Castwork: Tim Mosolf
Beaverhead River—Dillon, Montana
“Hey, where did Tim go?” Liz asks. Our guide is missing. He was just standing here 10 minutes ago.
We met Tim Mosolf early in the morning at Frontier Anglers in Dillon, right on schedule. We exchanged pleasantries, shot the bull a bit, and made plans for a day of fishing on the Beaverhead River. Then we poked our noses in the fly bin for a last minute re-supply, and when we turned back around, he was gone.
Now, admittedly, once you meet Tim, you know recognizing him will not be a problem ever again. Somewhere beyond tall, tan, and scraggly, Tim has a look even Hollywood cannot recreate. He is near Kodiak on the outside but, we soon would learn, surprisingly soft mannered at the core. To call this man laid-back is tantamount to calling the ocean wet.
“Don’t worry guys, Tim’s going to Buffalo Bridge I think,” says the college kid behind the counter. “All you need to do is get on Highway 15 and head south.”
“Where should we exit and park?”
“Just start driving.”
We dash out the door, toss our gear in the trunk, and start buzzing down Highway 15 at 80 miles per hour. Several minutes later, squinting into the sunlight, we make out something strange ahead of us: a Volkswagen Jetta pulling a raft on a trailer. It is rolling along in the right hand lane at about 45 miles an hour, strands of blond-gray hair flapping in the wind out the driver’s side window.
Evidently, we found our man.
On most summer mornings, the Buffalo Bridge put-in on the Beaverhead River is a busy place, at least for this sleepy corner of southwest Montana. Trucks rattle down a dirt trail to a tiny boat ramp where they unload anxious fishermen and drop curious rubber rafts at the riverbank. This is the staging place, where small talk abounds and a unique “morning fly-fishing” smell hangs in the air—a crude mix of coffee, bug spray, and sun block. You hear reels clicking, waders crinkling, fly lines slicing the air, and the grunts and air-puffs of guides filling up rafts. Eventually, one by one, the members of this rag-tag armada shove off and begin the downstream chase for some of the biggest trout in North America.
Such is the scene when we arrive our first day on the Beaverhead. Tim gently secures his raft to the bridge, then drives his old car and trailer back up the road to the makeshift parking lot. He does so with the nonchalance of a man riding a mower, nodding and waving at neighbors as they pass. He isn’t in any hurry.
A few minutes later, three young men preparing a raft next to ours ask where we are from.
“Same here. Hey, are you going out with Griz today? What’s his name anyway?” They motion up the trail. Our guide reappears, strolling down the rocks in flip-flops and flowered shorts. His long hair and full beard, which we guess earned him the “Griz” moniker, are still blowing in the morning breeze.
“Yeah, we are. His name is Tim Mosolf. What do you know about him?”
“We fish here all the time, and he’s out here every day. I swear the people he has with him always, I mean always, have fish on, every time we go by. If you don’t mind, we’re going to shove off and keep ahead of you guys.”
The Beaverhead has a flavor all its own compared to other Montana rivers. Narrow and deep, with willow-choked banks, tight turns, and a racehorse flow, the Beaverhead has a character more akin to Midwestern trout waters than to the wide, exposed currents of the Madison or Yellowstone. Like the Midwest, when you fish here, you aren’t so wrapped up in tossing long lines or busting through an open headwind as you are with making short, clean drifts through well-defined runs.
All the similarities stop, however, when you start comparing fish. Two seconds after you get your initial tug on the Beaverhead, you will know you are not in the Midwest anymore.
We hook our first trout with Tim about 45 seconds into the day. The raft barely clears the concrete pilings of the highway overpass when a generous brown trout inhales a lime green midge and, sensing the hook, begins a ballistic charge downstream. Atypical for many browns, this one goes airborne, instantly somersaults, then crashes back into the water with a prodigious flush, sounding just like he has done a can-opener off a diving board.
Tim stares ahead stoically as the battle rages on. Just business as usual. Two-footers, it seems, are not all that unusual for the Beaverhead. He slips the boat out of the main current, ties off on the bank, grabs his rubber-mesh net, and positions beneath the flapping brown. Several seconds later, he scoops the big trout like he was shoveling a chunk of snow.
