Have you ever noticed how some of the best times out
begin with a weekday drive up the mountain? Feeling
better than you did playing hooky as a kid, it means
a nice, relaxed drive you can actually enjoy. Light
traffic. You can contemplate the scenery in peace.
And there is the expectation of the road ending at a
gate that's been locked for the season and a good mile
or so from the nearest trailhead. Beyond that, well. . .
There's always an ulterior motive for things of this
nature, isn't there?
My sneaking hunch is that most fishing destinations begin
their existence as a scheme hatched in the quiet backwaters
of our minds. You know how it works: For no specific
reason you find yourself with the niggling itch of an
idea, one that comes on slow and sweet like the whisper
of a hidden Shangri-La where untouched trout are holed-up
in some mysto mountain stream.
Day and night it grows on you, eventually forming a vision
of the perfect spot -- an idyllic stretch of water where
the Big Ones quietly fin their time away. Perfection
in the land of the wild things.
Of course, we've all got an opinion as to just what perfection
is. The itch that gets me, for example, leans toward
scenery-heavy locations offering solitude and fish that
rarely see the likes of me or any other fisherman. This
may or may not include one of my fishing buddies, and
the fish may or may not take a fly as readily as I'd
prefer. That's a given, and part of the challenge.
But it definitely does not include strangers walking
up to me uninvited when I'm working a fish and chucking
out two-and-a-half pounds of lead tied off below a treble
hogged-up with corn, marshmallows, or some other
fluorescent-colored, dough-ball substance.
A while back -- after a particularly aggravating session
at a small reservoir lake where everyone, and I mean
everyone, was hauling them in except me -- I got the
itch real bad. I'd even begun to seriously consider
the argument for the sub-fifteen dollar rod-reel combination,
at the same time wondering why I wasn't man enough to hook
up with a corn kernel from a pile someone had left on
the ground. (All in the pursuit of scientific enlightenment,
you understand.) Instead, I called it a day and dragged my
butt back to the car. A rough day when you can't interest
a tank fish. Tougher still when you admit it to others.
Then it hit me: I'd seek out and fish places that were
too remote, too inaccessible for the
twelve-pack-and-a-lawn-chair crowd to get into, or to get
back out of should they manage to stumble their way in.
Not only would it be the perfect spot, it would be the
perfect, secret spot.
Of course, logic just had to soberly point this out as an
indulgent fantasy -- that if I could find my way into such
a place, it would stand to reason that others would be able
to, and most likely already have. But imagination -- where
the idea for the perfect spot came from in the first
place -- rapidly countered with excuses, each better than
the last and all designed to prolong my stay in the land
of the wild things.
Sadly, logic began to win out. Not because I was in agreement,
but because regardless of how good it sounds, most activities
that a guy actually intends to participate in have to take
Imagine, now, that you live in the arid Southwest where water
is less than abundant -- a place where the existing resource
is finite and in high demand.
Depending on where you stand along the political fence (think
barbed wire here), the battle for water rights in these parts
can be divided into two highly polarized camps.
Camp one seems to view water as nothing more than a raw
commodity -- liquid real-estate open for rampant deal-making
and development. A thing you can dip into, suck short-term
profits from, then cut and run before the ecological fallout
catches up with you. Never mind that this mentality is
guaranteed to turn first-order waters into third-rate
irrigation ditches at best.
On the other side of the fence we find camp two. Camp
two -- fervent in the belief that our waters possess a
near-mystical quality -- views water as a spiritual treasure,
healer of the psyche, giver of life, and just about the only
holy thing keeping us from rampant, dust bowl anarchy.
No way, no how is it something that we should allow to
be mucked-up by carpet-bagging, greedy sons-of-bitches.
A profoundly soulful sentiment, and one to consider deeply.
Pick a spot just about anywhere between these two camps,
and you'll find plenty of others jockeying for the same
piece of pie.
This can make for some crowded water.
If you're a fisherman whose proclivities are aligned somewhere
to the East of camp two but faring to the West side of middle,
it's enough to irritate you more than putting your foot into
a shoe full of scorpions.
And so it goes. . . As for the idea of the perfect spot,
logic continued to rant on with a big negatory, finally
stinging me with the equivalent of a bent alder branch
in the face. Dreaming was fine, but what about making
good on reality?
Well. . . What about reality? I felt an uncomfortable
twinge of panic, and had to admit that a guy just might
want to scale things down a bit. After all, it would be
nice if the perfect, secret spot were accessible from home
so that you could actually go and fish the place from
time to time.
