Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the Cat.
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Last night, the guys at the campfire told me the tricos weren’t hatching. I might find some farther downstream, they said, but not here. Still, my campsite is within casting distance of the river—well, a Steve Rajeff cast anyway—so I crawl out of my truck at 7 a.m. and pull on my waders. Later today the temperature will be in the mid-to-high-80s, but now I need a jacket on top of a fleece just to stop shivering. Jerry Kustich warned me about this. The Big Hole, he said, would be cool enough to fish in the morning and early afternoon, but probably too warm in the mid-to-late afternoon. Starting the day 40 degrees below the forecasted high, I finally understand how that can happen.
I want to catch my first Montana fish—every Montana fish, really—on a dry fly, but I don’t see any bugs in the air. No tricos, no midges, no pale morning duns. Just the vapor from my breath. Jerry said hoppers might work throughout the day, and I’ve heard about nocturnal stoneflies on Montana rivers, so I tie on one of the big purple flies I bought from the kid in Livingston.
“Funny you should mention rattlesnakes”
The river is about 150 feet wide and relatively shallow. Stones—most between the size of a softball and a basketball—cover the bottom and the bank. The rocks on the bank have a distinct characteristic that I like. They don’t offer many places for rattlesnakes to hide. A few weeks ago Roxanne asked me to ask Jerry about the chances I would be eaten by a bear or bitten by a rattlesnake. “Funny you should mention rattlesnakes,” he replied, “another friend just posted a picture of one on the Big Hole. Although not extremely common, I always watch where I step and listen for the buzz.” I didn’t want to hear that. My attitude about snakes—especially those that don’t live in reptile houses—comes from an old railroader friend of my mom’s: “I ain’t afraid of what snakes might do to me,” he used to say, “I’m afraid of what those son-of-a-bitches might make me do to myself.”
The rocks in the river have a distinct characteristic I don’t like, and—for about five more minutes—don’t know about. A few weeks before I left Michigan, the sole on one of my felt-soled wading boots came partially off. Those boots—along with the tube of contact cement I planned to use to repair them—are back in my truck. In their place, I’m wearing boots with rubber soles and worn down metal cleats. I stand on the dry bank for my first few casts, but the best place for a fish is in a riffle behind a boulder, and I can’t make a good presentation to that spot without getting in the water.
Mark Twain is often quoted—or slightly misquoted—as saying “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” When I first started skating and playing ice hockey, I once stepped onto the ice with the protective guards on my blades. Much like grabbing a fistful of cat tail, that is something you learn in only one way. So too is stepping into the Big Hole River without noticing the rocks are covered with moss that is—as the philosophical railroader from my youth used to say—“slicker than snot on a doorknob.”
The only mark is on my ego, and that fades with my first cast to the riffle.
I manage to fall without puncturing my waders or frightening every fish and pocket gopher between Wise River and Wisdom. As falls go, it’s not that bad. The only mark is on my ego, and that fades with my first cast to the riffle. The line lands, I give it an upstream mend, and about five feet into the drift the water erupts from the rise of my first Montana fish. A brown trout around ten or eleven inches long.
Brown trout aren’t native to Montana, nor anywhere else in North America. The first browns stocked in the United States came from Germany in 1884 and were released into Michigan’s Baldwin River, and then into Montana’s rivers a few years after that. So for a few seconds I’m disappointed that I’ve caught a brown instead of a native species, although the irony of this moment is so thick I could nail it to a tree. A guy from Michigan—with a German surname—has a tinge of regret because the ancient ancestors of his first fish weren’t born in the state. This is rich. The State of Montana hasn’t stocked brown trout in the Big Hole since 1954, and they haven’t stocked any type of trout in this river since 1989. All the trout in the Big Hole—brown or otherwise—are wild and, as far as they know, native. The fisherman from Michigan who fell on his stern a few minutes ago is the only alien in this scene. Back in control of my sensibilities, I release the fish into the river of its birth and give this event the approving nod it deserves.
My right sleeve is soaked from the fall, and I’m getting cold. When my jaw quivers, I decide to change jackets and drive to another spot downstream. At Jerry Creek Bridge I catch a brook trout on my first cast, but the rocks are slicker than the ones at Dickie Bridge, so I drive even farther downstream. At Maiden Rock I park my truck on the south side of the railroad tracks where, in contrast with Dickie Bridge, the stream-side rocks present plenty of places for rattlesnakes to hide. Nevertheless, I run the gauntlet and make it to the river just before a train roars through the canyon. I find a few fish rising to a sparse hatch of tricos, and I catch one small rainbow. When the hatch stops around noon, I leave the river.
I ignore him while I pet his dog—the first dog I’ve petted since I said goodbye to Sunny.
The temperature is rising toward eighty, so, rather than check another spot, I drive to the fly shop in Melrose. The guy behind the counter says hello, but I ignore him while I pet his dog—the first dog I’ve petted since I said goodbye to Sunny. Then I ask the guy—who is too old to call a kid—if he has any felt-bottom wading boots in my size. He doesn’t. I want advice about fishing too, so I ask him to recommend some flies. He suggests some purple stoneflies, and some trico patterns that—to my surprise—aren’t purple. The smallest tippet on the wall is 5X, so I ask where he keeps the smaller tippet to use for tricos. He laughs and says, “There are some big fish in this river, so I wouldn’t use anything smaller than 4X. If you can’t get that through the eye, go ahead and use a bigger fly. The current is fast, and the fish aren’t really that picky.” I remember the summer when Josh Greenberg convinced me to use 8X fluorocarbon for the trico hatch on the Au Sable River in Michigan. “Toto,” I say to the guy’s dog, “I’ve got a feeling I’m not in Michigan anymore.”
