By Reid Bryant
First published in American Angler Magazine, January/February 2014
Piney Creek rises in the Bighorns, and tumbles out of Cloud Peak Reservoir in a gash of cobbles and plunge pools. It’s all public water there, and a slab of crag and conifer forest. High-mountain trout live up in the thin water, cutty’s and ‘bows and brookies. Framed against the spine of the Bighorns, the high-mountain trout are precious, in an aristocratic sense; they are radiant and small, eager to whack a buggy dry that would choke them for sure, if only their jaws opened wide enough to accept it. They are emblems of Wyoming, as bold as upper Piney itself.
Down near Story, Piney slows down, spreading through private ranchland where the trout go largely unmolested, and grow chubby on the foothill fertility. But the main show on Piney begins below Lake Desmet. There, lower Piney relaxes between emerald banks, grows fat and happy in a valley full of snakes and cicadas and scuds. Among the swinging tendrils of aquatic grass, Brown trout of comical proportion loll in wait of hoppers, or nose out from cut-bank corners to engulf mice beneath a Bighorn moon. It’s all big fish water, all private, and not for the faint of heart. You don’t fish lower Piney for the numbers, you fish it for the once-a-summer chance to bust a rod on something measured in pounds, not inches.
The boys at Rock Creek Anglers didn’t sell Piney hard, because most of our clients couldn’t hack it. I know I steered more than a few towards waters further south, private stretches of the Powder where trout stacked up, shrugged their shoulders and ate what you fed them. Piney became an option for those we deemed worthy. Nonetheless, some clients, having seen the pictures, demanded it, despite our encouragement to the contrary. These bouts of overconfidence began and ended in misery: fishless days and rattlesnake scares and tailing loops that cat’s-cradled the switchgrass. Those days, we guides swallowed hard against the knowledge that we could have got ‘em; we filled our cheeks with sunflower seeds to mask the grimace beneath. Needless to say our tips on the overconfident days barely covered the gas to get there. But when one of the juicy anglers showed, and we sized him up correctly, Piney posed untold potential. A foam-bodied dry fished tight against a hopper bank rendered more than a couple clients speechless. Their tips made up for the other ones.
William Gale Curtis V showed up in late June when the big stoneflies were all but gone, the cicadas were sparse, and the hoppers had yet to make good on any promises. Piney was low and clear, warming fast over the high-desert days. The big Browns were all ghosts. Bill came into the shop (which made hay as a bar), and ordered a draft. He wanted to know about the fishing. He didn’t quaver, and you could see right away that he had the chops.
“…fish quite a bit out East, mostly big brookies on the Ausable. But this trip’s for the boys.” He gestured to the three towhead sons wrassling on the lawn. “The biggest one we call B6, because he’s the next in line, and he’s just getting the fishing bug. I want to show him something special.”
I looked out the door. The biggest boy thumped his little brother soundly, trotted into the shop, and took a stool beside his dad. “This is B6,” said William Gale Curtis V, and the boy stuck out a hand. I had no choice other than to receive a firm, one-pump, eye-to-eye shake. “Pleased to meet you,” said B6; his dad beamed.
Bill Curtis the elder laid out his plan over the remainder of the beer, and B6 nodded beside him. “He’s up for Piney,” he told me with a confidence that made even me believe it. “I know some friends who’ve done well there, and B6 can hang with the best of them.” I looked down at the scrawny kid. “Besides,” said Bill Curtis, tousling B6’s hair, “we came to Wyoming to see the best fishing that you’ve got. I don’t care what we catch, so long as my boy here understands what exactly that means. Piney’s what we want; tomorrow at 3.” With that, two generations of Bill Curtis’s swung to the door and out into the June sunshine, while I stood there wondering how in the hell I was going to get a shirttail kid into something monumental on a Creek I couldn’t even trust myself.
The afternoon was full and breezy, and Cloud Peak showed clear on the spine of the Bighorns. We turned off the route and traced the north cove of Desmet. The diversion ditch was dry, so no new water was flushing the Creek, and I knew, tightening my grip on the steering wheel, that this was going to be tough. At the Cottonwood bend, I checked the indicator rock, and saw it high and dry… nothing to help a poor guide or a man on a mission, or a towheaded kid riding a promise of the best there is.
