Going Places: Floating the Middle Fork

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Floating the Middle Fork

With the near constancy of a mid-day sun we began to relax. The fragrance of sagebrush and pine and mineraly river water joined the warming gasses. In exquisite sunlight the river became a bouquet of intensely white blooms and black-hole greens so dark they sucked on the eyes. With the sun the hoppers limbered up their stiff knees and the hunt was afoot. Flushed with a mix of color, nitrogen and roaring coolness, the sweep and rock of the little boat, and now the frying rays of the sun, I took off my pile coat, then my shirt and began fishing with relish.

In the immensity of this primitive area wildlife flourish. We saw Mule deer and black bear. Mountain goat and bighorn sheep are common. Rocky Mountain elk thrive here as well. Golden eagles and red-tailed hawks soared high up in the canyon corridor. Kingfishers would complain loudly when we entered their territory. A family of river otter would appear from time to time, as playful as a passel of kids. In the side canyons we could hear the call of the chukar and sometimes the grouse and remind us of the change of seasons. Soon I would put away the five weight and take out the twenty gauge or the twenty-eight.

We negotiated a rapid and the river swung left, roiling over a field of sunken boulders. Sprigs of sedge leaning out from shore raked the surface. In the lee of one hummock I could see into the river like through thick green glass; four black, oblong shapes finned just under the surface like miniature U-boats.

Quickly, I delivered my hopper and checked my cast. The fly dropped lightly to the surface and I skittered it across the pool. The boat was absolutely sailing by as I lurched over the pontoon, extended my arm to it's limit and wildly fed out line, trying to leave the little mouthful in the little pool just as long as I possibly could. Then Yes!, a black shape materialized, levered open a quick white mouth and extended up into the air like a piscine cannonball!

Lieb pulled magnificently on his oars and gave me precious seconds, but it was anticlimactic. I leaned very hard on this fish, six pounds or so of pressure onto four pound tippet, but fate pressed inexorably. The rod bent deeply, the line thrummed audibly as the trout surged upstream against the current and a shrieking reel.

Then it was over, my long line dragging in the river. Okay, I said to Lieb with nothing in my voice, and he glanced over his shoulder and lifted his oars.

Later that day in Jackass Rapid we lost Tom Dixon overboard. Tom had been sitting on the rear pontoon, opposite me, when the boat careened off a rock. He hung on grimly to the safety rope as the boat spun out of control through the rapid. At the bottom we slammed up against a rock ledge with Tom sandwiched between. He shrugged it off as we hauled him in, explaining that he had been cushioned by his life preserver. His wife Linda was relieved to have him back aboard though and was crying.

Again, Lieb and I discussed this Portagee technique. Sure, I could see it was a quicker, more efficient system ... so what? It was damn tough to recover when you got off line, and the smack from rowing into something was not a subtle experience. We caromed through some challenging white-water that week, but to Lieb's credit Tom's dunking was our only incident.

We were in fishing heaven that day, as well as the days to come. There was plenty of good looking water and plenty of fish, a refreshing indulgence of one half of the fishing cycle. The fishy looking edges with overhanging flora were best. What the cutthroat lacked in terms of challenge, casting successfully into such places provided in sheer visceral satisfaction.

You could tell these Middle Fork fish had been working out. At the quietest of times this river moves with a sense of purpose, the hell flows of spring runoff are an annual Ironfish event. The Middle Fork trout are a buff bunch, evolved swimming the vigorous currents of this river, which, after all, is not the Potomac. And they seem a touch faster than your average trout; one moment your fly is floating beside the boat, the next it's on the bottom of the river in someone's mouth.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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