By Leonard Morris, Solana Beach, CA
I was looking through an old issue of Wood Magazine, January, 1993, when I discovered an excellent article by Dr. Gill O. Sanders, a Utah fisherman. His article gave complete instructions for carving and displaying fish. The article inspired me to carve "The Upper Provo Wilbur." Judging from the frequent articles on the Provo River that appear in Utah Fishing, obviously many fishermen consider it to be the heart of Utah fishing, and they seem to love it as much as I do.
My love affair with the Provo River started in the summer of 1936, when I was 12 years old. William S. Winegar, bishop of the 11th Ward, invited me and his son, Wendell, to go fly fishing.
I purchased a glass fly rod with a limber tip for $15 and Bishop Winegar furnished the gut leader and a round aluminum case with two felt pads. The gut leader needed to be soaked in water or it would break easily. He also gave Wendell and me some flies: captain, royal coachman and mosquito, #12 and #14 sizes, with the following instructions:
1. Always fish up-stream.
2. If you catch a fish in a hole don't spend much time trying to catch another one in that hole. The fish you caught spooked the hole. Move on.
3. You will see boulders and stumps, etc., partly submersed in the water. Cast your fly on that flat spot between the two eddies made by the rock.
4. Stay away from the heavy current. Fish stay in holding water where they don't have to work so hard.
5. If you don't catch fish with dry flies, you don't catch fish. No worms, marshmallows, cheese or lures!
6. Dry your fly off frequently, especially after each fish caught. (He gave us a can of muslin. I kept mine for 30 years.)
7. Don't snag your fly on the brush that surrounds the river. If you lose your three flies you are through fishing. (As I recall I spent almost as much time in the trees as I did in the water.
8. You don't need a long cast to fish the Provo (20-30 feet). As soon as your fly hits the water start retrieving the line with your left hand.
9. When you see a flash, set the hook and keep a tight line.
10. Don't believe the myth: Only fish dry when the fish are rising. It's a little more challenging, but you will catch fish rising only for your fly.
11. If the river is murky, go play golf or tennis. Fish another day after the water clears.
He gave us a brief lesson in fly casting and told us to expect several trout to 11 inches. I know now that I was introduced to the wonderful world of fly fishing by a "pocket water dry fly purist" on one of the best pocket water rivers in the West.
When I think of all the beautiful mental pictures I have taken during a lifetime of fly fishing, I feel that I can never fully thank Bishop Winegar; however, I am trying by introducing the great sport of fly fishing to other people young and old.
The much anticipated day finally arrived and Bishop Winegar closed his shop, Utah Electric Motor and we headed east to the old Woodland school house.
The Bishop kept us laughing all the way up there with his great jokes and stories. Same ones every trip! He was a very special friend. He had to be very special and unselfish to take on the task of teaching two teenagers how to fly fish on his favorite river. It's hard for some dry fly fishermen to share the water.
He told us that once you walk through the stream you put the fish down so, in order to share the river, we would use the leap-frog method. With a slight breeze at my back I was anxious to try out my new techniques.
Although I caught three branches before I caught my first fish, I'll never forget the thrill of seeing that scrappy trout come up to the surface and take my fly. (The thrill increased as I learned to tie my own flies.) He was hooked and so was I!
It took us about three hours to fish up to the bridge. I had six nice fish up to 11 inches and pockets full of water. The Provo River is one of the most beautiful and certainly the slickest river I have ever fished. I started fishing it with tennis shoes, later progressing to felt and aluminum rubbers. I still get wet!
For the next six years Bishop Winegar continued to hone our fly fishing skills with frequent trips to the upper Provo and occasionally to the Weber. The upper Provo was my favorite and it always will be. During my fly fishing career I have fished most of the blue ribbon streams in the western United States.
After graduating from high school, it was time for Wendell and me to go to war. He in the Air Force and I in the Naval Air Corps. We came home in 1946 and the Provo was still producing many fish to 11 inches. I thought there must be a big fish in that river someplace. As I searched for him, I saw him in my mind and named him Wilbur.
