An excerpt from my book Wyoming Mountains & Home-waters, telling the story of catching my first fish as a little boy, and how that simple act still resonates thirty years later. Enjoy the story! There is also a thank you to readers at the end.
The challenge of melding together two families is trying in the best of situations. My mother’s willingness to go from mom to two children to mom and stepmother to seven is a testament to her enduring patience and boundless capacity for love. Another of her great acts of love was her encouragement of a wonderful relationship between Brandon and me and our dad’s parents. It is no small feat for someone to look past the hurt and bitterness following the emotional schism of divorce and put their children first. The relationship we had with them is also a testament to one of the qualities that make grandparents, grandparents—unconditional love of grandchildren, regardless of the parents’ marital status. I have seen the same pattern play out time and time again, as grandparents become the stabilizing force in a child’s life after the trauma of a divorce.
Our mom made sure that Brandon and I were able to visit and spend time with our grandparents, no matter the distances involved and even as we moved from town to town through the Bighorn Basin. After remarrying for the second time, she recognized that time spent with Grandma and Grandpa was often the escape we needed in order to find balance in our lives as we sought to navigate the turbulence of our second stepfamily in only a few years. Their house in Worland, Wyoming, was a love-filled respite from the cramped and contentious trailer-house. Whether a quick weekend trip or an entire summer, visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s house were a salve for the soul, as there is nothing more nurturing than the gentle love of a grandparent.
Summertime trips became the highlight of the year for me, as this meant we could travel up the looming Bighorn Mountains to the family cabin known as Rubyat. Although our first trips to Rubyat were surprise adventures, as we got older, I began to make insistent, vocal requests; fortunately, it took very little beseeching to convince my grandparents to pack the car and take the hour-long trip to the cabin.
My home-waters, if traced to their utmost beginnings, originate in the snows that occupy the heights of the Bighorn Mountains. These mountains, which dominate the eastern horizon of the Bighorn Basin, are a sister range to the more famous Absaroka-Beartooths that serve as the western boundary of the Basin and are home to Yellowstone National Park. The oil-rich Bighorn Basin stretches between the two, occupying nearly 10,000 square miles, and runs 120 miles north to south and 60 miles east to west, generally speaking, of course.[i] Both the Absaroka-Beartooths and the Bighorn Mountains owe their existence to the mountain-building epoch of the Laramide orogeny that began in the late Cretaceous period and continued through the early Eocene, 35–80 million years ago. Though separated by the Bighorn Basin, both are part of the Rocky Mountains. While the two are sister ranges, each has its own distinct personality, which is reflected in the waters that flow from their slopes. From the Bighorn Mountains flow many tributaries to the world-renowned Bighorn River, including Tensleep Creek, which flows past the cabin; the Absaroka-Beartooths are home to a number of famous rivers, including the Yellowstone, Madison, and Firehole, to name just a few.
Every time we drove up the Bighorn Mountains, leaving behind the sweltering Basin heat, I could hardly wait to catch my first glimpse of crystal-clear snowmelt waters. As we traversed the route to the cabin, I would stare out the car window looking for any hint of the beautiful stream. Driving east we would pass through the quaint town of Ten Sleep before entering the canyon bearing the same name, which was my indicator that we were on the cusp of entering the mountains. Tensleep Canyon is a narrow cut in the base of the mountains filled with streamside willows, massive cottonwood trees, and the non-native Russian olive trees that were loved by pioneers for their hardiness and are fed by the waters of Tensleep and Leigh Creeks.
Just before the steep switchbacks that climb up the side of the mountain to deposit you on the top, there is a sign for the Ten Sleep Fish Hatchery. It is the location of one of my only memories of my mom and dad together while they were still married. As the four of us walked among the ponds on the tree-covered hatchery grounds, with Leigh Creek flowing past us just a short distance away, my parents had given me a slice of white bread to form into balls in my child-sized fists, so that I could feed the massive hatchery trout swimming in the pools. As is often the case, the circumstances just prior to the unfortunate incident have been lost to memory; what I do remember is that one moment I was standing on the grassy bank of the pond throwing bread to the trout and the next I was in their pool splashing and screaming. Most likely, my parents’ attention was focused on Brandon, who was just transitioning to toddlerhood. As my dad was still scrambling to reach me, I was plucked out of the pond by a friendly tourist, who must have seen the entire incident. I remember that I was still tightly holding a soggy ball of bread in my hand, but some of the bread had come apart while I was thrashing in the water, and I watched as the enormous fish in the pond, only momentarily spooked, began to plod their way toward the bread I had left behind.
