Guest Blogger: Phil Rispin, fly fisher, photographer & more, find Phil’s photography here

In graduate school I got the opportunity to teach a basic statistics course while performing my duties as a TA or teaching assistant at Penn State University. I’ve always enjoyed numbers and what they can tell us so it was natural to start applying statistical concepts or formulas to my fly fishing. My favorite one is as follows “The size and number of fish in the stream goes up as a function of distance from the parking lot.” In fact I’ve even been able to identify a distance from the parking lot within which most of the fishermen can be found and that is two miles. If you have the patience to get two miles or further from the parking lot you are most likely to be rewarded with large amounts of relatively unused trout stream.

You could argue that the folks who start fishing closer to the parking lot get more time fishing and you would be right but for those who take the time to get a little further the rewards far outweigh the extra time casting the fly rod. A Fly Fishing personality Doug Swisher uses the notion of time fishing for another statistical concept to describe what is necessary for fly fishing success. This one has to do with the amount of time you have your hook in the water on a drag free drift, the longer that total time is during the day the more success you will have. While I don’t disagree you still need to be able to get to a place where the fish are or where the fish haven’t seen every fly sold by BassPro or Willie’s Fly Shop in the last three weeks. In other words if the trout are rising to your fly and then refusing it one of the strategies you might consider is getting further away from the parking lot. Getting further away from the parking lot implies the possibility of adventure particularly if you decide to drive your vehicle down that trail instead of walk thus hoping to mitigate the time issue.

I know of a road in Alberta Canada that looks great for the first couple of yards sucking you in as it were, to the promise of bountiful unused fly rod territory beyond. Subtly however the road becomes a challenge for anything other than a submarine on tracks. Driving down this road you confidently travel on the graded manicured gravel while the road (perhaps now it should be called a trail) gets narrower with stout trees on either side. Eventually it’s impossible to turn around and requires considerable finesse should you decide to back up. Then you are faced with the first puddle. You get some sense of what lies beneath the muddy surface by the tracks made by cars and trucks forced through and around the trees on either side of the puddle, which is by now, looking more like a deep small lake.

Almost everyone stops to evaluate the situation at this point. There is really not any thought of turning around as there is so much good trout water at the end of this track. You notice first of all that there are already one or two vehicles parked in the bush on either side of the track. These may be derelicts from past efforts to get through this hole or perhaps they are owned by wiser older drivers who decided to walk the rest of the way. You note with some feigned wisdom that these vehicles are not four wheel drives nor do they have any lift kits on them. You face the puddle with your vehicle and decide to continue but you do it up on the left side on a wet greasy hump that, if balanced properly, allows you to get to the stretch of trail beyond.

Balance is a hard thing to maintain especially on a muddy ridge and about halfway through this first watery obstacle the vehicle begins to slide sideways towards the middle of the hole. It’s now time to hit the gas and with the right door of the truck half way under water and the back end sliding into the middle of the puddle you manage to bump sideways out on the other side without damaging anything underneath. You pause for a moment and see how much water has made it into the truck, not much but now you begin to think, make that worry, about going back the other way at the end of the day possibly in the dark. Everyone else in the truck is quiet with wide eyes waiting to see what you might do next. They are all thinking “I’m glad this isn’t my vehicle.”

The trail now winds for a couple of hundred yards with lesser uncomplicated obstacles that make you confident that things are going well. Then you catch sight of the next mud hole. This one is bigger and longer than the last and there is no choice about going through the middle of it, that’s the only way. The surface is an opaque brown color completely hiding what may lie beneath. You look beyond this little lake to see if there are any fresh tracks coming out the other side……none. Oh well here we go. The truck is in four wheel drive in a gear that my father used to call “Bull Low”. Not sure what that meant but it sounded powerful. The first hint that you are going to need every bit of that four wheel power comes when the front wheels encounter a large rock but that only happens after water has begun to form a ridge and a wake at the top of the hood in front of you. Now you wish you are driving one of those tracked landing craft seen on World War II movies. Not wanting to have to swim from the truck you again hit the gas hoping that the engine’s induction system isn’t underwater. You make a mental note to price out snorkels for trucks. There are two huge bumps, everyone hits the ceiling with their heads in spite of seat belts and there is an ominous bang from somewhere under the truck but it’s still moving.