We are awestruck. The brown trout is so big he has a face. Finning in the net and looking up at Tim, the trout is walleyed and angry, glaring like the neighborhood tough who’s come to collect a bet.
“Mondo fish,” says Tim. “We get real used to them here, but I can tell people don’t catch fish like this all the time just by watching their faces. These guys are pretty cool.”
It is fitting that an even-keeled person like Tim should work the Beaverhead. On this river, everybody has to deal with each other all the time, like it or not. Lots of oarsmen work in close quarters, and on busy days, the river takes on the look of an amusement park ride. Out-of-the-area, day-tripping guides and inexperienced recreationists always make rowing mishaps, crossed lines, and old-school confrontations a distinct possibility.
Tim rarely has a problem with anyone. In fact, he cannot remember the last time he even raised his voice at another guide or angler. He suggests stalling the raft in an eddy and letting anyone with “river rage” blow right on by.
“They all have the right to kill themselves on the river, just try to stay out of the way.”
Despite the annual carnival that descends on the river during June, July, and August, the Beaverhead remains quite manageable to fish and navigate for the remainder of the year. Tim tells us that for the core group of fly-fishing guides who hang around season to season, there is a unique family atmosphere, forged (we surmise) from proximity and an undying respect for the river and its astonishing fish. Tim Mosolf is the quiet patriarch of this trout-obsessed fraternity who leads, not through words, but by time spent on the water. All told, he spends 300 days a year on the Beaverhead, working as a guide (150 days) and shocking and studying the river (150 days) with the Montana Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The town of Dillon is much like the Beaverhead, an odd contradiction of things traditional and new. Fly shops, fine restaurants, casinos and bars line one side of the main street. A railroad depot and grain silos take up the other. At night, the sounds of the Union Pacific trains often wake you from sleep. Dillon also is a small college town (Western Montana College), where intellectual thought and ranching culture meld together peaceably. In summer months, a current of tourists, mostly fishermen, pour through at a respectable clip. Still, Dillon’s authenticity is obvious. Long-time Montanans with whom we have spoken, people from Bozeman, Helena, and Missoula, consider Dillon to be one of the last good places, one of the few towns that looks and feels the way their cities did 20 or 30 years ago.
Tim found Dillon and the Beaverhead when he was a kid. He grew up in Carmel, California, where his father was a schoolteacher and a coach. The family visited the region on a camping trip. Tim and his brother caught some fine fish, and they immediately grew attached to this dry, wild corner of Montana.
Years later, after a stint in the Air Force, Tim loaded everything he owned into a Land Rover and moved to Dillon. He soon met a young lady at a friend’s barbeque.
“And the next thing I knew, I was buying a washing machine,” he says. Tim and his wife now have two children, a son in college, and a daughter in high school.
The water is unusually low when we fish the Beaverhead in August. Lots of “skinny water” and shallow, exposed gravel bars. We realize why we are in a raft—a standard drift boat would not cut it here. Tim says that even in normal situations, when the water is higher, drift boats do not work that well—too many tight squeezes, too much banging around, too much “burned up” water; you need to be able to “bounce.”
Tim’s raft is light and maneuverable, at least on most days it is. On the days we fish with him, it is a clumsy duck, loaded down with extra gear bags, photo equipment, and a third passenger. We would look like a life raft if not for Tim gently rowing, and two fishermen bobbing up and down on the elastic bottom.
Another riverman ribs Tim from the bank. “Are you full enough?” he asks. “I didn’t know they let hippies guide the Beaverhead.”
“That’s my brother,” Tim admits.
His brother is an outfitter. Tim once was in business for himself, but says he grew tired of midnight phone calls, sick guides, canceled trips, and the sound of people complaining about one thing or another. He needed more flexibility and peace.
“Anytime that phone rings at midnight, you can bet it’s not good news.”
The arid hills and benches of the Ruby and Pioneer ranges are thick with rattlesnakes. Not surprisingly, most of the Dillon area guides we know cannot stand the scaly creatures. It is a dislike forged from the snake’s wicked bite, which is obvious, but also for their reclusive, sudden jack-in-the-box appearances. During the summer, snakes make their way down to the Beaverhead to hunt for birds and mice, and in the process, soak their rattles in water, so they do not give the rivermen a proper heads-up, even though they try.
