As long as I’ve fly-fished, I’ve logged my experiences in a black-and-red hardcover journal. The entries date to the early 1970s. My thinking at the time was strictly utilitarian. The recording of data would be a handy reminder if I ventured back to fish an area again. I didn’t realize that one day the journals would provide more than simple river notes about fly patterns and tippet strength. The handwritten entries would open an unlikely portal back to a time of unencumbered idealism.
Out on the paved road at the turnoff, midway between Saratoga and Walcott Junction, Wyoming, a sign indicated the historic Overland Trail, where deep wagon ruts could still be seen in many places. My fishing buddy Coz swung the barbed wire gate open as I drove onto a dirt two-track in my 1956 Chevy pickup. I slid Jimmy Buffett’s soundtrack to the movie Rancho Deluxe into the 8-track player. A rustlers daydream, thoughts of jail, dust clouds rising, tearing down the trail.
The rounded hump known as Elk Mountain loomed on the northeastern horizon. Hawks turned hopeful circles in the sky. Without four-wheel drive, the 10 miles of twisting forks through vast rolling sagebrush hills, barbwire gates, unmarked roads and teeth-rattling potholes was no joke. We had no map. The topography reminded me of the old television show Wild Kingdom, with Marlin Perkins out in the veld of Africa’s Serengeti plains.
A small herd of pronghorn, referred to colloquially as speedgoats, began to casually lope in parallel. I stomped the accelerator to race them, and as if on cue, their powerful hindquarters straightened out, showering dirt around the sage. Just like a game of chicken, they turned on the jets as they made a mad dash to cross at the last second in front of my truck. With my hands clenching the wheel, we eventually made our way down the rugged two-track as the last light of day vanished. When I turned off the ignition, I could hear the river. We made camp in the dark. It was late July 1976, and I was 25.
We awoke at dawn to the music of a surprisingly large freestone river pouring over a wide shelf of rocks, and we eagerly assembled our ragtag fly gear. We had arrived on this vast property of more than 300,000 acres in southern Wyoming, where the North Platte River, unobserved, wound its way through a land of solitude. A Platteville, Colorado, farmer by the name of J.B. Tuttle had sold a large acreage to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a reactor site. With the proceeds, Tuttle purchased the land. For 25 private miles, the river flowed north through a lush riparian oasis that traversed the little-known Bolton Ranch.
Peering through my Ray-Ban aviators, I attached the ferrules on my bamboo J.C. Higgins (Sears) rod, pulled on my hip boots and shouldered an old wicker creel. I snugged down a straw cowboy hat on my long hair as Coz geared up. Having made his initial foray with his childhood friend Dr. P a few months earlier, he led the way. The pungent scent of willow filled our nostrils. We bulled our way across a wide riffle upstream that lapped the tops of my hip boots. We waded up to a brushy island dominated by a large beaver house of cottonwood branches.
Coz remembered it like this: “As I sat there hoping to catch one, I heard bloops coming from somewhere — finally realizing that it was the mouths of big fish popping closed as both browns and rainbows snarfed down tiny flies that were funneled down the middle riffle … lazily rising to the surface and gulping a few at a time. I tied on a Renegade, since I didn’t know what bug they were eating, and cast from a sitting position. The first one flabbergasted me — it was huge! I plopped it into my old reed fishing creel and hooked another one. I caught one after another, and they were still alive and flopping in the creel while I had another one on the hook.”
Coz was eking out a living in a school chum’s coal mining venture back in Appalachian West Virginia. Put him on a trout stream, though, and his true nature shone like a beaver pelt. He had the exceptional hand-eye coordination common to golfers and wing shots, and the stylish casting technique of born fishermen. His brown Stetson and rakish mustache underscored the image.
As an angler, I was little more than a dabbler, having recently transitioned from a spinning outfit to a fly rod I’d purchased at a garage sale. I repositioned myself farther down the middle braid and, after a couple of casts, managed to place an Adams at the current’s edge before I got a hit and set the hook. This was repeated — to the point that, later, we were both jumping up and down, pounding each other on the shoulders like delighted children.
