No River For Old Men

No river

This story was first published in the August 2009 issue of Wyoming Wildlife magazine. It was awarded the  Best Magazine Humor award  in the 2010 Magazine Humor contest of the Outdoor Writers Association of America Excellence In Craft Contests. 

My buddy Ned was ecstatic. “Can you believe it? There’s nobody here but us!”

Ned had parked my truck at a campground. I had let him drive because the grandkids had taken my car keys away. They said I was just an accident waiting to happen. We had walked about a half mile downstream to a popular “honey hole”. It was usually crowded but today we seemed to have it all to ourselves.

Ned tweezered a #18 elk hair caddis out of his fly box and handed it to me.

“Can you tie this on for me?”, he asked, “ I can hardly see it.”

“Sorry”, I said. “I forgot my bifocals”. I thought I was wearing them but obviously I was not. I started wondering what I had done with them but couldn’t remember.

“Then how are we going to fish if neither of us can see how to tie on a fly?”

“We’ll just have to use bigger flies”, I explained. “Like maybe #8 hoppers. But it’s a mootpoint because we can’t fish here anyway”.Ned stared at me, stunned. “What do you mean, we can’t fish here?”

“Look, Ned….” I sat down on a log. My back was already starting to ach from the hike in.

“Like you said, Ned, there’s nobody here but us. We’re both seventy years old. What if we fall down and can’t get back up out of the water? What if we slip on a slick, moss-covered rock and go tumbling downstream? There’s nobody here to help us.”

Ned is dumb enough to hang around with me but he’s not totally brain dead yet.

“I never thought of it that way”, he said, rubbing the gray stubble on his chin. “I gotta admit you may have a point”.

“The only reason I agreed to walk all the way in here was because I thought there would be other people fishing here”, I told him. I could see by the look on his face that I was going to have to explain my theory in detail to him. “At our age we can’t just wade into the water and start flinging flies around like we did when we were twenty-five or thirty. Or even forty or fifty. First we need to find what I call a geezer-friendly venue.”

Ned leaned against a tree and stared longingly at the river where a few trout were sipping emergers in the surface film while I continued to expound on my theory.

“What if there’s a mixture of young guys and old guys?” asked Ned.

“That probably means it’s okay. But we should study the water carefully before we wade in. The old guys we see fishing may just be too dumb to realize they’re in danger. Age is no guarantee of wisdom.”

“But if we do decide to give it a try, we should fish upstream from the young guys so they can fish us out if we lose our balance and go floating downstream”, said Ned, warming to my theory.

“You catch on quick”, I said.

“What?” said Ned.

“I SAID “YOU CATCH ON QUICK”, I yelled. “Sit down here on the log beside me so you can hear what I’m saying…. Now where was I?

“You were explaining your theory to me”, said Ned. “Something about fishing where there are young guys around.”

“Oh yeah”, it was starting to come back to me now. “But having young guys around is no guarantee, because if the fishing is really hot – say there’s a terrific hatch on – the young guys may just keep fishing as we go floating by, gurgling and screaming. In fact they may get mad at us for putting the fish down, like we used to do when old guys went floating past us.”

I pulled my collapsible wading staff – which I now called my “ geezer stick” – from its holster on my belt and leaned against it to help me stand up. We started walking back toward the truck, then remembered the truck was in the opposite direction, so we turned around and walked the other way while I filled Ned in on some of the finer points of my theory.

“Those little pockets in your vest… don’t fill them all up with flies, tippet material, leaders, and other fishing stuff. Save some for pills, salves, suppositories, and any other meds that might come in handy on the stream.”

Ned nodded  in agreement.

“And one other thing”, I added. “When you’re just smoking everybody else on the river and some young whipper-snapper asks you what you’re using, just say “Fifty years of experience, Sonny.”

When we got back to the truck I found my bifocals in the glove box, right where I had put them. I pulled out my river map and we started looking for a place on the river that would be suitably crowded for guys our age. In other words, a geezer-friendly venue. We’d head out right after our nap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How we found Lost Lake

Lost Lake

This story was published in Wyoming Wildlife magazine in March 2006.

It was 1970 and I was driving my new Bronco home from the dealership. My first four wheel drive! No longer would I be confined to the road, forced to fish where others fished. Now I could go ANYWHERE! Bear in mind this was before the SUV craze. Now, in the twenty-first century, it seems everyone has 4WD. But in 1970 if you wanted to fish any distance from a road you usually had to [gasp!] walk.

Our annual family vacation out west would be coming up soon. We always stayed for ten days at a “guest ranch” located on a state highway. Until now my father-in-law and I had done most of our fishing close to a black top road. In fact the highway paralleled the river for several miles. The roadside was public access but we had permission to fish the private water on the other side. But those little blue spots on the topo maps, high mountain lakes up where the elevation lines were close together, had always beckoned seductively to us. Small streams with names like Little Alder Creek, Lime Spring Branch, Dead Man Run … names that fairly screamed I AM FULL OF TROUT… all these places and more would now be accessible to us.

I began to subscribe to off-road magazines with cover photos of Jeeps, Broncos, and Land Cruisers high in the air, bouncing at high speeds off huge boulders. I could never get enough of those photos of off-road trucks with huge, aggressive tires, roll bars, and jerry cans of extra gasoline strapped to the rear.

