South Fork

Sometimes, catching fish isn’t the point

  • By: Maximilian Werner
  • Photography by: Maximilian Werner
South Fork Moose

The last time Greg and I fished together was in 2008 on the Fremont River (see “On the Lower Fremont: Part II”), and I had been trying to get him to come back ever since. Despite a handful of conversations to that effect, 2009 came and went. Then 2010 rolled around and the ritual of half-promises and unfinished phone calls started all over again. Understandably, Greg was noncommittal: He was up to his elbows in teaching obligations, and as a recent divorcee, he was busy reorienting himself to the new world and juggling love interests. But when the infernal hand of July came knocking, he did what a lot of Arizonans do: He looked for a way out.

High summer in Utah poses its own challenges, of course, but they are nothing like the challenges anglers face in Arizona. Trout angling opportunities there are pretty sparse anyway, and once those summer temperatures start rising, those opportunities go from sparse to basically nonexistent, unless one is willing to load up the truck and drive four hours into the White Mountains. For the time and effort involved, an angler—in this case, Greg—might as well book an hour-and-a-half plane ride north to Salt Lake and explore some new water with an old friend. At least that was my argument.

I am a believer in the persuasive power of words, but if someone doesn’t want to do something, no amount of rhetoric or artistic hocus pocus (to borrow a phrase from Sam Shepherd) is going to change his mind. Perhaps the most one can hope to accomplish with words is to help someone along or to guide him in a certain direction. How willingly he comes along depends on the words, and the words are chosen on the basis of known facts and emotional appeal. It’s pretty basic stuff. It’s so basic, in fact, that all I had to do was tell Greg I had found some beautiful new water with big trout in it and, in the context of 110-degree temperatures, he was sold. Twenty-four hours later, he had a reservation and we were on.

Greg only had three days, though, so I suggested we go straight from the airport to the river. The drive to the south fork of the Ogden River is about an hour, and Greg and I used that time to catch up. It used to be that we had a lot more in common, but as the years have gone on, our lives have changed and in some ways have become unrecognizable. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself here. Probably everything about me is familiar to someone like Greg, who was married and had kids several years before I did, and who is now looking to sell the family business and go into semi-retirement at age 44. There is something unfathomable to me about a guy like that. I’m 42 and I feel like I’m just getting started. Of course none of this comes up as we drive along the river, pointing to the runs we could fish or, as it turned out, not fish: I had fished the south fork twice in the previous week—once with Metcalf and once alone—and I knew exactly where I was going. So when Greg would point longingly and say, “That looks good,” I would answer, “Yes, it does,” and just keep on driving.

The Ogden River itself runs down a tight canyon and is all but hidden from view by houses and summer homes, and with the exception of one or two pullouts, there is no access. As we climbed out of the Ogden River Canyon, however, and passed Pineview Reservoir, the congestion gave way to pastureland and farms. On my first trip up here with Metcalf, before heading up to the south fork, we made a little detour into the small town of Huntsville. Metcalf looked around nostalgically and said that, from what he could remember, the town and the surrounding farmland had changed very little in the past 50 years. Even the little bar and grill he used to frequent as a young man was still there, and when we drove by it, I looked at Metcalf and could only imagine the raucous fun he had in there, rocking it on the dance floor with some buckle-bunny (Metcalf’s description for a cowgirl sporting a big belt buckle) as he gripped a bottle of whiskey by the neck, just loving life. Metcalf may not be from Utah (he was born in San Francisco), but after living here for the majority of his life, he is undeniably of the place. His roots spread far and wide.

Unlike Metcalf, I had no history with Huntsville, but I did find myself fantasizing that I lived there and was enjoying the rural life. A body can dream, right? Then a dog barks and a crow flies across the road and I’m back in the truck with Metcalf. Clearly the tendency to indulge in reverie and long for a safe, unspoiled place to live out my days and raise my kids is at minimum as old as the human species itself. I begin to sense how far removed most of us are from what matters. Or maybe this is what happens when one gets older: We awaken in a place where the past is gone, erased from the land if not from memory, and whatever future we may have is still not enough. The zinger lies in the awareness that we have made our choices and there is no going back, only forward into the near and, hopefully, far future.

