by Douglas Thayer
I don’t recall why I started fly-fishing with Gene, or exactly when, but it was shortly after he began teaching in the BYU English Department. I’d known Gene earlier but not well. More to the point, I’d known about him–essayist, expert on Mormon culture and theology, master teacher, one of the founding editors of DialogueDialogue, Stanford PhD, popular speaker on Mormonism, and so forth. I really didn’t think I was in his league, but of course that thought would never occur to Gene. And besides, when it comes to fly-fishing all men are equal, more or less.
I guess we fished together because we taught together, and because we were compatible. We naturally started talking about our fly-fishing trips, and then naturally we said, he to me or me to him, let’s go out sometime, and we did. Usually I’d drive over to his house, park my car, and move my stuff to his Toyota Four-Runner that Charlotte had given him for a birthday present. Gene would usually not be quite ready, so I’d go in while he gathered up his stuff, put his lunch together, and then gave Charlotte a kiss and told her how much he loved her, and we’d be off, typically for the whole day, a bag of Charlotte’s fresh-made cookies sent with to munch along the way.
Driving out to the stream was part of the pleasure. Typically during the summer we would perhaps go fishing once a week or every ten days. The drive might last one or two hours, and we talked, about various topics–the Church, our writing, our kids, the English department and university administration (and later UVSC when Gene moved over there), earlier fishing trips, people we both knew, death and dying, life in general. Sometimes Gene would have built up a head of steam since the last trip, and would let off a little. He did not suffer arrogant, powerful fools gladly, and was even prone at times to one or two epithets. I liked listening.
As Bert Wilson sometimes commented, Gene was one of the worst drivers in the world, so at Charlotte’s insistence I usually drove. Driving, Gene had very unnerving habits – tailgating, gazing off at mountain scenery, passing with narrow margins, and getting involved in conversations—but somehow we always made it. One day though we were on the highway around Strawberry Reservoir headed for Currant Creek when Gene pulled out to pass. Coming right at us with only yards to spare was a white pickup. I yelled, “Jesus!” (prayerfully), and Gene managed to snap the Toyota back in behind the car we were following.
Arriving at the creek we planned to fish, we would put on our fishing vests, put our rods together, feed the line up through the guides, and tie on the flies. We didn’t wear hip boots or waders, but old pairs of Keds with heavy socks. We were in and out of the stream, and the summer days were hot. Wading was refreshing.
We both liked to fish small canyon streams, preferably streams and parts of streams nobody else fished much, if at all–South Fork, Salt Creek, Corn Creek, Currant Creek, Lower Fish Creek, Gooseberry, Little Deer Creek, Nebo Creek, Thistle Creek, and Monte Cristo. We fished creeks because they were hidden, intimate, and because the trout were dumber, therefore easier to catch, and more abundant, although often small, eight to twelve inches. We didn’t study and try to match the aquatic insect hatches. We didn’t have to; creek fish aren’t sophisticated. We fished only a few fly patterns–grasshopper, parachute Adams, royal Wolfe, royal coachman, hairs ear, glow bug, pheasant tail.
I still fish those same creeks, sometimes alone, sometimes with other friends. Inevitably I find myself talking about Gene, what he said on particular occasions, fish he caught, his humor, his favorite holes, his love of the natural world, his cast. But I’ve stopped. They’re my stories after all, and friends I fish with didn’t really know Gene, don’t understand, can’t possibly.
Fishing small creeks also kept us closer together. Some holes we could both fish, but often we had to leap-frog, and so we had to decide who would fish what hole. And if we got separated we’d have to find each other again to get everything straightened out. Also, we liked to watch each other fish, even give instructions on where to cast and how to play a hooked trout, offer ironic comments, and lament when a strike was missed.
The first creek I fished with Gene was Monte Cristo, which flows above Ogden. I’d never fished it before, but Gene had. It was full of heavy rock falls and log jambs brought down by spring high water and gully washers. I being older and slower than Gene, he got ahead of me, and following his wet footprints up through the rocks and logs was like following a large squirrel. But I did finally catch up with him.
We spooked a bunch of fish in a silted beaver pond, and decided we’d sneak up on the hole coming back. Gene got first cast (we took turns) but hung up on the brush, his fly not touching the water. So I took over. A large rock at the top of the hole cast a shadow about the size of a card table, and every time I put a fly on that shadow I got a strike, six in all and three or four fish, with Gene just standing there holding his rod and watching.
Another time we were fishing Lower Fish Creek late in the fall, and Gene was behind me. As he came up I pointed to a hole and said “why don’t you try it.” He tried it all right. He caught twenty-five, one after the other, all about ten or twelve inches. It was a deep hole, and in the fall the fish migrate to deep holes. I just stood and watched. Eventually he told me to give it a try, and I caught three. We weren’t in competition, but we kept track of who caught what and how many. Typically we caught about the same number of trout.
