Springtime fishing in Wyoming is something I always want to share with others. I’ve introduced dozens of fishermen to the North Platte over the years. But this week—in the spirit of social distancing—I had to go alone. My dogs came along, of course, but I couldn’t bring a friend. My friend Dave Brown almost came down from Sheridan, but he backed out. He decided to quarantine himself. I decided to try anyway. Another friend, Brian Farmer, who recently moved to California called and asked me to go to one of his favorite runs—the Pump House Hole—and take some video clips.
“There’s no sports, nothing to do… maybe you can you show me a big fish? I’ll wait for it all afternoon,” he said.
At the grocery store, I cruised the aisles with fascination—so much has changed so quickly for all of us. The canned foods section had been ravished, and I haven’t seen bleach in weeks. I tried to make eye contact with my fellow Americans to gauge if they were feeling what I was feeling. A bit of fear, a bit of confusion. I was thrilled when I found a thirty-pound bag of dog food, the last bag. I tucked it under my arm. At the drive-through Starbucks the man in front of me paid for my coffee. I never got a chance to thank him. He sped away in an old Honda Civic.
Deejays played uplifting songs on the radio: some Mavis Staples, some R.E.M., that classic song that tells us everybody hurts. It was alarming to see the empty boat ramp at Government Bridge. No trucks. No guides dropping their drift boats into the sliding current. I saw dozens of boats titling on their trailers at one of the lodges. This is the busiest season for fly fishing, so to see the fleet of boats sitting idle means that people have cancelled their plans.
Pulling into one of my favorite spots, I wasn’t as excited as I usually am. I took my time pulling on my waders, rigging up my two-fly system, attaching an indicator. I heard Sandhill cranes rattling from across the river. The dogs bounded through the naked willows. A whole flock of Canada geese took off in one instant.
I waded out to my spot, made a cast, mended my line and caught a brilliant, springtime rainbow. The fish ran drag. It was a beautiful buck, perhaps eighteen inches. It fell for a rock worm, an old standby, a pedestrian fly that even I can tie. I fiddled with my phone, but it was hard to control the fish and get a decent photo. I tried to make a video for my friend in California, but it wasn’t much good. My dog, Henderson, seeing the thrashing trout, swam out and circled me where I stood in the frigid water.
I fished for another two hours with no success. Remarkably, no guides came by, no trucks pulled in. In the fly fishing world, having the whole river to yourself is often a badge of honor, some sort of threshold achievement that seems requisite to having an authentic experience. We often crow about being the only one out, or the first person to launch in the morning. When we outwit the crowds we are epic. But here, in March, fishing by myself, I could find no reason to celebrate. In fact, I felt sad that the current crisis has changed everything, even fly fishing in the least populated state. I looked upstream, hoping to see a drift boat round the bend. Nothing. I picked up a river stone and studied the writhing mayfly nymphs in size twenty.
In the days following 9/11 I found myself in the Snowy Range of Wyoming trying to blow an elk call without sobbing. I had this idea that if I went up into the national forests I could escape the reality of so much violence and fear. I packed some gallons of water, some ramen and some energy bars. At night, I sipped high-proof schnapps and looked up at the stars. There were no planes, just a starry vastness. In the afternoons I’d sit in my truck and listen to Wyoming Public Radio, the Laramie station. And sooner or later the confident voice of Daniel Schorr would break through the static and reassure me that things would eventually get better. The bull elk were all over the mountain, darn near volunteering to be “harvested”. One bull came out into a clear-cut at four in the afternoon and bugled until dusk. There were no other hunters. Perhaps I had stumbled into some version of paradise. But my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t be in two places at once. And I couldn’t be apart from the suffering and outrage we were all feeling. So I took down my tent and drove home to be with my fellow Americans.
In the mystique of fly fishing the farther you can get away, the farther you can remove yourself, the better the fishing. It seems I’ve spent a good deal of my life, and a fair amount of my money, trying to find remote, unpeopled places. You end up in Northern Canada in a town with only thirty souls, twenty-three of whom are slouching at the tavern watching hockey on a fuzzy television screen. Or you discover yourself bug-bitten and sun-burned in a tiny fishing village on the Sea of Cortez with no one at the bar who speaks your language. Is catching and photographing a rooster-fish really worth all of this isolation? These are the lonely extremes fly fishing writers, such as myself, lionize. We celebrate the fringes, the outer limits, at least in print. But this kind of thinking leaves you alone. And to be alone, it seems to me, is overrated. That’s what I felt this week as I stood in the river for hours without seeing a single guide boat go by. Usually, they swing wide and give me space to cast. They wear sunglasses and ooze confidence. They are, after all, professionals who know more about the river and trout fishing than I’ll ever know. It irks me when they drift by with both clients into a good fish, but I remind myself that a little humility is good for me.
A family with a standard poodle strolled in the distant sage. My dogs charged over to sniff and greet them. We waved to each other from fifty yards apart. They drove off as I waded to shore.
A minor tragedy occurred when I snapped the final eyelet off my vintage Powell rod. They don’t make this model anymore. Feeling blue, I drove back to town and entered the Ugly Bug. I wanted to see if it was open. I was relieved when I pulled the door handle and it swung open. I was the only customer. The young man at the counter said he could easily fix the rod. I pretended to be interested in a new pair of wading boots while he took the rod tip into the back. He returned in less than five minutes.
“Are you guys going to stay open?” I said.
“We’re going to stay as long as they let us,” he said. “There’s no better place to be right now than out on the river.”
Back at home I resisted the urge to turn on the news. I received a call from one of the editors for whom I work. Ryan Sparks is a rising voice in the fly fishing press. I had called earlier to see if he wanted me to continue to write and pitch ideas to his magazine Strung. I asked if people still wanted to read fishing stories.
“Oh, heck yes,” he said. “We’re determined to put out the magazine. People are going to need something to read. And when all of this passes, people are going to be fired-up to be back on the water.”
I told Ryan about my day out on the river. But we didn’t talk too much about fishing. Instead I told him about those Sandhills, and how they seemed bigger than they are when they arched over the river. They were all sunlight and plumage, flying as one. How come they make those cranes so big, we wondered? Why do they flit back and forth across the river all day? Can’t they decide where they want to be? Ryan and I talked about cranes. Then we hung up.
We’re going to get through this rough patch. Soon we’ll all be back on the river, fishing together. I’ll wave to you as you drift by.