Never in our angling experience had we experienced fishing even close to this. Back at camp, I looked across the broad run at a rugged cliff of buff-colored shale that rose a hundred feet, and it dawned upon me: We were in the Promised Land. We would come to discover our camp spot was named Kent Meadows. Having shattered the notion that hippies were notoriously poor providers, we popped the tops off cold beers, lit Marlboros and plopped down on camp chairs, waiting for the rest of the gang to arrive. For the moment, we were proletarian masters of the universe.
We heard the 1963 VW van before we saw it. Our friends BJ and Dr. P were excited to see us. The road had given them fits, requiring a jack and a shovel in places. Dr. P, who had completed premed, sat us down and gave us a lecture. “Here’s the deal. We’re a long way from anywhere, which means don’t do anything stupid — that includes burying a hatchet in your foot, getting bit by a rattler or shooting yourself. But most of all — and I mean it — don’t tell a soul about this place.”
All of us had fished public water on the North Platte in southern Wyoming. But it was our dentist friend, Dr. P — a Denver native with dark, curly hair, a thick mustache and piercing blue eyes obscured by thick glasses — who discovered the Bolton Ranch Club through a childhood friend. Dr. P’s laconic humor and a mild-mannered disposition masked an alpha male.
BJ and I became friends when I moved West to attend college. Ten years our senior and married with three children, he was blonde, athletic and a former Navy pilot working for the airlines. We welcomed him into our posse, and he was complicit with our nefarious behavior. His personality complemented and completed our hippy-dippy circle. The four of us made up the core of our band.
We formed our own cosmic cowboy nuclear family — Coz and I were mired in the simple motifs of poverty. My annual income as a photographer was about $3K. This gave me plenty of time for my true vocation: fishing and hunting. We would have loved to sample the salmon fishery out of Bristol Bay, Alaska, the steelhead on the Dean, huge browns in Argentina, or the technical rainbows of New Zealand. But those places were laughably out of the question. For working stiffs like us, what we experienced on Bolton Ranch was miraculous.
That first night, zipped in my bag, all I could hear was the river. As it rushed over stones and branches, then slowed, I began to make out different tones — bass notes when the water poured into deeper pools, a higher, modulating pitch in shallow water — and it seemed there was an aqueous scale at play, a language I could almost decipher. At one point, I thought I heard a conversation. I unzipped the tent and looked around, certain people were whispering in the night. I saw nothing. It was as if the river conversed.
By 1979, going to “the ranch” for the Fourth of July had become an annual tradition. It also coincided with my fiancé Leigh’s July 3rd birthday. Leigh sincerely loved to fish, and we welcomed her into our tribe. She was a bit of a tomboy, though you’d never know it to look at her. An actress and model, she graced billboards nationwide for a Salem cigarette campaign at the time. She was the least-experienced angler among us, but with patient coaching she became a trout bum.
To celebrate Leigh’s birthday one year, the ever-considerate Dr. P outdid himself. He smuggled in live Maine lobsters and New York strip steaks. Once he had a bed of cottonwood coals glowing, he put on a large pot to boil. The lobsters turned fiery red in the pot; the steaks were seasoned and perfectly grilled. When Dr. P began whisking hollandaise sauce for fresh asparagus, I realized I was in the presence of greatness. Without uttering a word, he had put on a clinic in not just the art of camp haute cuisine, but also the value and meaning of friendship. Subsequently, we began to “dress for dinner,” stashing coats and ties in our duffel bags to wear in Leigh’s honor.
