Fly Fishing Conservation Stories to Watch in 2020

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

Unless you’re purposefully ignoring it, as an angler you’re probably keenly aware of all the fly fishing conservation work going on. From Instagram posts to Facebook ads, organizations and brands alike push out a fairly unified message each year, about protecting and preserving the wildlife and wilderness we have left.

I believe it’s our responsibility to actively care for the natural resources that give us so much joy – and in my case, a living. So, that’s why I’ve compiled this list of conservation stories that you should watch throughout the rest of 2020. Knowing what’s going on in the fly fishing conservation world will help you better act to help preserve and protect what we have left.

Tarpon Protections

Tarpon are one of the most sought-after game fish in the world. As I wrote recently over at MidCurrent, a new study has revealed information on tarpon migrations, as well as the impact of sport and commercial fisheries on the species. New protections are needed if tarpon are to continue to be as popular – and present – as they are now.

You can read the study in full detail here.

San Juan Cutthroat Trout

This is one of the more interesting stories I’ve followed lately, due in large part to how dearly I love cutthroat trout. Back in 2017, news broke of a “new” cutthroat trout subspecies discovery. While the subspecies isn’t new, it is new to 21st-century fisheries biologists. The fish is native to the San Juan River, in Colorado, and is as distinct genetically as Colorado River and Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Work is underway to preserve this fish, both from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited. You can read more about the plans for the San Juan cutthroat trout here.

Florida Bay

Florida is one of the world’s most diverse fisheries. From peacock bass and snakehead to tarpon and bonefish, you can spend a lifetime fishing in Florida and not come away with all your bucket list fish.

But that’s all at risk, thanks to a lack of freshwater spilling into Florida Bay. As Johnny Carrol Sain wrote for Hatch Magazine, “Florida Bay is a place like no other in the world. And, like so many other Florida fisheries, it’s dying.”

You need to read the rest of Sain’s piece, probably twice, to get a grasp of what’s really going on in Florida, and how you can help.

Yellowstone Lake Trout

For years, we’ve heard about the negative impact the lake trout in Yellowstone Lake have had on the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout. The fish all but disappeared from spawning in the tributaries to Yellowstone Lake, creating a ripple effect on the rest of the park’s ecosystem. The grizzly bears no longer had a rich food source right after hibernation ended – cutthroat spawn in spring, when bears are waking up for the year – and as such, preyed on other animals. I wrote a paper a few years ago that even detailed the river otter population all but vanishing with the Yellowstone cutthroat.

But, all is not lost, as Chris Hunt details in this in-depth piece. Lake trout are on the decline, cutthroat trout are showing up in tributaries to spawn once more, and it looks as though our efforts here are working.

It will be interesting to see how much more ground we gain here in 2020.

America’s Rotenone Problem

Most of America’s fisheries try to use chemicals to remove nonnative fish, in order to restore native fish to their native ranges. However, anytime you talk about putting chemicals in the water in America, everyone gets defensive.

Even if there’s mounds of science proving a particular chemical has no effect whatsoever on humans.

That’s the case with rotenone – a popular treatment chemical used to remove nonnative fish from rivers and lakes. As conservation efforts grow, however, the public will have to get used to the idea of chemicals, especially rotenone, being used.

Ted Williams goes into great detail on this in a two-part series for Hatch Magazine. It’s worth your time to read through.

Conservation is an ongoing work, and one that we, as anglers, should all proudly be a part of. Fly fishers have the unique position of being hugely invested in cold, clean water, pristine habitat, and well-managed wildlife populations. We’re a powerful voice, when we choose to be, and hopefully we can continue to unite and push this work forward. Nature is finite, and we have to do everything we can to protect it.

Spencer Durrant is a nationally-renowned fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and Founder of Spencer Durrant Outdoors. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.

Respect the Redds: Fishing near Spawning Brown Trout

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

It’s hard to believe that the annual circus put on by spawning brown trout is nearly here. I hunted most of October (chasing elk through the Mt. Nebo Wilderness Area), as did our Shooting Director Justin Stapley (though he hunted deer). Usually I don’t hunt as long, or as hard, as I have this year. When I left for the elk country, the rivers were still high, temps still warm, and the hatches made up of mostly larger bugs.

Hunting season closed at the end of October, and the first thing I noticed when back on the water were redds. Not many, but enough to remind me that my favorite time to fish is right around the corner.

As I’ve made a habit of doing every year when I see fall’s first redds, I’m presenting a quick rundown of everything you need to know about fishing near and around spawning brown trout.

What’s a “redd?”

Redds are shallow, bowl-like depressions on the bottom of a river created by spawning brown trout. Redds function much the same way a bird’s nest does. Eggs are deposited in the redd, then milt (fish sperm) is sprayed to fertilize the eggs. Six months later, trout hatch and the cycle starts anew.

You’ll most often see redds on river bottoms in gravelly areas, though I’ve also seen them dug into silty bottoms as well. Brown trout especially prefer rocky terrain for digging their redds. You’ll find redds in areas where fish can easily keep these gravelly areas clean of moss and other debris.

Why do redds matter?

As you can imagine, redds are integral to self-sustaining wild brown trout populations. From about this time in November through December (and on into January in some places) brown trout will continue too dig redds, deposit eggs and milt, and then settle in for a long winter.

What should I do when I find a redd?

There’s all sorts of debate about this in the fly fishing world. The ethics of fishing to spawning brown trout are hotly debated, though I personally don’t see what the difference is between fishing the spawn and hunting during the rut.

Regardless, if you find some redds this fall while fishing, take care not to step through them. Any disturbance to the redd can potentially crush trout eggs, meaning that many fewer new trout will hatch in the spring.

Can I fish near redds?

The short answer to this question is yes. Fishing near redds, so long as you’re not stepping on them, isn’t inherently “bad” or “unethical.” Again, what’s the difference between that and shooting a bugling bull elk?

What I see as crossing the line, though, is fishing to trout that are actively spawning. These fish are really easy to spot. They tend to be paired up, nearly touching, directly over the center of a redd. Every so often, the male or female will turn, wiggle, and deposit milt or eggs into the redd. So, a good general rule of thumb is to not cast to any trout that are on a redd.

However, there’s nothing wrong with fishing around redds. All the ruckus created by spawning brown trout stirs up plenty of bugs from the river bottom, creating a fresh supply of easy food. On top of that, not every egg makes it into the redd. Eggs are a protein-rich food source for any trout, so you’ll often find fish stacked in the pools and buckets behind redds. Drifting an egg pattern off the end of a redd and into the deeper water behind it will give you some of the fastest fishing you’ll get all year.

This is a touchy subject, but it’s entirely possible to fish the spawn in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the trout. At the end of the day, all of us as anglers have a responsibility to respect and care for the resource that gives us so much. Respecting the spawn – and leaving actively spawning fish alone – is just one of the many things you can do to ensure the long-term potential of your favorite fisheries.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. His work has appeared in multiple national publications, including Gray’s Sporting Journal and Field & Stream. Connect with Spencer on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.

Why Catch and Release Fishing Isn’t Just for Fly Anglers

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

It’s easy to poke fun at fly anglers for being catch-and-release snobs. Not long ago, Hank Patterson did a fantastic parody of the highfalutin’ attitude often associated with catch-and-release fishing.

