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Original Issue

Turn Left At the Porcupine

That's where the man said the fish were. Well, if not there, try way upstream. Or the Deer Lakes or the hatchery. Or Waterdog Lake. Will our dauntless angler ever unravel the secret of the elusive trout?

The village of Lake City, Colo. is 49 miles over Slumgullion Pass from Wagon Wheel Gap or, if you're coming from the north, it's 25 miles from Powderhorn on Highway 149. But don't bother yourself if you forget these jiffy instructions. Just drive to Saw Pit or Bedrock or Cimarron or Telluride or any other southwestern Colorado town and ask somebody how to get to Perk Vickers' place. Better ask a Republican, though. Perk has been Republican chairman of Hinsdale County for 22 years, and the handful of Democrats around Lake City resent the fact that out of the county's 208 permanent population—second lowest in the U.S.—Perk somehow gets 250 or 300 of them to vote in every election, and most of them Republican. "We got a lot of absentee ballots," Perk explains, while the outnumbered Democrats peer from their hiding places and exchange knowing glances. Politically Lake City and Hinsdale County have changed little since an itinerant guide named Alferd Packer killed and ate five of his companions and elicited one of history's most pungent accusations: "They was siven Dimmycrats in Hinsdale County, but you, yah voracious man-eatin' son of a bitch, yah et five of them!"

Out at Perk's ranch, just south of town, the boys like to come in from the day's labors and discuss the irremediable blow dealt to Lake City's democratic machinery by the political actionist Alferd Packer. "What could you expect of a man couldn't even spell his own first name?" Perk says, while his wife Emma Jean warns him not to gloat. The other subject that is always good for a long discussion is trout: care and feeding, habits and environments, future and prospects and general history. Perk's brothers, Joe the cattle rancher and Bob the gold miner, convene in the little office cluttered with ore specimens, fly boxes, daguerreotypes of Vickerses dead and gone, aromatic old saddles and an ancient safe that looks as though it just fell off the Wells Fargo stage from Durango. In the rare and narrow interstices of their conversations one can hear the murmur of the storied Gunnison Riser's lake fork, which starts as a single, silvery drop way up above Sloane's Lake at 13,000 feet, drops quickly to timberline and thence through old mining camps, beaver-dam country, sheer-walled canyons, a deep lake called San Cristobal, over the foam of Argenta Falls, past Perk's place and into more canyons and meadows until it finally joins up with the main branch of the Gunnison 50 miles away. Every inch of the lake fork is loaded with trout. Well, not every inch. Well, not really "loaded" anymore. That's one of the things the boys argue about, the Gunnison River then and now. "Used to be the trout would swim over to the bank and wriggle into your creel." "No, it didn't used to be that way at all. Used to be the mines contaminated the water and there wasn't a trout between here and the lake." "Well, gimme the good old days." "Listen, you stubborn old jackass, these is the good old days!"

The visitor to the Vickers establishment might well agree that these is the good old days. Not that you can go down to the river and drag out three-pound rainbow trout with ease or catch a limit with a few hours' casting. Even the famous Gunnison has its off days, and during the early-summer runoff from the snowy San Juan Mountains surrounding the ranch the river becomes cloudy with glacial grindings, and the trout sulk in deep holes and refuse to come out and play. At such times the knowledgeable fisherman may still score, but only if he knows the secret of the Vickers Ranch and only if he meets the mystical and unfathomable requirements of the keeper of the secret, 55-year-old Purvis (Perk) Vickers. Do not hurry unto this task, for Perk cannot be hurried. Do not bluster and make demands, either, for Perk will merely announce in his good-natured way that your reservation has expired. There is only one way to learn the secret of the Vickers Ranch, and that is the hard way—the way of waiting and hoping and keeping on the right side of Perk and not being a pushy Easterner, or a pushy Westerner, either. Then and only then will you be admitted to the secret, and then and only then will you be able to catch three-and four-pound brook trout to your heart's content and dine on orange-red fillets from the sweetest trout that swim.

