By Sam Larson
Wind boomed and swelled, pumping the van’s canvas-sided pop-top like a bellows. Overhead, rain and sleet pattered in surges across the van’s roof. The sound of rain increased and then the wind smacked the van, making it rock on the suspension. I’d wrapped myself deep into my mummy bag with the hood cinched tight around my face, a polar fleece bag liner and a wool blanket thrown over top. I should have replaced my sleeping bag years ago, but it’s never fun to shop for and purchase a sleeping bag when there’s new fly fishing gear to consider. My nose stayed cold no matter what I did, the only part of my body I couldn’t safely tuck away beneath layers of fleece and down. The night before had been warmer and I’d used the wool blanket as a pillow. Right then I had no pillow and I could feel, in my hips and back, that I’d be unhappy in the morning. I turned onto my side and tucked my face behind the edge of the sleeping bag’s hood as the van rocked on its wheels again, the canvas walls billowing around me.
The next morning we hovered over the propane burner in the Westy, buried in puffy jackets, beanies and gloves, waiting for the thin blue flame below the coffee pot to warm the van. Fishing friends understand silence, and periodic discomfort as a means to an end if the fishing looks to be good, but after several minutes spent watching our breath steam in the cold air we brought down the van’s pop top and just went into town. We spent the early morning in a coffee shop in Buena Vista, “Byoona Vista” to the locals, thanks, “BV” to my fishing friends, powering through americanos. There’s a large table by the door that played host to a rotating crowd of the town’s retirees. From when we arrived until we left for the river there was never an empty seat. The topics, when we overheard them, ranged from weather, to politics, to dog training, to in-laws.
“I don’t know him that well,” one man in a battered Orvis cap said as we were leaving, “But I know he’s the kinda guy I wouldn’t take fishing.” I made brief eye contact with him as we left and nodded. I think we all know that guy.
The Collegiate Peaks, off to the west of the Arkansas Valley, sported a thick new coat of snow on slopes that were largely bare and brown the previous day. There aren’t a lot of days that defy your expectations so totally as this Saturday did. Against the odds, the sky cleared by the time we left the coffee shop. At the Hecla Junction put-in the weather was practically balmy. And, while sitting in the van getting ready, a trio of size 22 mayflies flew in the open window and fluttered around the windshield, bumping along the surface of the glass. By the time we were on the water and casting the temperature had climbed into the 60s. The previous week’s forecast had been dire, wind in the 30-40mph range despite the warm weather, but we had come anyway because we’d already gotten the time off and, even if the fishing sucked, at least it’d be a story. We’re pessimists so every cast felt like the last before the wind picked up. But in the midst of increasingly dense hatches of mayflies and caddis we reveled in the heat and the reprieve from the wind, then became sorry we’d dressed so heavily back at the van. After we’d spent the morning coming up with contingency plans and worst-case bail out circumstances, discussing how much wind was too much and when we’d know we needed to call it, we fished dry flies for the first time this season.
At the next bend we stopped and scrambled down to the bank to a gravel bar that sunk and rippled into a deep current along the far bank. Overhead, our rod tips twitched and line switched and darted between sporadic caddis, serpentine and singing above the water’s surface. The rod and line, with needle-tipped feathers at the end, stitch disparate worlds into one, a running thread plunging from air into water and back again. A snag in the running thread, a tug and a lunge, and trout heave across warp and weft, crossing watery boundaries in tail-walking lunges and shivering spray.
There’s a big damn rock in the middle of Ark, halfway up Byers Canyon from Hecla Junction. We named The Big Damn Rock as a landmark of sorts. Above or below the Big Damn Rock? Oh, yeah. I hiked up above the Big Damn Rock. You get the idea. Big as a house it sits, almost comically boulder-like, immovable save for the application of dynamite or something similarly dramatic. The introduction of this rock to this river must have been something to see. When I looked up the slope of the mountains on either side of the Ark I couldn’t see an obvious cliff or bulge of stone that could have let the Big Damn Rock fall to its current state. One is left to imagine its arrival. The river foamed around its feet, a thick swirl of white water that lingered for a second before trucking downstream into a steep, rock-walled stretch of the canyon that’s unapproachable on foot. If you stand on top of the rocks you can look down, straight down, into green-blue pools that house immense trout that are as unlikely to be caught as the dippers rising and falling above the back eddies. For Big Damn Rocks, sitting in a river is simply what one does. Aside from eons-long immobility spiced with occasional seconds of shocking motility, Big Damn Rocks sit astride the shuffling tide of stone and gravel that rivers wear down and carry out to sea.
“Jesus, those fish are huge,” Jeff said. He pointed to a pod of brown trout swaying back and forth in the current as they fed. The fish were noticeably large dark oblongs, even from our perspective atop the canyon walls, thirty feet above the water. “We need a drift boat.” For trout, Big Damn Rocks exist to be hidden beneath or behind, their presence is simply a part of the ineffable unknowability of the world at large.
“We could tuck right into that back eddy and cast up into the pockets along the side of the canyon. I bet those fish have never seen a fly before.” Jeff leaned out further over the river and pointed at a pod of rising trout. For anglers, trout exist to be caught or sometimes contemplated. Uncatchable fish linger like a sore tooth, something you can’t help but press your tongue against.
“Let me know when you buy a drift boat. That sounds like a good plan.” I said. We both shrugged and continued the walk up the tracks, leaving the Big Damn Rock behind us. The Arkansas, narrow and deep between the canyon walls, still quiet after winter, yet to be shaken by spring’s thaw, rolled ceaselessly beneath us. Along the tracks we kicked rusted spikes and kept an eye out for blue glass insulators, scrambled down riprap to cast at fish we sighted from over head, likening ourselves to awkward, stumbling ospreys or hawks in our ability to see and swoop down upon a trout. In narrow smooth-worn slots and broad, level pools the water and the fish feel endless. The silent and metronomic back and forth of our fly rods counted unnecessary time against the humming rhythm of the river.