Sporting Life / Story

Story: Gone Out West

* Gone Out West is the fifth chapter in Providence: A Story by William Kelly

A grasshopper. Long and thick foam cigarette butt with appendages. Floating out there with Geppetto over the rocks. Pale foam body underneath the furry parts. A thick synthetic post over its thorax and grizzly chicken hackle spun around. Turkey wings tied into legs and swept down overtop the abdomen into little wing cases. Hops, skips. Bounces off a boulder the size of small car and into the blind corner of the whispering eddy. The water was nervous and whipping gently. A predictable randomness to his eye. An arm’s width beside with the hooked decoy, the aerated seam rolled along the torrid and turbulent flow. A rowdy little drop in treacherous pocket water. The smooth place beside the maelstrom. A buffet. First cast. First drop.


Slack ripping through guides as he mashed in his left index finger against the cork then let the drag work. Mac quickly directed the line back over the calm side eddy. He stripped and the fish ran back out into a hard cutting channel between two rocks. Ten feet out and twenty down. As line tore away the reel made another ripping drag spin. He stripped. He stood tall on his rock pulpit and hauled. Arm up. The line wove into the thorny bramble under his perch as he brought the slack line on his reel. He screamed loudly with profane excitement. Fear of loosing the catch and joy. Get the camera! loudly over the roaring water. Holy Shit! The hard pull of the wild cutthroat accounted for the slapdash snag in the wild thorny stuff below him and ripped it loose. The yellow beast was not tiring but he had to horse her some through the current. Thin filament, can not break it. Back into water that was more kind. The rod bowed and flitted and he stooped momentarily. Rod tip vibrating, yet held always high, he made his way down into the slick edges. He trusted his feet but did not trust the rocks over the broken and deep edge. He climbed down and kept it high. He could not bow out the rod tip, not yet. Not until he saw the fish in the eyes, the gills move, maybe he could stroke its soft flesh and get the smell on his hands. The fish head was high. Flitting in and out of the maelstrom in the seam of the suck. Lips just out of the water in the zenith of a long arching standing wave. He dropped further with the fish into the next plunge pool. He was beyond getting wet and too caught up in the moment to think about things in his pockets getting ruined. His nuts were well into his stomach. Fifty four degrees. It was cold.When he gained a moment of composure he knew he was safe. Standing there in a deep pool with the vitreous stuff of the earth pouring past him. He was safe. He looked at the fish and wanted to touch her. He held his rod high. He needed to take two more feet of line in. Past the nail knot with a little bump through the tip guide. He touched the leader to make the fish official under gentleman’s rule. Calm but with sporadic bursts. She was begging to be let back in. She wriggled and he reached out to feel lightly. He looked into the operculum. Those gills full of oxygen rich blood and a red-orange slit. Cut throat. He saw her eyes. The wild native monster was full of feature and expression. If they put cows in the meat counter no one would eat steak. They would see the soul. They just wanted the meat. Children think chickens come from styrofoam packs. No soul. No personality. This two foot bitch had more personality that a raging elephant. He gently ran his hand down the thin 5x tippet and turned the large fly down. A rolling motion the shape of the barbless hook. The hook freed from the firm purchase in the kyped lip. Too much hiking for a net. Catch and release. The fish back in the water. The yellow log still and up into the current. A gill flutter. He thought. Waited. The torpid fish thought and waited. He caught a breath and the trout filled her gills. The twenty-two inch monster shook her shoulders and darted off.

Gros Ventre. Hopping and sliding under the landslide. A dry and dusty bank of rock, gravel, arid bush. Last time he was there, ten years ago, he tore the felt soles off his boots sliding down the steep gravel grade to the edge. The best way up stream is over the rock slide. A garden of white stones of all sizes. On and on for one tenth of a mile that walks like ten miles. A moon surface with roaring water beneath it. You can hear but you can not see it until you drop over the edge and a surprise valley opens up. On the other bank thick and green, full of bear haunts. Steep. Shoots and runs. Pools and pockets. Tight little holes and hiding places where you could not get a drift. Unbelievable that some creature of size and power would hold there.