My wife Su and I knew none of this, of course, when we first wandered into the place that the Vickers brothers insist on calling by the ridiculous name Vickers Dude Ranch, an appellation guaranteed to turn off both true sportsman and travel snob. Who wants to send postcards home from a dude ranch? When I got to know Perk a little better I asked him why he didn't call the place simply the Vickers Ranch or the Vickers Trout Ranch. "We're full up all the time now," he said, drawing on depths of commercial acumen garnered at business school in Tyler, Texas, where he became the only Vickers to learn to type and therefore the one assigned to running the ranch office. "If we changed it to Vickers Trout Ranch we'd have to beat 'em off with shovels."

"All right, Perk," I said, "I came here to catch fish. Now what the hell'll I do?"

"Try way upstream," the bandy-legged little man told me. I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to begin the long procedure that led, step by tortuous step, to the secret. I drove five miles up dirt roads to the narrow reaches of the upper river and cast my arm off catching brook trout that seldom reached six inches. Then Perk suggested a pack trip to a high alpine lake, but after we had booked five horses and lurched our way up steep mountain trails toward a lake supposedly loaded with brook and rainbow trout of monstrous dimensions, we found our way blocked by six-foot drifts of snow that had blown off nearby Uncompahgre Peak, 14,306 feet high and one of the most fascinating sights in Colorado when it's not ruining your fishing trip.

"Perk," I said loudly, "we came here to catch fish and we're not catching anything. What do you suggest?"

"The Deer Lakes," Perk said. "You can't miss at the Deer Lakes." In that rapid-fire manner of his, like a Walter Brennan record played at double speed, he proceeded to tell us the facts about the Deer Lakes. They lie, about eight of them, just up Slumgullion Pass, on public land. What was Slumgullion Pass? Well, about 600 years ago several million tons of mountain broke off and began a slow crawl down the valley, like those mud slides that bedevil the residents of Los Angeles County. The earth flow kept going until it dammed the lake fork of the Gunnison and created Lake San Cristobal, 92 feet deep. Spruce trees grew atop the flow, and they leaned at crazy angles as they inched along—the only ambulatory spruce trees in Colorado. The flow was made of a yellowish clay, and to oldtimers it resembled the slumgullion stew that sustained them—hence the formal name Slumgullion Earthflow. Perk told us that it was one of the great natural wonders of the world, or at least of Hinsdale County.

"The fishing, Perk, the fishing."

"Oh, yes," he said, "you wanted to know about the Deer Lakes." It seemed that 15 or 16 years ago Perk had begun to fear that the Gunnison's lake fork would not be able to handle the heavy fishing pressure on it, and he cast about for ways to improve the fishing in the area. He suggested to the local chamber of commerce that the citizens of Lake City buy live trout by the ton and keep replenishing the lake fork all summer long, but to the hidebound conservatives of Lake City such a proposal was considered as wildly Communistic as Social Security or municipal bus lines. "So I noticed that there were a lot of good locations for lakes up above Slumgullion Pass," Perk said, "and we got permission from the government to put in some dams."

To raise money for the project Perk and his associates gave honorary Lake City citizenship papers to contributors of $25 and promised to name a lake after anyone who contributed $100 or more. Thus were created the Deer Lakes—Lake Pat Maloney, Lake Slug Stewart, Lake Emory Carper, Lake Frank Walker and several others. When the project was completed Perk and his helpers proudly erected handsomely carved nameplates by each dam, whereupon the U.S. Forest Service let out a howl of bureaucratic anguish. Such lakes, rangers announced, could not be named after living humans. "This gave us a hell of a problem," Perk recalled. "We could either rename the lakes or kill off the contributors. We decided to rename the lakes."

And there they sit today: the Deer Lakes, cool and emerald behind the earthen dams constructed by Perk and his bulldozing friends. The lakes bear such rustic names as Lake No. 1, Lake No. 2 and Lake No. 3. In a wild burst of creativity one of them was even named Lake No. 4. Some of the natives still refer to one of the larger lakes as Lake Pat Maloney, but not while any of the stern government men are around.

"But how is the fishing there?" I asked.

"First-rate," Perk said. "You can't miss at the Deer Lakes."

