This year I drew one of the rare, coveted, “any elk” tags in Natrona County. I’ve been applying for this tag for 15 years. When I saw the results on the computer screen I could hardly believe my luck. I bought maps of the area, made sure my batteries in my GPS were fresh, and hit the gym so that I could hike for long afternoons without stopping for naps. When the elk season opened, I was parked on the flank of the mountain, my face pressed into my binoculars. But it was nearly ninety degrees in the afternoons, and I knew shooting an elk in these conditions presented a whole list of problems, primarily, the high risk of losing much of the meat to spoilage. Still, I moved through the dark timber, stopping at elk rubs to touch the fresh sap where the antlers peeled the bark from the tree.
It's one thing to look at an area on a topo map; it’s another to lace up your boots and go exploring. Islands of sage and grass were tucked up near the peak. I stopped at one of these meadows for lunch and remarked the fresh elk tracks and well-used game trails. There was also lots of old horse signage and I remembered that there was once a large herd of wild horses here a few summers back.
As I combed the blown down timber and sat over elk wallows, I began to think about the little four weight fly rod in my truck. The mountain ranges that rise out of the desert around Casper are laced with little creeks and rills that hold brook trout. Some of these streams are so tiny you can step across them. They flow down from springs and boggy areas. They sing as they fall, down and down, into the thirsty sage steppes, where cows are spaced out on the landscape like black freckles.
After a few outings of hunting elk with no success, I found myself stringing up that little rod. The nice thing about brook trout is their willingness to hit a dry fly. The other nice thing is their undeniable beauty. Even on a scorching hot day, the area around a brook trout stream is cool and wet. I worked the pools downstream from my camp, capturing brookies and miniature rainbows. These fish were what people often call “pan-sized.” But I couldn’t bring myself to keep any. I liked the idea of eating wild fish, but every time I brought one to hand, I changed my mind and set it free. They departed in a splash, a flourish of gold and orange.
I came to a logjam where over thirty brook trout hugged the bottom of the creek. In five casts I had five takes, but only landed two fish. The two brookies were chunky, flamed with bright colors, and so wild that it was difficult to remove the hook while they thrashed in my hand. There were no signs of other fishermen, and it seemed as if these trout had never seen a size 16 yellow humpy before. I was supposed to be hunting five-hundred pound ungulates, but these eight ounce brook trout held my attention most of the afternoon, until the shadows swept down from the peaks and reminded me it was time to get back to camp.
On my way back to camp I startled a wild horse that had been bedded in the dark timber. At first I thought it was an elk. I heard the hooves pounding the ground. I thought it was the trophy bull elk of my dreams. But then I saw glimpses of his back coat as he crashed through the downed timber and sprinted out towards the open sage.
Back at camp I boiled water for dinner. I made one of those freeze-dried lasagnas that has to steep in the sealed bag for ten minutes. The wild mustang that I came across out of the woods stood three football fields away in the blue sage, swinging his head and snorting. He stomped the ground in irritation. He stared me down. A cloud of dust rose between us. He grazed for a bit, but then went back to expressing his displeasure with me in his territory.
No elk are going to hang around here with all of this commotion, I thought to myself. Maybe I should just turn this adventure into a fishing trip.
My friend, the sociologist Chad Hanson, says that wild horses are very social animals. If you're interested, you can read more about that here. Anyways, I remember him telling me that some of the young mustangs will go off by themselves in the summer to live in solitude, but they will rejoin the herds come fall and winter. He also said that wild horses that escape the roundups are traumatized by the experience. Perhaps this black horse was a young upstart who would challenge other mustangs for mares this spring. Or perhaps he was a holdover from a roundup.
I was too beat to take down my fly rod, so I leaned it against a beetle-killed spruce. I crawled into my sleeping bag. It was so warm that I left the rainfly off the tent. Stars in every direction filled in the sky all the way down to the sage. With the full moon, I could see the black horse standing on a rise. In the distance the yard lights of a ranch house flickered on. The coyotes started. The wild horse grazed in the darkness, then stomped the ground and wheezed. I couldn’t sleep thinking about that horse, and all of those trout up there in a stream so cold it makes your hands ache, even in early fall. How did I, a guy from Newport News, Virginia, stumble into such beauty?
When the horse’s hooves struck the ground I could feel the vibrations through the rock and soil, through my sleeping pad and into my body. He stayed most of the night, ghosting off into the dark timber sometime in the wee hours of grey light. As I drove home it felt as if I could still fell those vibrations. I could feel them all the way down the gravel roads until I hit the asphalt, and made my turn back to town.