On the Lower Fremont: Part II

Returning to a Utah river, reuniting with old friends.

  • By: Maximilian Werner
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I kept my word and returned to the lower Fremont in mid-October. (I’ve written previously on the river here in my online column.) My old fishing buddy Greg agreed to make the 12-hour drive up from Phoenix and meet me that evening just outside Torrey at the Rim Rock Hotel and Restaurant. The Rim Rock sits on about 15 acres and overlooks Sulphur Creek to the south, Meeks Mesa to the north, Cooks Mesa to the west, and Capital Reef National Park to the east. The view is 360 degrees of sandstone cliffs, uncanny rock formations, deep red bluffs, and high desert flora.

Surrounded by such sublime vastness, places like the Rim Rock feel unobtrusive. This isn’t entirely by accident, however: My friends John and Brett, the owners, have made renovations to the 45-year-old structure without ever diminishing its original appeal and ability to blend with the landscape. Perhaps it is because the Rim Rock blends so well that it has not come to be known as a fly fisher‘s retreat. However unsung it may be among anglers (Europeans visit in droves), the Rim Rock was built smack dab in the middle of some of southeastern Utah’s finest fishing.

After I unpacked my gear, I went to check the parking lot for Greg. Instead I saw Brett’s truck parked out in front of the restaurant and his enormous, charcoal-colored Irish Wolfhound, Damnit, sitting in the passenger seat. Brett had found him while hiking out in the desert. Damnit was a pup then, but now he is about four years old, well-muscled, and in his prime. He watched me flatly as I approached. I thought he might show a little enthusiasm when I called his name, but he just blinked his amber-colored eyes and returned to watching the restaurant. I guessed he was looking for Brett, who was likely inside getting ready for the evening dinner service.

The front door was locked, so I walked around back and went in through the kitchen, which smelled of spices and smoldering mesquite. A crew of three young men clad in chef’s apparel worked feverishly behind the counters, washing, chopping and sautéing vegetables. On another counter I saw trays of dark red, seasoned trout fillets, steaks and marinating duck. Brett was in the back, preparing pork ribs for smoking (a house specialty) and putting the finishing touches on a southwestern style, black-bean soup.

“Hey Max,” he said, as if it had only been an hour, and not six months, since we had last seen each other. “You here to do some fishing, I take it?”

“I am,” I said.

Brett asked one of the other cooks to mind the soup and he grabbed two cold beers from the cooler. “Follow me.”

We walked out front to get Damnit, and when he saw Brett he stood and his tail went out one window and his head went out the other. He walked with us until we reached the patio, then he cut down into the wash and disappeared from view.

“Where is he off to in such a hurry?” I asked, taking a seat on the patio. Brett sat heavily, as if he were putting down a tremendous load. Then he unscrewed the bottle caps and they each made that fssst sound that signals a properly sealed beer.

“We had a coyote hanging around here the other night,” he said, handing me a beer. “He’s probably checking on her and whatever else wandered through.”

Below us the wash fanned east toward the towering cliffs of Capital Reef. A single cumulous cloud idled in the hard blue sky and the high desert air was cool, dry, and sweet.

“You’ve got a good thing going here,” I said. “Cheers.” We clacked bottles and drank. Brett asked me if I were solo and I told him about Greg and he nodded.

“You going to fish Boulder Mountain this time?” he asked, watching Damnit, who was now moseying up the wash, stopping here and there to sniff a bush or rock. I could see Boulder Mountain from where we sat and it looked cold and impenetrable.

“Another day,” I said. “I’ve got some unfinished business with the Fremont.  I took a drink. Tonight I think we’ll start below the bridge near the hatchery and work our way down to the second bridge. Maybe a little farther.” Brett looked at the sky and turned his bottle. I could tell he was thinking twice.

Like many rivers throughout the West, much of the lower Fremont is locked up in private land. Much to the chagrin of some landowners, however, a recent change in Utah law now gives people the right to wade or float navigable rivers through private land provided they gain access on public land and respect the landowner’s property.

I asked Brett if he knew about the change and he said that he did and that it was one of those things. “One of those things? Yes,” he said, wiping a light sheen of sweat from his forehead. “One of those things I don’t think I’d test just yet.”

Damnit returned from making his rounds and sprawled out on the still-warm sandstone of the patio. I knew Brett was right: It takes a while for laws to sink in, assuming they sink in at all. But I didn’t like the idea that I wouldn’t be able access water I had a legal right to; nor was I proud of the tacit admission that my distrust of angry landowners was more powerful than my belief in the protection of the law. Brett leaned over and stroked Damnit’s head: “I guess you could always take your chances.”

A half hour later Greg pulled into the parking lot and I waved him over. When he opened his door, a fast food sack and a couple empty soda cans fell out. The back seat was stuffed with fishing gear, including a belly boat, two rods, a duffle bag and a backpack.

