LEARNING TO NOT COUNT FISH

a shorter version of this article appeared in AMERICAN ANGLER magazine (Spring 2015)

    It took me over a decade of living in Utah before I successfully ventured into the nearby Uinta Mountain range and discovered what many people already knew -- that we have a gorgeous, high altitude wilderness just hours away from Salt Lake City.  It’s not like I hadn’t tried to love the Uintas. Over the previous years I’d attempted a few tentative trips to the outskirts of the wilderness with my young family, but always left with swollen extremities from swarms of mosquitoes, clothes drenched from non-stop rain, and memories of sitting in soggy, loud, overcrowded campgrounds.  Not exactly a great introduction, yet I continued to hear people talk about their mind-blowing experiences high in the pristine mountains with wide vistas, heavenly meadows, and tons of fish.  

    Tons of fish.  Of course, my mind kept keying in on the “tons of fish” part of the description, so five years ago I attempted a trip deeper into the Uintas.  I learned from my past mistakes, so I went when the late summer heat had beaten down the mosquitoes, I dressed better for the afternoon thunderstorms, and I marched right past the campgrounds.  What I experienced on that trip changed me forever, and since then the Uintas have become one of my favorite places on earth.

    This east-west running range is a subrange of the Rockies with the highest peak, Kings Peak, topping out at 13,528 feet.  The glaciated valleys on the north and south slopes are dotted with hundreds of stocked lakes and miles of small, pure streams.  If you’re looking to catch large fish, then the Uintas aren’t the place to go, but if you’re looking for fast action, then these mountains are a paradise.

    My latest trip was a three day backpacking outing to the popular Amethyst Lake basin on the north slope of the mountains.  Accompanying me on this venture were Lucy, my ever present cattle dog mutt, and Finn, the teenaged son of a good friend.  Finn had been bugging me all year to take him to the “High Uintas,” and while I’d never let him know this, I couldn’t have chosen a more eager, capable, and conversational companion.  Being the son of a fly shop owner and fly fishing instructor, Finn was raised with a fly rod in his hand and has fished all the major rivers from the San Juan up to the Kanektok.  By taking him along I knew I was bringing along a more capable fisherman than myself. 

    Early one August morning we set off up the trail with Lucy sprinting off after every chipmunk she saw and Finn rambling on about some story, anecdote, or factoid.  

    “Do you think I’ll catch twenty fish?” he asked.  

    “Yes, I promise you’ll catch twenty fish,” I assured him.  We hiked a bit further.  

    “I’m gonna catch more fish than you,” he said as if stating a fact he just read out of a book.  I’d fished with Finn many times before on trips with his dad, and I knew his statement to most likely be true.  I also knew he didn’t mean anything mean by it, and he wasn’t old enough to filter his thoughts fully before forming them into words.  

    “I’m sure you will,” is all I replied.

    I might not fish as well as he does, but I know my threshold of pain is certainly higher than most.  Against my better judgment, I picked up the pace.  Finn picked up his pace, too.  After a while we got to the steep section of the trail, my pace stayed steady, and his stories, anecdotes, and factoids slowly faded away.  The hike usually takes four hours, but in less than three hours (with an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet) we were setting up camp in a green meadow dissected by a meandering stream.

    I set up the tent, Lucy terrorized more chipmunks, and Finn dumped his tired body onto his sleeping pad.  He was exhausted.  I felt terrible, but I’d actually managed to wear out a healthy fifteen year old boy.  I should have known that teenaged boys are more like frisky puppies than adult huskies, so the quick pace had proved to be too much for him.  I insisted he hydrate, then he crawled into the tent and fell fast asleep.  Instead of dwelling on the fact I might’ve almost killed a friend’s son, I decided not to squander this time and to use it to get ahead on the fish count.  It was my only hope for victory.

    The narrow, meandering stream was teeming with small brook trout, and I quickly learned to be stealthy in my approach.  Soon fish were lunging themselves at my tan Elk-Haired Caddis at every bend of the stream.  All the fish were small in size, but lunkers in terms of spunk and energy.  A couple hours later Finn staggered out into the meadow with his 2 weight and soon we were both bringing in tiny brookies.  

    Over dinner that night Finn was again his animated self and kept exclaiming to me how he couldn’t believe how much fun it was to catch so many fish in such a short time.  I told him to sleep well, because the next day would be even better.  I think the smile stayed on has face until well after he fell asleep that night.  The fish count was 66 to 36.  My two hours of fishing helped, but the next day I’d have stiff competition and I knew my lead wouldn’t hold up.