All jokes aside, catch-and-release fishing plays a vital role in the viability of our fisheries. As my friend and fellow fishing writer Chris Hunt wrote in Hatch Magazine a while back,

The catch-and-release movement is perhaps one of the most effective, self-imposed conservation campaigns ever. It ranks right up there with America’s hunters imposing on themselves tighter bag limits. It was vital to the future of the pastime, just as catch-and-release has been vital to the future of fishing. Those who catch and release all, or even some, of the fish they bring to hand can take a good portion of the credit for the overall health of some of our best-known American trout fisheries.

Chris Hunt

I’d like to point out that Hunt specified that catch-and-release has been vital to the future of fishing. Not fly fishing, but fishing in general. That’s an important distinction to make, because fly anglers are in the vast minority when compared to the amount of people who fish worldwide.

Also, I’m not trying to paint one group of anglers as more conservation-minded than another. I’m simply recording my observations from a lifetime in the fishing world. Catch-and-release is largely associated with the highbrow fly crowd, and I think that hurts the effort as a whole. Catch-and-release fishing was never meant to separate bait anglers from fly guys; it was meant to bring the angling community together.

At its core, catch-and-release fishing is about improving fish mortality rates, and leaving fisheries better than we found them. It’s a conservationist mindset that aids in keeping our rivers, lakes, and streams viable fisheries for generations to come. It’s not about proving one form of fishing is better than another (it’s not) or that all fish caught on bait die upon release (they don’t).

So, let’s throw pretenses aside for a few minutes and have a clear discussion about why all anglers need to be better informed about catch-and-release fishing.

Why catch-and-release?

The theory behind catch-and-release is simple: it’s unsustainable to keep every fish you catch. By properly releasing fish, you help populations remain stable, self-sufficient, and vibrant for the next angler who comes along.

That’s the key, though – properly releasing fish. At the heart of catch-and-release fishing is the impetus to handle fish with care, and ensure they have as good a chance at survival as possible. That’s the real reason the catch-and-release movement exists. It’s not to stroke the ego of tweed-clad, pipe-smoking old guys on a river.

It’s also a phenomenal conservation and management tool. By releasing fish, you allow them to grow larger. As fish grow, they tend to turn to a diet of almost exclusively other fish – a habit known as “piscivorous.” This dynamic with a population of fish creates a class of larger fish – the hogs – and a lot of fish in the 10 – 17 inch range.

A prime example of that succeeding is on Utah’s Green River. The tailwater boasts trout populations of 12,000-13,000 fish per mile, along with an average size of just under 17 inches. And while the river isn’t mandated as a catch-and-release fishery, almost all fish caught are released. What’s more, the Green is limited to artificial flies and lures only, and every year I see more and more anglers booking spin fishing trips.

So, there’s just one example of catch-and-release fishing doing its job, and not creating an environment that excludes conventional tackle, either.

Handling fish

Another key component to the catch-and-release movement is learning how to properly handle fish. And yes, this includes not holding trout out of the water for 2 or 3 minutes while you get just the right angle for your next Instagram pic. I work with some very talented fishing photographers and filmmakers – like Gilbert Rowley and Ryan Kelly – and they’ve taught me a ton about handling fish when filming or taking still photographs.

The point in bringing that up is to show that anglers from all persuasions can learn to better handle fish. Just because you fly fish doesn’t mean you’re inherently better at releasing trout than the guy killing it downriver with a Rapala.

With that in mind, here are some tips for handling fish during the release process:

  • #Keepemwet: The #keepemwet campaign really blew up on Instagram, and its key teaching is to keep trout wet. Sounds simple, right? It is. Get your hands wet before touching a fish, and keep them in the water as long as possible. This greatly improves fish mortality rates.
  • 5-second rule: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a good grip-and-grin photo. They’re a fun way to provide a lasting memory of a great fish. And without the good ol’ grip-and-grin, what would Instagram be? But when you’re taking these pictures, try to limit the time the fish is out of the water to 5 seconds or less.

    When I’m out filming or shooting photos, we adhere to that rule pretty strictly. When we’re not ready for an above-water shot, fish are submerged in our landing nets. It’s perfectly fine to take a fish out of the water multiple times for multiple shots. Just make sure that you limit those out-of-water experiences to 5 seconds or less.
  • Cut your losses: When fish swallow a hook deep – and I’ve had it happen with everything from worms to flies – a lot of anglers make the mistake of trying to yank the hook out. If a trout’s hooked so deep that getting your hook or fly or lure back may require surgery, just cut the line. The hooks will eventually rust out, and the trout has a much better chance of survival.
  • Don’t place them on the ground: Nothing makes me cringe more than seeing a trout splayed on the rocks, or covered in grass, next to a fishing pole. Placing trout on the ground removes the protective slime that’s paramount to trout health, not to mention that the fish is likely out of the water for way more than 5 seconds at this point.
  • Don’t squeeze: This one is hard, because it’s what we all revert to when trout get squirmy and won’t hold still so we can remove hooks. But squeezing trout too hard can damage their internal organs. And, I’ve found that trout tend to wiggle more when I squeeze them too hard. A gentle, but firm, grip directly behind the pectoral fins is all you need to get enough leverage to remove hooks.

    Additionally, you may want to turn the fish upside down while it’s in the water. For whatever reason, turning trout upside down calms them, and it’s not bad for the fish at all.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of tips and tricks, but it’s enough to help us all get started on the path to being better stewards of the trout we love so much.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and bamboo rod builder from Utah. Spencer’s work appears regularly in national outdoors publications, including Hatch Magazine, MeatEater, and Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine. Connect with Spencer on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Gear Review: Douglas Outdoors LRS 9′ 5wt

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

Around the end of last year, Douglas Outdoors introduce their new LRS line of rods. LRS stands for “Lake, River, Sea,” indicating that Douglas intends this rod family to address your angling needs no matter the body of water you’re in.

For the most part, the LRS does just that. It’s an absolutely gorgeous rod with an eye-catching deep blue finish, paired with better-than-expected cork and a wallet-friendly price of $249. I’ve had my 9′ 5wt LRS for about a month, and have fished it everywhere except the sea. So far, it’s performed above and beyond what I expected out of a $250 fly rod.

In fact, the LRS is such a fun rod, it rivals the Orvis Clearwater as my favorite budget-rod pick. Let’s take a deeper look at exactly why I say that.

What I Like

Progressive action

Douglas Outdoors isn’t known for building the stiff, fast-action rods that dominated the market for the better part of this decade. They’ve always put out products I’d classify as medium-fast, much like Scott, Winston, and a select few models from Sage.

The LRS, though, is more than just a moderate action rod. It’s quick and lively in close, then slows up just enough to punch flies out to 60 feet. The action is eerily reminiscent of most Winston fly rods, albeit with a heavier swing weight.

The LRS excels at 40-50 feet, but is plenty capable within 20, and in a good caster’s hands can work past 60 feet. I fished the LRS in some pretty nasty wind on Utah’s Green River in mid-June, and I was still able to push big foam cicadas out to the banks. I had to work like hell to make the cast, but at least I knew the LRS could handle things, albeit not as well as a stiffer rod would.

Regardless, this feels like Douglas Outdoors’ most user-friendly rod I’ve fished.

douglas lrs fly rod with fish
Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Feel in close

Most rods under the $300 mark aren’t great in close. A few exceptions exist – especially for fiberglass – but it’s hard to make a rod that’s great at distance and in the short game, without giving your wallet a heart attack.

