Medicine Bow Grand Slam
by Paul Bennetts
(Reprinted from Heart of America Fly Fishers May, 2007 Newsletter)
At the time of this writing, I am sitting at my desk gazing out at the layer of ice and sleet that shrouds my front yard, and it does not take long for my thoughts to drift off to the friendlier (and warmer) days of summer. An icicle hangs from the thermometer on my front porch, which now reads a bone-chilling 4 degrees. How can it be this cold? Where is the global warming when I really need it? Why haven’t I moved to Texas already? Why is even San Antonio getting snow today (really!)? I have lots of questions but no answers.
Maybe it is time to begin planning a fishing trip in anticipation of warmer times to come. Summer is around the corner and it will soon be time to dust off the fly fishing equipment and head outdoors. As you think about the possibilities for your own fishing trips this summer, let me offer this account of the highlight of my 2006 fishing season.
Local fishing guide and club member Norm Crisp (who does business as Stream Side Adventures) had been inviting me to come to fly fish with him near Encampment Wyoming for the past two summers. My vacation schedule was flexible enough last summer to go, so I asked Norm to see if he could find a fishing partner for me to split the guide fee, and he was able to pair me up with club member Travis Knight. Travis had fished with Norm at Encampment before and highly recommended the trip to me.
The Encampment River traverses the Encampment River Wilderness area of the Medicine Bow National Forest in south central Wyoming and is easily reachable in a one day drive from Kansas City. Travis and I drove separately and met up at a campground on the banks of the Encampment River just outside the small town of Encampment. We chose a campsite and made ourselves comfortable for the evening ahead. I remember that first night how good it felt to be away from the stress and strain of work and the daily demands of grinding out a living.
We prowled around the grounds until we found Norm’s campsite, where he was comfortably settled in for the month or so that he spends every summer in this beautiful setting. After a short discussion, we determined that we would set out the next day to fish at Big Creek.
Big Creek is more of a river than a creek, and the next day when we arrived we found it quite swollen with the runoff from recent heavy rainfall. After attempting for a short while to wade in the “torrent” and finding it difficult to both fish and maintain our balance at the same time, Norm suggested we head back to camp and give the water time to recede a bit. Travis and I fished the Encampment River for awhile that afternoon, but it also was running high and fishing was a challenge there too. We crossed our fingers that conditions would be better the next day.
On the second day, Norm offered us the opportunity to have our names etched into the wall of fly fishing history (well, almost) and suggested we take the challenge to catch four different species of trout in one day on one fly. I had heard of fly-fishing “grand slams” before but never actually fished for one. In this case, the Medicine Bow Slam (my name for it) is accomplished by catching a Rainbow, a Brown, a Brookie and a Colorado Cutthroat all in the same day, on the same fly pattern. We knew in our hearts we would be held in high esteem, as veritable “men among men”, by our envious fly fishing buddies back in Kansas if we were to accomplish this Herculean feat of fly fishing skill. OK, I may be exaggerating a bit, but it still sounded pretty cool the way Norm described it.
Travis and I mustered our courage, accepted the challenge and the deal was sealed. The choice of a fly for the day was easy. These fish all like dry flies that look like a haystack with a hook in it, so a 12 or 14 elk haired caddis in tan or olive was the recommendation from Norm. With fly rods in hand, the brims of our hats pulled low and a determined look in our eyes, we set off for the first leg of the challenge.
A drive into a beautiful forested area brought us to a gorgeous pocket mountain stream, the North Fork of the Encampment. A short period of fishing the pools of this steam yielded both Brookies and more difficult to find wild Rainbows. Once Travis and I each had our fish, we were hastily off to the second stop in the marathon. A drive across the Continental Divide and a lengthy hike down a Forest Service access brought us to a secluded stream, the South Fork of the Little Snake River, filled with curious Colorado Cutthroat trout. The third species fell victim to our dry flies. At some point here I got careless and had a nasty encounter with a tree branch and suffered a gash in my right shin. I was able to patch it up enough to keep fishing and later had to put in a few stitches when we got back to camp. Anything to save a trip to the E.R. and a ruined fishing trip!
The hike back up from this stream was tiring and I was glad when we got to the truck. I suggested to Norm at this point that he might want to market his guide service as a weight loss and fitness program. I felt I was getting both on this day! A drive to the next destination, a meadow stream, Hog Park Creek, gave us the opportunity to complete the slam with a Brown. Norm’s knowledge of the prime lies made catching this final species a relatively easy task.
Back at camp, our day ended with a fine supper, and swapping tales of the day over a glass or two of wine, graciously provided by our guide Norm. It had been a workout, mostly in gaining access to three streams in one day, but a very satisfying accomplishment having our names added to an elite group of fly fishers.
One of the remaining two days of our fishing with Norm was spent on the East Fork of the Encampment, an absolutely beautiful meadow style stream filled with lots of Brown and Brook trout. This place has scenery I have heretofore only dreamed about or seen in pictures. The aesthetic beauty of the location made it difficult to keep my mind on fishing. As Norm says, “It may not be paradise, but you can sure see it from here.” Choice of a fly here was no more difficult than the day before. Elk hair caddis or a yellow stimulator tied to a 5X tippet was all that was needed to get the attention of the local aquatic residents. The fishing was good, limited only by my frequent inability to properly set the hook into the mouths of the larger fish. One highlight of this day was our discovery of the fresh tracks of a mountain lion during our hike to the stream, a reminder that nature, while often beautiful, is not without the occasional bit of danger to ensure that our eyes were kept wide open.
On my last day of fishing, Norm took Travis and me back to Big Creek for another shot at fishing there. The water levels were much more manageable for wading and we benefited from another picture perfect day of weather. Access to fishing at Big Creek requires four wheel drive and a vehicle with pretty good ground clearance. I was glad Norm was doing the driving and not me.
Big Creek was a bit more challenging for me to fish because there were more tree branches to contend with, and because I still had not quite found my best casting technique for fishing in this larger water. Fly selection was easy though, more big bushy drys. The fish are apparently not too picky as long as what is presented to them looks like a meal. Norm patiently guided us along Big Creek, giving us time to retrieve the occasional errant cast from a tree branch and graciously not being too critical of my lack of fly fishing talent (I am not a “natural” at this sport, but determined to learn nonetheless). Actually by the end of the day my casting was getting better as it usually does at the end of a fishing trip.
Driving back to Kansas gave me plenty of opportunity to think about my fishing adventure in the Medicine Bow National Forest with my fishing partner Travis and our worthy guide Norm Crisp. The fishing was truly awesome as I expected it would be and I knew I had learned much more about this pastime I love but do not get to do often enough. Norm is a great teacher as well as guide, and part of the excitement of fly fishing is the opportunity to get better at it. Exposure to so many different kinds of water in the space of just a few days is but one of the real benefits of a visit to the Encampment area. The Wyoming scenery had been nothing short of spectacular, doing for my soul all the things that beautiful places like this always do, reinforcing my amazement at how diverse and interesting a place this world can be.
Fishing with Norm and his associates at Stream Side Adventures, I have never found that I have simply entered into the contractual status that exists between customer and guide, but I feel totally welcomed into Norm’s Stream Side Adventures world, a world where relationships matter and the experience doesn’t end just because nightfall forces us to stow the fly rods. My time with Norm always evokes a sense of the goodness which is still to be found in the world, expressed through the special fellowship waiting to be discovered around evening campfires, in beautiful places where fishermen tell their tales and raise tin cups in a toast to the good life.