Friday, December 30, 2005

Eagle Cap Storms

Part 1

Lightning flashed.
The tent's aluminum-pole
skeleton shimmered.
Knobby toes at the far end
of my legs that lay flat on the
sleeping bag stood starkly
outlined against the pale tent
wall. They twitched slightly.
So did the hands that
clutched Agatha Christie's
witch-inhabited mystery novel
``Pale Horse'' against my
A soft rumble rolled down
the granite ridge to the east. It
sounded faintly hollow, like
an oak chair tipping onto the
maple floor of a vast and
distant castle hall.
Within seconds the rumble
built to a crescendo, and
chair, castle and known world
crashed around my ears.
Lids squeezed over bulging
eyes. Hair stood on end. An
impulse to scream into the
night swept over me.
More lightning crackled.
More thunder hammered
across my head and
shoulders. Rain hammered
the tent, too, and marble-
sized drops skittered from the
fabric into the night.
But I lay still, except for
twitching some.
Why, the worst that could
happen would be:
Stormy thoughts occurred
to me that night in the Eagle
Cap Wilderness Area, about
6.1 miles from Wallowa Lake,
at the edge of Six Mile
Meadow. I'd been on the trail
since Sunday and walked
about 64 miles already.
My ride, fondly named
Darlene's Shuttle Service, had
dropped me at the gate near
the top of Minam Hill, about
10 miles east of Elgin on Ore
gon Highway 82, at 10:30 a.m.
When I reached Wallowa
Lake, I'd call and she'd re
trieve me. So, with no vehicle
waiting for a week at a
trailhead, I started the hike
with an unfettered mind.
Well, not quite.
I expected to encounter
SOME natural adversity along
the way. And several normal
misgivings nagged at my
head, such as: Will the food
last? What if a bear takes it
away from me? Will the stove
work? What if a tent pole
breaks? Will the trail be open?
What if I get an infected blis
ter or twist an ankle and can't
walk? What if a tree falls on
Strolling down the first part
of the hike, I told myself to
RELAX and put silly fears
Besides, as Harry Roberts
said in his small book ``The
Basic Essentials of Backpack
ing,'' you don't have to be
smart to hike successfully.
He said ``attention to detail''
means much more than intel
ligence on the trail. Roberts
also said hikers should ``roll
with the punches'' and ``enjoy
the rain.''
Clearly, with some serious
concentration, I'd be all right.
My motto became: Relax
and pay attention to detail.
Later, beneath a 90-degree
sun, I pondered a less ideal
istic view of the great out
doors, however. In one of Sue
Grafton's mystery novels, de
tective Kinsey Millhone said
something like, ``Nature runs
uphill, dirty and sweaty and
By 3:30 p.m., sweat had
plowed furrows through the
dust on my face and neck. A
sweat-soaked shirt clung to
my back. Pants and socks
sagged. The pack's hip belt
had rubbed raw patches in my
flab. And, somehow defying
gravity, sodden shorts had
inched upward and
threatened to strangle me.
So, maybe 10 miles from
Minam Hill, I quit for the day.
Half an hour later, the
camp stood beside the river
and a small rainbow trout
danced on the end of the fly
line. Clearly, detective
Millhone's view of nature
missed an important clue.
After dinner, while sipping
tea, I discovered a blister on
each little toe. I'd started out
with Moleskin, a soft felt ma
terial with stickum on the
back, covering those very
blister-prone spots, too.
Would I be able to walk on
Monday? Many miles to go,
after all. A sign near the wil
derness boundary had said
``Reds Horse Ranch 17,'' and
``Minam Lake 43.'' And
Wallowa Lake would be 17 or
18 miles more.
Bravely I battled negative
thoughts. Then I snipped the
blisters with the Swiss Army
Knife's scissors and painted
them from the small bottle of
Second Skin. They stung like
the dickens.
The next morning I covered
the blisters with new Mole
skin and slipped on a pair of
thin double-layered nylon
socks, called blister-resisters,
beneath the light woollies.
Lo, the feet smiled when
they hit the trail at 7:15 a.m.
And, with frequent rest stops,
they smiled when they
stopped a mile short of Reds
at 3:46 that afternoon.
And I soon smiled, too.
After shucking the pack and
sweaty clothes beside the
green water, I carefully _
paying attention to detail _
took a running cannonball
leap from the bank.
Cold, clear water washed
over me. Nearly took my
breath away. Huff-puff. Spurt-
spew. Absolutely relaxed.
But, alas, on Tuesday that
laid-back attitude suffered a
setback. Between Reds and
the North Minam River, about
a zillion fallen trees blocked
the trail. I labored from 7:10
a.m. to 3:30 p.m., including a
half-hour for lunch and two
coffee breaks, to cover the
11.8 miles to Rock Creek.
