Reflections from Spearfish Canyon on losing a net, saving a pickup and getting a helping hand

Posted by Kevin Woster on
The pickup, hauled back up on the asphalt where it belongs

It took a couple tries, but I finally lost my landing net.

And my pickup? Well, I saved it, just barely, from going completely over the edge and down into Spearfish Creek.

I made some new acquaintances, too, which a guy tends to do when he’s wandering around in chest waders along a well-used highway with his iPhone, searching for cell service while nearby his old white pickup hangs nose first at a 45-degree angle off the stream-side edge of an asphalt pull-out.

Call this my Spearfish Canyon Getaway, the one that almost, well,  got away.

My Nissan, I mean.

And call it, further, a thank-you note to Nolan Ruby of Sioux Falls and the Texas team of Danny Winborne and Bill Forman — not to mention their four-wheeled-drive pickup, and the tow ropes.

Who together pulled my pickup back from the edge of an angler's abyss and back up on the asphalt pull-out, where it belonged.

More on that and them to come. But first, back to the landing net.

 I lost it the first time when I was duck waddling along in my waders, snapping iPhone pictures of riparian blooms along a gently flowing distributary just off Spearfish Creek.

The net had been riding fairly comfortably above my left hip and inside my waders belt, where I’d stuffed it when I got out of the pickup. There are better ways to carry a net while fly fishing. But I like the ease of simply sticking it inside the belt.

Mostly, it works. But somehow in my waddling for the right picture angle, the net slipped out. I noticed it was missing after I’d fished my way upstream 50 yards or so.

 So I slogged downstream in a Herman Munster gait through the rushing water to find the net reclining on a soft bed of alluvium just a few feet before the tiny split in stream flow re-enters the main creek.

With the net secured again, I fished my way back upstream. And soon I hooked a beautiful trout, one of the wild rainbows that reproduces naturally in parts of Spearfish Creek along the route of the national scenic byway.

That stretch of creek is one of the rare places in the Black Hills that produces wild rainbows. Brown trout reproduce successfully throughout most of the hills. And there are wild brook trout in several streams, particularly in the upper reaches.

But spawning-and-rearing conditions don’t work so well hereabouts for rainbows. So most caught by anglers in the Black Hills are hatchery fish.

There’s nothing wrong with stockers, but those wild rainbows up in the canyon — deeply colored and acrobatically uncooperative when hooked — are something special. To me they are trophy fish, regardless of how big they are. And releasing them unharmed is important.

I was fishing about 10 feet from shore just above a precipitous tumble of water, where the Spearfish Creek falls hard and fast through a conglomeration of stumps and trunks and slick rock rubble, when a trout took my nymph. I could see the scarlet stripe on its side on the second or third turn, so I knew it was a rainbow.

As I worked the trout toward me, I pulled the net out of my belt for the landing. But it slipped out of my hand, caught in the current, did a 180-degree whirl and took off.

I grabbed for it with my left hand, holding the bent graphite rod high with my right, missed and almost fell. Stepped. Grabbed again. Missed again. Glanced upstream as the rainbow jumped, then turned and stepped and reached for the net again, missed and almost fell again.

At that point I decided to focus on landing the fish, casting a last glance at the net as it tumbled down the rapids around a bend and out of sight.

What a beauty the trout was, somewhere around 13 or 14 inches long and predictably vibrant in its coloring.  I  worked it into shallow water, unhooked and released it and turned to go look for the net.

I slogged downstream 100 yards or so through the boulders and snags and pools, hoping to find the net pushed to shore or caught in one of the ubiquitous tangles of wood. But it was gone.

So I trundled back upstream, caught a few brown trout and another smaller rainbow, then left the creek and scrambled up to the shoulder of Highway 14A, where I walked back to the parking area along the road.

All told, I was feeling pretty good despite the lost equipment.

My 12-year-old Nissan sat where I’d parked it, with its front bumper about four feet from the edge of the asphalt and, beyond, a fairly steep, 25-foot slope accentuated by boulders down to the creek.

I climbed in behind the wheel, found the ignition, pushed in the clutch with one foot, stepped on the brake with the other and started the engine.

The next few seconds, though, are hazy, because I caught sight of a trout rising in a pool just upstream. And apparently I was so lost in the rise that I took my foot off the brake pedal for just a moment.

I realized I was rolling just about the time my front left wheel lurched off the asphalt. Reflexes being what they are at 65, I managed to stomp on the brake pedal just after the right front wheel had followed the left over the edge.

I slid, but not too far, before the brakes convinced the back tires to hold on the pavement, with roughly the front two-thirds of the pickup over the edge.

“Darn it,” I said. “That wasn’t very smart.”

OK, that’s not what I said. Not what I screamed, actually. But I’m not going violate my own social-media policy against profanity by printing the words here. Let's just say that if you run through a list of the most common cuss words, you’ll have covered most of them.

With the slimmest hope of success, I tried first putting the manual transmission in reverse and releasing the emergency brake and foot brake as I gently let out the clutch. It’s a two-wheel drive. All I did was spin and slide down another foot.

So I stepped hard on the brake, jerked the emergency brake back on, left the transmission in reverse and turned off the engine. Then I stepped out and staggered up to the asphalt, where a couple of women were  hurrying from their appropriately parked vehicle.

“Oh my God, are you OK?” one said as she rushed over.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m OK. Just a little stupid. It wasn’t a wreck. I spaced out and let the pickup roll while I was looking at the creek.”

She looked embarrassed on my behalf, asked if I had a cell phone and said she’d had pretty good luck with service in the canyon.

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll call Triple A. Thanks.”

I was trying to do just that when the boys from Pampa, Texas, pulled up in a dark, newer-model four-door pickup. I say "boys" even though they were actually in my gray haired age range somewhere.

“You’re from Texas,” I said as I examed their license plate. “I’ll bet you’ve got a tow rope.”

They assured me with smiles that they had multiple tow ropes. But my sudden good fortune continued. Another pickup pulled up and a powerfully built young man stepped out and offered to help. Soon Nolan Ruby was rolling around under the box of my pickup, hooking up the Texas tow rope.

And not long after that, I was back behind the steering wheel being pulled backward up onto the asphalt, and asking for names so I could praise them in this story.

The boys from Texas were fine with that and didn’t want much in return: “Just tell them to ‘Remember the Alamo!’”

So, consider yourself told.

And Nolan Ruby, well, he wanted a little bit more, and deserved it.

See, he’s a Marine combat veteran who made a bit of a social-media stir, in a good way, a while back with a Facebook update about proper handling of the American flag.

A Coca-Cola delivery man in eastern South Dakota, Ruby was making a stop at a school during football season. There he noticed that a flag used on the field had been sort of stuffed away on a shelf.

Ruby takes the flag seriously, as you can imagine. So he snapped a picture of the flag, folded it properly and put it back on the shelf, then snapped another picture.

Later he wrote an update on Facebook, showing the pictures and offering lessons in flag etiquette. Shares of his Facebook post are approaching 200,000.

So, on Nolan Ruby’s behalf, consider yourself reminded to thank our veterans, respect Old Glory and follow proper flag etiquette.

And also, reach out to help the people who need it along life’s highways, whether or not they inlude a spacey old guy in chest waders.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.