The trout rose in a smooth curving arc, never breaking the river’s surface, and grabbed my tumbling salmonfly. One beat, lift the rod, set the hook. I knew immediately from the weight on the line, 40 feet from my knees, that this fight would be on the rainbow’s terms.
On that bright day in June, I hooked and brought to hand the biggest rainbow trout I’ve ever seen on Northwestern Montana’s Big Blackfoot River. There was both a witness and a photograph. We were fishing the Muchmore Hole, made famous by my father, Norman Maclean, in his novel, A River Runs Through It. My friend Jay Proops, whose ranch sits alongside the Muchmore Hole, handled the net; I handled the fish.
“It’s like a salmon!” Jay cried out as the fish surfaced toward the end of its fight. I’ve fished the Blackfoot all my life, and Jay has fished the river for a quarter century. Neither of us had ever seen a rainbow that big in that river.
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let’s start at the beginning, a day earlier, although you could say the true beginning was over a century ago. I do not fish alone, ever, on the Big Blackfoot River. I fish with the ghosts of generations dating back to the early 20th century when my grandfather, the Reverend John Norman Maclean, came to Montana to take the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in Missoula — and also took up a fly rod. My father turned our family story into a classic tale of love and tragedy, of trying and failing to help or fully understand one member of the family, young, charming, and doomed by his own behavior — and a river ran through it: the Big Blackfoot.
Today the river is on the must-fish list of practically every angler who comes to Western Montana.
In the old days, June weather was reliably miserable in northwestern Montana: cold, wet, and blowy. But these days the temperature can reach 100 for days in a row. This year, the weather bounced back and forth: one day chilly and wet, the next the sun burst out and the thermometer soared into the 90s. Our day on the river was one of unrelieved blistering sun, porcelain blue sky with not a cloud in sight, and temperatures heading for the high 80s.
Jay and I had two days of fishing ahead, the first a float trip in his sturdy inflatable boat that has made the trip downriver from his ranch so often it must know the way on its own. Jay backed the trailer and boat down a well-worn path on the bank to the Muchmore Hole, one of the finest fishing spots on the entire river. There’s a long, broad, and relatively shallow rapid at its head, perfect breeding ground for insects that turn into fish food. Then the river trips over a ledge into a deep, massive bowl. On Jay’s side of the river are rapids with heavy water. On the far side is a complex hole where the water turns back on itself and creates a deep whirlpool with a frothy but relatively placid center.
Jay and I are dry-fly fishermen by preference, but we’re not snobs. A No. 14 parachute Adams or a peacock elk hair caddis are favorites. But with salmonflies in the air, using a large, ungainly but buoyant imitation was no disgrace, even with an added nymph dropper. We raised not a fish there, however, first from the bank and then from the boat, which was discouraging, because this stretch of water can be magic.
When I was a boy the Muchmore Hole was a great mystery: the name alone, much more, speaks of bounty. My dad told me stories about fishing it, one in particular that became a long anecdote in A River Runs Through It — the story of the big fish rising in a foamy whirlpool and the epic battle that followed. But we never fished it together. I made the request, but he begged off saying he didn’t know who owned the ranch anymore. Maybe that was true, but he kept many an old memory in a kind of vault, to be shaped and burnished by him without interference. We often fished a stretch of water a few miles away, and every time we drove by the hole, which was far out of sight, I ached to fish it. Many years later, after my dad was gone, I met Jay through a mutual friend and found that he loved my dad’s book and dreamed of buying a ranch on the Big Blackfoot. And eventually the dream came true, for me as well as for him. When I finally fished the Muchmore Hole it was like discovering a mirage that turns out to be real.
We saw no rise forms as we set out, but there were plenty of flies in the air: mayflies, the odd caddis, and the lumbering orange salmonflies as big as your thumb.
We brought up a fair number of fish for a hot, sunny day, and the key was a large salmonfly imitation tied by a friend of Jay’s. Part of the large group of flies nicknamed Chernobyl, this one has gangly legs, a bit of sparkle, and a long rubber belly. Initially, we dropped nymphs beneath the salmonfly, but the fish weren’t interested, and we switched to fishing the salmonfly high, dry, and unencumbered. The fish we hooked were good-sized: small fish regularly rose and slapped at the Chernobyl, but they were out of their league.
The Muchmore Hole on the author’s family river, the Big Blackfoot. Photo courtesy John N. Maclean
The biggest trout I saw all day, a brown, made a fool of me. Halfway through the trip, while bank fishing, I tied into a large brown in a deep, swirling hole. The fish knew his water. He stripped off line on what I hoped was the first run of a great fight, and then the line stopped. It just stopped. No movement, nothing. The line hummed like a cello string as the river rushed by, but that was it. I stood there for five minutes pumping the rod and hoping the brown had settled on the bottom, as they sometimes do. Finally, I had to admit the trout had found rocks or some other structure and tied me up, and I grabbed the line and broke off. “That’s how they get big,” Jay said cheerfully by way of consolation when I told him my tale.
