I caught the first fish of my life with a worm suspended below a bobber. In my early years, that was the only way I fished. My rod was a cane pole; the fish most likely a bluegill. A tiny spring gadget held the bobber to the line, and—even though the red and white bobber was plastic—I called it a cork.
“Leaving nothing but that glorious place in the water where the bobber used to be.”
Sitting still when told to do so—in church, school, or the back seat of our ’68 Plymouth—was never one of my childhood talents. But I could sit beside a pond for hours and stare at that cork. My mind drifted the way young minds do, but my eyes watched for that first suspicious movement. A tiny bounce; a slight wiggle; any sign to tell me a fish was on the other end of my line. My heart raced when the cork tilted and skimmed across the surface like a tiny boat. But my favorite moment—the one that held my attention the way a magnet holds iron—was when the cork sank below the surface, leaving nothing but that glorious place in the water where the bobber used to be.
After I graduated from cane-pole school, my mom gave me a black plastic Zebco 202 reel with a little casting rod. One summer afternoon, when my mind drifted more than my eyes watched, I didn’t notice the cork sink a second or two before my rod and reel launched into the pond. In two or three heartbeats, my rod, reel, and the biggest fish I’d ever hooked were gone. I was certain my mom would deliver a swift and unjust punishment for my offense, so I began to cry and couldn’t stop. But when she came over to see what I was crying about, she smiled—laughed actually—and said it must have been a big fish.
I couldn’t find a campsite last night, so I parked and slept in the day-use lot at Barretts Park Campground. And when I crawl out of my truck this morning, I’m about 200 feet from the Beaverhead River. The surrounding park has a surreal charm. There are railroad tracks 100 feet to the west, and Interstate 15 is about 200 feet beyond that. A rocky cliff shades the river from the morning sun, and another small mountain looms about 100 feet on the other side of the highway. It’s not really a canyon, but it feels like one.
“No secrets here. Just find an empty spot. The fish are everywhere.”
The guide I talked with during last night’s storm said the Beaverhead wouldn’t fish well until about 9 or 10 a.m., so I heat some water for breakfast and use what’s leftover to wash my face. When I get to the dam, there’s a line of boats waiting to launch. While the guides prepare the boats, the clients fidget like we do when we watch someone else do all the work. Without someone to guide me, I can’t figure out where to fish. I remember something about High Bridge, Henneberry, and The Slick, but I’m disoriented and overwhelmed, so I drive to a fly shop near the dam. The guy recommends two tiny red midges, another with black and white stripes like a zebra, and some pheasant tail nymphs he says always work. When I ask for advice about where to fish, he says, “No secrets here. Just find an empty spot. The fish are everywhere.”
I drive north on High Bridge Road and park in the first empty pull-off. The river is about 40 feet from my truck, down a well-worn footpath through some rocks. I set up my rod, pull on my waders, and take the short hike to the river. It’s cold, so I tell myself the snakes will stay in the gopher holes and crevices until the sun warms the rocks, but I don’t know if that’s true. I sit on a boulder and tie a leader for my nymphs. I put two split shots at the end of the line with a couple flies on droppers up from that. Then I attach a small balloon-like thingamabob that is actually called a Thingamabobber.
A boat floats by while I tie my leader, and the guide tells the clients to fish on the opposite side when they get close to me. But they cast tight to my bank before that, so I stay out of the water and fish just beyond where I can see the bottom. I flip my rig upstream, watch the little bobber float back, then pick it up when it drags below me. Like an intermittent wiper, I flip the rig back upstream. The bobber shakes each time the split shots bounce off the bottom. When one shake looks different, I lift and the rod bends.
I think I’m snagged until the fish shakes its head. I can’t move it upward, so I extend my rod to pressure the trout toward the middle of the river. It ambles at first, then uses the faster mid-stream current to propel it downstream. A boat floats by with two men fishing to both banks. Their guide gives me a nod, but no one in the boat seems to notice—or care—that I’m fighting a fish. Two more boats do the same thing before I land the trout. It’s a big brown that hardly needs resuscitation. This fish has headlined in this play before.
I catch four more trout—each roughly the same size as the first—and around 11 a.m. I decide I’ve had enough nymph fishing. A trout rises steadily on the far bank and has been doing so for about half an hour. I want to catch it, but the river is about 60 feet wide and flows with several speeds across its span. I need to get closer to make a cast. My first step sets me knee-deep into the water. My second puts the river’s surface about ten inches below the top of my waders. I slide my foot forward until I feel the bottom fall away. I still need to get closer, so I call on the fish gods and take another step.
“Swimming in waders is never easy.”
Swimming in waders is never easy. I use one hand like an oar; the other to keep my rod safe above my head. A guide has anchored his boat about 100 feet downstream, and I hear the guys laughing. Hell, I’m laughing too, but I’d like to get out of the water before I float down to them. About 20 feet into my swim, I grab some vegetation and pull myself into a place where I can stand. The guide in the boat asks if I’m okay, and when I hold up my thumb as a sign of triumph, he holds up all eight fingers and two thumbs to give me a perfect score. I take a bow.
When another boat floats by, I’m in my underwear holding my waders by the neoprene booties while water pours from the opening that used to be around my chest. “Been there,” says the guy in back of the boat. I put my jeans on and eat lunch. Unthreatened by my antics, the trout near the far bank continues to eat its lunch. When another boat approaches, I ask the guys if they have a dry-fly rod rigged and ready to cast. They do, and the guide anchors the boat above the fish to position the man in the bow for a downstream cast.
Perhaps I should be upset to stand here in wet underwear and watch these guys catch my fish, but I’m not. Even with a boat and a guide who knows how to position it, this is a tough fish. The conflicting currents that deliver the real flies to the fish make it nearly impossible for an angler to fool it with a fake one. And the trout seems to know this, because each time it rejects the counterfeit, it eats the next real fly that floats by.
“Yet again, I stand on the bank of the Beaverhead River in my underwear, this time shaking ants from my pants.”
I feel bad for the fisherman, but he keeps a good attitude. He puts the fly where he needs to put it; he sets the hook when he needs to set it. It’s just a difficult fish. About the time the guy in the back of the boat takes his turn at the fish, I swat a gnat from the back of my neck. A few seconds later, I smack another. When I feel one more, I grab it between my index finger and thumb. It’s not a gnat. It’s an ant, and a hundred more are marching up my leg. Yet again, I stand on the bank of the Beaverhead River in my underwear, this time shaking ants from my pants. The guide in the boat laughs and says he has been there.
Two more trout rise, but the fishermen don’t catch them. The guys make good casts and get good drifts, but these are challenging fish. The fish might rise closer to my bank in the evenings, so I make a note to come back another day to see. But now, I drive to the truck stop in Barretts and take a shower. From there, I’ll drive back to the Big Hole River. The air temperature dropped after yesterday’s storms, and I have a hunch that the river will fish well this evening. If it does, I want to be there.