I wade out of the Big Hole River, put my rod in its case, and store my reel in a bag with ten others—eight of which will stay in the bag for the entire trip. I make a tomato and cheese sandwich, and—between bites—ponder my next move. A Subaru wagon with Missouri plates bounces down the rutted road and parks beside me. A guy with a tie-dye buff around his neck gets out, pulls on his waders, hurries into the river and casts. He doesn’t look for rises, assess the current, or do anything else I think he should. Instead, he flogs the water like he just learned it had an affair with his wife.
Why bother to fish if you’re gonna do it like that?, I think. But maybe someone or something did steal his wife. Or his job. Or his hope. I don’t know the crosses he bears, just like he doesn’t know mine. He doesn’t seem mad or sad, but he doesn’t seem intent on catching a fish either. Whatever script he’s written, there’s no role in it for me, so I finish my sandwich and back my truck through the potholes and out of the parking area. Just before I turn onto the highway, I notice a sticker on the Subaru’s bumper: VETERAN.
If I was a crow, the place on Rock Creek where Jerry Kustich suggested I fish would be a thirty-mile flight, mostly to the north and a little to the west. But I’m a man in a truck, so my shortest route is back to the east through Wise River and Divide, north toward Butte, and then west through Anaconda. Instead, I opt to head east and drive an extra fifty miles so I can see Chief Joseph Pass and the Bitterroot River. Later in the trip—when I’m bored and perhaps annoyed by my own company—I might take the shorter route. But spending time alone and making some sense of a challenging year is one of the reasons I’m here.
Seeing the veteran from Missouri reminded me of my childhood, and now—as I drive toward Wisdom—I think about my mom. For the first eighteen years of my life, she and I lived in small Illinois towns within a few miles of the Mississippi River—just south of St. Louis, Missouri. My father left before I was old enough to know him, and, after that, my mom remarried a World War II veteran who treated me like I was his son. He told me that war was nothing like the movies, and that you can’t unkill a person. I think he could have taught me a lot of other things too, but he died when I was six years old, and—although my mom remarried—she basically raised me alone.
Growing up in the Great Depression, my mom abandoned school at fifteen, had her first child at sixteen, and learned most of what she knew through hard knocks and folklore. She liked to say the Mississippi was the biggest river in the world, and—when I was learning to spell—she taught me a song and a joke about the river’s name.
“Mississippi is a big river,” she’d say. “Can you spell it?”
“Em eye es es eye es es eye pee pee eye,” I would sing.
“Wrong,” she’d say. “Eye tee. That’s how you spell it.” Then she’d laugh so hard I could see all the fillings in her teeth.
She took me fishing in the Mississippi once and told me that a guy who worked on bridges came into her bar one night and said he had seen catfish big enough to eat three kids of my size. We caught catfish—and carp and drum too—but none were big enough to eat even one kid of my size. Toward the end of the day, a whirlpool formed just offshore and my mom told me to get my ass away from the bank. A week later, a kid from our town drowned in one of those things, and my mom never took me fishing in the Mississippi again.
Even though the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi just north of St. Louis, I didn’t know—or think—much about that river when I was a kid. To me, it was just water under a bridge we drove over on our way to Colorado for one of our great trout expeditions. If I had paid better attention to my elementary-school teachers—mainly the ones who tried to teach me about Lewis and Clark—I would have known then that the Missouri River comes from Montana. And I would have known that the Jefferson, the Madison, and the Gallatin are the rivers that form the Missouri. And perhaps today—as I drive into the tiny town of Wisdom—I would know that Lewis and Clark originally called the Big Hole River the Wisdom River to honor one of Thomas Jefferson’s “cardinal virtues.”
I buy fuel and ice at one of Wisdom’s two gas stations, and then, about ten miles out of town, I stop at a small national park. Several wooden teepee frames mark a place where about 800 people of the Nez Percé tribe camped along the North Fork of the Big Hole River in August 1877. Led by a chief named Looking Glass, these people had fled from Idaho to escape forced confinement on a reservation there, seeking refuge here in the Big Hole Basin. They didn’t want to fight with the men and women of Montana, and the men and women of Montana didn’t want to fight with them. But a U.S. Army battalion of about 160 men and one howitzer was on their track, and those men did want to fight. They didn’t want to negotiate, and they didn’t want to take prisoners. So on the morning of August 9, the Battle of the Big Hole began, and—when the last gun fired the following day—over 100 people were dead. Many were Nez Percé women and children. As I look across the battlefield today, I wonder if any of their blood flowed down the Big Hole into the Jefferson, the Missouri, and, ultimately, into the Mississippi near the place I would one day be born. On one hand, it’s a ridiculous notion. On the other, it’s a reminder of the way rivers connect us.
