American Fly Fishing

By Bryan Anglerson

“Come meet my friend,” said Waldo Wilcox, pointing to a cave-like recess above a scree slope at the base of a cliff in remote central Utah.
   In the recess, the skull of a half-exposed human skeleton stared back at visitors. The skeleton is either that of a 1,000-year-old Fremont Indian or a 150-year-old outlaw friend of Butch Cassidy’s—Tom Dilly or Joe Walker. Both Indians and outlaws frequented this canyon in their glory days, and only an expert could determine which it was. Below, in a creek 5 feet wide, 16-inch brown trout finned midstream with nowhere to hide.
   I first heard about Range Creek from an appraiser Wilcox had hired to value the ranch before its secretive sale in 2001 to the Trust for Public Lands, which then deeded the property to the state. The Utah Museum of Natural History now protects the vast treasure of pristine, unlooted Indian sites. Access to the 20 miles of canyon bottom is limited to 28 visitors on foot per day, and permits are allotted via an online reservation system. A $1 token annual fee provides access to free daily permits, which are rarely sold out. Visit to apply. Camping is allowed in a large meadow near a locked gate at the end of Horse Canyon Road.
   I knew as I drove the recently repaired four-wheel-drive route up Horse Canyon—30 miles south of Price, Utah—that it washes out in a dozen places during every significant rainstorm. I nervously checked the sky and decided that the gathering clouds were not too ominous yet. The road and I ascended 4,000 feet of switchbacks, crested the Book Cliffs, and descended to Range Creek.
   The riverbank was carpeted with bear prints and bear scat as I walked down canyon. Wilcox said he has seen as many as 30 bears in a single day and, on a subsequent float trip past the mouth of Range Creek on the Green River, rafters in the group behind me were seriously attacked by a bear.
   As I hiked, I looked around circumspectly at every little forest noise and monitored the dark clouds in the sky with equal concern. Worried about bears and rain, I cut short my downstream hike and crashed through the brush to start fishing back upstream. When I saw the creek, I froze. Had the trout seen me before I saw them? The fish seemed too big for this
small creek.
   Numerous drag-free drifts over five visible trout without so much as a look or the twitch of a fin confirmed that, yes, I’d spooked them. They hadn’t darted for cover because there wasn’t any so instead, they just ignored my offerings. After scolding myself for carelessness, I realized that I couldn’t see the first foot of water right in front of me because of tall grasses. I dapped my fly into the small blind spot behind the grass and my rod immediately bent under the weight of a nice brown.
   Moving upstream with a lot more care, I found casting difficult because of the overgrowth. I turned to roll casts with some bow-and-arrow casts mixed in. The fly pattern was not important, but a decent presentation was. The biggest challenge was getting into casting position without the trout spotting me.
   After a couple of hours and a dozen browns, I had progressed a little past my SUV at the gate. The easiest hole to fish was where an old dirt ranch road crossed the creek. The openness around the crossing allowed a full backcast, and trout congregated just upstream, where vegetation shaded the stream. After landing two or three browns there, distant thunder compelled me to head to my car.
   Range Creek drains 200 square miles of uniquely vegetated, Book Cliffs terrain, including the southern edge of the Tavaputs Plateau at 10,200 feet, where mature, 6-point bull elk live to old age without ever being sighted in a rifle scope. Range Creek snakes for 40 miles southeast to where it dumps its clear water into the murky Green River in aptly named Desolation Canyon. A thousand years ago, Range Creek hydrated Fremont Indians; 115 years ago, outlaws drank from it with cupped hands; for the next 70 years, the creek irrigated a patchwork of canyon-bottom fields for grazing. Now, the water feeds only abundant wildlife and dense streamside vegetation under a canopy of cottonwoods and evergreens.
   After my fishing excursion, I reflected on the origin of the skull and considered a third possibility, which I quickly dismissed: there was no fly rod or fishing vest near Wilcox’s “friend.”


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