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The Gamblers of La Tienda by Chadd VanZanten

By Pete Tyjas on 20th November 2019



In the rural village of Franklin, Idaho, population 600-and- change, there is a fuel station and C-store called La Tienda.

“The Store,” in case your Spanish is rusty.

For boaters and campers looking for a sack of ice or a five- pound bag of beef jerky before setting out to one of the numerous nearby recreation areas, The Store is the stopover of choice.

And, like a lot of little stopovers of its kind out here in the west, it’s also a lot more than that.

For instance, La Tienda employs thirty or forty people, depending on the season, and all but a few are from Franklin, meaning something like twenty percent of the working-age people from Franklin work there.

La Tienda is also the region’s primary supplier of a very important commodity: lottery tickets. And because it’s situated a mere 5,000 feet from Idaho’s border with Utah (where gambling is illegal), La Tienda is famously known
as “Home of the Utah Lottery.” On the eve of the big Powerball jackpots, Mormons embark on a new pioneer trek, northward this time instead of westward, into Idaho instead of Zion, but for basically the same reason: to get really rich.

Utahans rely on La Tienda for one other provision, this one more widely considered essential: beer. The Store boasts a spacious walk-in refrigerator generously stocked with high-alcohol-content, which is another thing Mormons have outlawed in Utah. Highway 91 between La Tienda and the Utah state line must be one of America’s last great bootlegging routes.

But perhaps most importantly, every holiday weekend throughout the summer, the La Tienda parking lot becomes the beachhead of a massive invasion of recreational vehicles. Enormous pick-up trucks hauling boats and ATV trailers jockey up to the gas pumps. RVs loom over the shimmering asphalt like aircraft carriers. Bikers in black leather descend in squadrons of ten and sometimes twenty.

Inside, the queue to the cash registers winds through the aisles and all the way back to the glass doors of the beverage coolers. There is a tin bell rigged up over the entrance, and its discordant jangle is practically continuous.

A tanned guy in a country music concert t-shirt with cut-off sleeves waits in line, a case of Miller High Life in each fist and a third on the floor which he nudges along with his foot. Behind him, a sunburned Harley rider in need of cigarettes and an energy drink tilts his wraparound sunglasses up onto his forehead to reveal a raccoon mask of pale skin. Over by the candy, a mom in a pink camouflage hoodie scolds her kid: “You can get one thing, Rylee. One! That’s two things. I said one!”

The lottery players don’t improve the situation. At any given moment, half of La Tienda’s customers are playing two-dollar scratch tickets. Old folks in Sunday clothes, young folks with tattoos and Kool-Aid-tinted hair, multigenerational family groups of migrant workers—they line up to scrape the gray rubbery film off stacks of twenty, thirty, and fifty tickets. The cashiers don’t bat an eye even when asked for a hundred.

The tickets have names like Epic Fortune, Make Me Rich, and Set for Life. They advertise payouts between $10,000 and $250,000, but most winning tickets are worth a microscopic fraction of that—five dollars or maybe ten.

Most of the players buy more scratchers with their winnings. They’re uninterested in twenty-dollar or even fifty-dollar payouts. These regulars are looking for the serious win. They may stay at the cash register for five minutes to cash out, buy more tickets, and cash out again, doubling down for as long as their luck holds out. I once saw a guy win $350 and immediately spend it all on more chances. The cashiers allow this even though it slows the line to a glacial procession. Sometimes it forks and doubles back on itself, giving rise to low-intensity conflicts about who’s ahead of whom.

And so on holiday weekends La Tienda becomes a sort of pageant of the human experience in which young, old, poor, and rich shuffle together through the congested convenience store of life, each searching for what they need to be happy. Some are looking for escape. Many seek wealth. Others just need a place in line and a five-pound bag of beef jerky.

But that’s not how it is on a cool, blustery Sunday morning in April.

With Memorial Day Weekend and summer still weeks away, I pull off Highway 91 at La Tienda to find the parking lot basically vacant. I park in the stall nearest the entrance.

