My brother-in-law, Edward, was on the phone Sunday taking a break from Super Bowl action and the entertaining ads – thank heaven for them.
Earlier in the week, in an email, he inquired whether I knew of any fishing lodges in Montana. He was following up for a friend who wanted to surprise her husband and figured I’d have a suggestion. Over the years, either visiting my daughter Diana when she lived in Bozeman or with Carol’s friends in Billings, I got to fish a number of streams in the state.
Fly-fishing in Montana is special just about everywhere you go. There’s rarely pressure on the streams, even one as popular as the Madison. And, when you do encounter other fishermen, or fisherwomen [and there are more of them out West], it’s usually a 15-minute exchange that can range from what the fish are going for, to where they are from, and how did they get to this part of the country? People are not in a rush, and quite honestly, just not anxious about catching fish.
The only suggestion I had was to Google Ennis, Montana, a small town that I remember as being all about fishing. Carol and I stopped there many years ago on our way to visit our daughter.
I had heard so much about the Madison that the river had earned near mythical status. Its cool, clear water flowing out of Yellowstone Park cuts through ravines and then dances over rocky beds and on through valleys with sweeping russet fields dotted with shimmering aspen and stately cottonwoods. I could imagine the rush of water against my legs, my feet chilled in the waders and slipping against the smooth stones for a hold. I could see the sun bouncing off the rippling river and the near imperceptible blemish of the surface caused by a rising cutthroat trout. This was all in my mind before even arriving in Ennis.
Our first stop was a diner.
Carol tolerates my love for fishing, but we we’re not going to miss breakfast. It was a stop worth every moment of fried eggs, toast and coffee. Everybody in the place was talking fishing and they were especially willing to share their knowledge, as well as to point out not to miss the pair of bald eagles if I planned to fish a certain stretch.
So, with that in mind, Ennis seemed like the logical place to recommend. Edward’s search was fruitful. He said he had learned of at least several places.
Talk of fishing brought to mind the spring day I spent with Edward on the Deerfield River about 20 miles from their home in Shelburne, Mass.
It was a weekday and the stretch of river we fished was “catch and release.” We arrived early and, for a while, it looked like we would have the place to ourselves. The sky was bright, although the sun had not yet sent shafts between hemlock and hardwoods to find the river and pushed aside its veil of mist. Then a van arrived with a guide’s boat in tow. The guide was knowledgeable and quickly launched the craft. Soon thereafter, a pair of fishermen arrived. They were well equipped. They oozed money. Their vests were festooned with flies. They each carried a couple of rods and they had a cooler, which, we later learned, was filled with sandwiches and beer. They cast off and immediately headed for the fast water on the opposite bank, where the guide lowered an anchor and held the boat parallel to the rush of water. The fisherman at either end began casting. It wasn’t long before one of them had a fish that he played to the edge of the boat, where the guide deftly reached down and released it. The fish never left the water.
Edward and I took this as a good omen. The guide pulled up anchor and the boat continued downstream. We waded out as best we could and cast in the direction of where the fish was caught. We worked our way downstream and finally, after an hour of not so much as a bump, we headed back to the car and for another spot along the Deerfield.
We were barely 10 minutes into the water when along came the boat and its paying customers. Again, we watched as the guide released their catch and they resumed their casting, like some mechanical machine.
Again, we felt that surge of optimism fishermen feel when others catch fish. Edward did catch a rainbow and it seemed our luck had changed, but it didn’t. By now it was afternoon and we drove to a railroad trestle. On the pebbly beach, beside a deep blue pool, was the boat. For once, they weren’t holding rods. They were sitting on boulders, munching sandwiches between sips of beer. They both looked like they had stepped out of an Orvis catalog.
I couldn’t restrain myself.
“How many have you caught?”
They looked in my direction.
“It’s been pretty good. Quite a few,” one of the men responded. I took this to mean a dozen, although there was no way of knowing.
“How about you?” he added.
Now I regretted asking the question to start with.
“Nothing like you,” I answered. He knew the real answer because he flashed a triumphant smile. Was this a contest?
There was yet another encounter toward the end of the day.
Again, the guide dutifully released the fish without lifting them from the water. I abandoned all etiquette and shouted above the rush of the water.
“What are you using?”
I got a cold stare. Then, I guess they figured it was the end of the day and what harm would there be.
“Just a wooly bugger,” with yet another knowing grin.
Edward and I reeled in for a rapid change in flies. It made no difference.
As it turns out, our lack of a catch isn’t what made the day memorable. It was walking the river together; those moments spent discussing what fly to use; telling stories; soaking in the smells, sounds and colors of clear waters; walking through the woods to reach the river; watching Monarch butterflies cluster around a roadside puddle and not knowing we were having a better time than those guys in a boat that didn’t even get their fingers wet.
Edward’s call brought it all back.
It’s just what was needed when spring seems to be getting further and further away.