Friday, December 28, 2012

Weird Moments in Fishing #4

I was headed home from Alaska. While our fishing had been terrific for silvers and dollies, it had been especially good for rainbows. We had bounced eggs, skated mice and stripped streamers to entice 22-30 inch rainbows. The pink, chum, king and sockeye runs had been strong. With all the dead, dying, and decaying salmon, flesh and maggot flies had worked well too. These death-driven, disgusting-if-you-think-about-them patterns secured some of our heftiest ‘bows. My last rainbow of the trip had charged a thread-worn maggot fly. He eventually took the grub in less than a foot of water. He was two feet of hungry muscle decorated with a bright red slash down his side.

Now it was early September. I was driving north on I-25. After leaving the airport in Casper, I had pointed my rig towards home and set the cruise control at 82 mph. In the back of my vehicle, I had a pile of damp gear, a bunch of very stinky clothes and an amazing array of fishing equipment from 4 to 8 weight rods and from size 16 dry flies to huge articulated streamers. Stored inside my sleeping bag were the frozen fillets of two silver salmon. I was thrilled when the duffle bag containing this treasure had rolled out at baggage claim in Casper. A quick check had shown the fillets to be still frozen solid. I was looking forward to fresh salmon in the days to come.

Even though I was tired and had the frozen salmon in the back, I knew I would be driving by one of my favorite creeks. And on this creek there was a ranch... and on this ranch there were these fish... you know the refrain. So I thought about stopping to fish, but responsibility reared its ugly head and I decided I should get home.

After a few more miles, I thought, “Geez, I have all my gear in the car, my waders are on top... it would take nothing to fish a couple hours”.

I should do it ...just to do it. Alaska ‘bows one day, Wyoming browns the next. I should do it ...because I can do it. So I told myself I would stop, but if there were no rising fish, I would head home to dry out gear and get a good night’s sleep.

Between Kaycee and Buffalo, I pulled off the interstate and turned down a county road. I drove a couple more miles, pulled into a pasture and pulled on my waders. I had zero Wyoming trout flies with me, so I grabbed my Alaska grayling box. I jammed it in the front pocket of my wrinkled and smelly shirt. I had worn now it for over a week. These grayling flies would just have to do. I had no hoppers, no match-the-hatch baetis and no bead head nymphs... just some big Adams, a few ratty elk hair caddis and some “weathered” blue duns. Content with my options, I slid down the steep river bank and stepped quietly into the creek. Slowly, I made my way up to my favorite slick, then stopped to watch. Nothing: no rises, no bugs on the water, nothing. Just a clear blue Wyoming sky reflected in a long calm slick.

“Well, I won’t be here long.” I muttered to myself. “Laundry, food, sleep... here I come.” 

But, if I could raise one good trout, I could declare my little project a success. I considered casting a streamer, but I wasn’t too excited about the idea. I waded up a bit further to get past a willow clump where I knew I could see around a bend in the slick. Above the willows, the smell of death and decay greeted me once again. In Alaska, the smell was from the salmon, but I was stumped as to its source on this Wyoming creek. Soon I had my answer.

A deer carcass was half in and half out of the water. It was a young doe. Her head and shoulders were lying in the tall grass. Her right front leg was broken. The doe's abdomen was gnawed open and sagged to meet the creek. This was probably the work of coyotes. Possibly attacked before she was dead. If so, this was a tough way to go! Given the fresh scratch marks in the cutbank, she must have fallen down the muddy bank. Exhausted and unable to rise, she must have died where she fell. 

Rubbed raw by fatigue and travel, I felt great sadness when considering the pain and fear she must have suffered in those last awful moments. I chewed on the tart taste of life’s joy and sorrows. But my emotions were quickly quelled when I saw a few ripples of water expand from the carcass. I thought maybe a skunk or mink might be munching on the body. I didn’t want to stink anymore than I already did, so I decided to reel up and go home. I could suffer the ignominity of being skunked, but I didn’t want to be literally SKUNKED! As I wound line on the spool, I watched the deer’s belly pulse again. I knew there must be some small mammal scavenging inside the deer’s belly.

Then I saw a tail. It was not the unmistakeable tail of a skunk or the sleek tail of a mink. It was broad and flat... and wet. It was the tail of a big brown trout. I was intrigued. What the hell was he doing? I watched closely and eventually discerned a pattern. The brown would sweep his broad tail to push into the deer’s belly. He would then drift back with the gentle current slurping something as he did so. It looked as if he was taking emergers from below the surface film. His nose never poked through the meniscus, but his dorsal fin appeared time and time again. What the hell... was he scarfing up rotting flesh or maybe picking off yellow jackets that were feeding on the flesh? Or... then it dawned on me, he was eating maggots! It was Alaska all over again complete with putrid smells, big trout and a disgusting menu. 

I backed off, climbed out of the river and raced back to my car. I found my flesh fly/maggot box beneath my wet waders. The box was still damp from Bristol Bay river water. I smiled. Now here was an idea I could get behind. In my travel addled mind, all this formed some type of circle. It was poetic justice... the circle of life... the joy that rises from sorrow. Hell, I didn’t know what it was, but it seemed cool, suddenly important and I was determined to do it. 

I repositioned myself below the deer carcass and opened the fly box. It was now warm and dry. Any evidence of Alaskan waters had evaporated under a hot Wyoming sun. I took a size 14 white maggot fly and tied it onto a hefty tippet. I waited for the trout to nose the carcass again, then cast the maggot fly into the fetid mix below. The brown dashed about sucking up the dislodged fly larvae, but never chose mine. I thought this would be easy, but maybe not! 

When the trout began to nudge the belly again, I cast, this time lifting my rod tip hoping to impart a subtle action to my grubby fly. The brown immediately lunged toward my fly. He opened his big mouth and scarfed up my fly.  I struck and he chugged powerfully upstream as big trout often do. He then turned toward deeper water pushing hard with his big tail. As if going through his repertoire, he then leapt high in the air. He was big, at least 22 inches with a deep body and strongly kyped jaw. He fought hard, but in the slow slick he was  relatively easy to control. After another jump and a dogged last tug-of-war, I had him at hand. He was gorgeous. He was 23 inches of muscle, very deep and beautiful with a yellow belly peppered with delicate pastel spots. His clever, if not a bit disgusting, diet had obviously worked well for him. I thought that today I stand 24 hours and a thousand miles away from Alaska and another big trout. Two days, two trout... two wild trout who had both resourcefully fed on what they could find to survive. 

I clipped off my fly and hauled my body out of the river. Soon, I was back on the interstate cruising north at 82 mph. As I drove, I mulled over this unique asterisk to my great Alaskan adventure! If I had not been coming back from Alaska, I never would have had the fly to catch the fish. Now I always have a maggot fly in one of my trout boxes, but I have never had the opportunity to use it again. 


  1. Great read! Goes in the "fish do the craziest things" category for sure. By the way, the Wyoming Highway Patrol will be stopping by for a brief chat.

  2. 82 mph... that's my magic #. They've never stopped me at that mph. Above that, it's a ticket!