Imagine a land where virgin pines tower over frigid rivers, chock-full of wild and unsullied fish. Slate blue or grayish fish with olive-green backs and oversized dorsal fins spattered with specks of gold and pearl. The trees have twice the girth of a burn barrel, but they spread about politely so you can see for hundreds of feet in all directions. Their muscular limbs frame a thatched roof above your head. Their soft golden needles weave a springy carpet below your feet. Irregular patterns of light tumble through the branches and sparkle when they bounce from the river’s waves and riffles. A bug of some sort lands on the water and promptly vanishes, leaving a transitory halo as a short-lived marker of its existence.
The nearest city is Crawford, but the town’s name will soon change to Grayling to honor the fish with the elaborate fin on its back. To the south, in cities named Detroit and Chicago, each decade sees twice as many people as the last. The demand for new homes, and churches, and schools, and stores far exceeds the supply. It is a boom for builders, provided they have the timber.
Rugged men with handlebar mustaches—the sort of men who inspire the wardrobes of twenty-something hipsters in another century—will fell the trees, then skid them, roll them, jam them, and drive them to the mills. And though the drives will scour the rivers and strip them of their shade, the grayling will survive. They will win the battle. But like Lee after Chancellorsville, they won’t win the war. And unlike Lee at Appomattox, they won’t get to surrender.
Crowds will come from the cities built upon the bones of the pines. The town named for the fish will welcome these people, mostly for the money they spend. The visitors won’t be great anglers, but it won’t matter. Grayling will eat anything that looks like a bug of some sort. Nothing will have prepared them for a battle like this. The people will catch them and catch them and catch them until the day when they can’t catch them anymore.
“The people will catch them and catch them and catch them until the day when they can’t catch them anymore.”
What I have asked you to imagine is the story of Michigan’s grayling. I often fish the Otter River, where Walter Erickson caught the last of these fish in 1934. There are still more deer than people along this river, and more otters than boats. But the white pine and grayling are gone, and we have failed to undo what we have done. We have tried, but like automobiles and reputations, fragile fish populations are much easier to maintain than to repair.
Tomorrow is the last day I will fish the Big Hole River, and I still haven’t caught a grayling. Without a guide, I’ve struggled with one of fly-fishing’s golden rules: Don’t leave fish to find fish. I catch a brown trout, and—though I know I should know better—I think the grayling will be upstream. When I get a brook trout upstream, I guess the grayling must be downstream. And so I jump from spot to spot when I should pick a section and fish it. I worry now that I’ve run out of jumps.
When I explain my dilemma to the guy working at the fly shop in Dillon, he asks where I’m staying. When I say Melrose, he says, “Ah, hell, just go up to Lake Agnes. You can catch all the grayling you want.”
“Where is Lake Agnes?” I ask.
“See if you can find it on your phone’s map,” he counters.
When I show him what I find, he says, “Yep, that’s it.”
“You’re gonna drive to Brownes Lake on Rock Creek Road. When you get there, you can park and walk a trail for about a mile to Agnes, or, uh, do you mind driving on a rickety road?”
“Well, I live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s the only kind of roads we have,” I say with a chuckle.
“Great, then you can drive past Brownes Lake and the hike will be about half as far. Some people don’t like to drive that road, but if you’re good with rickety roads you’ll be fine.”
“Should I worry about bears?” I ask.
“I don’t, but I always take my dog with me, and she barks if a bear gets too close. Ain’t that right?” he says to his dog, who doesn’t wake up to answer.
“What flies should I use?”
“It won’t matter much. If you wanna catch a bigger one, you might need to get a nymph down deep. But if you just wanna catch a grayling, anything on the surface will work.”
I want to do this in the Big Hole. It’s the only river I know of in the lower forty-eight that still has grayling. So, the next morning, I drive to the Fishtrap section for my last shot at a fluvial grayling. The river here snuggles against a wooded hillside and flows with modest riffles between occasional braided channels. Shafts of sunlight break through the pines from the east. Clouds of tricos appear from nowhere when the breeze blows them from the darkness into the light. Some of these tiny flies are on the water, and several fish have taken seats at the cafe counter.
The fish are neither easy nor hard to catch. When I make a well-placed cast with a drag-free drift, they take my fly. When I screw it up, they don’t. They demand a particular order in their world, as we do in ours. We do not want to see weevils mill about in our oats. When we do, we do not eat them. We should expect no less from the fish. Henry Ford once said, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from the person’s angle as well as from your own.” Mr. Ford must have been a damn fine trout angler.
Every fish I catch is a lovely brook trout. In the small streams near my home in Michigan, these would be the best fish in the river. And they’d behave that way too. Like emperors, they’d force the small trout to sit at the counters in the easy-to-find Main Street cafes while they received their spread at a dimly lit booth in a hard-to-find reservations-only bistro. Perhaps, it occurs to me, that’s what’s happening here. The fish I’m catching—the ones in the easy lies—are the small ones. The emperors are taking their meals in seclusion.
