Fuzzy Flip Flops
I had already experienced a wonderful Colorado trip early in the summer, but when I heard about a hot young guide out Cody WY way, it really got me thinking about yet another fishing trip. This guy seemed to be catching tons of big fish in absolutely gorgeous places, based on the steady stream of advertising level pictures that rolled almost daily into my work email in-basket. These weren’t just your normal grip and grin pictures but truly “fish of a lifetime” kind of photos and to be honest, the regularity of their appearance was beginning to get on my nerves. So almost in self-defense, I phoned this supposed hot shot guide and made arrangements to spend a week out there in early October sampling this spectacular location and the obviously spectacular fish it seemed to hold. My friend Bernard who is a “supposed” hot shot fisherman himself decided he wanted to go with me just to check and see if this guy could fish as well as he claimed. And just as these things usually go … … two weeks before my scheduled arrival the reports were of giant fish practically lining up to take a fly, one week before my scheduled arrival a cold front came through and fishing was becoming much tougher and as I flew out the weather report called for temps near zero and constant snow and my guide was beginning to back up on some of his claims… … oh well “if it weren’t for bad luck I would have no luck at all”.
Bernard and I had met up in Salt Lake City so when we landed in Cody we grabbed our bags and waited in the airport lobby. I was wondering if I would recognize this hot shot guide when he arrived out of this extreme crowd … … 8 or 9 other people. But recognizing him, proved pretty easy and I must admit I was beyond glad to see him as this was the longest I had ever gone without seeing … … what to me will always be my oldest baby boy, even if he does introduce himself now as Rick Davis, Cody WY fishing guide. But none the less giving him a giant bear hug felt d**n good, all the way to marrow of this old father’s bones. Well after the reunion we headed to Buffalo Bill’s Irma hotel and a surprising comfortable and quaint room in the old section of the hotel and at a pretty reasonable rate as well. But we didn’t spend too long unpacking, pausing just long enough to grab rods, reels, waders and rain jackets … … because yes as Davis family luck always dictates, the bad weather had arrived and we had a steady rain mixed with snow falling for the 45 minute ride to the river… … but I didn’t really care because I was with my baby boy and I was going fishing and the scenery was d**n pretty, one way or the other … … so no fish had as of yet been caught and already I was one happy camper.
Bernard and Rick headed in one direction to show off their graceful and highly annoying long pretty casts to each other and to compare their “A Game” fishing skills and I headed off in the other direction. I always tell them that I like to fish alone, which is true in and of itself, but the real reason is I am ashamed to have these two fishing phenoms see my degrading and disgusting casting or realize how truly pitiful my lack of proper fishing skills really are. Those of us who only possess a “C minus Game” never try to fish within sight of the “A Gamers”. I asked the great fishing guide to toss his old dad a few helpful tips and a handful of those old faithful “can’t miss” flies that he had been tying up lately, and he was kind enough to comply. So off I went wandering slowly downstream. Before I even started fishing I had to stop and take a few pictures. This part of Wyoming is unlike anything I have ever fished before, part arid high country desert and part gorgeous tumbling rivers, lush grassland and scenic mountain vistas with brilliant paint splashes of yellow and gold where the trees were in full autumn color. But instead of me typing another half page trying to describe that scene … … how about I just show you a few pictures.
As pretty as those pictures were when I rounded the next bend and saw this guy standing there staring at me it made me truly feel like I was in Wyoming and nearly at the East gate of Yellowstone. He is a walking Yellowstone post card, even if his actual genetic roots are probably Canadian these days, never the less he is still a symbol of the classic American west.
He just stared at me a moment and went right back grazing so I ended up fishing with him in the background and with a **** of a wide smile on this flatlander Georgia boy’s face. Well whenever I find myself on new water that I haven’t fished before I always get this irrational anxiety that I won’t be able to figure it out and won’t be able to catch a fish, and this usually lasts until I can chase the skunk spray away with the smell of a fresh caught fish on my hands, which sometimes takes much longer than I might like. So I was pleasantly pleased when after a few dozen casts, I came up taut to a struggling weight and knew that I had a fish on, but my smile froze on my face as the struggling form began to strip line off the reel at an alarming pace and I had to charge off downstream to try and keep up. I got the fish turned into a back water eddy that was relatively calm where I could re-gain the upper hand. Based on the golden flashes I had seen earlier and the obvious weight I could feel, visions of a Brown of nearly biblical proportions were dancing in my head… … so you can imagine my disappointment when I found this poor ugly old soul, belly hooked no less … … at the end of my line.
