I WATCH JESSE FROM UPSTREAM A BIT as he casts to a bank feeder, the Missouri’s biomass swirling around my legs and backing up against my hips as I lean against the river’s constant push. I am rocking back and forth, butt to the current, trying to find the angle where I can balance against the force of the flow. If a spring creek is an image of clarity, orderliness and predictability, the Mo shares none of these traits. As I watch the winter snows from the Gallatins, Madisons, Tobacco Roots and Rubys flow past, I am reminded of the messiness and interwoven complexity of the natural world. The Missouri is full of life and death: mayflies, caddis and stoneflies completing or beginning their life cycle with the rainbows and browns fulfilling their role in the flow of energy and life through the ecosystem. The river is dirty with life.
Watching Jesse sling his familiar tight loop makes it seem as though not much has changed in the 15 years since our trajectories crossed on the banks of Idaho’s Silver Creek: two new college graduates cautiously creeping toward the predictable path of increased responsibility and adulthood, but intent on devouring as many days on the water as possible. The friendship that resulted is a rare one, bed-rocked on a shared passion and nurtured over countless days together and thousands of miles spent watching the West glide by through the same windshield. The type of friendship that only comes along a few times in any life.
As Jesse casts to the methodically feeding fish my thoughts drift off to what has changed for both of us: relocations from Salt Lake City to an Oregon hometown for Jesse and a new beginning in Montana for me and the marriages, kids, careers ... in essence everything 22-year-old men try to not think about and stubbornly avoid but which most are drawn to like an unwitting moth simply investigating a light in the dark. For Jesse, he is staring down the barrel of a second failed marriage and the fallout that he is sure to deal with over the next year. Me? It is the uneasiness that comes with a third career change in the last decade, the relentless search for a job that doesn’t make me feel like I sold out, balanced against the weight of providing an income to my family, the fear that this uneasiness is who I am and not just something to be overcome when I find the “perfect job.” But for now, for this week, we fish. It is a rare seven-day pause, an opportunity to be who we are in our daydreams of 15 summers ago.
I chuckle as I realize that Jesse is getting his ass kicked in a big way. He is on his third fly change since I started watching — the Silver Creek shuffle we call it — and has hopelessly shifted to the pattern side of the pattern vs. presentation argument. From my vantage point I can easily see that he has yet to get a decent drift on the fish, but I refrain from interjecting my opinion — he will figure it out as he usually does. The fishing has been ridiculously good. Not that we are racking up huge numbers given the surface-only approach that we seem to adhere to these days. The river is still a little high and tough to navigate on foot and the fish are selective and intolerant of poor drifts, but we have fish to cast to from ramp to ramp and very little time is spent in the boat looking for heads.
Although the PMDs have been a little sporadic and aloof, the caddis have not played the same game. Hydropsyche, or net-spinning caddis, are among the most common trout stream insects in the West, and we are getting a master class on how to fish them. Throughout the course of the day we encounter emerging adults, mating flights, egg laying females and the disheveled remains of all this activity litter the surface. Passages from LaFontaine’s Caddisflies tumble through my head as I watch the chaos unfold, and fittingly the late authors’ simple spent caddis pattern quickly becomes the go-to fly and we rely on it heavily throughout the week. We even stoop to the humiliating indignity of buying a few poorly tied imports in Craig later in the week as our reserves begin to run low.
By the middle of the first day we have eased back into our comfortable coexistence and most of the conversation is directed at the fish, the insects, the flies, the river. However, occasional conversations migrate to the pressures we are both trying to ignore. Short dialogues about too much or not enough time spent at work, or perhaps too many nights spent drinking beer and not enough time spent working on our marriages and careers, divert from the singular focus of fishing. Broad-smiled exchanges about the three daughters we have between us send pangs of homesickness through my stomach and lead me to question why I would willingly spend a week away from my girls in the seemingly superficial and self-serving pursuit of trout? But then this is a question that has eluded many and I am not sure I can come close to answering it for myself, although I am quite certain that at this stage in my life the trout have far less to do with it than they did 20 years earlier. Inevitably, a rise in the distance saves us from our seriousness and directs our attention back to fishing.