After another river plunge
and more fishing near a green
buttercup-dotted meadow, I
wrestled with the prospect
battling deadfall all day
Then, while reading Chris
tie's novel with my headlamp,
I experienced a revelation.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Dane
Calthrop, told the hero of the
book, ``Always envisage the
worst. You've no idea how
that steadies the nerves. You
begin at once to be sure it
can't be as bad as you im
Wow. I immediately
blended the idea with my
``RELAX'' motto. Relax, pay
attention to detail and expect
the worst.
At the absolute worst, the
14.6 miles of trail upstream
from Rock Creek to Minam
Lake would have a deadfall
every five feet.
It worked. After clawing
and stumbling through the
first clump of fallen lodgepole
pine and spruce trees early
Wednesday morning, I
laughed out loud. The next
barrier lay at least 100 yards
away. My worst fears would
never come true. Then the
deadfall almost completely
ended after 81/2 miles, at
Trail Creek.
Thursday's storm surrounded me after I left Minam
Lake, crossed Lake Basin and
camped beside the West Fork
of the Wallowa River.
Lightning flashed and thun
der crashed. I lay in the
muggy tent on top of the
sleeping bag and watched
twitching toes outlined
against the taught pale nylon.
Then, again taking control,
I relaxed and envisaged the
worst: lightning could strike
the tent and leave one strip of
curled, burnt bacon-like
gristle smoking on the pine
Boy, I sure felt better and
immediately fell into a dream
less sleep.
Part 2
When the goshawk
swooshed from the shadows
screaming ``Skree, Skree,
Skree,'' the bottom slipped
from my stomach.
And down my leg.
My head scrunched deep
into my shoulders.
``Yiiiiippppeess,'' I said and
jigged from foot to foot on the
damp trail.
When the gray-breasted,
dark-winged, red-eyed bird of
prey screamed like a dry band
saw and swooped a second
time, its tail feathers fanned
and it swerved barely five feet
from my bloodless face.
``Yeooooooooowwwww'' I
Shucks. What a time to be
penetrated by talons.
And after a week in the
wilds, too. A week more or
less without incident.
In six days I strolled 65
miles through the Eagle Cap
Wilderness: from Minam Hill
on Oregon Highway 82, 10
miles east of Elgin, up the
Minam River; over the pass
above Minam Lake; across
Lake Basin and part way
down the West Fork of the
Wallowa River.
I survived _ with minor
scratches _ hundreds of
fallen trees across the trail, 60
swatrillion swarming mos
quitoes and one blood-
curdling, thunder-and-
lightning storm.
I waded swollen streams
and lost the trail once near
Big Burn, about five miles
south of Red's Horse Ranch,
which forced me to
bushwhack for three hours
over 40-foot cliffs, across a
buttercup-dotted green
meadow and through jagged,
mucky thickets.
And, when I tried to avoid
wading the Minam River a
mile from Minam Lake, I fell
off a log jam into waist-deep
icy water. I smiled, of course,
and walked on with my boots
Anyway, with just five miles
of trail remaining to Wallowa
Lake, I had to deal with a
crazed, red-eyed, winged
And I decided to stop the
bird in mid-swoop with my
trusty, although somewhat
bent and dented, Nikon cam
So, on the bird's third
screeching pass I deftly drew
the camera from the handy
belly pouch made by Dana
Design of Bozeman, Mont.(
I bought the pouch for that
very purpose, you see. It at
taches to the backpack's
shoulder straps and stretches
across the belly. Carry a cam
era in it and you're ready
when a poignant scene un
Well, sure, the pouch also
allowed me to keep other es
sential items just a quick zip
away, too.
When a hunger pang
nagged at my belly barely an
hour after breakfast _ as it
did daily _ I didn't have to
stop, take off the backpack
and fish a snack from a side
pocket or from the main com
Why, I just unzipped the
pouch, pulled out a chocolate
PowerBar and munched while
I walked.
And since the pocket _
which cost nearly $30 last
winter at Mountain Gear in
Spokane _ also carried a
water bottle, I chased the
snack with cool water.
Or Gatorade or apple juice.
Especially apple juice.
In addition to camera,
water bottle and chocolate
PowerBars, I loaded the belly
pouch with sun screen, insect
repellent, compass, note pad,
pencil, reading glasses, mon
ocular, Swiss Army Knife,
lighter for the stove, a small
bottle of Second Skin and a
package of Moleskin, a soft
stickum-backed bandage, for
Once along the Minam
River, downstream from
Red's Horse Ranch, and three
times in marshy Lake Basin,
clouds of mosquitoes swirled
about my head and shoulders.
With a quick unzip, I pulled
out the bug juice and rubbed
it on critter-covered hands,
face and neck as well as on
shirt shoulders and sleeves.
