One fish, ten fish, big fish, Zen fish. That’s how Theodor Geisel—Dr. Seuss from our child- and parent-hoods—might have described the fly-fisher’s journey. In his excellent essay, “The Five Stages of Fly Fishing,” Todd Tanner includes another phase between big and Zen, something Seuss might have called finicky fish. This stage is when that fish—the one that sips unrecognizable flies from an inaccessible lie—is the only fish we want to catch. We change flies, extend leaders, push our casting skills up against their ceiling, but—like Seuss’s North-Going Zax—that fish refuses to change its ways. In defiance, we stand there—like the South-Going Zax—and fish until the entire world stands still.
These stages are real, and—for many of us—link sequentially like a prerequisite chain in education. First, we need to catch a fish, then a lot of fish, then some big fish, and finally we need to catch that fish. But when we reach the end of the chain, need gives way to want, and what we want is simply to go fishing, and, perhaps, watch someone else—a daughter, a son, a friend, or a stranger—catch a fish, a lot of fish, a big fish, or even that fish.
Like much of life itself, most chains have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Regarding this progression, Thomas Wolfe told us we couldn’t go home, and Heraclitus said we couldn’t wade in the same river twice. But the fly fishing chain is not so rigid, and we fly fishers can go back. After years of fishing, we can still catch a new fish in a new river; land a big fish in a small stream; hook ten fish when we expect only one. And that fish can show up just about anywhere and anytime.
“Now I’m not sure what I want, but I know that I want to find it in the Big Hole River.”
Here in Montana, I’m jumping from link to link like a frog in a thunderstorm. Yesterday, I caught my first fish in a Montana river. Then I discovered, hooked, and lost that fish on the Beaverhead. This morning, I landed several big fish with a bobber and a nymph. Now I’m not sure what I want, but I know that I want to find it in the Big Hole River. I’ve never caught a whitefish or a grayling, and they live there. And when I told Jerry I had hooked a small brown, brook, and rainbow trout on my first day on the Big Hole, he said, “Don’t be fooled, there are big fish up there.”
Fishtrap Creek flows into the Big Hole River about halfway between Divide and Wisdom. There’s a state campground where the creek joins the river, and there’s another campground—called Sportsman’s—about three miles downstream from that. The campsites at Sportsman’s are right on the river, so I pull in and check one out. The campground host says the camping is free, but they’d accept a donation if I want to give them one. I do. Several trailers and motor homes populate the main campground, but I’m the only one camping along a small gravel road that parallels the river, just to the west of the riverside hamlet. I park my truck, eat a late lunch, and then take a nap.
Westslope cutthroat, Arctic grayling, lake trout, mountain whitefish, and several species of sucker, sculpin, dace, and burbot were native to the Big Hole. The online stocking records for the river go back to 1933, and—during that time—the state has stocked Arctic grayling, brown trout, cutthroat trout, kokanee salmon, and rainbow trout. The kokanee experiment was short-lived: 900 four-inch fish in 1950 and none after that. Brook trout are not native, nor do they show up in the stocking records for the Big Hole River, but they are abundant here.
When the sun hides behind a cloud, a few brook trout feed on small insects, and I start to fish. I can’t tell what bugs they’re eating, but brook trout aren’t known for their discerning taste, so I tie on a size 18 Borchers Drake. None of the Montana fly shops I’ve visited carry this pattern. It’s a Michigan fly created to imitate the burly brown-drake mayflies. But it works well in small sizes too, and when the tiny fly floats without dragging over one of these Montana brook trout, they attack it. None of the trout I catch are trophies—by Montana standards. But by the benchmarks of the small Upper Peninsula streams in Michigan, they are excellent fish.
“Not getting eaten, though, is only part of the evolutionary game.”
In The Road, Cormac McCarthy writes of how the patterns on the backs of brook trout are “maps of the world in its becoming.” How, I wonder, can something as wary as a brook trout display such color on its body? The pale yellow freckles against the brownish-green hue of their skin fashion a sort of camouflage. But—to all the predators in the river—the gleaming red blotches encircled by brilliant blue halos seem to scream, “Hey, look at me!” Not getting eaten, though, is only part of the evolutionary game. The other part is finding the right mate, and—like the lavish tails on a peacock, or a $200 pair of jeans—those spots might also say, “Yeah, I’ve got the right stuff.”
I stand in the river a little downstream from my camp, where a small island creates riffles and runs along its bank. A man parks his truck close to where I’m fishing, gets out, and gives me a friendly wave.
“How’s the fishing?” he asks.
“Good,” I say. “All brook trout so far.”
“I got a nice rainbow here two nights ago, so don’t let your guard down,” he tells me.
“Do you want to fish this spot?” I ask. “It’s my first time here, and I’ll be fine fishing anywhere.” I don’t know where this guy came from, but I don’t want to take his spot if he drove a long way to fish.
“No, that’s okay. I’m probably not going to fish this evening.” Then he asks, “Have you seen any bears?”
“No,” I say, “I heard they’re mostly in the upper parts of the river, above Wisdom.”
“Well, a friend of mine saw one on the bank across from you about a week ago. Big one too.”
“Should I worry?” I ask.