Fortunately, even in this land of scant rainfall and tortuous
summer heat, you can still find places where relatively
untouched waters flow. Quiet, secretive places where the
water is nothing more than what it is. Places you must
either discover on your own or have the location entrusted
to you, usually by a close friend who will make you swear
in blood never to divulge the secret to another. Like the
promise of an X on a treasure map, these places can grip
the imagination with little more than a vague comment
overheard, or chance reference found in an old journal.
But they only become reality when you explore the
convictions of your belief and put forth the effort
to discover them.
To be honest, I'd seen places of the like before. They'd
been interesting enough in passing to make me wonder about
their potential, but it seemed like each time I came across
them I'd been locked into other plans or trying to make time
between one destination and another. I had no idea if they
harbored fish or not -- but it had come time to find out.
So I began doing the legwork. I learned to keep my mouth
closed and to listen carefully, picking up scraps of
information from a good many unlikely sources, and some
likely ones that might not otherwise have been so cooperative.
I took an interest in topography and read between the lines
in the forest service literature. Weekend hikes became
scouting missions where I walked a lot of stream beds
(some that were dry and others that might as well have
been). In general, I started paying my dues.
Eventually, I discovered a quiet little place that can,
at times, come close to perfection. The kind of place
you fish just often enough -- not so much so as to spoil
the purity of the experience, but enough to remember why
you went looking for it in the first place. And though
it may not be a secret to everyone, it's easy enough to
convince yourself that it is.
The last time I was up there was late fall. Too early for
snow, but far enough along in the season that the air was
crisp, and cold enough for a light haze of frost on the
ground. And a sweet drive up. Light traffic. Beautiful
scenery. A gate at the end of the road locked for the
season. . .
There was another car parked near the gate, and while I
busied myself with tucking the pack rod, reel, and flies
into a knapsack, I wondered about its owners. Hikers,
most likely -- at least I was hoping so.
Trying to look more like another hiker than a fisherman,
I shouldered my pack, moved around the gate, and began
following the road toward the trailhead.
With blue sky overhead -- blue in that dense, hyperreal
way it often is over the desert -- and gravel crunching
underfoot, I began to notice a casual ratcheting down
of the low-grade urgency that seems to accompany too
many things in life.
I don't recall this happening very often at the local
park-n-cast. The morning light hung translucent in the
pine needles, causing them to glisten as if from some
internal radiance. Things felt right with the world.
And, I was going fishing.
From the main trailhead you can sight a good ways down
the length of the canyon; winding along a fold in the
mountain range, it will ultimately open up five or six
thousand feet below into the desert bajada. Within its
granite-walled confines, the canyon supports a healthy
population of hoary old pines, some of them sprouting
from clefts in the canyon walls. Various willow, alder,
and other deciduous trees follow the waterline and
provide a good balance to the forest coverage. Hidden
at the bottom of this is the stream. From here it is
nothing more than a teasing sparkle that winks at you
from an open space before disappearing beneath the
greenery. But it's enough to lead you on.
From the main trail, a lesser-used fork pitches downward
on a rambling course toward the canyon bottom. By rambling,
I mean that the trail deteriorates into a scraggly run,
barely recognizable as a path weaving you over treefalls,
around clustered boulders, and into thorny brush housing
an unknown congregation of spiders, snakes, and other
A tassle-eared Albert's squirrel and some unseen birds
cackled at my progress down to where the stream slips
along the canyon floor while, above, the wind soughed
over a ridge, carrying with it the smell of Ponderosa
pine and frosty earth.
A beautiful place, but savage in its finality. I'd been
told by forest rangers that to get hurt down here would
be, at best, unpleasant. Doubtful, said they, that anyone
would happen along to carry me out. And, since I'd gone
off without leaving any message as to my whereabouts, no
one was bound to come looking for me. Not necessarily
the smartest thing to do. But I was here and no reason
to cry about it.
Now there are those who would question the very notion of
being down here in any capacity, let alone by one's lonesome.
Without a cell phone. Without a global positioning system.
Without the miracle of technology. What, they might ask,
would I do if I took a fall and broke a leg or cracked
Good question. I imagine I'd work my way through it. At least
I was aware of the rules down here.
There's a distinct sense of place in all this wildness,
and you come to accept the implied danger that goes along
with it. Here, there is no question as to the consequence
of a misstep. Here, you know precisely where you are on
the earth -- in a place where actuality takes on the
dreamwalk presence of the spiritual. A place untouched
by the notion of bottom line numbers, site hits, or any
of the other ways used to measure success. And there
is also the sense of exhilaration that comes with being
alone out in the Great Big -- a buzz of contentment that
makes life all the more vivid and precious. In fact,
one of the reasons for being out here is to get away
from the marvels of the electronic grid and return to
something more resembling the basic human self.