We drove up over the Slumgullion Earthflow to the Deer Lakes and fished all day and missed. Oh, not entirely. But one does not push deep into the wildest reaches of the Rocky Mountains for the purpose of catching a couple of skinny rainbow trout and brook trout that have barely left their mothers' breasts. "This doesn't make it, Perk," I said when we returned all covered with dust and frustration at the end of the day.

"Well, what about our ponds?" Perk said. He waved grandly toward some man-made ponds that he had dug in the meadow next to the river and kept stocked with hatchery trout that were fed from sacks of Purina Trout Chow.

"Who the hell wants to catch hatchery trout?" I said.

"I'll tell you who the hell," Perk said. "Just about every dude that comes here, that's who the hell. Ever since I built those ponds I've had to spend half my time keeping an eye on them." One of the ponds was marked WOMEN AND CHILDREN ONLY, LIMIT FIVE FISH, and because trout are wily and because women and children are not the most skilled anglers some of the rainbows in the pond had survived several seasons and grown to weights of six and seven pounds. Perk said he would show me. He went to a barn, picked up a handful of trout chow and tossed it in. At first there were a few dainty peckings at the floating pellets, but then the water began to boil with lunging and gyrating trout, among which were plainly some fish that were well above the five-pound mark.

"My God!" I said.

"Exactly," Perk said, "and that's what a lot of other people say, too. They lose their perspective. One morning I came down at dawn, and here's this guy with a seven-pound rainbow. 'Look,' he says. 'Look what I caught in the river.' I saw that the fish was from our pond—you could tell by the coloring. The next year when that guy called for a reservation we were full up."

Hardly a day goes by when Perk is not approached by a male guest who explains that he is going to help his wife and children fish the women's and children's pond, "but don't worry, Perk, I won't be fishing myself, I'll just be helping them" and five minutes later Perk will look out his little office window and see that the man is helping them by baiting the hook, making the cast and pulling in the fish. One day he strolled down to the pond and said to a particularly persistent offender: "Mr. Peterson, my main concern is: Where's your dress?" Peterson left in embarrassment. But Perk flatly denies the often-repeated report that he once threw out a man in full female attire. He does not want to be known as a person who discriminates against anyone, including female impersonators. "You have to be diplomatic," Perk says, "but at the same time you can't relax the rules. This greed that's in all of us—the greed for money, the greed to have more than the next fellow—it shows up in fishing, too. Out of every 50 people that come here there's maybe one that'll say, 'I caught my limit of fish and I threw 'em back.' The other 49'll say, 'I caught my limit of fish, and here they are. Look at 'em!' Why, if I let some of them fish in the ladies' pond, they'd use dynamite caps!"

"Perk," I said, "I'd gladly throw back every trout I caught, but I didn't come here to fish for hatchery trout. Now what do you suggest?"

Perk's eyes rolled wildly. Later I was to realize that he was resisting the temptation to let me in on the secret, but at this point I didn't even know that there was a secret to be let in on. He was still sizing me up, and there were still tests for me to pass, frustrations for me to endure. Now he named another one. "Waterdog Lake!" he said. "You'll clean up on 'em at Waterdog Lake." I asked directions and wrote feverishly on the back of a postcard as Perk rattled out the route. "It's mostly straight up," he said. "The lake's around 11,000 feet, and we're around 9,000 now. You go through the lower gate—make sure you're in low gear—and head up the side of that hill. Don't worry about the road—I made it myself." His instructions included an admonition not to drive across the upper meadows—they were sodden with runoff, and tire tracks would develop overnight into rivulets and brooks—and a warning about bears. "They won't bother you, but there's a lot of 'em up there, and if they have cubs with 'em they can be grouchy." I laughed inwardly—good old Perk was really laying it on thick. He told us to remember to take a left turn or we'd wind up mired in the mud. "Joe killed a porcupine up there the other day and it's still there," he said. "Just turn left at the porcupine."

Su packed a lunch, and we began the grinding journey up from the Gunnison Valley. What Perk had lightly referred to as a road turned out to be a corrugated nightmare of gullies and rocks and fallen trees and holes, and we rattled around inside the jeep like the occupants of a Waring Blendor. "Enjoying the r-r-r-ride?" I called to Su.