Metcalf and I sat at the intersection: We could take a left and drive deeper into town and into the past, or we could take a right into the future and toward the river. “Seen enough?” I asked Metcalf. After a pause, he said, “Yep,” and that was the end of Huntsville. Life isn’t so much a matter of letting go as it is a matter of having things leave you: Memories, other people, youth. The trick is to realize that what is gone has not amassed and that our imperfect lives are still far better than the alternative. This seems especially true for us anglers: We get to walk along the river through the midday shadows, giddy with elevation and grounded by the amplitude of our time and place.

I considered waxing philosophical about these very issues on my return trip with Greg, but the conversation just didn’t go that way. Instead we talked about the challenges of marriage and of having kids. Heavy subjects, to be sure; subjects from which a reprieve is often needed, which is why it’s always good to have a river nearby. If Greg were to ask me if I’d ever considered divorce, I could point to the river and ask, “Did you see that fish jump?” or say, “Look at the size of those PMDs,” or, “That’s some sexy water.” Whatever was necessary to redirect the conversation. This method of distraction would work on some people, strangers maybe, but it’s not very effective with my fishing partners because most of them are writers or so-called word people. And words are to writers what vibrations are to fish. Each and every one comes from somewhere and is, therefore, the subject of scrutiny.

When we got to within a mile of the pullout, I slowed down because I started to recognize the landmarks I had noted on my last trip. I could have looked for the campground sign I saw near the pull out, but I wanted more information than the sign could offer. And the signs are so small, I found it easier just to memorize a 30-yard stretch of river, at the top of which I knew was the starting point of our run. I was ready to go within 10 minutes of parking. Greg, on the other hand, was a bit scattered, so I rigged his rod while he got dressed. I stopped short of tying on his fly because that is not the sort of decision I can outright make for another angler. It’s another thing to make a suggestion, which is exactly what I did, and once Greg agreed, I was then free to tie on the fly with impunity.

I explained to Greg how I had used a black, sparkle-back streamer the last time I was here and had done beautifully. “Can’t argue with success.” Greg said. “Let me see what you’ve got there.” I showed Greg my cone-head streamer and he searched his box for one like it to no avail. I offered him one of mine, but he ended up tying on a rust colored bead-head streamer and I figured it was just as well: For one thing, an angler’s got his pride (personally, I won’t hesitate to bum a fly); for another, it would be good to know if the trout were hitting both colors; and lastly, I had given Metcalf the exact same fly I was using with great success and he didn’t land a single fish the whole day. I kid you not. Had I caught a few, inexperienced trout, it would have been a little easier to explain, but I caught some nice bucks, by God. Why I would catch fish and Metcalf would not is a bonafide mystery. Under the circumstances, it made sense to hold my tongue and let Greg take his chances.

I don’t know how many times I’ve suggested to my fly-fishing partner that we fish together, only to find myself half a mile away from him 30 minutes later. This is all my fault. I have good intentions, but when I know of 15 or 20 prime runs just up the river, every one of which holds a dominant hen or buck, well, let’s just say the road to hell gets a little longer. I put Greg on a nice long run that flowed beneath the trees on the opposite side of the river, and he must have fished it for 10 minutes, even though he didn’t get a single bump. It had been a while since he had fished a river, so I decided he was using the time to get his bearings, practice his cast, and figure out the drift. Or maybe he was just relaxing.

It occurs to me that many anglers think of fly-fishing as an opportunity to relax. I guess it depends on what one means by relax. Fly-fishing is obviously restorative on some level, but in my experience it takes almost as much as it gives. Perhaps for those anglers who stand in a certain spot, and who cast lazily to a trout they may or may not know is there, fly-fishing is more akin to sitting on a couch and playing the latest Wii fly-fishing game (oh that such a game existed!). But when I go fly-fishing, I am a hunter: I wander, sweat, work and think, and when I return I am nothing short of depleted. My wife, Kim, therefore knows not to expect much from me the day after I’ve gone fishing, but she stops short of calling me useless.