Why, without ready access
to the goop, those clawing
needle-noses would've
pumped my body dry.
And speaking of pumps, my
First Need water purifying
pump sometimes fit into the
belly pouch, too.
Usually, though, I tied the
pump to a strap on the
Anyway, the First Need
pump worked almost per
Some hikers don't worry
about purifying Minam River
or other wilderness water, but
I do.
I've heard too many claims
that Giardia protozoa live in
wilderness streams and lakes
these days. And if you get it, it
causes a severe fever,
diarrhea and other flu-like
symptoms. Who needs that? A
First Need system, according
to advertisements, filters out
this protozoa, among other
And with the pump, you
don't have to boil water,
which takes time and fuel, or
use iodine tablets, which
makes the water taste like
Still, on a scale of 10, the
pump falls about 2.7 points
shy of perfection because you
need three hands to work it.
During the recent hike, I
pumped six to eight quarts of
water a day. While squatting
on a rock or a log and dangl
ing the pump's inlet tube into
the water, I braced the clean
bottle that held the outlet tube
between my feet. With the
pump and filter in my left
hand, I pumped with the right
It required less than two
minutes to pump a quart of
water. In the evening, I filled
two quart bottles, one pint
bottle, the coffee pot and the
Dana Design bottle.
During the day, I kept one
bottle half-full in the pack and
filled the belly-pouch bottle
from it.
Invariably, pumping
worked up a sweat. And, in
variably, I slipped and clat
tered into the water source to
fill at least one boot.
Other filtering pumps ap
parently work better than the
$37 First Need system, includ
ing a $240 one by Katadyn
and a $140 one by MSR.
Katadyn also sells an
expedition-quality system for
But for the difference be
tween $37 and $100 or $200
or $600, I'll pump and sweat
and fill the occasional boot.
Besides the First Need
pump did the job. At least I
think it did. I haven't felt sick
Well, standing on the trail
with camera in hand and
dodging the screeching gos
hawk, I did feel a slight wave
of nausea. Or fear.
``Skree, Skree, Skree,'' said
the swooping bird.
Yeoooooooow, I mumbled
as it pulled from its 100 mph
power dive within bare feet of
my skinned-back eyes. Well,
Maybe I overrated the value
of keeping a camera handy on
a hike.
When you think about it,
it's no big deal to stop a diving
goshawk on color film, with
its red eyes gleaming, with its
razor-edged beak open and
with its glistening, gnarled
talons in your face.
Maybe we put too much
emphasis on pictures, any
Didn't American novelist-
essayist Philip Wylie
(1902-1971) write years ago
something like: anyone who
believes a picture is worth a
thousand words can't read,
can't write, can't think and
has a paltry imagination?
So, I shook feeling into my
legs, squared my shoulders,
zipped the camera away and
ambled on down the trail.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Montana Fishing

I once arrived at the Big Hole River, near Melrose, Mont., simultaneously with the salmon fly hatch. My eyeballs popped when the big multi-winged bug flapped like a loaded Huey helicopter across State Highway 43, between the sleepy communities of Dewey and Wise River, to drop its load of eggs on the water.
I swerved, missed the bug AND avoided the barrow pit. Well, heck, a salmon fly saved contributes thousands of eggs to next year's hatch. Who'd a thunk it. Salmon flies in mid-June. Talk about serendipity!
That sighting occurred last week on Wednesday afternoon, after I'd already set personal records for catching large brown trout on the Madison River between Quake Lake and Ennis and small browns, rainbows and brookies on the Firehole River, Nez Perce Creek and the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.
Actually, some of the fish on the Firehole and Nez Perce weren't big enough to be called ``small.'' More like ``teensy.'' But a few were 10-12 inchers. Anyway, I relinquished the fly rod early in the park, after hooking a couple of dozen fish, and concentrated on scenery, buffalo, elk and fellow tourists.
In the late afternoon, I headed back to the Madison River, a few miles below Quake Lake. But, heck, let me start at the beginning, because this six-day trip to some of the Blue Ribbon trout streams of the Western World, included a moment or two of despair as well as those drawn-out surges of elation.
Sadie the Dalmatian and I left Walla Walla for Craig in the dark that Sunday morning, at least I did. I didn't realize I'd left the collar at home until I paused the a nature break along the Clearwater River near Lewiston. What? No collar.
``See, Sadie,'' I said. ``That's what you get, darn it, for being so impatient.''
She had, you see, bolted from the house and jumped in the truck with the first load of gear I carried out. And she wouldn't get out. So, I left here there until I loaded up, took my final shower for the week and brushed my teeth. Then, with my arms loaded with last-second stuff (coffee cup, jacket, rain gear, extra boots, etc.), I left the collar hanging on the hook by the door.
