It was July 1978. My friends and I had just completed a 30-day backpacking trip and were driving down Idaho State Highway 32 for a post-trip adventure.
As we crossed Bitch Creek, a creek that meanders through open farmland, I was amused to see anglers sipping their cans of Coors as they relaxed in lounge chairs trying to catch cutthroat trout elusive. We were heading to the mountains of the Jedediah Smith Wilderness to fish for trout ourselves – without lounge chairs.
We passed the state line in Wyoming, parked at the trailhead, and started up the trail to Hidden Corral Basin, a place, as the name suggests, with an outlaw lore. of the 19th century. South Bitch Creek ran through the basin and as soon as I saw it I knew – it was an angler’s paradise. We got our rods out – me with my fly rod and my mates with their spin casting gear – and we got started.
At first, in an attempt to sneak up to a hard-to-reach part of the creek, I quietly made my way through the thick mottled alders that line the bank. As I finally cleared the trees in anticipation of landing a large trout, I looked up across the creek and a bull moose was staring directly at me. Carefully, very carefully, I stepped back, allowing the trees to close in, shielding me from the gaze of the moose. I looked for another place to find trout.
I found it upstream in a bend in the creek with a 6 foot high rock that had helped create a pool about 40 feet in diameter. I snuck behind and made perfect casts. No chance. After working hard for half an hour, I finally climbed the rock and looked into the pool. I saw at least a dozen beautiful cutthroat trout hanging around without the slightest interest in what I showed them. Eventually I declared the fish the winners and returned to camp.
My three companions had the same luck. They didn’t catch any fish either. I suggested they look for worms – the conquistadors of novice anglers. They walked a mile and a half along the trail looking for worms, grubs, or anything else to put on their hook that might attract fish. No chance.
Over the next three days, I fished as hard as ever. I tried every fly in my box, traveling the miles of winding waterways back and forth. I caught two fish.
Early in the evening on our last day before heading back to civilization, three of us were at camp contemplating what we might have for dinner and feeling sorry for Lady Luck’s absence. Suddenly, across the meadow, we saw our fourth mate Chris walking slowly towards us. He had something in his hand, but we couldn’t make it out. Chris was in his final year of graduate school completing a doctorate in chemistry and was about as upright as ever. Easy-going, smart, and extremely friendly, though he didn’t have extensive outdoor experience, especially with fishing. As he got closer it was clear he was grinning broadly and in his hand was a string of eight of the finest cutthroat trout I have ever seen. He sat down and told us a story that few believe. But I do.
Chris had found the same pool with the big rock I had fished out and he fished it hard with his Phoebe fishing lure, but with no luck. He threw in the pool at least 30 times without result. Eventually he accidentally threw across the pool and caught his lure in the weeds on the other side. His pole bent badly as he tugged and tugged trying to free the lure but trying not to break the line. Eventually the lure broke free and came swimming across the pool. He rolled it up and on the hook of the lure was a beautiful four inch worm. As smart as he was, he put the worm on a log and started cutting it into half-inch pieces.
Every half-inch piece caught him a magnificent trout.
But that’s not quite the end of the story.
Two of these trout made a great dinner for the four of us and the other six were cleaned and put in a plastic bag to pack the next day with my two fish.
We packed up early the next morning and headed out for a hike. Every time we took a break, to keep the fish fresh, I put the bag in the wide, glacier-fed creek.
At the last rest stop, I sat on a rock along the shore and placed the bag of fish in a small whirlpool. For an added safety measure, I put a good sized rock on it like I had done at previous stops. Then I turned away in conversation and when I turned around the bag was floating in the middle of the stream.
I jumped in and raced through the fast current up to my thighs to retrieve our precious catch.
I made my way to the middle of the stream and grabbed the bag, my fingers so numb I wasn’t sure they had caught it. Miraculously, I did, and slid and slid back to shore, elated, frozen, and triumphant.
As I stood on the shore grateful that we hadn’t lost our catch, I realized why I had risked my life for eight rotten cutthroat trout: I was damned if I was going to let our Bag O’Fish be caught. by those Coors drinkers, fishermen sitting in deck chairs near the highway.