Canyons

Canyons

A long descent, possibly with some fish at the other end...

  • By: John Gierach
In mountainous country, streams carve canyons and trout live in streams. That's the plain logic behind the long walks fishermen take into these narrow valleys with cold water at the bottom, although you can't exactly turn your back on the scenery either. Canyons are inherently beautiful. It has something to do with stunted trees hanging on by their fingernails, all that exposed geology, and a kind of otherworldliness. You're up here. The stream is way the hell and gone down there: a distant place in plain sight, like the moon.Looking into a good, deep canyon will make you catch your breath, even if you're not the kind to wonder what fish might be swimming at the bottom. You can drift-fish some canyons in style if there's good enough access at the top and enough water to float your boat, although canyons like that are really pretty rare in the Rocky Mountains. You can walk up most from the bottom, getting as far in as you can and staying late because the walk out will be mostly downhill. But in longer, steeper, canyons with streams too skinny to float, there's that stretch in the middle you get curious about. It's the place beyond day-hike range where the trails peter out; the place above where most people turn around. Even without the possibility of fish, that has a nice ring to it. Short of mounting the full backpacking expedition, the way you get in there is to go over the lip of the canyon and down, thinking you might find bigger trout and fewer fishermen because the terrain will keep out the faint-hearted. At least that's how you feel when you suck it up and climb into a real gnarly one knowing that at the end of the day, after lots of hiking and wading and with your water bottles empty, you'll have to climb back out again. It's always a gamble. If remoteness and difficulty could so easily be translated into fish size, any fisherman in decent shape could just walk to where the big ones are, and we all know it's never that simple. Canyon fishing is a model of the human condition: Giving in to temptation is easy because it's all downhill, but once there it may not be what you expected, and then getting back out can be a son-of-a-bitch. Whenever I look into an especially forbidding canyon, I think of Cardiac Canyon on the Henry's Fork in Idaho. According to the story, it was named for the people who'd had heart attacks trying to climb back out of it after a day of fishing. There's also the one about the guy who kept a 12-pound rainbow that he wanted to mount, but who dumped it halfway out because he couldn't carry it any farther. I doubt any of that is true because it sounds too much like what you'd make up to protect a good fishing spot, being careful not to go over the top by throwing in killer grizzly bears and seven-foot rattlesnakes. Still, the last time I was on the Henry's Fork, my partner and I decided not to hike into the canyon, but to fish some easier water upstream. I guess you could say we were among the faint-hearted, and if it was all just a local fishermen's trick, it worked. Maybe to make up for that, the same partner and I climbed into a godawful deep canyon in western Canada a few years later where we caught many large westslope cutthroats while keeping an eye out for grizzlies-real ones, not the kind you invent to scare off the competition. We survived. The hike back out was a death march. And there's the small canyon some friends and I fish that is, in fact, crawling with rattlesnakes. They're not seven feet long, but I could wish they were so they'd be easier to see. There's a mythology to this canyon stuff that's always just true enough. More recently, Vince Zounek and I hiked into a nice stream canyon on a trip to Wyoming. We'd fished this river several times lower down where it's wider and deeper and just big enough to float a raft early in the season. The fishing is good down there when the flow is right and the hatches are on, and it's not half bad even when things are a little off. We'd also hiked into it farther up in the headwaters where it's smaller and more rugged and where the fishing is just fine, but nothing to write home about. This time we went in closer to the middle of the canyon, just to see more of a stream we've come to like and to try and see how far up the good fishing went. The hike wasn't the hardest I've ever done, but as near as we can figure, we covered eight or nine miles with some serious ups and downs along the way, and when it was all over I felt like I'd done an honest day's work. As a fishing writer, I could say it was work, but that's a claim that doesn't fool many. Still, there are days when fishing feels like a job because it's hard and because it seems necessary, even if it's not always clear why. And anyway, it's good for a writer to have something physical to do that's away from the desk and that seems important. As Larry McMurtry said, writing itself is a sedentary profession "in which one gets up in the morning and then sits right back down." This was a hot, dry day in July and we went in light, hiking and wading in shorts and carrying the minimum amount of gear in daypacks. I carried two water bottles and pre-hydrated before we started out to avoid carrying more. That's a trick a forest service fire fighter taught me. In the hour or so before you set out, you drink all the water you can hold: so much your stomach distends and you slosh when you walk; so much you feel you might barf. It's uncomfortable at first, but if you do it right, you can hike for hours in the heat before you get thirsty. Of course there are always those filter bottles, but I'm wary of them. Last year I came home from a fishing trip to Maine with a dose of Giardia that I'm convinced I got by drinking from a friend's filter bottle. I heard later that those particular bottles had been recalled because of a defect, and there's no guarantee it was the bottle in the first place. I mean, a doctor told me