We’d either take our lunches and drinks with us or make it back to the Toyota after two or three hours to rest and eat. Gene liked a nice lunch, but he usually didn’t bring ready-made sandwiches but the makings–Charlotte’s wonderful bread, lettuce, tomatoes, cheeses, meats, and spreads. And he’d bring something to drink and maybe a fresh peach or an apple. I started out bringing a peanut butter sandwich, maybe with some jelly on it, but eventually I went for something a little more luxurious, even started bringing a cooler with ice to keep all edibles and drinks fresh. Somehow good food seemed appropriate.
Gene and I had different styles of fly-fishing, if you can call them styles. I fished a short rod, made numerous short casts, and tried to hit difficult spots–under brush, between overhanging limbs, pocket water, and along the side rocks. Gene fished a long rod and liked long casts when he had the space, would roll the line out, the fly touching the water like thistle down, and then the strike. Gene fished an expensive Sage rod much in need of repair. The handle was loose, and the tip would occasionally fall off. It was under warranty, and every fall at the end of the season he said he was going to send the rod in to have it repaired. But he never did. I guess that somehow it wouldn’t have been his rod if it were fixed.
Gene also had what I came to call the Gene-England creep, an usual way of approaching a long, open hole. He’d kind of bend forward and crouch at the same time, taking slow long steps, all the time false casting to get line out. And then crouching even a little more, he’d make his cast, shoot his line to drop his fly on the rising fish, straightening up as the trout hit, or didn’t.
Gene liked to fish by logs in the stream, and if we came upon a log, I stood aside. Fish often lurk under logs, so drifting a fly by a log often pays off. On Currant Creek there is a hole with an old permanent log that cuts off a small water pocket that most fly-fishermen would pass up, but not Gene. Twice he caught a nice brown by the log. After Gene died and I was fishing Currant Creek again, I waded up to the hole with the log at the top end. I knew it was Gene’s log, and yet I fished it, and caught a beautiful brown trout. I wish I hadn’t.
Gene called fish “guys.” We usually didn’t take fish home, but if he caught a particularly nice fish (nice being, for us, about twelve inches long), he’d hold it in his hand in the water to admire it and say, “Look at that guy. Isn’t he beautiful.” Or if he saw a trout rising, “I’m going to catch that guy.” We were fishing Salt Creek one afternoon when we spotted a trout under a hanging bush. There was no way to cast without spooking it, but Gene said, “I’m going to get that guy.” He climbed the steep bank up through the brush, only the tip of his rod marking his progress. And then I saw his fly slowly being lowered down through a hole in the brush right on top of the trout, which struck. I yelled, “My hell, you got ’im!” and Gene came laughing down through the brush.
Fishing was of primary importance for Gene, but he also looked for beautiful things–eagles in flight, deer, small birds, trees, rocks, colorful bushes, wild flowers. Gene particularly liked flowers, and he knew the names of many wild flowers, which I did not. He’d stop to tell me the name, sometimes kneel down to lift the blossom, describe the color, the shape. He’d stop to look at the blue sky, clouds, a shadowed canyon, brilliant cliffs, and tell me to look, particularly at the end of the day when we were hiking out. Not much got past him.
Although Gene caught those twenty-five trout out of one hole on Lower Fish Creek that one day, I think our most memorable day was on Currant Creek. Usually we’d catch five or six apiece on a good day, but that day we caught a dozen or fifteen each, all of them beautiful, heavy fish. It was incredible. We became so excited we could hardly talk, just fished. There wasn’t a big fly hatch going on; the browns were just hitting, and hitting hard, their heads coming up out of the water so we saw them take the fly.
Another time on Currant Creek, there was a hatch on a wide riffle flowing down into a big beaver pond. We caught four or five each in about a half an hour, our hands trembling with the excitement. Every fish in that beaver pond must have been feeding in that riffle.
It was on Currant Creek that I first started tying Gene’s flies on or splicing his leader when he broke it. It didn’t seem strange, although I’d never done this before. I don’t recall what Gene said, perhaps that he was having trouble with his eyes or something, or maybe he didn’t say anything. But I think now that the brain cancer that killed him was already starting to affect his motor dexterity. I didn’t pick up on it, though, didn’t understand, didn’t suggest that he might want to have that loss checked out. I’ve always wish I had. That early knowledge wouldn’t have saved Gene from the cancer, but it might have saved him from the belief that he was suffering from profound depression as the cancer advanced, and from the stroke.
At the end of the fishing day we broke our rods down, took off our fishing vests, and changed out of our wading shoes to dry socks and shoes. We didn’t talk much going back; there wasn’t much to talk about really. It had been a good day, satisfying; we were tired. We stopped at the first service station for a cold drink or maybe a Haagen Dazs, or a cheap, delicious, thick ice cream sandwich. Gene would use the pay phone to call Charlotte and have her phone Donlu that we were safe and headed back.
A couple of hours later we’d pull into Gene’s driveway. Charlotte would come out to ask what kind of a day we’d had. Gene would give her a kiss. I’d put my stuff in my car, thank Gene for a good day. Charlotte would give me a loaf of her good bread to take home, and I’d back out. Glancing out though the passenger window as I drove down the street, I’d see Gene and Charlotte, Gene’s arm around Charlotte’s shoulders, walking up the steps and into their house.