Dawn. He stood there in the dust and gravel. The last of the shower flew over head. Ten meteors an hour against the thickest blanket of stars a man with decent natural vision can see. The naked eye. No light pollution. They meet in Kelly, Wyoming that morning. The first light of sun tipping its hat to the Tetons West. Thirty year old serviceable pickups lining the parking lot of Kelly on the Gros Ventre Store, a dark old station in the center of a dirt lot. Kelly, the town, if you wanted to call it a town. He knew it was there if he needed toilet paper or aspirin on the way in. So they decided to meet there. They did not say much entering the place. The day was still dark. Ante meridian by far. They were still a bit tired,yet reverent to the day as it awoke. They expected a cup, just enough to wake them. Probably from a Bunn carafe on a hot plate. Burnt stuff. Inside the dim old station was a sexy barista in a tight cage of stainless steel machines and dim focused light. Refrigerators, ovens, stoves, and big glass coolers full of craft beer. The centre piece, an expresso machine named Frankenstein. A coquette only in her actions, perhaps in her silence. Girls with no make up look one hell of a lot better than the ones at home covered with it. Wild hair pulled up with bobby pins. Makes one wonder. Wonder if they all look that way or if a rare breed of good ones head out west. Autographed posters– skiers, rock-jocks, and trout hunters. Jackson Hole. Got to love the place. He bought a Gatorade and filled his Thermos with her coffee. She did not have much to say, most of them do not. A few heads nods from old boys: cowboys, ranchers, a fisherman, and a mexican. They knew that being silent was a friendly expression. She bounced between the counters looking at them with stun-gun eyes, “four dollars . . . good luck fishing.”

Must have been the goofy pocketed nylon shirts.

The friends stood in the parking lot by the suburban.

“You guys are lookin’ tired,” encouraged Dr. Ron, perhaps the one always the driver because he could wake with a farmer’s ambition. A pecking order in a hunt wagon is simple: the most awake and ambitious drives, which is often the man most familiar to the place they are going, eager to show and guide. In the shotgun seat is always the man most eager to be shown. The back rows often those that sit in silence. Not always to sleep their way in, but to muse in the deep and spiritual conveyance to the pursuit. Charles took the front seat with his father. He was in the back challenging his stomach with coffee and the odd alchemy of managing bowels.

“Man it seems like every time we go hunting or fishing somebody’s gotten take a shit on the way in,” he said, projecting his current condition onto everyone.

“Must be something about being off that city routine, waking up early, or realizing the toilet is not there,” Charles related, not realizing he was humoring a conversation he would ignore after more experience.

“Or Budwieser until midnight.”

“Or brown liquor and red meat.”

“Or that four finger pinch of Copenhagen you swallow while you’re drinkin’ your coffee.”

The sun showed itself brightly over the Slide to the East. They admired the Tetons. New ridges and canyons changing out and in and out again as each little minute ticked by. They had seen them all week. The range can be admired as time, light, weather, and position alters perception. They never tire the imagination or look the same. He kept coming back. When he would return home, to that great South that appreciated only as mundane, people asked if he had fun and that’s what Ron said too, this is gonna be fun.”

His usual reply was Yes-Fun, to folks back home.

“Ron, fun is the easy word for it, and I’ve thought about it– more complicated. Fun. You ever had fun in church?”

“Your a bit of a philosopher this morning, good morning by-the-way.”

“Enlightened. Humbled. Revived. Restored. Refreshed,” he rattled.

“Reformed?” Ron added.

“Yes. You get it. Fun is the word you use to people that wouldn’t understand.”

He would be careful to describe thosee mountains as something he worshipped. They gave that to him though, some days he figured if the papists could have all those relics and icons, he could spend a bit of his life giving thanks for the most magnificent sights the Lord had created. He kept the description of his experience simple unless they had a quibble to call out his odd affection for the place in his absence on a sabbath.

When he landed it was a rowdy spiraling drop. He slept on the connection up from Denver. He told her to poke him when she could see the mountain. The grand one.

