9am, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. I crawled from my tent ready to fish. After a bowl of granola with yogurt and fruit, I asked a campground facilities maintenance man for directions to a certain waterfall. He explained a gravel turnoff from the highway marked by an oddly shaped boulder. I hopped in my truck and drove to the canyon’s rim, more than 500-feet above the tiny creek I’d fish.
Four cars were parked at the trailhead. I figured they were hikers, not anglers. The weather was temperate—an ideal, late-Spring morning for exploration of the Canyon Country. The sun warmed my back as I loaded my fishing gear, lunch, wet weather clothing, and plenty of water into my backpack. The balmy weather relaxed me, and I was in no hurry. My mood was in stark contrast to that of the morning before, when I woke to hail storm lying down in my exposed truck bed.
From the ridge, the trail started down a steep continuous slab of stone. Stout Junipers and Pinyon Pines scattered the arid landscape. Cairns guided the way whenever the sandy trail leapt onto stone.
The trail eventually hooked upstream near the bottom. The sound of moving water grew louder. I battled a hallway of brush to emerge beside a narrow ninety-foot plume of water that fell into a deep jade pool. Continuous water runoff had zebra-striped the horseshoe of cliff, and a hanging garden of vegetation decorated the walls within reach of the fall’s misty spray.
Around the size of a domestic swimming pool, the deep, slow water looked exceptional to fish. A friend of a friend said I might find “a healthy brown trout population” in these depths. The thirsty hike in, however, along with the creek’s minuscule flow, indicated otherwise. Now I believed him, due in part to the deep water, but also to a sense of obscurity. I felt no pressure to throw a line. No one else would fish here today, if not all week long.
The scenery alone warranted the hard hike in-and-out, but I was here to fish. I slid into my wading boots and rigged up. I secured five-feet of fifteen-pound tippet and tied on a white minnow streamer I’d named Scout. Bright white and more-or-less an inch long, Scout was partially wrapped in a metallic sheath to simulate the scales of a baby fish. He was even equipped with a set of artificial eyes to fool a cannibalistic predator.
A ledge more-or-less a foot deep ringed half of the pool. I stepped onto the shallow shelf and dabbled Scout until he was soaked. I cast him back-and-forth along the bank and splashed him ten-yards upstream, around two feet inside the ledge. He sunk for considerable time before I started to strip him in. He came into view, around four-feet beneath the surface, his scales shimmering in the darkness. Moving slower than one walks, he began to close the distance. The relaxed water put the majority of directing Scout into my hands, a responsibility that would prove troublesome. After around the fifth strip, the ground beneath my feet shifted. Startled, I glanced down to see a beautiful, heavy female Brown Trout dislodged from the wall. Bright red shaded the entire bottom half of her body, uncharacteristic of her specie’s spawning cycle, but perhaps of her location. Meanwhile, Scout’s performance was subpar to say the least. He nosedived as I comprehended his predator before he was whiplashed back into position. Though a stranger to artificial flies and fish, the Brown did not oblige and tucked herself back into the shelf.
I lit a smoke and walked clockwise to the end of the pool. I splashed Scout into the hole’s center. He cruised around two-feet beneath the surface as I stripped him in. Another Brown flashed but didn’t strike.
I circled farther around the bottom until I stood in the pool’s mouth. I threw Scout to my left along the side of a small grove of reeds. The line curved Scout from the bank toward the pool’s center depths. Submerged a few feet, I watched him swim. Suddenly, there was a vibrant flash of red and a heavy jaw line so big and colorful the sight recalled a salmon. He opened his mouth and either missed Scout completely, or I took away lunch with an anxious hook set. It was over in a split-second.
Stunned, I began to laugh. I’d moved three browns without anything to show for it. Still overcome by satisfaction. I needed to let the spot chill a bit. I thought I’d fish dries downstream in the small creek to pass time. I stashed my bag in a bush and brought my sling pack along with me.
