Book Excerpt: A Cast Away in Montana

June 10, 2024 By: Tim Shulz


Late one summer night in Michigan—immediately after I let Sunny out for his evening constitutional—the hypersensitive olfactory nerves in his snout sent an urgent signal to the olfactory bulb in his brain, and that triggered his legs to propel his body on a beeline toward a small stand of birch trees in our yard. The siren that drew him wasn’t a tree; instead, it was a small, stocky animal with black fur banded by two ivory stripes. My warning was as useless as a tungsten bead on a dry fly, and in the time it takes a sailfish to go from zero to sixty, Sunny was the target of a chemical-warfare attack.

The consequences of losing this battle were immediate and severe. We removed our vehicles from the garage so the yellow dog doused in yellow oil could “shelter in place” for the night. In the morning, Roxanne mixed up a concoction of baking soda, dishwashing detergent, hydrogen peroxide, tomato juice, newt eyes, frog toes, bat wool, and lizard legs. A few rounds of wash-rinse-repeat and Sunny’s stench faded from an awful amalgamation of rotten eggs, cabbage, garlic, reefer, and burning rubber into a milder mix of bat wool and tomato juice. But after that, every drop of water that touched Sunny’s coat for the next three months awoke the foul-smelling hellhounds squatting in his downy fur.

The word skunk originated in the early 1600s as an Algonquian term that loosely translates to the fox who squirts urine. Eventually, the Algonquian’s skunk evolved and branched into the denominal skunked. Since then, politicians, athletes, cribbage players, college students, curious dogs, and anglers have come to know the word more intimately as a verb than a noun. For my first two weeks in Montana, I’ve been most worried about encountering a grizzly bear, rattlesnake, or mountain lion. But on my fourth day in Melrose, I’m chiefly concerned about the proverbial verbal skunk chronicling my days on the water.

Regarding being skunked, I once wrote,

There was a time when I believed I could solve the mysteries of trout in particular and of life in general. But now I think we sometimes need to get skunked. We need to break our line on a good fish every now and again, and sometimes we need to cast all day without a take. We need to be grounded by the humility of failure so we can be lifted by the hope of success.

Like sex in the kitchen, vegetable smoothies, New Year’s resolutions, New Coke, stainless steel cars, and balloon loans, some things make perfect sense the first time you hear about them. But in practice, they leave you shouting, “Who in the hell is the marketing genius who came up with this idea?” Thoreau is famously misquoted as warning that many of us go fishing all our lives without knowing it’s not the fish we are after. This popular conjecture is more true than false, but you don’t find many anglers—including the enlightened ones—casting hookless flies. To paraphrase the old Harvard professor Theodore Levitt, you don’t buy a drill because you want a drill. You buy a drill because you want a hole.

I once dueled with the verbal skunk on a branch of the Otter River in Michigan, and it was a pissy one, to be sure. Every riffle and run I visited that day was as dead as a dodo, and my pursuit of water that shimmered with hope took me through a labyrinth of deadfalls, gullies, and crags. Pollen, sweat, and mosquitos competed for the prime positions on every square inch of my skin that was not covered by GoreTex, cotton, or waxed canvas, and my fly rod’s line shook hands with every thorn, sprig, and bramble in the woods. The fly rod was my favorite—an eight-foot, six-weight bamboo Winston I’d bought from Jerry Kustich when he downsized for his move to Mexico. It was a marvel that the rod and I made it back to my truck unharmed, so, pressing my luck, and with about a half hour of light remaining, I walked a short trail to the most accessible stretch of the river for a few more casts.

The surface dimpled with the hope I sought, and on my fly’s second drift, a sixteen-inch rainbow quashed my skunk. “It was all worth it!” I shouted on the trout’s first jump from its world into mine. But when the fish breathed my air for the second time, I heard a loud pop and sensed something horrible had happened. While my right hand held four feet of bamboo, an equal length zip-lined over the river and toward the trout. As miracles go, this one was minor, but I landed the fish and reclaimed both ends of my broken rod.

I shipped the rod to Jerry and waited for the surgeon to bring my friend back to life. He returned the mended rod in April 2018, and now, in August 2019, I’m thigh-deep in the Big Hole River, hoping this magic wand will help me evade the skunk that’s followed me for a day and a half.

* * * *

I’ve been here at the Big Hole River for about an hour this morning, slipping and sliding on rocks near the mouth of Fishtrap Creek. I pick a flat boulder, sit, and worry that I’ve become obsessed with the score. But then it happens. First, a nose pokes above the surface, then a dorsal fin surrounded by the vermiculate patterns Cormac McCarthy described as “maps of the world in its becoming.” I’ve written twice about catching the biggest brook trout of my life, and if all goes well, this will be the third. Fate has thrown me a hittable pitch, and I will not strike out with the bat on my shoulder. I wade effortlessly into position, draw some fly line from the reel, measure the distance with two false casts behind the fish, then hear the sickening sound of a snap.

Orthopedic surgeons call this a nonunion—a fracture that doesn’t heal and mend properly. Jerry Kustich warned this might happen when he repaired the rod, and now, with the figurative sound of thunder echoing in my ears and half of my favorite bamboo rod floating on the river, I accept the anguish of arriving at rock bottom. Unmoved by my predicament, the trout continues to feed. I return to my seat to watch this fish devour the unsuspecting flies. Somehow, I find peace, knowing I have no means—and no desire—to fool this trout and haul it to my side. Maybe it’s not the fish I’m after, after all.