By Sam Larson
“Lots of people here already”. The speaker adjusted his buff and hip pack. The sun hadn’t risen over the ridge to the east and the water was shady and deeply chilled. There were six other people standing in the water around the inlet, and another three watching from shore where the current tailed out into the main body of the reservoir.
“Just wait,” another angler called without looking away from their indicator. “In another two hours there’ll be forty-five, maybe fifty people standing here.” And so it goes on Joe Wright Reservoir, where the inlet is off-limits until July 1st, and the grayling spawn draws crowds of anglers eager to stand shoulder-to-shoulder while a veritable herd of fish stampedes upstream, deep in the throes of piscine lust. Jeff, Baxter Adventure Dog, Jeff’s van, and I were there for the same reason as everyone else: grayling, grayling, grayling.
This was a goal trip. We saw grayling on the fly in our future, saw ourselves wading into the inlet and high-fiving over double hookups all weekend. But just because it’s a goal trip doesn't mean that we achieve those goals, or that the trip ends up being what you planned for. Was it a success? Sure. Was it an unqualified success? No. We left town with the notion that this could be the weekend that defined the early summer. The grayling spawn was either this week or the next, the local streams were still running bank-full, and the forecast called for near-record high temperatures. All good reasons to head for high altitude and hunker down for the remainder.
But Friday night at Joe Wright was a lonely affair, and cold, with periodic squalls of rain and deep, booming rolls of thunder over the peaks above us. We headed straight into the water after a three hour drive and proceeded to fish until dark, despite the rain. None of us, neither myself, Jeff, or Baxter Adventure Dog, had been to Joe Wright before so we didn’t know what to expect. There were rising fish so we stood there casting dries in the rain but had nothing to show for our efforts. As the sun set we piled back into the Westy and headed for our campsite down near Gould.
At some point that evening we lost Baxter Adventure Dog. A seemingly casual rabbit on the side of the road lured Baxter in with beguiling eyes and a winking white tail. Little did we know that this particular rabbit had a hotrod motor. Two seconds into the chase and Baxter and the rabbit are neck and neck in the animal equivalent of racing for pinks. Baxter rounded the corner and disappeared into the woods and the deepening twilight. A steadily darkening montage of wandering, yelling, whistling, and finally driving aimlessly around on Forest Service roads will suffice to illustrate the next ninety minutes. We found Baxter, alone, rabbit-less, and scared, wandering an empty road over a mile away from the campsite. We returned to the campsite with even Baxter acknowledging that he had earned a leash for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday morning had us back at Joe Wright, in damn cold water despite the sunshine, and failing to catch any grayling. We also had company, in the form of nine other anglers who rolled up to the inlet at about the same time we did. All, brothers and sisters in grayling-less futility, shivered in the water and watched our indicators while the sun sailed higher into the sky. But even watching your indicator and failing to catch fish gets old after a while so we cut ourselves loose, driving up and down Cameron Pass in search of fishy diversion. We started out swinging zonkers for stockers at Chambers Lake, but kept talking about how we weren't catching any grayling. We ended near treeline at Zimmerman Lake, fishing for greenback cutthroat, but we kept circling back to the topic of the weekend: grayling. The big rainbows at Chambers Lake were outweighed by the bait fishermen dragging flopping trout through the dirt up ten foot cut banks, and the dead, filleted fish left on the banks and bottom of the inlet. Zimmerman was slow, sleepy, and not quite shaken out of winter’s grip. We spent an hour chasing irregular rises and netted a single greenback for the effort. And all the while we had grayling on the mind.
Our plans took us back to Joe Wright for the evening. Back at the inlet we saw two anglers in the water, men we recognized from this morning. As we walked past them one of the anglers called, “Fish on!” It looked like a substantial fish, something that put a deep bend in his rod. I stopped to watch and even from the shore I could see the long dorsal fin and silver scales. Grayling.
Luckily the two fishermen recognized us from earlier that day. They were kind enough to let us know that the grayling were taking Copper Johns, and didn't mind if we cozied up next to them in the inlet. They had the whole process dialed and pulled out grayling like clockwork, but it wasn't long before I saw my indicator take one, then two delicate bumps in the current and start to pull slowly across the surface. Moments later I had my first grayling in the net. And what a beautiful fish grayling is; strong, deeply scaled and armored, unlike a trout, with that beautiful sail fin shimmering mirrored dark blue and a final silver flash from its tail as it swims back into the inlet.
Was it the season-defining trip we planned when we left town? Not really. With slow fishing and poor timing, wrecked campsites and inconsiderate camp neighbors, a nearly lost dog and more work for fewer fish we got a lot more and a lot less than we had asked for. In the great balance book in the sky will this trip go down as a success? Absolutely. Teasing a grayling from my net and fanning out its dorsal fin to reflect the setting sun before I let it slip back into the lake made any nighttime dog chase or dirty campsite worth the trip. Would I hope for better next time around? Absolutely. An inlet flowing with grayling, greenback cutthroats rising to dries below a cloudless sky at treeline, and no goals, no baggage to haul up the mountains with us. Just the water, the sky, and the good fortune to be there, high-fiving over double hookups.