Triptych

  • By: Maximilian Werner
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Metcalf and I hadn’t planned on fishing three rivers in a single day. I don’t mean this as a boast: In my opinion, the notion of fishing three rivers in the already diminishing light of an autumn day smacks of rushing. And if the first or even the second river had fished well, this day would go by a different name and I wouldn’t be thinking about how somber the light feels this late in the year. Thus it was by necessity that we, soggy with river water and mud clinging to our boots, went from river to river in a race with sun. We started on the Strawberry.

It had been a while and the pain of earlier rejections had faded, so we were willing to take our chances. Because of its healthy trout, beautiful scenery, wildlife, and solitude, I once considered the Berry a western gem. These days it has become a hit-or-miss river, primarily because of the unreliability of the flows released from Starvation Reservoir. Such is the increasingly capricious nature of annual snow fall and irrigation schedules. The approach to the Strawberry is one of the prettiest I have seen: The thin path to the river leads into a stand of cottonwoods that are probably older than me and Metcalf combined. Their long, rough trunks rise and arch away from their neighbors so as to get their unfettered share of the sun.

Fall comes early to the high desert, and the leaves on these trees, which are the size of my hands, turn a bright golden-orange in the cool morning light. The sun is not high enough to illuminate the river, however; it is as black as black gets. Several years ago, Fish and Game came in and shored up the river banks with granite boulders, rod iron, and railroad ties. When the water is high, those boulders all but disappear. But today they rest in about an inch of water like prehistoric eggs and I can see the flows are perfect.

I looked back and saw Metcalf ambling toward me through the trees. He was going to be a minute so I cast across river and retrieved a minnow pattern known as an Ugly Bug, so named, apparently, because of its disproportionately large red eyes. In the water, those large red eyes function as attractants. I felt a lazy tug and for a split nanosecond I thought it was a fish. Then I stripped my line and brought the bug to hand. What I thought was a fish turned out to be a large clump of moss; its dark green color suggesting it lived at great depths. I chalked up the catch to bad luck.

About 30 minutes later, I realized this conclusion was premature, and that far from being a chance encounter, bad luck would be the order of the day on the Strawberry. When the sun had risen high enough to light the water, we saw clump after clump of moss drifting down river like strange, freshwater jellyfish.

Neither Metcalf nor I wanted to believe that we were about to be shut out by the Strawberry, again. But we knew water was being released from the bottom of the dam where moss had accumulated, and the situation was unlikely to change. Hopeful, we walked up river. Along the way, Metcalf head hunted and I spot fished and watched for signs of clearing and saw none.

After catching my fifth clump of moss in as many holes, I reeled in, sat my hook, and waited for Metcalf, who had made a wrong turn and gotten caught up in some brush. I think we’re going to have to leave this river alone for awhile, Metcalf called from somewhere in the trees.

That morning, long before we had reached the Strawberry, I reminded Metcalf that if the river was a bust, we had a Plan B. Some years ago, an old college buddy, Derek, had purchased a plot of land right on the Duchesne River, which wasn’t a ten minute drive east of the Strawberry. I had emailed him and he gave me enough information so that if we ran into any of his neighbors, I would be able to talk the right game.

The last time I fished the Duchesne, I had no sooner stepped in the river when two husky, young men appeared on the river’s edge and asked if I knew I was on private property. I was with my friend Nole, who had obtained the magic words from Derek, and he walked over, spoke the words, and set things straight. I was thankful for those words because they made it possible for me to fish and catch lots of nice trout without worrying about getting run out of there.

I talked to Nole the other day and he told me Derek’s son had recently caught a 26” brown on a rappala. I was already planning on heading out that anyway, so that 26” brown was the only reason I needed to write Derek and ask if I could access the river from his land. As we drove through the town of Duchesne, Metcalf was careful not to speed.

Neither of us wished to invite the wrath of the local sheriff, who would not take kindly to us endangering his citizenry, which at the moment was nowhere in evidence. We then turned off the main road and I asked Metcalf to creep so I could find Derek’s plot. Park right there, I said, pointing to an empty, wind blown parcel of land.

You sure this is it? Metcalf inquired as he pulled to the side of the road. Sure as I can be. I could hear the doubt in my voice, so I quickly added We’ll be alright. I couldn’t remember how to get down to the river, but after a little to and fro and some bush whacking, we made it to the bank. I looked down at the milky gray water and got the same sinking feeling I had only minutes before on the Strawberry. With the help of some brush, we eased ourselves down a beaver slide and prepared to enter the water.

Thinking about it now, I realize Metcalf already knew that the river wasn’t going to fish, but true to his unhurried nature, he was willing to wait for me to figure that out for myself.

Someone, who had likely come from the other side of the river, had stuck a wading stick in the mud. I grabbed it and slid it into the water, which was about two feet deep. I stepped in and walked out, probing for bottom as I did so. Metcalf stood on the bank and watched me. When I was about half way, he started across and soon we were both standing in the shallows, looking up and down river, waiting for the other to speak the words that would put an end to our day on the Duchesne. When those words didn’t come right away, I took a drink of water and studied the river and the surrounding terrain.

Although initially I was unsure of how to navigate, within minutes the river’s now hidden structure came back to me and I could remember every crossing for as far as I could see. I had fished this river once almost a decade ago, and yet I still knew it well enough to cross it safely. I am more amazed than I am surprised by our innate ability to map, store, and summon topographical information.

