The Accidental Angler: Two miles more to camp…

I scrambled up the lose rock of the bank, slipped off my pack and, sitting with my back against a sun-warmed boulder, looked out across the stream. The ground rose steeply beyond, striated rows of tussock interspersed with stands of bristlecone, aspen and spruce until, near its peak the mountainside sloped vertically to cliffs of decaying granite, squat like the battlements of some ancient fortress, sentinel to the valley it helped define.

Blotches of centuries-old lichen spread across the face of the boulder against which I sat, testament to both the tenacity of life, and the slow creep of time against which my presence that afternoon rated as little more than a transient insult.

Delving into the pack, I withdrew a tin of smoked oysters, a few crackers and a can of double chocolate stout. My back appreciated the support of the boulder behind and while my face and torso soaked up the sun’s warmth, a biting breeze nipped at any flesh left exposed.

The boulder rested on the east side of the stream just below a confluence where a fork flowed from the west, out of a narrow valley tapering toward distant mountains. Another watershed to be noted and saved for a later time.

My body ached gently from hiking and casting and sleeping in the back of my truck on an air mattress that once felt soft and plush, but these days seemed my enemy as much as my friend. For three days I hadn’t communicated with any soul but my own. What thoughts I had bounced around the confines of my head, save a few scribbled on paper, or curses, uttered aloud when outsmarted by a fish or foiled by an errant breeze or inaccurate cast.

I wondered why I did this, why come all this way to suffer discomfort and tie small pieces of feather and fir to the end of a gossamer line and cast it upon a body of water to see what might might be deceived by its presence. Was it the lure of uncertainty sprinkled with occasional confirmation? Some kind of retreat from reality, or a search for it? The sense of reassurance that accompanies the recognition of our own insignificance, or the acknowledgement of the folly of assuming on our shoulders the weight of a world too vast for us to comprehend, let alone attempt to carry?

Perhaps it was all and none of that. Perhaps the moment of quiet contemplation while sitting alongside a gentle stream, back against a boulder while eating oysters and crackers and sipping stout from a can was the point of it all, everything else merely window dressing, the means to this end.

Tempting as it was to stay there and nap against the boulder, the bite of the wind stirred me to action again. There was still two miles more to camp, and a stream to fish along the way.

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The Bother of Fish.

“We’re going after big fish this afternoon. Enough of this little fish nonsense.”

I reached under the seat for my fly box, rummaging through the collection of parachutes and hair wings with feigned indecision despite knowing exactly what I was looking for.

“I’ve only got one of these, so don’t mess up.”

Would you take orders from this man?

I kept my focus on the fly box, knowing eye contact with Andy would cause me to lose the hard-ass facade I was having fun with. I liked Andy. I could tell he’d been nervous at the fly shop that morning, but unlike many anglers who say they want to learn then proceed to ignore any advice you give, he’d tried to incorporate much of what I’d suggested into his technique. I’d told him at lunch he was a lot better angler than he gave himself credit for.

“You’ve got ten casts to show me you can fish this, otherwise I’m taking it back.”

I wondered what his PA or sales team would say if they saw him being ordered around by some guy with a sweat-stained ball cap and five days growth on his chin. I cinched the knot tight and handed him the line.

“I want to see the fly an inch off the bank. I don’t care if you think the water is too shallow, or there’s no fish there, one inch, OK?”

He nodded and began to false cast as I eased the boat out into the current. His first attempt landed a foot out. I waited to see if he would pick up and recast, but he instead shaped to mend.

“Pick it up. You’re a foot shy. You can see the fly, right?”

He nodded and cast again. Eight inches.

“You’re getting closer, but imagine how many fish you’d catch if you cast to where they actually are. Get it in there.”

The next cast hit a rock bank-side and slid into the water.

“Now you’re talking. Keep mending to maintain the drift going as long as you can.”

There was change in the contrast of the water around the fly, a flicker of light in the cobbles, and the fly vanished without any disturbance to the surface.

“Pick it up! Pick it up!”

Half turning, he lifted the rod uncertainly. Following brief tension on the line the fish spat the hook, thrashing momentarily on the surface as it did so.

“Damn. I never would have guessed that was a fish. I didn’t see a thing.”

“Big fish don’t expend an ounce more energy than is necessary. Half the time you set by instinct. Next time, if you sense anything strange—anything—going on around the fly, set the hook. Wait long enough to think about it, it’s too late.”

