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GIVE ME TRAILS


Over the course of a summer of running trails in my favorite park in upstate NY, I had pretty much written a poem in my head. When I finally took the time to get it on paper, it showed up in a heartbeat. I called my friends Denver Miller and JR Kraus (both talented directors and cinematographers) to see if it was worth shooting a short video to put the words with. Something done for the love of what we do – storytelling. And, to be honest, to show to prospective clients as well. After just a few hours of scouting the park, this, too, showed up in a heartbeat.

And for those who’d like to read the poem, here’s the original:

Give me trails.

Needled whisper-paths through the pines and their sharp jabs of busted spokes and whirls at shoulder/hip/head height.
Tangled close-crowded paths through gullies and shadowed low places. The willow-swing of thornbrush gripping my shins, forearms and biceps.
Glorious muddy stretches that try to swallow my feet alive.
Give me sudden right-turn uphills and skittish, greasy downhills and roots like the backbones of some long-gone earthen civilization rising if only to keep me paying attention.
Give me wipeouts and grit in my teeth. Sweat-salt in my eyes.
Give me deer that don’t hear me coming or going, fox that go on about their meandering way, geese, woodpecker, hawk, jay, blackbird.

Give me trails.

I run solo but I’m not alone.
It’s in my blood. My Blackfoot ancestry. I feel them running with me and the hair on my neck and forearms stands on end. I hear them in the wind off the lake and in the song of leafed braches overhead.
I was given endurance and two legs that respond when I say go.
I was not given excuses.
I run because I can and carry everything on these two feet and shoulders, until I carry nothing.
There’s no machine stride in me, just my heart and will and these woods.

Here I am, mortal.
Here, I will live forever. Native.
Here I outrun my heart and scramble from insane to sane. Here I am honest and unflinching and vulnerable.
I run toward pain, through it, from it.
I run heartbroken and hopeless and swearing into the hungry green.
I run whole and happy and singing into the hungry green.
I run thirsty, my tongue tasting like copper and blood and a life that is alive.

Alive.

I am alive.

Give me trails so that I can run.

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Filed under In the woods, Life, Poetry

THE IDAHO TRIP: HENRY’S FORK

When we were planning this trip to Idaho, right up to the week prior, there were gaps in our itinerary. Even after we had finished dinner with Jason, Vicki, Rebecca and Robert our first night in-country, we had still only shored up about 80% of the next 9 days.

During the week prior to flying west, Ross Slayton caught wind we were going to be in his neck of the woods and dropped me a message. He offered to show us a few spots on Henry’s Fork if we made it up that way, provided he could get the day off. That was pretty much how we had left it until we talked on Thursday evening.

Well, he got the day off, and we had made it up that way.

7:00 Friday morning, Ross pulled into the hotel parking lot in his mid-80’s Chevy Blazer, fired up as any human being I’ve known. Grant and I, on the other hand, were tapping our gas gauges by this point in the trip  hoping the needle would jump a little. But we were heading for Henry’s Fork. Storied water. The stuff of legends. We rallied.

Ross’s Blazer was a wild experience, and reason to rally, in-and-of-itself. A faded black warhorse with flies stuck, presumably retired, in various places on the dash and around the back hatch, Ross judged speed by RPM’s since the speedometer was out. His tire had thrown a weight which shook the truck like a leaf on a tree. It pulled to the left and the right, a steering-wheel dance that Ross had mastered to the point of it becoming an unconscious activity. Most everything rattled. It was a perfect beater fishing truck that he prayed would stay in one piece through this coming winter.

We barreled up Route 20 through Rigby and Rexburg, crossing the Snake, passing prairie and farmland and plenty of cows and climbed from Ashton into Targhee National forest with the Tetons yawning in the eastern distance. We passed through reforested stretches of lodgepole pine with road-side signs stating Planted in 1981, 1967, 1998, and turned into the Riverside Campground. Situated on the upper stretches of the Cardiac Canyon section, this was one of Ross’s favorite places the fish on the river. His usual MO was to hike 45 – 90 minutes downstream and fish his way back to the truck, so we figured we’d follow his lead on a similar excursion.

