The following article originally appeared in the November 15, 2007 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.
by Clint Thomsen
Marty VonRotz lashes his four-wheel drive quad to his trailer in the dirt lot fronting Horseshoe Springs, a thermal spring along Skull Valley Road, 9.5 miles south of I-80. His buddy Leland has just landed a 3 lb. largemouth bass and he’s laid it out on the trailer bed for my 6 and 4 year old sons to see. “Dad, is this what we’re going to catch today?” asks Bridger. Thanks guys, now the pressure’s on!
I’m not much of a fisherman. It’s not that I don’t like it- it’s just that I’m no good at it. I’m the only guy I know that could get skunked in a stock pond. It must have started with my very first cast as a young boy on Electric Lake. I pinched the line to the rod, flipped the bail, and let ‘er rip… only to turn around and see my line whipping round and round my grandpa’s neck behind me. He and my dad tried hard to keep straight faces, but I think I’ve been cursed ever since.
“What did you catch him with?” I ask Leland. “Worms”, he responds. I’ve packed a tackle box full of spinnerbaits, lures, flies, and various sized sinkers- but no worms. In fact I don’t think I’ve drowned a plain old worm since Boy Scouts.
“Let me give you a few,” he says, and walks to the cab of Marty’s pickup truck. He grabs an empty Minute Maid juice bottle, cuts off the top with his Buck knife, and shakes several night crawlers into it for me.
“Everybody’s friends in the desert”, says Marty, a Tooele resident and avid outdoorsman in his late thirties. “You’re stranded or stuck- you need something- we all help each other out here.”
It’s another unusually sunny November Saturday and we’ve come to try our luck in this strange oasis. If you’ve done any exploring in Skull Valley, you know the distinct horseshoe-shaped spring concealed by steep banks among the grass and brush. In fact, were it not for the road sign, you might never know it was there. A slow moving waterway with deeper ponds on both ends, Horseshoe Springs is prominent in a chain of springs that spans the length of the valley.
At times the brackish hydrosphere is hidden by a thick layer of green moss that floats on the surface. I first discovered this place as a scout while camping in the hills across the highway. My friends and I would dare each other to swim in the spring, not knowing what might lurk beneath its moss blanket. Once, curiosity got the better of me and I jumped in, breaking up the moss and revealing a fairly deep pool of crystal clear water. From the surface I could see all the way down to the spring’s source, a small sandy circle in the center of the north pond. From then on, a campout in Skull Valley was never complete without a pickup water polo game in Horseshoe Springs.
It’s been a long time since I’ve swam in the spring, and I’ve never fished it. I’ve always wanted to, but amazingly enough the last thing I think of when packing for a desert adventure is my fishing pole. Though brackish, the spring sustains a small population of carp and largemouth bass. Today, the moss has receded, and it doesn’t take long for me to spot about a dozen large fish circling the bottom of what I call the source pool.
The clear water is striking but it makes for tough angling. “If you can see the fish,” another nearby fisherman tells me, “chances are they can see you and they get lockjaw.” He’s right. I cast just over the spring’s source and reel slowly, my bait drifting gently into the path of the circling school. A few of them see it and pause, but continue cautiously past it. This happens over and over again as Bridger and Weston scurry along a web of small trails around the spring. I’m not catching anything, but the thrill of the chase and the primal air of the landscape send an energy through my veins that is at once cathartic and serene.
It’s the same feeling Marty VonRotz has been coming here to find for nearly three decades. “It’s the peace and quiet, the smell. It’s just beautiful to me. Sometimes I think I should have been born back in the old west- just the way things are going right now in the world.”
Indeed, with its dirt roads and its weathered juniper fence posts, this part of the desert evokes memories of simpler times. Once I realize the fish were smarter than I was, I recall my old, care-free days of swimming in these waters. For old time’s sake, I pull off my shirt, get a running start, and do a cannon ball into the spring. Once the shock of their out of shape dad suddenly leaping into the water wears off, the boys ask to take a dip too. The water in this warm spring is a constant 72.9 degrees- slightly cooler than a heated pool, but comfortable enough that hypothermia isn’t at the forefront of my thoughts. Once we’re dry, a few powdered donuts and a couple more casts and it’s time to go home. I’ve been skunked but not cheated. As we leave, I look down at a bass approaching the bank and warn him that he might not be so lucky next time.
Horseshoe Springs is located on BLM land in Skull Valley, 9.5 miles south of the Rowley-Dugway exit from I-80. A road sign marks a gravel road that ends as a small parking lot near the the spring. Fishing and swimming are permitted, but beware of steep and slippery banks. General state fishing regulations apply (see the Utah Wildlife Board’s current proclamation). Catch and release is a good idea due to the limited numbers of fish in the spring. As always, respect the land by doing your part to keep the water clean and its surroundings litter-free.