When I reached the end of the dirt road and parked the 4-Runner near a large galvanized stock tank, the first light of day had just cleared the peaks of the Uinta Mountains, painting the underside of the partial cloud cover in glowing tones of pink and gold.
I opened the door and stepped outside to stretch my legs. There was a sharp chill in the air, and my breath condensed into puffs of steam.
It was late in the year--mid-October--for me to be fishing, but quite by accident I had discovered a stretch of the upper Provo River that I suspected few fishermen were aware of. The only apparent access was a dirt road that led to summer homes on the east side of the river. A gate made of steel pipe guarded the entrance to the road, and a prominent sign warned would-be trespassers of the dire consequences attendant upon unauthorized entry.
But, according to my Forest Service map, the land on the west side of the river was all national forest. The only problem was how to get there. To determine if there was a solution to that problem I acquired a topographic map of the area. From it I learned that about two miles down the main canyon there was a road leading up to a flat high above and about a half-mile distant from the west bank of the river.
I pulled on a heavy sweatshirt and changed into an old pair of basketball shoes. From prior experience I knew that there was at least a ninety percent probability that I would get my feet wet before the morning was over, and I did not like to be encumbered by waders.
In a few moments I put my two-piece fly rod together, strapped a canteen around my waist and draped around my neck a lightweight nylon creel that I had acquired 15 years earlier, when my limbs were still supple and strong enough for backpacking.
Between me and the river lay a low hill covered with scrubby Gambrel oaks with no discernible path among them. To my right was a barbed-wire fence marking the border between private and public land. Along the fence line ran a rough trail made by cattle, or perhaps by deer.
I followed the trail up to the crest of the hill until I could see, about two hundred yards below me, the flat through which the river ran. The mountain dropped away almost vertically and I could see no way down. For about a hundred yards I followed the crest of the hill looking for some way down. Finally I came upon a narrow ravine with a stock trail zig-zagging back and forth across it. Following the muddy trail, I made my way carefully down the mountain, crossed an irrigation canal, and emerged at last upon the flat.
The river lay about fifty yards ahead of me, meandering through a swamp of tall grass criss-crossed by rivulets and booby-trapped by hidden sinkholes. When I reached the bank of the river I saw that it had separated into two channels, and I was standing on the bank of the smaller one. The water was low and crystal clear. I decided to look for a way across to the larger channel.
I made my way upstream until I came to a large fir tree lying across the stream. There was a passably deep pool to the left of the tree, but I decided to go ahead to the larger channel. As I stepped up onto the log I saw small dark shapes flash up to the far end of the pool.
The marshy swamp gave way to fir trees and the soft brown duff of the forest floor. In the distance I could hear the rush of the main channel of the Provo.
By the time I reached the bank of the river the clouds had become sparse and the morning sun shone brilliantly, casting deep shadows upon the water. The river rippled from sunlight into shadow, cascaded over boulders, rushed through shallow shoals and swirled around bends into deep, quiet stretches.
I dipped my hand into the water to take its temperature. It felt as though it had just melted off a glacier. The trout would be deep, I reasoned. I took out my plastic fly box and selected a bright pattern with enough weight to carry it down to the bottom.
Apparently the finny denizens of the river were operating from a different script than I was. For the next two hours I worked my way upstream, trying my fly – and several of his brothers and sisters – on every hole I came to and every small patch of still water behind a submerged boulder. All to no avail. For my troubles I had only two halfhearted nibbles.
At last I conceded defeat and headed back downstream. The sky had become a solid gray and I could feel a chilly breeze from the west that harbingered the imminent approach of rain.
When I came again to the fir tree lying across the smaller channel I realized that the hole on the other side of the stream had acquired an entirely different complexion. Where it had seemed shallow and clear before, now it was gray and opaque, with no bottom in sight.
I still had on a dark fly I had been using and I decided to cross quickly and give the hole a cast or two before I started back to the car.
When I reached the other bank I walked upstream for a few yards, cast to the center of the stream and watched as the fly drifted toward the deeper part of the hole near where the log rested on the shore. In my mind's eye I could see it drifting toward the bottom and along the bank.
Something snatched the line away from me and the tip of my fly rod dipped with a violence that shook my composure. My first thought was: How could there be such a big trout in this water? The second was: How am I going to land him?
At first he headed straight down, then he darted downstream toward the riffles that marked the end of the pool. I let out line with my left hand but maintained tension on the rod tip. As he neared the end of the pool I applied extra pressure and he turned and headed toward the opposite bank, his twists and turns sending electrical shocks up the white fly line into my hands and arms.
Next, he ran upstream, veered out into the center of the pool, and shot out of the water in a shower of spray, his body tawny gold with flecks of red. It was a brown!
I didn't realize that there were browns up this high. I knew there were browns lower down, below Deer Creek Reservoir, or at least I believed they were there for I had never caught any of them. In fact, I had never caught a brown before. Until now. But the question was: Did I have him or did he have me? A phrase from a long-ago Latin class drifted into my mind: "A wolf by the ears." That's what I had all right. Even if I were able to tire him out there was no way to land him. The bank was about two feet above the surface of the water and once I tried to lift him out, with one flip of his head he would snap my miserable leader.
Meanwhile my brown completed his air-borne trajectory and re entered the water with a smack! I quickly reeled in line to restore tension. Down to the bottom he went once more, then headed again to the far end of the pool.
For 10 minutes I worked him, back and forth, around and around. At last I felt him beginning to tire. In desperation I searched for some way to land him.
I spotted what looked almost like a small cove, narrow and shallow at one end, where the roots of the fir tree had come loose. If I could work him into the shallow water there was at least a chance that I might be able to grab him with my hands.
I worked him for several more minutes, until he was good and tired, then slowly and carefully I guided him into my little cove. When he was in six inches of water he realized the danger he was in and with one leisurely turn of his head he snapped the leader as though it were made of cotton thread.
Before I had time to think I was in the water behind him. I froze. The huge gray shape below me maintained his position with fluttering fins. This is impossible! I thought. Then my hands took on a will of their own, dived into the water, and scooped the great fish up onto the grassy bank.
With a whoop of joy I pulled myself out of the water. The brown flopped a few times, then lay still. He had given it everything he had and now there was nothing left to give. He regarded me balefully with one steely eye, his jaws working up and down. He was at least 18 inches long.
All life operates on a prime directive: Survive! It is this will to survive that drives a fish to fight with all its strength against the restraining force of the fisherman. To the fisherman, fishing is a matter of sport or pleasure; to the fish, it is a matter of life and death.
The fight this brown had given me was extraordinary, even for a trout his size. Surely his courage had earned him his freedom. I reached toward him with the intent of releasing him back into the cold, dark water. Then I had a vision of him lying on a silver platter, flanked by sprigs of parsley and lemon wedges, his skin sauteed a golden brown. I could smell his savory aroma. It had been a long time since breakfast.
I looked down at his steely eye. "Sorry, pal," I said. And with a sharp but momentary pang of regret, I ended his life and took him home for dinner.