On the Lower Fremont River: Part I

Discovering new water with satisfying results.

  • By: Maximilian Werner

The morning of my brother’s wedding, I left the Rim Rock Hotel and drove toward the town of Torrey, which is about 3 1/2 hours south of Salt Lake. The night before I had talked with my old high-school buddies John and Brett—now the proud owners of the Rim Rock Restaurant and Hotel--and I had asked them where I might sneak off for a couple hours of angling.

Boulder Mountain had already gotten snow, they said, but the Lower Fremont River held nice fish and was only a 10-minute drive away. And so it was with their directions in mind that, once I reached Torrey, I headed south along Highway 12, otherwise known as the Journey Through Time Scenic Highway. 

A couple miles later, I saw the Fremont flowing out of the west toward the road. I pulled off and parked beneath the sandstone walls of Bear Lewis Flats. The sun had not been up long enough to hide my breathing in the October air, but I faced it just the same as I dressed and pieced together my rod.

As luck or coincidence would have it, the browns were beginning to spawn. Every living and swimming thing had therefore better beware. It was with reason, then, that I tied on a hearty, size 8 Golden Sculpin. The fly is intended to imitate a fish, but looking at its thick mane of elk hair, deftly tucked beneath a cone-head, and its sleek, sand-colored waist, I did not think fish so much as lion. I held it in the light and noted how nicely it merged with the desert landscape, as if it had evolved there.

I had never set foot on the Fremont and I was giddy with uncertainty. But I did know that this fly represented as good a chance as any to arouse the ire of a big, spawning brown, determined to protect its investment, be it hen or eggs. I followed a deer trail down to the water, which was a few shades shy of opaque. My heart sank a little.

A mile or so upriver, the first of several ranches was siphoning off hundreds of cubic feet of irrigation water, a process that churns the dirt and sediment and sends it downriver. I squatted on a bar of red sand and sank my hand into the water: Forty-five degrees, tops. Below me the river eddied and doubled back, forming what appeared to be a deep hole that spun counterclockwise beneath a froth of dirty foam. Using my rod, I carefully probed for the bottom and never did find it.

Although the hole didn’t strike me as a prime feeding station, it would help me to assess the visibility of my fly and the likelihood of catching a fish. Of course trout see a whole hell of a lot better under water than I do, but I needed something to go on, however imperfect.

I freed the sculpin and let the current take the line. Then I stripped the fly into the center of the hole and let it sink. In such murky water, I knew I risked losing my fly to a clipper-wielding river wraith or death snag deep beneath the surface. I also knew that taking calculated, low-stake risks is a necessary part of fishing new water. As I stripped in the line, I eagerly watched for my fly. It wasn’t until I lifted the sculpin into four inches of water that I finally saw the cone-head winking in that cold, muddy sunlight.

Unless the trout were holding in the first six or seven inches of water, which was about as deep as the sunlight could penetrate, I figured there was little probability they were going to see my fly.

Fortunately, browns cut their redds in the sandy gravel that is generally found in shallow water. Over the next 45 minutes, then, I worked my way downriver, looking for and finding several places where redds might be dug.

I had just passed Carcass Creek, a small feeder born high up on Boulder Mountain, when I came to a beautiful run. Half the river was moving fast along the north bank. The southern half, however, had shoaled up nicely and couldn’t have been more than eight inches deep on the seam. So far as trout are concerned, everything inside of that line was prime real estate.

When I am angling, there is nothing I resent more than feeling rushed. In fact, when I am on the river, I refuse to acknowledge any time except daytime, lunchtime, nighttime and sometimes not even those. Idiosyncrasies aside, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a fishing trip, per se, and it wasn’t about me, really: It was about my older brother, his bride-to-be, and their wedding. I placated myself by vowing right then and there to return as soon as possible.

Now that I had made a decision, I could concentrate on the water: The run was about 25 feet long, and by some false calculus I estimated it might house roughly half as many trout. A gnarled pinion tree had slipped into the river: Menacing punctuation to the end of the run. I made a mental note, rolled my sculpin into the current, and rapidly paid out line.

When my fly was about three feet from the pinion, I stripped it just off the southern bank, gathering cold loops of line in my hand as I did so. Despite all my analysis, I still couldn’t silence my internal skeptic. But he hadn’t even registered his first doubt when, half way into the run, a 19-inch brown charged out of the shade along the bank and slammed my fly. In addition to local knowledge and the time of year, that the trout were in fact spawning was clearly supported by the speed and ferocity with which the big trout snapped at my fly. Trout are like other animals whose bites are tailored for specific situations. Whether a trout bites for defensive purposes, or to eat, or to carefully coax a hen (we know it as the love bite), each bite has a different signature and, consequently, tells us something about the trout’s disposition. 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, lightening does strike twice. In all, I got three of these defensive strikes. Unfortunately, I was not fast enough to set the hook. When the run finally quieted, I looked at the sun. The day had aged, but I figured I could fish a stretch I had seen near the road if I made haste getting back.

I reeled in, crossed the river, and climbed up to the trail. The tracks of men and deer and coyote were baked into the red dirt. A hundred feet above me, a raven strutted along the edge of the cliff and called to another raven that passed high overhead. I glassed the first raven just in time to see him pull what looked like a piece of jerked meat from a cache in the rock. Smart bird, I thought, searching my vest for a granola bar that was not there.

Much to my delight, when I reached the upper run, the water seemed to have cleared a shade or two, and I could now see the river bottom under a foot of water. I could also see trout had been busy excavating redds. I cast a few feet above them and then slowly stripped above the clearings. My fly had reached the bottom of the run when I saw a 17-inch brown come carving up through the shallow water, its dorsal fin at half mast. As the trout closed the distance, I prepared for the strike. Like its predecessors, it came hard and fast, but this time I set the hook and brought a healthy brown to hand. I was as happy at that moment as at any other time in my life. 

Every angler who has walked onto an unfamiliar river, studied the situation, and caught fish knows what I mean. But there was another, more profound layer to my happiness. In 1991, whirling disease was detected in trout from the Dry Valley Hatchery in Loa, which is just up the road from Torrey. Shortly afterward, Fish and Game poisoned the Fremont with rotenone to prevent the disease from spreading. The chemical is said to be moderately toxic to humans, but it can be lethal to mammals, insects, and, of course, to fish. Although the effects of rotenone are relatively short-lived, the river was kept fallow for three years and then stocked with fry.

Looking at one of their descendents and seeing healing, 15 years in the making, gave me pause. A success story? I don’t know. It may be too early to say. It may always be. Perhaps that is why, as the trout swam back to its redd on the other side of the river, eager to get back to its life and the life that it tended, I thought about my own scars, those that I see and those that I don’t. Don’t kid yourself, I thought, rinsing my hands in the water. Now go on. Walk out of here. You can.

Maximilian Werner’s column runs bi-monthly on this site. His story, Angler’s Ball, took second place in the 2008 Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, sponsored by Fly Rod & Reel and the John D. Voelker Foundation.