This story was published in the 2018 Summer issue of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. While living in New Mexico I would take day trips to the Rio Grande and the Red River. The country is wild and free and never crowded. It’s also mysterious and haunting. This trip was interrupted by a treasure hunter. He was looking for gold. I was looking for trout. Sometimes they are the same thing.
“Are you looking for Fenn’s treasure?”
The question caught me offhand. I assumed our brief exchange was over. My door, half ajar, jut between us and I peeked around the top of the tinted glass to verify this question with my eyes.
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“Are you here looking for Fenn’s treasure?”
The man stood with two sets of glasses, one polarized which he wore over his face and the other clear, perched on top of his black bicycling hat. He wore a white cotton sweater that had seen its share of the sun or washing machines or both. His legs were covered in black tights and his feet wore dark brown Merrell’s, somewhat new, which scratched the gravel of the parking lot we both stood on. Again, my mind juggled the words in an incomprehensible wonder of, am I hearing him correctly? and, did he say treasure?
“I don’t know what that is,” I said honestly.
The man took a few steps toward me and I was cautious. He reached into his pocket and I noticed we were alone. He pulled out a white piece of notebook paper with jagged edges. As he unfolded it he repeated the ending of his question.
“Forest Fenn’s treasure. He’s an art dealer from Santa Fe. He hid a treasure chest somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. He wrote a poem.”
I could see words written in blue ink on the paper he held and without further explanation he started to read them to me. I was strangely fascinated by this and my instinct told me no harm was imminent, but I found it difficult to focus on his voice. He was now less than two feet away from me. A stranger reading a poem.
Where warm waters halt.
Below the home of brown.
Not far but too far to walk.
The end is ever drawing nigh.
I heard bits and pieces of the poem he read, and I struggled to catch up to this sprint of adventure and mystery thrown at me in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area southwest of Cerro, New Mexico. He finished, his voice cracking at the words ever drawing nigh, implying great reverence, and unveiled his reason for being there. Moments earlier I paid little attention to him as he slid to a stop in the parking spot diagonal from my own, driving a white, older model Toyota 4-Runner. I assumed he was just another hiker and barely noticed him walking the edge of the canyon, looking up and down the gorge. I was rolling my waders to be strapped to my backpack and putting the four sections of my 5 weight Sage together. I was there to fish the confluence of the Red River and the Rio Grande. I had never heard Fenn’s tale.
Then again, any man that embarks into the wilderness must, therefore, be ready for its inevitable wild.
The man told me the treasure could be anywhere north of Santa Fe and south of Canada. I found this comically inspiring. Like that time my mom told me I could be an NBA basketball player. The man told me a lot of people were looking around Yellowstone because Fenn spent significant time there. He told me it was highly publicized, and that various groups and websites were devoted to this treasure and its finding, reportedly worth millions.
“The old man put a bracelet in the chest and he wants it back. He said he’ll buy it back from whoever finds it. If I find it, I’ll give it to him. And I won’t tell anyone else.”
The reasoning section of my brain asked too many questions to vocalize so I tossed them to and fro inside my skull and kept them there. He talked so matter-of-factly - as if this was a normal conversation between two patrons in the parking lot of the town grocery store. I strained to see his eyes behind the darkness of his shades but couldn’t make them out in the morning glare. His face was sun-stressed and he donned a neatly trimmed goatee that I found myself admiring in a strange way, a look I knew I would fancy myself at some point in life. He was kept and lean. He stood even with my 6’2 height, if not a shade higher. I asked myself why he would divulge such information. As he talked my gaze was drawn to his shoes repeatedly and helplessly. Shoes don’t make the man they say but I judged his Merrell’s as a sign of credibility - as if broken down Reebok’s would have indicated a crazy. Then I remembered my own pair in my closet at home and asked myself how many times people thought I was nuts. The man was from Colorado and he had noticed my Idaho plates. I moved to New Mexico in June and had yet to change them, partial to the Yellowstone Cutthroat that graced its metal. I now made the connection he did, the one that peaked his curiosity beyond silence. He suspected another hunter in his midst, perhaps surmising the same answers as his own to the cryptic poem. Once he asked the question there was no turning back. He gave me his email address and told me to contact him if I was interested in learning more. He told me to Google Fenn and watch his YouTube videos. I asked him why any man would rid himself of that much wealth and the Blanca native told me Fenn had more than he needed and that he was inspired to leave some sort of legacy behind and spark today’s youth to get away from their texting machines. I pointed him in the direction of the fish hatchery and he asked me lastly if I knew of any waterfalls in the area. I did not.
I am reminded by Norman Mclean’s, “Eventually all things merge into one.”
It was still well before noon, so I finished strapping my boots and waders to my Tenzing pack and started the descent of La Junta trail, oddly the same name as my birthplace in Colorado - one of those ominous coincidences taken for signs by the romantic of which I surely am one. La Junta is Spanish for the junction, a name applied to my home-place because of the coming together of the Santa Fe Trail and the Arkansas River. The trail I hiked down in New Mexico bore the name, no doubt, because of the merging of the Red River and the Rio Grande. I am reminded by Norman Mclean’s, “Eventually all things merge into one.”
