New Water

New Water

Finaly fishing that overlooked stream.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Illustrations by: Bob White
New Water

Like most of the trout streams in my life, I first saw this one from the window of a moving car. We were at right angles to each other at a narrow bridge, going our separate ways. It was just a sidelong glance: not much more than a fisherman at the wheel registering flowing water.

Farther along, the road turned to roughly parallel the stream and there were longer glimpses and then full views. In this stretch it was mostly riffles with uniform cobble bottoms, and darker slots at the bends where fish would hold. I followed it downstream as it took on feeders with unremarkable names like Willow, Spruce, Moose, Buck, Bear and Boulder creeks and grew from a creek itself to a good-size stream and finally to a proper little river.

This was a stream I’d heard of in passing. It was said to be no more than ordinary cutthroat water, and with bigger, more fashionable rivers in the neighborhood, it wasn’t crowded. I remember seeing a few fly fishers, but they didn’t look like the fancy kind. Most wore ditch boots and no vests. One guy was wading wet in blue jeans. With a Stetson pulled down to shade his eyes, he looked like a sleepy cowpoke in a Charles Russell painting. But although this was a good time of year to fish and the water was clear and at a nice flow, there were miles of open water and dozens of pull-offs where no cars were parked.

At a crossroads at the bottom of the canyon, I stopped to get gas and coffee and, being endlessly curious about the headwaters of trout streams, I traced the stream backward on a map. It flowed in from the west where it crossed contour lines and gathered the shorter blue lines of a few short tributaries. It ran under the road at the bridge where I first saw it and then made a dogleg to the north against a ridge. Upstream of the bridge the stream drained part of one mountain range; downstream it drained part of another. Altogether it was an area of something like 1,300 square miles. So many roads in the West are built along streams and rivers that you can begin to picture the place as wetter than it really is, but you get a clearer sense of the preciousness of water when you stop to think how little of it has run off that much land.

As with all mountain streams, this one seemed isolated high up in its own watershed. It took a conscious act of will to imagine it going on to join a larger river, which joined a larger one yet and so on for well more than 1,000 river miles to the coast. Before dams and head gates, you could have floated a pinecone all the way from here to the Pacific. Once upon a time, steelhead made it to within less than 100 miles of where I stood stretching my legs and studying a map before hurrying on my way.

This road isn’t a main route to anywhere in particular unless you’re a fisherman, but I am a fisherman, so I saw the stream other times over the next dozen years or so, always from a car window and always on my way elsewhere. It became part of my personal map of the region, which is simple-mindedly all about watercourses. It always looked interesting, but somehow never quite interesting enough to make me change my plans. I guess I’d hit one of those patches where my fishing had become purposeful and I’d temporarily lost the playful aimlessness of someone with all the time in the world.

I finally fished it higher up on the drainage with a friend. It just happened, in the way of things that are long overdue. We were in the neighborhood anyway and for once we were in no hurry. My friend knew a landowner and called in a favor, and we ended up on a stretch of water above that first bridge that I’d never seen before, but that I might have picked off the map as a likely sweet spot.

Upstream of where we fished, it was a mountain creek that tumbled down through 20 miles and several thousand feet of mixed spruce and pine woods on Forest Service land. There were a few places where you could four-wheel down to it, each with well-worn old campsites, but most of it was temptingly roadless: miles and miles of small, trouty-looking pocket water.

Downstream of that it flowed out across 15 miles of pastureland in a small, open valley. Here it slowed and stretched out into pools, riffles and wide meanders extensive enough to cover nearly twice the length of its own valley with the prettiest little Western trout stream you’ll ever see. The mountain range upstream to the west loomed. Its signature 10,000-foot peak was 10 miles away, but in the clear, thin air it looked close enough to hit it with a rock. The mountains downstream were higher and craggier, but even at a range of 30 miles you could still pick out distinct snowfields. I moved to the Rocky Mountains 42 years ago and have been here as a more or less successful transplant ever since. I suppose I now take it all for granted almost as much as those who were born here, but every once in a while I see something like this and remember why I don’t live in Cleveland.