“Looks like you packed and left town in a hurry.” Greg climbed out of the car and raised his arms into the sky. “Werner!” he said, giving me a hug. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years. It had been a little longer than that since we had last fished together in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. In those days Greg and I would fish the high mountain lakes, so I wasn’t sure how he would do on the river. But after we got back to the room, and Greg had spread all his gear across his bed, I knew he wasn’t the same angler I had known two years ago. He was serious.

“Well aren’t you all grown up now?” I joked. Beginning with a new, 4-piece Winston Boron fly rod, Greg selected certain items from the bed and placed them in his duffle bag. “Look who’s talking,” he laughed, holding up my vest. “That is first piece of new gear I’ve bought in 10 years,” I protested.

We drove west through Torrey on Highway 24. The day had gotten away from us. I figured we might have a couple hours until we couldn’t see our flies anymore.

The Fremont river parallels the road, but there are only two places between Torrey and the fish hatchery where it curves up from the south and down from the north, crosses under the road, and can then be seen.

“There it is,” I said, slowing down so Greg could glimpse the blue-green, clay colored water.

“Just slightly off color, he said, rolling down his window. “That stretch there is known as the Bicknell Bottoms, I said.

“What is it like?” Greg asked.

“I’ve not fished it, but John and Brett tell me there are some nice trout laying in there. Maybe we’ll try it tomorrow.” We climbed for a bit and then descended a small hill.

Are those buffalo?” Greg had his arm out the window and was pointing to a lush green field and the dark, massive forms of several grazing and resting buffalo. Beyond the field, a stand of 100-year-old cottonwoods shimmered in the evening sun, which cast purple shadows across the sandstone cliffs that stretched farther north. “That’s Red River Ranch. See the lodge inside those trees?” I asked, pointing to a magnificent log structure built inside the cottonwoods.

“Nice place,” Greg said. “It is indeed, but very pricey,” I cautioned. “It also sits on a prime, two-mile stretch of the Fremont.” Greg asked what we were waiting for. I told him it was complicated, but by the time we neared the turn-off, he knew the situation.

We turned off highway 24 and drove right up to the river. We got out and walked to the river’s edge to have a look.

“It’s slow here,” Greg said, looking at what appeared to be a black sheet of still water. Across the river and just off shore, I could see the pelvis and ribcage of a dead mule deer protruding from the water. I wondered how he came to be there and if a nice trout might be holding in the pocket behind him.

“Don’t worry, it picks up,” I said, looking at the burnt remains of scrub oak climbing out of the yellow grass. Brett told me that before the fire, this stretch of the river was so choked with brush, the only way to fish it was to walk in it. I said that probably wasn’t the best way and he didn’t disagree. Greg and I walked back to the truck, dressed, and rigged up. In the days leading up to the trip, I had told him to bring a variety of dry and wet flies, including hoppers, stimulators, hare’s ears, pheasant tails, and tungsten bead-heads. “But,” I had said emphatically, “don’t forget streamers.”

Back at the truck, Greg plucked a streamer from his fly box and held it out to me. I took the fly, a silver conehead with a gray-blue body and blood-pink tail on a size 10 hook, and studied it. “Looks good,” I said. “Give it a try.” I tied on a #8, gold conehead with a lime green body. Sparkles were woven into the body and laced into the tail.

“What do you have there?” Greg asked. I handed him the fly and he looked at it briefly and gave it back. “Bells and whistles,” he said.

I decided I would walk fifty yards down river and give Greg the first six or seven runs. I had made it fifteen yards when I heard a whistle. I looked and saw Greg fighting a fish. I hurried back and took an image of him holding a 17-inch brown.

“Well done,” I said. “Nice inaugural fish.” I was relieved. When an angler invites a fellow angler to a new water, things can be a little tense until a trout is actually caught. And the farther one travels to fish new water, the more pressure the angler feels whose idea it was to fish the new water in the first place. The moment Greg had on that trout, I was henceforth absolved of that responsibility.

The sky was now pale yellow and the earth was steeped in shadow. I knew that meant the sun was gone so I didn’t bother looking for it. I told Greg I would meet him down at the second bridge. Once I had put space between us, I would stop only briefly to fish each run. Before I knew it, I was at the second bridge and the only story I would have to tell is how I coaxed a huge trout from its lie beneath a grassy bank; and that it eyed me before disappearing into the tight, black water that twisted, swirled, and then frayed.

Greg is kind, so he would listen attentively and would get excited at my mention of the giant trout. A poet, he would seize the details. But when he actually showed up at the bridge and told me the stories of the three nice browns he had caught—all on that streamer and all within 17 to 18 inches—I refrained: As much as I wanted it to be otherwise, my story was really no story at all.