Again, Douglas Outdoors has really outdone themselves with the LRS. Casting small dries off the tip worked great, and it was equally as effective for nymphing in tight quarters. I said this earlier, but it bears saying again – this rod feels a lot like a Winston.

Build quality

I adore the blue blank Douglas went with here. I think it just pops, especially when compared to other rods, as pictured below.

douglas outdoors lrs next to orvis h3f 8'6" 4wt fly rod
The LRS just looks good. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

(For the record, my 8’6″ 4wt Orvis H3F is my favorite 4wt I own, even if it doesn’t have the same sex appeal as the Douglas LRS).

The blank sparkles in the sunlight, which was about impossible for me to capture in a good photo. Go give one a wiggle at your nearest fly shop on a sunny day, and you’ll see what I mean.

Moving on, the cork is better than expected for a $250 rod. I’m not a huge fan of the burls on either end, but that doesn’t factor into how the rod fishes. Thread wraps are tight, with a good even finish. The reel seat, while not spectacular, feels solid.

What I Don’t Like

Not enough backbone

Despite its pleasant progressive action, the 9′ 5wt LRS just doesn’t pack the backbone I expected. Getting flies to lay out in the wind was a challenge, and turning over bigger bugs wasn’t as easy as I’d like.

The LRS is plenty hefty to handle bigger fish, thanks to a solid butt section. I just wish the solidity in the bottom third of the rod extended further up into the tip.

Double uplocking rings

I’m a firm believer that 99% of us trout anglers don’t need a disc drag reel (feel free to disagree with me in the comments). Even when fighting 20-inch trout, it’s rare you need a reel with more stopping power than what a click-pawl offers.

But folks like their large-arbor disc drag reels, which means rod companies continually add double uplocking rings to their reel seats. I think it’s overkill, I don’t like the way it looks, and I wish we’d scrap uplocking seats altogether and go back to downlocking hardware.

I digress. Honestly, it’s not a dealbreaker here. The uplocking rings don’t affect the action or feel of the LRS. I just took this as a moment to get on a bit of a soapbox.

douglas outdoors lrs fly rod with brown trout

Final Word

The Douglas Outdoors 9′ 5wt LRS is one of the most impressive budget-friendly rods I’ve ever seen. I’d put it neck-and-neck with the Orvis Clearwater, and even go so far as to say the Douglas is better fishing within 20 feet than the Orvis.

The LRS features such a pleasant progressive action that it’s just fun to cast, and I love the blank color. While I wish the cork burls were gone, and the reel seat hardware downsized, there’s not one thing I can point to that detracts from the rod’s performance itself. Sure, it has a heavier swing weight than I’d like, but remember – it’s a $250 rod.

And it’s a damn good one, at that.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and fishing guide from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, and other national publications. Spencer is the founder/editor of Spencer Durrant Outdoors. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.

Just Wait

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

A breeze pulled at my rolled-up shirt sleeves as I readjusted my hat to fend off the glare of a now-setting sun. It was the first truly warm day of the year – warm enough to make me itch for wet-wading. But the snow-laden peaks of the Rockies, still buried beneath 20 or 30 feet of the greatest snow on Earth, brought me back to reality. It’d be weeks, if not months, before wet-wading was an option.

I sighed and stretched my back, cursing the natural river side accommodations for not being more ergonomic. Standing up from the rough-hewn boulder that had served as my chair, I looked back down river, to the hole I’d just come from.

A fish jumped clean out of the water, snatched a bug mid-Sea-World-trick, and plopped back in the river. I swear the fish took time to wink at me on its way down.

That was the most activity I’d seen all afternoon, and I’d parked at the trail head well before the sun began setting. With it being so warm, and smack in the middle of May, I’d hoped to run into some caddis. I’d heard whispers that the bigger bugs were showing their wings, pushing the diminutive blue-winged olives to the peripheries of anglers’ attention. After a prolonged winter that featured the most spectacular blue-wing hatch I’ve seen on the Lower Provo River in years, I was ready to fish a size 14 elk hair caddis.

On cue, a light-colored caddis fluttered by in the rickshaw-like flight pattern that’s part of why the bugs are so endearing. The bugs were ready for a change too, it seemed. After a few minutes of re-rigging, paired with the inevitable curses of “I swear I tied more size 14s than this. These suck,” I was ready for the inevitable caddis hatch.

Except it wasn’t inevitable. A few more popped off, like blues guitarists in their frenetic, individual energy. The sun dipped behind the mountains and bathed the river in blue light. Fish rose, snacking on the menagerie of duns and cripples littered on the river’s surface.

Mayfly duns and cripples. Not caddis. A distinction I noticed but didn’t want to acknowledge. I’d just watched a half-dozen caddis buzz by in a half-hour. Surely those random bugs were harbingers of an upcoming caddis storm.

From behind, a voice carried over the noise of the river and made me jump out of my skin.

“How’s the fishing?”

I turned to see a young guy, around my age, standing a few yards away.

“I’m not really sure,” I said. “I’ve been here for a few hours but I’ve spent most of the time sitting on the bank waiting for the hatch to start.”

The guy paused a beat, not sure how to take that. He had an eagerness to his questions that suggested he wasn’t the type to sit on a stream and wait out a hatch.

“You see any caddis?” He asked.

I nodded. “A few, but nothing to really get ’em going.”

The guy shrugged and thanked me, taking off upriver, leaving me alone on the bank once more. Another half-hour dragged by and I started pulling up rocks, looking for caddis casings. I found plenty, but they were all full of larvae. Further proof that the hatch wasn’t quiet as ready as I’d hoped.

I turned my attention back to the river, expecting caddis but seeing only mayflies. As if reading my thoughts, a fish rose to a crippled dun as it drifted 15 feet from where I sat on the bank. The unmistakable plop of a big trout rising on small flies was insult to injury.

Just about then, the guy who’d stopped by a half-hour prior ambled back down the trail. His shoulders were hunched with the frustration of not catching fish, and I didn’t bother stopping him to ask how he’d done.

As it turns out, the guy should’ve waited another ten minutes. After he walked out of view, another fish took a crippled dun near my streamside seat. Then another. Within minutes, fish rose in that tight, predictable rhythm indicative of nature’s inherent truth – that sooner or later, predators will find their prey and finish the circle of life.

I insisted on fishing a caddis during the hatch, even though the fish were obviously keyed in on mayflies. I mumbled something about unmatching the hatch and a higher-protein meal target while tying on my size 14 caddis, but the fish didn’t hear my halfhearted pleadings.

Eventually, I broke down and tied on a size 18 crippled blue-winged olive. Within a few casts I had a fish in the net. Then another. I missed the next take, and broke my tippet on the following rise. But I fished until it was too dark to see, quietly grateful to step out of the water that had numbed my legs.

Later, as I stopped in town for a burrito and some Mountain Dew, I texted a buddy a blurry photo of one of the browns I’d caught that night. “The caddis were out but the fish didn’t care tonight,” I wrote. “Too many mayflies still kicking around.”

He wrote back, “I’m sick of fishing mayflies.”

I grinned because I felt his pain, but I wasn’t about to complain, either. The caddis would just be late this year, and while it was inconvenient, it wasn’t like the fishing sucked. The fish were just doing what they’ve done so well for as long as man has fished.