One afternoon, we took a run on a two-track upriver, headed for a location Dr. P called Fence Line. The tall grass brushed the truck’s undercarriage, and I hoped the hot muffler wouldn’t ignite a fire. The road ended near the bank of the river, across from which was a barbwire fence that angled off into the sagebrush. A wide riffle poured over a shelf of cobble, and the tea-brown water tightened into a run with large back eddies on both sides. I could hear the bloops of rising fish. Dr. P tied on one of his meticulously fashioned Ginger Quills and began to cast with his bamboo fly rod. The leader rolled over softly, and the fly danced lightly along a foamy seam, then disappeared in a take.
As Dr. P fought the jumping fish, I contemplated the improbable membership fee for Bolton Ranch Club. For $60 each, which we paid by mail to a ranch employee, we had inherited a kingdom. The club was limited to 100 members, though we never encountered anyone, save for the occasional floater who would briefly pass. As fishing clubs go, the Bolton, a working sheep and cattle ranch, couldn’t have been more primitive. This wasn’t a venerable colonial angling club from the 1700s on, say, the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania, where sought-after memberships could run in the thousands of dollars. There was no rustic lodge with Adirondack furniture, waders hanging on pegs and priceless bamboo rods adorning the siding. Roughing it suited us fine.
Over time, we were the ones who named the club’s fishing beats: Shithouse Riffle, Snake Rock, Coal Mines, Bait Hole, Fence Line, Snake Island, Camp Riffle, Hess’s Homestead and the New Spot. They were strung up and down the river like jewels on a necklace. At times, in the vast landscape, it felt like we had too many options.
The high-desert topography was the wildest and most game-rich country I’d ever encountered. Antelope ranged the uplands, and mule deer browsed along the river. Eagles circled and swayed, trying to snag game from hawks and osprey. A thriving rodent population provided food for such predators as badgers, fox, skunks, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. Great horned owls roosted in the cliff face across from camp, and gray-green prairie rattlesnakes required heightened vigilance at all times.
Once, I had waded out chest-deep when a rattler was S-curving its way across the river’s surface on a collision course. I pointed my rod at the mature snake, and at the last moment it zigzagged away, as surprised as I was. Another time, Leigh and I were side-hilling a bluff downstream when she stepped right over a rattler, noticing it in midstride. Instinct took over, and she leaped backward, though the snake never bothered to coil, much less give its warning.
Coz dealt with a primal fear of snakes by going on the aggressive. Attracted by a commotion outside the tent one morning, Leigh and I peered out, spellbound. Two large rattlers were in attack mode, intertwined and striking in territorial combat. I called out to Dr. P to take a look. Stepping out of his tent with his Ruger Blackhawk .357, he neatly dispatched both snakes. “Rattlers are not allowed in camp,” he deadpanned, then crawled back into his tent to catch a few more winks.
We would occasionally skin and fry them for supper. Seasoned and dusted in flour, they were bony but palatable if you could take your mind off what you were ingesting. Sage hens and cottontails were occasionally added to the menu. There would always be one fried trout dinner, and the odd walleye that had made its way upstream from Pathfinder Reservoir would be harvested and served for breakfast or as an appetizer. The wildness of the place triggered a quasi-Neolithic hunter/gatherer response. It was also an economic necessity. After dinner, we’d sit around our popping campfire late into the evening, with the eerie mating sound of dive-bombing nighthawks intermittently filling the air. You could locate us by the reek of pot smoke, which we followed with pulls straight off the bourbon bottle — and thus would begin another fiesta.
A little tipsy, Dr. P was driving home from another Bolton Ranch adventure one afternoon when he decided to explore a two-track. He banged along what was primarily a cattle track until he arrived at a high bluff. Stepping out of the vehicle, he realized that the river was accessible, with a steep scramble followed by a long hike. In time, this would become the beat we named the New Spot. The first time Dr. P and I made our way down there, we both felt an amplified sense of wildness. Perhaps it was the coyotes yipping at noon.
We split up at a long slick where Dr. P chose to fish minuscule dries to technical trout. I moved rapidly through the tall grass, full of adrenaline. A high bluff with a cliff wall was my destination. The river braided into the three channels. The deepest and fastest ribbon churned against the rock cliff. Dr. P had floated this section in a jonboat and knew this place as the “chute.”
