Photos by Mike Blakeman
Shayne Langford shows up at my house at 7 a.m. in his aging Toyota pickup on a sunny August morning wearing quick-dry pants, a long-sleeved sun shirt, a 4UR Ranch truckers’ cap sun-bleached to no color at all and stuck with eight bright flies, and polarized sunglasses that probably represent some reasonable percentage of his net worth. “It’s windy already,” he says, “but maybe down in the canyon we’ll be a little more protected. I’m just hoping we get in there while something’s still hatching, before the sun’s right overhead.”
I’ve got half of my body in the closet looking for my water shoes. Somewhere here is a legitimate fishing shirt, with mesh and the button-down flap in the back, but finding that is an even bigger longshot. “Rain jacket, Clif bars, plenty of water,” Shayne says, “maybe your hiking poles in case we wind up climbing out in some crazy part of the canyon. Oh, and you’re going to want something to keep the sun off your face. We might be standing in the creek for hours.”
Shayne is long and tall and leaning against my kitchen counter, trying not to look impatient. I unearth my water shoes, abandon the shirt, throw a Ziploc of cashews into my pocket and close the door behind us. I am not, it occurs to me, accustomed to him telling me what to do.
It was nearly three years ago that Shayne showed up during my office hours at University of California-Davis, where I teach creative writing. A recent transfer student, a sweet-faced colt of a boy not sure what to do with the limbs he’d recently grown into, he clutched a well-loved copy of Richard Ford’s iconic short story collection Rock Springs. “How can I help you?” I said, thinking he looked more like an Environmental Studies major than an English type.
“I heard you like this book,” he said, holding Rock Springs in front of his heart. “Reading it changed my life. I think maybe I want to be a writer.”
Shayne grew up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the son of California firefighters. He was 3 when his dad taught him how to cast in the front yard of their broken-down house in Sierraville, 4 when he tied his first fly, and caught his first trout on a caddis-pupa fly in the creek out back, all before his parents split for good. Now he’s in Davis’ master of fine arts program, writing well-honed and emotionally complicated stories about guys who fish rivers in those same foothills, finding his own voice by way of Ford, Tommy Orange and Lucia Berlin. Last year was his first full season guiding on the Upper Rio Grande and its tributaries. Shayne is only 23, and there are a million things he doesn’t know about the world, but he has empathy and intuition for miles and miles.
My home is in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado at 9,000 feet in a high mountain meadow called Antelope Park, where I spend summers and the half of the year I’m not at UC Davis. It’s world-class fishing country, and it was I who suggested Shayne apply for work at the 4UR Ranch so he could get some river time in during his grad-school summers. I’m his graduate thesis advisor, and he’s taken four classes with me and nearly all of my advice, but today he’s the teacher and I am the student. He’s taking me fly-fishing in Trout Creek.
There are plenty of easier places around here to fish, creeks that are accessed by road or stocked every so often for the enjoyment of tourists. But we have chosen Trout Creek, which requires five miles of hiking, one way, up and over a ridge and about 1,500 feet of vertical. The other thing about fishing here is we aren’t sure what we’ll find.
On Aug. 3, 2014, there was a massive fish kill in Trout Creek. A landslide near the top of the drainage created a sharp increase in turbidity and heavy metals, and dead trout washed up on the riverbanks at Soward Ranch, my neighbors along the Rio Grande. The previous summer, the West Fork Fire had burned 109,000 acres above and around us. The largest single-day run was July 3, when the Trout Creek area went up in flames, destabilizing the hillsides and creating perfect conditions for the landslide that killed the fish. In recent years we’ve watched our mountainsides recover from the fire: fire weed first, then millions of skinny aspen, finally a few tiny spruce. If we catch some fish today, it will be evidence that the stream is healing, too.
On the hike into the canyon, the wind is singing through the dead spruce snags in a way that sounds like conversation. There are tree skeletons as far as we can see, but it’s been a wet summer in Colorado. The young aspens are thick with bright green leaves, the red-berried elder are full of fruit, and the flowers — lupine, paintbrush, yarrow, asters and columbine — are as lush as I’ve ever seen them. We top out on a ridge that lets us see Trout Creek’s headwaters, two sapphire bowls that hang above tree line, just below the snow-dotted Copper Ridge.