When Greg and I finally met up about an hour later, I had caught a couple small browns and Greg had a couple of bumps. I began to wonder what was different about today compared to the last time I was here, and the one glaring difference was that the water was noticeably lower. Why that would make such a difference was beyond my knowledge, and yet I offered it as a possible explanation for our overall lack of luck. Over the two days we fished, Greg was pretty adamant about catching some Utah trout. And understandably so. No one wants to come back empty handed, especially when there is a new love interest involved. I’m only half-serious here. I’m guessing that Greg’s new girl is much more interested in contemporary indicators of fitness, and Greg would feel the need to catch fish whether she was in the picture or not. It’s not something we can just turn off.

There have been days when I spent hours fishing, tried everything in my box, and still come up empty-handed. And there is no denying that I felt frustrated each and every time. When I was younger, I persisted, and with each hour that passed, my agitation grew until I swore I would kill the next fish I caught. Now when the fishing isn’t great I pull up a log and look around, or I close my eyes and I listen, and I breathe all that wilderness. When I opened them again I saw Greg tying on a new fly. He snipped off the excess mono with his teeth and gestured for me to look up river. A teenager in a six-foot kayak came floating down past us. I found it odd that even while he passed within four feet of us, he did not offer a single word of greeting. Incivility in civilization is, oddly, to be expected. But incivility in the wilderness? That is just outright contrary.

My irritation was softened, however, by the humor of the moment: The water couldn’t have been more than six inches deep where we were standing , and yet he and five other boys went paddling by, one after the other, their boats scraping over the rocks. I looked at Greg and he shook his head with that What the hell are those kids thinking? look on his face. I thought I’d seen it all, but just then a wiry kid came around the corner in a shiny, 18’ aluminum canoe. The kid was sitting all the way in the back of the canoe so that the front of it was three feet in the air. It was the most ridiculous thing I had seen in years, and Greg must have thought so, too, because we looked at each other and busted up laughing, and we did not conceal the fact. The kid must have thought we were drunk or insane: He flailed side-to-side with his paddle, driving it into the rocks in an effort to keep the bow straight. I wanted to tell Greg, Only in Utah. But ridiculous things happen everywhere.

Feeling the toll of the late day sun, hunger and thirst, we decided to work our way back. I at least wanted to try one or two of my favorite runs on the way back, so to conserve what little energy I had left, I climbed out of the riverbed and got on the trail. I walked for a while, enjoying the shade and the sounds of birds I could not see. For most of the way I could see the river from the trail, but as I neared the run I wanted to fish, the brush became very dense. I looked around for a path and quickly found one. Now that the sun was high, I could see thousands of bugs in the air above the river. But the river went by unbroken and not a single fish dimpled the surface. I was still using a streamer, so I freed it from the eyelet and prepared to cast. Because of my river vision, I hadn’t noticed a beautiful, heavily muscled, 600-pound bull moose standing not 20 feet away from me.

The last time I saw a moose this close was when I was a kid. I was up at Nole’s cabin in Timber Lakes (See “The Initiate”) and it was a hot day, so I grabbed my camera and drove the three-wheeler down the road to see what I could find. That was when I saw a lone cow browsing in the thicket. I dismounted the three-wheeler to get a close up, and she took off. I must have followed her for 20 minutes, until finally she stopped in a beaver pond to feed. I took the kind of picture that I‘d seen in the calendars, the one where the moose‘s head is dripping with water and its mouth is full of green. I was 17 then and more than willing to take my chances.

And now? I kept my distance and let the zoom on the camera do its job. I snapped a few images and then walked up the trail to find Greg. So what if the fishing wasn’t great? He had seen the boy in the canoe. And I had shown him the black-spotted, electric-green leopard frog. And now I would show him this moose—perhaps one of only a few he would see in his lifetime—standing in the water and shining in the sun. I would show him another part of being here.