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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Struggle and survival on the Big Hole

Even from a distance of one hundred and fifty yards, it was evident the bird was large. Off on a shallow side channel away from the main flow, it appeared to be struggling with something unwieldy, lying half-concealed in the water. Several times the bird attempted to lift off, grasping whatever it was between its talons, with no success. From the far bank, concealed by a stand of cottonwoods along the river, came the cry of a second bird.
“That sounds like a bald eagle,” said Caveman. “The one downriver looks like a golden.”

October sunset on the Big Hole River, Montana.

We floated closer, silently hoping to get a better view of what it was the golden was struggling with. Upon our approach, the bird lifted off the water in a flurry of enormous wings, retreating to the outstretched limb of a bare cottonwood, where it alighted next to a second golden, stark against a flawless Montana sky.

From upstream came another cry, and we looked to see a bald eagle perched on the branch of another cottonwood fifty yards distant, facing the two goldens. More trash talking ensued between the two adversaries, squaring off like a couple of Wild West gunslingers at the opposite ends of Main Street, high noon.

The stand off continued for another thirty seconds before the bald, followed a second later by the golden, swooped down off their respective branches, the distance between them closing in a matter of seconds. It seemed the extra time the bald eagle had to prepare gave it the advantage of height and position in the initial contact. Suddenly, all was a whirl of extended talons, contorting bodies and flapping wings as they engaged in aerial combat. As quickly as it began, they disengaged, the golden swooping low then turning and retreating to its branch while the bald uttered a cry of apparent victory and flew off toward the spoils of war. A lone magpie, having taken advantage of the larger birds’ distraction, and pecking at whatever it was in the water, beat a hasty retreat as the bald settled on its prize.

“Do you want eddy out and go see what it was they were fighting over?”

I shook my head. “No, let them be.”

For the rest of the afternoon, as we cast dry flies to grassy banks and languid bubble lines, drifting toward a take out where my truck awaited with coolers of food and beer and warm sleeping bags, I thought of the struggle for survival we had just been privileged to witness, one of thousands of such dramas playing out daily in the natural world around us, and of the ties that bind us all, wings, fins, two legs or four.

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A Great Day To Be A Cowboy, Too….

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” Thus observed Ed Hillary, and so too did I repeat to myself several times at the bottom of County Road 101, where it meets Highway 50. The little voice within said so with all the conviction of a five year-old trying to convince himself there really is no monster under the bed. I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but I have a love-hate thing about riding the Rainbow Trail from Bear Creek to Methodist.

The love side of things is easy – just ride the single track. The hate side is pedalling up there. The only thing keeping you going is the promise of what is about to come once you reach the trailhead. To my mind, that part ranks alongside Starvation Creek as the creme de-la creme of local single track – fast, narrow, and not too difficult. The ride to the trail head is another thing altogether. It doesn’t seem to matter how or when you do it – early season or after you’ve a few miles under your belt, from town or starting at the cattle guard, it has you sucking air like someone just kneed you in the ribs. Close to 2000 feet of vertical in six miles, getting steeper, narrower and looser as it goes.

The more realistic, assertive voice inside took over. “This is going to suck, no two ways about it.” I haven’t been riding much this year, and was feeling a little nervous, intimidated even, about the climb. I figured I’d be walking a couple of places. I’ve also found that if I go into the day thinking things are really going to blow, it’s amazing how often they don’t, and events wind up exceeding expectations. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but it is a technique honed from years of guiding fishermen.

Some days I tell myself the whole day is going to be a disaster. The fisherman will doggedly continue to drop his backcast in the face of all evidence to the contrary that not doing so will make the whole process easier and more satisfying. He’ll stare at you blankly when you explain the importance of an aggressive mend, show himself incapable of casting closer than six feet to the bank, miss a dozen fish or more that he didn’t even know he had, tip with all the enthusiasm of a Scotsman down to his last farthing, then go home and tell his buddies how average his guide, and consequently the fishing, was. As it turns out, it is pretty rare to get someone who ticks all those boxes, so at least some part of the day rises above expectation.

Climbs like these go much easier if I can get my breathing in synch with my pedals, and counting the beats, zone out into some kind of Zen-like state. Sometimes a mile or more will pass before I realize that dull fire down below is my quads melting, the strange gasping sound is not an asthmatic squirrel dogging my progress, but my lungs on the verge of imploding. Then I come to the cattle guard, and it starts to get steep. I use the fifteen degree pitches to catch my breath in between the twenties. I tell myself such exercise is good for me. I wonder if Ed Hillary ever rode this trail. Just when I think I’m going to pass out, there stands before me the last obstacle to the trail head – SOB Hill. Summoning my last reserves of character, I tell my legs to keep pumping easy, tell my hands to quit gripping the bars like I’m trying to choke the life out of a python, tell my lungs to keep rattling, and somehow I’m there.

