Into the Off Season

Into the Off Season

Wind and Woes in Wyoming's Big Empty.

  • By: John Gierach
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The conceit among trout fishers is that we’re all such unreconstructed fanatics that when fishing possibilities dwindle over the winter we go quietly insane. In fact, some do—and not always quietly—but others seem to take the break more or less in stride and a few even think it’s “good for the soul,” as Nick Lyons once said, to have an off-season for rest and reflection.

I go back and forth. I do go quietly insane at times, although the apparent cause is usually CNN rather than a lack of fishing. It’s true that a week somewhere with a fly rod in my hand would affect a cure, but then so would the same week at home without TV or newspapers. For the most part, though, I’m happy enough to think about where I’ve been, plan where I’ll go next, tie flies, fuss with tackle and try my best to make a living.

I was doing just that toward the end of February when my friend Vince called and proposed a quickie. We’d drive up to the Miracle Mile in Wyoming, fish for two days with an overnight camp and then head home.

I’d been hearing about The Mile—as it’s called—for years, but had obstinately never fished it. I think I was put off by the name as much as by the crowd it’s known to draw at certain times of the year. “Miracle Mile” sounds more like a roadside theme park than a stretch of the North Platte River in Wyoming that’s famous for good trout fishing. It’s not even precise because the stretch of river the name refers to is actually more like six miles long. (One symptom of incipient off-season insanity is that I become my high school English teacher, snidely correcting inaccuracies of language at every opportunity.)

The weather was seasonably cold and uninviting, the forecast was for more of the same and there was no available fishing report. I jumped on the invitation with more eagerness than I thought was in me.

The drive to the river was familiar from other trips north until we peeled off the interstate at the dreary refinery town of Sinclair and started out across the Red Desert. This is a region without clear boundaries that’s been variously described as hostile, inhospitable, unforgiving and haunting, but its salient feature is that there’s no one there.

The population density of Carbon County Wyoming is roughly one person for every three square miles, but that’s deceptive since better than half of them live in the county seat of Rawlins and are smart enough to stay in town in the winter. Out on County Road 351, anyone at all constitutes a crowd and seeing another car amounts to traffic.

Except for a low pass through the Seminoe Mountains, this area is largely treeless with scattered sage, sparse grasses and tough little shrubs like cedar rim thistle and bladderpod, all hanging on for dear life in what Annie Proulx called “bad dirt.” Living things tend to stay low here, while rocks that stand up in the constant, sandy wind are abraded into the spooky mushroom shapes geologists call “hoodoos.”

Wind is a fact of life as well as the basis for rural Wyoming humor. Mark Spragg said, “There are people here who’d like to move away, but they’d have to go outside to do it.” A man living in a town that eleven souls now call home once told me, “We’re losin’ people. Even the wind is in a big f-ckin’ hurry to be somewhere else.”

For long stretches of the drive in there were no human artifacts except for the unpaved road we were on and the ubiquitous western barbed wire fences that Ted Leeson described as separating “a great deal of one thing from a lot more of the same.”

It had snowed recently, but most of it had blown away, leaving ominous-looking drifts across the road in the low spots. You’d normally stop and inspect drifts for depth on a road like this because it’s the last place you’d want to get stuck, but there were fairly recent skidding tire tracks through the snow, so we’d put the truck in high range four-wheel, pick up some speed on the down slope and fishtail through, postponing second thoughts until we were back on bare ground on the other side.

When we finally got down to the river we reconnoitered for half an hour, peering at fishy-looking water and keeping an eye out without much luck for a spot to camp out of the wind. There were a few cottonwoods along the river, but not enough in any one place to make a proper shelterbelt. We picked out a long tailing pool above a bridge and gave it half an hour. There was no sign of insect or fish life, but the water was easily readable, so you could tell where the fish would be if they were there. After 30 minutes I believed that I may or may not have had a half-hearted bump to a nymph. It was the usual first act on a new river at less than the best time of year.