The next obstacle is a hill with a grade of about 90° or at least it feels that way, but there are old tracks there, so if someone else has done it you will too. Besides, going down is easy but oh yes we do have to get out of here at the end of the day. On occasions like this my imagination begins to tell stories and I wonder if we might find a small community of fly fishermen and a collection of vehicles living at the bottom of the grade having only made it one way at some point in the past. You make a new mental note to look into the cost of those GPS tracking devices that let wives know you are lost; some of whom might actually rejoice at the prospect. You note with some comfort that this grade has a lot of rock in it with mud between, meaning that there might be some traction on the way out later. The bottom of the trail opens out into one of the most beautiful mountain meadows you have ever seen with an obvious spot to park overlooking the river and all those trout a couple of hundred feet below…but you are still wondering about the end of the day and the return journey.

You are now parked, everyone’s fly rod is rigged and ready for some of the best fly fishing in the country but there was that bang you all heard while going through the last big mud hole. Should you look under the truck or not? If you look under the truck now and find a real problem then you will ruin the day for everyone. If you wait until the end of the day to try and discover if there is a problem your fishing partners can have a relatively care free day. Either way the result will be the same. You elect to worry about it later and allow the return Fly Fishing Road adventure to start in its own time.


  1. Brings back memories, Phil! Not only fishing and camping trips but many others as well. I remember traveling the wild center of Australia on a big ol’ 1100 motorcycle some years back. I’d come to these trenches where flash floods could rage across the vehicle track in torrential rivers. There was no way of knowing how deep it was or whether there were crocs in it, except by a mental calculation that weighed the number of vehicles that might come this way in a month (probably three or four, tops) against the number of abandoned vehicles that might be there. That was the only data I’d have to work with…well, that and the fact that I didn’t intend to spend the rest of my life on one side of that trench.

    And returning along such a road as you describe can indeed be an even bigger problem than the initial going. I remember a mountain we used to drive up to go hang gliding. The route was a double fall line that was steep and far scarier in the down direction than in the up. I remember thinking that even if the launch winds were all wrong, I still preferred to take my chances getting the glider off the hill. I’d let my driver make the abominable drive down; I’d go by air. The descent of choice was flying, even when conditions were “not flyable without risk of death.”

    Regarding getting a little farther from the easy road, absolutely–a fly’s time on good water is important, not the amount of time the fly is wet. In my opinion, trout that see a fisherman only infrequently, or almost never, are how trout were intended to be. A fly fishing guide in Yosemite once told me he advises his clients that all they’ve gotta do is go a little way from the tourists and gift shops. He cited the “five-minute rule” which says if you walk that long from any road or bike path, you’ll be alone and in good fishing.

    Enjoyed the tale!

    – Mike

    1. Hi Mike, thanks very much for the comment and for taking the time to read my tale. In Pennsylvania on Clark’s Creek my wife and I ride a few miles down an old railroad grade on mountain bikes to get away from the crowd and it works.


  2. Being blessed by living in a state with untold miles of high quality trout water, one might think the 10s of thousands of out-of-state anglers that visit Montana every summer would make things a bit crowded on our rivers. But there are really three roads to solitude on the water–time, distance and direction. Hit the river when the tourists are sleeping. Go upstream when all the boats are going down. And find that ideal distance from the easy access. Like Phil alludes to, there is peril in all three. My bumpy, rutted, puddled road is Ennis Lake. The 15 minute paddle across the lake at dawn to parts of the Madison River that guarantees many hours of complete solitude and some world class trout fishing has a downside. The return can be a bit harrowing and tedious if the wind rises in the North making the bar at the river’s mouth somewhat treacherous and the white capped waves a challenge as you fight the wind for 30 minutes or so to get back to the launch. But like Phil, you generally don’t worry about that until the fishing is done. Good story with lots of truth.

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