We followed a game-trail that ran along the river, picking our way over dead-falls and boulders, through tall brush and pine stands, occasionally dropping into the river to wade 30 or so yards downstream before climbing out again. We’d stop every now and again and Ross would give us some more insight into the river and it’s entomology, the wildlife and the region. A voracious reader, he was down-right wiki-pedic with the depth of his knowledge. It was like having a really cool professor leading really cool field trip.

We’d be working pocket water through what he called “Walter-land,” named after the giant rainbow that haunted Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. He told us the rainbows and cutts get big in this river. Good bugs, he said. He also warned us about pocket water pools that can drop to 7 feet deep under normal flows. Of course we weren’t looking at normal flows. The lake up at Island Park had been drawn down in order to repair the dam after the unrelenting spring run-off, and much of that water was still right in front of us. How in the hell am I going to wade that? crossed my mind more than once.

I tied on a weighted golden stone, the fly I caught my Metolius ‘bow on, dropped a red copper john about 18-inches behind it, added an indicator and stepped out into the current. Ross and I leap-frogged pocket water while Grant hunkered down in the tree-line and slack water to shoot pics. We were largely held to near-shore targets since the depth and heavier current made it dicey to attempt anything further out. Ross proved that point with a few half-dunks and great saves before the day was over.

After a few hours I was starting to fade and the wheels fell off my roll casts. Ross, on the other hand, laid his out in one effortless arc after another. Neither of us were catching anything, and Grant wound up with a bloody nose from the collective days of lacking of humidity. We pushed on. With the campgrounds in sight, we came to a stretch of the river that was wadeable out to the middle. Several dozen boulders broke up the current enough here that gravel collected and built up the bottom. I stood about fifty yards out casting to the pocket-eddys between four chutes that poured into a single white, churning run.

I worked every seam I could reach without even a bite. Rolling one last half-assed cast into the head of the near pocket, a flash went off in the bottom of the pocket and I was suddenly into a good fight in fast water. I hollered to Grant. The ‘bow ran to the far side of the four chutes and jumped, then dove into the current. It was all-or-nothing at this point–either horse the fish back to my side of the current and risk losing it, or play it in the current and possibly down stream and risk losing it, and probably my ass if I had to give chase.

I turned the fish back to my side of the fast water and started busting my way back toward shore, falling twice, playing the fish in pocket after pocket  around boulders and a couple branches along the way. Grant was all mountain goat getting down the game trail to where I’d be landing. We were determined to get a shot of this fish. When I finally got my hand under the ‘bow at the shoreline, I could see he carried the scars of dodging an osprey or two. I felt like I just crossed the finish line. Our last of five rivers over roughly 8 days and I had managed to coax a beautiful trout from its belly in the 11th hour. I felt pretty damn amazing.

We elected to drive up to Herriman Ranch to try our hand at fishing this notoriously difficult section of the Fork, and at least be able to say yep, been there. When you hear someone mention Idaho or Montana trout water, the Ranch is usually the picture that comes to mind. Big sky. Wide, flat, gin clear water. Prairie grass and sagebrush and hoppers clicking in flight from your footsteps. We made the obligatory stop at Rene Harrop’s Trouthunters fly shop and Mike Lawson’s Henry’s Fork Anglers and then drove over to a stretch just off the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway.

The latest report for the ranch section of the Henry’s Fork read as such:

Henry’s Fork: Looking for the most difficult fishing you’ll ever experience? Look no further. The Ranch has plenty of big Rainbows and a decent number of insects. Mahogany duns and Baetis can both be seen. The hitch? Holy cow are these fish tough. The water is low and the trout are very selective. One bad cast or drift will send them fleeing to the next county. Bring only you’re A+ game here and hope for one.