Evidina works a La Tienda checkstand just about every Sunday. She’s in her early sixties or thereabouts, with a short, “grandma-style” hair-do and a perpetual, deferential smile. Roberta’s working, too – she’s probably Evidina’s age but she wears her blond hair long and she’s a bit flirty. The two ladies lean against their check-out counters, chatting and laughing together in the almost-empty store. They don’t know my name, but both recognize me as a Sunday semi- regular, so as I come in the door they wave and nod at me I make my circuit through the aisles to collect my usual order: icy Coke in a 20-ounce paper cup, a package of little chocolate donuts, and an Idaho six-pack of high-point apple ale.

Roberta waves me over and says, “I can help ya right here, hon.”

We begin our ritual.

“Off to fish again, are ya?”


“Well, ya’ve got a nice day for it.” (If the weather was bad, she’d say, “Well, it looks nasty out there. Stay dry, hon.”)

How many times have we done this over the years? Fifty? A hundred?

I ask her: “Could I get a four-piece chicken fingers?” “Sure thing.”

La Tienda chicken fingers are just breaded strips of white chicken meat, but they’re deep-fried in small, frequent batches, so they’re hot and fresh all day, and they’ve attracted modest acclaim among regional connoisseurs of gas station cuisine. Roberta must know already that I want them, but maybe she feels weird serving them to me before I ask? I don’t know, but my saliva glands pucker momentarily as Roberta goes to the hot food cabinet. Roberta puts six of the chicken fingers into a paper sack for me.

“They’re a little on the small side today,” she says, “so I threw in a couple extra for ya.”

She does this every time.

I thank her and she gives me a wink as I turn to leave. It’s chilly outside, and it has rained on and off all morning, but the storm clouds are marching slowly eastward now, and
in the bluesky gaps between them there is a half-hearted promise of a warm afternoon. With The Store in my rearview mirror, I head for Cub River Canyon.

Mormon prophet Brigham Young named the Cub River, presumably because of its size relative to the Bear River, to which it is a tributary. The Cub River’s headwaters and the first 6 miles of its approximately 20-mile total extent are on federal land, and so the upper Cub is publically accessible, largely undeveloped, and boasts spectacular small-stream fly-fishing.

On the drive up the canyon, I eat half the chicken fingers and set the others aside. The truck rattles up the packed- earth road, over the washboards, and through the ponds of mud left by springtime’s melting snow. The aspen trees are leafing out, and their gray and green leaves shimmer like sequins in the breeze.

I eat the last of the little chocolate donuts as I reach the top of the canyon, where I pull off onto a wide place in the road that overlooks Willow Flat. As the name suggests, it’s a wide, marshy valley, where the Cub River slows and splits into multiple braids which snake through a maze of willow brakes. In the chancy sunshine, the channels gleam like rivulets of fugitive mercury.

On Memorial Day weekend and just about every weekend thereafter until September, Willow Flat will be overrun by armies of two-stroke dirt bikes and four-wheeled ATVs.
The dust they raise will thickly coat the roadside foliage like a chalky frost. Every camping spot will be crammed with fifty-foot RV trailers, campers, dogs, thrumming electric generators, and dusty kids. Worm anglers will set their camp chairs in the actual river channel to fish and drink beer.

Today, however, the hilltops are still capped with snow that gleams in the sun, and reefs of grainy, muddy snow linger on the shaded hillsides. Today, the campgrounds are still barred from access by big steel gates. Today, the place is mine.

I jump down from the cab of my truck and just listen. There is only the sound of the wind-quickened aspens. No vehicles or voices.

If Memorial Day at La Tienda is the allegorical tableau of humanity’s great and sluggish tides, this pre-runoff Sunday on the Cub River is a one-man show in which the performer and audience are all the same person. Every fish caught here today will be caught by me. Every conversation I have will be with myself.

A mile upstream from Willow Flat are the headwaters of the Cub, where the river issues from fissures in a craggy, forested cliff face. It gushes out wholesale from the granite in a cold, steady gout, as though there were some immense busted water main somewhere deep inside the mountain.

But today I’m heading downstream. After getting my waders on, I follow a cow trail downriver. Cub River Canyon is located within the Cache National Forest, the official motto of which is “Land of Many Uses.” In addition to its role as a recreation area, much of Cub River Canyon is leased to ranchers for cattle grazing. But the cows aren’t here yet, either. The barbed-wire cow fences are still lying on the ground. I gingerly step over them, uneager to snag my boots or waders.