His infant child, Ivy, kicked him in the ribs and lifted his head from nursing. The aircraft was making a sharp downward spiraling turn from North to South in the valley. It was rowdy enough to wake the baby. His wife and the little boy already had their heads in the window.

He tickled their ears with a whisper she would not hear and the child would not understand, “You can have it.”

Yielding the view to his wife and the little one that would not understand. He felt the extension of love being with them there. The small boy could keep the massive rock in the back of his mind. They saw the mountains on the tarmac. Grey and dry with wispy clouds. They saw them down the road in Gros Ventre Junction. More oblique, sharper. Little orange hints of light and blinding white in the snow fields. They saw them from the house. Same view. New light revealing texture and the passage if time. They saw it over and over again and kept staring. He kept coming back. He always had as long as he knew. He questioned the value at times. Was it self indulgent to leave so much behind? To stare at them. To spend money to see them. To sit, to stare, to be unproductive and enjoy the majesty. The mountains fancied a child holding a nine volt battery. Once in grasp, they stare and wonder at it. If the child stares at it long enough, they are going to put tongue on it. Taste it. The energy in it. They kept staring.

He stared at them a little longer with his friends and they rode up the road to the Slide in the suburban. They wound through the smooth, then rough path listening to easy country. A diamond yellow sign, full of dents and bullet holes, said Steep. 33% Grade. That was the turn off they remembered. They wound down the narrow dirt road. It was not that steep, but the vehicle pitched at odd angles in the pitched sharp banked turns. The wheels stayed on the road. The mid-truck deep over the inside bend. Into the brush with branches scratching away the paint. It was just a rental. They reached a point where they hoped no car would approach them from the other direction. No where desirable to go except forward. Tight single track. Rock wall up on port, impossible drop starboard. He imagined an on coming vehicle either angry or laughing at their mutual folly. Reaching a steep passage, they questioned the suburban’s ability to come back up. Eighty yards, straight and bumpy, and full of gravel and straight down. Easy enough to park it there and walk down but the only nice place to turn around at its bottom. For an moment they only saw daylight over the hood, then trees, then they all felt their stomachs rise into throat. Bump. Slide. Going down was easy. It was a rental.

The earth was cold and moist. Dark and full of little rocks like a pan of brownies with macadamia nuts. Ready to gear up and move out. He stepped from the truck and put his bare foot in a fresh bear track and his eyes on a cub print. Fresh meant between the now and the later and he was heading in the opposite direction. They strapped on packs with rod tubes. Pepper spray on the chest straps. Slipping into wading boots with no waders, they took off hardly waiting for one another. Over the boulder they could hear water. Roaring. They climbed a bit over the slide and started to fish. Directly close to the truck, over the mire and broken brush, a little too impatient. They could always see each other, but were remote enough that there was no point in calling out. Casting distance and the beats they claimed controlled any disruption from human voice. When they hooked something they looked to see if the others saw the bend and vibration in their rod tips. They worked the undulating run for a while and up five hundred yards into a deep bending pool under the slide. It probably held a bucket mouth monster. They fished it all wrong. Spread out and fished immediately. Stripping out line and hauling out ribbons of false casts over the clear water. Smacking it. Impatient. Excited. Perhaps competing for the first good cast on it. Any opportunity to turn a fish was ephemeral with their threatening bodies shadowing over it. They were close enough together to speak, and the water there more calm, but they spoke in volume loud enough that the echoes of voices would haunt and cause an underwater retreat. When they looked at each other they made ostentatious casts. The long hole needed to be approached from downstream below the tails of the fish looking ahead for drifting meal. They fished there for awhile. Much longer than the pool had to offer. They took a few and frustrated themselves with drifts over natural rises. They tried patterns that were far reaching: smaller PMD mayfly patterns, inchoate nymphs. They tried it all because they knew the large bending pool was perfect and they could not admit that they had blown it. Ron, his colleague, wanted to work back through it. “I think we’ve got about an hour or two before we need to head out to meet them at the house, and it might be raining by then too.” “We’ll never get up that hill if it’s wet.” “What about upstream? I know we skipped a bunch of holes, but do you want to fish the same run there twice? What’s ahead?” “A lake. Well some rapids and then the lake over the Slide– dunno probably not something you can get into.”

