All That Glitters

Guest Blogger: Mike Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

Years ago, when I was attending university in Irvine California, my brother Greg came out from back East for a vacation. He wanted to taste the full California experience, so we crammed into the first week long coastal jetties, Caribbean Pirates, America-blaring road trips up Highway 1, bandito beach camp-outs, sand volleyball, one shameless orchard raid for a juicy breakfast orange each…like men possessed. And in the second week we went up into God’s Country.

An excruciatingly twisty road led us to a High Sierra trailhead, from where we climbed afoot, packs laden, for hours up to well above the headwaters of the Little Kern. Breathless but filled with wonder, we realized we were literally in the shadow of the divide. We pitched camp among massive mounds of snow still scattered about the spring forest floor, which served as refrigerators for our grub and provided olfactory camouflage against hungry critters with good noses, most of which were still in hibernation anyway.

Figure_1--Divide_TerrainFor three days we hiked around a high lake and flogged the shallows for a few tiny brookies too hungry to care whether a fly resembled a bug or a piece of cotton sock. We ate peanut butter sandwiches by day and talked of many things under stark heavens by night. Once we clawed our way up precarious scree slopes to the divide itself and peered eastward over eternity. And we spent most of our hours huddled behind whatever huge boulders would let us stand on their sunniest side yet still shield us from the bitter cold of the wind. We were rushing the season, and knew it, but it was adventure.

I’d built my first real fly rod in the previous few months and was getting to know its 7.5-foot too-stiff graphite personality. Truth be told, I’d made it from a four-piece Fenwick spinning blank, for packability into such places as this, because back then nobody I knew about made four-piece fly rod blanks. So as much a joy as it was to use a wand of my own making, it too wasn’t a “real” fly rod in the sense I’d claim today. I also had the cheapest line ever made; I couldn’t roll cast to save my life, which led to carefully snaking back-casts into the woods behind me…and to festooning those branches with precious flies.

One late afternoon I was stumbling around in search of firewood; picturing some idyllic bit of fiction like lounging near warm fire-ring stones under bright stars that night, I’d gotten it into my head that I could conjure a flame without it being instantly snuffed out by a cold damp blast. And so I went looking for downed wood.

I don’t remember if I ever even managed a bit of smoke…and I certainly don’t recall any cozy comfort. But I do remember having to cross a tiny rivulet of water leaking downhill out of the tail end of the lake while I looked for sticks. The stream was so small I could step over without the slightest leap, and I went back and forth over it whenever it crossed my path. I came upon a little place where it poured over a cross-wise log, making a pool below the tiny cascade that was lined with ivory quartz sand. And I stopped, agape.

There in that pool was a beautiful little creature. Less than four inches long, it lived alone, unable to leap over the upstream log and unwilling to abandon its oasis to venture downhill. Its world was the size of a large bushel basket, albeit half as deep. Its sides were bright red and gold, and it may have been entirely unaware that there had ever been another of its kind in the universe.

I backed away as slowly as a man could, stumbled back to camp in a frenzy, and tied on a dainty dry Adams before the light failed me. I was going to…no. It was already too dark for a good shot. I would ready my rod against a tree and wait until morning.

Couldn’t sleep…would it still be there?  Silly question…I’d heard of them like I’d heard of mermaids and unicorns, but never dreamed I’d see one. Night, friend of wild things, tried to cramp my casting arm beyond all use; dawn mocked me by being late to the next day’s stalk. But I outlasted, and finally rose. Boots; jacket. Camera, warming inside the jacket. And fly rod. Off we go, breath held.

The slope looked different in early morning light, and I stumbled around wondering where the stream had gone. Was it this far left? Had I really seen it at all? Finally I found it, down lower on the hill than I’d remembered, and followed it further on until the tiny pour-over and puddle came into view. I skirted well below and stepped over, then came back up, so that I’d be on the better side.

With purpose I found a nearby smooth bit of green moss and moistened it with stream water. Laying my rod grip on the moss for scale, I pre-focused the camera on it, noted exactly where my feet were placed, and cocked the film (remember film?). And I moistened both hands in the stream in advance as well. Then I pulled just enough leader and line from the guides to make my one attempt.

The little Adams flicked forward, but overshot the mark, landing in the water just upstream of the log…and with a prayer was swept over the edge without snagging. I’d had visions of a perfect floating presentation but the fly churned clumsily at the bottom of the pool under the little waterfall’s force.

And suddenly I realized there was contact! The little fish took the fight to every limit of its tiny pool, and above. Pound for pound…make that gram for gram…it shamed the meanest steelhead ever hooked. But it was out-matched and I pulled it quickly from its haven.

Figure_2--Golden_TroutSomeone out there is thinking I’m going to say, “And I grilled it on the morning embers and ate it.” But I did not; I laid it on the moss and snapped my photo. I quickly and carefully removed the hook, and put it back into its pool, and walked back to camp, dazed by what had just transpired: I’d caught a little wild Golden Trout.

I’d like to think it escaped detection that spring and summer by things that have appetites, talons and claws; I’d like to think it grew by virtue of a steady wash-down of bugs into a noble adult Golden, and that it figured out what it must do and leapt that log pour-over, charged up that tiny rivulet, and gained the lake, where it lived out a strong, proud life. I do know its single encounter with me means it made its permanent mark on the planet, as I’m telling the world now that it existed, and that it was as the legends describe.

Maybe that’s worth it having felt the bite of a hook.

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