I come to the brow of a hill above a stretch of river just two miles downstream from the headwaters. There are three nice beaver ponds down there and a section of shallow riffle that I want to fish before working up through the flats. As a chilly breeze sweeps down the canyon, I pause to take an overview.

The place has an unfinished look, as if it’s still preparing itself for the recreational onslaught to come. The water is slightly elevated and colored—spring runoff hasn’t begun yet but it’s coming. The riverbanks are grassless and muddy, and the willows are as yet bare, like the skeletal framing and scaffolds of unfinished bankside building projects. The hillsides are lush with new growth of mulesear and chokecherry, but there are no flowers yet. The swallows haven’t returned, either, but the yellow- headed blackbirds have, and they fill the air with hoarse buzzing cries that remind me of construction noises.

I continue down the hill. As I near the beaver ponds, I see fish darting in the deep water, and I see a couple rise- rings. As is typical at the Cub on sunny, pre-runoff days, there are a few insects coming off the water. There aren’t enough of any one kind to call it a hatch, but that just means the fish will probably strike at anything.

All three of the ponds are only nominally maintained or perhaps they’ve been abandoned by the beavers, so they’re not very wide nor are they too deep to wade. Along the bottom of each there is a little shoal of trout. They’re moving down there, chasing, feeding, and every few minutes one surfaces to take the odd snowfly or midge. I’ll start here, I figure, then work my way up to the riffle and beyond to the flats. I leave a bottle of the La Tienda apple ale in the water at the bank and wade out into the pool. My waders compress in the hip-deep water, and I feel its chilly grip even through my Levis.

At the outfall of the first pond, I plant myself like a lottery player at the checkstand in La Tienda, and I start scratching tickets, hoping for a winner.

In this part of the river there are lots of brook trout, those vividly gilded, pernicious little descendants of nonnative fish indiscriminately stocked in the early 1900s throughout the west in waterways like this one. There are rainbow trout, too, but they were stocked here just last spring by the Idaho Fish and Game Department. These rainbows are genetically sterilized “put-and-take” fish, stocked in the river for anglers who want to keep and kill their catch, but those remaining now are the ones that managed to evade capture. They were pale and small when they arrived—no more than ten inches. After a year in the fecund, marshy warren of the flats, they’ve colored up and have grown to twelve or fourteen inches. Some of the multi-season survivors are even bigger.

Nice fish. Fun to catch. But I’m not terribly excited by those palm-sized invasives from back east, or blunt- nose hatchery fish native only to concrete raceways. I’m a regular here, and I’m looking for the serious win. I’m looking for cutthroats.

The Bear River cutthroat trout is the only trout native to the Bear River watershed. They’ve been squeezed and abused by agriculture, water development, and nonnative species introductions, but a remnant of them has against all odds survived here, and it is this ur-trout I’m most interested in.

Lucky for me, the cutthroats are on the move, swimming upriver to their spawning grounds. Right now the water is still too low, slow, and clear for them to build redds, but they’re arriving, quietly speculating on prime real estate, and staking out territory.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’m not actually seeing any cutthroats to confirm the hypothesis.

I cast a Stimulator to the top of the beaver pond and let it glide down the center. The most foolhardy trout in the pond rises—an overwintered rainbow stockie. I set the hook and horse him hastily back to me at the tailout so he won’t spook the others. After netting him, I point his nose downstream and let him go. I cast the same way again and catch the second-most foolhardy fish, another rainbow. After that, no more fish rise to the Stimulator, so I tie on a nymph dropper with iridescent wingcase and peacock herl thorax.

With this I hook a couple more fish—those too lazy to come all the way to the top but hungry enough to break ranks and hit the fly at mid-column. Lastly, I trail a heavily weighted caddis nymph beneath an indicator on four feet of 4X tippet, trying to dredge the bottom and maybe round up those fish who insist that you steer the fly practically into their mouths.

I run the same play at the second pond, then the third, and the results are comparable—three or four trout from each.

But all brook trout and rainbow stockies. No cutts.

As I move upstream, I see the riffle. It’s about thirty feet wide and runs no more than three feet deep between sloped, grassy banks, describing a very elongated “S” about 150 yards long. The substrate is gravel interspersed with boulders the size of prize-winning pumpkins. It’s obvious now why I caught only brookies and rainbows in the beaver ponds—cutthroats staging up for runoff and the ensuing sex bonanza aren’t interested in deep, silt-bottomed beaver ponds. They’re going to be here, in the shallow, gravelly sections where the spawning will actually occur.