    By nine-thirty the next morning we’d made the twenty minute hike up to the top of the basin where Amethyst Lake sits under the imposing 12,718 feet high Ostler Peak.  Located on the edge of the timberline, the lake is mostly surrounded by limestone scree fields flowing from the peaks down to the water’s edge.  Crystal clear shallows line the lake with the deeper areas transitioning to a bright aqua color.  It’s like a piece of a tropical ocean was dumped into this pristine high alpine setting.

    We walked around the south shore and quickly spotted two brook trout lounging in the shallows and after two casts we had two fish on.  Partly due to laziness and partly due to the sheer joy of watching fish strike surface targets, we only used dry flies.  After experimenting a bit, we quickly determined that simple Elk-Haired Caddis and larger Mayfly patterns worked with equal effectiveness.  These were hungry and eager high altitude char, not discerning spring creek trout.

    The excitement of sight casting to cruising brookies in the clear water was addicting, and soon we’d each caught a dozen fish, then twenty, then thirty.  Finn couldn’t believe how many fish were in the lake and how much fun it was watching them smash his fly.  We laughed, we cheered each other on, we leap-frogged fishing holes, and we slowly circled the lake.  We even fished right through the fiercest hail storm I’d ever witnessed in my life, and surprisingly the fish continued to hit our dry flies even when the surface of the water boiled like a witch’s cauldron. 

    Our arms were tired by the time we’d made our way around to the far side of the lake, so we agreed to take a break.  Finn napped like a lizard on a large rock outcropping, Lucy rooted around for an especially vocal pika, and I wandered around taking photos.  None of the fish we caught were over twelve inches long, but their bright colors and enthusiasm had been awe-inspiring to both of us.  People can swoon over all sorts of different fish, but for me there are very few fish that match the beauty of a perfectly formed brook trout in early spawning colors.

    After Finn’s nap we caught a few more fish as we finished our loop of the lake, but we were both ready to get back to camp for an early dinner.  We couldn’t believe the day we’d just had.  Finn and I had caught and released 135 and 120 fish, respectively.  I’d never caught so many fish in one day in my life and neither had he.

    As we ate our dinner and the sun threatened to disappear behind the western ridges, Finn looked up and declared he was going to make it a “150 Fish Day.”  He hopped up, grabbed his rod, and headed out to the stream.  I watched as he fished all the holes we’d fished the previous day, and as he disappeared into the trees making his way downstream to the next meadow.  I pretended to be the restrained adult, but I couldn’t help myself.  I was soon casting and catching tiny brookies, too. 

    Half an hour later, I ran into Finn contentedly walking back from the other meadow.  

    “So, you caught your 150 fish?”  I asked.  

    He smiled and nodded.  “What a special day,” he beamed, “I can’t believe how much fun we had today.  It was amazing!  Absolutely amazing!  Thanks for bringing me up here.”  

    Multi-level marketers wish they could bottle that kind of enthusiasm. 

    Finn started back towards our camp.  I called after him, “How about our fish totals?  Counting yesterday I’m still ahead of you.”  

    “That’s okay,” he replied, “I had a 150 fish day.  That’s enough for me.”  He seemed so wise.  If I remember right I think he even concluded by saying, “From where the sun now stands, I will fish no more forever...at least until tomorrow.  Good luck.”  And with that he disappeared down the trail.

    I stood and pondered how self-controlled a teenaged boy could be, and I also thought about how I was already at 141 fish for the day.  I had a bit more daylight left; getting over 150 would be easy.  I faced the stream and returned to the hypnotic rhythm of stalking, casting, and catching fish.  

    The next morning I was squatting around the camp stove as Finn emerged from the tent.  He asked how many fish total I’d caught yesterday.  

    “149 fish,” I said as I lit the stove.  

    “No way!” he exclaimed, “There’s no way you stopped at 149.”  

    “Well, I did,” I said calmly. 

    “Why?” he asked.  I kept prepping for breakfast.  “I don’t know.  A 150 fish day is pretty special, so I decided a 149 fish day is pretty special, too.”  

    He grabbed the water bottles to fill them up with water.  As he headed for the stream he turned to face me.  “Thanks,” he said, “I’ll always remember yesterday.”   I must say I’ve never been happy with walking away from a river when the fishing is still hot, but this is one time I was happy I did.

    We made a quick hike back to Amethyst Lake for a couple hours of fishing before packing up and heading back down to our car.  We didn’t catch as many as the day before, but we had just as much fun.  We didn’t even count how many fish we caught.  We had more time to talk, enjoy the views, and relish the experience of every fish we caught.  Around noon we went back down to camp, packed up, and headed down the trail.  This time we hiked slower and Finn talked all the way.

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