Tim Mosolf does not pay rattlesnakes any mind. Like most things, they don’t bother him because, he says, “I learned how not to step on them.” And besides, he adds, snakes are near the bottom of the Beaverhead food chain.
He tells us how one afternoon, several summers ago, he had two anglers positioned downstream from a giant fish holding in the tailout of a run. The trio had tried every fly they owned—hoppers, streamers, and an assortment of large and small nymphs. Nothing. Tim was searching through his flybox for yet another pattern when a small snake slithered from the bank and began to cross the river. The fish, an enormous and slightly-crazed brown of at least 8 pounds, blitzed the small rattler with everything it had and retreated back to its foxhole. It was over in three seconds.
“Big ol’ brown trout came up and ate him whole,” describes Tim. “I could see the giant black spots on the fish’s back when he came up and hit the snake. There wasn’t much left but a bunch of bubbles. Some of these fish are pretty scary.”
Before we got on a plane to visit Tim, we spoke with him on the phone. First, we convinced him to be in this book, which neither bothered nor excited him greatly. Then we started asking about fishing the Beaverhead.
“How’s the dry fly-fishing?”
“And, um, what kind of dry flies should we bring?”
“Ausable Wulffs work fine.”
Weeks later, as we organized gear on the night before our trip, we each found ourselves clinging reluctantly to handfuls of big white-winged Ausable Wulffs. Common sense and experience told us to reserve these flies for streams with more pocket water, or for water with smaller fish—fish too young and green to turn down a 35-year-old, eastern fly pattern. Realizing the abundance of bugs, fishermen, and big, smart fish on the Beaverhead, we were sure the strategy was doomed.
After lunch on our second day, Tim sees some trout rising to small yellow stoneflies and ties on one of those Ausable Wulffs. When we are ready to cast, he gives us some last minute instruction—short, but profound—a road map even a small child could follow. Tim tells us to slow the approach, time the fish, and cast in rhythm of their rise forms. If the timing is right, the fish will eat almost anything.
A large, female brown eats the Wulff, churns into heavy water, then rips off.
“Man, she busted that tippet like a cobweb,” Tim says, with a rare “told-you-so” gleam in his eye.
Really big fish like to eat at night, especially brown trout. After dark, and after most anglers have hauled out and cozied up to the bars in Dillon, is one of the times Tim truly enjoys fishing and floating the Beaverhead.
Sometimes, he will plan a “reverse schedule” on the river. He launches his raft just as the sun starts to dip beneath the Pioneers. He floats by moonlight and the giant field of Montana stars, and fishes by sound and acute memory. The fish he catches would surprise, even shock you.
He uses heavy fly rods and at least 15-pound monofilament to give his clients a fighting chance against the bushes and the trout. He ties on flies most anglers would never think of using, and flies most trout would never think of eating, at least not during the day. Deer hair originals meant to imitate mice and baby muskrats, giant, fuzzy streamers and surface riders meant to attract, even infuriate the prowling, carnivorous browns. And he usually loses more fish than he lands, but notes some aren’t meant to be caught anyhow.
“When the sun goes down, this river changes,” Tim explains. “I see different animals. I hear different sounds. And we catch different fish, the big ones.”
We notice Tim enjoys a cold can of beer or two, maybe three, in the afternoon. We bring him a gift 12-pack of what he normally keeps in his cooler, Busch in cans. Only we screw up and get Busch Light. No problem. Tim says as long as it says beer on the outside and has bubbles on the inside, he won’t complain.
We float a few miles downriver, stopping and fishing along the way. Before taking a break for lunch, something interesting happens. Tim paddles to a run he says has fished well in recent weeks. It is a tricky spot to cast, with tall bunches of wildflowers and willows set into a steeply sloping bank. Tim announces that he is sure we can handle the situation with a short roll cast, then cracks open a Busch from the cooler. We can see the fish only a few yards away.