That’s what I tell myself. (It’s unconvincing.)

I cast the Stimulator to a few of the cobbles and boulders, first to the slipstream behind and then to the pillow of current in front. I catch some nice rainbows. I hook a brookie just an inch longer than my index finger. But no cutthroats.

The thing is, I’ve caught the pre-spawn cutthroats here before. Twelve-inchers, fourteen-inchers, and bigger. Sleek, determined-looking trout, their cheek plates and chin slashes glowing almost fluorescent fuchsia, their backs a burnt shade of gold and marvelously speckled. I’ve come up Highway 91 many times in March and April and early May
to wait in line behind the gamblers of La Tienda with my high-point apple ale and little chocolate donuts. I’ve made mannerly, primarily weather-related patter with Roberta at least five dozen times. She’s probably comp’d me a hundred dollars’ worth of supplemental chicken fingers.

One day a few years ago, after observing all of the April rituals, I proceeded up into the early spring lushness of Cub River Canyon to hook a pre-spawn Bear River cutthroat trout that may have been eighteen inches long. As I lifted him from the net he felt heavy, not just with muscle but with the potential of his own embattled species. So, yes, I have caught the cutts here before, probably more times that I can count.

Just not today, apparently.

At the bottom of Cub River Canyon, the river flows out of the Cache National Forest and leaks unceremoniously into the pasturelands of southeastern Idaho, where it runs grimly over muddy bottoms and between eroded, shadeless banks. Out there, the Cub more closely resembles a canal of watery chocolate milk than a freestone river. Some sections are desiccated completely by irrigation claims. The river eventually skulks across the state line and empties into an algae-smothered section of the Bear River out back of an old granary in Richmond, Utah. You probably wouldn’t want to fish that section of the Cub even if it wasn’t on private land. And this is not uncommon in the Bear River Watershed—tributaries of cold, crystalline waters that rise on public land but then flow into private land and devolve into lifeless ditches.

Up here in the Cache National Forest, however, in the cold, fast flow of the upper Cub, in this pre-ATV nirvana, I really should be content to have this riffle entirely to myself for the day. No fly angler has any right to ask for more than a day of solitude and a fish hooked cleanly in the lip.

But I’m also a cutthroat junkie. And so I double down and cast relentlessly to the cobbles and boulders. I cast up under the banks, change flies, and add a dropper, scratching furiously at each ticket.

And I catch a break.

It’s a cutthroat. He’d been hanging out down in a little scour behind a boulder near the bank. He darts up and takes my plain old Elk Hair Caddis. I almost miss him, and as I play him to me I worry that he’s not hooked well and he’ll get off.

He stays on. I’ve hooked him cleanly in the bone of his lip. He lies on his side in my net and stares up at me. I slosh over to the bank and sit, keeping my net and the fish in the water. At just twelve inches, this cutthroat is no epic fortune, but he is a winner. I pinch the fly with my fingers and it comes out with almost no coaxing. Then the fish is gone.

It’s gotten warm, and the wind has failed. I sit there on the bank for a while longer and all at once it feels like summer. The yellow-headed blackbirds bicker the day away. The rest of Willow Flat spreads out in front of me, and I’ve got at least two hours before sunset to fish up into every braid and side channel.

Then a fly angler appears up ahead of me. I guess someone else has gotten in line. He’s a young guy. He hasn’t seen me. He’s quick-stepping down the bank, approximately ten seconds away from high-holing me.

“Hey,” I say.

“Oh. Hey. Didn’t see you. Didn’t think anyone was down here. That your truck up above?”


He points with his fly rod at the unfished flats upstream from us. “So, you fishing up through here?”

That’s actually a good question.

I remember the bottle of ale I stashed down in the first beaver pond, and the spare chicken strips wrapped in a paper sack translucent with fry oil. And I think about the cutthroat, lying on his side, flaring his gills, and looking up at me with an expression that seemed to ask, “Happy now?”

Yeah. I suppose I am.

“No,” I tell the kid. “I just finished up here. It’s all yours.”