Fishing in Utah’s high country means forgetting the world, embracing nature

Thursday , July 06, 2017 - 6:15 AM


The canoe wobbled in every direction at once while I leaned over the edge, reaching as far as I dared with a net in my right hand and an antique fly rod in my left.

“Bring its head up,” I hollered at Mike. 

“I’m trying,” he grunted in reply, pulling up on his fly rod as if to accentuate his point.

And he was trying to get the fish near the net. It’s just that the fish was large and had a strong mind of its own. More wobbly seconds passed during which I felt sure I’d fall into the lake. What Mike’s canoe provides in lightweight portability it lacks in stability.

I didn’t exactly mind falling in the lake and getting wet. It was the couple thousand dollars’ worth of fishing gear sinking to the bottom of the lake that had me really nervous.

With a groan, Mike hauled once more on his rod, I jabbed out the net and a plump brook trout promptly began flopping in the net. It tangled itself hopelessly in Mike’s leader while I grabbed the oars and straightened out the canoe.

Mike and I floated in the middle of a small mountain cirque lake, set right at the base of sheer limestone cliffs. A few tufts of snow clung to the shadier crags of the mountain, a reminder of this outrageously wet winter and the runoff yet to come.

For the moment, though, we were in the high country and savoring every second. The first high country trip of the year is always a time to shake off the rust of spring and remember why hiking through thin air and bear-filled forests is worthwhile.

A unique tranquility permeates the high country, especially the small ponds and streams that may only see a handful of anglers per year. As a rule, the fish are generally smaller — a side effect of water being ice-free for so little time each year — but you don’t go to the high country just to catch trout.

You go to the high country because you get to see something few others do. We take it for granted, those of us born and bred in the Rockies, but this is a truly special place. Some of the lakes in the Uinta Mountains are ice-free for only five or six weeks out of the year. If you know where those lakes are and you catch them at just the right time, there’s a chance you’re catching fish that’ve never seen a human being.

Not that a trout would remember such a thing — or is even capable of that level of sentient thought — but the theme remains the same. It’s a theme of honest-to-goodness adventure and a brief glimpse into what the early explorers of the West felt when they first stepped into the shadows of our mountains.

Fishing is just something to pass the time while waiting for those glimpses of clarity. And honestly, that’s the only justification I can find when asked to explain why I forgo easy-access water and big trout for tick-filled, mosquito-ridden, snake-infested meadows and creeks that might contain fish. If it really were all about the fishing, then none of us would spend time in the high country.

I’m glad it’s not all about the fish, though. As I sat in Mike’s wobbly canoe and took pictures of his catch — a stout, 18-inch brook trout — my eye kept drifting to the cliffs behind us. Along those rocky crags I knew bears were waking, cubs walking along a sow, and deer and elk happily feeding on the abundance of green vegetation. They were as unaware of my existence as I was of their exact location, yet we existed side by side in a world they instinctively know and one I’m still learning.

The most grizzled sportsman won’t ever know the lay of the land in the manner a wily old elk will, but he’ll come close enough to feel that he accomplished something worthwhile. That’s what we’re looking for when we fish the high country. We’re searching for that connection to a simpler time and place where the world worked according to nature’s rulebook instead of a politician’s pen. We see it, ever so briefly, in the eyes of startled game or the graceful way cutthroat trout crowd streams in May and June to spawn.

And that’s why we keep coming back. We visit the high country to forget the world and embrace natural humanity. Even if the embrace lasts just a second, it’s worth the effort.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist and sports writer from Utah. He’s also the managing editor of The Modern Trout Bum. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.