Ascending the switchbacks meant that we had left the Basin behind and were officially in the mountains. More importantly, it meant we were now in the mountain forests that held the cabin. There I could explore the natural world on my own terms; I was alone but also at my fullest. There was no competition or fighting with my step-siblings to keep my mind tethered to the here and now. There was no embarrassment about going to school in clothes that had been donated to a charity in the 1970s. Under the boughs of the evergreens, I shed my skin of fear, anxiety, anger, and embarrassment for that of a world-class explorer. I could venture into the pine trees to discover tremendous multi-hued fungi growing out of the aromatic soil. Beneath the verdant eye of the forest surrounding the cabin, I was rewarded every time I discovered a new animal trail. I could let my imagination run wild while alone in the woods. A massive boulder became a fortress and a stick became a sword in a play game of soldier. The darker shadows cast by the closed canopy of evergreens hid archers, as I was transformed into a knight.
My imagination did not extend to thoughts about ecology or the health of a forest. The animal trails that I followed entered and exited evergreen stands, wet meadows, barrens, and riparian stream edges, but terms like these meant nothing to me back then. The flowers in bloom, thick-stemmed willows with the bark stripped, the stump of a beaver-chewed tree: these were the things that captured my eye and attention, teaching me about the natural world even as I played in an imaginary one. I spent hours watching the dam on the stream below the cabin, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the beavers denning in the wood-and-mud lodge nearby, while songbirds called from hidden perches above.
The stream held all manner of discoveries during my explorer outings. The nature of the stream itself—cold, clear, constantly flowing without interruption—drew me to it in a way nothing else did. The sound of the rush of water over river cobble called to me, and the sight of the clear waters surrounded by the green of grass, willows, and trees set my young soul at peace. I would compare rocks taken from the edge of the stream and then delight in the unexpected discovery of aquatic insects clinging to their underside. Many of the insects looked like something from a late-night horror movie. I quickly learned that the rough yet slimy-bodied things could tenaciously grip the surface of the stone I held in my little hand. Decades later I would learn the remarkable role those dream-stirring little beasties played in the stream I had drawn them from, as they proved to be a steady source of food for the trout I would pursue with rod and reel.
A Waiting Friend
Each return to the cabin brought with it a panoply of anticipated and desired experiences. They would begin when the cabin came into view from the rutted two-track road, first as a dark brown visage hidden within the long shadows of towering lodgepole pines. As the pines thinned, they would reveal the wonderful old fellow, sitting majestically on the hillside, overlooking the meadow and with the stream hidden among the trees down below. Once the car was parked next to the cabin, I would dive out, to be greeted by the smell of the forest, which, depending on the time of year, was often awash with the pungent scent of lodgepole pine pollen. The vibrant sounds of birds both near and far brought together the sights, smells, and sounds of the living forest; they were joined by the rapid tap of the woodpecker overhead and the familiar chatter of the red squirrels as they scolded us from atop nearby trees. But the sound I was most interested in was too distant to be heard from the back door of the cabin. After receiving permission from my grandparents, who knew I was ready to burst with excitement to say hello to an old friend, I would storm down the well-trod path to the edge of the mountain stream that flowed past the path’s terminus.
With a keen eye for change, I would nod to the new willow growth along the edges of the stream’s banks. I would note where the high and rapid waters of the spring runoff had pushed debris up on the shore and created new undercut banks. Just beyond the end of the path, five or six feet into the stream, depending on how deep the water was running that day, an island lay my side of center channel. I would scan the long narrow island for changes while looking for a path out to it that would keep my worn-out tennis shoes and faded jeans from getting wet so early in the trip. Stepping from rock to rock where the bulk of each irregular cobble was still underwater, I would carefully make my way across the small side channel to the grass-laden island. The nature of the island changed every year, as rushing meltwaters from the spring thaw would deposit enormous tree trunks upon it one year, only to sweep them away the next. Some years, thick mats of tall grass would grow across the entirety of the narrow island, while other years, the grass would be confined to the narrow, high ridge that ran along the edge of the island closest to the shore.
My immediate interest beyond the island was the stream itself. I would take note of new logs deposited in the stream channel during the past year’s runoff, which had also swept away older logs, changing the complexity of the water. Less dramatic, but no less important to a young fly fisherman, were shifts in the willows, whose supple branches overhung the stream in many places. Most important, though, was the depth of the water in the stream itself. Water depth, velocity, and temperature would determine just how much time I could spend on the stream fly fishing and where I could go and with how much supervision. I would take all this in and quickly say hello to this gently chuckling friend before skipping back across the rocks to the nearby shore. Then, as I made my way back up the short trail to the cabin, I would begin to plan the weekend’s fishing.
After unpacking food for the weekend (including such goodies as marshmallows to roast while sitting in front of the fireplace and York peppermint patties to enjoy while fishing) and placing the suitcases of dry clothes on the appropriate bed (to be reserved for changing into after wading in the stream), I’d take out the fishing gear, which we stored outside on the workbench. Here each rod would be assembled, lines stretched from reels, and leaders attached. During this enterprise Grandpa would join me, providing words of wisdom about what fly to tie on and how to be safe while on the water. His words were always spoken with a gentle sternness that combined wisdom and grandfatherly love. Fishing by myself was great, but fishing with Grandpa was an opportunity never to be passed up.