Dense shrubbery and trees caved the creek. An inch-or-so of water flowed across a continuous slab of brown and orange sandstone. It occasionally gathered into bathtub-sized pools and carved slow, deeper channels. The fish in these aquarium-like areas saw me early and bolted into cover.
I tied on a size-12 yellow-humpy pattern. I couldn’t throw much line without snagging the walls and ceiling of impermeable foliage. I eventually gave up and continued my hike downstream. The lower canyon walls would sometimes break the foliage to wall the banks. The water and shade refreshed me. Plants up to a few feet higher than the water lied flat from flooding, which unsettled me. In the event of a flash flood, there was nowhere to run. The water was around a half-foot higher the the day before, and everything began to feel real small.
I was anxious to meet that Brown. I hurried back up to the pool.
I climbed from the creek into the sun. I switched back to the bulky leader and tied Scout back on. I knew where I was headed, right back to the mouth. I stepped in as silent as I could and knew I had one shot left at the brown, who for the purpose of storytelling, we’ll call Caesar. I sailed Scout into the reeds near the bank’s edge, what I figured to be his throne. Scout snagged the bank for a brief moment but broke free after a few tugs. I let him sink before I started to strip him in. He soon came into view as he rounded a brilliant, accidental curve from the bank through the middle of the pool. Doubt settled in as he shimmered, alone. But then a shadow moved from the bank, a good five paces behind Scout. My stomach turned as I watched Caesar shape into discernible form and close the distance with graceful, predatory fury.
I was without said aplomb and nearly overcome by a shaky effort to not fuck up. Scout was no more than fifteen-feet from the end of my rod pointed straight at him. I maintained this stance for no apparent reason other than it felt right. He was minuscule in comparison to the leviathan on his tail. Caesar slowed himself near his prey for a better look. I stripped what little line was left until I moved my rod to maintain Scout’s swim.
Caesar’s hook jaw dropped as he angled his head and chomped Scout’s ass. I jerked my arm so hard I’d have sent a ten-inch Rainbow into the weeds. Caesar whipped himself into a frenzy before he zipped line from my reel for several long seconds until I slammed the brakes. Lucky for me the leader was too burly for it to snap. The giant had its way with me for a while as he darted to every corner of the hole. I fought him for seven of the most enjoyable minutes of my fishing career.
I left the net lying in my truck bed. As a result, our time together would be brief. While this was a bummer for good photos and my ego, it was ultimately easiest for my catch. I still managed a few photos and to feel his heavy weight in my hand. His belly glistened red. Scout’s de-barbed hook easily slipped from the inside of Caesar’s mouth. I managed a screwy video of his sprinted release across the shelf and into the pool.
Endorphins lifted my mood as winds began to move dense clouds across the sky. Rain seemed imminent. I threw on my coat and began to pack up for my hike out. I was breaking down my rod when a couple in their mid-thirties showed up. The man was surprised people fish here and asked if I’d had any luck. Sure, I said. They were from southern Alberta, Canada, where he fished as well. I quickly showed him a few photos of Caesar while trying to hide my pride. With effort, I maintained no-big-deal look. Holding my phone for him, he raised his sunglasses and squinted at the screen. “Whew, a brown,” he said. I raised my eyebrows at him with a nod. No shit, pal. “Hon, come take a look at this.” Her reaction was more-or-less the same.
I took a seat nearby to chat. We both talked travel, the usual “How long is your trip?” and “You ever been here before?” They were friendly but tired. I held Scout in my hand. “Fish eating fish,” I said.
“I’d like to see you pull another Brown out of there,” the guy eventually said.
