The Spooner Lake Expedition

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Photos by Mark Fiorentino

A view of Spooner Lake from Susan Woodin’s bench.

I call it an expedition because it’s better than “a fishing trip where I didn’t catch anything.” “Expedition” makes it sound like I accomplished something, which I guess, in the end, I did.

It was the seventy-seventh day of the eighty-first session of the Nevada Legislature, a Sunday. Weekdays during the session are hectic and stressful, especially this year with the lingering impacts of COVID-19. But, so far, weekends had been easier. I hadn’t been able to travel home much, so I was looking for things to get me out of my hotel room.

Spooner Lake caught my eye. According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife, the lake contained a number of species of trout, including rainbows, browns and bowcutts—a rainbow and cutthroat hybrid. Catching a bowcutt would entitle me to major bragging rights. I began to imagine the dead silence and awe I would experience as I stood, surrounded by my fishing buddies and, with a puffed out chest and a slight sneer, asked: “Any of you ever catch a bowcutt?”

So, following the advice posted on the NDWL website, I packed my backpack with spinner baits, Powerbait and worms. I also had my four-piece Ugly Stick rod and, of course, a Zebco Pro reel. My plan was to start with the spinner baits and then try other things until I found what worked.

Spooner Lake is in the foothills above Carson City, nestled in the high desert forest at an elevation of about seven thousand feet. Access is via a trail that starts near the highway and encircles the lake. One guidebook described the trail as “zz”.

“Amateur naturalists will appreciate the biodiversity found along the loop, including Jeffrey pine forest, quaking green aspen groves, wildflower-filled meadows, and patches of sagebrush scrub. A wide range of wildlife may be seen as well, particularly a number of bird species, including hawks, warblers, thrushes, chickadees, and nuthatches.”

Most fishermen try to sell themselves on the idea that fishing isn’t just about catching fish. It’s also about actually paying attention to, and being grateful for, your surroundings. So I told myself: “Who cares if I catch any fish? Worst case scenario, I’ll get to enjoy a few peaceful, legislature-free hours in an environment I don’t get to see very often.” 

We try to sell ourselves on this idea, but it isn’t always easy to buy. Not when you compare it to the idea of commanding silence and awe with stories of how you landed a bowcutt trout. So, in truth, I set out to focus on fishing and on, hopefully, ignoring my surroundings.

But nature nagged at me as soon as I got out of the car. As I headed towards the lake, I could not help but notice the Jeffrey pines. These trees are tall and they drop giant pinecones. Cones so big that I was inspired to take a selfie with one and text the picture to my daughter with the caption: “Spooner Lake Trail. PINE CONES AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD.” The trees also drop a carpet of long needles that in the warmth of the late spring sun produced a strong, but not overpowering fragrance. To me, the smell is uniquely Western United States, and it reminded me of the cabin we used to own in Southern Utah.

Pine Cones As Big As Your Head

As I was deep in thought about exploring the Utah woods with my kids when they were much younger, I rounded a bend in the trail, and got, for the first time, a full view of the lake. It was rimmed with a shoreline that was sometimes rocky beach, sometimes overgrown with sagebrush and other vegetation, and sometimes open meadow. The water was a deep turquoise color that was especially brilliant wherever it met up with a patch of lingering snow on the shore.

As I got closer to the lake, I noticed a pair of mallard ducks swimming slowly past, headed to a shady spot under some branches that overhung the water. Watching the ducks was so peaceful that I almost forgot about fishing.

I may never have snapped out of it if I hadn’t heard the splash off to my right. I looked over just in time to see a fish reentering the water. That got me going. I assembled my rod, tied on a rooster tail spinner and began casting.

On my third cast, a fish hit hard. I think I made a decent attempt to set the hook, but honestly, I can’t say for sure. When the fish struck, I was busy watching two white birds floating on the lake, too far off for me to positively identify them. They were generally rectangular in shape, with big heads. I was thinking: “I wonder if they’re pelicans,” when I should have been thinking: “sweep the rod tip up, to the left.”

Good hook set or not, I got the fish turned around and headed toward me. As he got into the shallow water, he thrashed and I got a good look at his side. He was olive brown, with dark spots and a large reddish-pink blotch on his gill plate, below and behind his eye. A bowcutt!? Just as I was envisioning the silence and awe I was about to produce, he thrashed again and was gone.

Naturally, I focused on fishing for a bit: casting, moving down the shore, casting again. But I got no more hits, and I was again distracted by nature. A black crowned night heron floated by, and later, a muskrat took great pleasure in swimming back and forth in front of me.

I slowly, subconsciously, got absorbed by the surroundings. Ten casts per minute became five, then two, until I finally broke down my rod and stopped fishing altogether. I succumbed and spent the rest of the expedition leisurely completing the loop around the lake.

About two-thirds of the way around, I stopped to sit at a bench that offered a perfect view of the lake, framed by two of those Jeffrey pines. There was a plaque on the bench that read:

In Remembrance Of


She Loved The

Beauty Of The Mountains,

The Smell Of The Trees,

And The Feel of The Wind on Her Face.

As I headed back to the car, I thought about Susan. She sounded like my kind of person, someone who might have her priorities straight. But I still couldn’t help wondering if she had ever caught a bowcutt.