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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Fishing With Kids

This is a departure from my traditional video posts, brought about in part by a lack of opportunity to fish this summer. This reminisce is part of a longer piece about fishing with kids. The inspiration was a couple of recent camping trips with my daughters, Sophie and Beatrice. Any comments / suggestions appreciated.

The first time we’d been camping with Soph, when she was two, didn’t have the outcome I’d been hoping for. Kym and I fitted out the truck with a big comfy mattress, and we drove up to a mountain lake 20 miles from town, the last five lurching back and forth up a rutted four-wheel drive road. Eating dinner as dusk settled over the mountains, the air was perfectly still, the mirror-like lake reflecting the deepening hues of the evening sky and darkening mountains. Dimples began breaking the surface, intermittently at first, now with greater urgency. The evening rise was coming on, insects hatching from the depths, the fish rising to gorge on the bounty. Nirvana.

I unloaded my one man pontoon boat from roof of the truck, and carried it eagerly to the water’s edge. There would be an hour, perhaps an hour and a half, of the kind of dry fly fishing dreams are made of. No time to waste. I hurriedly strung up my rod, fumbling into my chest pack for a fly box when the first wail split the stillness. I turned, glancing back towards our campsite, to see Kym emerge from the back of the truck, shrugging her shoulders.

Figuring if I ignored the potential problem it might go away, I continued tying on a small elk hair caddis, turning back towards the lake. The risers were now working at least half the lake’s surface, a glutinous display of Caligula-like proportions imminent. The second and third wails came in quick succession. Kym was now holding her, standing at the back of the truck, making an eye contact unmistakable in its intent from 50 yards away. I put down the fly rod and walked toward them. “She doesn’t want to stay here. She doesn’t want to sleep in the truck.” She’d just realized camping didn’t mean eating hotdogs by the lake and then going home.

“Sophie honey, it’ll be fun. We’ll look up at the stars, and you can watch Daddy catch some fish.” The last said in hope rapidly turning to despair. She could be a bear with a sore head if she didn’t get her way. She wailed some more, and I remembered there were a couple of other campers around the lake. It was tough enough having my own sense of serenity broken, let alone being responsible for shattering that of others. I wearily trudged down to retrieve the pontoon boat, the lake now a slow boil of rising fish. Loading up, we headed back down the mountain in the deepening night. She fell asleep almost instantly, but the road was too narrow to turn around. Besides, if she woke up and we were back at the lake, there’d really be hell to pay.

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High Country Heaven

With one thing and another – kids, mortgage, commitments –  it had been several years since I’d had the opportunity to hit the road for a few days with a fly rod in hand, an agenda no more urgent than to rise when the mood took me, fish for how ever many hours seemed appropriate to the day, then retire to the camp chair for a couple of cans, a dose of camaraderie and sleeping under the night sky. The original intention this fall had been to head up to Wyoming to explore the headwaters of the Green River, but a last minute change of plans saw Caveman and I decide to wander a little closer to home.

There are several reasons why I love spending a few days camping in the mountains, a civilized distance removed from civilization. Firstly, you can wear the same underwear for five or six days, and no one looks at you like that’s a bad thing. To be sure, when I returned home, I couldn’t get a hug out of my wife or daughters until I’d been in the shower for about twenty minutes. Fair enough, but I’ve always maintained that the best defense against predators in the wild is simply to smell worse than they do. The look on the face of the lass behind the counter at the liquor store in South Fork  when we dropped in for a resupply was, I believe, testament to the effectiveness of my strategy. Second, the high country is about the only place on earth where bacon is officially recognized as a health food. A day spent hiking and wading above ten thousand feet demands at lest half a pound every breakfast. Thirdly, sipping a red beer in the morning sunshine, sitting by a river somewhere, is a sure sign that despite the general gloom of the times, life isn’t so bad after all.

We headed south from Salida to two or three places we’d only visited in our imaginations previously, lines on a map transformed into memories of backcountry splendor and reverence. On a couple of days we hiked from camp up high into tiny little tributaries, close enough to the continental divide it seemed you could almost reach out and touch the peaks, in reality still two days distant. At this elevation summer was long gone, the trees stripped bare save the odd stand of aspen or willows holding out against the inevitability of winter’s approach, their remaining leaves pale, bleached of life and color.

The water up here was skinny and gin clear, the fish spooky. Once in a while a brookie or two still hovered over a redd, their bellies and fins a brilliant neon orange. We took care to leave these ones alone, their ability to survive and reproduce in such places quite humbling to a goretex clad fisherman in need of a zero degree sleeping bag and a bottle of Jack to keep him warm at night.

A lunch of summer sausage and cheese, washed down with a beer while sheltering under a friendly spruce from an afternoon hailstorm was for me an undoubted highlight of the trip. Watching a hailstone, perfect and multifaceted like a diamond, slowly softening and drawn into the warmth of the earth started me to thinking of the great cycle of life, death and rebirth, and of how many others before me, both two legged and four, had perhaps sheltered under this very tree in like circumstances. Such it seems are the consequences for a mind distanced even somewhat from the distractions and seductions of everyday life. Alas, I came back down from the mountain with no new insight into our ultimate purpose, no pearls of wisdom to share, but with an enhanced appreciation of the intricacies of life and our own minor place in it.

On the day I took the camera along, we fished lower down on the main stem of the river, the water and fish bigger, the scenery no less spectacular. Once again the fish were hungry, eager to pack down as many calories as possible before temperatures dropped and the food chain went into hibernation.

By the last morning, my fifty year old bones were beginning to rebel against the confines of my sleeping bag, my faithful paco pad somehow not quite as cushy as it seemed twenty years ago. In my single days, I would have been happy to stay out there for  few more weeks, but nowadays other things tug at my heartstrings also, and it was time to head back home and reunite with my brood. But the primary mission was accomplished – batteries recharged, a couple more lines on the map filled in, and several more noted for future exploration.

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