The Nez Percé survivors continued to migrate through Montana and north toward Canada. Army troops caught them near the Bear Paw Mountains, and it was there that a Cheyenne scout killed Looking Glass. Shortly after that, Joseph—a Nez Percé chief who had long hoped for peace—made his famous surrender speech:
I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, to see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
About twenty minutes after leaving the battleground, I’m in Idaho. A minute later, I’m back in Montana where I stop at the rest area at Lost Trail Powder Mountain and park next to a car with Missouri plates. A mom, a dad, three kids, and two dogs emerge like clowns from a Volkswagen at the Shriner’s Circus. The dad says hey to me, then tells the kids to worsh their hands when they’re done. One of the kids complains that the cooler dudn’t have any orange sodies left. I wonder if we are related.
The road north from Lost Trail cuts through the mountains, and—for the first time on this trip—I grip the steering wheel with enough pressure to make my knuckles turn white. I wasn’t always like this. Things like driving through the mountains or across long, high bridges weren’t always stressful. But sometime during my thirty years of mostly stress-free driving in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I forgot how to forget about being afraid.
I stop for my second lunch in the town of Hamilton, about two miles past the Skalkaho Highway. While trying to eat the most mountainous B.L.T. sandwich in the state of Montana, I look up the weather forecast on my phone. Clear skies with little wind. When Todd Tanner counseled me on fishing in Montana, he said, “One last bit of advice. Find a good weather app and put it on your phone, then pay attention to it. Temps are important, and precipitation, but the wind is the biggest thing. Before you spend time driving to your next destination, check and make sure it’s not going to blow and blow and blow.”
Todd’s advice was for Montana rivers in general, but for the Missouri River in particular. To see what was happening there, I check the forecast for Craig, Montana. Light wind for the rest of the day, and the same for tomorrow and the day after that. Indecision Tim—my alter ego who has peacefully slept somewhere in my mind for the past few days—wakes up now and points out that Craig is about a three-hour drive from Hamilton. Fully awake and eager to work his sorcery, Indecision Tim calls a fly shop in Craig and asks if the fishing will be good this evening. The woman’s answer is as positive as it is predictable. Indecision Tim tells her we’ll be there around five-thirty.
I drive through Lolo and then Missoula, where I briefly travel over and beside the Clark Fork River. Then I wind off and on along the Blackfoot River on Highway 200 until I take the exit for Wolf Creek. When I get to Craig, the first three buildings on the right side of the road are fly shops, and drift boats outnumber the cars and trucks in their parking lots by a ratio of three to one. I stop in the shop I’d called and tell the woman that I’m the guy who phoned from Hamilton, and I’m here to catch a trout.
She sets me up with some dry flies, emergers, and a nymph she recommends I fish as a dropper, just a few inches below the dry. She tells me to access the Missouri from Craig Frontage Road, which runs along the east side of the river for about five miles south of the bridge in town. The trout are everywhere, she says, so I can fish anywhere that looks good to me. I ask about a place to camp, and she directs me to a small campground in town, but warns that it can be a little rowdy at night. I tell her I have earplugs and bourbon.
I pull into a parking area about a mile and a half above the bridge. It’s a big area, but there’s only one other car, and the people in it aren’t fishing. The parking area is on a cliff that overlooks the river, with a small trail descending through the rocks and shrubs. I see two trout rising near the bottom of the path, and—with that—I decide this spot looks good to me.
About halfway down the trail, I remember that I forgot to worry about rattlesnakes. But the woman in the fly shop didn’t mention snakes, and the two trout are still rising close to the bank, about fifteen feet upstream from the place where the trail meets the river. So I forget about snakes again and focus on my breathing. And the trout. There’s vegetation in the water that looks like the moss I battled at the Big Hole. I pick up a strand when I get to the river, and—instead of the sticky glob that melded like mucus to my line—this is a leafy sort that shouldn’t cause much trouble.
The river here is about 400 feet across, and, although it appears to be deeper, it reminds me of one of my favorite stretches on the Escanaba River back in Michigan. Instinctively, I tie on a size 18 Robert’s Yellow Drake that works wonderfully there. Casting is different here, though. I must accommodate the rhythm of the trout’s rises, like always, but I also have to place my fly in one of the irregularly spaced openings between the drifting vegetation. My first cast lands on top of a floating weed and drifts right by the trout as it takes a real fly from a small patch of open water. My second cast does the same. I drive my third cast harder for more accuracy, and the little fly smacks onto the water’s surface in an opening between the weeds. The trout darts for the middle of the river, leaving a massive wake to reveal what might have been if I had made a better cast.
Another trout rises about twenty feet upstream, and then again a foot below that. The fish is cleaning all the flies from the gaps between the floating weeds. I pick a relatively large opening about halfway between the trout and me, cast my fly into it, and wait. After the fish takes two more flies, its next rise should be to mine, and it is. The fish reacts to the hook immediately, and quickly deploys every trick it’s learned to undo a predicament like this. The trout jumps twice, then pulls all the loose line through the rod’s guides, followed by another twenty or thirty feet off the reel. Next, it swims a large arc downstream and back toward me. I can’t keep tension on the fish with this much line in the water, and the trout sheds the hook and swims away.