But the skunk smell was gone one way or another and I will take any fish I can catch no matter how ugly they may be, after all this fisherman has more than once been called a poor ugly old soul himself. The fishing for most of the afternoon was acceptable but not great, fish were caught but not in prodigious numbers (there goes that readers digest vocabulary practice again). But as the afternoon wore on the sun poked its bright face through the haze of clouds and we were treated to about an hour of “catching” at rate that rivaled the cocky young guide’s claims.
These fish were a mix of rainbow and cutthroats and the cutthroats were gorgeous enough to make me stop and marvel.
Stumbling off the stream happily satiated in our fishing craze we wrapped up the day with a perfectly cooked steak, a pleasantly full stomach, a cigar in hand and a nip of Mr. Woodford’s best sliding warm and smooth down my throat. I heard myself ask my fishing guide what he had scheduled for tomorrow, as he responded by questioning me carefully about what I could do without over taxing my out of shape physique and reminding me that I needed to be careful about what fishing adventures I undertook, it suddenly dawned on me how the world had flipped and flopped… … I was asking my son about where he wanted to take me fishing, he was telling me what to fish with and how … … and he was lecturing me about being more careful and not taking any stupid risks. Indeed the world had taken a strange “flip flop”, but it didn’t feel wrong or even that out of place just a conscious awareness of the changing of the guard as it relates to fishing … … probably a precursor to many more such changes that I will experience over my time with my boys … … but unsettling yet the same. Fortunately as many of you know I do love flip flops and was even wearing a fuzzy pair even on this cold night. So I just smiled a wry smile to myself, laughing silently and realizing that even with that “flip flop” revelation, it was still a spectacular beginning to what was shaping up to be yet another epic fishing week.
I sat in the back as we drove to the stream the next day listening passively while watching the snow flecked countryside flash by the car window, but the stories both Bernard and Rick were spinning were crafting a loving picture of the stream we were going to be fishing. I am not the smartest guy in the world but I am smart enough to recognize the obvious love both of these guys felt for this particular stream. And I am also not stupid enough to miss that two guys who opinions I value a lot, were really jazzed to be heading to this particular stream. I couldn’t miss hearing Rick compare how he feels about this stream to how I feel about some of the high country streams on the Rio Grande… … which is pretty high praise indeed. And Bernard has fished more fantastic rivers and beautiful places than any single individual ought to be allowed, so if he is waxing poetic about the virtues of a particular stream well then, I better pay attention. There is something magical about listening to people talk in reverent tones about their favorite streams and rivers, those places so special that they subconsciously seem to use their “church voice” when they describe them to others. And don’t let your subconscious confuse the SNL “church lady” and your “church voice” although I must admit I giggled as I typed those words thinking of Dana Carvey using Church Lady to extoll the virtues of a Cody WY trout stream. Anyway back to my story, my expectations were pretty high as we slogged through the snow melt slick-*** Wyoming gumbo mud toward the water and practically skied on our wading boots the last 50 feet or so down the hillside to the river’s edge. This was the site that greeted us as we rigged up.
Which was pretty enough, I really didn’t resist when Rick insisted that I fish “his way” with a big ugly dry about 3 to almost 4 feet above my dropper. Insisting that the dry was just like a strike indicator but that I might catch a fish or two off it and yes he knew it was already past the time when trout were looking up but d**n it shut up and trust him. He then proceeded to tell me the strikes would be super subtle and that I really needed to pay attention. Well as a Dad that threw me for a loop as I was the one who had spent all of those years telling him “set” when he couldn’t read his indicator or dry fly enough to know when he had gotten a strike and here he was reminding me to pay attention, I heard yet again that distinct slap of a flapping “flip flops” as time marches on and roles become reversed. I found myself accepting the fishing judgment of my son which is truly a flip flop from the first 24 years of our fishing relationship.
Once again they let me fish alone, which was very kind of them as the first few days of a trip it does my soul good to be on a stream with nobody in view and the natural sounds of the world around me, wind and river accompanied by the sound of joyous silence in my heart and mind. The first few holes were unproductive, and I felt like a petulant kid secretly enjoying the lack of success as vindication that my way would have worked better, but not wanting to change tactics because in the end I really wanted to catch fish and knew that Rick was good at what he does. But the scenery was so unbelievably pretty that I forgot all about what I was fishing with and even how I was fishing and spent my time just looking around at all of God’s glory surrounding me.
I even attempted a creative shot or two, and this before I had even broken into the bourbon yet… … for today at least.