"N-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-n," Su explained, "-o."

We emerged briefly into a rolling meadow dotted with a hundred or so Hereford cattle but were soon through it and back into the deep woods. We ran along a stream bottom, then came to a few steep pitches that required compound low and a running start and strong faith in the sturdy jeep. It was like driving up a forehead on Mount Rushmore. Every now and then I had to stop and get out and remove a tree trunk or boulder from our route—proof that we were the first drivers to make the trip up to Waterdog that season.

At last it came into sight—a big lake, almost a mile long, clear and blue and so cold that a hand immersed in it tingled for minutes. At 11,200 feet the lake was just below timberline, and around its shores the final spruces and aspens and pines of the highest altitudes fought for a footing, some of them dying out and others living a compromise life of miniaturization. There were mosses and lichens and some slender, wiry grasses, and here and there a patch of wild iris of electric blue. The aspens were gnawed at elk-head height—monuments to severe winters—and a few tender shoots of pine had been completely denuded of bark by porcupines. If there had been good fishing in the lake, the scene would have been idyllic. If. We flang everything into the cool blue depths, but we couldn't raise a strike. We tried flies, wet and dry; nymphs, weighted and unweighted; spinners, Colorado and Indiana; flatfish and spoons and streamers and even a little lure shaped like a kitchen sink and called "the Kitchen Sink" so that anglers could go back home and brag that they had thrown everything at the fish including the kitchen sink. But trout that would not hit classic lures would not hit gimmick lures either. Looking to left and right and finding ourselves alone, we dug for worms and fished them high and low without a strike. After three hours without so much as a single hit we decided to quit. The vote was 2-0.

We were halfway back down and just inching our way through a thick copse of aspens when Su let out a yelp and did a perfect little jump from her seat into mine. "Hey!" I shouted as I struggled for control.

"A bear!" she said. "Step on it!"

"I'm not going to step on any bear," I said.

"The gas, stupid! Step on the gas!"

I tromped the floor pedal, and the jeep lurched forward, its gears grinding, and just then the bear crossed the road at a blinding speed of some two or three miles an hour. "Come on," I said, "they're fun to chase!" We jumped out and followed the porcupine into a stand of pine trees. He waddled about another hundred yards before climbing up a spruce tree and glowering down inhospitably at us, and just as I turned to begin the walk back to the jeep I caught a glint of blue through the trees. "Water!" I said, and stumbled through the woods with Su stumbling after. We quickly came upon a tiny lake hidden in the deep forest, its waters held back by an earthen dam and its borders edged by willow brush and kinnikinnick and thick patches of iris and dandelions.

"A pond," Su said. "Don't get excited. It's just a pond."

"It's a pretty little place," I said and just then something came rocketing out of the water in the middle of the lake and made a splash the magnitude of which had not been seen since the launching of the Ile de France. My knees started to give way, and Su, an old hand as a trout fisherman's wife, quickly grabbed me. "Take it easy," she said. "It was just a muskrat or a beaver."

"Yeah," I said, my voice trembling. "Musta been a muskrat or a beaver." Then a similar splash came from the far edge of the lake. "That beaver gets around," I said, beginning to shake again. Hardly were the words spoken when a fish spurted out of the water, performed a one and a half with a full twist in the layout position and splashed back in, throwing droplets of sun-speckled water in a fine rainbow spray.

"What was that?" Su said.

I rapped my forehead and fell to my knees and inhaled gallons of air and rolled my eyes and performed half a dozen other involuntary spasmodic actions that only another trout fisherman would understand, and when I finally regained control of myself, about five minutes later, I said, "A trout! A three-or four-pounder! A brook trout! They don't come that big anymore! It's impossible! I'm dreaming!"

Even Su seemed impressed, and this was the first time I had seen her impressed by a fish since a succulent serving of turbot hollandaise at the Poularde Bressane in Grenoble (one star in your Guide Michelin). "Let's get the rods!" she said, and we raced back through the woods toward the jeep. But by the time we reached the car sanity had returned. "Listen," Su said, "we can't fish that lake."

"Why not?" I said, knowing full well why not.

"Because it's obviously man-made, and it's obviously been stocked for some special purpose."

