Saturday, April 6, 2013

Just Another Typical Day in Wyoming.

“I’m gonna die right here… first they’ll find my outfit parked in the alfalfa field, then they will look for me. Eventually, they will find my body. It will be charred and, if they find me soon enough, still smoking. I’ll probably look like a slab of bacon sizzling on a forgotten camp stove.”

I had been hunkered down in this copse of bankside willows for over an hour. At times, I thought the storm might pass and if I was patient, I could still get in some fishing this afternoon. I had told myself over and over, 'just 15 more minutes and if it doesn’t clear, I’ll go home'. At other times, I was simply too scared to move. 

I knew that if I made a dash for the car, I would be fried to a cinder as soon as I stood up. I had that pee-in-your-pants kind of fear that directs you to make deals with your maker and wonder why you left the safe confines of your office to do something as stupid as go fishing. This was now officially one of those scared shitless moments. Lightning was continuously flashing and at no time during the last 30 minutes could I not hear thunder. A moment ago, a massive bolt struck a red rock butte that rose out of a sagebrush flat lining the far side of the river. The moment before the bolt let loose, I had felt the charge build in the air. My nippers and hemostats vibrated ominously and my ears began ringing like a cheap radio. I had immediately jettisoned my chestpack. I threw it as far as I could towards my graphite fishing/lightning rod which was, like me, lying prone, but at the far end of the sand bar. I wanted no metal near me. During that last terrifying discharge, I would have gladly pried out my own fillings, if I hadn’t thrown my hemostats away with my chestpack.

Each time a boomer pealed off, I hunkered down a bit more. I was now hugging the sandy alluvial shore and passing the time listing the many things I was willing to give up in exchange for some divine intervention. I was on the verge of offering to quit fishing if I could just get out of this alive, when the hail suddenly stopped and a warm wind wafted in. This was not a slow process. The hail stopped pelting me and the air warmed as if on a switch with only two settings… on and off. The air was still electric, but there was now room for hope.

As thunder rumbled and lightning popped, the winds calmed. A low-lying sun sent a half-light through clouds that hugged the foothills. Unafraid of the lightning, a single robin flew to a fence pole and began eating spinners that were orbiting the post. Suddenly, there were insects everywhere. Smokey caddis buzzed in the willows, while baetis duns floated down the creek with their wings unfurled like tiny sailboats. PMD spinners danced in the air, their glassine wings reflecting a mesmerizing low half-light. Apparently, all these insects had decided to make a break for it and get in some mating while the stream’s predators were hunkered down waiting for the weather to clear. As a big bolt smacked a small hill near me, I thought it best to lay low for awhile. Having just cheated death, there was no reason to now tempt the fates.

Then I saw the nose. The snout was so close I could have touched him with my rod tip (if my 4 wt. hadn’t been 25 yards away). I could see the signature hooked jaw and green cheek spot of a big brown. A few more very pale, almost white, PMD duns disappeared into his maw before fish-fever overcame fear-of-frying. Rationalizing (and deep in denial), I skulked across the sandy bank to retrieve my rod. I felt like a child about to do something wrong, but determined to do it anyway. I nervously positioned myself midriver putting a small riffle between me and the big fish. I tied on my most pale light Cahill. 

Hoping for the best, I flung this little bundle of knots, dubbing and feathers into the big brown’s feeding lane. The fly floated through the flash of a massive bolt, then vanished in a swirl of muted storm light and water. Still ducking from the bolt, I struck feeling my line come tight. As line played out, I laughed nervously and glanced skyward. I tried to keep my rod angled low even as I fought and then landed the fish. He was 21 inches and broad. He had wintered well...and I had survived the storm. I’m sure I was more excited about these events than he was. As I gingerly released him, a wicked flash quickly yanked my brain back to whether I should fish or flee. "Flight or fight" took on a new meaning.

