How do you see a place like Montana? A place that is roughly 550 miles across at its widest, and—in total—occupies more of the planet’s surface than Japan. A place with magnificent rivers that push through gorges, ravines, canyons and valleys to funnel the snowmelt from roughly 100 named mountain ranges and return it to the far-away destinations of the Pacific Ocean, Hudson Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico. A place you are drawn to because of those rivers, especially the 450 miles that are wrapped in ribbons. Blue ribbons.

It is a place so big that you can’t possibly see it all. So you break it down. You call on friends who know parts of the place well. Friends who have cast in the pale light of the canyons searching for—and sometimes finding—the answers. Friends who have planted grafts of their hearts along the banks of the rivers, and whose souls still sing with the sandhills and hover with the hawks. Friends like Jerry Kustich, Bob DeMott and Todd Tanner. You follow their advice, hoping that you too will find the answers. 

You wade the fabled rivers: The Big Hole; The Beaverhead; The Missouri; The Madison; The Yellowstone. Each is generous at times; selfish at others. Just as you hoped they would be. You cast your flies hoping for added weight. You cast your cares hoping for less. 

You fish hard in the mornings, even harder in the evenings, and in between you drive. You try to count the number of times you cross the Continental Divide, but you lose track after the fifth or sixth. You cross the Pioneer, Anaconda, Beaverhead, Sapphire, Bitterroot, Garnet, Adel, Elkhorn, Tobacco Root, Madison, Gallatin and other mountain ranges, and, like the stones that line the bottoms of the rivers, they all look the same from a distance. But up close, their unique beauty is unquestionable. White crosses remind you, though, that getting this close to beauty is not without risk

Just as you plan to do, you take your first fish—a solid brown—on your first morning on the Big Hole. In the evening, you hike over a mile to a bend in the Beaverhead and hope that a big fish will feed on the surface at dark. When that snout first pushes through the water, followed by a dorsal fin and a tail about two feet behind, your hands shake. You are 1400 miles from home, and you ask yourself if the big trout here are smarter, more cautious, or just plain different than the ones you’ve learned to catch. You manage to tie on a fly and cast. You are pleased with the answer. 

“You cast your flies hoping for added weight. You cast your cares hoping for less.”


(Original photo: Bob DeMott)

Over three weeks you cast your favorite bamboo rod so much that it breaks, and, with it, so does your heart. You give your broken rod to Glenn Brackett and his skilled hands assure you that he can repair your rod with the same ease that his kind and contagious smile mends your heart. Montana’s treasures, you see, extend far beyond its mountains, rivers and fish.

When you return, you will have driven a distance that is equivalent to a coast-to-coast round trip across the United States. New friends and memories will fill voids in your heart that you didn’t know existed. You will have seen Montana, but now—more than ever before—you will need to see it again. 

(This appeared in the September 2019 issue of the Sweetgrass Newsletter. Check it out.)

Categories: Fish Tales

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