Fish Tales

Book Tour Fishing  

Written by Pete Fromm

SET TO LEAVE, I STARED at the rod cabinet one more time, my book bag in one hand, a small cooler in the other. My fishing vest and fly rod, already cased, stood right there, two steps away. First reading tonight, Sun Valley. A drive up the Bitterroot from Missoula, over the pass, down the North Fork of the Salmon, up the Main, then the Big Lost, maybe my favorite river name of all time. I turned out of my office with only the cooler, the bag.

If I took the rod, the vest, I’d never reach Sun Valley. Not tonight. Not, maybe, this week. I knew that. Like I knew gravity. It just wasn’t in me.

The Bitterroot by itself, ablaze with fall, sun breaking across every riffle, was nearly fatal in the first hour. I made it as far as the West Fork. Just a tiny detour. A place I know. The smell of fall drifted from the cottonwood leaves gilding the air, already starting to litter the ground. I stood over the river, watched it crowd left, listened to it pour across the riffle into the long hole against the far bank. A stone nymph, maybe a wooly bugger.

Then the North Fork up high, every excuse I could find to pull over, clamber down, feel the water, study the flow. Fishing each run with eye and ear alone.

Road construction on the Trail Creek bypass up the Big Lost, the dirt road back way into Ketchum. A half-hour stop by an aspen grove, the flagger cool with me going to the river. “You won’t be holding anybody up back here.” Even without a fly rod I missed my chance, earned another half-hour cycle, the flagger shaking her head. I was still tucking in my shirt, a little out of breath, when I dashed into the Ketchum library that night.

And it only got worse. The long haul up the Malheur to Sisters, Ore., the Metolius there a heartbreaker to stand beside, its deep, dark, fast holes holding so many promises. Then to Ashland, skirting Crater Lake’s startling cobalt blue edged with six inches of fresh snow, dropping down to the headwaters of the Rogue.

A reading interrupted the river tour each night, talking about Maddy and Dalt, this couple haunted by rivers themselves. But I lived for the days, the next drive.

The Smith, California’s only undammed river, is low and drought quiet in the mist, but the highwater mark shows what, at times, must be a river turned upside down in its rush through the redwoods to the sea. Soon Chinook would be running. Steelhead. Sea run cutthroats. But not yet. Not this low. Plotting my lines for a high-water run, I only knicked the reflector post as I imagined the water’s roar. I skidded across wet pavement into a leaf-clotted parking strip, picked my way down a trail to a huge pool, barely pocked by whatever drops fell from the fog.

Hands digging in the shallows like a raccoon’s, I searched for skippers, wore myself out launching them across the hole, reaching the opposite cliff face rarely enough it pulled a smile from me every time.

And then the fish began to rise, foot-long trout coming from the depths to take nearly invisible midges. A Griffith’s Gnat, put down up high, drifted through; and the take, the little rainbow plunges back to the deep, crossing over, running upstream. My fingers curled around not a cork rod butt, but a stone, an immaculate skipper, while the fish rose unmolested, there, and there, and there. Tonight’s reading somewhere distantly ahead down this road, this river. A place I’d have trouble enough reaching as is.

I carried my perfect stone back up to the car. Put the rod I didn’t have back into its case. Drove on until the next river reeled me in. Still ahead, the Willamette and Snake, the Palouse, Saint Maries and Saint Joe, until eventually I’d follow the Saint Regis and Clark Fork back home.

Twenty Seconds

Written by Rick Bass

I find quite distasteful the phrase “bucket list” — even while acknowledging that there are larger issues in the world to be concerned about than the crassness of cultural phraseology and the ever-sharpening hone of the acquisitive culture of a shopper’s society. But it is true also that I had never fished Rock Creek, one of the most beautiful rivers in Montana (to my way of thinking), and a place I’ve hiked and backpacked often; a place I brought the girls during the last of the high school years, when we were schooling them in Missoula, to cut Christmas trees and picnic. A place to lay eyes on, to help me deal with the urban madness of Missoula, the relentless big city drumming, knocking, hammering. (The place to which I would always return, with zeal, to buy a crisp, clean, new-smelling book, or a croissant.)

I would see anglers parked all up and down the little one-lane ribbon of collapsing-into-the-creek road, fancy sports in fancy cars, casting fancy gear into those beautiful waters, and with my surly hermit’s attitude these things made me not want to get into those waters. I passed on by, content — more than content — with the eagles in the cottonwood snags, the ducks springing up from beaver sloughs, the cliffy mountains, the canyon where sunrise came so late, and sunset so early. 

But I had never fished it, until this last fall when I had the opportunity to do so with a guide, for free (which is, these days, so very much my style). The world’s quietest guide. He shall remain nameless.

There were three in our party — two other press folks, young women, also on the company dime of their respective magazines. (Modern Bride, I think, and Connecticut Woman. Go figure). 

They were downstream, I was upstream. The guide had put them in the water first, then stationed me in my spot, then returned downstream where he spent the rest of our allotted time, helping them cast, I noted, long past when they any longer needed instruction, if ever they had. Raise your arm like this, here, lean back a little, etc. etc. I noted also that they were catching fish, whereas I, who am not an angler, was not. 

