Voices from the River: Feather light

by Toner Mitchell

In a week, I’ll be departing on a long, arduous backpacking trip. At my age and physical condition, there is no such thing as a backpacking trip that is not long and arduous, which has led me to view each of these adventures as my last. I still fantasize about knocking off every Colorado Fourteener that catches my eye. I look at pictures of lunker cutthroats pulled from high alpine water that I could drink unfiltered like I did as a boy. And I still make promises to myself, no matter how hard they’ll be to keep.

So this will be my next last trip, around 35 miles, three to six thousand feet elevation gain (depending on if we throw in a peak), and six days. Given its cosmic import—we’ll be returning a deceased dear friend to his most beloved landscape—I’m going to do this thing and ignore how much it hurts. The key will be to carry as little weight as possible.

As one of few anglers in a group of seven, I’ve suggested that we meet this goal by satisfying a significant chunk our protein needs with trout. I hate eating trout. In fact, I attribute my catch and release practice almost entirely to hair-thin bones and the way a trout’s flavorless flesh piles up in my cheeks while I battle my throat’s refusal to swallow. Friends have suggested that I don’t know how to cook trout. True as that may be, I think it’s truer that I don’t know how to eat it.

In a wilderness situation, however, I’ve made some progress. A friend showed me how to seal a fish in a tinfoil envelope with olive oil, dehydrated onions, and lemon pepper. Lay the packet on campfire coals, and eat when it puffs up into a balloon. Another friend just fire grills trout with salt and pepper. Maybe it’s the romance of the setting, but the results have been more than pleasant.

If the objective is reducing pack weight, the high trout diet must be reconciled with the gear one must haul. Tin foil and a grill add weight and consume precious space, and why would I bring lemon pepper if not for cooking fish? I would also argue that fishing gear poses the most difficult weight challenge, particularly because I, like many anglers, am vulnerable to the kitchen sink approach. Whether I’m visiting my local fishing hole or the Alaskan bush, I can’t help believing that every fly is necessary, every tippet spool, split shot, and gadget. On our upcoming mountain campaign, what if we hit a lake and I don’t have a sink tip? What if a black bugger spooks fish and I don’t have one in olive? What will we do if we can’t catch any fish at all? Will we have to eat each other to avoid starving to death?

Because they are ridiculous, questions like these remind me that trout are at their most basic in the wilderness, which is to say they confront basic circumstances—short growing season and limited food supply—with the basic response of eating whenever and whatever they can. The fisherman’s strategy, therefore, must also be basic. Dry flies. Visible and/or durable, flies that still look yummy when sunken or chewed up. In the miraculous event that fish get selective, smaller flies not only crack the safe but are easier for smaller fish to fit into their mouths. Hard shell black ants are indestructible. A renegade with gobs of head cement under its peacock body doesn’t float for long, but I can see it underwater or just swing it and feel my hits while taking in the scenery. Royal humpies, elk hair caddis always look edible. If the hackle unwinds on my parachute Adams, I’ll clip it off, clip the post, and fish it as an emerger.

I’ll bring only a small box of dries on this trip. I’ll suffer no tungsten. My burden will be light, and I’ll walk into each day’s camp with enough gas in the tank to catch our well-earned dinner. If weight were truly the issue, though, I suppose I could just leave the rod and reel at home and fill the void with more foodstuffs and bourbon. But that would be stupid, like forgetting my sleeping bag or tent, a life-threatening predicament if there ever was one.

No doubt we’d have plenty of food, but we’d be eating each other in no time.

Toner Mitchell is TU’s New Mexico coordinator for the Western Water and Habitat program.


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