Who needs a reason to fish?
By John Gierach
We owe the tradition of the American road trip to Henry Ford and his affordable, mass-produced automobiles. That would include both the idyllic childhood adventures at the lake as well as the nightmares of boredom trapped in the family station wagon with grumpy parents, your creepy sister and a carsick dog.
But if you’re of a certain post World War Two vintage, it was probably Jack Kerouac’s 1955 novel On the Road that put the counter-culture romance into the long, aimless drive. Like the one that found me in a borrowed Chevy Impala driving through Georgia sometime in the 1960s with three other long-haired Yankee college students. I don’t remember where we were going—if anywhere in particular—but I do remember being pulled over by a couple of large policemen in an otherwise pleasant little one stop-sign town. We’d been rousted before on this trip, but this time when the driver asked, “What’s the trouble, officer?” one of the cops grinned and said, “No trouble; we just wanted to see if you boys was hippies or werewolves.”
And of course there was fly-fishing, with its built-in belief that the fish were bigger somewhere else and, furthermore, that the farther you traveled the bigger they’d get. How else do you explain someone who settles in Colorado because, among other things, the trout fishing is pretty good, only to end up driving around Idaho, Montana and Yellowstone Park to fish rivers that had been written about in books?
I usually went with my friend A. K. in his 352 cubic inch V-8 Ford pickup with four-on-the-floor and saddle tanks to increase its range. (This was still the era of guilt-free driving with big engines, low mileage and cheap gas.) We traveled together often in those days and we were an efficient mobile unit with minimal pit stops, no dawdling and no bickering over finances. Before leaving home we’d put something like a hundred dollars each in a kitty for shared expenses like campground fees, groceries and gas. If the kitty ran dry, we’d pony up more money. If there was any leftover we’d find a bar, drink it up and leave a nice tip. We were both transplants to the West, native Midwesterners with the Midwesterner’s modest expectations, but we had faith that life, in its fullness, would always provide a few more fish and little more money—not in lavish amounts, but enough to keep us going.
We fished the famous rivers we’d read about—plus some not so famous—and met plenty of other star-struck pilgrims with out of state plates. A few of the trout we caught were slightly larger than those back home, but most weren’t. When I mentioned that to Bud Lilly one day on the Lamar River, he said, “Yeah, it’s funny. Once the ‘experts’ started writing about this country, the average fish size increased by a couple of pounds.”
It’s true that the soul of a trip doesn’t depend entirely on its destination, but most of us still need an excuse to get us out the door, like steelhead, for instance. If you live on the east slope of the northern Colorado Rockies and get a hankering for these sea-run fish, you’re faced with—by my calculation—no less than a 15-hour drive west and more if you want to get into the good stuff. But of course with anadromous fish the good stuff depends on timing, and when you’re coming from elsewhere, timing is a crapshoot.
One year a friend and I drove out to fish a River in Oregon: 23 hours on the road, the last few of it in the rain. We pulled in the morning after we’d left, checked in at a friend’s fly shop for the current report—which wasn’t promising—and hit the river.
Long story short, we fished in a downpour for three days. At first we thought nothing of it. We had the right foul weather gear and if you don’t like fishing in the rain you shouldn’t go to the Pacific Northwest in November. We were even cautiously hopeful. After all, steelhead like gloomy weather and sometimes a push of water will bring fish in.
But it kept raining, hard, and the river continued to rise and darken. We’d long since gone to big, cone-headed flies fished on heavy sinking lines in hopes of reaching down to whatever fish there might have been, but eventually the visibility could be measured in fractions of an inch and it began to look hopeless. I finally lost heart on day three when I had to reel in to let an entire cottonwood tree float through the run I was trying to fish. A quick check of the computer at the fly shop revealed that every river in the state was in similar shape and the storm was predicted to get worse, so we turned tail and ran for home.
The storm followed us through parts of five western states. Mostly it was rain, but we hit snow on Deadman Pass above Pendleton, Oregon and again in Utah, just west of the Wyoming line, where it socked in for the duration and slowed us to a crawl. We finally dragged into our hometown in Colorado to radio reports of hazardous driving conditions, school closures, power outages and cancelled flights at the airport in Denver.
Later, when friends asked how the trip went, we said, “Well, you know, it was steelheading.”
