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Trout under the stars

O’Kelley and I fished some of Wyoming’s finest streams. There are those rivers that fly-fishing experts would recommend to duded-up customers of high-end fly fishing stores, those men and women who fancy themselves enthusiast and who must possess the latest in accoutrement. These rivers are brilliant. Trout strong and fat swim in them. Mountain backdrops set them off and I can find every reason to fish in them.

douglas-creekThen, there are yeoman streams, watercourses that do heavy lifting. They are sometimes knuckly little things filled with branches and pinecones, where only tiny brook trout will find home. Some have muscles, like the North Platte as it flows out of the Snowy Mountains and across the Colorado/Wyoming border. They fall from glacial lakes and snowfields down between rocky foothills out onto the plains.

Douglas Creek runs into the North Platte just up from the Colorado border. It fills Rob Roy Reservoir and runs over the spillway down a crook in the range. Devil’s Gate Creek joins it in the Platte River Wilderness. Years ago, a family named Thompson owned a cabin that stood just below stone pillars people called the Devil’s Gate. onderosas and loblolly pines surrounded it. Just up the hill an open, rocky meadow spread out filled with beaver ponds and willows.

One of the descendants of the family that owned the cabin hiked up the creek once or twice a year and kept the place clean. On a crude table that stood to the side of the door of that dark cabin, they kept a journal that told of the history of the cabin and the family that once owned it. They, whoever they were, invited you to put your name in the journal along with a note about where you’d come from. Not many people came up the Platte River Wilderness, and so the list of names was not long. Still, the journal made interesting reading on a lonely night.

Earlier in the year, I’d overnighted on the springs of one of the beds there and listened that night to coyotes yelping up and down the meadow. I couldn’t sleep well. The hike up the mountain jump started my heart and I was glad to get away from my worries. After a while, I pulled on my boots in the cold of the night and walked out of the cabin into a vault of stars. My breath hung in balloons. The Milky Way floated above me like chiffon scarves in frozen in the breeze. Coyotes yipped in the meadow and the wind sighed in the pines. I thought I heard a moose mushing around in the beaver ponds.

Douglas Creek has the personality of a construction worker. Plain and straightforward, it gushes through aspen groves and between big boulders and through small canyons. Brown trout swim there along with cutthroat and a few rainbows. A good fly angler can entice those out from behind those rocks and eddies. It’s work, plain and simple. The reward of solitude and loneliness far outweigh the effort. It feels good to sit on the edge of the stream below one of the waterfalls and get lost in the sound and the aspens. Something about that stream makes a peanut butter sandwich taste like an elaborate feast.

One fall back in the 90s, O’Kelley and I spent a good day fishing Douglas Creek up from the North Platte. I had caught a few slim cutthroats and a rainbow, the only fish that could live among the rocks and strong current of that brash waterway. O’Kelley had better luck than me. I should say that I had luck. He had skill and patience. He caught fish because he meant to. I caught fish because in my meditation my fly happened to cross in front of a trout just in the right way at the right time.

O’Kelley caught more and bigger fish than I did. He knew where to cast a dry fly. He could land a fly on the water as if an actual creature came in for a drink and got stuck or had blown in off the grass at streamside. I slapped my flies down on the water, as amateurs are apt. I hardly ever caught a fish in the air. O’Kelley mastered it. He teased the fish up from the bottom so that on his back cast they leapt from the water and flew to his hook. He was a wonder to watch.

We had only nominal material. Both of us owned mid- to low-range sticks about eight feet in length. Our reels were not expensive but they were sturdy and responsive. We tied our own flies. They weren’t masterpieces that you might see in a fly-fishing magazine or on the shelves at the tackle store. But they were buggy enough looking for trout.

We made our lines fast to our rods long after the sun went down. We had our campsite down near the mouth of the creek on the North Platte. While there was enough light, we gathered wood for a big fire, though the signboard near the parking area prohibited fires. It was fire season and the Forest Service was touchy about these things. We built a good, big fire, one that lit up the campsite and the woods behind us.

Once we’d had our beans and after the fire burned down to a glow, we took a long walk in the dark. We took the gravel road next to the stream. The North Platte rushed aside us and drowned the sound of the wind in the distance. We didn’t take flashlights. Ambient light that falls peculiarly on mountains illuminated enough of the ground in front of us.

The mountain lions up in the hills among the sagebrush and boulders roared occasionally. Above us, the stars flowed in sheets. Our feet crunched in the stone and dirt. We didn’t talk. We didn’t need to.

After about an hour, we turned back. The wind had kicked up, a breeze that pealed the warmth off the bare, sagebrush hills. Worry over the fire bugged me a little in the back of my head. What if that wind took up a spark into the trees? What does a guy do when he catches the aspens and pines next to Douglas Creek on fire? How long does it take to pay back the Forest Service the price of putting out the fire and all the wood that’s been burned up?

I walked away my worry. O’Kelley and I talked about our plans for the next day. After another long pause, I told him I might dip a fly when we got back to the campsite and if it wasn’t on fire. I had never caught a trout at night—never tried and never heard of anyone trying.

When we arrived back at the campsite, the embers glowed but that’s all that was hot. I took up my rod and tied a nymph on my line in the light of the fire that O’Kelley built back up. He wasn’t going to join me on my fool’s errand. But I was determined.

I walked down to one of the rivulets that spread out from Douglas Creek on the bank of the North Platte. Stars reflected off a pool below where the water rushed down a runnel in the bank. I dropped my fly well above the riffle so that it would go deep in the pool when the line ran out. It took a couple of tries before the line telegraphed messages from a trout below. It was hungry.

Nothing came of it. After a good long while, I decided to give it one last run. As I was pulling my line back up through the water, the trout that was bugging me earlier took the fly full on and ran down and out into the North Platte. Electricity ran up my spine and my heart raced. I played it a time that was fair and pulled it up on the gravel at the shore. It was the biggest fish I’d caught all day. I couldn’t see the fish but ran my hand down the line to its mouth and gripped the fish by the lower jaw. With the other hand, I worked the fly loose from its lip.

I held the trout up close to my face. I could see it in silhouette against Cassiopeia and the veil of stars running down to it. I guessed it was a rainbow. It’s didn’t have a humped back like a brown and it wasn’t slim enough to be a cutthroat. I called up to O’Kelley, who came down and stood next to me. He ran his hand down my arm and over the fish.

I bent over and held the fish gently in the current at the bank. When it was ready, it flippered off into the river. O’Kelley stood next to me. He declared it a fine fish and patted me on the shoulder.

Good work, he said.

We walked up next to Douglas Creek and to the campsite. We watched the fire burn down and smoked our pipes. I couldn’t sleep, the work of the day and the trout kept me thinking. All night porcupines snuffled around in the duff just on the edge of camp. Somewhere in the night a mountain lion roared.

As I fell asleep a few hours later, I wondered if that trout would remember me.

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