January 9th, 2006

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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Cutthroats of the Wild Canyon
By Rob Jagodzinski, NY

The sign posted at the bridge announces that a woman's car veered off the highway and plunged into the river here a month ago. It says her body was never recovered, and asks hikers and fishermen to report any human remains they might find along the shore.

I think this over as I pick my way down the steep, gravelly anglers' track that twists to the thundering river 100 yards below. Clutching my disjointed fly rod in one hand, I drop down the hill, grabbing sagebrush here and there on the steepest pitches. The thought of anyone tumbling into the fierce current is chilling.

In a couple minutes I'm standing beside the aquamarine river, which holds the same color as the vaulting, late-afternoon sky. The stream roars in my ears, commanding my attention. I rig up and follow the water as it purls and froths downstream, coursing around boulders and surging into steep rock walls. The scent of sage mixes with the acrid smell of sulfur steaming from vents in the yellow ravine, which has an otherworldly look.

There are no bugs coming off that I can see. So I tie on a Turk's Tarantula, a foam, hair and rubber-legged size 10 monster that could pass for a meaty grasshopper. It would make the old Catskill tiers back home cringe. But it's what works out here between hatches in high summer. It's deadly.

I see another flyfisherman casting into the pool beneath the bridge. I walk over and, when he takes a break, ask if he's picking up any fish. He says he's stuck three or four cutts and has caught and released one of around 12 inches. I ask if he's moving upstream. He is, so I wish him luck and head downstream, planning to get a half mile or so below, then fish back up to the bridge.

Once I cut across a little forested bend, I'm alone. I nearly step on a pile of bones and hair scattered above the high water mark, maybe from an elk or deer taken down in spring. The carcass reminds me I'm in grizzly country and should make noise as I move along so I don't surprise one. I jingle the two metal cups I've hooked to my fanny pack belt, homemade bear bells that make a din even over the boiling current.

Canyon walls close in on the water as I pick my way downstream. After a couple hundred yards, the walls plunge into the river, making for tough passage. But I'm wet wading, so I squeeze around a steep edge, losing sight of the bridge, and enter a spot where the current pauses in a brief eddy, with just a doormat-sized sandy bench at its head.

At first blush this kind of little current break doesn't look real promising. But after fishing the river in a couple similar sections over the past few days, I've learned that the wild cutthroats here hang out in small patches of quiet water and will roll on a dry fly dropped in the current seams or into the foam that collects behind boulders.

Standing on the sandbar, I strip out several yards of line, make a false cast and splat the fly down in the eddy. No delicate presentations or long casts needed here. I throw a mend to let the fly drift, and it bobs along the edge of the still water for several seconds before the current grabs the line and pulls the fly under.

I try a few more casts, pitching the fly inches from the rock wall, watching the rubber legs make suicidal twitches. I'm certain a cutt is holding somewhere in the slack water. I can't imagine many fishermen venture into this part of the canyon, so these trout don't see many flies. But there's no take.

I move on down, sloshing through the knee deep eddy while keeping a hand against the cliff. I come to another jagged edge in the wall and poke my head around it. A 10-foot-long gravel bar lies on the other side, and a side channel of the river swirls and slows in an eddy that ends in a logjam.

The trick is to get past the protruding knife edge to reach the gravel bar. The current is too strong for me to wade around the ledge. So I give it a thorough examination, clamp my fly rod in my teeth at the cork handle, then flatten myself on the steep wall, searching for hand and toe holds. The rock face offers just enough purchase for me to get around it, and in a minute I'm on the other side. Such is the pull of fly fishing.

Standing on the gravel bar, I brush the dirt off my vest while examining the tooth marks in the cork. Battle scars from my trip out West, I muse. Then I unhook the fly from its keeper and turn my attention to this hidden little pocket I've earned.

I cast to the wavelets at the head of the slack water. Seconds tick, then a shadow swims toward the surface.

The take is deliberate… not like those wild brookies I often fish for back East that hit with a whack and impale themselves on my dries. Out here, I've had to force myself to slow down and strike only after a fish sucks the fly down and turns.

I pause, then raise the rod. The limp line snatches off the eddy and goes tightrope taut, spraying water droplets that turn gold in the late sunlight. I'm fast to a nice fish.

It's a bit tricky playing the fish from this bench at the cliff base. The trout immediately charges into the main current, and my rod bends heavily as the fish angles into the river, setting himself against the flow. A few yards of line spin off my reel as I drop my rod to horizontal and attempt to ease him back into the slow water at my feet. But the trout shakes his head violently while backing farther downstream toward the logjam.

My only shot, I figure, is to put more side pressure on the fish and lead him into the eddy. I strain the 4X tippet and slowly the fish begins moving toward the still water.

I gain line back and keep the fish in the eddy. In a long moment the trout is a leader length away, and I swipe the quick-release net off my back and scoop him up in a motion.