The first time that Grandpa took me fly fishing, the air was sharp, with the chill of the previous night hanging heavy in the thick shadows of the early morning. My warm breath floated as vapor before me as I stood at my grandfather’s side, watching intently and shivering in the morning chill as he ran a clear, thin monofilament leader through the eye of the fly he held in his hand. It was a small black fly with a pearl white feather, which served as wings, and a tail of red; he informed me that it was called a black gnat and that it was one of my grandmother’s favorite flies. “It tends to work well in the morning,” Grandpa said, as he tied the fly onto the thin leader. Completing the knot, he set the hook in the cork handle of the fly rod before passing the rod to me and preparing his own rod for our morning adventure.
The afternoon before, we had stood in the large grassy meadow down the hill in front of the cabin and practiced casting a fly rod. Placing the rod in my hand, Grandpa had demonstrated how to cast the long rod and how to handle fly line by drawing the line from the reel and pulling the line out and away from my body while at the same time keeping the butt of the rod held tight in my right hand. After having pulled enough of the thick yellow-brown line from the red automatic Martin reel, Grandpa took hold of the rod and demonstrated how to cast the strange, thick line by raising the pole up and to the right of him and waving it back and forth, pushing more and more line through the eyelets toward his target with each forward swing of the rod. I watched enthusiastically the ease with which the line shot forward from the tip of the pole and delicately unfurled itself into a straight line onto the grass in front of us.
As he handed the rod back to me, Grandpa positioned my arm to mimic his own, to show me how to begin the casting motion. He helped me as I waved my arm forward and back—slowly at first, so that I could get the feel for the weight of the rod and what its action felt like as it cut through the air in front of and behind me to the point where the rod tip stopped over my right shoulder. “Now you give it a try,” Grandpa directed me, after pressing the lever on the red Martin reel to draw in most of the line that he had so gracefully cast across the meadow only minutes before. With all the might of an eight-year-old little boy, I whipped the pole to and fro past my right ear listening to the rod cut the air as Grandpa stood off to the side and watched. “No, no, no, you’re trying to cast too quickly,” he told me in his stern, reassuring voice. He directed me to pull the handle of the reel and take in a bit more of the line, then try again.
It’s hard now to remember how much time went by with the two of us in the meadow working the fly rod while the sun passed through the tops of the lodgepole pines around us. The chattering squirrels were clearly unimpressed, as they skittered up and down the surrounding trees, all the while castigating my clumsy efforts from atop woody branches. Eventually I began to get the rhythm required to pass the mass of line I had drawn off the reel through the eyes of the fly rod to fall to the ground in a heap somewhere in front of me, and I finally succeeded in making the line go from a tangled mess at my feet to a tangled mess on the grass in front of us. Grandpa assured me that this was quite all right. As the afternoon’s lesson drew to a close, I noticed that the line had begun to make a snapping sound as it unfurled in the air behind me just prior to beginning its rapid journey forward to the meadow grass in front of us. Somehow I knew the line shouldn’t snap like that. When I asked about it, Grandpa responded, “Don’t worry about that too much right now. It will happen less once leader and a fly have been tied on.”
Come the next morning, I had lost nearly all the skills I had obtained during the previous afternoon’s lesson. My attention shifted from being transfixed by the small black fly hooked into the cork on my rod to dwelling on how chilly it was while watching my breath hang in the air around me. The chill was expelled from my mind and my body, though, as we walked down the path to the stream. At the bottom of the trail, we turned to the left, and Grandpa led the way down a second, much less worn trail that paralleled the stream. I followed close behind, stepping over fallen logs, many of which had been on the ground so long that when I accidently tripped over them, they burst in a silent explosion of orange and red spongy wood. The forest around us was painted in a muted gray that rested atop the early morning dark greens of trees, shrubs, and willows.
Only our voices broke the early morning’s stillness as we made our way along the trail. Even the stream itself seemed to be covered by a blanket of sleepy muteness, babbling quietly in the background. “Grandma’s favorite places to fish are upstream here,” Grandpa told me, as we made our way toward our destination, an area where the water was saturated in darkness as large subalpine firs closed in precariously near each side of the stream bank.
A large, flat boulder not far from the bank protruded from the shadowed waters, free of branches from the many nearby trees. Grandpa stepped onto the boulder and then watched closely as I made a short hop from the streambank to the rock. The dew-wet soles of my worn and dingy shoes didn’t instantly grip the dry surface of the rock, and my pole waved wildly in my hand as I sought to catch my balance until Grandpa reached out to steady me. With a knowing eye, he scanned the dark water that stretched from the rock toward the opposite bank and then looked downstream, glancing up occasionally to take the measure of the evergreen branches overhanging the stream.