I stop fishing and scan the river. I see two boulders closer to the far bank, still shaded from the morning sun, with a smaller rock between them causing a little riffle with an irregular cadence. Something doesn’t seem right about the scene, though, and when I look closer, I see that the riffle’s source is a snout. And more than a foot behind that, I see a tail.
The fish has chosen its venue well. The two boulders block a cross-current presentation from either side. If I’m to do this at all, it will be from upstream or downstream. Because I’m already a bit down, I decide to attack from the stern. This is the place in a fishing story where the fisherman tells you how he extends his tippet to avoid casting the thicker part of his leader over the fish. How he false casts to the side just once to measure the distance, then wiggles his rod three times at the end of his forward progress to place the tiny fly two feet above the fish with just enough slack to avoid drag but still allow for a quick hook set. Often omitted from this story is the part where, upon being hooked, the fish jets forward, then to its left and into the river’s main flow. With the fisherman’s line wedged into one of the boulder’s cracks, the fish swims directly downstream in a manner that breaks the line just as the fisherman sees how large the trout is. “How dangerous emperors are when they go mad,” says the fisherman.
Faced with what now appears to be long odds for catching a graying in the Big Hole, I drive back to Melrose and set my GPS for Brownes Lake. It’s a sixteen-mile drive from my motel. The first nine miles on Interstate 15 will take eight minutes—the last seven on Rock Creek Road will take twenty-five. I must climb about twenty-four hundred feet to get from Melrose to Lake Agnes, and I’ll do the first fourteen hundred in my truck.
The beginning of Rock Creek Road betrays its character. Besides slowing for the occasional cattle grid, I make good enough time to believe I might beat the GPS forecast. But after the road splits, it occurs to me that if I had had the forethought to put my dirty clothes into a cooler with warm water and detergent, I could agitate a load on my way in and another on my way out. I actually speed up when crossing the cattle grids now. And when the road enters the woods and parallels its namesake, I abandon any notion of arriving at Brownes Lake before the GPS predicted I would.
About a mile from the lake, I feel as though I’m driving along the side of a mountain. A scree slope—sparsely dotted with trees—is on my right, and on my left appears to be an abrupt drop into a canyon. I don’t worry too much because large trees have somehow taken hold along that side of the road, and even I—with all my tendencies toward doing so—can’t envision my demise. This, I mistakenly think, is the rickety part of the road.
At Brownes Lake, the road turns right for about four-hundred feet, then turns left to parallel the shore. For the next four-hundred feet, it’s just like it had been before—scree to my right, a barrier of trees to my left. I relax and think about the grayling I’m going to catch soon. Then, on the left side of my truck, the trees vanish, and Brownes Lake is below me.
What happens next has happened before. Roxanne and I were walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and—for the first thousand feet or so—there was a high fence to my right that protected me from falling, jumping, or having someone push me over the edge. But when we passed a large concrete column, the high fence disappeared, and I could see every way a person could fall, jump, or get pushed over the low railing. Roxanne walked me back to safety, administered her version of emergency therapy, and I fought off the demons. With my focus on each breath, we walked across that bridge, drank margaritas in Sausalito, and hailed an Uber to bring us back to the Marina District.
Perched on a road that seems barely wider than my truck, with a scree slope un-dotted by trees on my right, and a seventy-foot drop into Brownes Lake on my left, I put the transmission in park and count my breaths. Two people in float tubes on the lake egg me on with their thumbs. “You can do it,” they yell, but their version of therapy is nothing like Roxanne’s, and—without her help—the demons will win this fight.
I put the truck in reverse, slowly back up until I can turn around, and then I park. I take off my sweat-drenched shirt and fumble through my duffle to find my cleanest dirty one. A mile isn’t that far to walk, especially on a well-marked trail, so my close-toed sandals—the waterproof ones that stencil the cool tan lines—should be okay, I think. I head out with my fly rod, a water bottle, and a sling pack with two boxes of flies—all the things I should need to catch a grayling. A few steps into the trail, and a yellow sign reminds me I should have picked up my bear-spray canisters at the motel in Melrose.
I tell myself this is black bear country, and black bears don’t attack people. So onward I go. The guy in Dillon who told me the rickety road along Brownes Lake wasn’t that bad also told me the trail wasn’t too tough. It now occurs that his definitions of bad and tough differ from mine. It also appears that the people who built this trail were unfamiliar with the concept of a switchback, or they charged by the foot, and the people responsible for paying wanted to get it done at the lowest possible cost. The trail has an advertised length of 1.4 miles, and the point-to-point distance on a map is 1.2 miles. That’s about as straight as you can make a trail up the side of a mountain.
If you want to climb a thousand feet over 1.4 miles, you could set your treadmill at an incline of 14 percent. But if the first quarter-mile is relatively flat—as it is on the trail to Lake Agnes—you’d need to set your treadmill at an incline of 16 percent for the rest of the way. And, if sections of the trail are level, you’d need to go even higher for the other parts.
After more than thirty minutes of this heart-pounding hike, I come to a fork in the trail. There are no signs, and I don’t have my phone to use for GPS. But I catch a break when a hiker appears on the upward branch of the fork.