you can get Giardia through a cut or by splashing stream water in your eye. But intestinal parasites make a lasting impression-and I'm suspicious of technology anyway-so now, when I'm tempted to use one of those things, I ask myself, Is a drink of cool water worth six weeks riding the porcelain bus? So far, the answer has always been no. We fished the canyon the way you do when you're fishing out of curiosity. We'd work a stretch methodically, making a dozen casts to every crease and slick, then we'd cover some water more quickly, then we'd hike half a mile and start again-basically looking around and getting a feel for the place. This was a good-looking canyon. There were tall spruce and pine trees with mixed aspen and river birch and shrubs like maple and alder, sometimes scattered, sometimes in thick groves and impenetrable thickets. On the insides of a few wide bends there were actual forests, miniature but complete, with dark stands of mature spruce edging onto broken clearings with suckering aspens, grass, wildflowers, standing snags from old burns and tangles of dead-fall from blow-downs. Vegetation makes a canyon cooler and prettier, but it also puts all kinds of organic stuff in the stream to form the bottom of a food chain-something for bugs to eat so trout can eat the bugs. Raw, bare rock canyons are spectacular, but they can be unfriendly to fish. As I said, it was a bright, sunny July day-hot and dry enough that when I fell in and soaked myself to the armpits, it didn't feel all bad and I dried out right down to my skin in an hour. But it wasn't great fishing weather. The light was high and flat with little shade and we saw none of the even scattered caddis, mayflies, stoneflies and midges you hope to see on a freestone trout stream. I was using a size 10 grasshopper pattern, which I've always thought is a good choice on a river in summer when not much is going on. If there's any green on the banks, it's a bug the fish have probably seen and it's big enough that they'll notice it on the fast water. A grasshopper will move fish that have no other reason to move, or at least that's the theory. We caught trout off and on all day. They were mostly browns with one or two rainbows thrown in, and they ranged all the way from dinks just barely big enough to get a grip on the hook to relative bruisers a foot long. It was a passably good day of small stream fishing, but with the bright sun and no hatch, we knew these would have been the few eager trout that would bite when there was no reason to. By late afternoon we were as far up the canyon as we were going to get, sitting side by side on a flat rock in front of the ruin of an old miner's cabin. It was roofless and mostly collapsed, but you could tell there'd been one eight- by ten-foot log room custom made to fit the only available flat spot. Around the side was a hand-dug glory hole with the spoil sloping down to the creek. The view from what was left of the front door was magnificent. It's easy to get romantic about old cabins and I caught myself hoping that the guy loved his solitude and found some gold, but I also know there's more misery than we'd like to think in the history of these mountains, so it's just as likely he was lonely and desperate and half crazy. Maybe he at least caught some trout for supper in the evenings. That made a pretty picture, although a hardscrabble miner just out for some fish would probably choose a quarter stick of dynamite over a dry fly. I couldn't help thinking that a home-made depth charge would turn this stream inside out better than the cosmic stonefly hatch. I suppose we could have stayed till evening hoping to catch the hour or so of hot fishing streams like this can hand out right before nightfall, but that would have meant groping at least four miles in the dark to get out, most of the way on nothing wider than a game trail. I said, "Well?" Vince said, "Yeah, I guess so," and we started back. So this is how a place gets under your skin: On a hot, bright day with no hatches, we'd caught a fair number of trout up to a foot long, and there'd been those two big ones. Vince said he was playing a small brown when a large shape flashed it, reminding him of the big bull trout in British Columbia that will now and then eat a foot-long cutthroat right off your hook. And there was the fish I missed on the grasshopper that splashed like a dropped anvil. Really. To get that much noise and spray out of even a 15-inch trout, you'd have had to drop him from 50 feet. I guess we'd satisfied our curiosity as well as fishermen are ever able to do that. On a predictably slow day in a pretty canyon we'd pounded up a few average-sized trout-about what you'd expect-and seen the fleeting dark shadow and heard the loud splash that say…What? Either, There's more here than you think, or, Your mind is playing tricks on you again. Take your pick. On the walk out we talked for a while about the stream we'd just fished-planning the trip back that we may or may not ever make-and then moved on to the stream we planned to fish the next day. It was also in a canyon, but an easier one, or so we'd been told. We'd done the harder one first so even if it beat us up, we'd still have enough left to do the second one. We thought that was awfully clever of us. (As it turned out, we caught so many good-size brown trout on dry flies in that second canyon that we quit early, but that's a whole other story.) Then we stopped talking when the pitch got steep and we ran out of breath. It had gotten cool down along the stream but it was still hot up on the canyon wall and my water bottles had been empty for quite a while. Vince was drinking from the filter bottle he'd filled before we climbed up away from the creek, but my unreasoning fear of gut bugs kept me from envying him too much and made it easier to say "No thanks" when he offered it. I was plenty thirsty, but I'd been re-reading Ernest Hemingway and had decided that a real man suffers stoically in short, declarative sentences.