Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Chuck's last fishing trip

Back in May I receive this e-mail from a man named Chuck:
I have a story, and I would like to see if I can get your help if possible.  For most of the 1960's and 1970's, when I was a kid, my family and I spent about 2 weeks every summer at the log cabins on French Creek Ranch.  We would drive from Los Angeles, CA, making the long trip in about 3 days.  The owner of French Creek at the time was a lady named Millie Sanger, who I'm sure, has long passed away.  My mom and her family were even going there since my mom was a little girl, staying at the old Jenkins place.  My Grandfather was a big fly fishing fan and taught my dad how to fly fish when he and my mom got married.  When we were old enough, my dad taught my younger brother and myself how to fly fish on the North Platte River and French Creek.  It was my dad's favorite place to visit; he loved it up there and looked forward to those 3 weeks every year.  Some of my best childhood memories took place on that ranch.  I remember the log cabins, the pond out in front, the big lodge...everything.  I could tell stories for hours about that place. 

Anyway, my dad sadly passed away on April 15th, and his body was cremated.  My mom, brother and I would love to have his ashes sent down French Creek, along with his old (and I do mean old) fishing hat.   My mom and brother live in Northern California, and I live in South Carolina.  I guess I have two questions.  First, as far as sending the ashes down the creek, is this something you would be willing to do for us?  And second, if I was able to fly into Laramie, would I be able to make a day trip to French Creek with your help, and send of the ashes myself?  Please feel free to email me back and let me know any thoughts you have.

Bring the romantic that I am I immediately contacted Chuck.  I told him that not only would I be happy to do it for the family, I’d be damn happy and honored to do it for them.   Asked about how they had found me, Chuck said they googled “French Creek, Wyoming and Fly Fishing” and my web site came up on top.  After going through my site they knew in their heart that I would do it and was the “right” one to do it.

As I learned more about Chuck’s dad – also called Chuck – the commitment to do this for the family became obvious.    Having served in the Marines I have a kinship with all other Marines.  In a similar way being a devout fly fisher I have a kinship with all other diehard fly fishers and Chuck the elder and I had that fly fishing connection.  It was just too ironic that Chuck’s favorite place to fish, French Creek, is one of my favorite streams in the world.  In fact I have always said if I could only fish one more time before I went blind it would be on French Creek in mid-July.  

Over the next two months as I began to prepare for my summer long guiding trip to Wyoming, I mentioned my added responsibility to my friends, fly fishing accomplices and clients.  Everyone thought it was a kind and thoughtful act by both the family and me.  Everyone asked “can I be part of it?”   My plan was to catch a big trout from one of my “secret” locations on French Creek, place Chuck’s ashes in his old fishing hat, and release both Chuck and the trout together down French Creek.   The family’s response to my plan was that it exceeded their prayers.  The logistic were relatively simple.  Chuck’s widow would have this ashes sent to me.  In late June Chuck’s ashes arrived via certified mail.  She also sent me the material form the memorial service and a picture of Chuck in his younger days wearing his fishing hat.

Chuck’s ashes went into my truck and off we went to Wyoming.   The winter of 2010-2011 was one of the worst on record for the Snowy Range Mountains, the source of French Creek.   On July 11th as I drove through the Snowy Range there was still more than three feet of snow back in the woods!  I knew that French Creek would still be at peak spring runoff levels.   The drive along the Forest Service road that crosses and then parallels French Creek confirmed my fear.  There was no way I could fish French Creek for at least a month.  By that time I’d have to be in northwest Wyoming to guide.  My plan for the release of Chuck, his hat and a good fish was not going to happen.   

I had decide early on that there two people I wanted to be part of this occasion, my true and special friends, guides and fishing companions Duane and Preston.   Duane would be with me all summer but Preston had only a limited window of time available.   The last possible day we would all be together was the 22nd of July.   A scout of possible location revealed that a little side channel by the Tie Hack Trail bridge would provide a place where I could at least fish and maybe catch something.

On the morning of the 22nd of July, over coffee by our campfire  I got Chuck out of the truck and we opened the US Postal Service package.   Inside was Chuck’s old, and I do mean old, fishing hat and a brown container.  Inside the container was a plastic bag containing Chuck’s ashes.   By about 10:15 we were at the Tie Hack Trail bridge.  With Preston’s son Nate, a professional photographer, recording the event, I wadded across the side channel to the edge of the main flow of French Creek with the container of Chuck’s ashes and his hat under my armI sat Chuck and his hat on a small gravel bar and made several casts into the side channel.  My hope to be able to release Chuck and a fish was not going to happen.    I made my way to a rock on the edge of the fastest current, put Chuck’s hat down on the rock, took the bag of ashes from the container and filed his hat with them.   With a smile on my face and a glade heart, I slide the hat off the rock and waved good bye as the current set Chuck free.

I hadn’t poured all of Chuck’s ashes into his hat.  There was still about a third of a cup of ashes left in the plastic bag.  My first thought was to go up on the bridge and dump them.   Then a thought occurred to me.  Maybe I could take Chuck on one last long fishing trip.   I would be fishing in the Encampment area with clients for the remainder of July and then heading west into the Bridger-Tetons for three weeks.  From there I would head home to Kansas City.  Just a slight detour would take me past French Creek at the end of August.  By then French Creek should be fishable.  Hopefully then I could release Chuck’s final remains and a nice French Creek trout!   When I contacted Chuck’s widow with my proposal I received a resounding YES!  

So Chuck and I went off on his last great fishing trip.   Over the next several weeks we had a chance to fish with a lot of different people throughout western Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton’s and up into Yellowstone.  At each new location I marked the spot with my personal locator and whenever I had internet access I’d send Shirley a report on where we fished, who we fished with, and how we did.

On the afternoon of August 21st I took Chuck back to French Creek for one last fish.  I didn’t want anyone one with Chuck and me for this final time on the stream.  It had to be just him and me for these last casts.  Having anyone, even my closest friends, along would have made it too much of a spectacle.   The Tie Hack pool, just a few hundred yards below where I had released most of Chuck’s ashes always has a few nice fish in it.  The pool didn’t disappoint me.  Within a few casts a beautiful rainbow rose to our size 14 Elk Hair Caddis.   I quickly brought the fish into some slack water, sprinkled most of Chuck’s ashes into the water and placed a few remaining ashes onto our trout.   As Chuck and our trout swam off I realized what a special gift I had been given and been able to share with so many others.   We can all only hope that our lives will touch so many people.  

Tight Lines Chuck!


  1. Thank you for everything you have done Norm. I never even dreamed of such an amazing and beautiful adventure for my dad. God Bless you.

    Chuck Jr.

  2. Oh... there is a reason why we of the FF@ call you the WIZ and why I, with great pleasure and honor, call you Friend. Most excellent, Sir. Most excellent indeed. ';{

  3. This is an absolutely incredible journey! Chuck Jr. is a close friend of mine and I am deeply touched by what you have done for him. Thank you so much for easing the pain for my dear friend and providing him an everlasting memory of his father.

    Amber W.

  4. We can only hope that we can have such a lasting effect on people. I am thrilled have been the instrument to have gotten people thinking about what they want the end of their life to be like.

  5. You're the best, Norm. Chuck would have been proud to have known you.