It was a good day, not hapless. His acumen for the water there, the stories he was told, his memories of the place told him there should be more. He thought capriciously that there had to be more. More holes. The places the fat pigs live. He talked them into being adventurous. To go around the bend where the big rapid was and check it out. Mac crawled on the edge. Swampy algae covered rocks just at the edge of a rapid drop no man could navigate. A mired up verdant morass. A dead end? Swamp and death. Rapids that could not be passed to the side. A roaring cacophony that made speech impossible , trapped in the dead muck beside it. Then he could see beyond. He turned back to his reluctant companions with a jubilant grin. Yes. Perfect drops. Little pocket water. Not kind to wade. Rock hopping and rock climbing and skirting over gravel. There were four scales of rock there: dust, gravel, stones and boulders. They were clearly defined and you knew when you were on each one. Walking on the moon.

He slid down a long bank of gravel. This was the place they had intended to come to. None of them were confident to tell the other they were not quite there yet. He slid. When he saw the water cut earth beyond the rocks and brush he proceeded with aimless alacrity to the bank. Sliding. He found a cube of rock the size of a foot locker and on that plinth he surveyed the water erectly. At waist height he leaned over the large boulder. He peaked in and looked at that water, roaring, and hollered, “This is my pulpit”. (From that rock they would not hear him over the cold, loud water.) He unhooked the stonefly dropper from the stripping guide and unravelled the hopper from the reel seat. He bounced it from the rock.

They fished this steep run all day. The first cutty was perhaps the biggest, at least the most remarkable by the surprise of the first cast. He had that spiritual connection with her. He extolled the catch and paused in that moment of asceticism. They immediately starting looking for places to cast in. Minutes ago, his friends were standing by and doubting his intention to guide him there when he latched on. That dangerous spot around the corner. To the rough water. That was the place he sent him. It was the kind of water that can inure a fisherman. On this visit it would be Mac’s favorite. He had been there before in college, but it had ran together with other places and other trips. In those days he never looked up from the water. He never really knew where he was. Just lost in the lines of the stream and the possibility of connecting his hooked ruse with the creatures latent under the glare of their surface. He had eagles fly over him and did not know it. It was a miracle he was not eaten by a bear for his focus on the water.

The kid in the fly shop told them about it. He was a shop boy. Just out of Clemson and seeing the world. They knew just enough in common. A few people and ACC football. Just enough connection to have a rich conversation. The boy was a reflection of him ten years ago. Home sentiment was enough for the kid to give up his honey hole and the flies on the wall for it.

The day before was long. It was not a great day of fishing, but it was good. Not the boon of the day that was to come tomorrow. The group of friends were a mixture of colleagues, childhood buddies, father and son, and a couple. So many different permutations of relationship between six people. Mac fished with his colleague’s son in that drift boat. His wife and infant son hung back at the house and stared at the mountains.

As far as guides go Mac expected their large group to end up with a mixed bag of young guns. Trust-a-farians. Leaving reality by the roadside in their senior year of college and not looking back until some vein was stuck or they ran out of grandma’s money. Headed out west. Mac had learned to generalize the guides’ modus operandi with success. In Montana, the fly shops had a good stock of guides. Cowboys. Most of them had a story. Ex-financier. Ex-Lawyer. Ex-medical student. All ex-husbands to some wife that was not as good as the fishing. With the Montana guides, you could spend a whole day on the river and learn that the guy pushing your boat downstream was a Princeton graduate. An Ivy Leaguer putting you on fish. An ex-major leaguer that gave up swinging bats for slinging flies. Up in Montana those guys did not get too worked up about the table cloth at lunch, but they never forgot the beer. For you and for them. Up in Montana they did not hide their tobacco or their dirty jokes. If you wanted carnal knowledge of the five single women in the Madison Valley they would be glad to share it with you. If you were brave enough.