A loafing raft of Canada geese paddled in a large back eddy. It was the young goslings that flushed first, alarmed by my intrusion. I changed to a fast-sinking fly line and waded out to cast a streamer when I heard a splash near a clump of willow about 30 yards away. Swimming the river away from me, a mature mountain lion glanced back. Upon gaining the shore, she wheeled to face me, her tail waving side to side like a metronome. She telepathically transmitted her frustration with my blundering into her ambush of the geese. At that moment, I knew I would have to become her prey.
Locked on her eyes, I projected her my message: I’m armed, and I’m not going down without a fight. After holding me in her frigid gaze as time seemed to stop, she turned and bounded up a steep bluff. There’s nothing like a sudden awakening to the fact that you are part of the food chain to cast a new light on things. Once she departed, I kept my head on a swivel as I pounded the banks. Browns, rainbows and an occasional Snake River cutthroat struck my dark spruce fly as I worked my way down the run — another day at the ranch.
Rereading my journal, I discovered that our fishing success was mutable. Far from being accomplished anglers, our skill sets were limited. In the beginning, beyond dries and wets, we knew little of nymphing or streamers. Dr. P coined the term “challenge cup fishing” when feeding trout defied our modest abilities. We fished through the seasons, sometimes into November, sleeping in nylon tents as temperatures plunged to the teens.
What made the North Platte distinctive was the dry-fly fishing. Several times, we were on the river when there was a winged-ant hatch. These flying ants, at least from a trout’s perspective, resembled the hair-winged flies that we tied and fished. A Hair Winged Rio Grande King would raise every fish in the river during these hatches.
As August transitioned into September, Trico (Tricorythodes) mayfly hatches would at times appear like a blizzard of crystal. In the morning, once the sun’s rays struck the river, the big fish keyed upon them, stacking up in the long, wide slicks. This could be confusing if there was a simultaneous hatch of pale morning duns. These entomological riddles were part of the river’s charm. I can picture Dr. P at Fence Line selecting a small pattern from one of his packed fly boxes. After he dressed and tied on the fly, with one hand stroking his stubbled chin, he’d look up at me through his spectacles, a sly grin creasing his lips, and chortle his mantra: “Dry fly never die.”
The last year the four of us had an opportunity to fish the club together was 1986, though Leigh was too far into her pregnancy to attend. We’d shared so many adventures but could sense the sharp edge of change. It was one of those trips where everything aligned. The fish were on the bite, and we knew how and where to catch them.
Norman McLean wrote in A River Runs Through It:
Fisherman also think of the river as having been for them partly in mind, and they talk of it as if it had been. It was here that I started this story, although, of course, at that time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew that a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water. The fisherman even has a phrase to describe what he does when he studies the patterns of a river. He says he is “reading the water,” and perhaps to tell his stories he has to do much the same thing.
I avoid sentimentality, though I can’t help feeling nostalgic. Of course, I’ve never been able to re-create our experiences from the Bolton Ranch Club, which were about much more than spectacular fishing. There was the setting and its wild inhabitants, with whom we shared a Garden of Eden, and our uproarious brotherhood — best friends doubled over with laughter.
Fishing at the club was too perilous with our newborn son, so we had no choice but to let our membership lapse. (The annual fee had more than doubled to $125.) Five years later, the ranch sold again — this time to a billionaire, who promptly disbanded the fishing club. In his solitary kingdom, he became lord of the manor.
I closed the journal and put it on a shelf above my desk as I attempted to bring myself back into the moment. But I couldn’t, because those pages evoked a feeling of longing — far more than an idea or memories. Our time on the ranch cannot be replicated. In my quest to find a substitute, I’d come to realize we’d been blessed. A river speaks to each of us in different ways, but I think I can speak for all five of us when I say that the Bolton haunts us still.