Photo by Matthew Hayes
A GOOD FISHING PARTNER IS A RARE and Jesse is among the rarest. We spend the days of the week watching each other fish, alternating from the rower’s seat to the front of the boat as we feel like it. There is no hard and fast fish count or otherwise contrived framework around the timing of the alternations — we just switch when we sense it is time. Not like the trips I have taken to saltwater lodges where I have sat and watched greedy anglers squat in the front of the boat because they had not “touched” a fish yet — “not your turn until I touch a fish.” Other times we separate and fish alone, comparing notes later, not so much on how many fish were caught, but more about which fly was successful or how an individual fish fought, or more than likely about how bad the fish made us look. Maybe the mark of a good friendship is the ability to be together and say nothing, yet be comfortable. We spend a great deal of time drifting in the boat and enjoying not being at work or not thinking about anything other than the fish and not saying a whole hell of a lot either: A sort of mindless silence where the man in the front scans the surface, fly in hand and loops of line coiled at his feet, while the other sits back with the oars out of the water doing the same. A single rising fish on a river the size of the Missouri is akin to the proverbial needle in the haystack, yet it amazes me that usually we will both spot a fish at about the same time. The easy silence is broken by one of us saying “there was one,” with the usual reply “yeah, I saw it too.” In an instant the focus level is raised and the game is on once again.
THE AGE-OLD ARGUMENT the relative importance of fly pattern vs. presentation is one that is tested repeatedly on this trip. We waffle between spent caddis patterns, the occasional PMD spinner, emerging caddis and other derivations of both types of insects, catching fish on such a wide diversity of patterns to remain slightly uncertain. Yet, time and again this trip tends to push the balance in the direction of presentation. Many times we find ourselves anchored up with one person fishing and the other sitting in the middle seat watching — a kind of front aisle seat to the physical and mental game that is fly fishing. Most of the fish are rising consistently, almost rhythmically, eating on the surface with relative disregard for anything other than the next insect. So, the game becomes one of timing — drag, accuracy and tenacity. The mental dialogue becomes one of self doubt about the fly choice, frustration over the misplacement of a cast, disbelief in a seemingly good drift ignored, and anxiousness over the tolerance of the fish before it evaporates in ambivalence and the rings from a final rise drift away with our hopes. Hours spent playing this game hone our senses. More often than not, a rise to the fly is preceded by a cast that we both just know is the one. As the fly settles and begins its hopeful drift, we both lean forward with anticipation and a mutual statement is uttered by one with the other thinking the same thing: “That’s the one.” And usually it is. Would it matter what fly was on the end? Maybe not.
Perhaps one of the greatest joys in a fly fisher’s life is a mid-week day on a Montana river in prime season. There is the sense that we are getting away with some crime; guilty of abandoning adulthood. Fly fishing comes down to a game of numbers and odds: If you spend enough days on the water, you may just get lucky enough to hit one that is exceptional. Thursday morning we are the first to back a boat in at the Wolf Creek bridge access; too early in the morning by most accounts, but we have a sense that the early start will be worth the effort. The day turns out to be one of those rare alignments of weather, hatches and solitude that are the basis for many mid-winter dreams: slightly overcast, dead calm and warm, with the push of guide traffic still filling coffee and fly cups at the shops in Craig, two hours behind us. We spend the day in a constant state of intensity and focus; both of us at ease with each other and with fishing beyond compare. We pass the occasional wade fisherman, but for the most part the high flows have them sequestered to a few sheltered areas and we stay ahead of the pay-to-play regatta most of the day. That night as we cross the Craig bridge and enter the bustle of still-open fly shops, restaurants and bars that are just beginning to fill, the thought of a cold beer sounds good, but we pass on through and instead make the short drive north to where we are camped and are in the tent by midnight after another late dinner.
The next morning the wind is fresh and the sky is clear and we share a sheepish smile and know that we may not see another day like the one before, but hope that maybe we will. Just maybe.
In a daze, I watch Jesse fish to the bank feeder that seems to have his number, but I can’t help notice that there are two or three more good fish stacked up below him. I watch as he repeatedly casts to the fish, having settled on a fly pattern that floats with confidence. Watching the leader as it unfolds, I am hypnotized. Its velocity dissipates until ultimately the fly is deposited as though it is a separate entity from the leader — the perfect drift. Yet each cast I mentally reject — somehow knowing that the fly is not on a course that will pass judgment with the fish. I can tell from his body language that Jesse does the same. Some casts are quickly picked up with an indecipherable mutter and others float with a glimmer of hope, but with the sinking knowledge that there is little chance the fish will take. Then, as though some trout stream hypnotist has snapped his fingers, I straighten up and allow the river to push me forward into a step and I say to Jesse, “there you go.” “Yep,” he says, true to his plain-talking Oregon style. A half a second later the fish is peeling off toward Cascade and I am stripping line off the reel while ducking around Jesse — lining up on the next fish.