At this point, Henry’s Fork – and Ross – had just put the perfect icing on the cake with that ‘bow, so I was game for the next-to-impossible. Ross, Grant and I stood on the bank for a few minutes watching the surface for rises and taking the whole landscape in. The wind had dropped and the fish were active. I tied on a big hopper with one of Rebecca’s #20 red zebra midges, all on 6X and waded slowly out toward the middle–about half-way to a few risers. Pulling about 40 feet of line from my reel, I stood hip-deep in the current and waited. Ross did the same about 100 yards up-river.

A good fish rose. I worked out line and made a cast that fell embarrassingly short. I let it drift below me before I reloaded another cast which didn’t raise any interest either. I waited again. A bigger, splash-rise. I laid the hopper about 15 feet above the expanding rings and it drifted directly down the middle of the lane until the water exploded like the fly hit a land-mine. I felt two big head shakes and then – boop – he was off. I smiled, wiped my face with some cold water and looked to the beautiful blue sky. The wind picked back up and the fish stopped rising. I waded slowly back toward Ross and Grant waiting at the bank, leaving my own rings to drift off on the current.

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THE IDAHO TRIP: THE SOUTH FORK, DAY 2

The next morning our drive to the South Fork felt entirely different. It was the same landscape of sprawling grain fields and foothills, beautifully wide blue sky and brush-stroke clouds. It was roughly the same river waiting on the other end of the drive. But everything was different.

We had been this way already. We’d already learned the roads from the hotel to the church parking lot. We’d already loaded our gear and hauled ass into the unknown of a new river. We’d already taken our lumps, managed to keep our dukes up and had held the reward, all cold color and fantastically alive. We had the thin-thread benefit of familiarity from one run-and-gun afternoon. But on this morning, our pace took a couple steps back, settled into the truck seats and tried to just take everything in. We were there, and that was enough.

We made another stop at the fly shop so I could replace the tan sex dungeons I had lost to the motor and the bottom of a greedy boulder. In the parking lot, I ran into Jeff Currier, a tremendous artist and rep for Ross and Scientific Anglers who I met at IFTD in New Orleans a week and a half earlier. Having met Colby for the first time at the show as well, it was pretty cool to cross paths with Jeff again, especially clear across the country. We put the boat in the water, pulled our collars up and hats down and turned down-river for the canyon.

About halfway there Colby pulled up on the throttle, swung the boat left back against the current below a giant gravel bar under six inches of water and then right easing us up on the bar. Over 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, he told us that this bar didn’t exist before the spring run-off. The extended bolus of snowmelt deposited the entire sweeping mass of rocks over the course of months, leaving a perfect section of riffles that drop into a deep, teal green run. I waded to the head of the riffles while Grant claimed a spot halfway down. Time to nymph.

After a couple casts I noticed a guy and his dog watching from the far bank, smoke rising slowly from a small campfire behind them. I waved. He waved. A couple more casts up and across the current and my indicator went under. I lifted the rod into a nice bend, collected my line on the reel and backed a flashy cutbow out of the heavy current. This is exactly how a day of fishing should start.

I picked my way back up to the head of the riffle and made a couple more casts. When my indicator dropped again, the hook-set stopped me short. I could feel a big body start to work up some heavy back and forth before it gave a couple good head-shakes, a few rolls and then put its nose as deep into the current it could. Fish on the reel, I backed into shallow water again, but this toad wasn’t following. I kept him from heading for bigger water, finally turned him toward shallow water and Colby slid the net under him to seal the deal.

I made a dozen more cast before I carried my big-honkin’ grin back to the boat to swap my rod for Grant’s camera. He had a couple takes that didn’t stick and I wanted to make sure I got some shots of him when one finally did. Within three or four casts his #16 rubber-legged prince nymph dropper found the jaw of a brown the size of a German u-boat, which bent his rod to the cork, turned tail for Canada and busted the line. And as luck would have it, I caught all 10 seconds of the fracas.

