Having recently made the acquaintance of a very nice man who also enjoys fly fishing (I would say “fellow fly fisherman,” but this guy actually knows what he’s doing), I found myself going through some old photos so I could send him a picture of my first catch.
It was about seven years ago when I first tried a fly rod on Spread Creek in a fairly remote area of the Grand Tetons. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it right away. Fly fishing along a sparkling Wyoming creek surrounded by some of our country’s most beautiful scenery AND the possibility of catching some fish? What’s not to like? When I finally landed my first trout — after an extended fight that had me convinced it was going to flip its way right back into the creek — my only question was, “Is it big enough to keep?”
Assured that my 21-inch brook trout was a keeper, I named him Gil, slipped him in the back of my nifty new fly fishing vest, then ate him for dinner that night. Poor Gil. He was tasty and I was hooked.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend three consecutive summers fly fishing on Spread Creek and the other nearby creeks, rivers and lakes. But Spread Creek was my favorite. Each August I had the luxury of fly fishing every day, all day, for two to three solid weeks. You hardcore fishermen out there probably think that really is a luxury, but it was a bit much for someone who hadn’t fly fished before. Don’t get me wrong — I still count myself lucky! The Tetons are beautiful, the fish were plentiful, and I never saw another person while fishing — not even once. Plus, there’s nothing like cooking up the day’s catch for dinner each evening. By the end of every vacation, however, I’d had my fill of fly fishing and eating trout. And longed to have been able to have spent more time hiking. On land.
As great as the fishing was, however, the biggest catch I landed was the one I purposely kept separated from my fly.
It was towards the end of another long day of fishing, and I was getting tired. And I don’t mean that just in the physical sense. I was getting really tired of being left behind on my own with no one in sight. Not because I’m needy, mind you, but because I’M VERY AFRAID OF BEARS. As you probably know, grizzly bears are quite common in the Tetons. Throw in the bunch of dead fish on my back, and I felt like bear bait. Looking back, maybe that was the whole idea. I’m pretty sure my male companion could have outrun me.
So anyway, here I was fishing. I was trying to land my fly right at the edge of a bunch of sticks and logs and whatnot in the middle of the creek without getting my fly caught. As I was concentrating on avoiding this pile of natural debris, I noticed that the end of one of the sticks resembled the tip of an antler. Which was really weird because I was fishing in August and not even thinking about deer season. It was still two months away. But there it was — something that looked an awful lot like an antler tip.
Since I was alone, ONCE AGAIN, and apparently had all the time in the world — unless a bear decided to come along and devour me — I waded out to the middle of the creek and started pulling stuff off. Sticks and twigs and branches and all sorts of woody things that had made their way to the middle of the creek. As I got further and further down, I struck gold!
Okay, not gold in the literal sense, but one very large, rotting, putrid, stinky, smelly, nasty, utterly perfectly beautiful elk head with six antlers on each side. Hey, Gorgeous!
Here I was, standing alone in the middle of a remote creek in the Wyoming wilderness with no one to witness my spectacular find. It’s like I had won the lottery and there was no one to show my ticket to.
So I hoisted this nasty, smelly, disgusting thing up on my shoulders and start running (well, sort of, because it was really heavy and cumbersome) through the creek, whooping and hollering — “Look what I found, look what I found!!!” I was so excited!!!
I wasn’t met with quite the degree of enthusiasm that I thought the situation warranted, but…whatever.
After taking some pictures, we had to carry this stinky trophy back down the creek and then out the mile-long hike to the car. As the sun was going down. Talk about bear bait. My companion at the time was a gentleman and took over the heavy lifting without complaint. Looking back, perhaps this is why he was less than excited.
Once we got the elk head back to our cabin, I found a hose and a scrub brush and tried to clean out the brains and all the other rotting things that were in there. I didn’t really want to know what everything was. I just knew it was gross. Then I got a very large bucket of water and some bleach to soak the head in. That thing was nasty!
By the end of a week of soaking, it wasn’t smelling much better. We finally resorted to taking the head through a self-serve car wash. In hindsight, this was a brilliant idea. I didn’t really like the brains blowing out and all over my face with everyone watching — no, that was incredibly gross — but the water pressure sure did the trick! The whole process took so long that the lady in the car behind us finally leaned out and shouted, “Are you going to do your car, too?” Nope, it’s a rental!