They made me wait.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, American Angler, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, and numerous other national publications. Spencer is also the founder and editor of Spencer Durrant Outdoors. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Gear Review: Mountainsmith Dry Tour Hip Pack

mountainsmith dry tour hip pack being fished
By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

I’m always tinkering around with how I carry my gear while on the water. From the traditional vest to slings, I probably have too many options for carting my tackle around on the river. For the past few months, I’ve had the Mountainsmith Dry Tour Hip Pack.

Hip packs have always intrigued me with their theoretically easier access to must-have items, cup holders, and myriad of pockets. On top of that, most hip packs I’ve used are waterproof, an absolute must for an outdoors writer who always has a camera on hand.

The Mountainsmith Dry Tour Hip Pack is the second hip pack I’ve put through the review wringer, and while I’m still not converted to the hip pack game, I’ll easily rank it ahead of the Simms Dry Creek hip pack. It’s relatively comfortable, easily adjustable, and spacious. The waterproof nylon feels solid, the zippers are taut, and there’s even a detachable water bottle holder.

However, there’s a lack of multiple inner compartments and the zippers are almost impossible to operate one-handed. You’ll pay a premium for this product – $179.95 – but that’s cheaper than most fully-waterproof hip packs.

mountainsmith dry tour close up
Photo by Spencer Durrant.

What I Like

Ease of adjustment

Most packs, be it for backpacking, fishing, or hunting, have unnecessarily complicated adjustment systems. And the packs that adjust easily tend to require multiple readjustments throughout the day to stay comfortably in place.

The Mountainsmith Dry Tour has the easiest adjustment system I’ve seen on a hip pack. I can tighten or loosen the shoulder and hip straps with one hand, which is a major plus. And the straps stayed in place longer than other packs I’ve used.

Fully waterproof

What some manufacturers consider “waterproof,” I’ve found to be anything but. I once had a supposedly waterproof pocket in some waders fill with water and ruin a phone while fishing the Big Thompson River in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Mountainsmith Dry Tour is fully waterproof, as far as I’m concerned. I filled it with various water-friendly items and held it underwater for five minutes while fishing. I did this over various trips, and never sprung a leak. The tough fabric and waterproofing finish all live up to what Mountainsmith claims it’ll do.

Plenty of space

This pack will hold 7L of gear, which is plenty of room for my Sony a6300, extra batteries, another lens, two or three fly boxes, and the various accouterments necessary for a day on the water.

It also has a detachable cup holder, which works just as well when attached to the pack. 12-oz cans of Mountain Dew fit in it perfectly.

mountainsmith dry tour cup holder
Photo by Spencer Durrant.

What I Don’t Like

Tight zippers

The zippers on the Mountainsmith Dry Tour are heavy-duty affairs. You likely won’t see a water leakage issue due to zippers failing. However, they’re tight as all get out and nearly impossible to use one-handed. It’s inconvenient to find a place for my fly rod while digging my camera or other gear out of the hip pack, but it’s not exactly a deal breaker.

Not enough compartments

There’s plenty of room in the Dry Tour, but just like most every other hip pack I’ve played with, this one doesn’t have enough compartments. I know it’s hard to strike a balance between a spacious main compartment and smaller ones, but I’d like to see someone try. Small pockets for floatant, nippers, thin fly boxes, or even spare sunglasses would be nice.

Final Word

The Mountainsmith Dry Tour Hip Pack is my first experience with Mountainsmith products, but from what I’ve seen so far I’m impressed. It’s a well-built, solid piece of gear that’s as waterproof and tough as advertised. With 7 liters of storage space, you’ll be set for at least a day or two on the water. And, it’s more easily adjustable than any other hip pack I’ve used.

It does, however, have a few drawbacks with tight zippers and not enough compartments inside the main storage area. Putting those two strikes aside, though, it’s still a great piece of gear at a fairly reasonable price.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, TROUT Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, Field & Stream, and other national publications. Connect with Spencer on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Gear Review: 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F

orvis h3f still shot
By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

I’ve heaped a ton of praise on the Orvis H3F lately, but with good reason. The various configurations of this rod series I’ve fished have been absolutely stellar. The first one I reviewed, an 8’6″ 4wt, is still arguably the best 4wt you’ll find on the market today.

I’ve experimented a lot with rod length in the past year or so, trying to determine how much of a difference it makes for my “usual” fishing circumstances. Is a 10′ 5wt, for example, worth the extra swing weight just for the reach?

As with everything in fly fishing, it depends. But after a month or so spent with the 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F, I’ve decided the extra length and weight of this rod is more than worth it.

For starters, this rod will pick up and throw line. Whether I had streamers or dries on the end didn’t matter; the rod just flat-out performed. Being 9’6″ long, it’s obviously a great tool for high-sticking dead drifts, and is an absolute dream for mending from a drift boat.

That comes at the cost of added weight, swing weight, and less subtlety than I’d like in close, but overall the 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F is a fantastic rod that’s worthy of a spot in any angler’s quiver.

What I Like

Raw Power

Even though this rod is part of the “3F” family, don’t mistake it for a slouch in the power department. It rockets line wherever you cast, and with whichever line you choose, too. I usually test rods out with various lines, because a good line can make all the difference in rod performance.

I used a Cortland 444 Classic Peach DT6F and the Orvis Power Taper WF6F on a Hardy Princess and Orvis Mirage reel, respectively. The 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F handled both lines flawlessly, though it mended the DT line better (as should be expected).

orvis h3f casting
Angler Ryan McCullough casting the Orvis H3F to wary brown trout. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Multiple times while using this rod to fish small dries in Oregon this March, I needed to pick up 50 or 60 feet of line and recast quickly. I rarely, if ever, had to false cast with this rod. That’s some serious power that comes in handy when hatches are sporadic and fish are wary.


While I’d never call this rod a delicate dry fly tool, it is remarkably adept at soft, accurate presentations. For fishing pre-runoff hatches in low, crystal-clear water, that sort of delicacy is an absolute must. The 9’6″ 6wt Orvis H3F isn’t a Scott or Winston by any means, but it’ll get the job done.

Blank Strength

Honestly, six inches doesn’t feel like a huge difference in length, but as anyone can attest, length matters. And six inches is more than enough to make a normally great rod feel a bit wobbly.

You notice this a lot on some of the lower-end Euro Nymphing rods, if you’re paying attention. The rods are stout throughout the butt section, but lose any power, stability, and strength in the last few feet of the tip.

Orvis avoided that pitfall. The 9’6″ 6wt H3F has plenty of blank strength to help turn and lift fish. Given that this is the “F” model as opposed to its more powerful “D” model cousin, that’s pretty impressive.

Build Quality

I’ve touched on this in every other review I’ve done of an H3 rod, but I’ll briefly address it here. The build quality on the Orvis H3F and H3D series is impeccable. The thread wraps are tight, and you’ll find two SiC stripping guides alongside REC Recoil snake guides. As with all H3F rods, the finish is a matte gray.

Paired with the best cork on production rods I’ve found to date, an anodized aluminum reel seat, and a cork fighting butt. Nothing about the rod is fancy, but pick one up and it’s apparent that all components are top-notch.

orivs h3f in grass
The build quality of an Orvis H3F is hard to beat. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

What I Don’t Like

Swing Weight

This was a new experience for me with an H3. Most of these rods have so little swing weight you never notice it. The 9’6″ 6wt had enough for me to notice and wear my arm out a little after a week of fishing sunup to sundown.