And it was Sadie's fault. I worried about no collar with her name and address and her license and shot tags on it, just in case, from Lewiston to Lincoln, Mont. And I almost bought a new one when I bought a fishing license (non-resident, $67 for the year). But they only had camouflage colored ones, and she would still be without the tags, so I didn't.
Which turned out to be a good thing.
After I crossed the railroad tracks, passed a row of rigs with empty boat trailers and pulled into the nearly full, dozen-site primitive campground by the Missouri River at about 3:29 p.m., I fed Sadie the Dalmatian, pitched the tent under an alder tree and put a can of Bush's beans on to heat.
Then I rummaged through the permanent junk box in the truck, the one with the 50-foot cord, flashlight, flare, water jugs and other junk. And, by golly, I'd left Sadie's skijoring harness in it, with all of the tags.
Talk about serendipity.
So, I harnessed her up, and we watched the gophers. Must've been 50 or so gamboling on the grass and standing with feet poised chest high to whistle and survey the territory. After realizing their quickness at diving into their holes, Sadie made a tour of holes and resigned herself to watching them from a distance.
Three steps from the picnic table, the Mighty Mo rushed past a bit high and a bit dark. And, of course, wind riffled across the currents.
With beans and a cup of hot chocolate steaming on the table and a bagel in my left hand, I rustled about the foot box with my left hand. Looking for my spoon and fork.
Don't tell me?
With some slightly audible muttering, I searched every box and gear container I had. No eating utensils. I looked at the Swiss Army Knife on the table, with which I had opened the beans. And I looked across the row of boat trailers to the town, with a bar, a restaurant and a couple of fly-fishing gear shops.
I could borrow a spoon and fork. But I didn't cotton to the idea, really. I studied the tree's limbs. I could whittle a flat utensil easy enough. Then I found a nice, clean board in the grass. I less than a minute I had a rough spatula that worked fine.
By then the beans and the hot chocolate had cooled to perfection, too.
Ready to fish at last, I rigged up the 5-weight fly rod with a floating line and tied in a new 6-pound test 4X tippet. I tied on a tiny dry fly and changed into waders. I left the gtent doors open enough so that nosy gophers could get in without chewing through the door and drove two miles down the river to a hole I'd fished before.
I won't dwell on this high-water Missouri River fishing experience, except to say that the current nearly carried Sadie away at the first hole. And I worked the hole for a mere 30 minutes before I took the shivering Sadie back to the truck and dried her with a towel. I drove upstream to another hole. It was easier you fish, but no fish were rising. And the guys drifting by in boats fished with nymphs. So, I tried nymphs.
I fished, with Sadie looking like she'd been yelled at, until 8:32 p.m. without a single strike and limped back to camp. I followed Sadie into the tent, to keep her off my sleeping bag, and she found three fresh brown gopher nuggets on her sleeping bag. She looked at me as if her home and hearth had been soiled. And as if I had caused it.
She scowled and pushed the oblong tidbit around with her nose, until I picked them up and tossed them outside.
Then a storm blew in that night that threatened to bowl the tent with us in it into the Missouri. With the rumble of thunder, lightning flashed so close that the hair on my arms moved.
At dawn rain soaked the grass and the tent. I put on two coats, made hot chocolate and toasted a bagel that I slathered with jelly using my whittled spoon. I ate, put on the waders went fishing.
I fished hard all day Monday, with a lunch break back at camp. I hooked on giant rainbow trout. When it broke water, it looked about a foot wide at the middle. It snapped off the stonefly in about five seconds.
So, I felt depressed. Yet, I fished all the way down to Holter Lake. I bought coffee at a marina, and the woman gave me a plastic spoon and fork.
After a fishless afternoon, I met two guys at camp from Joseph, Ore. One owned the fly shop in Joseph. He had caught six fish and his friend had caught 10. They would have caught more, but they lost the anchor to their drift boat, which made casting to the fish difficult. Andy they mainly used nymphs, too.
So, I fished in the cold and wind without a strike until noon Tuesday before packing it in. It was only 130 miles to Ennis and another 40 miles or so to Quake Lake.
The Madison, however, appeared high and the wind blew. I drove south on US Highway 287, stopped at Varney Bridge and McAtee Bridge and fished briefly. Eventually, I drove up to Hill Top Campground between Wade and Cliff Lakes. All 18 sites were empty, so I chose No. 5 pitched the tent and ate more beans. Sadie and I spent more than an hour hiking the nature trail before turning in.
At about 6,200 feet elevation, the temperature dropped to 28 degrees, and the wind whipped the tall Douglas fir trees hard. I worried one would fall on the tent.
