Ned’s Dead

A backpack trip into north Idaho’s cutthroat and bull trout bastion brings humor and grief, via an unexpected surprise in wading boots.

Note: I gave a presentation last night to the Fly Fisher’s of the Bitterroot Club in Hamilton, Montana and had a wonderful time. The most laughs arrived when I told the following story, which was formerly printed in my old publication, Tight Lines. Hope you get a similar kick out of it.

BACKPACK TRIPS INTO REMOTE TROUT STREAMS ARE USUALLY about having too much stuff—too much food, too many pairs of underwear, too many flies, rods, reels … When the opposite is true it’s typically in regard to a dearth of suitable beverage, or forgetting a rain-fly, or the bear spray, or a lighter and matches. Something to turn an anticipated experience into a near-disaster.

A couple summers ago, I engaged on a five-day backpack trip into north Idaho with Jeff Wogoman. We were searching for big, native cutthroat and a few bull trout. Jeff viewed the trip as an opportunity to field-test some prototype gear, including one of his company’s breakthrough products, the super-lightweight 8X Wading Boot.

At the trailhead we spread our gear on the ground, then divvied essentials into our respective packs trying to match weights (Hey, I’m not carrying that bottle of Crown Royal, too, Wogoman roared. I retorted, If I’m carrying all the food and 15 pounds of fly boxes and reels then, yes, you are carrying the Crown Royal). Then this dubious suggestion from Wogs: If we drink all the beer right now we wouldn’t have to pack it in. Eventually, we agreed on the beer and the loads and all that was left was to lace our boots and head up the rough trail, five miles upstream we hoped, past the mulies and whitetails and black bears and moose.

I just about jumped out of my boots when Wogs yelled, “What the hell! You’ve got to be kidding me!” His rage broke the silence of a perfect summer morning and all I could think was, He broke his sunglasses or he snapped a rod or, after a pre-hike belt, he failed to screw a cap onto the Crown Royal and now it might be leaking in the bottom of his pack. Instead, he said, “Ned’s dead! That ass gave me two right footed wading boots!”

Ned referred to Ned Hutchins, a veteran fly fisher who knows the value of sturdy boots on freestone streams, especially those located in near-wilderness where a turned ankle or a bad fall could render a dream-trip into a dangerous game. Wogs and I huddled for a moment. The nearest town was at least 50 miles away over bad dirt road. The nearest fly shop was 20 miles farther than that. The nearest quality wading boots, we declared, were at least a half-day drive away. If we went for the boots, we’d sacrifice the angling day. Fortunately, while digging through the cab of my truck I came up with an answer—I pulled a pair of ink-black, slick-soled New Balance running shoes from the depths, handed them to Wogs, and said, “Retro is in.”

Elements of big trips often reveal themselves as refrains and this catastrophe was no different. At first, whenever Wogs slipped on the trail or nearly fell while crossing the stream we’d say, “Ned is Dead!” By day two, Ned was to blame for everything; if we burned food it was Ned’s fault; if a trout rose to the top and rejected a fly, it was Ned’s fault; if a no-see-um or a horsefly torched an arm or leg, it was that blasted Ned again; when the weather turned and lightening threatened … Yep. Ned.

That Wogs survived the trip or, more accurately, that his ankles and knees and wrists weathered north Idaho’s freestone storm, is testament to a youth spent in competitive gymnastics and college years wearing in a male cheerleading suit. There were times when Wogs spun circles and then launched off slick, midstream rocks, demonstrating the splits in midair, ala Mary Lou Retton. Other times he nearly lost it on steep off-trail sections, feet sliding down the scree, momentum finally stopping at the bottom of a mountain in an airborne spin and a perfect two-point landing, ala Tanya Harding’s defamed triple axel. Each time I witnessed that grace I felt like waving a flag and throwing wild roses. It was as if I were witnessing the birth of a new American legend. I don’t think Wogs, humble man that he is, saw it that way.

At the end of what turned out to be a most memorable and productive fishing trip, with a grimace on his face Wogs tore a piece of paper from a notebook and scratched his sentiments, and demanded that I snap a photo to e-mail to Ned.

Later that year, I caught up with Ned and gave him a rightful amount of good-natured abuse. Ned, ever the clear-minded thinker, said, “Yea, it’s too bad that Wog’s had to dance around north Idaho in tennis shoes, but the real questions is this: Who’s the poor son-of-a-bitch that ended up with two lefts?”

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