That night we ate ribs at the Rim Rock and turned in early. When we got back to the room, we made a plan for the next day. I suggested we start by driving a few miles up to Mill Meadow Reservoir to do some belly boating. And if that didn’t work out, we’d try the Fremont again. “Sounds good to me,” Greg said, turning off the light.

The next morning we woke late and crossed the street and had a breakfast of ham steak, eggs, hash browns, toast and coffee at the Best Western. It was about 9 when we walked back to the Rim Rock. The day was clear and bright , but it was also windier than I preferred. Months ago I had studied topographical maps of the entire Fish Lake Plateau and surrounding basin. I could see Mill Meadow Reservoir on the map in my mind. What I could not see was if the wind could get in there and trouble the water. Torrey was still sleeping when we drove through town.

Right after the junction of highways 12 and 24, we passed a pasture spotted with the stumps of a long-felled apple orchard. A bushy, red tailed fox was hunting mice right out in the middle of it. “She’s getting her breakfast,” I said, pointing at the fox. “Are you sure that’s not a fire?” Greg asked, smiling.

Mill Meadow would have been glass were it not for the slurping trout. We could see them working a cove far below us and even from that distance we could tell they were of size. I drove down a road that in better years would be ten feet under water. I was thankful for it, though, because it took us right to the fish. It was getting hot and we scrambled to unload and get on the water before the hatch switched off.

Despite being unable to keep our eyes off the trout, we made good time for all of three or four minutes. No longer able to ignore the large, rolling boils, I dropped everything midstream, tied on a caddis, and sent it sailing into the cove. Greg followed suit, and pretty soon the two of us were standing there, half dressed and casting wildly to the rising trout. Five minutes later, they were gone. We had been on the lake for about an hour when the wind started to blow. I had caught a small splake and two rainbows, but I wasn’t sure it made sense to wait it out when we had so little time and could be trying the Fremont again. Greg had drifted down shore. I reeled in and let the wind take me right to him. “Let’s get out of here,” he said before I could open my mouth.

We (or at least I) hadn’t had time to properly fish the bridge section of the Fremont, so we decided to start there and then, time permitting, we would either hit the Bicknell Bottoms section or the section below highway 12. There was even some talk of fishing down into the Red River Ranch section. We worked the bridge section and picked up a few fish along the way.

When we got to the second bridge, we climbed up to the road and saw how the river meandered through miles of wide open country. It was 99 percent beautiful. It would have been 100 percent were it not for the realization that all that beckoning country was privately owned. I probably made it a bigger deal than it was, which explains why Greg suggested we simply drive up to the Red River Ranch and pay them for a half day of fishing, his treat.

“Don’t you think we ought to wait and see what they charge?” I asked, both grateful for and embarrassed by his generosity.

“I’m pretty sure I can cover whatever they throw at us, but let’s go check it out.”

When we walked into the lodge, I understood immediately why people drove hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to stay there. A big fire roared in the stone fireplace, the light from which shined on the lacquered, hand-planed wood floors and fine leather chairs and couches, upon which patrons sat chatting or quietly reading books. Grossly out of place in our soggy fishing attire, Greg and I quickly made our way to the reservation desk and pitched our idea. Before the woman working the desk could give us the go-ahead, she got on the phone and called someone. “Okay, she said. I’ll let them know.”

She hung up the phone and said the fee would be $60 per angler for a half day of barbless, catch-and-release, fly-fishing. “Oh, and if you take any nice images of trout, will you send them to me? We like to use them on the Web page, she said, handing me her card. “We will,” Greg said, “but it will cost you $60 per image.” If I had tried to make that joke, I would have blown it because I would have been serious. But Greg could have cared less and the woman could sense that, so she just smiled.

The first run, which turned out to be the best run, was not 50 feet from the lodge. There Greg caught two fat rainbows in some fast water and missed two others. While he continued to work the honey hole, I moved off a hundred yards up river, looking for other nice runs.

I didn’t find anything like the first run, but I did find a deep trough through which I stripped a black sculpin and caught a 17-inch brown. Other than that spot, the river west of the lodge seemed too much like a slack water, the result, I guessed, of excessive irrigation. I was beginning to feel the loss of money I hadn’t spent. But I also knew Greg didn’t feel that way and that helped soften my frustration.

 

 We must have walked four miles over the course of the day and I was tired of not catching fish. I ran into Greg on my walk back and told him to take his time and that I would meet him back at the lodge. When I got there, all the lights were on and the place looked warm. But it was a false comfort. I sat outside on a block of sandstone and watched cliff swallows feed above the trees on the far edge of the pasture.

As the sunlight slipped over the darkening grass, two black horses walked purposefully out of the trees, swishing their tails in the breeze, as if they were on their way to eat apples or to awaken some farther part of the world.

Maximilian Werner is a writer and an educator who lives in Salt Lake City. His story “Anglers Ball” took second place in the 2008 Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award contest.  His book, Black River Dreams, will be published this fall by Barclay Creek Press.