By 5:30 a.m. the wind had stopped, leaving the sky blue. I donned two coats and a sweater and toasted two bagels. I drove the six miles of dirt road slow and crossed the river. It still looked high and rough. So, I dove 30 miles to Bud Lilly's fly shop in West Yellowstone.
A chalk board there listed several area rivers, including the Gallatin, Madison and Firehole. The Gallatin was too high, but the Madison was fishable (with big nymphs and wooly buggers) and the Firehole was productive (with small nymphs and dry flies).
A young man there commented (snide?) about my Yankee hat, and I asked how the Mariners had done the last few days.
``But you're wearing a Yankee hat,'' he insisted.
``You shouldn't judge a person by his hat,'' I said, which didn't strike him as funny as it did me and he told me the M's lost to Montreal but the Yankees beat his team, the Astros.
I told him thanks and wandered away, wondering how anyone could be an Astros fan. Anyway, spent the $20 to enter the park and the $10 for a 10-day fishing license. It took forever to get past Norris Junction because of the buffalo on and beside the road. I fastened Sadie's leash to a belt around my waist, and she followed along easily.
I stopped a a dozen pullouts along the Firehole, including in the 2-mile canyon byway, and along Nez Perce Creek. I fished a bead-head pheasant-tail nymph and caught a fish about every third or fourth cast, not biggies. But I didn't care. I fished the Madison River in the park at two spots and caught three small cutthroat trout.
Then I headed back to stream below Quake Lake and took campsite No. 1 at the empty Madison River Camp Ground (across Lyons Bridge).
The river had dropped some by the time I ate dinner (more beans, with dehydrated mashed potatoes) and drove on the dirt road upriver to a fishing access parking area. With a clear, cool evening, Sadie and I hiked ab out a mile upstream. I watched a man and a woman fish a riffle with nymphs. I had planned to use dry flies, but the man caught two 18- 20-inch browns in about 15 minutes. And he didn't look like much of a fisherman, with short, awkward casts and rod tip held almost straight up over his head. The woman made smooth, 50 foot casts. But she didn't hook any fish.
And I realized why. She threw out too much line, which caught in the current and caused the fly to drag unnaturally.
Ah, ha! I thought. I caught lots of fish on the small streams in the park by dead-drifting the bead-heads (flies with copper or brass beads at the top of insect imitation).
Another thing I noticed: guys in drift boats floated about 20 feet out and tossed their nymphs toward the bank. Or, they parked and fished the riffles that dropped off shoals at the ends of islands in the stream.
My watch said 7:17 p.m. (still on Walla Walla time), which left about two hour hours for fishing. I tied on a No. 6 bead-headed black leach, with a green head. It also had a white hackle and a white-tufted rear, not to mention several white rubber legs.
Why that fly? It looked simply irresistible, although I'd never seen any kind of bug that resembled it in real life. And it was. Irresistible, that is. I continued upstream and waded across a channel at a shoals. I worked out about 20 feet of line, held the rod straight up to avoid drag and drifted the fly into a seam at the edge of the shoals.
I felt no Whammo! But I saw the floating line go under and move against the current. I pulled line with my left hand and lifted the rod higher with my right.
Twang went line! At least in my mind. And the rod curved. A 19-inch brown surged out of the water, caught the current and pulled a few feet of line from the reel.
Wow! I pulled the fish into calm water. It rolled on its side. I slipped the barbless hook free and rolled the fish upright. It lay still, and I thought about a picture. As I reached the camera, the fish flashed away into the current.
I caught six more browns and two whitefish before dark, and I only lost one of the green-black-white-bronze flies with wiggly legs. So, I had two left, which meant I smiled all the way back to the pickup and the campsite. So, for some reason, did Sadie.
I awoke at 4:19 a.m. (Walla Walla time) on Friday and could see a clear sky. My watch said it was 39 degrees in the tent, which meant close to 30 outside. I read for a few minutes, and dozed, determined to stay in the sleeping bag until 6:30 or so, when the sun reached the tent But it was tough, with all those fish in the river.
No other cars parked at the access area when I pulled in at 7:59 a.m. and set off upstream to the place I’d started the previous evening. I fished until 11:36, when my rumbling stomach insisted on food. I lost count of the fish caught. Either six or seven or nine or 10. But two more were whitefish, and one of them weighed about three pounds. The rest were browns.
And one was about 22-inches long , in one of those perfect situations. A guide and two clients fished a shoal in the middle of the river, about 30 yards across from me. I walked down below where the guide worked with on of the men, who looked like an NFL defensive end.
The guide was explaining how to cast the line and where. The other guy fished the other side of the riffle. The tableau froze in my mind when the fish hit my fly and leaped out of the water. It splashed and swirled so loud that all three of the men stopped to watch. The fish jumped twice more, and I brought it to the shallows and slipped the hook free. I didn’t look at the guys across the channel, but worked out 15 feet of line, flipped it on the riffle and walked on downstream.