B6 loved the ride, and his dad did too. It was some stunning country. While Bill Curtis bragged on his son, B6 pointed out Muley bucks in velvet, stud Pronghorn, spinning eagles. The kid was insatiable, sucking the marrow from the landscape as he chronicled its inhabitants, tallied its trophies. All the while, Bill Curtis turned to smile at his son, to replay the story of a first deer, a bruiser Brookie from the Ausable Home Pool, a family heirloom of a 28 gauge boy’s gun. This was a guy who walked the talk, with a rich family history of doing the same. And here we were, pulling into the ranch-house dooryard on the most glorious Wyoming afternoon, and one sure to prove impossible; you couldn’t paint a tougher picture of lower Piney, and as a guide you couldn’t show an ounce of doubt.
We swung out through thigh-high hay, looking hard for the ripples in the grass that spelled snake. We walked heavy to scare them, and split up at the big Cottonwood; my buddy Cole took Bill Curtis upstream, and B6 padded after me, to the big pool below the quarter mile braid. We waded out, slipping and sliding over a streambed of uniform baseball-sized rocks, each slicker n’ snot. B6 got wet but stayed on my hip, and I impressed upon him the need to listen and look; though it was just a ruse to buy time. We scanned the banks, the main channel, the grasses overhanging the water. No swallows or swifts, nothing to dimple the surface of the pool. I shook my head knowingly at nothing at all, and tied on a buggy monstrosity with a red Copper John dropper. If anyone in the know had seen, they’d realize I was shooting craps; B6, on the other hand, nodded approvingly, took the rod, and laid out a crisp 20-footer. It landed with a plop, rode jauntily back towards us, and was summarily ignored by every trout in Piney Creek. The game, you might say, was on.
B6 and I threw a whole quiver at Piney over the course of the evening. We worked the banks and the weed beds, plumbed the depths, even skittered some caddis, but all to no avail. Once, and only once, a great maw broke the surface near our peach Chernobyl, only to turn tail and run. While I burned daylight re-tying blood knots, B6 counted the buck antelope on the pinnacles to the south, conjured stories of how we’d bare-hand a rattler if we saw one, waxed eloquent about the fishing forays of his dad. As the night dragged on, he spoke ever more about his father, with a degree of adoration that got me. B6’s wondered about how Bill the elder was faring. “No doubt,” said B6, reeling up and half-swimming towards the near bank, “he’s gotten a few two-footers.” I could only hope that my smiling, stream-sodden companion was right.
We worked our way upstream through the willows, discussing the things that guys discuss, when one of those guys is an 11-yr-old. We talked guns, and fishing, and we even danced around girls a bit. A blushing B6 turned the conversation back to trout, and we made the bank where his dad and Cole were working a steady far riser. B6 and I huddled in the willows long enough to see Bill Curtis lay out a lazy 60 feet, dribble a Yellow Sally out of the shadows, and tighten up on a gulper. He worked it around and over a strand of errant fence wire, shrugged off Cole’s net, and hand-landed a beauty. It wasn’t a Piney Creek crocodile, but it made a fair impersonation in the failing light. B6 turned to me beaming. “That’s my dad,” was all he said.
On the ride home, B6 leaned forward between the front seats, replaying the details of the evening to his father, details I hadn’t even noted. There was the Green Racer he’d nearly stepped on, the 12-point buck that crossed behind us, the streaking antelope twins. Then he talked and talked about his dad’s fish, the long cast, the battle; the story took on a fairy tale cast, and B6 interrupted himself only to point out roadside eyes in the headlights.
Back at the shop, I pulled Bill Curtis another draft, while B6 shucked his wet boots, sucked down a ginger ale, and stood to address me with another executive handshake. “That was AWESOME!” was his estimation of going fishless on Lower Piney, and he shook hands with his dad a little embarrassedly, and repeated his assertion. Then he scampered off to thump his brothers.
For his part, William Gale Curtis V just nodded, finished his beer, and left the best tip of the summer pinned under his pint glass.