With a nod, he turned to me. “OK, unhook your fly and let it drop in the water here,” he said, motioning to the front of the rock whose edge pointed directly downstream. “Now, pull out some line like I showed you.” I pulled the thick yellow-brown line from the Martin automatic reel until told “enough.” Pointing to the water between the rock and the far bank, Grandpa said, “Take a practice cast out over here, but be careful of the trees.” I took a slow step toward that side of the boulder and brought the fly rod straight up in front of me. Seeing my hesitation to begin casting, he stepped from behind me and placed his hand over mine, helping me cast the line I’d drawn out. He watched intently until my confidence had grown enough to cast the line on my own. So intent was I on making an adequate cast that I’d forgotten a fly was attached to the end of the line with the intent to catch a fish.
“OK, Brad, now I want you to try and cast your line at an angle and let the fly float downstream until it reaches that pool on the edge of the bank.” My gaze followed the water from the downstream edge of the rock on which we were standing, and I saw the slow water of the deep pool near the bank downstream from us that Grandpa had pointed toward. Only a short time earlier we had walked by that very spot on our way to the rock. I flailed the water in front of me with the fly line, watching as it landed in the water in front of us like a tangled pile of overcooked spaghetti. The moderate current grabbed the line slowly at first and tugged at it, unwinding the mess I had made into a relatively straight line leading from the eye at the top of my rod to the fly at the far end of the line. The little black gnat at the end of my line bounced on top of the water’s surface, as the current beneath it flowed on, uninterrupted by my antics.
“Move the tip of your rod slightly to the right,” Grandpa instructed, as we both watched the little fly skitter across the water’s dark surface. I did as I was told, and the black gnat responded by settling back down into the water and drifting slowly into the calmer waters of the dark pool beneath the tree. After a little while, he had me draw the line back in and cast again. As we went through the process, the morning grays began to soften, and sunlight lightly kissed the tops of the trees on the west side of the forested ridges above us, but my attention was almost completely focused on the little black gnat as it made its short journey from swift water to slow water to the water at my feet, and then back again.
Finally, during one of these journeys, I suddenly saw the water around it burble and the fly disappear. Just as suddenly the rod in my hand jumped to life as the fish that had taken my black gnat tugged at the other end. I immediately yelled, “What do I do?” Calmly, Grandpa told me to pull the tip of the rod up and toward me, then pull the lever on the reel. As I brought the rod toward me, I felt the fish on the other end resist my effort to reel him in. My heart was ready to burst with excitement!
I pulled on the lever and the gears inside the reel spun and quickly drew the line toward me and onto the spool of the reel. As the reel pulled the fish toward the boulder, I felt the tug-of-war taking place between the fish at the end of my line and the gears of the reel. The Martin reel whirred as it quickly pulled the line off the water, but I could tell the fish was fighting back when the whir of the gears slowed ever so slightly and elongated. In a few moments, though, the fish that had been fooled by the little black gnat was splashing in the water at the base of our rock. Reaching down, Grandpa quickly scooped it from the water and, with one swift motion, worked the hook loose from the corner of its lip and handed the squirming beauty to me.
It was cold, slimy, and very much alive. But more than that, it was a specimen of beauty. It was a tiny brook trout, but as far as I was concerned, it was as noble as any marlin mounted on any wall. My young eyes were immediately drawn to the sight of the shining white belly contrasted against the dark green of its flanks. Within that dark green, little red spots were surrounded by halos of blue. This entire color palette was located below an even darker green along the fish’s back, and that dark green had small lighter green squiggles within it (I would later learn that these were called vermiculations). Its little fins went from green, to orange, to white at the tips. How, I wondered, did such a colorful fish stay so easily unseen to the naked eye?
My amazement was cut short when Grandpa told me to place the fish back in the water, since it was too small to keep. There was a six-inch size limit on brook trout in the stream, and this one hardly met the requirement. With no small amount of regret, I squatted down and placed my hand in the water at the edge of the boulder that protruded farthest into the stream. When I opened my hand, my catch darted through my fingers into the cold water. I looked on for a few moments before standing up, not sure what to do next. Seeing childish uncertainty again written across my face, Grandpa smiled and told me, “Well, let’s try for another. How about a bigger one this time? If we don’t catch another here, we will head upstream.” I could feel the smile stretching across my face as I pulled line from the reel and prepared to cast, ready to begin punishing the water again with my tangled spaghetti line.
I hope you enjoyed the story. If you, a loved one, or a friend would like to read more, it is my pleasure to offer readers of this blog a special coupon for 55% off for a signed copy of the book. Just put in Thanks2019 here in our shop when prompted.
Until next time,
Cheers & tight lines,