Meditation on Mill Creek

The only place along our route where the creek has not been hemmed in by homes and fences...

  • By: Maximilian Werner
Mill Creek

During spring runoff, I have stood in the yard late at night—long after the robins have closed their eyes and long before the moon has made its rounds—and I have heard Mill Creek coursing through the tall trees that mark the creek’s descent into the valley below. The creek is a five minute walk from my house. When my four-year-old son Wilder and I take our evening jaunt, we stop on a small bridge and watch the creek tumble toward us. Twenty yards up, a nice run gleams in the evening light and the golden gnats hover just above the water like an ethereal bait-ball. Like Wilder and me, the green darners take notice. When we first moved to the Mill Creek area about two years ago, I told Wilder I knew there were trout in that run, and to this day every time we pass by there, he asks me if the trout are there. I know he shares my need for continuity, so I assure him they are there and then we talk about trout and their habits.

As the only place along our route where the creek has not been hemmed in by homes and fences, this little overlook is the highlight of our walk. But when I want to fish Mill Creek—an activity that is infeasible if not forbidden in this particular area—I’ve got to hop in the truck and drive ten minutes up the road to Mill Creek Canyon, so-called because of the cutting and milling of trees that went on up there during the middle nineteenth century, or around the time the Mormons decided this was the place. I’m not complaining. I seldom do when it comes to angling in Utah: In 10 minutes I’m somewhere between toe-to-waist deep in the watery world of Mill Creek; a world that holds rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout. Unless fly fishers have been to the creek themselves, they are usually dismissive when I tell them I fish there. Then I tell them I’ve caught 14-inch inch brown trout and that gets their attention…for a minute or so, and then they want to talk about the Provo or the Green or places where 14-inch trout are positively ho-hum. Fine by me. I leave and return feeling like I’ve spent an hour looking through a microscope.

Initially I did not understand—nor would I have ever anticipated—the seduction of fishing small streams. This was partly due to willful ignorance: I did not see the value of angling for small trout. My ignorance was later compounded by a negative first experience. My friend Metcalf took me to the Strawberry River where it runs through a place in eastern Utah known as the Strawberry Pinnacles. (Incidentally, Mill Creek and Strawberry River illustrate how fine is the taxonomic line between creek and river). Using his own taxonomic criteria of solitude, healthy fish, and classic western scenery, Metcalf lauded the river as one that offers the“complete experience.” What he forgot to tell me is that he uses his seven-foot Winston—“a must,” in his estimation—to negotiate the meshwork of dense foliage that characterizes and signals riparian areas. So what did I do? I walked in there with an 8’ 6” rod that, as it turned out, rose well into the crowns of many trees and could not, therefore, be used under them. I may as well have used a 7’ rod and gone fishing for steelhead on the Salmon River.

When I have pondered how a trout’s physiology is a reflection of where it lives, it seems pretty clear that a trout is an embodied adaption to a particular environment. Unlike a certain species of primate with which I am intimately familiar, trout live within their means. If I have learned anything from fishing small waters and from the trout that inhabit them, it is the need to modify one’s behavior and tactics in relation to the environment. Somehow this all sounds so obvious, but how often does the obvious escape us? Fortunately, I do not make these same mistakes when fishing Mill Creek. I carry a 6’ 6” rod, a spool of tippet, and a small selection of streamers and dry flies. Light on gear and heavy on concentration, I am nimble, stealthy, and well-prepared. Depending on where I enter, the creek is anywhere from two to fifteen yards from the road. But the creek reminds me that time and space is relative. Once I’ve cleared the trees, I hang back and watch the cold water rush past. I see the sunlight and the shadows falling across the creek floor; the smooth stones ensconced by the red roots of drinking trees. Spring is long gone. My mouth is open and all I hear is water.