After a lunch of granola with dehydrated milk, I decided to try the Big Hole, which would take me 150 miles closer to home.
And when I spotted the salmon fly on the road Thursday afternoon, I knew it had been a good decision.
I drove through Dewey and Wise River to the campground near Fishtrap Creek, about 23 miles from Wisdom. A flotilla of drift boats and rafts dotted the river, usually in twos with one oin each side of the river, casting toward the bank.
At Fishtrap, three Recreational Vehicles and a pickup shell had sites, but I pitched the tent at a site (free) that I’d used three other times.
Alas, after I fed feed Sadie, pitched the tent and put the sleeping bags inside and thought about opening a can of beans, I didn’t have my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket.
Panic washed over me. I began ransacking gear bags and boxes. I’d carried that knife for 20 years, and felt close to it. Besides, without it how would I open a can of beans.
A ton of disheveled gear lay on the grass and picnic table when I guy dropped by to BS. He was interesting _ a writer and photographer for fishing magazines _ and a fount of information about the area and how to fish the river.
So, we talked until nearly dark when he wandered to his pickup to cook the five small brook trout he’d caught earlier that day. I nearly whined that I wouldn’t have my usual beans unless I found my knife, but I didn’t.
And I didn’t find the knife, which meant I ate dehydrated hash browns O’Brien, tuna fish from a package (rather than a can), a bagel and hot chocolate. I probably pleased Sadie by not eating beans again.
Friday dawned clear and calm. Knifeless, I toasted bagels again and pouted. Then I remembered the Leatherman tool in the truck’s utility box. I felt better. I could at least open a can of beans with it.
After breakfast, I drove about five minutes upstream, parked by the highway and walked a quarter mile across a field to the willow-fringed river. I looked for salmon flies on the branches. Seeing none, I tied on the same wiggle legged nymph I used the day before on the Madison. I dead drifted the fly into the first promising hole and caught two fish, both browns in the 16-inch range.
We walked downstream awhile, and I flipped the fly out about 15 feet as we walked, I stopped at another promising hole. After 10 minutes of no response, reeled in the line and a fish made a strike at the fly and missed. I flipped the line out again, and stripped the fly in fast.
The fish hit again and hooked itself, which confused my certainty about the efficacy of the dead drift. As we neared the end of that stretch, I saw dark clouds building to the west. And the wind built to game force.
I started across the field and the rain hit. A deluge. I shucked my vest and pulled on my rain coat. Rain hit us in horizontal blasts. We hurried, but in the 15 minutes to the truck, rain streamed down Sadie’s sides.
She climbed into the truck and I rubbed her with the towel. I drove back to camp to check on the tent. Good thing. I’d left the doors down half way for ventilation , and windblown rain puddled on the floor and the sleeping bags. I spent 15 minutes wiping up the puddles.
I sat in the truck and nodded off until the squall passed. I fished again that afternoon, using nymphs and caught several fish, including one rainbow trout. Then, after dinner, a huge caddis fly hatch swarmed up the river 20 feet from the tent. I fished for an hour with dry flies, but didn’t get a rise.
It rained hard Friday night. I didn’t wait for the sun on Saturday. Packed up all the gear by 6:37 a.m. and drove up to the East Bank Recreation Site, about 10 miles. I fished for about two hours and caught one brown. About 18 inches.
I changed clothes, washing after a fashion with handy wipes, and started home. I bought gas in Wisdom, stopped to fish the East Fork Bitterroot River near Darby, where a man in a fly shop said the salmon flay hatch had just started.
When I explained that I couldn’t tarry to fish that day, he assured me the dry-fly fishing would be excellent from July through September for rainbows, browns, cutthroat, Dolly Vardens, brookies and whitefish.
Talk about serendipity.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Rocky Ford Creek

It looked like a perfect cast.
Perhaps 27- to 30-feet of
line settled onto the water at a
45-degree angle upstream. A
split second later, almost as
an afterthought, the tiny dry
fly touched down and stirred
half a dozen minuscule circles
within circles on the stream's
surface. Line and fly floated
almost imperceptibly on the
invisible current.
It looked like a perfect day,
Ravens sailed high over
head, their ``Rrrrr-Rrrrr'' calls
surprisingly clear despite
their altitude, and redwinged
blackbirds chuckled in the
cattail thickets along the
stream's banks.
Sun warmed the left side of
my face and the backs of my
hands as I lifted the fly rod tip
a tad and gathered slack line
slowly in my left hand. My
eyes squinted to see the fly on
the sun-bright water.
I'd left the sunglasses in the
car, of course. Heavy clouds
covered the area when I first
arrived at Rocky Ford Creek.