“No, no, they have plenty of other things to eat at this time of year.”
“Plenty of other things to eat,” didn’t have the calming effect the guy might have intended. Or maybe it got precisely the result he wanted. Either way, after the guy leaves, I keep one eye on my fly and the other on the far bank.
When the light begins to fade, I notice a larger fish rising behind a rock. This one makes quite a commotion each time it takes a fly. Its back breaches the surface, and its tail stirs the water. I make a decent cast, the fish rises to the fly, but I don’t hook it. The trout missed it, I think, but when we repeat this two more times, I notice that the trout never misses the real flies, so I change to a smaller pattern. When I fail to hook the fish three more times, I suspect something else is wrong. I check to make sure the hook’s not broken, and I test its point on the nail of my thumb. Finally, the fish rises to the fly, and I hook it. The bamboo rod arcs toward the water, and I hurry to get the line on the reel. I’ve got a big trout, I think.
The fish’s first run is toward the island, and I take a few steps in that direction. The bottom isn’t as slick as it was in the other places I’ve been on the Big Hole, but I still have to be careful. When the fish rolls and flops like a walleye, I think it’s a large brook trout. But I see a red spot on its gill plate—the kind you see on a rainbow trout—and something’s different about its body shape. When I get the fish close, I realize I’m on to my first mountain whitefish.
The whitefish tires quicker than a trout of its size would, but—once I land it—it starts to fight again. The fish is all muscle, and it’s nearly impossible to get the hook out of its tiny mouth. When I let it go, the river’s surface is boiling from rising fish. I catch four more whitefish, two of which have my fly so deep in their mouth I have to cut the line, and when it’s finally too dark to fish, I walk back to my truck and make a sandwich. I hear a few fish rising directly in front of my campsite, but I don’t want to catch another whitefish, and I’m content to sit on the picnic table and drink a beer.
I sleep with the windows far enough down that I can hear the sounds of the river, but not so far that the bear the guy told me about could reach in and pull me out like a pickle from a jar. When I wake in the morning, a misty fog blankets the river. I drive to the access near Fishtrap Creek, sit on a rock and eat a yogurt for breakfast. Boulders the size of refrigerators and ovens line the bank on my side, and a mountain rises from the far bank, shading the river from the sun’s first light.
“When I look in a mirror, I don’t see a 57-year-old-man, so maybe I just saw Sunny through that same mirror.”
Few fish rise, and those that do lack focus and commitment. I sit on the bank for over an hour, and—for the first time since I arrived in Montana—I think seriously about my dog. I dreamt about him last night, and, in that dream, I was the 57-year-old man that I am now, but he was young and athletic. His body was in perfect shape, no tumors, no scars, no growths. I threw a stick, but he didn’t retrieve it. He just pawed at my hand until I petted him. That was all he wanted. I wonder what a psychiatrist would tell me the dream meant. Something about getting old, dying, or regretting my relationship with my mother? When I look in a mirror, I don’t see a 57-year-old-man, so maybe I just saw Sunny through that same mirror.
When the Trico hatch is on, clouds of tiny flies will hover above the river. I drive the highway looking for those clouds, but the air is clear. I must be a few days too early. But when I approach a bridge, I see hundreds of swallows dancing and darting in hot pursuit of tiny flies. When I park beside the river, the water is thick with rising fish in the bridge’s shadow. More whitefish, I tell myself, and even though I’d said I was finished with whitefish last night, I pull on my waders and tie one of the small purple mayflies I bought in Livingston to my leader. As I expected, I don’t hook the first fish that rises to my fly. I remember that I needed a little hesitation to catch the whitefish last night, so I whisper God Save the Queen before I set the hook on the next rise.
The fish is hefty, and it quickly draws the loose line onto my reel when it swims for the deepest water under the bridge. A big whitefish, I think. When it jumps from the river, I see a rosy spot on its gill plate and a pinkish stripe along the full length of its body. It’s a rainbow trout and a large one at that. There’s a lot of moss in this section of the Big Hole River, and the rainbow wraps several globs of this stuff around my line. I worry that the added weight will impede the rod’s ability to protect the tippet, but I land this trout along with about a pound of moss.
I catch three nice brook trout, and then I see that fish rising next to one of the bridge’s piers. It’s a large brown porpoising just like the one on the Beaverhead did two nights ago. My first two casts are short, and the fish either doesn’t see the fly, or it doesn’t want to move to get it. When I cast to the right spot, the trout comes up for the fly, then rejects it by pushing it to the side with its nose. When this happens again, I replace the little purple fly with a size 18 Roberts Yellow Drake, another Michigan fly that works well in all sizes. The fly lands about three feet above the trout; I hold my breath as it drifts naturally toward the target; the big trout eats the fly without hesitating; I lift my rod too fast and too hard; the tippet breaks and that fish is gone.
The birds have returned to roost under the bridge, and the fish have stopped rising. There are no more flies for either of them to eat. The Tricos probably won’t hatch reliably for another day or two, so I reconsider my options. Jerry told me about a river named Rock Creek, and he said I could get there by taking Chief Joseph Pass from Wisdom, then following Highway 93 north along Camp Creek and the Bitterroot River. I decide that will be the next stage of my trip.