I kept flailing and flailing, enjoying standing in the water beneath the orange leaves of the giant cottonwoods and that blue October sky, with time slowing deliciously the way it does at that time of year. After a while I went upstream to a place I thought looked better — an eddy behind a huge boulder, up in some shallower, rifflier water. 

I didn’t catch anything there either.

Just before it was time to leave, the guide came up to me to give me the 10-minute warning. “It’s better fishing where I put you,” he said. “In the daytime, the big fish don’t like to go up into that shallower water, because they know ospreys and other predators can get them.”

This, I thought, was revolutionary. I had never thought of fish as being smart. Canny vessels of instinct and electricity, yes, but not, well, smart. I had thought of them as predators, not round-the-clock prey. No, that’s not true. Not being an angler, I really hadn’t thought of them much at all. 

I went back to my station and, buoyed by the faith or belief that I am told is critical to the pursuit, caught three fat cutthroat before it was time to go.

It was delightful, bringing them in, and delightful, letting them go. The colors of them in that late day October light. You have to hold them in your hand for a second before you let them go. It’s a little like all your life super-compressed into about 20 seconds, and filmed only in beauty. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to go, but I went. 

What Did I Do Wrong?

Written by Callan Wink

It’s a fairly typical fall day on the Yellowstone River. We’d managed a few whitefish, a few trout. I’d told my one and only joke and it had gotten mixed reviews. We saw a bald eagle. We saw some mule deer. I got a text from a girl I’d been chasing all summer and now I was trying to respond surreptitiously while rowing. “A trout just rose,” I say. “Right next to the bank. About 3 o’clock.” My client casts frantically.

I text: Murry bar. 6:00 tonite? 

Sounds good 🙂 She texts right back. Things are looking up. 

After lunch, clouds form and the blue wing olives hatch. Regattas of sailboat-shaped mayflies ride the current film, getting picked off left and right by trout. We catch a few decent rainbows, 14-inch crowd pleasers that jump and pull hard. All the while I’m keeping my eye out for the one. During a hatch like this it seems like the bigger fish, usually brown trout, post up in the more difficult lies — inches from a mid-river rock, just underneath an overhanging branch, right along the edge of a current break — where it’s nearly impossible to get a natural presentation. These are the challenging fish, the really fun ones that can drive you crazy. 

Eventually, I spot a good-sized snout poking up rhythmically in a pocket between two boulders. It’s moving in the small area of calm water, not even bothering to fully submerge after eating, just swimming back and forth near the surface with its mouth agape.

“Goddamn,” my client says. “That thing is huge. Over twenty for sure.” 

It’s a nice fish. Probably more like 18. I check his leader for windknots. I put on some floatant and blow the fly dry. “There he goes again,” he says. “Look at that thing.” 

I detect a faint tremor in his leg. The guy is from Texas. He does something with oil — sells it, or buys it, or finds it — I can’t remember. This trout has his leg shaking and it makes me like him a whole lot more. 

I tell him he’s ready to go and he starts casting. All day he’s been doing a decent job but now he loses it. Too hard, too fast. The wind has picked up and he’s forcing it. The line slaps right on top of the trout’s back. The fish bolts, leaving a wake. It cuts just in front of the boat and we get a better look. It might have been 20 inches after all. 

The client sits. We don’t say anything. He digs a beer from the cooler, drinks and belches. “Well,” he says. “What did I do wrong right there?”

I get this question fairly regularly. What did I do wrong? As if there is just one thing, a single problem to be fixed by a simple, silver-bullet answer. The answer I like best is the one I never say:

What you did was, you didn’t drop out of college at age 20 and move to Montana. You didn’t work crappy construction jobs and go fishing every single evening. You didn’t rent dingy basement apartments in an overpriced resort town, just so you could live a stone’s throw from the river that stole your heart. If you had done that, I want to say, I guarantee you’d have caught that fish. Easy. 

Instead, I say something like, “Well, I think maybe you were breaking your wrist a bit on that cast. You need to tighten that up. Don’t worry about it, we’ll get the next one.”

Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. We’ll give it a shot and in the end I suppose it doesn’t matter. Catching a trout is a rather inconsequential thing to be good at — something I try to remember to keep my own ego in check. There are jobs of great importance to humanity and guiding fishermen will never be one of them. 

Just before the takeout I see another trout working, maybe not quite as big as the first one but still respectable. It’s already been a good day and I’m tempted to just row on by. If I hustle we could still make happy hour. Instead, I drop anchor. When you’ve reached a point as a fisherman where the possibility of redemption on a big fish no longer excites you it’s probably time to hang it up. 

“All right,” I say. “Lead him. Nice and easy, we got this one.” 

I slide my phone from my pocket. This is a bit painful. She has ‘50s pin-up girl stockings tattooed from ankle to mid-thigh. Very intriguing. 

I text: Fishing is good. Gonna b late.

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