For the average angler, though, the swing weight won’t be too much of a deterrent.

Rod Weight

The H3 series hasn’t even been known for being light. These rods are actually heavier than their predecessor, the Helios 2. It’s a minuscule difference, though, which most folks won’t notice.

But for the length and weight of this rod, I felt that the 9’6″ 6wt was too heavy. Eliminating the fighting butt may be all Orvis needs to change in order to help it feel better in-hand.

orvis h3f with fish
Angler Ryan McCullough tricked this big brown with the Orvis H3F 9’6″ 6wt. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Final Word

Orvis continues to be the name to beat in the fly fishing arms race. No other company offers consistent value and performance over their lineup in the way Orvis does. From entry-level sticks to high-end models, Orvis has a rod for every angler.

The 9’6″ 6wt Orivs H3F may not be for every angler, but it has its place as an excellent distance rod. It’s an absolute wind cannon, perfect for using while fishing out of a drift boat, but also capable of delicately presenting dry flies.

The swing weight and overall rod weight are a slight deterrent, but not enough so that I’d write this rod off as “not good.” It’s an excellent piece of equipment that’s accurate, fun to fish, and most importantly, gets the job done.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His writing has appeared in multiple national publications over the past decade, including Field & Stream, American Angler, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, Hatch Magazine, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. Spencer is the founder of Spencer Durrant Outdoors. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Book Review: Simple Fly Fishing

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

John Juracek – who’s quickly becoming one of my favorite fly fishing writers – made an interesting, albeit sad, observation in a recent piece for Hatch Magazine.

For quite some years now, the classic books of fly fishing have been skating on thin ice. Very thin ice. Recently it appears—at least from where I stand—that the ice has finally given way. With luck a couple of classic titles may flounder for awhile, but the bulk of them seem to be plunging unceremoniously to depths from which only the most intrepid of future anglers might dredge them. Yes, the classics are pretty much gone. I’m taking it hard.

John Juracek

As someone who has a stack of classic titles on my desk, nightstand, and one of the many bookshelves in my home, I feel John’s pain. But I also see some hope for fly fishing books, of which the revised 2nd Edition of Simple Fly Fishing is emblematic.

It’s categorically impossible to call Simple Fly Fishing a classic, but if the angling world can produce more books like this one, then perhaps the classics titles from the early-to-mid 20th century won’t fall into such abject obscurity.

What Simple Fly Fishing Does Well

Concise Detail

For starters, this book earns its title. Authors Yvon Chouinard, Craig Mathews, and Mauro Mazzo break down the complex world of fly fishing to something more approachable. The intricacies of mayfly hatches and aquatic insect life cycles are illustrated with great detail, helping to roll back that shroud of wonder and mystery. I imagine this will shorten the entomology learning curve every angler goes through.

Also included are detailed descriptions and illustrations on casting techniques, like the one pictured below.

simple fly fishing diagram

Honestly, this feels like Simple Fly Fishing‘s biggest strength. The illustrations and directions are clear, concise, and easy to understand. If I’d had a book like this when I started fly fishing, I think I’d have picked it up quicker.

A Fly Primer

I’m no professional guide, but on the occasion I take folks fishing who’ve never been, the question I’m asked most is how to know which flies to use, and when.

I had the fortune of learning all about flies from a grandfather who tied commercially for 27 years, and a dad who took me fishing from the moment I could walk. For those not born into a situation like that, this book is a great primer on flies.

It’s not as scientifically-driven as Vincent C. Marinaro’s A Modern Dry-Fly Code or In The Ring of The Rise, so there’s not as much depth as more experienced anglers may expect. The details on flies in Simple Fly Fishing are much more akin to any of Jack Dennis’s books.

Phenomenal Illustration

image of dry fly in simple fly fishing

As a photographer myself, and a purveyor of fly fishing art and photos, I was absolutely blown away at the quality of the photos in Simple Fly Fishing. They’re above and beyond what I’d expect, and I think for a new angler they add to the grand aura that attracted so many of us to this sport in the first place.

How Simple Fly Fishing Could Improve

Pick Tenkara or Fly Fishing

I’ll likely catch hell for this, but I’m of the persuasion that tenkara isn’t fly fishing. I’ve spent enough time doing it that I feel confident in making that assertion, and I’ll even go so far as to say I believe the same thing about Euro nymphing. Fly fishing, in my mind, involves the act of casting fly line.

I also think both tenkara and Euro nymphing are too complex for beginners. Almost no technique from tenkara transitions to traditional rod and reel, which makes attempting it a waste of time if the goal of a new angler is to learn to fish in the classic “Western” style.

That’s not to mention losing out on the absolute thrill of feeling a big trout take line, and the immediate heft when you’ve hooked a brute.

If the authors would’ve picked a single form of fishing to focus on in this book, the overall instruction and presentation would’ve been much stronger. I know Yvon Chouinard loves tenkara, but out here in the Rockies it’s not practiced much.

simple fly fishing image

More Emphasis on Gear

The authors do a good job describing what kind of gear you need, but fail to give specifics. Craig Mathews says he prefers a “slow-action rod” for dry fly fishing (pp. 125), but unlike the recommendation on tenkara rods for dries – “I prefer Temple Fork Outfitter’s ‘Dry Fly’ model rod (pp. 115)” – there aren’t any recommendations for traditional rods or reels.

With this book being published by Patagonia, they obviously have a vested interest in selling Patagonia gear. But Patagonia doesn’t sell rods or reels, so why not suggest anglers try a Sage X, Winston Air, Scott Radian, or the outrageously-cheap-yet-impressive Fenwick Aetos? This at least gives newcomers a better starting ground than walking into a fly shop, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, asking for a “slow action rod.”

Final Word

In all, Simple Fly Fishing is just a nice collection of easy-to-digest fishing knowledge from some of the best in the sport. It’s simple enough that newcomers won’t feel intimidated while reading it, but those who’ve only been fishing for a year or two can still learn a lot from it.

I’d like a narrower focus and more specifics on gear, but those are two minor complaints about a work that is, overall, a great introductory tool to the sport of fly fishing.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, American Angler, Sporting Classics Daily, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, and other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

Gear Review: Orvis H3D 9′ 6wt

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

Over the past half-decade, I haven’t been as consistently impressed with a rod family as I am with the Orvis H3 lineup. They’re light, have a low swing weight, track incredibly straight, and are absolute lasers at distance. From the 8’6″ 4wt H3F to the 9’8wt H3D, each rod hits the sweet spot for its length and line weight. Call it premature, but I think the Orvis H3 series will gain the cult following the Sage XP currently enjoys.

The 9’6wt H3D was my second H3, and it had its first true test in Alaska in June 2018. The rod handled big salmon streamers just fine, but followed that up with surprisingly good dry fly presentation for hungry grayling. Surprisingly, I didn’t notice a change in accuracy when throwing streamers or dries.

The 9’6wt H3D features a full-wells cork grip, the standard H3 gray anodized aluminium reel seat, and a fighting butt. Since this is the “D” model, the blank is matte black with matching wraps. Rounding out the components are two SiC stripping guides, followed by REC recoil snake guides. Some folks don’t care for the white sticker above the grip, but I like it. The rest of the rod is fairly plain-looking, a far cry from the classy blue hues of the Helios 2 rods.

close  up of h3d grip
The cork on the H3D is wonderfully soft and smooth in hand. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

The rod performs like few others I’ve ever seen. It’s a beefy 6wt, to be fair – and heavier than the Helios 2 rods – but with a surprising amount of feel and delicacy available. A new Orvis H3D 9’6wt runs $949 and comes backed by the standard Orvis 25-year warranty.

