December 10th, 2001

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In a Place of Secret Waters

By Daniel Fryda, Tuscon, AZ

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 place somewhere.

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.

Nowhere wilderness

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 sign says it all

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.

On the way 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.

Still walking

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 beasties.

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.

Rugged country 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 my skull?

Good question. I imagine I'd work my way through it. At least I was aware of the rules down here.

Yes, that's ICE!

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 deadfall.

Ice formations

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 the surface.

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 ledger.

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.

Open water 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?

Magic trout

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

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