When we finally pulled out downstream, we headed back to the Muchmore Hole where my car was parked. We noticed a guy on the opposite bank fighting a fish; we agreed to meet again the next afternoon for some bank fishing from Jay’s ranch.
By afternoon of the next day, the wind was howling at a steady 30 miles an hour and there still was no cloud cover. When I stopped by the fly shop in Ovando for a couple of their salmonfly imitations, the woman in charge was shaking her head over all the people heading for the river. “Why not give it a day off in this wind and wait until tomorrow?” she wondered. “But I guess people are on vacation and have to make every day count.”
Jay and I tried to figure where we could get some protection from the wind, but the wind was everywhere. Once again we headed for the Muchmore Hole. Jay was gearing up when I stepped into the water and took a couple of warmup casts. I put a third cast right at the top of the long stretch of rapids where the river comes over the ledge and turns deep.
The fish rose in a long curving arc, never breaking the surface, and took my tumbling fly — and the fish had size. One beat, set the hook. He had a lot of river to work with, and there were no logjams or iceberg rocks around. On this trip, I was a passenger and he was the engineer.
I once spent most of an hour with a very large bull trout in this same hole when the water was low enough to wade across at the lower end, and I crossed the river three times as the big trout explored one escape route after another. This time, though, would not be like that.
The rainbow was big and strong, and he fought his battle in the heavy water where he could use the power of the river to magnify his own. I was using a 4.5 X flurocarbon tippit and a 5-weight rod, a good combination under normal conditions. The fish exceeded normal in a flash of brilliantly colored flanks, scarlet and silver, twisting and turning in the foaming rapid. When he broached, Jay exclaimed, “It’s like a salmon!” You could see the fish sported a jaw like a mature salmon. The line was taut to the reel, which spun as the fish plunged and thrashed down the long rapid, taking out line. All I could do was keep the rod tip up and the pressure on, not hard but firm. It was his fight.
Time swells and contracts in a contest like this one, extending like one of Mr. Dali’s watches when the fish comes boiling to the surface and every second is an eternity, then settling back to everyday when he simply pulls. Uncounted minutes ticked by.
Jay fetched the long-handled net. The fish spotted the net and didn’t like it, and was far too big for it anyway. Jay swiped at him and came up empty, once, twice, and again. We were going to lose this fish: the net would smack the line or the fish and he would be off. Finally Jay got enough of him into the net, using it like a shovel, to raise both net and fish from the water. At that, there was nearly as much fish out of the net as in it.
We hurriedly took a photograph; he was a tired trout and needed to be quickly released. He turned belly up when I let him go, so I righted him, faced him upstream, and watched as his gills began to pump. I stood over him as he recovered. He turned slowly back toward the depths of the hole, swam with power as his strength returned, and was gone.
I walked over and sat against a big log on the bank and looked at the Muchmore Hole and the cloudless turquoise sky. When I was a boy, I used to almost cry when I lost a big fish. When I caught a good one, my father’s face would light up with an inner fire and I would feel a matchless exultation. But the good fish then were nothing like this one now. I wish my dad had been there at that moment, I wish I could have seen his face. He is often a presence with me when I fish, especially when I fish home waters. But I am older now, much older, and these days I fish in spirit as much with my two fine sons, Dan and John Fitzroy, as with my father … and it is a good thing.
Now a day later, I am trying to pull it all together. On a personal scale, this was the big one. I’ve caught bigger fish, including the bull trout I landed before in the same hole. But a Big Blackfoot rainbow is the storyline of my family’s fishing life, from one generation to another, and this was my personal record on this river, not likely ever to be bested. I’m not kidding myself, though. I’ve seen photographs of the catches from our rivers back in the 1920s and ‘30s, and they include monster fish like this one. My father and I never saw or caught one this size on the Blackfoot, from the time I became aware of fishing beginning in the 1950s — but then I wasn’t around for the 1920s and ‘30s.
I examined the photograph of my rainbow to estimate its size, measuring the spread between my fingers in the image. I calculate the fish was about 24 inches long and 5½ pounds, maybe a touch heavier, basing the weight in comparison to an 8-pound silver salmon I caught in Alaska. If someone else in modern times has caught an equal or bigger rainbow on the Blackfoot, especially adding the qualifiers with a fly rod and on a dry fly, I don’t know about it.
I’m not done fishing the Blackfoot and life doesn’t stop when you reach a peak; it moves on, just as the river does after a fight with a big fish. Even on a day of 30-mile an hour winds and glaring sunshine, the Blackfoot merges the life of the spirit and the act of fly fishing into one, a legacy endlessly renewed by the passage of waters.