I hesitate to call it the “best” 6wt on the market, but at the same time, I can’t readily place another rod ahead of it. The H3 is in a league all its own, and is one of the few top-tier production rods that’s worth every penny of its steep asking price.

What I Like


Orvis has spent a big chunk of change on marketing the H3 as “accurate from anywhere.” In the hands of a competent caster, they’re not wrong.

The 6wt H3D, in particular, is a laser of a rod. When throwing average trout-sized streamers from a drift boat, I rarely had to re-cast to get my fly right where I wanted. Switching over to dries, the rod did just as well.


The H3D is definitely fast, but not in the realm of the Sage One or Method. It’s lively, quick, and sensitive in-hand, even in heavier weights. I have an H3D in a 9′ 8wt, and it’s just as sensitive as its 6wt brother.

Novice and expert casters alike will get the H3D to work excellently. It’s fast enough to be forgiving, but in the right hands, it’s astoundingly powerful and accurate.

Soft Tip

I didn’t expect this, but the 9’6wt H3D has a surprisingly soft tip. I’m not sure if this stems from the rod’s increased torsional stability, but I’m extremely grateful for it. A few weeks after I got home from Alaska, I was on Utah’s famed Boulder Mountain. My buddy Jeff and I were chasing tiger trout and splake, and the fish weren’t interested in anything unless it was a size 20 or smaller.

So I tied on a few nymphs, a long 6x fluorocarbon leader, and started a slow hand-twist retrieve back to where I sat in my float tube. Something heavy gobbled up a midge, I set the hook, and immediately felt the tell-tale death rolls indicative of tiger trout.

More than once, the fish made runs I thought would snap the tippet. But the Orvis H3D 9’6wt tip absorbed the impact and kept the tippet intact. A few minutes later I had a 20-inch tiger in my lap.


As much as I’ve raved about this rod’s feel and accuracy, it shouldn’t be overlooked as stick with plenty of oomph. The H3’s an absolute wind cannon, and you can cast to backing without too much effort.

h3d sitting on log
The 6wt H3D is surprisingly good on smaller streams. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

What I Don’t Like


Everyone has to make a living, and Orvis isn’t any different. It almost feels disingenuous of me to complain about the price, since I run my own business and get tired of folks balking at my prices.

What bothers me about the $949 price tag for this rod is that a majority of anglers won’t get the chance to fish one. Add $200 to that rod cost, and that’s my mortgage payment. The H3D is worth $949, don’t get me wrong – but it’s still a hard pill to swallow.

Snake Guides

I’m not used to fishing Recoil snake guides, because every time I clean ice from a frozen eyelet, I’m convinced I just broke my rod. This doesn’t affect rod performance or anything. It’s just a feature I’m not all that fond of.

No Hook Keep

Orvis eliminated the hook keep on all H3 rods. The 9’6wt H3D is no exception. About a year ago, when I first got my hands on an H3, I jokingly told Tom Rosenabuer that if he’d put a hook keep on all the H3F rods, they’d be absolutely perfect.

The lack of a hook keep isn’t a deal breaker, especially on a heavier-weight rod like this one. But it’s one of the few things Orvis did with the H3 series that I don’t absolutely love.

close up of orvis h3d 6wt
Overall, the H3D 9’6wt is a stellar rod. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Final Word

The Orvis H3D 9’6wt is one of the most impressive rods I’ve ever fished, and it’s proven extremely capable for fishing dries to grayling, small nymphs to tiger trout, and streamers to angry browns and rainbows. It’s light, accurate as hell, fun to fish, and deceptively powerful.

The $949 price tag is steep, and it’ll prevent a lot of anglers from owning this rod. The lack of a hook keep still bothers me, but it’s honestly the most legitimate gripe I have against the rod. Orvis hit a home-run with the H3D.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, American Angler, Hatch Magazine, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Sporting Classics Daily, and other national publications. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant.

A Bad Trip

By Spencer Durrant | Managing Editor

A friend of mine recently said that I live a charmed life. The way he said it made the statement sound more like an accusation, though I suspect that was jealousy speaking. He made the comment not long after I had my first byline in Field & Stream. That wasn’t my first ‘big-time’ byline, but seeing my name in Field & Stream lent credibility to my career as a fishing writer.

I do live a charmed life, if I’m being completely honest. I get paid to fish, hunt, camp, and travel. I’m living the dream of every outdoorsy man who wishes he didn’t spend his life in a cubicle. What those guys – my friend included – don’t get is that behind the veneer of Instagram pictures and magazine articles is a life just as hectic, stressful, and annoying as theirs.

As I lay in the back of a Toyota 4-Runner trying to keep my insides from becoming my outsides, I half-wished my buddy could’ve been there to see just how “charmed” life was in that moment. Three days before I lay dying in the 4-Runner, I’d left on what should’ve been a leisurely backpacking trip. My buddies and I spent the better part of a year planning this trip, but things went south so spectacularly that we came home a day early.  

The tragedy started late on a Wednesday night. I was with the usual crew of miscreants who are the cast in my fishing adventures. Mike, Bill, and Marty – Mike’s cousin – and I huddled around an empty fire pit, staring off a cliff at the valley which unrolled before us. The moonlight revealed scant details, but we could just make out the far edge of Big Dog Mountain, behind which lay our destination. It was just after midnight, chilly, and the crisp air did little to help us relax. The sharp edge to each breath – shorter now that we were more than 8,000 feet above sea level – excited rather than discouraged. After countless hours of planning, and countless more spent ignoring honey-do lists and general adult responsibility, we could literally taste the adventure we’d come chasing.

From left to right: Spencer, Marty, Bill, and Mike. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Like kids on Christmas morning, we turned from the cliff’s edge and started unpacking the trucks. The plan was to sleep on the cliff, get up with the sun, and start hiking shortly after first light. And, just like kids, we had to make camp as close to the edge of the cliff as was safely possible. Men may grow up, but rarely do we ever stop being children. Cast-in-point:

“Did you eat all the donuts?” Mike asked while I set up our tent by starlight.

“Does a bear shit in the woods?” I replied.

Dozens of bad jokes later, I lay on my thin sleeping pad, acutely aware of each and every rock’s exact location along my spine. All-night comfort my ass, I thought, thinking back to the review I’d read of this sleeping pad. I’d bought it specifically so I wouldn’t feel like I was sleeping on top of spilled Legos, but it seemed I’d been swindled yet again by savvy advertising.

And in case you’re wondering, spending $120 on a sleeping pad that wasn’t near as soft as the pile of feathers and angel tears I’d been promised wasn’t this trip’s great tragedy.

I didn’t sleep much, and was the first to wake to a weak sun and a sky dotted with clouds. Careful not to make noise, I opened Mike’s truck, rummaged around behind the driver’s seat, and pulled out a half-dozen nearly-frozen donuts. I was halfway through donut number three when Mike staggered out of the tent, looking surprised to be in the wilderness. He pointed at the donuts. “I thought you ate ‘em all?”

I shrugged. “I wanted one last good breakfast.”