In Idaho, it was all about the fishing. No personal stories, no jokes. Puritan, rather Mormon, ethic. Serious about the fishing. Very little teeth from nipping line. The boys down in Jackson, they were a mixed bag. In Idaho, you might expect the fellow rowing to be in blue jeans, maybe some fishing gear. The guides in Jackson fell in a few different categories, but you could guarantee they were geared out. Name brand. Clean cut and sharp dressed. Maybe sponsored. Boats covered with more logo decals than a Nascar. Pimped river playboys. The worst thing you could do was end up on the river with ubiquitous stock of young bucks freelanced by a shop on busy dog days. Fresh out of college in a boat bought with graduation money from momma. The best you could do is get a Jackson veteran, local, knowledgable, professional.

The group stepped into the old midtown flyshop after an early breakfast. It was buzzing with tourist fishermen. People picking up hats and shirts and buying licenses. Guides filling plastic cups with flies. Talking technical when the guests were listening and telling jokes and talking shit when they turned their heads. Guests meeting their guide. The bravado of overstating their experience level, laughable. Mac and his colleague met the guides for their three boats. Joel was the most outspoken, wildly extraverted, enthusiastic and friendly. Naturally as they observed the logo clad men, it made him look desirable. The next fellow surveyed, Winter, was very kind, a bit quiet. The third, Mickey, he was older. If you’ve been around fishing enough you realize that sunwrinkled hands, a wizened countenance, and grey hair meant one thing: experience. He had not given up. The only fear, thought Mac, was that he might have grown apathetic. Grumpy.

In the roulette of who would define their day, Mac’s colleague and his high school friend got in the truck with Joel. Mac climbed in Winter’s little truck with his colleague’s son. The husband and wife would take Mickey’s boat down the river.

Winter drove quickly. His truck was not something to brag about. His drift boat dragging behind, just a tool to get them there. Mac and the son, Charles, were tired but excited. Mac tried to make a little conversation in the front seat as evergreens played a kaleidoscope of green and dust  in the cracked windshield before him.

“So what are you into Winter?”

“We’ve been doing real well fishing the Snake this year, not as washed from the run-off as last.”

“What do folks do in Jackson?”

“Of course outdoor stuff and I like sports,” so they talked sports. Eventually, if you talk about being from North Carolina, somebody is going to ask you about basketball.

“So you guys must be Tarheels right?” said Winter realizing eventually that people from the South need to talk.

Southerners need the air painted with words. Still, Winter turned talk to the fishery, about the fishing conditions, about the fishing rods, about the specific fish that were going to fish for. He was all business. He was a fisherman. They had hired them to fish. He did not talk about himself. They did gather that he had his PhD in Sociology. So he was Dr Winter to them, but they did not talk enough to call him that. When they asked where he was from, the reply simply was: Jackson. They fished. Winter seemed pleased that he received for the day a boat that could cast. Not many knots. They bumped lines when Mac got overly presumptuous about Charles’ cast from the back seat and wanted to join him on the good holes and runs. Mac and Charles had a nice general idea of where to put the flies and keep a clean drift. Winter told them that he also enjoyed beginners because he could teach them. Perhaps it gave him more space to talk about fish. They did not exactly set a world record that day. Both Mac and Charles each caught up to an eighteen inch fish and about thirty between the two of them.

They went back to the cabin. Tired as hell, windburned, sunburned, thirsty. Fat Tires, Moose Drools, Bitch Creeks, and Teton Ales. On the bookshelf was book on modern fly fishing authored by Winter they had not noticed before. The bio on the back said that he had won the Jackson Hole One Fly Contest twice, he was the grandson of another man named winter too. Turns out the elder was the first guide in Jackson. The old Jackson legend. Old Winter was a river badass, he was the man. The young Winter would be known as a legend if his ego let him take it there. He spent the whole day concerned that Mac and Charles enjoyed catching fish on the Snake River and anything else they wanted to know about fish.


An unedited, print on demand and eBook version of Providence is available at:

Copyright William Kelly 2013.

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