What can be said about the shortest days of the year in Wyoming? I survived, I guess. And I avoided financial damage by staying off of the internet fly fishing sites and tossing the glossy gear catalogs immediately into the trash. In one brief lapse of judgement, I found myself in our local fly shop holding a 5 weight Winston rod that cost about the same as my monthly mortgage installment. I wiggled it in the rarified air. The shop owner, who had just returned from a brutal fishing adventure in Asia, told me he didn’t think the Winston was the rod for me. So I put it back in its place. I have enough rods to last the rest of my life.
One, a little 4 weight with a tiny reel, gets no action whatsoever. I decided to take a drive out of town and cast it a few times. I drove to Bessemer Bend. The wetlands where I used to hunt deer have been drained. Now, it seems, houses are popping up out there like mushrooms. I took a left on Speas Road and drove to the parking area at Jessica’s Pond. There was a lone SUV in the parking lot. There was a solitary fisherman dawdling with his keys. At first, we regarded each other as competition. But that guy, decked out in the newest fly fishing clothes, was heading down to the river.
It’s amazing a place like this exists. Jessica’s Pond is a man-made body of water where run-off from the Speas Fish Hatchery gathers. The pond supports an astonishing variety of trout: goldens, various rainbow hybrids, and grayling—all stocked from the nearby hatchery. I could see the sleek shapes of fish touring the shoreline. The pond features an outhouse, a gazebo, two picnic tables, and a platform for differently-able folks to access the lake. It rarely freezes, I am told, because it has some sort of relationship with the mysterious geothermal springs that burble up from the surrounding rim-rock.
My black Labs, cooped up in the house too long, sprung out of the truck and went snorting and sneezing into the sage. I rigged up with a beetle pattern. I used a brassie in size 18 as a dropper and started casting. Fish were rising, even in winter. I have to say, though the odds are stacked in favor of the angler in situations like this, I was enlivened when I saw so many fish schooling along the algae-rich banks. There was no reason to go into debt for another fly rod, I thought to myself, this outfit was doing just fine. I looked over my shoulder from time to time, however; it would be a bit embarrassing for me to be discovered working over the trout at Jessica’s Pond. I’ve spent a great deal of effort selling myself as a globe-trotting angler in the fly-fishing press lately.
I quickly caught a rainbow that fought hard and ran some drag. The fish was a brilliantly colored, 14-inch slab of muscle. If I wanted to eat a fresh fish, this was an excellent candidate. My dogs leaned in as I released the trout.
The last trout I caught—before I went to Jessica’s Pond on this breezy winter day—was a wild brown trout from the Alto Sarca River in the Italian Alps, 5,000 miles from Casper. I could hear church bells ringing from a medieval town wedged into the hillside. The World War I museum in Spiazzo was closed for renovations. In a few months, this village would be overrun with skiers. There was fog and drizzle. A pair of teenagers drove two beautiful dairy cows up the river bank to another pasture. After I released the beautiful brown, I headed up the slope to town where we would eat homemade gnocchi in a 300 year old restaurant. I could go on, but I won’t.
Fly fishing and writing about the outdoors has opened up the world for me in ways I could have never imagined. We are entering the second year of The Cast, and I have to say, it has refocused my writing, and given me lots to think about. But more than any of that, it has made me realize the layers upon layers of experiences one can have close to town. Writing this column has made me think more deeply about the places and people of Natrona County who strive to make things better. Most of the people I’ve met through this process want to invite others to enjoy our beloved North Platte, and to discover wildlife that we risk overlooking. Many of these folks are determined to keep parts of Wyoming wild. Instead of being waylaid by negative news and depressing trends, these people are convinced that the future can offer more.
This year I have all sorts of plans. I want to tell the zany story of a college professor who has caught at least one trout every month for over twenty years. I want to spend the night in a restored sheep wagon out in the sage expanses. We have a local troubadour who has dedicated his life to entertaining us; I want to put a fly rod in his hand and see what happens. I want to describe the local fly fishing clubs and their herculean efforts to bring young people into the outdoors. But mostly, I’d like to hear from you, the readers. Is there a way The Cast can become a conversation? I’m getting lonesome from talking to myself so much, and every day.
If Jessica’s Pond was magically lifted and moved 5,000 miles to Italy, I can imagine it ringed with lawn chairs. Older Italian men in designer sunglasses would sit and fish in the sunshine, arguing the way they do, their hands and arms swinging wildly. It seems as if they are in a vicious debate, but they are only talking, the national pastime. I can imagine them each keeping a few fish, too. (Catch-and-release is still a hard sell in Europe.) In short order, they would fish Jessica’s Pond out. It would have to be re-stocked weekly.
Jessica’s Pond is not going anywhere. It’s one of those gems we have here that we often take for granted. It’s available to all of us, and yet, none of you were there. I was. I needed to be because I needed a reminder of why I chose Wyoming, why I stayed.
After a few feisty trout, I reeled up and took down my rod. The other fisherman strolled up from the riverbank and peeled out of his waders. By his countenance I could tell he had been roughed up by the North Platte. Perhaps he didn’t think much of me and my dogs, my afternoon catching tame trout out of a make-believe-pond. Maybe he found me unsophisticated. He wouldn’t be the first.
We nodded at each other. Wild ducks wheeled overhead in the bright, white winter.