Camp got packed up quicker than expected, and the sun hadn’t been up for more than half an hour before we started the trek. There wasn’t much of a trail for the first few miles, but we’d spent a year staring at topographic maps, Google Earth, and arguing about the best approach to get to a lake none of us had ever visited before.  

We couldn’t have asked for better hiking weather. Blacksmith Lake was nine miles from the cliff where we’d slept. Balmy temps and a slight breeze kept the sweating and cursing to a minimum, even when I insisted on stopping five times in a span of fifteen minutes so I could set up some still photography and video shots.

Perfect hiking weather. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

“I’m working,” I had to remind everyone else. “I gotta make a living.”

Bill and Marty both chimed in with variations of, “You have a rough life.”

As I lay in the dirt, directing their movements through the forest, I replied, “Yeah, call me when you’re up for two nights editing photos and videos after doing this hike.”

We passed a handful of lakes and eventually found a faint trail that’d take us through the rest of East Basin, which we were currently in, and up to the base of Big Dog Mountain. From there, the trail lost regard for the frailty of men’s legs and lungs at high altitude and shot straight up, taking us more than 1,000 feet from the bottom of East Basin to the top of East Basin Pass.

I was the last to arrive on the pass, and everyone lay sprawled on their backs, gasping for air. From the top of East Basin Pass I could see north, all the way to Mt. Emmons and the southern end of the King’s Peak Basin. Between Mt. Emmons and myself, buried beneath a canopy of emerald leaves, was the dull roar of the Yellow River. Sunlight glinted off it in a few places where the trees broke, but for the most part if was only noticeable by the sound it made.

Climbing passes at 11,000 feet above sea level isn’t for the faint of heart. Literally. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

East Basin Pass was more than halfway to Blacksmith Lake, so we soldiered on, the cursing increasing exponentially with the distance. Finally, we arrived at the most profane moment of the entire excursion. Blacksmith Lake was due west of us, but no trail led to its banks. We had to pick a route based on topographic maps, an ancient GPS, and the actual terrain before us. A year obviously isn’t enough time to pick out a path from maps and Google Earth, and hell will freeze over before four men agree on the right way to walk in a straight line.  Mike and Bill were certain their chosen path was the best, the only “straight shot” to the lake. Marty told Mike to go fornicate with a goat, someone said something about an ass-kicking so hard grandchildren would feel it, and in the interest of the only physical fight being between us and the hike, we split up. I went with Marty and Bill went with Mike.

Marty and I staggered into camp well after Bill and Mike arrived. I haven’t been in good shape since high school, and Marty wasn’t in his prime anymore, either. The only reason Bill and Mike beat us to the lake was due to them being in better shape – not the path they’d picked after we had to leave the trail. Regardless, the view of the lake was worth it all – accusations of fornication with goats notwithstanding.

As I set my pack aside, pitched the tent, and made dinner, however, I wondered if it was pretty enough to merit the hell that was the hike. Nine miles with 12,000 feet of elevation change isn’t for the faint of heart – literally. And we were camped at 11,000 feet above sea level. Even at a rest I had a hard time catching my breath.

Oh, how I wish I could tell you that being short of breath was the trip’s disaster. Alas, the journey only grew more perilous. I made note of my poor physical state as I wrote in my notebook around the campfire after dinner.

I have to go to the gym for like, a month, before I do these things, I wrote. I’m too fat for this shit. But it’s gorgeous. The lake is glass and the pines aren’t all dead from the pine beetle. The only trails are tracks of elk and deer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the first people here this year. This isn’t a place you stumble onto by accident – you have to know where you’re going to get here.

I have a notebook with me on every trip, because most every outing ends up being work-related. I make a living retelling the stories I live throughout the year, and if I didn’t come home from this trip with ideas for at least two columns about the adventure, I’d have wasted my time – and my money. 

High above us is the craggy ridgeline of Big Dog Mountain, barren and lifeless. This feels like most other backpacking trips, all things considered. More work than it’s worth, but a necessary evil if you’re going to tell a story worth telling.

I went to bed that evening – a Thursday – to the sounds of wolves howling in the distance and the gentle whisper of wind through cold aspen leaves. Friday morning, I woke to a layer of frost on my tent. Mike and I bunked together, but he’d been up with the sun. I could hear him and Bill down by the lake, a hundred or so yards from camp. They’d been fishing since they could see. Normally, I’d be down there with them. Normally, though, I’m not waking up after a hellacious stroll through Utah’s high country with 30 pounds on my back. Marty was in similarly rough shape, so we ate a late breakfast and commiserated together about growing old and out of shape. I went back to sleep and Marty went to the lake.

Missing out on a morning of fishing, realizing I’m not as young as I was (and I’m still young, so this train of thought is disturbing), and waking up almost too sore to move would qualify as fiasco on any other trip. But on this one? Those discomforts were the highlights.

I woke up at lunch, and that’s when I made my first big mistake. I sat on a log in weak sunshine, an open box of chicken salad and crackers balancing on one knee. The chicken salad and crackers have been a mainstay on all backpacking trips for as long as I can remember, and it makes a fabulous lunch.

I must’ve been 11 the first time I had boxed chicken salad and crackers on a backpacking trip. My grandma Pat loved the things, and she’s the one who taught me how to backpack in the high country.

“Always have something light and easy for lunch,” grandma Pat said while we were stopped in the middle of a trail. “That way you don’t have to stop too long to eat.”

“But I wanna stop,” I complained, because I was 11 and that’s what 11-year-olds do best.

Grandma Pat shook her head. “Nope, that’s another rule of backpacking. You don’t get to rest unless I say so.”

That hardly seemed fair. “What if I’m backpacking one day and you’re not with me? When do I get to stop?” I tried to be sassy. But grandma Pat always had a smart comment for every smartass one I made.

“Then I taught you something right,” she said.

I chuckled as I thought back to my first trip with grandma Pat. She still backpacks to this day, at the age of 72. Just this past summer, in June of 2018, she spent five days with her dog and a friend in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. I’d told her about this trip to Blacksmith Lake, but when she asked about the elevation and the length of the walk, she just shook her head. “I’m too old for that. Go have fun.”

Just that once, it would’ve been a good thing not to listen to grandma Pat and eat something else. I didn’t notice anything wrong with the chicken salad as I ate it, but short of something blatantly obvious – like bloody, raw chicken – I don’t think I would’ve. I was tired and hungry enough that I’d have eaten anything.

I burned my trash, cleaned up around camp, and got ready for the trip’s main attraction. In spite of the protests from cramped calves and thighs, I grabbed my fly rod and headed down to the lake. I was still beat from the hike, but I’d come all this way to write about the fishing in that lake. I had to throw a cast or two if I wanted my writing to have any ring of legitimacy. I made it to the lake, grumbling that I’d rather be back in the tent sleeping, in a generally foul mood.  

Despite everything, Blacksmith Lake was gorgeous. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Then the food poisoning hit. Right about midafternoon on Friday, on the banks of Blacksmith Lake, at 11,000 feet and nine miles deep from a trailhead that lay at the end of a 20-something mile long dirt road, which was 30 miles from the nearest town.

In other words, I ended up on death’s doorstep while in the middle of absolutely nowhere. But fear not, my intrepid reader; if you’ve made if this far, you’re likely thinking that this is what turned the trip from bumpy to bad. Getting food poisoning miles from any sort of help has to be as bad as it gets, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, the food poisoning was terrible, but it’s what happened after my bowels became impetuously inconvenient that’s truly disastrous. I ran back to camp, looking for the toilet paper, failing to find any, and answering nature’s call with nothing but dry sagebrush in arm’s reach.