"We found it, didn't we? Nobody told us not to fish it."

"You know how Perk is. If he'd wanted us to fish this pond he wouldn't have sent us up to Waterdog."

"Yeah," I agreed, "and up the Gunnison headwaters and up the mountain and up to the Deer Lakes and every place in Hinsdale County except here."

"There's only one thing to do, and that's go down and ask him for permission," Su said.

"Yes," I said, "and if he says no, what then?"

Su thought for a moment. "If he says no," she said, "you hold him and I'll strangle him."

So that's how we came to learn the secret. Afterward Perk admitted that he had been almost ready to tell us anyway. "You just about passed my test," he said.

"What test is that?" I asked.

"My personal test for who can fish the upper lakes," he said. "I got my own standards. Don't ask me what they are, but I can list at least one United States Senator who didn't make it and a couple of millionaire oilmen from Texas and a very prominent attorney from Oklahoma. They'd give $10,000 apiece to fish those ponds, but they haven't got a chance."

"Why not?"

"How would I know?" Perk said. "There's no rule about it. I don't even understand the rules myself. Two-thirds of the people that come here never see those upper ponds. Not one person in 20 qualifies. I got people who've been coming back for 30 years and they've never wet a line in those lakes."

Perk told the story of his homemade upper lakes. "It was just about the same time we were asking the government to let us make the Deer Lakes," he began, drawing on a black cigar and waving lazily at the foul smoke in front of him. "I'd ride up to the upper ranch on my horse, and I'd always say, 'Boy, when the good Lord made this he really did a job.' All those meadows and woods and little streams running down and golden eagles and badgers and bobcats and all kinds of wildlife up there. It always seemed to be the prettiest place on earth to me. But this whole countryside's pretty out here, and people were beginning to realize it, and they were swarming into here in the summertime and fishing that lake fork to a frazzle, and I began to realize that public fishing wouldn't always take care of the demand. And what about the people that came up here when the river's high and discolored? Shouldn't they be allowed to fish, too?

"Well, I had made those four ponds down below and stocked them with trout that I bought by the pound, and then I realized that we could make something extra special up on the upper ranch. There's a little stream that drains the whole upper ranch—Park Creek, it's called, and it's about a foot wide. The beavers were always damming it up and making these little lakes, and then they'd wash out and cause all kinds of damage. So as soon as I got some money together I rented a bulldozer and went up there and made a good, solid earthen dam where the beavers had worked. I didn't build any spillway because this was late summer and I knew the pond wouldn't fill up over the winter.

"The next spring I'd almost forgotten about it. I was working in our gold mine and somebody came running into the tunnel and told me to get out, my dad said it looked like the whole upper ranch was washing away. The pond had filled and the dam had burst and the water was coming down the mountainside. So the next thing I did, I learned how to build a rock spillway and I was in business. From then on every chance I got I built another pond up there and planted it with fingerling brook trout and cutthroat. I'm up to eight ponds now, and I'm building more all the time. But I take certain precautions. Only one of those eight ponds is anywhere near a road—and that's the lowest pond and nobody knows how to catch fish out of it except my son Larry. The rest of those ponds—you could drive all over the upper roads and never get a glimpse of one. You wouldn't have seen one either if it hadn't been for that porcupine."

I told Perk I would like to fish one of his ponds and asked him if I qualified. "I think so," he said. "I been watching you. You're not a fish hog. You release fish and we don't find wasted fish in your garbage can in the morning."

"You've been checking?"

"We keep our eyes open," Perk said, relighting the smelly old stogie. "Sometimes we'll find a garbage can with 30 or 40 trout in it not even cleaned. I don't care if those fish come out of Lake San Cristobal or the Gunnison or Crystal Lake or our own ponds or where—those people don't come back. We're full up when they call the next time."

"Do any local people poach?"

"Once some fellows from Lake City went in and cleaned out one of our ponds, and we found out about it because there's not that many people in Lake City and all of a sudden they're all eating big brook trout. So we put out the word that anybody caught poaching our ponds would suffer the death penalty. They must have believed us. Nobody's been poaching up there since, I hope."

"How about the guests?"

