There used to be just two things I’d never do while drunk - drive, and say I love you for the first time - but last summer, I added “packing for fishing trips” to that list.
I planned a few days in the Yellowstone backcountry for the week following my best friend’s wedding. My pre-wedding self thought: I’ll just leave early on Sunday and be back by noon to pack. My mid-reception self said: I’llsleepontheplane! Shots! Shots! Shots! Clearly, I did not anticipate the level of alcohol-induced behavioral regression experienced by 50 people who haven’t seen each other since college.
My 7am flight from Raleigh was painful. I’d had two bloodies by Minneapolis. When I got to Bozeman, hangover number two was coming in hot. I grabbed lunch and a beer, ran last minute errands, and was lights out at 8 with promises to finish packing in the morning. We were halfway out of town when I realized I’d left my rod.
At the Slough Creek trailhead, my pre-and post-wedding selves were still at odds. What better way to detox than a week of fishing? had been my romantic proposal a month earlier. How about a week of sleeping? I thought, now faced with the reality of cold sweats, a seven mile hike and a 50 lb pack.
But I pulled it together and we headed out, happy as anyone fifteen minutes into a backpacking trip - boots still comfy, packs still light. After a few miles, I noticed the weird cicadas all over the trail. “Yo buddy, what are these huge bugs?”
“Mormon crickets?” I Googled them once I got home. Turns out they’re neither Mormon, nor cricket, but a katydid notorious amongst those of the Latter Day persuasion for nearly destroying Brigham and company’s first harvest in the Salt Lake Valley. Miraculously, a flock of seagulls ate them before they could consume the crops, and the settlers were saved from sure starvation. “Do fish eat these?”
I crouched to inspect one while my fellow missionary continued down the path. “Did we bring any?”
He paused. “You realize that you forgot your rod.”
I thought about that. He made a fair point, but… “You realize that you’re a fishing guide.”
He turned and started hiking again. I hurried to catch up, only stopping to ask a guy in a UVa shirt and a Patagonia trucker hat, “Hey man, what’re they eating up there?”
“Mormon crickets.” Well, chirp-fuckin-chirp. We walked the rest of the way in silence, save for the choir at our feet, and were almost there when we passed another Patagonia trucker. I wasn’t trying to make a point by asking for a fishing report; it just seemed the friendly thing to do.
We set up camp with plenty of daylight left, and got to the river in time for a smokeshow of a PMD hatch. After catching a few sizeable cuttys, we were at least back on speaking terms. We wouldn’t be doing much else--missionary or otherwise--that evening, however. The bottles of Bulleit Rye we’d brought had me headed toward hangover number four in half as many days.
The next morning was grey, which served my headache and the fishing quite well. I spent most of it stalking a cutthroat with two white half moons on his back--reminders of a recent go with a local eagle-but couldn’t seem to get his attention no matter what I presented. “He’s not biting anything,” I complained through a mouthful of beef jerky.
“Mind if I catch him?” he asked. Cocky. Smirking.
“Have at it.” I shoved more jerky in my mouth and didn’t say anything else, just headed upriver (where the trout were all about the Gospel According to Mayflies), and lefthim to Scarfish. When I got back, he had a bent rod in his hand and a shit eating grin on his face.
He netted the fish and turned it to face me, two hoppers in its lip. The larger trailed about a foot of mono. “Gotcha a Mormon cricket.” He was downright smug as he released the trout.
Not one to look a gift fish in the mouth, I tied the fly on and prowled the cutbank looking for my little friend. I finally spotted him - white lines on his back - swimming away from me. I cast a few inches from the edge of the water just as he turned upstream, and gave my bug a slight jerk to get his attention.
Now, this is the part of the story when I wanted to write about the Miracle at Slough Creek, and how by sheer luck we found the one elusive bug that could tempt this scarred and wizened denizen of the Park to leave the safety of the riverbed - how with finesse that can only be described as supernatural, I caught this elusive salmonid, and the day, the week, maybe even our relationship was saved by the intervention of some fisherman who had unwittingly rescued us from a fate worse than skunked.
I wanted to write about how the fish contemplated my fly before committing, but in the end was hooked with naught but my angling prowess. I wanted to tell of the celebration that followed, here, in the promised land of oncorhynchus clarki. Scarfish stopped and weighed his decision, and while he pondered the deceptive delicacy drifting above him, another cutthroat - not 10 inches long - came barreling out of the shallows and shouldered the larger fish aside. Just as this upstart went to open his mouth on the Mormon, a live hopper fell into the river just inches away. The fish stopped. Scarfish lurked below. Maybe there would be another showdown? Alas. The old guy stayed put, and the young gun rejected my fly like it was wearing a name tag and riding a bike. He inhaled the live cricket and was gone.
I stared at my lifeless lure; I was devastated. It was really starting to rain and thunder boomed in the distance, but Scarfish....
“What do you think?” he asked.
“How much whiskey do we have?” My words hung low with desperation as lightning flashed high in the sky.
“Enough.” He nodded toward the campsite and I reeled in my line.
I may not get to tell of the miracle, but the celebration was one for the books.