Stars and Browns of Strawberry River

When the video-camera battery dies, you know good things are in store.

  • By: Maximilian Werner

Before today, I hadn’t been to the Strawberry River for months. For one thing, the river is about a two hour drive east of Salt Lake, in which case I’ve got to be on the road by 5:30 a.m. if I intend to be on the river at a respectable hour. But for all my effort (I can’t bring myself to describe it as“trouble”), during my last two visits, combined I think I caught maybe one or two fish. I wouldn’t dwell on this fact if I hadn’t gotten used to catching eight to ten nice trout per visit.

Something—many things, actually—had changed. Sometimes the changes are obvious—the water is dangerously high or deathly low—but more often then not the changes are hidden, and the best one can do is speculate. Regardless, I can’t stay away from the Berry for very long, especially when fall comes and the colors of living things turn and the trout turn their attention to fatting up for the days ahead. But I console myself by imagining that the river rests and renews in my absence.

Still, it was not without a certain hesitance that I drove out there today with my college buddy, Greg, who I had not seen for over a decade, and who produces online content for Salt Lake Magazine. Given his responsibility for text, audio, and video, Greg has a very sophisticated digital video recorder. I enjoy watching homemade fly fishing videos (which one can find by typing a particular destination in the YouTube search field). But I also have an interest in film-making, so I suggested to Greg that we drive out to the Strawberry and start collecting some footage.

The logistics were simple: He would film while I fished and narrated, that is, if I were inspired or—in Greg’s words—“had something interesting to say.” Greg had gone so far as to research the fly fishing video market and assess the competition. We seemed to be the proverbial match.

When I saw Greg pull up in the early morning dark, I walked outside and stood by his car while he gathered his things. The sweet, vaguely acrid smell of beer emanated from the car. A powerful mnemonic, the smell returned me to that morning in A River Runs Through It when Maclean’s soon-to-be brother-in-law shows up late for fishing and drunk from the previous night’s debauchery.

Apart from having put back a few beers, however, Greg was cheerful, animated, and—most importantly—serious about making a film. I loaded his camera bags into my truck and we set off. Unless I had recorded what Greg said on our drive, there is no way to adequately characterize him through speech. Put simply, he is as esoteric as they come. And listening to him (since he does about 90 percent of the talking) is like listening to a lunar montage (whatever that means). This is not to say the two-hour drive was not enjoyable. Over the course of it we learned about the other’s filmic aesthetic: We both agreed that the goal was to make accessible art, but art nonetheless.

As we drove down the washboard road toward the river, I was pleased and surprised when I didn’t see anybody, particularly on a Saturday. Lately one might suppose that fuel costs are to blame, but in the roughly 12 years I’ve been making the long haul out to the Strawberry, I have consistently found solitude.
Although the last time we fished the Berry my friend Jeff and I got shut out, we saw a juvenile mountain lion watching the river from atop a knoll. The young lion must have seen us the instant before we saw him because when I saw him he was just rising from his haunches and turning to flee. Before he could reach safety, he had to climb to the top of the mesa, so we got to watch him for about thirty seconds before he disappeared. Luckily, no one will ever ask me what was more meaningful: 30 seconds of watching that lion run, or two hours of a young man’s lunar lecture.

The day Greg and I were there to make our film, the Berry was running a tad under high, but I had no reason to believe that I was not moments away from sharing the sunlight (as opposed to just the spotlight) with some Strawberry browns.

Forty-five minutes and six sweet runs later, I still hadn’t seen a fish. Nothing unusual about that, really, but the video recorder’s battery was spent. Once I learned that Greg didn’t have a backup battery, I assumed he would now take some stills with his other technological wonder, a 10 MP Cannon camera.

“I’m heading back to the truck,” he said, wearing a fine necklace of sweat.

“Seriously?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’ll meet you back there” he said with that look that said I know you think I’m lame, but my tongue tastes like a burlap sack of dust, so I really don’t give a shit.

“Shoot yourself,” I said. A couple minutes later I was standing on a 50-foot run tying on some nymphs. I hadn’t fished nymphs for a long time and it felt good to roll that line 20 feet to the top of the run. After several uneventful drifts, I decided to fish the second half of the run, so I rolled my bugs and started down.

“Sweetholymudderfug,” I exclaimed, as my arm was pulled back into the previous moment. Five minutes later, I brought this lovely, 22-inch brown to hand. When I got back to the truck Greg was just waking up from a little nap. He pushed up his glasses. Then he asked me how it went and the voice inside his voice—the voice that always says what it means— suggested maybe things had not gone well.

Maximilian Werner is a writer who lives in Salt Lake City. His essay“Anglers’ Ball” took second place in the annual Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest sponsored by Fly Rod& Reel.