The closest to home—and the farthest from salt water—that I ever caught a steelhead was on the Salmon River in Idaho. We were camping and fishing not far upstream from the River of No Return Wilderness; one of the best place names in the West. There were six fishermen, three trucks, three drift boats and two dogs and the fishing was slow. Were we too early in the season or too late? Was the run of fish just thin that year or were steelhead already becoming a scarce commodity? It depended on who you asked.
Anyway, by the second to the last day three of us had landed steelhead and the other three were fishless, but then in midmorning my partner Vince and I beached the boat to swing a good looking run. We both came up blank and while I was changing out my fly for another pass Vince walked upstream around a bend to look at the water up there. Shortly thereafter he came trotting downstream with his 14-foot Spey rod bent double on a fish that, once I got it in the net, measured out at a yard long.
Then he led me back and showed me the spot. It was a small eddy that didn’t look the least bit fishy except for the rolling backs and dorsal fins of several steelhead. I hooked up on my third or fourth cast and landed the fish around the bend. It was 30 inches to Vince’s 36, but it was a lovely, colored-up hen some 900 river miles from the ocean.
That night we learned that one guy, Zak, still hadn’t touched a steelhead. We’d been purposely vague about our spot, planning to go back the next day, but Vince gave me a look that seemed to say, “We both know what it’s like to be that guy,” so the next morning we asked Zak to follow us downriver, pointed out the spot and left him to it. That night in camp he showed us a digital photo of his steelhead. I was happy for him, but it also occurred to me that I might have caught that fish if I hadn’t surprised myself with an act of generosity. A moment of self-discovery! How about that?
We broke camp after breakfast the next morning and planned to drive the whole way home in a single push. But, as often happens now that we’re both on the far side of middle age, we ran out of steam by 9 that night and ended up getting a room at Little America, the motel complex on Interstate 80 that’s such a Wyoming landmark it has its own zip code.
After my first shower in over a week and a change into clean clothes, I stepped out back for a smoke and found an incongruous couple of acres of mown lawn plopped in the middle of thousands of acres of sage. In the dim light of the motel I could make out seven or eight pale shapes roughly the size of soccer balls that turned out to be fat jackrabbits gorging on this lush grass. Some were so lazy they were lying down to eat; others were upright, but so obese they could barely hop. I thought they’d make a good meal for a coyote with the added advantage of being slow and easy to catch. For some reason this little drove of fat hares reminded me of that pod of steelhead on the Salmon, although to this day I can’t say exactly how.
I live in one of the northernmost counties in Colorado with Wyoming right over the state line, so my friends and I have spent a fair amount of time up there over the years, even though we don’t always get the warmest reception. (There’s one of those interstate feuds between us that’s gone on so long no one remembers how it started.) Folks in Wyoming call Coloradans “Greenies,” a reference to the color of our license plates as well as the money we spend on motel rooms, gas, food and nonresident fishing licenses. They assume we’re all well-off, over-educated and effete and tell jokes that begin with, “How many Coloradoans does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
I get it. I live a few miles from Rocky Mountain National Park, and although our local economy depends in part on tourism, we’re not that thrilled to see the actual tourists. Few of them are as clueless as we make out, but we still can’t help lumping them together into a kind of lucrative seasonal infestation.
We used to float the North Platte River in Wyoming every spring and fall when the fishing could be good; at first up near Saratoga, later on the stretch below Pathfinder Reservoir. One of the features of this river is an infernal upstream wind that picks up in mid-afternoon and howls until dark. It can be strong enough to blow a drift boat upstream against the current, so the last part of your day is often spent rowing hard downstream in order to make any headway at all against the gale. With this in mind, some locals have outboards on their boats and sometimes one of these rigs would pass us as we struggled to row into the wind. They’d glance our way and shake their heads at each other, thinking, “Those idiots must be from Colorado.”
I fished for Snake River cutthroats a few times on the north fork of the Tongue River in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. In the stretch I liked the river meandered through a long, flat bench of land choked with willows and there were good unofficial campsites on a nearby logging road. As well as being lousy with moose, this stretch was also open range for cattle that, by late summer when the fishing was best, had been left alone long enough to essentially become wild animals in spite of the brands on their hips.
One afternoon during a good hatch I was chased from a pool by a cow moose with a calf. I left willingly, but she shadowed me all the way back to my pickup, making little false charges whenever she spotted me through a break in the willows. I think she wanted to make sure I wasn’t just pretending to leave.
So I drove a quarter mile upstream, got back in the river and was immediately chased by a crazy-looking little range cow that thought I was after her calf. She snorted, pawed the ground and shook her stubby horns as if we were in a bull ring and I was a matador waving a red cape. That night in camp I bragged that I’d not only caught a bunch of trout that day, but had cheated death twice.