"Well, by the time they pass my test I'm pretty certain about 'em. They'll take a few trout—enough for dinner—and they'll return the rest and they'll obey my rules about flies only and no bait or lures. Nothing scares trout more than lures and nothing kills 'em worse than bait. If you fish with bait you can't return 'em. But a fly just catches a trout's lip and you can let him go and he doesn't even know it happened.

"The worst experience we had in the upper lakes was with five old customers—lawyers from Texas. I watched 'em for years and they seemed like perfect sportsmen, and one day I gave 'em permission to fish Vickers Lake, which is where we keep our biggest and wildest brook trout and cutthroat. Well, sir. my brother Bob went up to see how they were coming along that day, and they had gunnysacks full of trout from two to five pounds. Our prize fish!

"Bob rode back down and told me, and when those men finished fishing I was waiting for them. We counted: they had 125. Prize brooks and cutthroat, weighed about 300,400 pounds. I looked at the fish and I looked at those lawyers, and not a word was spoken. They looked like they were gonna burst out crying. Later on one of them told me they were going to have an attorneys' convention back home and they wanted to furnish enough fish for a trout fry."

"So that was the end of them as guests here?" I asked.

"The end of them?" Perk said. "Why, hell, no. They come back every year. They're my prize customers. But they know they'll never fish one of my ponds again. Never! They can fish the public water all they want, and that seems to satisfy them. They've never asked to fish the ponds again. They know better."

The next morning Perk gave us sotto voce instructions on how to get to one of his best fisheries: Alden Pond. The instructions were Stengelesque: "Go up that road and open the gate. Up about a mile take the right-hand prong past the little fork and keep on going till you come to one, two, three switchbacks. On the third switchback veer off to the left. If you don't you'll wind up at our gold mine. After awhile there's a pond. Drive just under the dam and cross the spillway and follow a grove of trees. Keep outside the timber till you come to a fence, and then follow the fence till you come to a gate. Open the gate, and the road goes through some heavy timber and through a meadow, and then you make a right turn around some beaver ponds and follow a little stream till you can't go any farther, and then you walk straight ahead through the woods and over a barbed-wire fence, and there's your lake, full of brook and cutthroat."

"Simple as that, eh?"

"Simple as that," Perk said.

Thirty minutes later we came to the end of the dirt road, walked a few steps through a deep woods, slid like snakes under a barbed-wire fence, walked a few more yards and came into sight of a crystalline mountain lake.

The pond was about three acres in all. with borders ranging from semitundra, where almost nothing grew, to a thick slice of woods that marched right down to the water's edge and deposited large trunks like toothpicks in the water. Everywhere else there was the low kind of brush that I have personally renamed bearbrush, partially because I don't know its name and partially because I find it almost always associated with bears, who can root around on all fours and not be seen as they move from bush to bush. Indeed, there was bear sign around, but I did not bother pointing it out to Su. She would only have become hysterical.

In advance I decided to keep two trout for our dinner. All the rest would be released and we would be welcome to fish another day. I started out with a Mayfly, and to my astonishment nothing hit it. "O.K.!" I shouted to the fish. "I'm ready! You can start now!" The big brown Mayfly sat out there on the water like a hot fudge sundae, but nothing stirred.

"I thought this was going to be so easy," Su said.

"It will be," I said, "as soon as I get the formula. If it was all that easy these wouldn't be trout."

At least an hour went by without a semblance of a strike. Every now and then a big fish would break water, but never near my flies. "Do you want me to start digging for worms?" Su said.

Soon I had worked my way around to the place where the timber lay helter-skelter in and out of the water. I tied on a tiny Kelso nymph, let it sink between two jagged tree trunks and began retrieving slowly. On about the third pull, something hit and snapped off the 6X leader. After this happened twice more I switched to a 3X leader, let the water rest for a few minutes and cast out my last Kelso nymph. Whack! Something hit it with a thump and took off under a tree trunk. I put on all the pressure the leader would hold and steered the fish back toward the open water, and after about five minutes of fight the trout made its first jump and sent me into a state of total puzzlement. This wild mountain trout, living in a pond that was fished only three or four times a year, had gone into a coloration phase that would have put many a tropical bird to shame. It looked more scarlet than anything else as it burst from the water, but its fins and belly appeared to be an apricot color that I previously had seen only once: on brook trout caught in a little stream in Nova Scotia.