I stumbled along without paying much attention except for the scenery, until I noticed on two successive casts where the dry fly drug just the smallest fraction of a hesitation, and small bells went off in my head and I had to laugh out loud as somewhere in the back of my head I heard Rick telling me to pay attention and that hook sets are free … … just like the thousands of times I had told him the same thing. Well on the next cast as the fly was almost out of the hole, I saw another slight pause on the drifting dry and set hesitantly … … I was too slow but at least this time I saw a golden flash in the depths as the fish rolled off with just the barest nick of the hook. After I finished cussing and giving myself a lecture on paying attention, I laughed again. Maybe the boy was right after all. I cast several more times with nothing happening so I started moving upstream again. I stopped and took a picture of the scenery but while composing the shot my fishing instincts suddenly came back to life and I saw two gorgeous foam lines up ahead of me in a very short stretch of water, and that made me decide to get serious about this fishing stuff again.
So I mentally forced my mind to forget about the scenery and start concentrating on fishing, which means I stopped and planned my approach to the hole and how to best to set up my casts and which mends I would need and when. I wadded slowly into position like I was on a gin clear spring creek not a snow melt clouded brawling mountain river. I put my first cast right where I wanted it and focused intently on the dry watching for just the slightest nuance of drag or change in drift, false setting twice on perceived ticks and then … … the third time was the charm … … boom… … “fish on”. The battle was fierce, this was a deep hole with very shallow water at both ends so the fish had nowhere to run, but as it flashed and dashed about in the depths of the hole I was amazed at all of the other fish and shadows that materialized out of the depths. The fish count in this hole was so amazing I almost forgot about the fish on the line for a second … … that is until it stripped yet another run of line from my A Cappella singing Hardy. I finally turned that last run and landed a gorgeous cutthroat, a pretty nice sized one … … or so I thought at the time.
Well after seeing all of those fish swimming around in the cloudy depths, the first cutty was barley revived and swimming off before my next cast hit the water. By this time, I was starting to get this dialed in and the flies hadn’t drifted more than a couple feet when I saw another twitch of the dry and bang… … another hook up and another gorgeous cutty.
From there it just got silly as I lost count of how many fish I caught out of those next two holes. It was to the point that if I went through a whole drift without at least a strike I was surprised. These fish were some of the prettiest I have seen both in terms of size and color. Guess my son wasn’t too bad of a guide after all. And yes you should hear pride dripping off those words because that is how I wrote em.
At one point after missing a gorgeous rolling strike and not even getting a chance to finish cussing my poor fishing skills before hooking the next strike … … you could hear my laughter echo down this beautiful canyon along with a quick “thank you Ricky” … … and yes he may be Rick to the rest of the world now but to me he will always be Ricky or “Chardo” if I am feeling really nostalgic. But whatever name I may call him today, many thanks for this day of “catching” … … and with scenes like this … … “fishing” wasn’t too bad either.
I caught one fantastic fish and decided that he was the perfect end of the day fish … … from a fishing standpoint which meant some cigars and bourbon still to come before the day was done. Oh, but what a way to end the day with a release and then a clip off. In my mind that is the equivalent of a baseball walk off home run.
The late night cold found us back at the IRMA drinking in a bar that had more memories than I could tell in a lifetime. It was a ton of fun to sit back and nurse a bourbon ‘n water while imagining who all and what all had passed under that big bar mirror and what these rough log walls had seen in their day. Sometimes the sense of history of a place is so strong that is rolls us up in the sense of place and makes us feel as if we were part of that legacy and trust me the bar at the IRMA is one such place … … but of course I rarely went in there and didn’t spend any long evenings in her embrace, cross my heart … … and well … … maybe I better not finish that part.