This was a more or less intact working ranch that covered most of the small valley. It was exactly the kind of place you’d have settled yourself, but not for the beautiful trout stream as you now think. Back in the old days you’d have been a hard-bitten homesteader with an eye to cattle, so you’d have seen water for stock and to flood-irrigate hay, plus handy lumber that could be skidded off the hillsides and free food in the form of deer and elk. You’d have ended up with the entire valley not because you had delusions of grandeur—although that may also have been true—but because you’d need every last square foot of that poor pasturage to make a spread pay. The trout in the stream would have meant nothing more than the odd afternoon off and a break from a steady diet of red meat.

I’ll never get over the feeling of approaching a new stream for the first time. I like it best when I can walk up on it from a distance, say 500 yards through scattered sage and prairie grass with summer wildflowers. I can’t see or hear water yet, but up ahead the brush thickens into willows and a broken tree line of juniper, pine and cottonwood where the stream has to be. I’ll saunter along acting nonchalant, but the anticipation is palpable.

Maybe I’ll flush grasshoppers ahead of me and think hard about that, but I try to never tie on a fly before I have a close look at the water. Chances are I know what I’m doing and I know what will work, but tying on a fly too soon indicates the kind of false confidence that could cost me later. I remind myself that every day of fishing plays out like a movie. I may be hoping for something like My Dinner with Andre, but it could always turn out to be Dude, Where’s My Car?

My friend and I came on the stream at a shallow riffle with a bend pool upstream and the glassy tail of a bigger pool just visible above that. At first the stream seemed bigger than I expected it to be this high up on the drainage. Then, after only a few seconds, it seemed to be exactly the right size. We split up there and I forced myself to ritually watch the water for five whole minutes on general principles. The best fishermen I know are all cool customers who take their own sweet time and even on days when I don’t feel the requisite stillness, I try my best to fake it.

This was a high-altitude meadow stream at a perfect late-summer flow, running mostly in the open between the exposed gravel of its own high-water line, but shouldering up against dark, root-bound cut banks on the outsides of bends. It was morning on a day that would reach into the low 80s with a deep blue sky and cumulonimbus clouds the shape and color of cotton balls. This was an entirely recognizable medium-size trout stream, but it would have a few peculiarities of its own that I didn’t want to overlook by being in a hurry. I also wanted to take a moment to wonder how I’d managed to drive right past this lovely little thing so many times over so many years on my way to something I thought would be better.

There were a few odd mayflies and caddis in the air, but nothing you could call a hatch and no trout rising. So it came down to what I was in the mood for. On an out-of-the-way freestone stream like this, any number of things can work, but did I want to bank on the mysterious, unseen pluck to a nymph, the bulge to an emerger, the considered sip to a dry fly or the splashy lunge to a hopper? With nothing much to go on, I picked two old standards: a medium-size, drably-colored parachute dry fly and an equally nondescript nymph pattern on a dropper. The open secret to stream fishing is that your affection for your favorite fly patterns can be self-contagious.

I started casting methodically to cover the bend pool, first the slower current on the inside, then the faster main current, then a nice cast tight to the far bank in the deeper slack where I got a fish on. I’d been staring intently, but still somehow missed seeing if the fish took the dry or the dropper. All I knew was that something happened and I set on instinct.

This felt like a heavy trout, but it also didn’t feel quite right. And then it was in the deep, fast current feeling weirdly logy, like it had me around a stick. Then it was coming up on the inside of the bend and I could see a good-size fish being chased by a much bigger one. But then I realized the bigger fish had taken the dry fly and a slightly smaller trout was on the nymph, each pulling in opposite directions. I really wanted the larger fish, but I had a light tippet and a 4-weight rod and I didn’t think this could end well. But the small fish threw the hook and the larger trout was just a rod’s length away, so I slid it over to me and cradled it in my hand. It was a good 17 inches long and all of this happened so fast neither of us had a chance to think it over.