We hang flies in the bushes. Tim has a sip and asks how bad it is. When we say it’s no big deal, he has another sip and starts spotting fish again. Finally, one of us makes a crisp cast, snapping two flies on the surface, several feet above a drop-off and the feeding fish. The weight drops the flies into the strike zone, where they come to an abrupt stop. The hook is set against heavy resistance. Within seconds, all parties believe it is the biggest trout of the day.
The warped rod is leaned into the bank, but quickly displays an absence of life. Tim tilts his beer and chuckles.
“You hooked Montana,” he says calmly. “Cheap thrills.”
Arriving in a comfort zone, sometime during the third morning, we ask Tim about his long beard and hair. He explains that, after a few years of sporting a buzz-cut for the United States Air Force, he decided not to play that game anymore. He has not shaved since. Admitting that the look is a head turner on most rivers, he tells us his favorite story.
Tim was fishing the Smith River during a fall steelhead run many years ago. A father and son were walking up the riverside, just as Tim had hooked into a large buck.
“The little kid couldn’t have been much more than seven,” Tim recalls. “He points at me with this fish banging on the rod, and shouts, ‘Look Dad, a hippie’s got a steelhead!’”
Tim, in fact, did play a part in the Northern California hippie scene. He is a music aficionado. When he lived in Carmel, he drove to San Francisco to see many epic Fillmore West shows. He maintained a string of going to the legendary Grateful Dead New Years eve concerts, and points out that he saw the mid-seventies appearances, when the Dead were running on all cylinders.
These days, Tim still enjoys music, but rather than sold out-stadium shows, he simply prefers playing his banjo on the front porch.
The state of Montana issues guiding licenses in the order they are requested and requires guides to display them on their boats prominently. A guide gets assigned a distinct number and keeps it in perpetuity. It is not exactly advertised, but the visiting angler can read between the lines and see how long a given oarsman has been around simply by reading the boat number. There have been thousands of licenses issued over the years. Tim Mosolf is a triple-digit guide. You do not see many.
Tim does not guide much on other rivers, though he does spend some time on Poindexter Slough, Dillon’s own spring creek, as well as the Big Hole and the Ruby. He is intrigued a bit by saltwater, still enjoys steelhead, but beyond that, he’s not breaking his back to find new adventures or water. He doesn’t have to. The fact of the matter is, if you can bring enough fishing moxie to the Beaverhead (along with a handful of decent flies), you can catch postcard fish most days, all day long.
We catch another “mondo” brown on our third afternoon. Tim gently lifts him from the net and toward the camera. The fish’s back is dark green, almost black, and tipped with a blood-red adipose fin. His rusty-yellow sides are covered with black-haloed spots.
After all our travels, we realize that this is one of the few places you can catch fish that look like ones in brochures from exotic, far-away places, without having to spend a few grand and two days on an airplane.
“Who needs New Zealand?” Tim asks.
Of course, that is not the case for every motivated angler on earth. Japanese fly-fishermen know where to find good trout fishing. Many of them have visited the Beaverhead. Several years ago, two learned a lesson many locals already know: never underestimate Tim Mosolf.
About three hours into their guide trip with Tim, two Japanese anglers decided to ditch English and speak openly in their native language. They cracked a few jokes about Tim’s hair, but complimented him on his rowing and fishing skills. They talked about the Beaverhead’s amazing fish, the mountains, Dillon, and how much they were enjoying southwest Montana.
Tim sat in the middle of the boat, scrambling through his fly box for a new pattern as the conversation whizzed back and forth over his head. When he found the right bug and tied it to the line, he handed the rod back to one of the anglers, and said, in Japanese, that he thought they should try fishing the right-hand bank for a few minutes, and then they would stop for lunch.
“I was stationed in Japan when I was in the Air Force,” Tim laughs. “You should have seen those guys’ faces go pale and their mouths hang open when they heard me. It was like they had seen a ghost. But it was fine. They actually were pretty good fishermen.”
The Beaverhead is no secret. In recent years, it has drawn its share of luminaries from the fly-fishing world. Tim has guided past presidents, business moguls, and some familiar Hollywood faces. One of his favorite trips was with Jack Handey, who was not only a fairly gifted angler, Tim says, but also incredibly funny in “real life.”
