The clock ticks in the empty silence. The howling wind tirelessly knocks at the door. My graduate school work remains ignored and incomplete. I have not picked up the pen in hours. I stare out the window at the mesmerizing whirlwind of snow. Endless weeks have passed since I last opened my fly box or set up a rod. Without my approval, the mid-winter blues have comfortably settled into my days. Recent talk and proposed legislation threatening public lands and wilderness exacerbates my stress, and my heart aches ever more. The smell from warm coffee and a woodstove attempts to calm my anxiety but with no long-lasting success. I try to escape the reality by recalling long summer days engulfed in warm sunshine and large rivers full of impeccable, wild trout…
It was late July and I, along with two of my best friends (Bailey and Emily), decided to temporarily escape our jobs and obligations. We packed our rods, flies, and camping gear. With several hours of driving, we found ourselves deep in the beating heart of the Rocky Mountains, immersed in the quiet company of the wilderness. After setting up camp, we explored the nearby river in pursuit of bows and browns until the remaining rays of sunlight disappeared behind the mountainous ridges.
Under a starry sky and in the soft light of a flickering fire, we drank beer, laughed over past fishing memories, and conversed over more serious topics, such as watershed management and the conservation issues currently facing our nation’s wilderness and fisheries. Our talking and laughing carried us deep into the night.
We awoke at first light. With oatmeal and coffee in our bellies and fly-rods in our hands, we hit a trail that would take us far into the canyon and further from signs of humanity. A Hermit Thrush greeted the rising sun with melodic notes. The air was still crisp and the morning dew clung desperately to the fireweed and cow parsnip. Our morning’s fishing was quiet. The trout were picky and not the least bit interested in any of the Parachute Adams, hoppers, ants, or woolly buggers we cast their way. In the late morning, further downriver, we pushed our way through a stand of small aspen, only to find ourselves at the edge of a pristine fishing run – a run every angler dreams about in slumber. After much trial and error, Bailey was able to determine their appetite: a pheasant tail. A fly so simple and modest that we easily overlooked it in our assortment of gaudy colorful bugs.
After catching several fish, Bailey and Emily continued downriver. I had yet to land a trout, and I chose to stay behind. As much as I love sharing fishing adventures with those whom I cherish, I also enjoy the simplicity and solitude of fishing alone. I watched my dear friends disappear around the river’s bend. I found myself alone with the river.
It was now 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon and the soft sunlight danced along the river’s surface. I was knee deep in the swift current. I stood there attempting to read the river’s language. Where are the fish lurking? Where should I cast? How should I present my prince nymph with a tailing pheasant tail? Will the drift be natural? After several minutes, I began casting towards a seam in the run. The flowing water and the gentle whooshing of my line were the only sounds to be heard. My fourth cast was flawless with the flies landing right on the seam. The drift was perfect. If I was going to entice any trout from this run, it would be on this cast. The indicator dropped as it reached the end of the run. I set the hook. With a quick leap from the water, I knew I had lured a large rainbow on the pheasant tail. The trout was strong; the fight, long. Finally, after much effort and patience, I carefully pulled the rainbow into my net. I removed the fly from its mouth and admired the stout bow with its festive crimson and blush pink colors and its dense constellation of spots. I returned the rainbow to the water and watched as it vanished back into its own world.
I slowly strolled out of the river and sat in the shade of an Engelmann spruce. Dark thunderclouds were forming in the west and a strong breeze welcomed the approaching summer storm. The distant pounding of a Hairy woodpecker softly echoed down the canyon. I cracked open a beer and smiled with pure delight. Although I landed only one trout the entire day, it was undoubtedly one of greatest days fishing. Maybe it was the fact that I was out fishing with two of my best friends. Maybe it was because the trout challenged me and I spent all day trying to understand their appetite. Or maybe it was just the simple sweet solitude of the wild.
It is in such moments that I feel the most at peace, the most content, and the most free from the burdens of society.
The clock’s striking at the top of the hour startled me from my daydream and returned my attention to reality. Some say that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. I disagree. I already know the priceless value of fly-fishing, the importance of public lands and wilderness to our heritage, and the suffering man-kind would endure if we had no wilderness to embrace. I already know that we can’t live sanely in a world without remote and unhabituated sanctuaries. If I struggle from a lack of fly-fishing and immersion into the wilderness for a single winter, imagine what we would feel if we had no public lands; if we had no desolate country; if we had no wild fish to chase. Without fly-fishing and the wilderness, I would be lost and incomplete. Misplaced in society. Empty in the silence.
*Written by: Anna Ortega
* All photos by Benjamin Kraushaar