I received my teaching credential from the University of Utah in 1949 and taught two years at Jordan Jr. High. I decided that if I was going to survive I better go to California, which I did, doubling my salary.
Soon after arriving in California I was introduced to spin fishing and lures, but nothing could compare to the thrill of catching a fish on a dry fly.
Each summer I would pack my wife and kids in the VW and head for Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. I would always try to get a few precious hours on the upper Provo. It never disappointed me. I would have good action with a variety of trout up to 11 inches. But where was Wilbur?
As we traveled to West Yellowstone I was always on the lookout for good pocket water streams. The Warm River, six miles out of Ashton, Idaho, comes the closest to the Provo and I have spent many enjoyable hours fishing all the way up to the spring, where most of the Warm River originates. I'm sad to report that it has deteriorated the past five years.
Rock Creek out of Missoula, Montana, is a good pocket water stream. I remember taking a 16-inch rainbow there on a flying caddie bucktail fly.
I spent two weeks each summer for about 12 years fishing all the pocket water streams within 75 miles of Lewiston, Idaho, and there are many. My friend, Bob Barton, lived in Lewiston and he owned an auto parts store. Much of his time was spent on the road writing orders. He always took his fly rod with him. He knew the territory.
I always came back to the spot where my love for fishing was born, the upper Provo River. The last time while fishing there the thought came to me that I was getting a little old to be slipping around on all those mossy rocks. I was lucky that I had avoided injury in the past but perhaps my luck was running out. I decided that after that day I would retire from the Provo and live on all my memories of the beautiful river.
I was fishing alone as I have for several years, due to circumstances rather than choice. Some of the runs were slightly altered by the runoff, but overall the river produced as it always had, lots of action up to 11 inches.
My legs were tired from fighting to keep my balance on those slick rocks. The sun was shining and a slight breeze was at my back when I came to the longest hole in that stretch of water. I stayed well back and cast to the tail water with at first no action. My second cast landed in the middle and I took a scrappy 11-inch rainbow.
A tree branch crossed the stream near the head of the hole. It looked very fishy and I started to tremble as I blew on my fly and dried it off. Then I took a little Chapstick from my lips and rubbed it on the fly to make it float. I was fishing with a royal Wulffsize 16. It doesn't imitate anything. The fish take it for strawberry shortcake. They go wild for anything red. That's why royal coachman has been such a great fly throughout the years.
I made several false casts and then I let that Wulff softly drop down just under the branch. A perfect cast. As the fly settled on the water there was a startling big flash and my reel started to sing.
Could this be Wilbur?
He went upstream for several feet then he drifted downstream only to make a second reel screeching run upstream. I fought him for several minutes until we both wore out about the same time.
I am fully aware that you should get the fish in as quickly as possible so that he will have enough energy to survive after being released. He was such a fighter I just couldn't get him in. Finally he was ready to rest by the side of the stream in about six inches of water. I used my hemostat to gently remove the barbless hook from his jaw.
Wilbur was having difficulty staying upright. It was then that I gently took him in my hands and discovered the most beautiful trout I had ever seen. He resembled a Yellowstone cutthroat but didn't have the red cuts on his throat. A beautiful orange halo surrounded the muted rainbow on his side. His jowls were a bright orange. I have searched all the sources I could find and I am unable to identify him. Obviously he was a hybrid; I could tell that by the way he fought. Just like those Henry's Lake hybrids.
Wilbur was in no hurry to go back to the current and neither was I. After about 10 minutes he left the little pool of water that I was standing in and headed for the current. As soon as he reached it he made an abrupt turn and came back to me, nestling up against my left boot. I couldn't believe it. I was bonding with Wilbur! He knew he had a safe refuge.
After another seven or eight minutes he began to breath more normally and with a flip of his tail he swam out of my life. I have mental pictures of that day that I will carry to my grave.
I removed my fly, broke down my rod and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving to Bishop Winegar, Wilbur and the beautiful upper Provo River.