Enough drift boats had dropped below us by this point that Colby wanted to jet down into the canyon before the crowds socked it in. As we made out way down-river, we passed sheer rock walls that dropped into white current, stratified cliffs and pine, sage and grass-covered slopes. We pulled up into a small switchback to grab some lunch, relax, and burn a couple hours before the afternoon bite. Not one to sit still long, I ate my sandwich and waded out to a riffle. Colby picked up his rod, walked down the bank about 20 yards and promptly hooked up a nice cutbow.

That afternoon, we dropped down to another money spot Colby called the hog bar. A 100 yard sub-surface gravel peninsula usually stacked up with cutties, ‘bows and browns. Colby navigated through the drift boat fleet and drifted Grant and I down the right edge while we drifted our nymph rigs down the middle. Then he’d jet us back up to the top and drift it again. Grant was getting plenty of hits but no hook-ups. I on the other hand became a whitefish sniper, landing 15 or more in the 6 drifts we made. Having the fight at the end of the line was better than the alternative, but I was tired of getting my heart rate up over pike-bait.

Then it happened. My nymph rig dropped into a depression in the gravel bar and stopped. I lifted the rod and a flash appeared in the heart of the pool, turning into big rainbow as it blew into the far current. It took the loose line I had at my feet and then some from the reel. I could liken the fish to a football, but I’d be doing it a disservice. It was built more like a defensive lineman.

Colby rowed us into slower current near the bank and grabbed the net. Grant had finished his drift, collected his line and grabbed the camera. A few more runs and some dashes for the brush on the bank and I had his head up and pointed toward the boat–a cloud of iridescent silver and pink reflecting a universe around him. A foot off the net he came unbuttoned and I let go of a long, mournful noooooooooooo! that spooked birds from the trees on the hill above us. Non-native species be-damned, he would’ve been the fish of my trip.

As the afternoon wound down, we decided to head back up-river to the gravel bar we started on that morning before the clock struck the witching-hour for pounding streamers. In spite of that ‘bow, I felt about as full and happy as ever as Colby pushed the boat around bends, through rips and riffles and wide flat expanses, the sun moseying westward. We stopped and fished a few likely areas along the way with no takers. Reaching the morning’s gravel bar, I reclaimed my spot back at the head of the riffle for a handful of casts before deciding to pick up Grant’s camera again.

Further up-river I got back to pounding the banks with that tan sex-dungeon and a fast sink leader. Cast, strip, strip, strip, lift and reload, cast, strip, strip, strip, lift and reload. Under brush, against logs, through big pockets behind boulders, against cliff walls. Over and over, drift after drift. All I could draw were slashes, swings and short-strikes. Colby just shook his head in disbelief. If I would’ve converted on half the fish that I raised, we’d have easily had a 20-fish day. 20 big fish at that.

Colby had gifted us a personal tour of his life-long home water. We had caught (and lost) amazing fish in some magnificent country. We were exhausted and happier than hell. With daylight almost completely gone, we finally settled into the water at the bottom of the launch. Grant and I repacked all the gear and rods in silence while Colby went for his truck and trailer. We looked at each other a couple times, smiled and shook our heads, knowing we didn’t have to say a word. Waiting hip deep in the river, holding the boat, we were there, and it was more than enough.

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THE IDAHO TRIP: SOUTH FORK OF THE SNAKE

DAY 1

By 9:30 we had packed the truck, eaten some breakfast, gassed and coffee’d up and were on the road for our four hour haul to Idaho Falls. When we cleared the 30-some miles of construction east of Boise, I leveled out at 85 mph and and settled into the left lane. Highway 84 through wide prairie, fields of grain and farmsteads set back miles off the road. Past Mountain Home, Twin Falls and Rupert to highway 86 and on through American Falls and Pocatello. Then north on 15 through Blackfoot finally easing into Idaho Falls around 1:00.