The fish is a powerful river trout with heavy sides, a broad back and a large maw. He must weigh a couple pounds. The slash under his gill is blaze orange, his flanks are coppery gold imbedded with black specks. He gives a menacing look from the corner of his dark marble eye as I reach down with forceps and back the fly out of his locked jaw. I slide him from the net and into the pool, where he pumps his gills for a second then kicks his tail and scoots out of sight.

I rinse my hands, dry the fly on a bandana, and study the river. I make a few false casts and plunk the fly into the water halfway down the eddy. Another fish takes, but I miss this one...too quick on the trigger.

A dozen more casts draw several strikes and three more cutts brought to hand, all around 16 inches, a shade smaller than the first trout but just as strong and lovely. They come to the fly innocently in this seldom seen pool.

When the fly draws no more rises, I reel in, walk down the sandbar and crawl over a boulder to reach the logjam...the mysterious water.

I see there's no way to fish the upstream side, where the current is shallow and fast. But peering over the logs, I see deep, quiet water on the downstream side. The challenge will be to drop the fly into the still water and, if a fish takes, somehow lead him from the thicket of sunken branches before he snaps me off.

Hunched over to keep from sight, I strip out some line and splash the fly down in the lee of the jam.

The big fly bobs. Its legs wave helplessly.

In slow motion, something big materializes out of the dark water. It takes the form of a large cutt, sort of waddling toward the surface in no particular hurry. As time stands still for me and I stifle a yelp, the fish rolls on the fly, turns and shows me thick shoulders and back, the way a whale breaches. It sort of plods back down toward its lie in the waterlogged thicket.

I strike but know it's futile. For a brief moment I feel the fish moving up toward the bent rod, perhaps a bit confused. Then I see its tail flick and its body tighten and down goes the slender rod tip.

With startling speed, the fish transforms from lumbering whale to muscular shark and laces my leader through the sunken forest. The tippet parts and I feel the weight of dead wood, nothing more.

My heart hammers as I grab my leader above the rod tip and yank it free. The river roars in my ears. I back up and sit against a boulder. I take lungfuls of the heavy evening air, watching the current race past.

"What a monster," I whisper. "One of those fish you see on old postcards."

I want to keep fishing, find a way around the logjam and press deeper into the canyon, where I know I'll discover more big fish where rockslides, ledges and deadfalls create hidden trout pools. I wrestle with this kind of decision nearly every time I fish, whether to give in to the river's mystical pull and let it draw me around the next bend, or somehow break the trance and return to the real world.

But it's getting late and this isn't one of my gentle brookie streams back home. It's a brute of a river, nothing to trifle with, especially as night approaches. And there are creatures in these hills that can turn me into a bone pile. There are also voices murmuring in the river, and they seem to be urging me to turn back.

So I reel in the frayed leader and break down the four piece rod, securing the sections with a couple twist ties. I drink most of the water in the quart bottle from my fanny pack and eat a couple handfuls of trail mix.

It's time to go. First thing, I have to climb back across the knife edge. Into my mouth goes my fly rod again, and I search for some hand and footholds. When I'm about three-quarters around the edge, a crumbly foothold gives way and I and slide into waist-deep water, which tugs at my legs. But my sandals get just enough purchase on the streambed for me to lunge to shore.

Now my heart's pounding again, this time from the cold water's jolt. The evening air adds a bite. But I'm relieved that I didn't have to take a swim downstream, so the edge wears off quickly as I head toward the bridge.

The setting sun glints off an object wedged between some rocks on the cliff base's narrow shoreline. I bend down to find a palm-sized chunk of thick glass from what I reckon is a car's headlight. I take it from the rocks. Then I notice some pieces of orange plastic, maybe from the lens of a parking light. I pick these up as well. I stack the broken things on a boulder above the high water mark, wondering if they're remnants from the car of the woman who drove off the bridge.

The sun is below the ridgeline. I feel a chill come over me, along with an urgency to get back to the bridge, which comes into sight as I leave the steepest walls of the canyon. It has been a fantastic evening, but I have an overpowering sense of wanting to reach the highway, where I'll either have to hitch or walk a mile back to the lodge, to my awaiting family. I want to crack a beer and sit on an old rocker on the lodge's wide porch and think over the week's events, since our trip out West ends tomorrow.

In five minutes I scramble up the slope and emerge on the bridge's apron. I take a long look back down at the darkening river. It has entered my heart; memories of it will flow back to me long after I've departed this place.

With no cars in sight, I decide I'll probably have to walk back to the lodge. I turn my attention to the road, leaving behind for now the wild river, the spirits who haunt its banks, the ghostly creatures that inhabit its slopes, the phantom trout that patrol its depths. I know I'll be counting the days before I can return. ~ RJ

About Rob:

Rob currently works for the Associated Press as News Editor for the Press Multimedia Services in NYC. Responsible for rewriting and posting breaking news, business and sports stories for AP online customers including Yahoo! news, ABC.com, and hundreds of Web sites operated by daily newspapers throughout the country. He has a wide background as a editor and writer, including a stint as Photojournalist for Pacific Stars and Stripes. We are delighted to welcome his voice here. You can reach Rob at robjag@optonline.net


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