American Fly Fishing

Exploring the West’s Oddest River
By Jeff Erickson

Bear River, ID/UT/WY

Jake Smith drifts a fly under a shaded cutbank on the Bear River in western Wyoming. Lengthy stretches of the river in Wyoming flow through private lands, so access requires some exploring and perhaps some asking if you can find the landowners. PHOTO BY JEREMY ALLAN

In the convoluted caverns of my mind, the world’s strangest stream is the mythological River Styx. The scribes in ancient Greece didn’t indicate whether the Styx held trout, but I doubt it, as it was a gloomy, mysterious passageway to the underworld and the afterlife. Perhaps the oddest river that exists in current reality is the Bear, which relentlessly roams like Ulysses in the Odyssey. The sirens here aren’t dangerous temptresses luring seafaring sojourners to doom with their beguiling songs, but beautiful, benign Bonneville cutthroat trout, some surprisingly large.

The Bear can also be likened to Ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, symbolizing eternal circles—like birth, life, death, destruction, and rebirth—or the ongoing hydrologic cycle that powers both rivers and fly anglers. The circuitous Bear is a 500-mile-long geographic riddle, North America’s longest river that never touches an ocean. It rises above 12,000 feet in Utah’s cloud-breaching Uinta Range, drifts north into Wyoming, rambles back and forth across the Idaho border, then returns to Utah. It finally ends by replenishing the Great Salt Lake’s brine-encrusted pools, just 70 miles from its alpine origins. So, this aquatic snake nearly swallows its own tail too. But as J.R.R. Tolkien observed, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Good advice for fly anglers who get immersed in this vast, varied watershed.