Swedish version


Photo by Ginny Holt © 2005

By John Holt
Photo by Ginny


   I thought that I'd be enjoying a few days fish in the high country of central Wyoming for browns and rainbows. Instead, I was hunkered down in my tent while rough winds blasted across this rocky plateau. Rain, sleet then snow knocked visibility down to near zero. I could not see my Suburban parked on 100 yards away. And earlier, on the climb up this way, some ancient petroglyphs I'd been in search of for years, turned out to be ruined, destroyed by mindless graffiti and carelessly placed campfires. And moments earlier a mean gust had swept my little grill clattering across the stone and over the 1,000-foot cliff edge. Life was a bit ugly right now and I wandered back to memories of a warmer, more pleasant but still slightly crazy time…

   …The guy was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and nothing else. His buddy was wearing even less. The two of were them standing on a boulder that projected out into the clear stream, sunlight streaming down on both of them. A stunning though incongruous sight especially when juxtaposed with the rainbow trout making splashy rises right below the pair as the fish fed on medium-size caddisflies that are bouncing haphazardly in the air above the aquamarine water, flitting about the bankside willows and alders and casually swarming around the two sun worshippers.

   Naked can be understood all the way down here in the canyon of the Middle Fork of the Powder River, deep in the July-baking heart of Wyoming. This is Butch and Sundance Outlaw Trail country. Their cave is just downstream, a dark oblong hole fifty feet above the water. There names, carved so long ago, scarred by more recent graffiti. A person struggles this far down the path to escape the hordes of people, not to mention his own demon herd, and a bit of naked free-play is expected, acceptable. But some things are not done. Decorum must be observed even when someone thinks they are alone. River gods do have a sense of propriety and this must be respected. The gaudy-colored - chartreuse, hot pink, electric blue, day-glo yellow pattern of palm trees and hibiscus - shirt was tough to take. Angling repercussions are a possibility. The pair spied us as we clattered up the rock and gravel bank after spending the afternoon catching browns and rainbows downstream around a steep-walled bend in the river. The two quickly vanished into a clump of pines and brush.

   Years ago a friend told me that the fishing in this river was quite good for large trout, mainly rainbows with a few browns thrown in for variety's sake. He said the climb down to the water was steep and there were a few rattlesnakes. That's the main reason for my delay in following up on his tale. Snakes. Don't like them at all. The sound of that wicked hiss of their rattles, the alien, cold gaze of those reptilian eyes, and the flickering tongues make me do strange things, like dance the spastic ballet as I flee screaming from the coiled or slithering, venomous things. I don't like snakes at all. It's a visceral thing with me. Beyond control or a therapist's avaricious techniques. Much of the country I care for is filled with them, so I do the best I can.

Photo by Ginny Holt © 2005

   So, more than a decade later, courage screwed to its low-level sticking point, we'd driven the several hundred miles south by southeast from Livingston and then the final ten miles to the rim of the canyon on a road that can only be described as rough. Signs at the beginning of the rock-ledged, loose rocked, red dust, sand blown-out, sometimes two-track warned those with campers and motorhomes to turn around because up ahead they'd never make it. The Suburban made it, but it was a grinding, lurching slog in. Knife-edged rocks waiting to slice tire sidewalls littered the way. I camped at the end of an even dustier road near the edge of the canyon. Late afternoon light was turning the thousand-foot walls deep yellow, bordering on orange. Early October and the temperature was in the eighties with not a hint of breeze. I could hear the roar of the river drifting up from the depths of the canyon.

   But as I pushed through cactus and thick clumps of sage I heard that old, familiar evil sound that is more like a constant, nasty intake of air through rotten teeth than a rattle. To my left about ten feet away a coiled snake glared at me, his tongue tasting the air with flickering stabs. I spun on one leg, tottered backwards and stumbled away. I started to laugh but was moving pretty good, too. I circled far around the snake and ever so carefully picked my way to the canyon rim.

