Of mountain storms, nice fish and those damned winds …


It’s day four of our Wyoming adventure. The wind is up but so are our spirits. When you catch fish, how can that not be?

Installment five will be posted tomorrow. If you’re interested in this sort of trip out West in July 2016, send Dave a note at david.bradley@yahoo.com.

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A makeshift fire ring barely manages to deflect heavy winds that have plagued us for two straight days.

A makeshift fire ring tucked beneath the ledge of a garage sized boulder barely manages to deflect heavy winds that have plagued us for two straight days.

Day 4, Monday, July 27

What is with the damned unrelenting wind? It blows all night. The morning is gray and dark, a direct contrast to the sunny beginnings of every other day.

My gear is stowed, again, before I am out of the tent. When I do unzip the rain fly it occurs to me that I’d better keep it on for a while. Out of the southwest and seemingly just grazing the peaks are low clouds that race across the sky. One figures the wind has to be blowing in something. Maybe rain is what it pushes. I hustle back in to retrieve my rain gear just in case. Does it usher in a front that potentially brings days of poor, damp weather with it?

Since I have an advantage in that I’m mostly pre-packed except for the tent, and because the others won’t be up for a while and because my Scott is rigged and standing up against a pine, I want to fish. Not the lake, but a stream we crossed several hundred yards away and before we came upon our overnight spot. So I head that way, mindful that I’ll intersect the path where the bear paw was seen. It does put me a little bit on edge, or at least on alert status.

The stream is a beauty. Steep but not overwhelmingly so. I cut my fly fishing teeth on just such streams like this in Colorado. These aren’t the stuff of long, flowing casts that grace the pages of slick magazines. This is more dip-and-dunk where short accurate casts of maybe five to 10 yards, at most, are the rule. The stream is perhaps seven or eight yards wide at its widest spot but it features some very deep pools that certainly look fish worthy. My theory is that trout in this habitat are opportunists. They must strike or the food escapes them.

The theory is validated almost instantly. A big brookie, 11 inches or so, rises to hit the fly like a small train. I wet my hands to hold it and pause for a moment to take in its color and form. This fish hasn’t missed many meals. It is such a pretty, healthy trout with its dark spots and brown-purple-red coloration. This is a catch and release morning. This fish goes back. So does the next, and the next after that. I love little streams.

The dense clouds continue to build and grow darker as they move quickly across the low sky. This looks like rain to me so after 15 minutes I hightail it back to camp. By now the others are leaving their tents just about the time the clouds begin to spit rain.

We hustle back under cover to wait out the expected storm. The betting is some rain. This delay may throw off our departure although time really isn’t of the essence. Today is our shortest hike of the week, only three miles by Tom’s calculation up to Valentine Lake.

I have no idea how deep the storm system is. Worst case scenario is that we’ll be socked in for hours or perhaps it’s a larger system that could make the next few days miserable. Ultimately we’d hike in the rain if it significantly threatened to ruin our schedule – as long as there was no lightning. We won’t be above timberline today. It’s walking in the unprotected open spaces where you have to worry. One sour thought goes through my mind: What if the Cirque is shrouded in clouds and rain? We would have come all this way only to be denied the view we crave so desperately?

The thing about mountain storms is they can spring up in a hurry – and they can vamoose in a hurry, too.

Not an hour before this shot of Reid was taken, the skies were leaden and spitting rain. But the clouds zoomed out and the bright sun took over.

Not an hour before this shot of Reid was taken on the north shore of Grave Lake, the skies were leaden and spitting rain. But the clouds zoomed out and bright sunshine filled the gray void.

This one opts to leave. We get a sprinkle, nothing more and in the space of 20 minutes the clouds evaporate and we are again under impossibly blue skies. The skies of North Carolina are one shade of blue. But these blue skies are another thing altogether. This is Wyoming.

It was a leisurely paced break of camp. Reid and I dismantle the bigger tent of Katy and Rebekah while they do the same for Reid’s ‘new’ tent. The thick gauge plastic groundcloth is a pain. It doesn’t make for a tight roll. This makes it difficult to shove the tent in the stuff sack. Tom had recommended, for weight saving purposes, that I scavenge a construction site for Tyvek but I was unable to find a large enough sheet of the moisture proof material. It would have been ideal under the tent and made packing much easier. Meanwhile, Vince and Tom are old hands at camp site organization and they were trail ready in almost no time. I string the paracord between two pines to give the rainfly a quick air dry. The tent will be the last item cinched tight on the pack.

At about 11 a.m. our packs are on and we reunite with Bears Ears Trail. The temperatures feel already in the 60s which means a very comfortable hike.

Of note is the sturdy wood and steel bridge that spans Grave Creek at the very eastern tip of the lake.