Fish lust again won out over common sense as I began catching fish after fish all on dries. Just as I was running out of light Cahills, the PMD’s tapered off. Almost immediately, a tan caddis started laying eggs in the stream as the storm rumbled on still quite near. Was it insane to continue? I knew I was sticking a wet finger in a celestial 220 volt socket, but I was now so deep in denial perhaps the only cure was shock therapy!  I pressed on. I had no caddis patterns with me, no Goddard’s or elk-haired caddis... nothing down-wing. Instead, I tied on a little yellow Sally stonefly pattern that was similar to a stimulator hoping to imitate the caddis hatch as best I could. Despite the fly’s red butt, it worked great on these usually very selective fish. I caught many big browns and a few fat rainbows until the caddis hatch ended and another, this time more yellow PMD, began to hatch.

At this point, I was in the midst of a full-blown fish frenzy having gone from abject fear to elation in short order. This roller coaster of emotions had given birth to an almost absurd sense of optimism that spawned the following course of events:

Since I had no more PMD flies with me, I tied on a brand-new, yellow Sally/stimulator. I figured that since this down-wing pattern was generally about the same color as the PMD’s and since I was using the stimulator to imitate a caddis and since the fish had just been eating caddis… OK, OK, so the truth was this: I was using a stonefly pattern to imitate a caddis that I thought might work on fish feeding on mayflies

It must be obvious that my mind was addled by a toxic mix of cerebral chemicals created by combining a near death experience with fish fever. This mind-numbing cocktail must have reacted with the ozone released by the lightning (and the cheeseburger I’d had at McDonalds before the storm) to bring me to this point. Absurd even for a fisherman!

The first fish I showed my fly ate a PMD natural on either side of the yellow Sally. With a closed mouth, the second fish popped the fly out of the water with his nose. I had seen big browns do this before on this stream with grasshopper flies. Probably fooled before, they were checking my hopper to see if they were real. I had never seen this happen with such a small fly. But in my addled state, I took it as a good sign. I clipped a bit of the elk hair so more of the yellow body showed and pushed the hair straight up then formed it into a semi-circle like a comparadun. I tried again. The big brown came up, followed the fly downstream for three or four feet, then confidently ate my yellow Sally/caddis/PMD. Let's call it a comparacaddis stone.

This fish had probably volunteered for his clan thinking I would most probably leave the other fish alone and go home if this fly worked. He was right. After landing get another 20” trout, I crawled up the bank and walked through the alfalfa field to the tune of distant thunder. 

It had been just another typical day in Wyoming. 


  1. Nice piece. I could feel the storm.

  2. Thanks Doug! I can still feel the wet spot in my pants!

  3. Derry Ryan writes from Ireland and my response:

    Dear Scott,
    Did you pen that piece on Wyoming?? I’m in work today and was having a coffee after looking at tooooo many figures and this piece is one of the best I’ve ever read!!

    I felt that I was there with you huddled up on that sandbank, hearing every thunder bolt and seeing every lightning strike. Its gets quite nervy with all that electricity in the air. We’ve also found that following a violent storm, the immediate calm that follows normally produces a hectic rise and fish activity.

    Do you remember when we fished through a lightning storm out in the Fish Cays ( Crooked Island ) back in 2007? I suppose you could call it over exurberance or just plain stupid, neither Clinton or I could’ get him to take shelter.
    Best and many thanks,

    My response:
    Dear Derry,

    I actually wrote this piece a few years ago, but forgot about it until this spring. Then a similar event on a local ranch (while I was, yet again, huddled on a gravel bar scared shitless) sent me on a search for it.
    I eventually found it, and worked on "fluffing it up" it over the last few evenings (amazing how your writing improves with time… one of the fews things that does, apparently).

    Regarding your friend's "exuberance", I think fishing on the ocean in a lightening storm is not only extremely terrifying, but incredibly dangerous. I actually jettisoned my rod on Acklins Island and went prone with only my mouth and nose out of the water. This accomplished two things:
    a.) it lowered my profile...
    b.) and it meant no one could tell I was pissing in my pants.

    Best and many thanks Derry,