And it was also in Wyoming—on a different trip—that I checked into a cheap motel, asked if there were coffee makers in the rooms and the desk clerk said, “Well, there’s supposed to be, but sometimes the junkies steal ‘em.”
Now and then on long trips I’ll wonder why I’m driving so far and buying a nonresident license when tourists come every year to fish in my backyard. Maybe it’s just restlessness, or maybe you get a wild hair to do something specific, like catch Yellowstone cutthroats in their namesake river and there’s only one place on earth where you can do that. It doesn’t really matter, but even if the actuality of it amounts to drudgery, at least the idea of a road trip has a restless, literary flavor to it that’s irresistible.
That’s probably why travel writing is such a tempting genre. Life at home seems to trudge along: you make money, spend it and make more. As soon as you fix one thing, something else breaks. Meanwhile seasons change, birthdays come and go and twice a year you reset all the clocks. But a trip has a satisfying beginning, middle and end and there’s a hyper awareness that kicks in, while at home you can spend hours if not days at a time on auto pilot. You have to find your way in unfamiliar territory and end up at a predetermined destination while keeping an eye out for suicidal drivers and avoiding collisions with wildlife. And in the West, with its vast stretches of vacant country, you have to gauge the availability of gas stations and learn to fill up at half a tank, just in case.
And you have to find a place to stay. Sometimes it’s a roadside camp, but usually it’s a rented room where you live out of your duffle because you won’t be there long enough to put things away. The next morning you wake up in a strange bed, wondering for a second where you are. Then you rustle up your morning coffee, provided the junkies haven’t made off with your pot. Maybe you’ll be fishing nearby or maybe you have another long drive ahead. Either way, you’re secure in the knowledge that today won’t be the same as yesterday.
Being on the road is a challenge if only because problems arise that you could never have foreseen. For years I had an outdoor sports column at a daily newspaper and sometimes I’d write my stories on the road. This was in the days before computers, cell phones and the Internet, so I’d bring along an old Remington typewriter, a ream of paper and some manila envelopes so I could type my column on a picnic table or tailgate, find a post office and mail it in time to meet my deadline.
But then on one long trip the fine dust of unpaved roads finally sifted into my typewriter, clogging it beyond repair. It wasn’t easy finding a typewriter to borrow, but I eventually located one that had belonged to someone’s grandmother. It was an ancient, hulking machine with an ornate script typeface and a red ribbon so old and faded that it printed pink.
The four pages I typed looked embarrassingly garish, but I thought, Words are words, right? and mailed it in. By the time I got home and went into the newsroom, the rumor had already made the rounds that I’d filed a story from a whorehouse in Idaho.
Once I went to Calgary, Alberta to do a book signing and then go fishing with my guide friend Dave. We floated the nearby Bow River, but got tired of dredging nymphs and Dave asked if I wanted to drive over to the Kootenay River drainage in British Columbia and see about getting some west slope cutthroats on dry flies. He’d never actually been there, but he’d heard tantalizing reports and wanted to check it out.
On the way we made a short detour to take a look at the Crowsnest River and as we drove over a low bridge a two-inch-long Pteronarcys stonefly landed on the windshield. By the time Dave got the truck stopped there were two more and we sat there speechless until a dozen or more of these big flies were crawling on the windshield and hood. Then, still without a word, we parked and strung up our rods. All I had was an old Sofa Pillow left over from Montana and Dave had a couple of size 4 Stimulators, but they both worked and we caught rainbows until the hatch petered out.
That night we got a room in the nearest town, spent the evening tying more stoneflies and hit the hatch again the next day, catching fish at a steady clip until there were no more bugs on the water. Then we drove on over Crowsnest Pass into British Columbia where we developed car trouble. I don’t remember what it was now—maybe the fuel pump or alternator—but we coasted down the pass, limped into a gas station somewhere near Sparwood and talked to the mechanic on duty. He listened to our amateur diagnosis while wiping his hands on a shop rag and then glanced at our trailered drift boat.
“Goin’ fishin’”? he asked.
“Well then,” he said, “I’ll fix it now.”
We did eventually get where we were going and did catch cutthroats on dry flies—big ones and lots of them. The fishing was so good, in fact, that I ended up going back every few seasons for the next 20 years and Dave eventually moved there. But that’s a whole other story.
John Geirach’s new book, Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers is available on bookshelves now.