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“Shooting from the Hip”

by Ryan Fries
photos by Ryan Fries

stage_640Not all hitchhiking signs are created alike and mine looked like redneck graffiti.

Finding a piece of cardboard lying around the house big enough to write the word “MISSOULA” so passing motorists can read it is no easy task. Neither is choosing whether to, a: Drop your last twenty bucks on a ticket to see a band, or b: Fill up on gas, hope you get in for free and somehow coast back to Spokane on fumes.

For a college student, shooting from the hip and chasing Westslope cutthroat around Northern Idaho will cause you to form dysfunctional relationships with gas stations and Wendy’s dollar menu. But surrendering to the mind-numbing alternative of term papers and melancholy on weekends was never an option.

So, with raised thumb and backpack in tow, I hit the interstate, jumped in an Idaho freeman’s pickup and strolled into University Theater three hours later with a couple Missoulians I knew to find Built to Spill pre-tuning on stage. In vintage form, BTS played an encore setlist. The majority of which, I’d committed to memory on long trout bum trips over the years. Caught in a two-hour moment of Martsch and company’s mathematical chord shifts and spatial musings, the thought of having to write “SPOKANE” on the flipside of my cardboard for a ride back home never even crossed my mind.

takeout_400Fast forward ten years and back in Michigan, life is a comparable cake walk, where domestic routine tramples daily over yesteryear’s highlight reel. Where more cushy choices like which drift boat to buy, Red Lobster or Olive Garden and box seats at the Tigers’ game are the new norm. Scanning your wife’s grocery text while your 5 year-old grabs everything at eye level in the store can pimp slap your inner Kerouac around pretty hard!

But fly fisherman are quintessential optimists. If there’s a river with big hungry fish nearby and enough time to cast the day away we’re pretty damn content.

So with the chance to see Built to Spill again at St. Andrew’s in Detroit and fall steelhead running full force on the West Side, I knew things were looking up.

The plan was to hit the show and head west for chrome on the weekend. BTS never disappoints. St. Andrew’s was packed and they played an encore cover of “Don’t Fear” – all cowbell. Another epic show, then it was off to the left coast…

We knew the rivers were loaded with chrome but the weather forecast wasn’t nice. Monsoon rains and tornado warnings. It was Mother Nature’s way of saying you might want to take a pass on this one. Tornados, a little precip ha! We hit it anyway, floating through gale force winds, walls of water and the kind of lightning that doesn’t really care about your personal space.

It was bad. Seven hours on the water. Downtrodden and dejected, we hit the takeout soaked with no steel and only two browns to show for it. The river had turned to Nesquik. Those fish were on our flies like bats with blindfolds – no love.

steelheadBrush it off. I’ve always preferred nasty weather in November anyway, because it usually keeps the fair-weather crowds at bay and I knew that all the rain would just usher in more fish. So when the flows dropped it was time for our luck to pony up. Plan B had river veteran Larry and I back at on the water a few days later. This time it was good – almost too good.

You know it’s good when you just stop taking pictures. You know it’s good when your net, rods, tippet, flies and just about everything else you’ve touched smells like steelhead.

Between the two of us we had a field day and the water all to ourselves. A lot of fish made it to hand and the hot ones flat-out burned us up. On the swing or the drift, they attacked – annihilating our flies. If I didn’t have one on Larry did, or we both did running up and downstream with rods bent to the cork. A few hours later, we took off the chrome capes and headed back to the truck. Caught in the moment, we laughed about the absurdity of our luck with karma’s limelight and a fading daylight on the horizon.

Apathy has a way of creeping up on people who don’t understand carpe diem. Every time we double down and take risks life’s payback is that much sweeter. There’s an adrenaline rush to rolling the dice on the unknown that transforms Earth’s ho hum planetarium show into a no-holds-barred game of infrared paintball. Life isn’t meant to be a spectator’s sport. Risk is like oxygen, so breathe it in. It’s the catalyst to truly living.

monsoon2_640That’s why we sit for hours at the vice conjuring up new fly patterns, experimenting with colors, mixing and matching our ideas and concepts. That’s why we mend methodically and incessantly for that perfect drift through the soft water. That’s why we clean icebergs out of our guides every 5 minutes. We fly fish because we want the challenge. In fact, it’s the challenge itself  that drives us to re-up our game each time we hit the water. It’s the no guts/all glory program and it’s not for everyone.

However, if you push the envelope and hold your ground, the fish will reward you. And in the end, theirs is the only opinion that matters.

They say BC is a chrome junkie’s Promised Land. S-K-E-E-N-A. Hmm…now where’s that cardboard?

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
A University of Montana graduate, Ryan Fries's geology work there was integral to the Milltown Dam Removal Project on the Clark Fork River. He now lives in Farmington, Michigan where he teaches English, guides for steelhead and trout, and frequently harasses the staff at Schultz Outfitters.
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  • Cee Blue

    — : well done – a bit pretentious and littered with colloquialisms – but there is no denying this young man’s enthusiasm.