But of course we are not the only animals to record and recall survival relevant information: We’re just the species that can write about it. Metcalf opened his fly box and quickly became engrossed in the act of selection. I guess he figured as long as we were here, he would give it the college try. Normally we would spread out and meet up at various points throughout the day, but it made sense to stick together, in which case I walked a few yards down river and fished a run along the bank while Metcalf improved his situation. On that October day, the river seemed raw and hellish. In places, heaps of bulldozed and long-dead vegetation were piled twenty feet high on the river’s edge. A few feet away lay a bloody mess of feathers and carnage from a goose that, judging by the crazed spattering of animal tracks in the rank mud, had been surprised and devoured in the night. Across the river, I noticed a small house or trailer tucked back in the trees. It was hard to tell because, in addition to the trees and their deep shadows, a red and blond row of brush and cattails had grown in front of the house. At the far end of this barrier, a small dock hung out over the water and a cattle dog walked out onto it and barked half-heartedly. I told her it was alright and to go on home.

As if to have the last word, she barked once more and then turned and walked back into the trees. I studied the trees for signs of the dog owner and glimpsed the dark shape of a man, which quickly dissolved into the heavy shadows. Metcalf commented on the cattle dog and told him she was harmless. Then I scooted down the run and began fishing the tail water while Metcalf worked toward me. He didn’t get far because just then we heard barking, except this time it sounded serious. I turned toward the house and saw a very large black dog racing along the cattails. When it came to an opening, it leaped into the shallow water and charged toward me.

The dog appeared to be a rottweiler mix, and he had to have been 28” at the shoulder. That he meant business was clearly demonstrated by the thick stripe of raised hair that went from his massive head to about half way down his tail. I yelled at him in hopes of breaking his concentration and sure enough he stopped about 15 feet away. He was still acting aggressively, though, and as he barked he looked from me to Metcalf as if waiting for us to turn tail and run.

The cattle dog stayed on the bank and barked once or twice and then was silent. My strategy of talking had worked with her, so I stood my ground and tried it on the big black sonofabitch standing in front of me. A couple minutes later he turned, still barking, and walked back toward the house in the trees. I think he thought he had put us in our place. He had put me in a place, I can tell you that. Afraid he was going to charge again, I waved to Metcalf and we headed down river.

When we had reached a safe distance, we stopped and established a few things: First, while I has talking to the dog, Metcalf had seen the man standing in the shadows, watching us. That fact, together with how suddenly the dog had appeared--as if a switch had been flipped--made it pretty clear that he had called his dogs on us; second, we weren’t going to go back the way we came. Derrick had warned me to steer clear of a couple of his neighbors down river, but he hadn’t said anything about the nut job with the two dogs. It occurred to me that whoever the man was in the shadows, he was taking a hell-of-a-chance setting those dogs on us, especially out here in this part of the world, where side-arms are not uncommon.

Granted I don’t own a gun, but I’ve got a pretty big knife I carry with me into the wilder places, expressly for the purpose of protection. I was glad it didn’t come to that. It would be a shame for that animal to die because of the stupidity of his owner. The Duchesne is plagued with barbed wire fences. There is probably enough barbed wire in the West to reach from here to the moon, twice. Metcalf and I had to walk a mile before we came to a place where fence wasn’t visible from the river.

Then we climbed up the bank and cut across several acres of unplowed field, only to find the field itself was enclosed by more barbed wire. After climbing two more fences and hiking down and up a gully littered with rusted farm machinery, we finally made it to the little dirt road along which we had parked. As we neared the stand of trees we had seen earlier, we saw an old ford parked in the shade. We stopped and looked at what we knew was the man’s truck. We should slash his tires, Metcalf said, straddling the line between jest and seriousness. If I had said Let’s do it, I can’t be certain Metcalf wouldn’t have used his knife to cut deep frowns in the man’s tires.

The man himself must have realized this, or maybe he just wanted a parting shot at us, because we had just started walking again when the black dog came barreling out of the trees with the cattle dog in tow. This time we just ignored them and kept walking, which I think confused the black dog who, tail held high, weaved between me and Metcalf, sniffed a fence post, pissed, barked, and returned to the trees. The cattle dog came up along side me and I petted her shoulders. Then she, too, walked back to the trees. I caught sight of the man standing not far from his truck, hands in his pockets, watching us. I stopped and faced him. Metcalf shared my desire to confront him, so he stopped and together we stood there and waited for the man to come up out of the shadows and talk to us.

Once he saw that we saw him, he turned and walked down the trail toward his shack on the river. That’s what I thought, I said to myself. Metcalf suggested we hit the middle Provo River on the way home. I had been fishing the Provo a lot lately, too much, in fact, and I was desperate for some newer water, which was why I suggested we try the Strawberry in the first place. But I also knew there had been a consistent blue winged olive hatch on the middle for the past four days, and that we would get there just as it was starting. I was feeling pretty spent, though. My body was saying “No” and my imagination was saying “Yes.” Metcalf could see that I was conflicted. Should we call it a day? he asked.

Metcalf lives for a handful of things and dry fly fishing is one of them. I couldn’t in good conscience deny him that pleasure, not after the disappointment of the Strawberry and Duchesne Rivers. I’ve got a couple more hours in me, I said. When we got to the river an hour later, Metcalf looked at his watch: 3:14 p.m. We’re right on time. Above the river, we could see the tiny blue wings drifting through the air like bits of ash. Below them, rise forms spread across the smooth blue-green water, one right after the other . . .bloop, bloop, bloop. Metcalf waded out and, on his first cast, caught a healthy fall brown. The hatch was on.

On another day I might have hurried down and gotten my share of the action, but I just stood there and took in the details--the sun on my face, the clean, green smell of the river, songs of the black capped chickadees, and Metcalf and Metcalf‘s reflection on the water. Any day now the snows will come and cover this place and time in my life. And so I record a memory, a fragile stay against winter, when the world beyond the river lies darkly beneath the ice and snow.

Maximilian Werner is a writer and an educator who lives in Salt Lake City. His story “Anglers Ball” took second place in the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest. His book, Black River Dreams, is now available released from Barclay Creek Press.