A blustery wind had
whipped riffles across the
water and rattled the desic
cated cattail stalks while I
rigged up the fly rod.
I removed the weary old
leader and tied on a brand
new 9-foot 3x leader. A 3x
leader, according to the infor
mation on the packet, would
withstand 5.8 pounds of pres
sure from a fish.
Rocky Ford Creek holds
rainbow trout bigger than
that, not that I've caught any.
But you often see them swim
by the bank while you fish _
six pounders at least.
Anglers may not wade in
this stream, by the way, be
cause of the sensitive banks
and bottom. In addition, ang
lers may use flies with barb
less hooks only. They may
keep one fish, and they're
supposed to stop fishing when
they do.
Anyway, I figured, with my
9-foot, 5-weight graphite rod,
even a 10-pounder would
have a difficult time breaking
5.8-pound-test line.
As I stood among the rat
tling cattails with my back to
the breeze, I opened my fly
box and selected a very small
nymph called a chironomid or
midge. It looked like someone
had wrapped thin copper wire
around a No. 18 hook with an
almost invisible bit of feather
near the eye of the hook.
With my spectacles perched
on my nose, I slipped the
leader through the hook's
hole, made a loop and twisted
the hook 10 times. This
wrapped the short end of the
leader several times around
the long part. I slipped this
short end through the loop in
the leader twice and pulled
the fly and the long part of the
leader to make a knot.
As I clipped the extra
leader, a raspy voice said,
``Where you from?'' A man
holding a fly rod stood a few
feet away.
``Huh?'' I said and blinked.
``I'm from Omak.''
``Oh. I thought maybe you'd
know where to buy dry flies
around here,'' he said.
Then, feeling a bit guilty, I
told him about the fly shop
and liquor store owned by a
man named Don Davis in
Soap Lake, less than 15 min
utes away. But he'd already
been there.
``He didn't have any small
enough,'' the man said. And
he reached his hand under my
``It's a No. 20,'' he said. A
blue pinhead-sized spot dot
ted his fingertip. At dusk the
previous day, the man said,
the trout had been rising, and
he'd tied on the tiny fly and
hooked three fish in a matter
of minutes.
``I didn't land any of them,
but they sure took after the
fly,'' he said. ``And this is the
only one I have left.''
I showed the man what I'd
tied on, and he said it looked
``pretty big.'' But I shrugged,
and he left.
My watch said it was 10:31
a.m., and I began casting.
After an hour, I realized I was
casting into the wind and that
by walking half a mile down
stream and crossing the
bridge, I could cast with the
So, I did. And the sun came
out and the breeze stopped.
That's when I could've used
the sunglasses but didn't want
to walk all the way back to the
I fished another two hours
or so without a hint of a strike
when two men walked up to
fish on the other side of the
stream, at the very spot I'd
Yes, one of the men hooked
a fish almost immediately. It
jumped and ran and splashed,
which surprised me. Most of
the lunkers I'd hooked in the
stream had been heavy and
strong but lethargic. The
man's fish pulled free before
he could land it, but it prob
ably weighed 3 pounds.
As he continued fishing, I
studied the man's technique.
It dawned on me that he
fished with a dry fly. I could
tell by the way he pulled the
rod tip back slightly to let the
fly float down after the line
landed on the water. And he
didn't let it drift very long,
Although I didn't see fish
rising, I eventually noticed
tiny insects flying over the
water _ very tiny.
When the men on the other
side moved on downstream, I
pulled out my fly box and
searched for a tiny blue dry
fly. I found four that appeared
to be tied on No. 20 hooks.
Vaguely I recalled buying
them when fishing in Monta
na. Pale Morning Duns or
Blue-winged Olives, or some
As carefully as possible, I
tied one on and rubbed gooey
stuff on it to make it float
forever. I cast maybe two
dozen times without results.
Then, a fish bumped the fly _
actually rose from the dark
water and bumped it. It made
my day.
Minutes later, the same
thing happened again. All
right! I'd obviously made a
major breakthrough.
Then I laid out this perfect
cast, and the fly rode high and
floated slow. Squinting, I saw
it clearly, about 25 feet away.
Then, ever so lightly, I
raised the rod tip and a small
circle of waves surrounded
the fly. It looked like an insect
had wriggled slightly on the
water. I waited a few seconds
and moved the fly again.
The water boiled and the
line snapped taught. My eyes
bugged. I pulled in line. Then
the fish pulled back and
ripped the line through my
fingers. The rod arched, the
reel screeched and the fish
I retrieved 15 feet of line
before the fish jumped and
ran again. It ran four times in
the next few seconds, strip
ping line from the reel with
that screech that makes hair
dance on the back of my
neck. And it jumped three
Finally, the giant rainbow
trout languished within reach
_ 18 to 19 inches long and
31/2 pounds, at least. The tiny
fly looked like a gnat on its
upper lip.