   Far below me the river poured over boulders, formed large sapphire pools and long runs that glistened silver-gold in the oblique slant of the sun's rays. Ponderosa pines covered the hills and benches up above and grew precariously on ledges as the yellow, grey and orange-pink sedimentary rock walls plummeted away from us. Sage grew on slanted gully outwashes. Game trails coursed along these piles of rock and soil before ending abruptly where rock bluffs protruded only to begin again at the next outwash. I wondered how the mule deer made it from the end of one trail to the beginning of another. There didn't seem to be any way the animals could traverse the sheerness of the limestone. Goats would have a hard time. The river flowed far beyond us, finally disappearing around a crooked bend a mile upstream. Perhaps mountain lions could move around here. I'd spotted the tracks of a large one in the sand by camp. Cats were able to move through nearly all of this wild country with surety and elan. The water flowed downstream and then vanished again beyond a sharp right turn. The country was wild, unspoiled. Perfect. Turkey vultures soared far above, probably scooping out their next meal. Me. A bald eagle soared past at eye level riding the canyon thermals. Mule deer browsed in the dry grass on a slope a quarter-mile away. Not bad. But where was the trail? I decided to have dinner - grilled Rock Cornish gamehens seasoned with black pepper, garlic, lemon and salt, steamed vegetables, rice and tea - go to sleep and kill myself tumbling down to the river in the morning.

   I sat around a small fire watching a three-quarter moon rise between a gap in the limestone wall behind, watched as the stars, planets and galaxies turned on. The same old nighttime magic that is ineffable in its intense, perpetual nature. Bats swooped above my head and then beetles the size of pregnant half dollars buzzed in on me. They must have waited for the cool of evening to escape their sandy burrows. They homed in on me with loud, lumbering efficiency, crashing into my face, arms, the coffee pot, anything warm. I caught a flash of one in the moon light. Quickly pulling off one of my moccasins, I propelled the sucker into the next dimension with a reasonably adroit forehand. The whacking sound of beetle on worn leather echoed softly in the dark. I finished my tea and crawled into my sleeping bag to escape the winged invaders that were now banging off the lid of the stove, unwashed pots and the radiator grill.

Photo by Ginny Holt © 2005   Aside from a snake or two, some strange-looking spiders, slips, slides, strained knee ligaments and a graceful face-plant fall at the end of the trail next to the water's edge, the stroll from camp to the river was a mile-and-a-half of uneventful toil. The sun was beginning to make its presence felt as it passed gradually above the canyon rim a little after 10. Shadowed escarpments, arches and large holes eroded in the rock gave way to shining cliffs that reflected the day's heat and light into the cool dimness of streamcourse. No caddis were visible yet, so I tied on a weighted #14 tan Hare's ear nymph and flung the thing about thirty feet upstream to the head of a deep run that issued from the base of a effervescent cascade that dropped through a gap between a jumble of rocks and logs. The pattern drifted for a few feet before the line stopped. I set the hook and a twelve-inch rainbow shot up through the surface, leaping and cavorting for several seconds before giving up the ghost. The trout was brightly colored with a tinge of green drifting through the black spotting along its shoulders and flanks. As I twisted loose the hook in its jaw, the rainbow appeared to stare at me. No big deal. They always do that. A bunch more casts turned more rainbows in the same size range. No browns, yet.

   Climbing up a pile of boulders and washed up logs along the bank I came upon a riffle that bubbled over copper-colored streambed. There were streaks of white-tan rock washed clean, no doubt, by faster rips of current. I switched to a #12 Elk Hair as sunlight flashed across the broken water. Casts across the darker rock did nothing. The first drift over the lighter stuff and a brown tagged the fly, then ran back and forth in the current shaking its head and jumping a couple of times. I brought the fish to my feet, or rather it swam to me and wrapped line around my shins. Classic brown trout golden browns, large black spots, lesser numbers of blood-red spots, creamy white fat belly. Sixteen inches, maybe more. The fish raced to the shelter of a shady rock overhang as soon as I released it. Working the strips of washed streambed produced browns all the way up a mile of river.