Guide Rick had set aside the next day to go out and fish a place he calls “his office”. I was unsure what to expect until we arrived in the little town of Shell WY, and trust me little doesn’t do this town justice, and turned up Shell creek to the Hideout Ranch and Rick’s “office”. The Hideout ranch is a high end Equestrian Ranch that truly gets what the west is about and truly understands what the world wants with their Wyoming Experience and fly fishing is very much part of that. They have done a solid job of planning to do wildlife restoration work and in-stream improvements to an already gorgeous Shell Creek that flows for many miles through their property after coming out of many, many more miles of national forest lands. This little stream is perfect dry dropper water for a ton of feisty and amazingly large browns for such small water. Despite arriving with over an inch of fresh snow on the ground, the fish of this little stream were still eagerly feeding on dry dropper combos. The casts needed to be tight and accurate but the fishing was smooth and effortless … … after I checked up my ego and left the line on the reel. Pretty Fish were caught … …
But the star of this little creek isn’t the browns … … it is the scenery. This is one of those unique fishing environments that are almost alien in feel. From ridge lines and caprocks that belong in a John Ford western, to flowing steams and trees lines that belong in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
After a delightful morning of fishing, this section was designed for a half day excursion, we headed down stream all of two and a half miles or so to attack a little larger water. Rick took off sliding down a snow melt mud covered slide for few hundred yards down to the water and I tentatively took a soft hesitant step after him and found myself in a full on slide down the grade… … I felt like a cross between a skier and a jeep with its back tires fishtailing in the mud … … and as much as I cussed about it at the time … … I must admit that short ride to the bottom of the grade was a d**n fun ride… … in fact I have caught myself reliving it since and wanting to do it again. I hung back as the two professional fishermen began to grace the water with their long delicate accurate casts, you amateurs like me try not to puke at the thought of two long casters trying to out distance themselves in their perfection of loop and form, and yes even I have to admit it was d**n impressive, so I hung back and shot a few river pictures from a distance instead of disgracing their awesome casting displays with my own flailing attempts to cast.
They had each caught a couple of fish and finally got tired of me lurking back behind them, and made me wade up “front and center” and take the stage while they watched me fish. My first cast wrapped around my rod tip and when I got that straightened out my second cast threw a tailing loop that cracked like a whip … … and then on my third crappy cast, divine providence stepped in and I saw a subtle take on the strike indicator and “low and behold an old blind sow finds an acorn”, and thanks dad for the quote. The battle was short and sweet with more sideline advice than a forty year veteran of fly fishing deserves, but despite all of the help I still managed to land a respectable little brown. And for once since I had company, you guys get to see something besides my forearm in a fish picture.
Yeah I know, stick to the forearm shots … … that face isn’t fit for publication, oh well poop happens.
We hop scotched holes and fished as a group and I must admit as much as I like being alone, fishing as a group was really fun and watching Bernard catch a dozen midge feeding fish across a four speed giant eddy hole on the fifth type of size 24 midge that he had tied on was more than cool … … but reminded me that “non-expert” viewers are recommended to NOT try this at home and results are not indicative of actual results without serious professional experience. The result of the day was a peaceful low key day of fishing that left me with a smile on my face and memories in my heart.
At the end of the day we thought we could just catch the last light of the day on a pond on the ranch that happened to hold some spectacularly large trout that Rick just knew would be slapping the fire out of a well stripped streamer. We practically sprinted down to the water. The fishing was out of sight as we all managed to land several large rainbows which were indeed slapping the fire out of a streamer but to me the most memorable thing of that part of the day was the last rays of sunlight reflected through the trees of the Hideout Ranch’s main lodge.
So the day drew to a close with me on my favorite bar stool in the IRMA, with thoughts of fish intermingled with thoughts of what it would be like to have been here in the heyday. I didn’t even interject thoughts into the discussions of where the next day’s fishing adventures should occur but I must admit I smiled in spite of myself when it was a unanimous vote to return to the wild hidden mountain stream from a couple days ago. Sometimes something is just too wonderful not to be revisited.
Dawn found me standing on the porch of the IRMA, or as close to dawn as I was going to find on this trip which means a solid 9 am, getting laughed at by the locals because of my fuzzy flip flops. But they didn’t seem to understand that it was a “flip flop” kind of trip. There was a solid two to three inches of fresh snow on the ground and almost zero degree temperatures to start the day and they couldn’t believe a fat old man from Georgia was heading off into this … … to go fly fishing???? … … with fuzzy flip flops … … guess they haven’t met me yet huh, and no … … I never claimed to be too bright.
We had fished this river two days ago and I had thought it was as pretty as any place I had ever imagined but after two to three inches of fresh snow fall it was not even in the same realm of beautiful it had transcended even itself.
We rigged in silence knowing the drill from our last trip and totally in awe of the scenery and visions spread before us. Sometime even those of us idiots who are to verbose for our own good know enough to just shut up and let the world before us speak with all of it’s glory, it was one of those days when you can’t help but tip your cowboy hat to the power and vision of GOD.
And yes for those of you wondering even with the temperatures and ice, the fish were still as good as ever … … in fact it was “fish on ice” kinda day.
Hope you found my cowboy hatted head in the reflection in the last picture. And yes that is a size 12 fishing boot in that last shot for comparison. And even more to the point … … yes you should be jealous … ... very jealous.