Nearing the stream, I mentally shifted gears with the
sound of flowing water. I began to wonder if I'd be
fortunate enough to make a connection with some of
the wily trout living in these waters.
The fishable water in this stream spans an elevation
of about a thousand vertical feet or so. Within that
reach, the fish, bronze to olive colored browns that
were introduced long enough ago to have forgotten
their hatchery past, tend to hold in the deeper pools
or lurk beneath the cover of rock shelves and accumulated
The water has a light tea coloration, and is almost
golden when the sun strikes it just so. When it's
running low, which is a good portion of the time,
you can jump across the stream in most places.
However, just one look at the debris caught in some
of the tree branches makes it more than obvious that
this can be a raging torrent in wet times. Not a
good place to be caught in a thunderstorm.
There's something hypnotic in the sound of the water
reverberating against the canyon walls here. More
than once I found myself catching my breath to listen
for what I thought were voices. As the stream glides
along the canyon bottom, it spills over polished
outcroppings of granite, quartz, and feldspar and
falls into unexpected pools where the fish hold,
seeming to conjure an ancient, peripheral sense of
deja-vu, like some ancient gene memory risen to
With a gathering sense of place, I found myself
comparing this experience against the drive-up
mentality of easy-access days spent hammering the
water and keeping score as if fish catches were
body counts to be tallied and filed away on some
I found myself wanting to share this moment with others.
But there is a certain fragility in such places that
forced me to reconsider. Thoughts of paying one's dues.
Of becoming aware of one's presence in the world. Of
showing respect. And of the need to discover something
infinitely greater than myself on my own.
As I meandered on down toward the fishable water, I was
visualizing my first cast. Then I saw it -- a ragged,
derelict t-shirt on the ground. The spoor-sign of
encroaching civilization and trash culture. Logic
whispered "I told you so," but I shut it out and continued
on. I'd pick up the filthy thing on the way out.
Deeper in the canyon, the air, through some trick of
light and shadow, seemed to carry the presence of an
individual entity. Initially, I tend to get unnerved
by this kind of solitude. But it's just a momentary
thing having to do with a quiet fear that comes on when
leaving the beaten path -- the fear of being tracked or
followed, of being alone out in the Great Big. An anxiety
brought on not by the prospect of confronting a mountain
lion or bear, but rather with the possibility of
encountering some random individual having less than
human motivation. But this passed quickly, shed in
silence like the outer jacket that is no longer necessary.
I neared a pool that had always been productive. But,
wary as these fish are, they'd probably already felt the
vibration of my footsteps through the stream bed. I
unshouldered the knapsack and took out my gear, knowing
that if another person came along I would ditch my equipment
behind some rock or fallen log so as to veil my purpose
and the existence of the trout.
Assembling my gear, I thought about how these fish spend
most of their time hiding under boulders and logjams.
I've seen a trout spook from the edge of a pool no bigger
than my bathtub and then disappear under I don't know what.
I'd also seen them freeze in place, with not even a gill
plate moving, pretending to be sticks on the bottom.
For each holding area of water I'd get one, maybe two casts
before I spooked the pool. If this didn't draw a fish out
from beneath a rocky ledge or twisted logjam then I may as
well tip my hat to their canniness and move on. I'd
consider myself lucky just to entice a fish into looking
at a fly, let alone convincing one to rise to it.
Creeping up to the pool, I could not help but think that
here these fish are, living close to the bone in this magic
place. Living good when the water is high and hunkering
down in the mean season of summer drought.
I wondered how they survived the lean summer months when
the lifeblood water thinned to a trickle and the shrinking
pools grew progressively warmer. Were there underground
streams and channels they migrated to? Or did they survive
by some other mystery? Were the secretive shapes that
occasionally darted from view the only residents here?
Or were their numbers greater than I imagined, hidden
somewhere within narrow caverns beneath the stream bed?
As these impressions flowed through my mind and hovered
at the edge of consciousness, I casted to a pocket of
water tucked behind a small waterfall. That's when
I felt what I'd been seeking, that magic instant of
connection where you have become more of a place than
you are a physical being within it. The fly was
alighting right where it wanted to be. And, with
a clarity born of standing ankle deep in the holiest
of waters, I was at that place where one reality may
perchance meet another and break through the meniscus
tension of separation like a wild trout flaring out
of the water, however slightly, to touch a surface fly.
~ Daniel Fryda