Once my new friend was reasonably cleaned up and presentable, I went into the nearby K-Mart to wash up in the ladies room. Nothing like a smattering of rotting brains to make you feel dirty and a little self-conscious. Once I felt as presentable as my friend, I started looking around the store for what I might use to pack him up for his trip home. I didn’t want his delicate bone structure to be compromised.
In the swimming aisle, not only did I discover my friend’s coat of armor but also his name — NOODLES! You know those swim noodles that little kids play with in the pool? Those long foam things that keep them afloat while also making a great weapon? Well, I bought a few of those, along with some bubble wrap, packing tape and a plastic wastebasket.
Once I had everything I thought I’d need to get him home safely, I hit the National Park Service to make sure I would be able to get him tagged and bring him home. Based on what everyone had already told me, I was fairly certain it wouldn’t be a problem, but I kept thinking that something would go wrong. I couldn’t imagine getting on the plane without him — it made me heartsick just thinking about it.
The National Park Service staff were very interested in Noodles. They wanted to know exactly when, where and how I had found him. Since they keep incredibly detailed records about the travel patterns of wolves in the area as well as documenting their kills, they knew that Noodles was the unfortunate victim of a wolf kill. They told me that they had never been able to find the remains of this kill, and here I was laying it on the table for them! It was pretty cool to know that they actually had some background on this guy and had been looking for him.
After getting Noodles properly documented and tagged, I was told that I was free to take him home. He was all mine!
Next I needed to get him ready for the trip home. He was still pretty stinky, even after soaking in a bucket of diluted bleach all week, so I tried to contain his stench as best I could. First came the noodles. I cut 12 ten-inch segments of noodles and stuck them on the end of each antler.
Nice. Then his delicate nose. I wrapped bubble wrap every which way around his snout and skull until I was confident that he was well-protected. A good bit of packing tape went over that. Then came the plastic trash can — his protective nose-covering. Again, more tape. Lots and lots of tape. Finally, he was ready. And colorful!
Noodles was all set to embark on his first (and probably only) plane ride!
While waiting for our connecting flight in Salt Lake City, I took some photos of Noodles switching planes. (He was easy to pick out.) Noodles got a fair amount of attention from the airport baggage handlers.
As I watched them rolling Noodles off the plane with the other luggage and then huddling around him (I’m sure I looked like some neurotic mother watching her son being taken off the school bus), one of the baggage handlers happened to look up and see me watching through the large window of the airport terminal. As his co-workers looked on, so began my first ever game of charades.
He: Points to Noodles, points to me, then raises eyebrows.
Me: Nodding vigorously and grinning like an idiot.
He: Mimics pulling back a bow, then points to me, then raises hands in question.
Me: Shaking head no from side to side. Trying not to laugh.
He: Raises hands again in question — if not a bow, then how? (Too early for gun season)
Me: Mimics fly fishing. Not easy.
He: Appears in airport terminal about two minutes later, wanting the whole story.
How funny is that?
So I tell him the story, which I’m still thinking is really incredible, and he tells me that I need to come up with a better story. Like a bear was attacking the elk and I beat it off with my fly rod but the poor thing died anyway. Something like that.
I’m not very good at making stuff up, so I’ll be sticking with my original story.
When I arrived back home in D.C., I anxiously awaited the pick-up of my precious cargo. I’d spent the whole trip worrying that despite my best efforts, Noodles wouldn’t make it in one piece. He’d already been through so much. Well, the airport personnel must have taken very good care of Noodles because he came out looking very happy.
Noodles spent the next six months on the floor of my laundry room before I concluded that bleach and water would never be enough. I finally took him to a taxidermist so that he could be given the proper European mount he deserved. Kip Hughes’ Taxidermy in Madison Heights, Virginia, did an excellent job, as usual.
[Kip Hughes Taxidermy: 434-929-5340]
Not the best photo, but that’s what you get when you live in an old house and your prize mount is relegated to the basement because there’s no other wall tall enough to hang him on. Maybe one day he’ll have a better place to rest.