About 45 minutes after we checked into the hotel, and a half-dozen phone calls to clarify directions, we met Colby Hackbarth from Kast Extreme Fishing Gear at a church parking lot off the Yellowstone Highway. After a couple handshakes, we threw our gear into the back of his truck and hit the road for the South Fork of the Snake with his jet boat in tow.

Colby was a guide in Alaska for around 10 years and has been fishing the South Fork since he was 8 when he used to drift with his granddad, so when he reported that the water and weather should be stellar and that we should be into some toads on streamers come dusk, I could feel the first twinges of adrenaline tighten my chest and raise the hair on my arms and the back of my neck.

I don’t know whether it was me settling into some sort of 6th-day-on-the-road groove or the aura of a potential X-games-esque afternoon of fishing, but at that moment I was feeling somewhere between Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine. I was ready to take the mic and the mosh pit.

After a stop at South Fork Outfitters to pick up some bite-intel, a half-dozen sex dungeons and a decent hoodie so I wouldn’t freeze after the sun left the river, we drove another ten minutes to the Spring Creek boat launch. Rods rigged, gear stowed, Colby fired up the 90-horse Johnson, eased us out into the current, and lit out down-river for the first of his money spots– a heavy hatch of drift boats coming off in every direction.

It took less than 100 yards of drifting past perfect, trophy trout-holding river bank while I flailed my 8 wt. into half-assed streamer cast after half-assed streamer cast for that whole Beastie/Rage feeling to completely die. Another 200 yards and some brilliant line tangles and I started making up new cuss words, since none of the old ones seemed strong enough. Grant was gracious enough to hold the heckling for another time.

I was gutted. Bleeding out. Wasting world-class water and great drift position. Colby could see it, so he jumped from the oars to the engine and nosed us up onto a gravel bar. We switched to nymphing rigs and fished the riffles for a half hour or so. No bites, but the break got my head back in the game. As some weather began to rumble to the south of us, we piled back into the boat and moved on.

Maybe a half-mile down-river we had pulled up on another gravel bar and I was drifting a heavy point/dropper nymph rig through a deep chute. Two, three, four casts. Near seam, far seam, down the middle. A few steps with the current, another cast. The indicator dropped and I came tight against what I thought was the bottom, until the bottom flexed and took the shape of a strong cutbow–a rainbow/cutthroat hybrid. When Colby netted that fish, I could feel the High Plains Drifter making his way back.

After I let the fish slip back into the current, Colby told us that Idaho Fish and Game put a bounty on the head of several hundred (possibly thousand) hybrids to help promote the reduction of this source of pure cutthroat genetic dilution. They actually embedded tags in the heads of these fish and are offering up to $1,000 for the return of said heads. I’m not always the smartest dude in the room, but it seemed odd that they would spend the time and money to tag that many fish, only to spend more money rewarding other people to decapitate and turn in. Interesting.

Back on the drift, and back on my 8 wt. slinging a tan sex dungeon at the bank, my cast were on. Finally. I was dropping that fly on their front porch. Fish would appear from deep behind boulders, swing and miss, swing and miss again. Big fish. Then a cutty hit the fly and dove for the bottom. It wasn’t a long fight, but it was a damn fine fish.

Colby had a couple stretches back toward where we launched that he wanted to hit before it got too dark, so I got down from the back deck, sat down and we turned into the current for the ride back up-river. Every spot we drifted was money. Giant, hook-jawed browns, football-fat ‘bows and shadow-like cutties appearing from nooks and crannies all along the rock walls and brush-filled banks. But with dozens of swings, strikes, flashes and how’d that fish not get hooked?! I turned only one fish that promptly took my line into the engine and made off with my streamer. It was nuts.

As dusk went from a hint to last-call, we drifted one last stretch above the launch. I laid the streamer into a trough across a gravel bar that was under a couple feet of water. One strip and the water exploded. An immense brown peaked three feet out of the water, came tight in mid-air, crashed back into the water and shook the hook.