“I’m happy to see you,” I say. “I’m not sure which way I should go.”
“You must be looking for Lake Agnes,” he says as he points one of his hiking poles at my rod.
“You’ll have fun up there. The fish are jumping all over the place.”
The guy isn’t a fisherman. He has leather hiking boots on his feet, a hiking pole in each hand, and four canisters hanging from his belt. Two of the canisters are vacuum insulated water bottles. The other two are bear spray.
“Am I almost there?” I ask.
“Yeah, the hardest part is behind you. You still have some climbing, though.”
From there, the treadmill incline increases to 20 percent, even higher for some segments. I put my shoulder to the wheel as they say, and arrive at the lake unscathed, except for a few bruises on my unprotected ankles and ego.
Lake Agnes covers about one hundred acres, with a circumference of roughly two miles. The trail dumps me on a sandy beach about the size of a hockey rink. I sit on a log and take it all in. A civil engineer can make a career out of this simple rule: Water runs downhill and sits in the relative lows. Though her surface is about seventy-five hundred feet above the sea, Lake Agnes is in a relative low. Mountain tops rise all around her, and when the wind doesn’t blow, she paints their portraits on her surface. The lake is sandy and shallow here in front of the beach, but large boulders line the shore and lake bottom to my right. That, I decide, is where I will catch my grayling.
The hiker said the fish were jumping all over the place, but none rise now. Is it possible? Could it happen? I banish those thoughts, pull the line through the guides, and put on a small fly called the Betty NcNault. It has a red tail, a peacock-hurl body with a red floss abdomen, brown hackle, and a calf-tail wing canted backward in the Trude style. This style was “invented” around the beginning of the twentieth century by Carter Harrison during his stay at the Trude Ranch in Idaho. Bill Nault created my pattern for the streams in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He called it the Betty McNault in deference to a similar fly from Colorado called the Betty McNall. In fly tying, as in most fields of scholarly pursuit, every original idea you think you have was likely plagiarized at least once by someone else before you.
A fish rises in front of a large boulder that slopes down into the lake. I strip line off the reel, make three false casts over my left shoulder, and then set the Betty in the rise’s vicinity. Pick up and cast again, says the voice in my head, but I resist. The wind corrugates the lake’s surface, and the little fly bounces on the ripples. Just before I give it a twitch to imitate life, a compact oval-shaped mouth claims it for lunch.
It’s a small grayling, but the noun—not the adjective—is all that matters. An olive-gray body with tiny heart-shaped freckles arranged in solos, pairs, and trinities, all aligned obediently in rows defined by silver-hued railings. And, of course, a flamboyant fin on its back. I catch and release four more—including one over a foot long—and then I cut off my fly, rewind the line on the reel, and start the downhill march to my truck.
When hiking up the mountain, my eyes focus on the place I plan for my next step. If I look up from the trail, I see more trail. Pretty much the definition of monotony. Hiking down the mountain is a different game. I still keep my eyes mostly on the place I plan for my next step, but I don’t see more trail when I look up. I see the sky, and below the sky, I see a seemingly endless hill. The kind of incline that—once you get rolling—will lower your altitude by several hundred feet in the time you take to say, “Oh, shit!” Unless, of course, a tree brings your body to an abrupt, V-shaped halt.
Mountains are inherently unstable. The bellies of some are literally on fire, always working up their next violent belch of magma and basalt. And for the others, gravity relentlessly pulls them down rock by rock, scarring their sides with scree. When the trail brings me to the crossing for one of these slides, I lock up, just like I did on the road beside Brownes Lake. Standing here, I look out and see the lake and the road below me. The beautiful view and frightful trail have conspired to take most of my breath away. Above the road, a rocky mountain looms over Brownes Lake, flaunting the diagonal markings of its birth. The scree road—the one that scared the hell out of me—is a simultaneous marvel of ingenuity and asininity. The two anglers in their float tubes are tiny white dots beside a shallow shelf in the lake. Facing me down, though, is a faintly marked trail across resting rocks that wait to complete their roll to the bottom of the hill. I find a suitable walking stick, establish a cadence for my breathing, and put one nervous step in front of the other.
By 7 p.m., I’m back for my last evening on the Big Hole, on a section near the Divide bridge. Freed from the need to pursue grayling in the upper part of the river, I’m following a tip two guys in the motel gave me last night. They said the little slick spot I’m sitting beside was thick with rising fish at dark the night before. About 8 p.m., a raft of seventeen mergansers slowly paddle upstream, then set fire to their trail to get past me. At 8:30 p.m., I see a single fish eating caddisflies in the tail of the pool, and I get a chunky rainbow on my first cast. Another fish rises at 9 p.m. It’s been a long, rewarding day, and I tell myself this is the last fish. I hunch down to reduce my profile and waddle across the rocks to get close enough for a cast. The fish pulls hard when I hook it, then swims a short arc and flops and rolls like a walleye. On one of the flops, the muscles in its back contract, and then—as if to show that they still have some say about the places they choose to live—the oversized dorsal fin flairs to reveal the trademark of Montana’s fluvial grayling.