I staggered back to my tent, found the toilet paper, and was just settling down to rest, in the hopes that this was a fluke accident, when my body decided everything inside of it needed to see Blacksmith Lake, too.  As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, the temps dropped precipitously and I spent the hours trying not to hurl and begging for sunrise. The sun eventually rose. I couldn’t hold back the urge to empty my guts. With snow falling around our camp, I wiped the vomit from my beard and declared, “I’m not spending another night on this damn mountain.”

With that said, we packed up and hiked out. The snow got worse. In any other situation it would’ve been beautiful. Snow in the high country, especially in September, is a breathtaking sight. A light dusting of the stuff on pines and aspens still clothed in their late-summer greenery is nothing short of magical. Sadly, I wasn’t in a position to appreciate the beauty. Instead, I spent the majority of the hike in a position not conducive to hiking

By a miracle I made it up East Basin Pass – the climb up on that side of Big Dog Mountain was easier than the climb on the way in – and stopped to either die or find the will to keep going. At that moment, death sounded like a splendid idea.

Then I heard the unmistakable squawk of a sage hen. I looked up to see two of the birds standing right in the middle of the trail, heads cocked to one side as if they’d never before seen a human being in such terrible shape. With a start, I realized this was the exact spot where we’d seen sage hen during the hike in. My mind flashed back to that moment – seemingly a lifetime ago, one in which I was healthy and whole and relatively happy.

“Shoot it, we’ll have it for dinner,” I told Bill. We stared at the sage hen. It stared at us. Nothing moved.

“I’m not eating sage hen,” Bill protested.

“It tastes just like chicken,” I retorted. “Come on, shoot it! If you won’t, give me your gun.”

That got Bill ready to shoot. He popped off ten rounds from his little .22LR pistol, missing every single one. The sage hen strutted off, clucking in what sounded like a disapproving tone. I shook my head in agreement with the sage hen. “Here, let me shoot,” I said.

Bill refused. He emptied the rest of his magazine after the sage hen, missing every shot, and concluded that the bird was moving too fast to be hit with a handgun.

“It was twenty feet away and walking!” I razzed him as we climbed down the north side of East Basin Pass.

In a fit of irony, I laughed as I remembered telling Bill that the sage hen would taste just like chicken. That’s completely true, by the way. Those birds are some of the best eating I’ve ever had, and as I sat in the snow, a cold wind doing its best to whip me into submission, I couldn’t help but think that if Bill had shot the sage hen, I’d have eaten those instead of my chicken salad, and I wouldn’t be in this mess.

This is rugged country under normal conditions. With snow falling and food poisoning? It’s almost deadly. Photo by Spencer Durrant. 

Mike showed up then, hauling me to my feet and practically pushing me all the way from the top of East Basin Pass to Lake Bonnie, a mile or so from the pass. We’d stopped there on the hike in for lunch and a bit of fishing, but this time we stopped only to refill water bottles and catch our breath. The wind was so ferocious that little Lake Bonnie – the size of maybe two football fields – had whitecaps crashing on its shore.

I sat on a large square boulder, my pack off for the moment while I rested. Almost everything was wet, but my Sitka rain jacket kept my torso dry. Most importantly, though, the jacket’s waterproof pockets kept the quickly-dwindling supply of toilet paper in usable condition.

The break stretched out longer than expected, and the extended time to sit on a flat surface made me feel almost . . . better? No, that was too strong a word. Less terrible than I’d felt a half-hour ago, definitely, but nowhere near approaching better. Buoyed by the thought that maybe I’d passed the worst of the food poisoning, I fished a package of cheddar and peanut butter crackers from my pack. These weren’t a grandma Pat-approved backpacking mainstay, but they fit her parameters for good backpacking food – light, full of carbs, and easy to eat while walking.

Reasoning that my body would do well with something in my stomach aside from acid and misery, I ate as many of the crackers as I could before we started hiking again. I even washed them down with a bit of freshly-filtered water, and for the next mile I felt like I was on top of the world. I could walk for five minutes without needing a break! I had the strength of a ten-year-old instead of a toddler! I was beating the food poisoning, consequences be damned!

The elation was short-lived. The mile after my brief encounter with hope, I dashed from the trail to the trees so many times I ran out of toilet paper completely, had to borrow some from Bill, used up all of his, and eventually had to resort to other means as I exhausted our once-impressive supply of one of backpacking’s most valuable assets.

Hiking in took us just under eight hours, with long breaks included. 10 hours after we’d left camp that morning, I found myself at the base of the cliff we’d slept on that first night. One last hurdle and I’d be . . . well, not home, but able to lay on something soft and die peacefully, instead of in a pile of unwashed pain in the middle of the mountains.

A faint trail – carved by mountain goats, most likely – traversed the cliff as it rose for a few hundred feet above me. Under normal circumstances, it’s a treacherous climb; loose shale, steep, muddy chutes, and nothing in the way of foliage to use to break a fall are the cliff’s defining features. In good health, I’d see the cliff as a challenge, as something in need of conquering, and I’d do so with a swagger, standing atop it with my beard blowing in the wind, surveying the wild kingdom I felt I owned after scrambling up a relatively small cliff.

In my present state, though, I saw the cliff as insurmountable. I’ll just die here, I thought. This is as good a place as any. The base of the cliff was pretty. Pinion pine, aspen, and cedar grew thick, and there was even a pile of what looked like horse bones next to the trail. I’m not the only poor animal to die here, I thought.

Despite it all, Blacksmith Lake is worth a return trip. Photo by Spencer Durrant.

Then Bill showed up, grabbed my pack, and set off up the cliff. Armed now with only my trekking poles and a bruised ego at watching Bill haul two packs up the cliff with ease, I staggered up the rocky trail, each step a victory that cost me untold amounts of energy and willpower. I’m certain my beard turned from brown to gray in the time it took me to climb that damn cliff, and I collapsed in a soggy heap next to Bill’s 4-Runner convinced I’d not live to see another day. It was the longest, most exhausting hike of my life. Worse than an expedition in 2017 which saw me go 35 miles in Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, the last of which were spent fighting altitude sickness.

That trip had a silver lining – as I descended, I got better and caught fish.

This trip? Sure, the food poisoning was a blight on the experience. Running out of toilet paper was a literal pain in the ass, and I left parts of me on that mountain I’ll never recover. The true tragedy, however, is that I went through the entire ordeal without catching a single fish.

Bill drove as quickly as he could down the bumpy road, but there’s only so much you can do on a trail designed for ATVs instead of trucks. Saturday evening – a full day before we’d expected to get back to civilization – we arrived in Duchesne, Utah, and I staggered into a Sinclair for a bottle of 7-Up. I sipped while Bill drove in silence the rest of the way home. Somewhere around Strawberry Reservoir I passed out. I woke when Bill pulled into my driveway, and as I settled in my own bed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I thought, a charmed life indeed.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, and novelist from Utah. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Sporting Classics Daily, American Angler, Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine, Hatch Magazine, Trout Magazine, and other national publications. Find him on Twitter/Instagram, @Spencer_Durrant, and on Facebook @SpencerDurrantOutdoors.