I played the fish carefully, and Su came running over as I finally slid it up on the bank. Biologists will scorn, but the fish had the pronounced purplish stripe of a rainbow trout, the large, open spots and high coloring of a brook trout and the bright orange-red slashes of a cutthroat. Such a three-way hybrid is impossible—according to the textbooks—but we were looking at one. We also looked at several more as the day went on, plus a few fish that were obviously pure brook trout and a few that were pure cutthroat. We took a pair of fat two-pounders and released another 20 or so. When I ran out of Kelso nymphs I switched to Alder quills, which are similar, and the trout didn't seem to mind. Just before the sun dipped below the mountains to the west, we laid our two fish on the grass and walked up the slope for a better view of the sunset, and when we returned about 25 minutes later we couldn't find our catch.

"Don't be silly," I said to Su. "They're not lost. Dead trout can't walk."

"They were right here," Su said. "Right here where the grass is trampled down."

"Trampled down?" I said, and walked over for a better look. I could see where my own feet had crushed some of the grass, but I could also see where other blades had been flattened along a narrow corridor that led into the bearbrush. "My God!" I said. "It must have been—...."

"It must have been what?" Su said, gripping my arm with fingernails of steel.

"Nothing," I said. "I was just thinking out loud."

"What took our fish?" Su said, her voice cracking slightly.

"Probably an elk," I lied. "An elk, I guess."

"Elk eat fish?"

"Under certain conditions," I said. "Yes, they will. They have been known to do this." I took my wife's arm and led her gently but firmly through the shadows toward the fence and the jeep. "It's nothing," I said in my jolliest voice. "After all, elk have to make a living, too. Ha, ha! We'll come back tomorrow and catch some more trout."

All the way down the mountain I kept looking in the headlight glare for the lousy, bleeping bear that had stolen my two rain-brook-throat trout, but the only wildlife that turned up was a pair of sleepy-eyed does and another porcupine. Each time I turned to the side I noticed that Su was staring at me. "Why are you staring at me?" I asked.

"What really stole our fish?" she said in her most accusatory voice.

"Roll your window up," I said.

"What kind of an answer is that?" she said as she rolled the window up.

"A bear," I said softly. The rest of the way down the mountain we both occupied the same seat.

Driving home one week and 137 trout later (we kept six and released the others with slight shaving nicks in their jaws), I got to thinking about Perk Vickers and some of the other fishing-resort operators I've known. The main thing Perk had going for him was the lake fork of the Gunnison River, as famous among Western trout nuts as the Esopus and the Beaver Kill are to Easterners. But Perk wasn't content to rest on his river's reputation, to exploit the vivid imaginations and great expectations of his clientele. I thought back on other resort operators and on miserable trips to famous trout rivers like the Allagash in Maine and the White in Arkansas, and I remembered being told so many times that I should have been there the week before or I should come back the next week, when fishing would be fast and furious. But when a man is fishing, it is always this week, and in a long life of chasing trout I can remember no other resort operator who worked as hard as Perk Vickers on the task of providing trout fishing this week instead of cheery predictions for next or fond remembrances of last. To be sure, his four lower ponds are full of hatchery trout and suitable only for the tenderest of tenderfeet. The Deer Lakes are overfished and underproductive, like many lakes around the 11,000-foot mark. And the eight ponds on Perk's upper ranch are a caution to get to—even if you're invited—and no one without a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle or a horse need apply.

But so what? Taken together, all of these man-made fishing spots increase the odds for the fisherman and diminish his dependence on the river alone. Rivers, like the trout that live in them, are highly unpredictable, and even so magnificent a stream as the lake fork of the Gunnison can turn into a wet desert, roily and high and fishless. Should the sportsmen who invest large sums to come there have to sit in their cabins and wait the river out? Perk doesn't think so. And it may be that his place, despite its cornball name and its fish-stealing bears, is the trout resort of the future.

To tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind a bit.