In a daze of the beauty of the canyon, I reached the bottom of the trail and instead of continuing all the way to the confluence, cut straight south to the Red, anxious to fish. It was March and in winter the Red serves a productive fishery for Cutbows, Browns, and Rainbows because the natural spring source to the Rio stays around 48 degrees Fahrenheit. I couldn’t shake Fenn’s treasure from my mind and as I searched the narrow water for trout holds, my eyes gravitated upwards to the cliff outcroppings and the rocky benches of the canyon walls. Could someone climb that with a treasure chest? After pulling on my waders and Korkers I tied a nymph rig with a #14 prince nymph above a #20 olive zebra midge. On the 3rd cast over a medium sized boulder, upstream to a pocket of calm water, my indicator paused, and I set the hook on a small brown. He fought eagerly, and I struggled to keep tension, my hands apparently wrought with winter rust. The fish fell loose, and I was left satisfied with the promise of a productive day. It had been a couple months since I felt the tug of a trout and I missed it dearly. I worked my way upstream, away from the confluence, and fished past noon. The canyon bottom was mildly treacherous, and I struggled around boulders and deadfall.
“Not far but too far to walk.
“Not far but too far to walk. What the hell does that mean?” I asked out loud to the river.
After an hour or so I was puzzled by the deadness of my flies. I had already switched between several midges and had even tried a small BWO as I was sure I saw a few hatching at mid-day. I did see a small trout attack the surface underneath a waterfall but despite my efforts, I could not trick him. Or her, as it may have been. I sat down for a moment and took a break after snapping my line on a stump I couldn’t reach. The sun started its meeting with the other side of the world and I asked myself what I would do with a chest full of treasure. Bills, debt, college for my daughters. Car payments and washing machines. The obligatory responsibility traps that make your decisions for you. After much thought and a liter of red Powerade, I reached the conclusion that once those requirements were met, I would do exactly as I was doing at that moment. I would fish. Perhaps the destinations would become more extravagant. At the least more expensive. My gear would surely be upgraded, although I’m rather fond of my sixteen-year-old Sage, given to me by my uncle as a high school graduation present. What else? I could find no answer and the feeling gave me significant happiness despite the reality that I had now been fishing hard for hours and had yet to wet my hands in preparation for a release. I had hooked only one other fish since the first and again he wiggled himself free.
I worked my way back down the river toward the confluence. I went past my put in and several hundred yards across a basalt avalanche and then down to a run of nice looking pools. I grew tiresome of the backpack I carried. Camera, spotting scope, binoculars, snacks, GPS, first aid kit, hiking boots, water, and extra clothes. Apparently, I was in some sort of transitionary limbo from the scrapings of deer season to the hint of western hatches. I seem to live in a constant state of sporting confusion. Should I fish or should I hunt? Hopefully, a sentiment shared by my gathering ancestors.
Below the home of brown. The words pierced my head incessantly. “What’s the home of brown?” I asked out loud.
“The end is ever drawing nigh.”
I worked a couple pools, backtracked and retrieved my pack, then scrambled upstream again to repeat the process. Later I would read that a man had gone missing just a few months prior in this canyon, looking for the treasure. As of this writing, he has yet been found. Search and rescue and fifty-plus volunteers scanned the rocks I fished under. My first heathenish thought was that if that many people were walking the canyon, surely the treasure would be discovered. Then I felt guilty for my lack of empathy towards the man. Then again, any man that embarks into the wilderness must, therefore, be ready for its inevitable wild. I thought of the massiveness of this gorge and knew it was well beyond my virgin comprehensions. I had not yet ventured most of the trail system. The damn thing could be anywhere. Needle in a haystack. I thought. Still, I fantasized about an excursion. That would mean, of course, that I would have to sacrifice a fishing trip. A true crux.
I caught my line again and waded over to unhook myself. When I reached the devil thicket I noticed not one, not two, not three, but a handful of flies snagged on the limbs - all some variation of what I had tied on the end of my line which was a #18 copper john. This gave me some assurance as I had been questioning my selection all day. That wave was then immediately followed by a woeful reality. I was using the right stuff, so this then was most likely as good as it was going to get. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen much of anything swimming in the gin clear water as I walked. Maybe most of the fish had already headed back into the Rio Grande. My back was beginning to tire from the pack and the casting. I took a deep breath and let go the hope of an epic day. I stood in the middle of the river and looked downstream towards the confluence. I could hear the Rio and I could see the canyon walls curving to the south before my view was blocked by the gorge itself. Not one to quit easily I retied my rig with a similar setup - prince nymph and copper john. I walked upstream in the shallow, boulder ridden water. The wind picked up and it hindered my roll casts. I patiently poked through three beautiful pools and approached the final fourth. Slabs of deep, slow-moving water were broken only by jagged lines of descending rock or limb, which then formed the following pool. A simple but accurate cast behind a large rock and I studied the indicator. It hesitated, and I lifted firmly. Gold flashed through the clear blue waves. I directed the fish across the current and into my net. Normally, I would have scrambled for my phone, GoPro or DSLR, proof that the day was not in vain. But I took too long to remove the hook and the ten-inch brown was growing tired. I released the fly, lowered my hand and felt its stomach slide from my palm, into the darkness of the water below me. I stood in the canyon and listened to the wind blow and the river run.
“I know the treasure is wet,” Forest Fenn revealed later in an interview.
Indeed, it is.