Editor’s Note: After a year's hiatus, the chronicle of Bryan Snyder's misadventures in the Western high country, "Off The Map", returns to the pages of The Evening Sun. Besides the usual tales of Rocky Mountain mischief, Bryan will report from the drought-afflicted backcountry of Southern California and the snow-capped, slumbering volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest.
The fish weren’t biting. Normally, I would take this streak of bad luck in stride, except that I had backpacked out to this lake in the Pintler Mountains with a stove and a frying pan, and I had overconfidently left any substitute dinner ingredients behind in my Montana home. The hour was growing late, and my hunger had grown to a point where I was about ready to sprinkle salt and spices on a stick of margarine and call it good.
But I was holding out for a big fish platter. The last time I had visited Barker Lake, Kitty and I caught five beautiful fish in a row, so I had reason to have high expectations. In the meantime, I could only continue to cast out the line and enjoy the scenery, such as it was. The mountains surrounding the shallow lake were the color of hard iron; all humor and warmth seemed to have been scraped away long ago. Downslope from the lake, the cumulative effects of logging, wildfire and windstorms had obliterated a vast stretch of forest, leaving a scarred landscape of tangled, blackened logs and stumps that had yet to heal. The southern shore of the lake had escaped the conflagration, so I let the pines serve as my backdrop while I did my best to deplete the piscine population.
The depletion wasn’t going too well. Numerous trout teased me by jumping out of the water and tugging on the line, but even though the bobber was pulled beneath the surface repeatedly, not a single fish caught the hook in their lips when I yanked the rod back. I couldn’t understand it. If I can see them, hear them and feel them, how come I can’t catch them?
Storms were building in strength, and every rumble of thunder gave warning that that the only thing I was going to catch was one billion volts if I didn’t pack it in soon. But I didn’t want to go to bed hungry, so I tempted fate and continued fishing until darkness began its descent upon the valley.
A sharp cracking sound made me jump all of a sudden, and I thought for a split second that I had been zapped. There had been no lightning, though; instead, the shadowy outline of a beaver’s head cut through the water in front of me. It was obviously prepared to slap its tail against the water again if I didn’t vacate the premises. I chose to ignore the rodent and stubbornly moved further up the shoreline, in case the tail-smacking had frightened off the fishes.
The wind picked up and the last glow of daylight faded in the western sky, while tonight’s dinner steadfastly refused to materialize at the end of my hook. As bolts of genuine lightning began to make their appearance, I admitted to myself that perhaps my ravenous appetite was eroding my common sense. If only the fish were as hungry as I was, I thought wistfully. But they weren’t, and eventually I had to settle for a handful of dried fruit and nuts in my tent that evening.
Morning came with the promise of better fortunes. The hooves of several elk had sunk deep into the muddy shoreline of Barker Lake, next to the adorable, freshly-laid tracks of a baby bear. As I cast my line out into the lake once again, a full-grown, massive grizzly waddled out of the woods on the opposite side and made a cursory inspection of the water’s edge. Thankfully, I escaped its notice.
Less encouraging was how my worms also escaped the notice of nearly every fish they were dangled in front of. Hours passed. I knew the trout were out there, because I literally witnessed four fish staring passively at my hook at the same time. They were either too blind, too unwilling or too lazy to take the bait. A trio of fly fishermen arrived and effortlessly pulled trout after trout from the waters. One gentleman took pity on me and gave me a special fly to use as a lure. It didn’t help.
Clouds soon blanketed the afternoon sky, and impending thunderstorms, along with an increasingly empty stomach, threatened to impose a deadline upon this ill-fated fishing expedition. But then… I got a bite! For the first time, the hook found purchase and the trout failed to wriggle free. As I yanked my quarry out of the lake, however, the line snapped… and fortunately, the fish flopped down into the grass behind me instead of landing back in the lake. It was only nine inches, but I kept it anyway.
Hoping my luck had turned, I tied the hook back in place, cast out the line, waited for another tug, then yanked hard. The line broke again – this time, right above the bobber. The red-and-white ball sat there, ten feet out from shore, and I pictured some poor fish grabbing the hook and spending the rest of its life attached to a small, plastic buoy. Sigh. I hadn’t planned on going for a swim…
Despite the cold wind and lack of sun, I stripped naked and waded out to retrieve the bobber before one of the lake’s inhabitants beat me to it. Without a towel, I had to air-dry myself, rubbing my arms and legs and hoping that no other hikers would wander by while I stood there, exposed and shivering.
I should have called it quits after that. The rising intensity of thunderclaps should have motivated me to grab my pack and head for home. Instead, I tied the bobber on one last time… and I caught a big one! All those interminable, chilly hours were worth it! This trout fought hard as I tried to reel it in, thrashing the waters in protest. But then, to my utter dismay, the fish snapped the line and swam off with the hook and a piece of my last worm.
The storm broke immediately afterwards, and I had to spend a half-hour huddled beneath a tree while my lips turned blue and the rainclouds expended themselves. Then I trudged back to my vehicle, returned home and fried up my one, paltry trout. Although I could have swallowed that delicious fish in one mouthful, I picked at it with a fork and stretched my meal out for as long as I could. Even meager victories need to be savored.
Bryan is a 1991 Norwich High School graduate and author of "Off The Map: Fifty-five Adventures in the Great American Wilderness and Beyond", now available at Amazon.com. For additional photos, visit www.facebook.com/offthemaponline.