I don’t see more rises in the weeds along the shore, but a pod of trout feed a little downstream from me, about thirty feet from the bank. I wade toward the trout, but just a few steps puts the river’s surface an inch below the top of my waders. I can’t get far enough from the cliff to make a decent backcast, and the trout are beyond the range of my roll cast, so I’m stuck casting downstream and over my left shoulder. My first few casts are short, so I move down and out on my tippy toes, hoping the river bottom will rise enough for me to make a comfortable cast. My foot bumps into a boulder about half the size of a sofa footstool, and I use it to rise a few more inches out of the water.
I target the closest fish, using a reach cast to place the fly several feet above the trout with enough slack to get a drag-free drift over its head. The cast looks good, but the trout doesn’t take the fly. I watch it eat two more real flies, and then I cast again. This time the trout makes a splashy rejection. Above the water, I now see a swarm of caddisflies I hadn’t seen before. The woman at the fly shop told me to use low-wing caddis flies instead of the more popular elk-hair style, and she sold me a few with CDC wings. But again, I instinctively reach for a pattern I’ve had great success with back in Michigan: the Henryville Special.
My first cast with the new fly is short, but my second is on the mark and the fish takes it. The trout bolts toward the middle of the river, and—to counter the counter maneuver I believe it has planned—I lift my rod high to get as much line out of the water as possible. As I expected, the fish loops back toward me, but this time my line stays tight. The rainbow leaps twice, swims straight for a drift boat about 50 feet downstream, then tires and follows my tugs toward shore. I land the fish in the weeds, roughly in the spot where I’d hooked the one earlier.
I lose two more fish and land one before an un-forecasted thunderstorm pushes me off the river. When I get back to the parking area, a guide who is drinking a beer and watching the storm light up the western sky asks me how I did. When I say I hooked five fish and landed two, he slings far more praise than my performance deserves. Behind him—sitting on his truck’s tailgate—I see the source of his exuberance: four empty bottles in a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
The storm arrives in full force just as I get back to camp. I wait out the heavy stuff in the truck, then, after the rain ends, I sit at the picnic table, eat a sandwich and drink a beer. I leave the liftgate on my SUV raised to provide some light, and when I go back to get another beer from my cooler, I see that hundreds—more likely thousands—of caddisflies have infiltrated the place I plan to sleep. When I finally lie down to sleep, I put two lanterns by my feet to lure the flies away from my face. Then I let the earplugs and bourbon do their work.
The next morning I hook and land a large rainbow trout. I don’t know it then, but I’ll only land one trout larger than this during my entire trip. I release the fish, sit on the bank, and watch the twenty-two-inch trout glide into the darkest part of the river. This is my fifth day in Montana, and I feel a rhythm building inside me. I haven’t “kicked the river’s ass” like the guys at the campground said they had last night, but the river hasn’t kicked mine either. When I find contentment, I usually gain perspective; and when I gain perspective, I usually find contentment. Like the chicken and the egg, I don’t know which comes first. I’m just happy when one of them does.
Later in the day, an afternoon thunderstorm—another missed by the forecast—rolls through and leaves gale-force winds in its wake. Winds that blow so hard in the evening that my line extends at a perfect ninety-degree angle any time I hold my rod above my head. Twice I bury my fly into the back of my shirt while trying to cast, but luckily the hook never finds flesh. Somehow I fool one fish on the Henryville Special, but that one breaks off immediately after I set the hook. Perspective and contentment fight off a slight tinge of disappointment.
When I fish the following morning, two large trout break off the last of my size 18 Robert’s Yellow Drakes. “Such a hard problem to have,” Roxanne says later when I tell her about it. The local fly shop stocks neither this fly nor the Henryville Special. They stock flies that work, but—more important for them—they stock flies that sell. I believe that presentation, size, silhouette, and color—often, but not always, in that order—are the keys for a dry-fly fisherman. But when fly anglers fish a river as much as they do the Missouri here, it helps if your fly looks like one that the trout often catch, but unlike one that often catches the trout. Perhaps that explains why over two evenings and two mornings—in between battles with un-forecasted winds—I hooked twelve fish and landed five with those foreign flies.
I didn’t know what to expect from the Missouri River, but I let it show me, and I’m glad that I did. Einstein taught us that time and space are interchangeable, and fifty years ago is just two-thousand river miles away from where I stand. And it’s there, somewhere after this river joins the Mississippi, that a small boy sits on the bank and drinks an orange soda while his mom tells him about catfish big enough to eat him. He knows more about death than a boy his age should, and he worries that you can’t be uneaten by a catfish. But he’s a fisherman, and he wants to catch a fish in this river. He doesn’t know it, but one day he’ll venture upstream and catch some nice ones.