet this guy two hours ago, and he hadn’t yet showed up.
So, we talked awhile. He had been guiding there for 35 years. I had seen bear and mountain lion tracks on the trail in past years so I thought this would be the perfect guy to ask if there were many bears in the area. I’ll never forget his reply: “Oh, yeah, there’s lots of bear between here and where you’re going but they don’t seem to bother much”.
Great. Just try repeating that comment five million times in your head as you lay in your flimsy nylon tent all alone trying to get to sleep, as you listen to all the sounds outside. Don’t seem to bother you…much. I shouldn’t have asked.
Well, the good thing about being alone is you get all the most delicious looking pools to yourself. The bad part is there is no one whine to about the conditions or rain encountered. And, if a bear attacks, you can’t yell to the bear: “Get the one with more meat on him”. There’s often a good part and a bad part to fishing.
I hiked into the prime campsite and found I had it all to myself. The bears had already eaten everyone else. I got camp set up and planned to fish the better of the two rivers coming together there for the evening when two guys came in to fish for a few hours. The one that looked like he knew what he was doing went up the branch I was about to go up and the one that looked like he didn’t quite know which end of the fly rod to hold went up the other. I decided to follow him later on and did great.
I fished the better branch the next morning and did great again. I think I’ll write an article on “Advanced Strategies for Competitive Fishing” and reveal all my secrets.
The weather at this time of year is usually spectacular with cold chilly nights and stunning blue sky days. Down coat in the morning and t-shirt by afternoon. But, the West sometimes experiences a monsoonal flow of rain coming up from Mexico and the Gulf in the fall and I have been “lucky” enough to be there. But, the rain never seems to affect the river levels: just all gets absorbed into the dry ground.
I was now at one of our favorite rivers in Idaho, the St. Joe, and it had been raining for several days. Because of the rain, the back of my truck where I was camping was getting pretty wet and chilly from condensation, and it now ceased to resemble anything remotely habitable. I couldn’t open windows in the cap or the tailgate to dry anything out.
Something brown just dripped from the roof of my truck cap onto my writing pad. I have begun to rot. When they open up the back of my truck to find me they will only see a putrefying amorphous blob with a fly rod waving out from it. Men will recoil in horror. Women will avert their children’s eyes. As you can see, I had been reading way too many horror stories waiting for the deluge to let up.
I decided I just had to get out and fish, rain or not. So, I put on the rain gear and headed up the trail that follows the river for miles. I arrived at my favorite pool and, lo and behold, the Caddis were hatching, and the trout were steadily rising. It was a magnificent perfect long, deep run chock full of all wild West Slope cutthroat. The only fly I needed that day was a Caddis dry. I just stood in one spot all afternoon, catching one fish after another, the biggest being 16”.
I was enjoying the solitude on this magnificent river. It was pouring rain, and I was in heaven being the only one crazy enough to be out here that day on miles of a wild river. Or, so I thought.
Part way through the afternoon, a guy came walking down the river. He passed directly behind me without saying a word and proceeded to take a position 30 feet downstream and started casting. What? I’m sociable enough but really? Did they just close down the entire rest of this extensive river, and now this was the only pool you were allowed to fish? I decided not to say anything either and just kept fishing. After a short time, he left without catching anything. It was a strange encounter.
By 4:30 pm, the river went dead, so I headed back to the swamp in the back of my truck totally satisfied.
I was now starting to feel some sort of respiratory crud in my chest and a bit feverish, undoubtedly the result of breathing in all the swamp gas in the truck. It was starting to feel like the pneumonia I came down with on one of our past trips. I had to decide whether to tough it out for awhile longer or risk not being able to drive the 1,000 miles home.
So, Silver and I decided to head home to the comfort of my bed and antibiotics. I had caught 60 fish during the nine days I was there, so I was a pretty happy camper.
On another trip to Kelly Creek, my brother and I had long wanted to get way up the river, away from the rest of the crowd and fish a relatively untouched section of the upper river. Both the weather and our bodies were cooperating, so this was the year to attempt it.
We loaded up our packs and headed eight miles up the trail for a couple days of solitude. After a long and tiring hike, we arrived in paradise. Just us, the fish, and wilderness. We were excited to be able to catch willing cutthroat that don’t very often see fake flies.
The next day, as we were on the river leapfrogging past each other through the pools, we looked up and saw a pack train of about 30 horses carrying people and gear in and stopping at some campsite just out of view. We couldn’t believe it. We had just spent a considerable amount of time and energy to get as far away from civilization as we could, and it seemed to simply follow us in the easy way.
A little while later, we ran into another fisherman coming down the river. We asked him about the group and if we were about to get inundated with a horde of everyone fishing here. He laughed and said, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. This is the governor’s retirement party. I’m the only fly fisherman in the group. Everyone else will be drunk and asleep in camp by the next morning.”
But, it wasn’t going to be all paradise. At one point, I was standing on a large sloping rock outcropping casting down into a pool when, all of a sudden, my wet boots slid out from under me, and I landed straight down on my tailbone. Ow! Bones vs rock: the rock usually wins.
I didn’t think I broke anything but that sure did hurt. We had to hike out the eight miles the next day, and that was a painful walk. But, I had to do it as no one was going to come and carry me out. That was soon to be the end of wearing felt-soled boots.
On still another trip to the same river, I had come down with a bit of a cold before I left, but it wasn’t anything to stop me. We were enjoying the usual success catching lots of trout. The remnants of the cold were now turning into a bit of a cough, but nothing to stop me. After a few days, I was starting to feel weaker and a little feverish. But, that still didn’t stop me.
I managed to fish during the day but ended up stumbling back to the tent later and collapsing into my sleeping bag. I felt bad for my brother, who had to listen to me coughing all night. At least, I muffled the sound of the bears probably roaming around outside our tent.
I figured I would get over it and kept fishing, something only a fanatical and fevered mind would do. It wasn’t getting better. I decided it was now time to seek medical attention, so he had to drive me the roughly 50 mile round trip through the wilderness to the nearest town and doctor. I felt bad for the doctor and nurse, too, as I hadn’t showered in awhile.
The doctor basically said he had good news and bad news. The good news was I didn’t have a cold. The bad news was I had walking pneumonia. I had experienced the other type before and felt like I was on my death bed. But, the thing about this type is just how it sounds. You can walk, get around and halfway function, but it wipes you out by the end of the day.
So, I loaded up on antibiotics and cough syrup. After laying on the sidewalk for two hours having drunk too much cough syrup, I dragged myself up, and we headed back to camp. I don’t remember much of the ride back. I wonder why.
I am glad for antibiotics as I was able to continue our trip. Pneumonia tried to stop me but couldn’t close the deal. As usual, we caught lots of cutthroat.