I rolled the trout on its back to immobilize it, plucked out the barbless hook and then righted him in the current. He was sleek and firm: a muted greenish, grayish gold with the fine black pepper spots and orange chin slashes of a Snake River cutthroat. He rested just long enough to give me a good look before he squirted out of my loose grip. The fight couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds and the fish wasn’t even tired. He was just a little confused.

So the conversation with this new water had begun and we’d hit it off nicely, like a first date that began with a clumsy exchange that we both thought was funny. I can’t help but think of trout streams as feminine, but that’s not some kind of left-handed gender politics. It’s just that this kind of graceful sweetness calls to mind many of the women I know, but none of the men. Of course strictly speaking, a trout stream is an inanimate object, but no fisherman really believes that.

I worked up the rest of that bend pool—another 20 yards or so—casting carefully and fully expecting another big cutthroat, but no dice. Then I walked upstream to leapfrog my partner. He’d already fished the next long pool, worked up 50 yards of cut bank and was starting at the tail of the plunge pool above that. His normal fishing pace is faster than mine, but he’s considerate enough not to rush too far ahead and has even been known to stop and wait if I fall too far behind. By way of holding up my end, I try to stifle my tendency to dawdle. We’ve fished together for years. It almost always works out.

I spent the next few hours in the state of mild surprise that always comes on a new stream—jumping between moments of rapt contentment and the eagerness to see what comes next. There are many more similarities between trout streams than there are differences, but the differences are endlessly novel. A riffle is just a riffle, but the precise place where current speed, depth, bottom structure and drift lines conspire to make a good place for a trout to hold is always unique. The same goes for the cast that sends a fly down that slot without drag, while leaving the caster far enough away to keep from spooking the fish. Each new throw demands a moment of consideration. Hydrology is an open book, but it’s a dense text that you don’t always comprehend on the first reading.

As the morning warmed up there were more insects around and the fish got more active. I began to spot the occasional trout suspended in the smooth tails of pools and saw the odd, unhurried rise. I switched out my dry-and-dropper rig, sticking with the same patterns but in smaller, more realistic sizes. If a coherent hatch developed, I’d try my best to copy it out of my small-stream box, but this didn’t seem like that kind of water. This seemed like the kind that would grind out a sparse mixed bag of insects and where the trout would stay more or less open to a reasonable suggestion.

I’ve never quite come to terms with precision in fly-fishing, which I suppose is why I’m such an avid small-stream fisherman. A spring creek filled with clockwork hatches, quarter-inch-wide feeding lanes and highly selective trout is like a Swiss watch: a mechanism with such fine tolerances that you can’t find a gap anywhere wide enough to slip in a single extra hackle fiber. A freestone stream seems like a clunkier device with gears that sometimes just barely mesh. A few turns of hackle more or less won’t matter and if a trout decides he likes your fly, he’ll swim a foot out of his way to eat it. This is the ideal place for the guy who thinks of himself simply as a fisherman rather than a “fish-catching machine,” which in some circles is the ultimate compliment.

The fishing on this new stream was never fast and furious, but it never slowed to what you could call a lull. The trout weren’t exactly easy to catch, but for the most part they were right where you’d expect them to be and only a few presented the kind of puzzle that an adequate fly caster who’s on his game couldn’t solve. I never hooked another fish as big as the first, but a few were in that same over-15 inches class that can seem so big on small water.

There were no surprises, but somehow everything was a surprise: How the trout fit the water the way birds fit the air and how they’re so hard to spot in the stream, but so ornately beautiful in the hand. I know their coloration is a practical matter of camouflage with a seasonal nod to mating, but there seems to be something else in operation here, something frisky that has made these fish prettier than they’d have to be just to get by. It’s fishing new water that lets me see all this again as if for the first time.

John Gierach’s latest book, No Shortage of Good Days, was released in May. He lives in Lyons, Colorado.