My ego brought me to my feet despite my conviction that another fish wouldn’t move after Caesar brought the ruckus to every corner of the hole. But here I went, my backcast in motion as I walked toward the lip of the shallow shelf. My audience remained seated on the grass surrounding the bottom of the hole. I was upright, my wrist stiff as I swept my arm back and forth in a futile effort to convey competence. I began to accelerate my final cast in the middle of my final step when a funny thing happened. The ground was no longer where it had been. I jerked the rod straight above me for balance and to not crush it beneath my fall. The streamer swung violently behind me. The gal gasped as they both took cover beneath their arms. “Nooooo!” I said, already in submission to my fate. I spun myself back toward the shelf as I fell in, but now both of my feet had slid over the very ledge I’d avoided with diligence all afternoon. My body folded my face forward into the water as I had nothing high enough to grab onto. Water cascaded down my raincoat when I stood back on top of the ledge. My drenched shorts suctioned to my thighs. “Well that wasn’t good,” I said through laughter. But instead of laugh with or even at me, they shared a countenance that asked What the fuck is wrong with you? They said nothing, only stared. The gal finally managed to speak. “Are you alright?”
“Yea” I said. “This is less than ideal.” I laughed more, not knowing what to say or do to fight the awkwardness. They didn’t say much. “Alright,” said the man with a slap on his kneecaps. They stood and hardly managed to say goodbye as they made a hurried exit.
Caesar must have been darting back in forth in laughter.
I was soaked when rain began to fall. I changed into some dry, water-proof pants I’d packed. The ascent out of the canyon would warm me plenty, so I knew I’d be fine.
I drove to Bryce Canyon National Park the following morning after I decided to ditch my permit to drive the White Rim Road in Canyonlands. I wanted to maintain my westward progression to make it home by Friday to celebrate my birthday. I planned to stay in Bryce for the night and head to Zion National Park for the next night. I planned to leave for Santa Cruz on Friday.
I was lucky enough to snag a camping spot in Bryce. It was very crowded with tourists left over from Memorial Day weekend. Despite the crowds, Bryce didn’t disappoint. Along its rim, one sees a labyrinth of shadowed canyons beneath ridge lines crowded by innumerable windswept spires called hoodoos. White sedimentary strips decorated the burnt-orange cliffs. But the crowds at the viewpoints were nearly suffocating. Coming from Montana, I also hadn’t grown accustomed to the heat. It was the early afternoon, and I needed a solitary hike.
I left the viewing platform down a wide, developed trail. The swift descent left the crowded noise and heat behind. The trail mazed through a hefty portion of the canyon before climbing out the other end. I saw plenty of hikers, and it was fun to strike conversations with some of them. The hike was by no means exhausting, but still plenty long and wore me out.
The sun was on its way down by the time I hiked out of the canyon. It grew windy and somewhat chilly. I rode a shuttle back to my campsite where I prepared a monstrous taco salad. The following morning I’d move onto Zion, where I knew it’d be even more crowded and harder to snag a campsite. The park had absorbed record Memorial Day weekend crowds, but I was hopeful that most had left.
Though is was Thursday, a far above average number of visitors happened to be at Zion. Its unique, jaw-dropping beauty and proximity to Southern California overwhelms its capacity. It felt like I was in a nature theme park. No campsites were available. I found myself waiting at a picnic bench in line for any cancellations. After sitting around for an hour and talking to other hopeful travelers, a ranger showed up, and I attained a nice campground.
I wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing. It was closed during my last visit in the dead of winter a few years prior, and I couldn’t miss it this time around. There was one problem: Crowds. There had been a three-hour wait to enter the trail over Memorial Day Weekend. While I knew there wouldn’t be any wait for this day, hikers of every sort, from beginner to advanced, thronged the vertiginous ridge to the top. A chain spaced by steel pools spanned the final half-mile stretch, and people headed up-and-down would hold on above cliffside drops on either side. I was both annoyed and surprised by the amount of people on the trail. It It also made me feel unsafe.
I made it home in time for my birthday. My brother Pete invited my friends out for a night on the town to celebrate. I felt good all weekend long. I finished my road trip with a long, single-day drive back to Montana, the highlight of which was driving through Hells Canyon along the Salmon River at sunset.
Thanks for reading.