Chasing Blue Lines
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Shivering cold, asses wetly planted inside the puddled, hastily assembled tent, soggy feet hanging outside the zippered doors while a steady deluge of rain pounds the fly with enough intensity we have to shout to make conversation.
"God damn it, Mark," I yell, feigning indignation. “You just had to get that one last fish, didn't you?"
We knew we were pushing our luck, two-and-a-half miles from camp at what came to be known as "the mega hole." The sky grew darker and darker, and the thunder peeled closer and closer. But the fishing was too good to leave; we just couldn't pull ourselves away, despite the ample warnings.
It's the second full day of our trip, 10 miles into the backcountry, and my buddy Mark and I are paying the price for wanting to get on the water as soon as possible. Our friend Tyler, the more prudent of our not-very-prudent bunch, sits high and dry inside his shelter alongside, enjoying the play-by-play, and expounding on his wisdom for taking a couple extra minutes to set up camp before we started downriver earlier that day.
I'm stupidly grinning ear to ear as I stare out at my shriveled muddy feet. Despite the temporary misery I couldn't be more pleased with the situation. I take a mental snapshot, knowing it's a moment I'll want to hang on to for posterity's sake. No memorable trip is ever made up exclusively of blue skies and twenty-inchers – though we've already had our fair share of both.
The quest started several months back as we set out to find native trout and a stretch of less-pressured water to explore. Favors were called in, rumors investigated, and enough collective time OnX and Google Earth to count as a full-time job was spent before we settled on this particular winding blue line. And, so far, the double-digit miles, shoulder-cutting packs, seemingly endless "hey bears!" and waterlogged, cut-up feet are proving a minuscule price to pay for the solitude we have found.
Not to mention the fishing.
There's a temporary let up in the weather and we rush to stake the tent, soak up some of the standing water with long johns and a sweatshirt, and down anything that passes for dinner by the fire ring before being chased back into our sleeping bags by the next round of rain. Mark journals the day and I doze off to the sound of heavy drops pelting nylon.
We're up early the next morning to blue skies; a quick instant-coffee-and-energy-bar breakfast before loading the daypacks and heading upriver to explore new water. We find the first promising run, a deep boulder-laden bucket after a bubbly riffle, and Tyler's red and black ant is already into a solid native cuttie that measures just shy of twenty on the net.
And it just keeps getting better the further we work up.
The last people we've seen was a full two days ago, and there's no sign of anyone having been here anytime recently. The few tracks we encounter belong to the four-legged variety of mammal, and the fish are stacked in all the places you'd expect.
A few mayflies begin to come off as the day warms and we switch to Purple Hazes and P-Adams, pulling seven mid-teen natives out of a single run. Then Mark lands another colored-up twenty. We're already starting to become calloused to big fish, barely offering to help with the net unless the feisty adversary pushes the 18-inch mark, and maybe not even then.
It's as though we have discovered some long-forgotten paradise, impossibly better than I could have even imagined.
We push further and further upriver, growing more and more distant from the day-to-day static of the modern world and more and more in tune with the riparian rhythms of the river and the quiet voices within ourselves only unleashed in a primal place like this. We cross over and take to the shoreline. Rounding a small bend in front of the line, I freeze.
Hands instantly move to bear-spray triggers before the rest of the group realizes I've simply stumbled over a massive elk deadhead, not inadvertently come face-to-face with seven hundred pounds of man-eating fur and fangs. We admire the old warrior before sliding even further up.
I'm first to the next run and test the quick water near a large boulder with a white streamer and am instantly rewarded with a solid flash but a miss. I try again and get another flash but no hook up. The third cast doesn't even draw a follow, so I rest the hole, switch to olive, and try again. Another flash and another miss. I'm flummoxed now and switch out to the foam ant. I drop it gently at the top of the run, it glides past the rock and gets taken in a violent slash. I set but come up empty, again. Completely rattled, I curse myself as my buddies watch in amusement, rest the hole, and make one more switch. The purple chub follows the same path as the ant and gets devoured. The set is heavy, and I've finally made good on this fish. I fight him in the steady current before Mark makes the scoop, slaps a high five, and flashes me that "finally" look. We're already well over 150 trout and still have one more full day.
Back at camp we gaze into the dark sky, reliving the day's highlights run by run, reminisce about family and special places, and begin laying plans for the next trip. But I'm completely present. Lost in the stars, the soothing gurgle of the river, and the tangy scent of pine and sagebrush that have come to define places I love.
We're up at 5 AM the last morning to pack out. Elk bugle in the faint dawning light as heavy packs slide over tired shoulders. We're quiet on the way out, aside from the occasional "hey bear" that echoes eerily through the verdant valley. Each lost in our own memories of a special week spent in a special place. Each knowing that paradise can still be found, with a little effort.
That somewhere out there are more blue lines on a map waiting to be explored.