A last deep inhale, and we commenced the climb. This time of the year, as the sun tracks lower in the sky, the morning air is infused with softer hues, the contours of the land are laid bare while up on high, stands of aspen are already ablaze with color. While the early morning sun held the heat of August, the air was cool and crisp in the shade of the trees lining the road. As usual as August turns to September, I wondered how is it that summer passes so quickly? Although part of me is looking forward to the slowing down of mind and body that comes with winter, another part is not ready in any way, shape, or form. All I hope is that when winter comes, it is a big one.

Two thirds of the way up, we pulled to the side to let a rancher coming the other way pass by, driving his cattle down hill from their summer range. He reined his horse across from us and tipped his hat. He looked the quintessential cowboy – steel-grey hair flecked with silver, mustache to match, pale blue eyes and a mouth creased with a smile that hinted at the truth of that moment, that it was a good day to be in the mountains. Lord knows ranching is a tough way to make a living, and days such as this, in the saddle in such a place, must go some way to making up for the 3:00 am calving call-outs in January, praying for moisture, or the latest regulation that always seems to stand between you and common sense.

“You guys see any more cows on your way up?”

We shook our heads. “Just these ones here. Lovely morning”

He sat for a few seconds and took in the view and nodded. “Well, you have a great day.”

We wished him the same and recommenced our quest. I discovered a couple of things on the remainder of the climb. Whatever those cows were eating up there, a little more protein wouldn’t have gone amiss. It was uncanny how often their chosen line on the way down turned out to be the same as mine on the way up, and you don’t realize how much cow shit sticks between the knobs of your tires until you start going down hill again.

I am pleased to report that my doom and gloom tactic worked to a tee. I reached the top feeling like I could have climbed another mile if necessary. I sat on a log and inhaled a Cliff Bar and a bottle of Gatorade, and stared off along the tree lined single track as it disappeared around the next corner. Ten miles or so of that to come. The climb was worthwhile. And the cowboy was right. It was indeed a great day to be in the mountains.

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Robins, Harleys and Fly fishing

Never mind the longer days, warmer temperatures and the return of the robins – the surest harbinger of spring is the sight of Harley Davidsons back out on the highway. That, and me getting a hankering to go fishing again. I don’t mind admitting, I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to winter fishing. If an angler is defined as a jerk on one end waiting for a jerk on the other, this particular jerk doesn’t enjoy freezing his ass off for the privilege.
The other day however, the sun was shining, the air calm, and I decided it was time to dig out my gear, head down canyon and reintroduce myself to the river. There’s a spot below Badger Creek that I’ve often admired from the raft, but never taken to the time to linger and work it from the shore, and this seemed like a great opportunity. The canyon here is wide, gradient mellow and the riverbed benefits from longer exposure to the sunlight.
Experience having taught me that goretex waders provide as much frictional resistance as a toboggan on a snow-covered bank, I walked until I found a place where I could pick my way down in the footsteps of another, prior angler. Tying on a couple of nymphs, a big stone and a small flashback pheasant tail, I began working my way upstream, fishing the edges of the seams and the drop offs where the river bed changes from rocks to deep, inscrutable green. It’ll require a few more weeks of warmer weather before the fish begin to shake off their mid-winter torpor. Takes tend to be slow and gentle, so I was careful to set slow and gentle to the merest stutter of hesitation of the indicator.
Over the next half hour I was rewarded with four fish on the end of my line, two of which I touched, the others managing to slip the hook with a combination of their sluggish cold-water writhing and my cold-fingered ineptitude All this played out under the watchful eye of a grey jay, alighted atop a pinon on the far bank. He sat and watched my progress up river, before chuckling his amusement and flying off, disappearing into the tangle of willows on the opposite bank, bringing to mind Bede’s analogy of the life of man as that of a flying sparrow, entering in at one door and quickly out another, briefly “out of the wintry storm and into it again.”
I came to a slow pool with a gentle back eddy, the low angling sun sparkling in reflection on the undersides of the over-hanging rocks, a cluster of midges huddled in the sunlight, flitting and skimming and doing whatever it is midges do on a late winter’s afternoon. Three fish finned and hovered on the sandy bottom beneath them, disinterested in the meagre protein on offer on the surface, instead preferring to stay down deeper in the water column, feeding on whatever nymphs the gentle back current brought their way. They tolerated my stonefly and pheasant tail for about three casts, before they were gone, and it was just me and the midges.
Not wishing to stick around for any more cries of derision from the grey jay, I wound up my line and headed back up the embankment to the truck, mission accomplished, another season begun.
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