A bridge that spans the outlet stream from Grave Lake is the only manmade structure we saw during our week in the Bridger.

A bridge that spans the outlet stream from Grave Lake is the only manmade structure we saw during our week in the Bridger.

The stream is very wide and a bridge is almost a necessity for most hikers since the stream would be a difficult ford under even in the best of low water conditions. Other than trail signage, the bridge is the only man-made structure we see in the back country.

On paper the hike looks short, the altitude gain quite modest at 430 feet, but there’s plenty of up and down to keep our attention. Looking ahead on the map is one possible ford of significance. We will dip down into the valley carved in part by the South Fork of Little Wind River. For a mountain river it is fairly sizable and where Bears Ears Trail crosses the river will require Reid and I to wade for the first time. The water shoes bungie corded to my pack are pressed into service for the first time.

One by one, we dip our feet in the icy cold water of the small river. It's our first, but not last, real ford.

One by one, Vince and Katy dip their feet in the icy cold water of the South Fork of the Little Wind River as Reid dons some water shoes. It’s our first, but not last, real ford.

I head over first while Reid removes his boots. The water should be “shin deep” according to Tom’s well prepared notes but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in icy coldness. The ford is about 25 yards, and after successfully avoiding a slip, once ashore I fling the water shoes over to Reid and in a few minutes he sits by the trail drying his feet with his bandana. Another 10 minutes and we’re off again.

We tromp to the north end of Valentine Lake (10,399 ft.) and arrive around mid afternoon. The lake takes us almost by surprise. You don’t see it at first since you sneak up on it from below and its partially blocked by rocks and trees. Then all of a sudden it’s there. The first order of business is to find suitable camp sites. It’s been a no stress issue for us every day as we’ve had our pick of prime locations. Until now. Reid heads to the west shore to investigate flat spots but he reports there are none. Tom and Vince also find no suitable candidates. We cross the small unnamed stream that pours out of Valentine to continue our search and to our left is the only apparent area that might work. It has seen its share of visitors. We add ourselves to that list.

The wind still howls and has grown tiresome. It’s been blowing for three days now without relent. Enough already. But camp goes up per usual. And not a moment too soon.

Down the trail headed west toward us come riders on horseback plus two pack horses, each with panniers of maybe 70 – 90 pounds per animal. A cowboy guides an apparently well-heeled couple (to rent pack horses and cowboys isn’t cheap) and it’s clear we are in the spot where they had hoped to overnight. From 50 yards away you can hear one of their number say ‘Someone’s already there.’ Not in an unpleasant manner but almost a resignation that the site the cowboy had routinely used before is now gone and he’ll have to figure out a Plan B. I don’t know where Plan B would be since we scouted the west side of Valentine and found nothing. The horses need nearby water and grass and ample room, both of which are available – if only they had beaten us to the punch. We didn’t see much in the way of camp sites on the walk-in leading up to the lake either. The pack train moves across the stream to continue their search. Part of me wants to say ‘Hey, stay here with us’ since we could have reconfigured our tent city and we’d have someone else to talk to other than ourselves. By the time the idea comes to my slow-witted mind, they are past the stream and gone. If the horsemen had been 20 minutes earlier, it would have been us walking by them wondering Where will we stay?

I collect empty or near empty water bottles and head to the outlet stream to pump. I sit down on a flat rock that borders the stream and almost absentmindedly glance to my left. There in the water, facing into the current, swims a thick, big trout (big as defined by the aforementioned mountain stream standards). This fish is on the 12 inch side. It does not notice me only three or so feet away. Since we were denied fish last night at Grave Lake, we’ll try to augment tonight’s dinner. The pumping done, I head back the 35 yards to camp, redistribute the filled bottles and tell Reid of what I’ve just seen. In short order he’s ready to fish.

I don’t see his cast, but later we all see his post-catch fish. Reid has landed the Big One in the deep but quiet hole that is no larger than a bathtub at the spot where I pumped water a few minutes before. The cutthroat is a keeper. There’s a series of varied sized pools between where our trail crosses the stream and the lake, a stretch of maybe 75 yards. Reid works up the stream toward the lake, always casting upstream since the fish always swim into the current.

Reid makes short work of a dinner entree as he works the pools up to Valentine Lake.

Reid and his Orvis rig makes short work of a dinner entree as he works the pools just below Valentine Lake.

He takes care not to be seen and his reward is bites the entire way. He has us on the board with only five fish to go.

