Monday, January 11, 2010

New Country

New country.

For a fly fisher, it’s both an exciting and intimidating notion. An unexplored stretch of watery landscape, foreign to your angler’s soul, pushes aside the contentment that comes with traveling the same road dozens of times en route to familiar water. Your head rests on a swivel. You take in the new landscape.

There’s something comforting about the familiar, like that little mountain creek you’ve fished since you were “this tall.” You know, the one that still sports that same plunge pool today, where you can drop a Royal Coachman in the soft water along the edges of the waterfall and catch the progeny of the brookies you hooked all those years ago?

As we cruised along a fresh strip of blacktop, watching the Nevada desert fly by in the hazy morning light, I was hundreds of miles away from my little brook trout stream. Hell, I was impossibly far away—or so I thought—from any trout at all. In fact, as we eased off the highway and onto a deeply rutted dirt “road” through the sage and the cheat grass, I asked my host, Jim Jeffress, “Are there really fish out here? Or are you taking me into the desert to hide my body?”

A simple shrug of the shoulders served as his reply—his focus was on the route, not the destination. Jim guided his big diesel truck up the questionable dirt track into the barren mountains, kicking up fat grasshoppers along the way.

Trout food. But trout?

The weather was, as Jim put it, “severe clear,” and the temperature this September day was pushing triple digits. Off to the right, a herd of wild burros—hell on the native vegetation, but much loved by the crunchy crowd—barely noticed our incursion into the backcountry. So enamored by this non-native animal are the PETA freaks, I later realized, that they ponied up some significant cash and hired a pilot to fly a banner over Invesco Field at Mile High during a November Bronco game. The message compared U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to a slaughterhouse foreman for his efforts to rein in these invasive, range-ruining beasts (and their wild mustang cousins) from the battered landscape.

Up we traveled, straddling oil pan-puncturing rocks and mounds of burro shit, over subtle rises that revealed more mountains in the distance. The view offered hope—aspens sprang from the rocky crotches of the peaks, and mahogany and the occasional limber pine started to show in the distance. The appearance of the familiar eased the doubt in my angler’s soul, but the notion of casting to rising trout in this austere landscape still seemed a bit far off, if not impossible altogether.

But Jim said the trout were there. Waiting.

And not just any trout. Tiger trout, the sterile laboratory-created offspring of a brook trout and a brown trout, lurked in the depths of this high-mountain mere, dropped in each year thanks to a Division of Wildlife bombardier. Once fishless, the lake was now rich with these surly denizens—products of that twisted salmo on salvo piscatorial experiment—that, with no ability to spawn, simply spent their lives eating.

At the trailhead, where a steep climb into a Bureau of Land Management wilderness study area awaited us, big mahoganies grew like olive-green umbrellas out of the dry, rocky soil. Their lower branches gone thanks to browsing deer and grazing cattle, the trees looked a lot like acacias, and the surroundings looked remarkably similar to the African savannah.

The trail pierced a sage-covered meadow as it wandered up the hill toward our destination—the snow- and spring-fed lake shielded on three sides by mountains and so remote, commitment was the focal trait for those who wished to fish it. While committed, I was skeptical. There’s water? Here?

We started up the trail, and hope again resurfaced as we left the sage and entered a stand of aspens. The green quaking leaves, just a couple weeks or so from their annual autumn celebration, cooled the desert air and hinted at the possibility of trout water ahead … somewhere.

Minutes later, we crested a rocky ridge and gazed down at the lake just a short walk from where we stood. The water reflected vertical cliffs rising from the edges of the tarn. The winsome cry of an osprey pierced the high-desert quiet. Like us, the cruising bird eyed the glassy waters of the lake. A rise ring. Another. Yet another.

Our pace quickened, and the unfamiliar became exciting—my gut tightened with anticipation, and I began a mental inventory of my fly box. Trout were rising. Strange, wonderful trout.

The air, noticeably cooler at this elevation, hummed with life. Hoppers flitted from underfoot. Mayflies—big gray drakes—soared into the sky from the edges of the lake. Behind us to the south and west, the desert spread out to the horizon, revealing the volcanic peaks of California’s northern Sierra in the hazy distance.

Packs dropped to the ground, and rods were hastily assembled. Line screamed from reels as three of us glanced only occasionally at the delicate work our fingers were doing with fly line and rod guides. Eyes were properly tuned to the lake’s nervous surface, where sips and gulps left the water in a state of perpetual anxiety.

Flies, hastily chosen and quickly tied to tippets, were doused with grease. Politely, yet barely so, we spread out on the lake’s rocky shore.

That first cast, offered to a target left behind by a feeding trout, was liberating, and suddenly the intimidation that comes with casting in new country to new fish in new water was gone, replaced simply with peace only a fly fisher can truly know.

I love new country.

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