On the way down to the creek, we fall into familiar talk about writing. Shayne asks if I copied any other writer’s style when I was learning, and I admit my first story that got any real attention, “How To Talk To A Hunter,” was me trying to imitate Lorrie Moore. When we get to the creek bottom, we move quickly and quietly to sneak past the cows lounging on the edge of the meadow.
“We are going to start with a Chubby Chernobyl,” Shayne says with authority as we step into the icy water, “which is a hopper pattern but mimics a terrestrial.” I nod slowly, trying to make meaning out of these pretty, silly words. “Basically,” he adds, seeing the look on my face, “it’s just big and floats well and gets the fish looking up at the surface. We’re fishing a 10-foot leader down to 6X because the water’s so clear.”
The rocks are round and slippery underfoot, and I take Shayne’s arm to get in position, as well as his recommendation on how much line to let out, given the creek’s narrowness and the proximity to the bushes. I have fly-fished just enough to know my casts will not entirely embarrass me. I fish upstream for 20 minutes, laying the fly down gently and more or less every place he points.
When we hit some deeper pools, Shayne ties on droppers 18 inches below the Chubby. “These are all-purpose nymph patterns, tung teasers and tiny Rubber Legs Copper Johns because when we first got down here I saw pale morning duns and a couple Baetis, but not many. We’re a little early in the season for a Baetis hatch. It’s the middle of the day, so nothing’s really hatching anyway. Terrestrials are where it is.”
There is something so beautiful about seeing someone you care about, especially a young person, wholly immersed in the thing they love. Shayne works hard at writing and, I have every belief, will succeed, but fishing for him is as effortless as breathing.
“Fish!” he shouts.
I try to set the hook, but it feels like I am a minute and a half too late. “Quicker than that, huh?”
“A little quicker,” Shayne says, grinning. “On a dry fly you want to wait until you see the fly enter the fish’s lips, and then the second the lips disappear under water you set the hook. If they eat the nymph, you set the hook after the dry fly goes under water. In that case you are using the fly as an indicator. That’s called a hopper-dropper.”
“A hopper-dropper?” I say. “A Chubby Chernobyl? Who handed out the pot brownies?”
I look at the sparkling surface of the water, the sun dancing into my 57-year-old eyes. Keeping track of the fly is tricky enough, let alone deciphering fish lips or the moment they close. I have more experience casting than I do catching. This day may be longer than I’d imagined. Another fish hits the fly, and again I miss the set. “You’re a better caster than I thought you’d be,” Shayne says as I land the fly exactly where he points.
“You’re a better writer than I thought you’d be,” I say, because it’s true and I know it will get me the signature Shayne grin.
With the next take, I jerk the line too soon, and the fish spits the fly. “At least we know they’re here,” I say. “The landslide didn’t wipe them out forever.”
Another 20 minutes go by, and my feet are numb, but the sun is warm, and we’re fishing a glorious stretch of river. There is no one here but us, and it feels as if no one ever has been here. I work on my dead drift, and all of a sudden I have a fish on. Shayne grabs the net, and we bring it to the surface. It’s a brown, a solid 10 inches. Its golden body and brown spots are surprisingly beautiful in the sunlight, the way all watery creatures sparkle when they are suddenly brought into the air. Shayne removes the hook, and the fish darts downstream.
“OK,” Shayne says, relieved that we won’t be skunked. “Now let’s catch us a cutthroat.”
We fish upstream through the S-curve of a tiny canyon that opens to even more spectacular views of the bowls where the two forks of Trout Creek are born. My line jerks again; it’s the cutthroat we ordered. The fish slips away before we get a photo, but not before we admire its rosy gills and the sunrise stripe down its side. The cutthroat is bigger than the brown but feels more delicate in my hand, and I am happy to see it dart for home.
“OK,” Shayne says, “now let’s catch a lunker.” I hook a nice brown almost immediately and hang on for three seconds, before it’s off.
“Damn,” Shayne says, “that was a big one.”
“Sixteen, maybe 18. Hell, he’s gone now, let’s say 24.” I look for the grin, and Shayne obliges.
On the walk back up the mountain, in lengthening shadows, Shayne quizzes me about the writing life, about dialogue and metaphor and all the ways to make a good story work even harder. The natural order rights itself, and I take my place as mentor, teacher and friend. But I won’t forget this day, when Shayne taught me a new language, of rubber legs, caddis, nymphs and terrestrials, creatures that sound as if they come from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, rather than a fly box. Nor will I forget the way he moved, sure and graceful, over the slickest stones on the creek bottom, doing one of the things he was born to do.