The late afternoon found me on a plateau above the river; which had risen and become cloudy with the snow melt runoff. But it was still beautiful beyond belief as I waited on my son to come find me and lead me out of the wilderness to the car. Never mind that I was pretty sure I knew exactly where the car was… … he didn’t want me wandering around “lost” and who am I to argue with my 24 year old son, but then again who in their right mind would ever argue with a 24 year old … … after all they are at their infallible and most confident self, and as a parent it was a pleasure to see my son in that role. So I simply flashed a few last pictures trying to burn the exquisite beauty of this landscape into my old feeble brain and waited on him to catch up to me.
And here is the picture that best sums up this whole trip for me. Sometimes we capture an image that captures our heart and this one speaks to me in ways that I can’t fully explain but I hope it speaks to you as well.
And at this point, the trip had far exceeded my fondest expectations and would forever rank as one of my favorite fishing trips of all time. I was so happy that I was practically floating … … or at least would be floating if it wasn’t for my fat *** body, which you may have noticed doesn’t float very well. The fishing brains of the group decided that we should fish the Thermopolis tail waters the last few days and chase the lure of big fish on small flies … … and who am I to argue with such a wonderful train of thought. The Wind River in this part of the country is pretty d**n rugged and scenic. There was a major cold front blowing through on the day we tried to wade fish the river. It was pretty and a few fish were caught but not many but with scenes like this I didn’t feel cheated at all.
With a little wildlife thrown in to boot, and as much as I would love to claim this photo as one of mine, it is actually one of Bernard’s, who can add master photographer to his list of talents as well as master fisherman, master rod builder, along with occasionally master not a very nice person as well.
That night the weather cleared, ice cold and crystal clear, and my son knowing me well realized that as much as I liked the bar room of the IRMA what I had really been missing was a fire by a river. So we arranged to have a last night spent by the banks of the river listening to a 20 thousand song ipod watching a cool crisp moon bath the rapids of the river with a moonlight glow rivaled only by the warmth of the red firelight that warmed our bodies. Moonlight, starlight and firelight are my three favorite lights but they paled in comparison to hanging with one of my best friends and most of all … … my oldest son. So yet again a trip that had been reaching new heights daily, reached yet again another high water mark and I still had one more days float trip to go.
The Morning dawned with a peaceful, easy feeling … … oh hey sorry was channeling The Eagles there for a second … … but it was a nice easy relaxing morning… … and I was possibly slightly hung over but we won’t talk about that will we.
Rick and I fished one boat; Rick rowing and me fishing, while Bernard and one of Rick’s guide friends fished another boat. I must admit I didn’t feel at all bad with Rick working his butt off rowing and me kicking back and enjoying the fishing. If the world was going to go through this “flip flop” that I had been observing for the last few days … … well wasn’t it right that I got the good end of the stick after all of those dad years and some of the scares this particular child had put me through. We managed to catch fish, mostly through the expertise of the guide not the prowess of the “sport”, but they were pretty nice fish non the less.
We actually caught a lot of fish. But I could tell we didn’t catch as many as my son thought we should catch. Part of his comparison was how good he knew this river “could and should” be and part of it was watching Bernard in the other boat just rake in fish with seemingly every cast. Rick finally broke the silence and volunteered “Dad I know you taught me to fish and for years I thought you were the best fly fisherman ever … … but … … you have got to slow your cast down, set the fly down on the water softer, and let it drift out of the strike zone before you pick up and do a better job of mending if you want to catch the really big fish.” I watched him to see if he truly caught the irony of those statements but soon realized that he was only doing his job trying to help a client catch more fish like he does 200 days a year. I felt a momentary blip of annoyance, but that was soon replaced with a pride in my son, he had become a not only a fly fishing guide for real but in fact a really good fly fishing guide and that was something I could respect as both a fisherman and as a dad. I was proud of my son and happy and in my soul to top it all off I had experienced a fishing trip for the ages … … one I will remember for many, many years to come. Thanks Bernard for your company and friendship and thanks Rick for hanging out with your old man, I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.
I will end with few pictures of fish a real fisherman can catch in Thermop with long distance multiple current cross mends and flies so small I can’t even tie them on. And yes I hate Bernard for his talent too.
I will add that life does provide all of the strangest and most interesting “flip flops” … … fuzzy irreverent and strange “flip flops” … … parents become the protected and children become adults… … so in closing I salute the fuzzy “flip flops” of life.
p.s. If this isn’t the quintessential Wyoming fishing guide I don’t know what is.
Awesome report. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for sharing the incredible photos and such a great narrative. If not a master at fly fishing, you certainly show mastery with this story.
I do hope you have all this printed and placed in a scrap book!
Amazing! Thanks for sharing with us. I loved the report and the pictures.
Dances with Trout
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