Three casts later, and the fly nestled against the bank once more. This time the take was a little more obvious, the fish rising and drifting tail-first downstream with the fly before gently sipping it. The hook-up was announced by a huge churning on the surface, showering the rocks and bushes nearby with spray. A couple of minutes later we had the fish in the net, a sixteen-inch brown trout—very respectable for the river and the biggest he’d ever caught. Unhooking it, I lowered the net back into the water and the brown swam free.

Back at the side of the river, I parked the boat and reached into the cooler. One can of beer later, and he was still smiling.

“So, would you rather catch one like that, or half a dozen little ones out in the middle of the river?”

He nodded. I finished my beer.

“Personally, I don’t want my enjoyment of the day to be compromised by messing with too many fish.”

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Once upon a time on the Mohaka

My boots settled into the soft pea-gravel of the river bed. I stood silently, thighs and calves braced against the steady press of the river, imagining the soles of my feet growing roots, tapping deeper into the earth beneath me, grounding me to this place and time. I’d last stood in the Mohaka several years ago, and with the direction life was taking, who knew how many more until I did so again?

With eyes closed, I inhaled the scents of the river, cool and humid – beech forest and dank vegetation overlaid with a faint hint of sulphur mingled with heather in bloom. Somewhere behind me a pair of native tui, birds whose white throat-ruff saw Europeans call them Parson’s bird, cackled noisily in the bushes along the river.

The roots grew deeper, through the soft earth and clay and volcanic substrate to the bedrock beneath. Then Steve’s voice snapped me from my reverie.

“Oi, Sunshine! Are you gonna cast to the fish, or wait till it stops feeding?”

I returned my attention to the task at hand. Thirty yards upstream, a small rocky point jutted out into the flow as the river made a sweeping curve to my left. The point created a large back eddy, at the bottom of which I stood. A current seam swirled off the tip of the point, and in this seam a brown trout fed freely, rising every thirty seconds or so to take small mayflies from the surface. Steve, a friend who guides anglers and hunters in this part of New Zealand, had concealed himself in the bushes along the bank above where the fish fed, acting as my spotter.

“OK, false cast directly upstream in front of you. When you’ve got enough line out, I’ll let you know. Then drop the fly in front of the fish.”

I stripped line off the reel then began false casting, once letting the line land on the water ahead of me, well away from the fish.

“Quit fishing like an **#!%$ American!” he yelled, stifling a curse under his breath. “Keep the line off the water!”

He was right. Any hint that there was an intruder present would see the fish disappear into the river’s depths. Suitably chastised, I continued to false cast until he gave the word, and I set the fly on the water, directly on the current seam. It was a small fly, riding low on water reflecting the glare of the surrounding bush.

My first cast was short. A rise, well away from my drift. Second cast, this time in the zone. Another rise. I waited a second then struck hard. The fish, hooked, immediately charged for the faster current in the center of the river while I endeavored to raise the rod tip high, to get some leverage against its pull. Still underwater, it turned upstream then leapt clear of the river, slapping down on its flank as it shook from side to side. The line went slack. Up in the bushes, Steve groaned, head in hands.

“Mate, that was a spanking! Welcome home.”

I shook my head as I reeled in my line. The hook was bent out, straightened to a right angle.

“Well, so much for that.” I gently eased first one, then the other, boot from the pea-gravel and turned toward the shore. The tui still cackled, and in response to the gathering heat of the day cicadas had started to rasp, their collective crescendo rising and falling, an aural manifestation of the river’s pulse, of the life force that flows through and around us.

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Solitude on the Bighorn

There came, for a brief time in the afternoon, an impression of being completely alone on the Bighorn. Beneath a breaking sky, just the two of us, and the grey vein of the river, pushing northward toward the horizon. Upstream and down, not another boat or person in sight, a rare occurrence on a river this renowned to anglers.

Picture Channel, Bighorn River

Constant wind coursed downstream, leaving its choppy imprint on the river’s surface. Upstream a few miles from us, the lake above Yellowtail Dam was turning over as surface water temperatures cooled, leading to discolored water issuing from the bottom of the dam. Perhaps this combination of elements and natural phenomena helped explain the lack of other anglers that day. Whatever the reason, the solitude adds to the memory.

Below Yellowtail Dam, the Bighorn exits its eponymous mountain range and continues its course across the open plains of southeast Montana toward its confluence with the Yellowstone. Some say this countryside lacks the elemental beauty through which other Montana rivers flow.