Photo by Ginny Holt © 2005

   A deep, emerald pool ran beneath some cottonwoods and overhanging willows. I could see trout rising everywhere, coming to the surface to sip baetis. I tied on some 6x tippet and a #20 fly to imitate the action. Superb eyesight and stultifying manual dexterity accomplished this act of angling artifice in a little over twenty minutes. The rainbows were still arcing in the smooth water. I cast to a decent one at the end of the run and it took immediately, leaping and cavorting across most of that end of the holding water. Other rainbows ran alongside the trout out of curiosity before spooking off beneath undercut banks. After turning the fourteen-incher loose I looked and saw that the rainbows were still long-gone frightened. I took two more as I worked up to the head of the pool as leaves, water and the canyon walls glowed in the midday luminescence.

   Rainbows in the pools and deep runs, browns in the broken three to six-inch riffles and after enough, I sat in the sun and ate some fruit and cheese, guzzled water I'd packed down and then re-stumbled my steps back to where I am now. The scene of naked disappointments and garish shirts.

   This was a true vision of gaiety as I came round the bend and said hello to the two fellows. They asked where the Outlaw Cave was and I told them that it was only a hundred yards away and a short climb up from the river. They decided to head downstream and check the hole out.

   "We're from Las Vegas," they then said with wide smiles. The colorfully garbed guy, who looked to be about thirty but had grey hair asked how the fishing was.

   "Not too bad for not too big trout," I said. "But I'm sure with an artful use of my consummate angling skills larger fish are on the near horizon."

   The one in the vivid shirt said "That's great," and almost looked like he meant what he said. The other, now wearing jeans, white T-shirt, water sandals and wrap-around shades, applauded rapidly like a trained seal and said "Of course. That's the way it should be. Of course it is."

   I suppose it's truly a case of different strokes for different folks in these electronically-compressed, frenetic times. I looked up to the sky and shook my head. I said my "Goodbyes," and then the three of us went our divergent ways. The Vegas boys down to the cave, and me back up the steep, hot, snaking trail…

   …The wind and snow increased and the temperatures angled downward, but I eventually fell asleep. When I awoke it was already seven but still dim outside the tent. The snow and wind had stopped, but several inches of the stuff covered the rock, bunch grass and sage. Several mule deer were kicking at the clumps of grass and snorting among themselves about something. The animals' ears and tails flicked steadily like some nervous form of natural radar. I through the tent and sleeping bag in the back of the rig, engaged the lock hubs, fired up the motor, shifted into four-wheel high and lurched out of what had passed for camp. I prayed that the road was not a morass of greasy gumbo and that I'd make it back down to the valley a couple of thousand feet below. Maybe I'd see the Hawaiian shirt guy and his friend. Who could say. It already had been one of those strange trips I've had so often before.

   And as the boys on the corner on the street outside The Mint Bar in Sheridan have been heard to say, "No where to run. No where to hide," and one of them passes a bottle in a brown bag to another while sucking on a Camel straight before continuing with a crooked smile that reveals some cracked teeth, "Even at the end of the Outlaw Trail."

Text by John Holt 2005 ©
Photo by Ginny Holt © 2005 

John Holt lives in Livingston, Montana. He’s the author of 14 published books including Montana Fly-Fishing Guides – East and West, Arctic Aurora – Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories, Coyote Nowhere – In Search of America’s Last Frontier and Hunted: A Novel. AK Press will publish Yellowstone Drift – Floating the Past in Real Time in February 2009. His work has appeared in publications including Men’s Journal, The Denver Post, Fly Rod & Reel, Fly Fisherman, Outside, American Cowboy, E – The Environmental Magazine and The Art of Angling Journal. His wife, Ginny Holt, has collaborated with me on articles for the above publications as well as with me on Yellowstone Drift, Coyote Nowhere and Arctic Aurora.  


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