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The Beauty of The Trout Hajj

Jeff Ell SmallWe just got back from our family vacation in Wyoming. A nearly five thousand mile road trip to a place where the continent divides and the pavement ends. This was our third visit to a cabin that sits on the banks of the Green River at almost eight thousand feet above sea level. High country, where snowmelt feeds stream and tarn; and bathes native born trout in clear water where they grow thick.

I will be the first to confess that I have a bit of a “pilgrim’s creel.” A wandering reel that makes me want to cast my lines into very far away waters. Sometimes this urge feels like an itch in the ear that even car keys can’t scratch. Other times, it feels like the need to call an old friend just to hear their voice on the other end of the line. I’m not sure what causes all this, or where comes from, but whatever it is, I’ve got it.

One thing is certain; food is not the reason fishermen make pilgrimages. Sure, we ate our share of fish on vacation. We are especially fond of brook trout, and my wife made some fish tacos that were amazing. But if we were to divide the cost of vacation by the number of fish caught; the price per pound would be something that would make truffles look like a bargain.

Another partial explanation for this wanderlust, is the pursuit of trophy fish. Our friend who owns the cabin has a twenty-pound river monster mounted above his door that he caught in the deep pool where the river curves around his property. When I was a boy, I remember fantasying over the pictures of giant fish like that in the advertisements on the back pages of outdoor magazines. Super-sized fish caught in the mountains or in far-away tundra. I would stare at the pictures and dream of holding one of those beauties in my own hands one day.

Apparently there is something the traveling angler is trying to catch, something that can’t be fried in a pan or hung over a mantle. Something that seems easier to find in places where frost will blanket the truck on an August morning.  And even though I’ve never stumbled upon a loin clothed Guru sitting in the lotus position along the sage covered escarpments and stoney mountainsides, I have discovered some things up there that are easy to miss at a lower elevations.

It is curious how things happen at elevation that don’t happen at sea level. Curious how there is a nearly universal human fascination with the transforming influences these high places have on our psyches and souls.

For me, the road trip is part of the process. Suffering, they say, is good for the soul, and perhaps this is why driving seems to be an essential element in our Hajj.

Maybe someday we will avoid an all-night drive, maybe someday we will be too old to nap in rest areas and brush our teeth in public rest rooms. But there is no doubt that the sight of snow-capped western peaks seems sweeter when you’ve plowed through the Midwest in your own four cylinder Conestoga.

There is another practiced we’ve engaged in on each of these three trips. It’s something we do in the river that has given my son-in-law and I, a reputation with the folks who have seen us fishing in the river. We wade without waders.

I’m not sure why this icy half body baptism is part of my pilgrimage. I could afford to buy a pair of cheap waders and fish in comfort, or invest in a hair shirt and do some proper penance. Yet, unprotected flesh seems to connect me in way that a neoprene skin can’t to both the water and the trout that tumble through those mountains. I step into the waters and to feel for myself the currents that gurgle and froth their way to the ocean.

My favorite time to fish is in the evening. When the first stars are begin to blink over the purpled crags, and the heat of the day rockets up into the thin air. To keep from shivering I fish in a toque and anorak, the miter and alb of my personal fishing rite. My legs grow numb while I listen to the slurping of trout and ducks occasionally drum the air above the willow thicket. A ranch dog is barking somewhere.

I flick a fly and let it drift on the black water. Then sigh the sigh that I’ve come here to sigh.

– Jeff Ell

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