This is Crow Indian country, and it was near here that Custer met his demise. The events of that day, and its consequences, are yet tangible, a presence that hangs in the air. At the last it must certainly have seemed to Custer and his men a remote, inhospitable place, as distant from civilization and comfort as the moon, but to my eye the river’s steady course through cottonwood-studded plains, alive with the calls of ospreys and ringneck pheasants, is one of still wild and largely uncompromised beauty.

I pinched a third split shot onto my leader to help the nymphs sink more rapidly to the bottom of the river, and cast again into the wind. Letting the line drift below me and straighten in the current, I used the tension of the water tugging at the line to load the rod and flicked the rig upstream. In this way I worked my way steadily up the side channel – tension cast, mend, let it drift downstream, tension cast again, settling in to a metronomic contemplation of the current seams, riverbed topography and indicator, pausing only occasionally to wait out an extra-strong burst of wind. After fifteen minutes the indicator dove, and I set into a lovely brown trout that stripped line from the reel, heading downstream, me in hot pursuit.

After releasing the fish, I sat on the bank amongst a cluster of small Russian olives, situated too close to the river’s edge to have survived the record high water of earlier in the year. Stripped of their color and foliage, their skeletal remains were plastered with detritus from the river – dried-out weeds, moss, mud and grasses – hanging off them in such fashion they resembled the tattered masts and rigging of some strange fleet of ghost ships, sails torn in disarray.

Montana sunset

We floated into a deserted take out early evening, as the low sun found a sliver between earth and overcast to draw forth from the landscape a rich golden hue. Faded cottonwood leaves rattled drily in the dying breeze, the clouds above a swirl of orange and purple. We loaded the boat onto the truck then sat by the river, sipping beer while the sun dipped beyond the horizon, and the lingering twilight that is part of this corner of Montana began.

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Accidental Angler: Speed dating vs courtship

There is a stretch of the Madison River in Montana below the town of Ennis that is only open to walk / wade anglers. A boat can be used to access the many braided channels, but any fishing must be done while standing on terra firma.

The Madison River below Ennis

We parked at one of the several access points, then began to hike downstream until we hadn’t seen another angler for a while and judged we were clear of the eighty percent who seldom stray more than a quarter mile from their vehicle. I elected to enter the river at a place where a couple of small islands created deep side channels against the bank on their near side, with wider, shallower riffles on the far.

The day was blue and mild, stark contrast to the previous when we’d floated a portion of the river upstream of Ennis – leaden skies and a cold wind, squinting hard in the flat light to detect the subtle takes of fish that rose occasionally to the small dry flies we cast.

I stepped off the bank and into the flow, wading out to the tail of one of the islands where I stood in the shallows, deciding what flies to start out with. While the promise of a warm fall day was in the air, a trace of the previous night’s cold still lingered. If there was to be any dry fly action, it likely wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon. I selected a large indicator dry then two feet below it tied a weighted nymph to bounce along the bottom of the shallower riffles and hang suspended in the deeper runs.

Standing quietly in the water, the gentle push of the river against my boots, carried downstream with the flow any desire to hasten in to action. The snow capped Ruby Range defined the western horizon, while closer a few cottonwoods along the shore bank still clung stubbornly to the last of their foliage.

I took my time working up the first run, savoring several feelings: being grounded in the river, the flex and load of the rod, the arc of the line out and across the water, the settling of the flies as the current carried them back to me. The first riffle yielded two small browns followed by a larger rainbow. Hooked against a tangle of shore roots, it leaped and dove and broke me off before I had time to get in synch with its movements.

I retreated to shore and sat on the grassy bank, feet dangling over the edge just shy of the water, laid the rod in the grass next to me and began repairing my leader. At that moment, float fishing seemed like the angling version of speed dating – always on the move, a quick cast, a twitch and jiggle of the fly to see if there is a reaction, then on to the next encounter, and the next. There is constant communication and interplay, not to mention the physical presence, between oarsman and angler.

Wade fishing, on the other hand, seemed more akin to a gradual courtship, reminiscent of older times, when the pace of life was slower, our culture less hung up on the drug of instant gratification. More time was taken in ritual and observation. There is just the angler and the river, and sometimes, if enough attention is paid and time invested, there is a meeting of the minds.

I decided against tying on another fly, at least for the present, instead choosing to sit and listen. I remembered the beer I had stuffed in my pack, the cozy still keeping it cool in the warming day, and popped the top.

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