It’s all good. We’ll be back tomorrow.
Welcome to the South Fork.

 

 

 

 

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THE IDAHO TRIP: PAYETTE AND SALMON RIVERS

Out front of the hotel and across the highway, the geese were up, flying west/southwest at 7 a.m. just as they had the last two mornings. Sharp and black and noisy against the rising yellow-orange-white blaze, gathering their own color the further they flew. By 8 a.m. Jason Lindstrom of Flytooth, Grant and I started east in Jason’s car on Route 21 to Lucky Peak Dam, where the road took a big sweep north toward Idaho City and the Boise National Forest.

We had decided that we were going to drive “the loop” tomorrow, which would ultimately take us north to Stanley, the Sawtooth Mountain Range and the Salmon River. But today we really had no plan, short of heading out in search of flowing water, fish and some scenics for Grant to add to his steadily growing stable of images.

After passing a number of smallish mountain streams and parting ways with a another that followed the road for over twenty minutes, we had climbed to about 6,100 feet, crested the peak and started headlong into one switchback after another, and another, and another. Grant sat greenly in the back seat, window cracked, while the switchbacks, lacking backseat view and peanut butter toast he had for breakfast all battled for his attention.

Jason decided that we should check out a stretch of the South Fork of the Payette River just outside Lowman that he had fished a couple times before. We pulled over and looked at a couple likely spots before landing on a winner. Below us flowed a wide turquoise chute that spilled into a long, deep pool and then ran downstream psyching itself up into some pretty good rapids. Above the chute was a 100 yard section of slick, hip-deep water with braids boiling up from behind big submerged boulders and upswells from the even deeper holes further upstream. And it was gin clear and fast from soup to nuts.

I’d like to report that we had a stellar fish day, but that would require many more and much bigger fish than we caught. Fittingly, Grant’s camera work capturing our arresting environs and presence was the big fish of the day. We bagged it early in preparation for the god-awful 3 a.m. wake-up call that was on deck for tomorrow’s excursion.

There’s still a lot of dark left ahead of you when you’re on the road at 4 a.m. We struck out on Route 55 north armed with McDonalds breakfast sandwiches, hashbrowns and coffee. Our trip was going to take us through Crouch and Garden Valley back to Route 21 at Lowman, where we’d point the car northeast to Stanley.

Around 6:15 the faintest touch of dawn gave up the backbone of the Sawtooth Range. We entered Challis National Forest, rounded the north end of the mountains, and stopped about 15 minutes shy of Stanley to get some shots as the sun started into the valley. Local temps were high 20’s.

After a second breakfast at Sawtooth Luce’s and a stop at McCoy’s Fly shop for some intel and a couple flies, we just stood around for a while soaking in the simple frontier ease of the town and the sheer giant-ness of the mountain backdrop. Then we drove out Route 75 along the Salmon, past Sunbeam to a stretch below Yankee Fork as instructed.

As I picked my way down through the streamside boulders I could see fish holding in a big deep pool. The water was emerald here, and just as clear as the Payette. Smaller rainbows and cutthroat were rising. The larger ones were holding deeper lanes, swinging a foot in either direction to pick up drifting bugs. Fish were rising constantly along the rock wall on the far side of the river. Unreachable, of course. My second drift produced a small cutthroat. My first. A couple small ‘bows and two decent whitefish later, the hole went quiet. We jumped back in the truck and headed downstream another half mile to some wadeable water.

I spent the remains of the afternoon casting dries to risers, while Jason stayed busy with a rubber-leg bugger upstream. I traded Grant for his camera so he could get in on the action as well.

After sitting streamside with a couple beers, soaking up a little more late afternoon sun, we decided that we’d done enough damage for one day and waded back across the river to the truck and a long ride back to Boise–the sun about ready to set on yet another great day.


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