I sent away to state game and fish departments for maps, brochures about National Forests, anything I could find that would enlarge our list of remote fishing spots. Doc and I studied them for hours, looking for exotic, hard-to-reach lakes and streams that would be ideal for day trips. We needed places where we could leave early in the morning, arrive at the chosen lake or stream, fish for several hours, then return in time for dinner. This was after all a family vacation. No sense unnecessarily antagonizing the women folk, who would be left all day to care for the children.

One of the many things I loved about my father-in-law was that he had somehow hung onto that boyish quality that most sixty-five year olds have long sense lost. I marveled at how a man thirty years my senior could get as excited as a small boy.

After much discussion we chose a small body of water with the enticing name of Lost Lake. The name reverberated through our fish brains like a number ten Royal Coachman being snapped off on a bad back cast. Lost Lake appeared to nestle snugly in a small meadow between two ten thousand foot peaks. The lake apparently covered about twenty acres and was just remote enough to make it interesting. Actually it wasn’t “off road” in the strictest sense. According to the legend on the Forest Service map we would leave the highway a few miles from our guest ranch and travel steeply up-hill about fifteen miles on a winding solid black line which indicated a gravel road. The solid black line would then become a dotted line indicating a Jeep trail. In other words there would be no one there who DIDN’T HAVE FOUR WHEEL DRIVE! Or maybe a horse.

Giddy with anticipation, we got up early the next morning, packed our tackle and lunch and headed for the high country. On the way we discussed our plan of attack. The trout in Lost Lake, probably native cutthroats or brookies, would be very shy, having never seen a human before. We would have to stop and rig up quite a ways from the water, then crawl on our bellies through the grass and, without getting too close, lob our flys onto the water, then wait for the unsuspecting trout to fight each other to see who could reach the tasty morsel first. We should also keep our eyes peeled for bears and the occasional mountain lion.

Our excitement grew as the road turned to gravel. We rolled the windows down so we could smell the cool mountain air. As we approached the fifteen-mile mark I checked to see if I knew how to engage 4WD as I had never actually done it before. Doc began to think aloud about which fly we should try first, a hopper pattern or a Rio Grand King.

Fifteen miles of gravel road came and went… and we were still on gravel. “So what?” I thought. The fifteen-mile distance was only an approximation. We’d be hitting that Jeep trail any minute. Probably just around the next hairpin curve.

I glanced at the odometer. “We’ve been on gravel for twenty-five miles now”, I said. Doc puzzled over the map in silence as we rounded one more curve and ascended higher and higher into the mountains, the smooth gravel road lined on both sides by tall pines and aspens. Something didn’t seem right.

The exact moment when you learn your plans have gone awry is not always apparent. Sometimes it creeps up on you. But not this time. A little girl, no more than ten years old, came roaring around the next curve toward us on a tiny motor scooter, her blond ponytail flying out behind her. She waved as she sped downhill past us and we rounded the curve and saw, for the first time, Lost Lake.

“Check the map again”, said Doc. “Maybe this isn’t it”.

I stopped the Bronco and grabbed the map off the console and stared at it.

“It’s gotta be”, I said. “But what happened to the Jeep trail? We could have driven up here in your Buick!”

A wooden Forest Service sign near the shore confirmed the bad news. This was, unfortunately, Lost Lake.

The lake was indeed nestled between two high peaks. And the scenery was beautiful. But the near side was lined with motor homes and camper trailers, some apparently pulled by low-slung family sedans. Fords, Chevvies, and Caddies. Someone had set up a net and two families were playing a heated game of badminton. The metallic clang of horseshoes hitting a post could be heard above the sound of several boom boxes in noisy competition with one another. Small children floated and splashed on inner tubes and colorful plastic rafts near the shore. Senior citizens rested in aluminum lawn chairs along the bank. Some of them dozed or read newspapers, their casting rods propped in forked sticks in front of them. Another child raced past us on a motor scooter and several boys zoomed about on bicycles. A toddler stood in a playpen as his mom sipped a can of beer and rigged up a heavy casting rod with prepared trout bait on a treble hook. I looked down at the nearby shore and saw one small dead rainbow trout, floating belly-up in the water, impaled on a large metal stringer secured to a tackle box.

The far shore of Lost Lake was steeper than this side but only slightly less congested. The newly graveled road completely encircled the lake and campgrounds full of happy campers were marked with neat wooden signs. One man appeared to be changing the oil in his Plymouth. A launching ramp at the far end was crowded with boats and trailers, some just now launching, others coming out. Several fishermen in boats appeared to be dozing on the water’s surface.

A green Fish and Game department pick-up rolled slowly toward us on the gravel road, stirring up a white cloud of caliche dust. The game warden was coming from the launching ramp where he had apparently been checking licenses and bag limits. He pulled his truck along side my Bronco.

“Why so glum, Fellas?” he asked, giving us a friendly smile. “It’s a great day to be out and about.”

I showed him our map and asked him about the Jeep trail.

“Oh, that”, he said, handing the map back to me. That’s the old 1963 map. He reached into the glove compartment and handed us a crisp, neatly folded new one.

“Take this one”, he offered. “This road was graveled clear to the lake two years ago. The county grades it and re-gravels it often because as you can see it gets a lot of traffic.” He opened the pick-up door, got out and leaned against the Bronco fender.

“If you plan to fish I’ll check your licenses if you don’t mind”.

Doc and I looked at one another. We had fished together long enough to read each other’s minds.

“Nope”, I said. “I think we’ll just try to get in on the badminton game.”

“Or maybe pitch some horse shoes”, added Doc.