01 Feb Outside: The Fly Angler’s Guide to Hitchhiking
Tom Rosenbauer can get any uncle excited about a small stream. Alvin Dedeaux can teach you how to almost look cool when you’re chasing bass. Kelly Galloup can demonstrate knocking out a 10-inch trout with a 12-inch streamer. But to my knowledge, no fly-fishing personality has posted on their social media or published a pamphlet on the skill of hitchhiking as a fly angler.
We waders have thought ourselves slick when we planned a put-in and take-out along a river that follows a road. No need to wade back over the slippery rocks. Someone might stop and pick us up. But how often does that good Samaritan brake, roll down their window, and holler, “Hop in!”? It’s more common to eat the truck’s dust as it speeds by, the driver not even lifting a finger to wave. Here are a few tips and lessons I’ve learned about how to properly hitchhike as an angler.
If you’ve got beer, wave it. Domestics preferred. Craft beer will give you away as a Missoulian.
I’ve found that sticking a thumb out only works 50 percent of the time. Turning around and waving at an approaching vehicle as if something is wrong works closer to 80 percent. This technique often works better with a partner.
On a July day, four or five seasons back, a buddy and I were pulled higher and higher up a creek as cutthroat after cutthroat continued to accept our offerings of Purple Haze and Royal Wulff. As my companion released a 14-incher back into the pool he had plucked the trout from, he asked how far we might be from the rig.
“Can’t be more than 3 miles,” I said, holding onto a willow to try and see around the bend.
“Where’s the road?”
“It stays to our left the whole time.”
Time and distance are often abstract to anglers until it’s time to turn back for the vehicle. The U.S. Forest Service road was indeed to our left, but through a half-mile of dogwood and alder that smelled of both bear and moose — then up 500 vertical feet of shale. By the time we’d reached the flat dirt almost two hours later, both of us were bloodied and caked in dust. After a hot mile, we heard the rumblings of a truck. As I raised my arms above my head, my friend dropped to his bottom, head dangling between his knees.
When the gentleman behind the wheel stopped, he asked if my partner was alright, a concerned look on his face.
“Just tying my boots,” my friend responded, his white teeth peeking through cracked lips.
Avoid using phrases like, “They were crushing hoppers!” or, “Those bank sippers are so delicate, had to drop down to 6x,” when someone stops. The driver doesn’t give a damn about 6x. They probably throw a 20-pound test after a day of baling hay and land the biggest trout in the stream.
I’d found a winding creek through a hay field where the county road crossed at two points with 2 miles of deep runs and undercut banks in between. Thanks to Montana’s egalitarian stream access law, as long as I stayed below the highwater mark, I could cast to the brown trout hiding behind the grass curtains dangling from the banks.
After spending the day drifting PMDs in the bubble lines and waiting for them to be sipped beneath the surface, I finally made it to the second bridge. As I climbed onto the macadam, a rancher in an old Chevy pulled up.
“Any luck?” she asked, her gray bangs stuck to her forehead with sweat.
“Plenty to keep me happy,” I said with a grin.
“That your Subaru at the next bridge?”
“It is. Hope I pulled off enough for you.”
“More than enough.”
“Mind if I jump in your bed and hitch a ride?”
“As long as you mean the truck, sweetheart.” She slapped the wheel and laughed.
Tickled by the blue joke, I climbed over the tailgate and sat on the wheel well. For some reason, it felt more natural than reconfiguring the chains and buckets that cluttered the bed. The air dried my hair as the truck picked up speed, and dust billowed behind us like a long tail. I began to bounce as the road became a washboard, but still felt confident in my seat.
Suddenly, the rear driver-side tire, the one I was sitting above, hit a pothole and the reverberation sent me 4 feet in the air. I landed hard on my tailbone, thankfully not on my rod, and released a guttural “Gawk!”
She was still wiping tears off her cheeks when she dropped me off.
Sometimes, it’s good to discern what vehicles to flag down. A truck hauling firewood makes for splinters or a cramped cab. Folks with horse trailers have enough cargo to worry about. You can make your own assumptions about Jeep Gladiators.
But the one piece of advice I implore all fly anglers to follow is to not hail a family minivan. A parent’s life is hard enough without having to explain that the smelly, desperate person limping along the side of the road is doing that for fun.
Noah Davis has published outdoor writing in Gray’s Sporting Journal, American Angler, Anglers Journal, Modern Huntsman, Fly Fisherman Magazine, and The Flyfish Journal, among others. He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife, Nikea, and works for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.