When we decided to try another spot the pickup wouldn’t start. Vince turned the key and instead of the usual growl of a V-8 engine coming to life, there was the disheartening click that tells you there isn’t enough juice to turn over the starter. This means corroded terminals if you’re lucky, a dead battery if you’re not.

When you’re out in winter weather, the pickup truck is a real icon of survival: a mobile windbreak with a heater that, in a pinch, can get you the many miles to the nearest McDonald’s or Motel 6. When it fails to start forty-some miles up a lonesome dirt road with no traffic, you experience what can only be called profound disappointment. We stared ahead through the windshield at sagebrush twitching in the wind. Nothing was said. When we’d driven around earlier we’d seen a few other fishermen parked here and there along the river, but the chances of any of them happening by anytime soon seemed slim. Vince told me later he was beginning to formulate a plan, while I was simply thinking that we’d taken his truck because it was newer and more reliable than mine.

At which point our friend Corey pulled up, having recognized the truck. I stepped out the passenger door to shake hands. Vince began digging behind the seat for the jumper cables. As it turned out, the terminals were pristine, as anything Vince maintains usually is, but the battery was eight months past its expiration date and wouldn’t hold a charge. So we fished with Corey for the rest of the day because he’s our friend and we like his company, because he knows the river and because the truck would no longer start without a jump, so we had to stay close to a functioning vehicle.

We camped together that night for the same reason in a bivouac that consisted of eight fishermen ranging in age from their early 20s to past 60. I’m not at all sure who most of these people were except that everyone seemed to know someone else and so we’d all ended up together in a sparse grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods that had no effect on the cold wind except to funnel it into stronger gusts.

Everyone had packed in firewood—from neatly split pine logs to construction scraps—so we got a uselessly huge bonfire going. The temperature had dropped into the low 30s even before the sun went down and the wind picked up and came from a different direction every five minutes. Hunkered around the fire, you’d either get a face full of sparks or your ears would be cold even as tread melted off the soles of your boots.

Someone tossed foil-wrapped potatoes at the edge of the fire to bake. Once that suggestion was planted, the rest of us dug out propane stoves and the usual odd assortment of camp food ranging from quick, cheap and easy to elaborate. While we were cooking supper, someone produced a battery-operated boom box. I’ve never cared for recorded music in camp and I rolled my eyes at Vince, but then when a vintage Bob Dylan tune came out of the thing, I softened a little.

It had turned full dark and bitterly cold by the time we’d all gotten supper taken care of and had settled in for some serious campfire sitting. Eight lawn chairs were crammed in a seamless ring around the fire pit, but it wasn’t possible to either build the blaze big enough or to sit quite close enough to it. Cans of beer and a bottle of tequila appeared, and although I don’t actually remember seeing a joint going around, I do recall a familiar whiff of something that wasn’t wood smoke. Some trout had been caught that day, but I won’t say how many in case you’d think the trip wasn’t “worthwhile” in the way some understand that term.

It must have been on someone’s mind because the talk turned to women earlier than it usually does in a camp full of men. “You need a woman who likes to travel and fish herself, but who doesn’t always want to come along,” someone said. “You know, she’s gotta give you some space.” We were lined up around the fire nearly in each other’s laps and all nodded agreement on the need for space in relationships.

Even the youngest of these guys were old enough now to have had these things go south a few times, although why is never clear. The assumption is that these are affairs of the heart and therefore a great mystery, but we’re men; we can work it out logically. When a lull in the conversation came, I felt an urge to say something wise befitting the thirty or forty years I had on some of these guys. But nothing came to mind except a youth filled with older men droning on as if they owned the secrets of the universe, never mind that their own lives were train wrecks. Then the moment passed and the conversation drifted in the predictable direction of pickups, boats, fly rods and increasingly long, fire-gazing silences.

Finally one man said, apropos of nothing, “I’m like a largemouth bass: I lurk…and then I pounce!”

Someone else replied, “Damn right.”

It was getting late.

