This much I know: Ernie was a stubborn SOB. He constantly strayed from the trail to eat grass. Or he’d unexpectedly quicken to a trot, bouncing me all over the saddle. Or he’d ignore bridges in favor of crossing the stream on his own. Basically, Ernie did whatever he wanted—and I gladly put up with it. I’d have tolerated his stubbornness for miles and miles through Caribou-Targhee National Forest in order to reach this place: a mountain valley lush with wildflowers and bisected by a narrow creek teeming with native cutthroat trout.
I unsheathed a fiberglass 3-weight, rigged it with a hopper-dropper, and approached a bend on Stump Creek where current swirled over a deep pocket. I high-stuck my flies through the pool, and the hopper dropped. The fight lasted only seconds before the fish slipped off the barbless nymph. I cast again and mended for a longer downstream drift. A trout rose, but I missed. I rolled another cast. This time, the sequence ended with a healthy cutthroat—golden and spotted with colors even more brilliant than the wildflowers—swimming from my hand back into the cool water.
I could’ve landed more fish from that spot, but I moved upstream. It’s not every day when you get to fish water so far from everywhere and everything that it’s like exploring a new world. I hooked some tiny trout but never found more of the bigger cutts, though it’s likely I spooked some by never getting out of the water. The stealthy move would’ve been to stalk the banks, but I stayed in the water for no reason other than to indulge in the pleasure of wet-wading in the summer.
I returned to our base camp as everyone was preparing to leave. I walked over to Ernie and stared at him for a moment. The thought of getting back into that saddle was dispiriting. Not because I dreaded the ride down, but because I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving this place.