On my knees in the mud, I
removed the fly without
touching the fish. Then, when
I pressed the fish's dark green
back with a finger to see if it
was too tired to swim, it shot
away into the weeds.
That happened at about
1:38 p.m.
Other anglers will under
stand why, although I didn't
hook another fish, I cast and
cast and cast. And why I
didn't make it home in time
for supper.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Juniper Dunes

When my watch said 11:39
a.m. on Monday, my stomach
said ``Let's eat.''
I paused on a patch of sand
in the Juniper Dunes Wilder
ness, three hours from the
truck. A breeze cooled my
face and arms as I aimed
binoculars across mounds, ar
royos and dark juniper trees.
To the south, in Pasco,
spanned the silver Cable
Bridge. To the west, beyond
Hanford, loomed stark Rattle
snake Mountain. To the east,
south of Dayton, gleamed
snow-covered Table Rock.
Steel windmills waved on
Horse Heaven Hills and above
Vansycle Canyon.
To the north spread more
mounds, arroyos and juniper
trees and, nestled in a green
pasture, the Juniper Dunes
Ranch. My main landmark.
So, I knew where I was.
And my shirt pocket bulged
with my compass, in case of
I sought a place secluded
from the breeze. Several juni
pers stood to my right, half
hidden by a sandy ridge. A
cool, green carpet spread be
neath them.
I set up the palm-sized
Snow Peak stove and hung
the CamelBak waterbag in a
tree. I drained water into the
coffee pot and into a cup for
Sadie the Dalmatian.
I fixed the camera on the
monopod, steadied it with a
low juniper limb, clicked the
10-second timer and hurried
to fire up the stove.
I pushed the stove's red-
button igniter: Whoosh.
Water steamed in two min
utes. I poured it into my cup
with two packs of Swiss Miss.
Sadie and I ate a turkey sand
wich, an apple and carrots.
I set the camera's timer
again, hurried to the day
pack, leaned back, picked up
my cup and listened.
The breeze soughed
through the junipers. A
meadow lark warbled. A dis
tant raven whispered.
Sadie lay on her back with
her legs straight up.
I dozed.
Yikes! My eyeballs bulged.
Two-stroke engines screamed
like Bear Cat wood chippers.
I grabbed my binoculars
and raced up the sandy ridge.
Four dirt bikers shrieked
across a dune and into an
arroyo 80 yards away. They
wore bright riding suits, with
the leader in red. Helmets and
bright red, white and blue
bikes with high front fenders
glared in the sunlight.
Rear tires spewed sand.
I stomped back to the juni
pers to pack. When my watch
said 12:39 p.m., Sadie and I
stalked eastward.
We crossed the dirt-bike
tracks, four six-inch-wide and
three-inch-deep gouges
across the sand, native bunch
grass and twisted sage.
Biting back bile, I trudged
across valleys and ridges
toward a tall, distant dune.
I paused to photograph
purple phlox, yellow bells,
yellow sky rocket, gold star,
balsom root and juniper trees.
Some junipers broke
ground there 250 years ago,
about the time James Lind
wrote his ``Treatise on
Scurvy'' that claimed eating
oranges and lemons would
cure or prevent the affliction.
And about the time the in
dustrial revolution started
Ah, well.
Shuffling along, we found a
4-point deer antler, and I
photographed it. So, big mule
deer do live among the dunes.
My altimeter figured the tall
dune to be 140 feet high. I
spotted my landmark, the Ju
niper Dunes Ranch, to the
north. We angled toward it.
Later, when I paused below
a ridge, all hell broke loose:
growling and snarling and a
gnashing of teeth.
My hair jumped. I jumped.
Sadie jumped behind my leg.
A snarling black and white
border collie slid to a stiff-
legged stop inches away. It
whirled and dashed away.
Sadie bristled and snarled in
hot pursuit. A man and
woman topped the ridge, yell
ing ``Katie! Katie!.''
Katie stopped. Sadie
stopped. They circled.
They sniffed as I climbed
the ridge and talked with the
people. They planned to camp
overnight. I said nothing
about a sign by the gate that
said no overnight parking.
Perhaps they asked per
mission at the ranch.
Then, after another hour, I
reached the last wilderness
dune and counted 12 people,
two on a blanket digging a
hole; three teenagers rolling
down a 60-foot slope; four
kids leaping down the dune;
and a woman holding a child.
A busy wilderness for a
Monday. And we all left our
Yet, people with the dog
and people turning the wilder
ness into a giant sand box
didn't clinch my jaws tight.
But dirt bikers did. Prob
ably because they mangled
everything in their paths.
And because they cut
through the fence to do it.