I’ve never been much of a winter camper, although I did once spend an experimental night in a snow cave to see if it would be as cozy as some claimed. It wasn’t. In other words, I don’t have actual winter camping gear, but I make due by stuffing a so-called three-season sleeping bag inside a summer-weight bag and sleeping in full long johns, fleece socks, sweatshirt and wool hat. On that particular night it was stinging cold away from the fire and I only reread a page of The Meadow by James Galvin before I nestled in to generate a pocket of heat by burning calories.

I had the tent cinched tight as a drum with rocks on top of the stakes to keep them from working loose, but the wind was still up and the rain fly flapped like a trapped condor. Even with that racket I managed to drift off before I was actually warm. I’d only gotten good and cozy hours later when I woke up in the middle of the night with an undeniable urge to pee.

For some reason, cold, windy nights in tents are when I’m most likely to have one of those luminous dreams where everything suddenly fits together. I wake up with the fleeting sense that I’ve been given the answer to a question I don’t remember asking and lie there in the first light trying to remember what it was. Then I get sidetracked by thoughts of coffee and a big cold-weather breakfast: As much chopped up bacon as will fit in the pan with room left over for half a dozen eggs scrambled in and four slices of whole wheat bread scorched over the fire to approximate toast.

It’s colder this morning than it was last night, so frost will condense on the propane bottle before the percolator on the camp stove starts to bubble. I can picture it all vividly. Now all I have to do is pry myself out of my warm spot and make it happen.

Corey is already up and a little too cheerful as I force my fingers to work enough to get the coffee started. I hear a snore from one of the tents and think we’re the only two awake until I glance downstream and see one of the younger guys at a bend pool landing what looks like a good-sized fish. I’m deeply impressed, but not exactly envious. For some, winter fishing is the kind of extreme sport that separates the men from the boys, as they used to say. But then for others it’s a more pensive enterprise where the fire and the coffee pot compete on equal footing with the river.

When our gonzo companion sees activity in camp, he trudges back and we learn that he got that trout and one other—both rainbows—on a Girdle Bug. I ask if he knows the origin of that fly’s name and he doesn’t. I explain that the rubber legs on the first ones were elastic strips salvaged from discarded girdles. He nods politely. It’s possible he’s not that into fly tying trivia, or maybe he’s heard of girdles, but is too young to have ever actually seen one.
During this short conversation the guy has wolfed down a granola bar and chugged a big cup of coffee. Then he opens a fly box, gives me a neatly tied brown Girdle Bug and walks back toward the river. Bottom line types in the fly-tackle industry worry about the future of the sport, but it seems to me there’s an endless supply of these young fly casters who, as far as the ruling class is concerned, fish and drink too much, work too little, are at perpetual loose ends about jobs and girlfriends, but always have a fishing trip in the works.

Few of them earn enough to be valuable customers now, but that will likely change because they’re genetically programmed for success in the 21st century. By that I mean they’re comfortable with technology, but they’re not in love with it and recognize its limitations, they work hard when they work, they tend to be non political without being ignorant to the point of negligence and they take things no more seriously than they need to be taken.

Even with the provocation of a couple of trout being caught, it takes some of us another hour to get fed, suited up and on the water. Corey and I planned to air out our spey rods that day. We’d swing weighted streamers through the big runs and if that didn’t work we’d rest the water and come back with nymphs. I’d never fished a nymph with a spey rod, but I’d heard about it and wanted to try it. If nothing else, the reach of a 13.5-foot rod would be a tremendous advantage. The fishing had been slow, but not dead, and I suddenly had big plans for that little Girdle Bug.

In the meantime, Vince had crawled out of his tent blinking and yawning and I’d all but finished the coffee, so I poured him the dregs and started a fresh pot. I’d come to fish and I’d get around to it eventually, but the real reason for the trip was simply to get out of the house in the winter and there I was, so there was no rush.

John Giearch’s Sporting Life column appears in each issue of FR&R. His latest book is Fool’s Paradise.