The wind is going to be a campfire issue. We’re not worried about sparks blowing into tinder-dry trees. No, the gale, still blowing a steady 25-30 miles per hour with higher gusts, will play havoc with cooking the fish. Behind the camp and a few steps up is a double car garage sized boulder that is flanked by other protective rocks. We can’t possibly have a fire ring in the wind tunnel near the tents. The boulder has an overhang that, if we can find the right flat rocks to further block the wind, might work. I find enough flat-ish stones to complete the circle, and head out to help Reid snag dinner if he doesn’t already have enough trout. The kid can fish.

The Scott is rigged and I walk Reid’s way. So do Rebekah and Katy to watch Reid in action. He’s close to the lake now and he calls out, semi-quietly, that he’s at a pool where a dozen or more sizable trout are schooled in the slow water. The school now has one less student, Reid having landed another fish which slides nicely onto his make-shift willow stringer. Two big ‘uns down, four to go.

As a lot of mountain streams do when they drain out of lakes, there can be multiple smaller rivulets much like we saw at Maes Lake, that might be a couple of feet wide but can hold marauding trout looking to slam anything that floats by or makes the mistake of flitting on the water’s surface. I dip my #14 Adams (I really don’t use much else in the way of flies) where one of these little fingers has carved an 18 inch wide space to accommodate its flow and – bam! – the third trout is had, not as nice as Reid’s but it will make one of our number a fine meal.

Now, as my ace caster son-in-law Tim can attest (he reminds me as much), I’m no fishing expert, but I do know that once you work a pool successfully – as Reid has on his way up to where he now offers fly after fly to a school that is increasingly balky – if you give the fish enough time, say, 15 to 20 minutes to calm down – the pool can produce again.

As we fish, the camp-less horse train comes back, this time headed east. They were apparently not able to find a suitable overnight spot. They gaze over to our camp site as they move silently onward. Almost certainly they’ll need to set up at dusk if not in the dark. I’m glad to not be in their saddles. They’re too far away for me to make the verbal offer I missed during their first passing.

I turn back to the water and wing the Adams to my right at a 3:00 o’clock position about 20 yards out into a swifter portion of the stream where it then widens to about 30 yards across and let the fly drift right-to-left. I don’t see the fish move in for the kill but it does slam into the fly and now flees down stream on a frenetic run for safety. It cannot be allowed to do so. Rule 1 is to keep your rod tip up followed closely by Rule 2 which is to keep the line taut. In moments, fish four is on the ‘stringer.’

What it shows is that these mountain fish are instinctive, reactive and compete aggressively for top water food resources (although Tim says 90 percent of what a fish eats is below the surface) in the abbreviated feeding season. Eat to survive. This especially applies to females which are most of what we catch. Virtually every fish we land carries the eggs of the next generation.

I move to the lake itself. There are telltale dimples of top feeding fish. In short order another trout is hooked. I motion to a watching Rebekah to come over to reel it in. I know she is anxious to catch a fish by her own efforts but rules 1 and 2 will be important to her development as a fly fisher. She does what she’s told but the fish still escapes to swim free, as they’ve done countless times to me. We try again, and trout number five takes the bait. There’s one to go.

The final cutthroat ambushes a fly about 25 yards downstream in a pool we fished not many minutes earlier. Our catch is cleaned and rinsed on the flat rock where water was pumped less than one hour ago. The willow and our bounty soon hang from a pine branch adjacent to our newly constructed fire pit. The wind is still merciless; it is raw and cold and unrelenting. Everyone fuels up their mostly airtight stoves and huddles near rocks to lessen the force of the wind as they boil water for their dried dinners.

There’s no dirth of kindling around. In typical Boy Scout fashion, a tepee is built of bone-dry tiny scraps of wood at the center and surrounded by increasingly large pine twigs and branches. Pinecones or pine needles should light fairly readily but the wind negates the flame from my butane lighter. Matches would be no good in this gale. But after a few moments the pine cones take the flame and we’re in business. The trout are spiced up, wrapped in foil and the broiling begins. Seven minutes a side is the fireside recipe. This isn’t the relaxed a serving of trout we’ve previously enjoyed. The wind batters us and our tents in a tiresome, noisy way. So as the trout are ready, I call down to the tent site and one by one, Tom, Katy, Rebekah, Vince and Reid file up the small hill, get their entree, and open the foil as it sits on granite rocks that suffice for tables. They’re old hands now at de-boning the fish. The remains are cremated in the coals.

No one lingers by the fire as we have other nights. There is no other fishing. We clean up from our meals and stow the bear canisters about 25 yards away. Tom announces a 7:30 a.m. start. We’ve got a big, long day ahead of us. Already there is a cold night in the air, and we’ve shivered enough as it is in our sleeping bags on other less-chilly nights.

Tomorrow we get our first look at the Cirque.

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Friday: Shivering scouts, views beyond belief, and the Cirque itself

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