This morning I moved from Dickie Bridge to Jerry Creek to Maiden Rock without really thinking about it. Now—planning my next move—I’m thinking about it. Dickie Bridge to Maiden Rock is about 25 miles, and, altogether, I fished about 300 feet—or 0.2%—of the water between those spots. Unfettered and untethered, I can fish anywhere I want. But I know I can’t fish everywhere I want, and I need to make some deliberate decisions.
Jerry recommended I fish either the Ruby River, Poindexter Slough, or the Beaverhead River in the late afternoon and evening. Before I do that, though, I need to eat and find a new pair of boots. Butte is 33 miles to the north; Dillon 31 miles to the south; Twin Bridges 22 miles to the east. I can take Interstate 15 to either Butte or Dillon, but, as Jerry told me, the drive to Twin Bridges is on “a shitty 20 mile dirt road…slow going.” I decide to take the smooth highway to Dillon, but I turn onto the shitty dirt road when I see the sign for Twin Bridges. Like Jimmy Buffett’s Frank Bama once said, the best navigators are not quite sure where they’re going until they get there . . . and then they’re still not sure.
About a half hour later I get a note from Jerry while I’m eating a BLT at the Wagon Wheel Steakhouse. He says there could be caddis in the evening on the Ruby, and directs me to one of his favorite places to fish that river. After lunch, I drive there to check it out, but it’s mid-afternoon and the water looks dead. I have time to kill, so I decide I’ll drive to Dillon to look for wading boots, then come back to fish in the evening. I strike out at the first two shops, but—in the third—I find three dogs sleeping in the doorway, a kid named Josh tying flies in the corner, and a pair of Simms G3 wading boots with felt soles in my size. After I buy the boots, Josh gives me a hand-drawn map that shows some places to access Poindexter Slough and the Beaverhead. One of those spots is close to a place Jerry suggested, so I change my plan again. I’ll fish the Beaverhead tonight, then drive back to a campsite near Divide and fish the Big Hole in the morning.
The hike into the Beaverhead is a little over a mile. The air smells like rain when I put on my waders, and, on the hike in, I encounter my first Montana storm. The wind nearly rips my hat off my head, but—just like the weather app promised—the storm passes in about a half hour. I get to the river around 5:30 p.m., and I’m surprised by how much it reminds me of the Brule River on the Michigan-Wisconsin border. Except, of course, for the mountains in the horizon. I feel like I’ve fished this river my entire life. I sit in the brush on the bank with my feet in the current and monitor a few current seams where I believe a fish will eventually rise. Especially if the caddis hatch like Jerry said they could.
At about 6 p.m. I see a slight disturbance in one of the seams. At first the fish just pushes its nose through the surface, but, after a few reluctant rises, the trout starts to porpoise. Mouth, then dorsal fin, then tail. I haven’t tied on a fly yet, so I search through my box for a caddis emerger that works well in Michigan. The fly looks a lot like a Craig Matthews’ X-Caddis, but I tie it on a bent-shank hook with a couple wraps of peacock hurl behind its head. I pick one with an olive body in a size 16 and push the 5x tippet through its eye. An essential tremor attacks my left hand, so I leverage my wrist against my chest and secure the fly with a Davy knot—the easiest knot for me to tie when my hand is shaking.
I tell myself trout are trout, and this trout is no different than any big trout I’ve caught in Michigan. But I left my dog and family to drive nearly 2,000 miles for this moment, and now the moment is overwhelming. I pull some line from my reel, false cast twice, then put the fly exactly where I want to put it. But my line forms a giant “Z” shape, the result of three different currents that I didn’t account for. The fly drags, but the big fish keeps eating. I wade a little upstream to a spot where I hope I can mend enough line to account for the chaotic flow on the river’s surface. I use a slack-mend cast, then point my rod upstream just before the line lands. When the fly gets to its destination, I beg the fish to take it. A nose breaks the surface, followed by a fin and a tail.
Just two feet of brown trout looking straight into the eye of the joker who interrupted its dinner.
The trout makes a mad rush for the deepest water in the middle of the river. I get the line onto the reel and apply upward pressure, but we’re in a deadlock. I bend the rod toward the water, pull to my left, then to my right, but the fish doesn’t budge. Suddenly, and with no warning, the tension’s gone and the trout and I are eye-to-eye. No dancing tail. No shaking head. Just two feet of brown trout looking straight into the eye of the joker who interrupted its dinner. The fish falls back into the water and sprints downstream. My rod bends and my reel squeals. Then the fish turns, swims straight toward me and launches for another eye-to-eye encounter. After we repeat that scene two more times, I have the trout nearly in my net. But, for reasons I still can’t explain, I have my smallest net, and the fish won’t fit. When I try to cradle the trout with my hand, the hook pulls loose and the fish is gone.
I hook four more fish—landing one—before a storm pushes me off the river. Back at my truck a young man and I talk between lightning flashes and thunderclaps. He’s a guide on the Beaverhead, and he tells me I ought to fish with nymphs in the water below the dam. “It’s fishing great now,” he says, “and the fish are huge.” I tell him I’d prefer to catch fish with dry flies. “I understand,” he counters, “but when you’re this close to Clark Canyon Dam, you should give it a try. When in Rome, you know.” He tells me about a campground in Barretts, and I decide to sleep there and fish with nymphs below the dam in the morning. Indecision, I decide, is no longer my problem. At least for now.