It is not easy to get Tim to show much emotion. He never gets angry, never gets excited, but he laughs fairly often. Handey had him bent over catching his breath and wiping his eyes for most of the day, he says.
Although Tim has had his brushes with fame, his life is simple and relatively anonymous. We ask him how often he has been fishing on his own this summer.
“Once or twice, I think,” he answers. “But my son took my fly rod to school with him, so I don’t go anymore.”
Approaching the haul-out on our final afternoon with Tim, we float through a calm stretch of river and come upon a moose feeding near the bank. The moose lifts his head and water cascades off the paddles of his antlers. He stares at us, lazily chomping a mouthful of weeds as we stare back. Two minutes later, everyone gets back to business.
Tim pulls onto a gravel bar and we hop out and start fishing the main channel of the river. Two excited fishermen on the warpath usually move faster than they should. Without realizing it, we walk straight out to the edge of the shelf and are perplexed when our casts do not yield fish.
“You might want to turn around,” Tim suggests, sensing our frustration. We look down into the current between us and the bank to find several large trout holding in the shallows. They had been there all along. Tim knew it. He wanted us to burn some energy before making presentations to these shallow-water fish.
Within a few minutes, we are both hooked up. With our backs to the main current, another raft careens into view. It is the boys from Denver. We both look over our shoulders and smile. They shake their heads. Tim pops open a fresh beer.
“I told you so,” one of them shouts as they pass by.
Tim just nods and smiles.
After a long day of driving south on Interstate 15 through the dry wheat fields of Helena and mines of Butte, we make Dillon late in the afternoon. Just in time to hit The Lion’s Den for a well-done steak, a large salad for Liz, and a round of beer. Liz heads back to her room early to clean cameras, make some calls, and to avoid another long night of inappropriate jokes, Bloody Mary’s, and Montana Poker machines. In the morning, we catch up with Tim on the Interstate near Barretts Diversion, follow him a few miles down a dirt road, and finally introduce ourselves at the Buffalo put-in. Everyone is excited to float with and photograph guiding legend Tim Mosolf and to get in the fly-fishing trenches on the Beaverhead River. The word in the parking lot is that the Beaverhead’s flow has dropped dramatically in the last two days and that the river may not fish well. When we voice our concerns to Tim, he is not worried. Just get rigged up and we’ll see what happens, he says.
And what happens on our first day on the Beaverhead is what usually happens in Tim’s boat: a lot of meticulous casting and line mending in incredibly tight quarters, tons of lost flies and broken leaders, and battles with trout that keep our shoulders sore for a week. We all agree that we have not experienced anything quite like the Beaverhead River, with its fast-paced current (about 5 miles an hour) through a constant maze of willows, its aggressive demands on our lead-casting and fish-fighting skills, and its trout, both rainbows and browns, with a legitimate whip-your-ass mentality. In three days with Tim, we spend every hour on the upper river between Clark Canyon Dam and Barretts with the crowds and larger fish, and no one complains. We mostly wade fish and dead-drift nymphs down narrow chutes and drop-offs with small Hare’s Ears, lime-green Palomino Midges, and tan Serendipities. We are lucky to take a few female browns on large Ausable Wulffs one afternoon, but the dry fly-fishing is sporadic at best.
What the Beaverhead demands from the angler is absolute concentration all day long. You stand in some of the fishiest runs in Montana and make 25, sometimes 50, perfect casts in a row with nothing to show for it. But on that 51st cast, just about the time you completely have given up hope and start to question your skills, a two-foot trout inhales your fly with gusto, tailwalks across the river, then weaves your fly line and leader through a bank side thicket. Add dense underwater vegetation for the fish to bury their heads in, an incredibly complex menu of insects, and the fact that most spots have no place at all to land a fish, and you start to get a picture of why the Beaverhead is so cursed yet revered. When Liz lands a beautiful 19-inch brown tight to the bank on our final afternoon, Tim remarks, that every fish on the Beaverhead is earned. And he means it.
Tip: The size and power of the Beaverhead’s trout, in addition to the endless array of in-stream obstructions, make using standard tippet material an impossibility. Tim tries to tip the fish-fighting balance towards the angler by rigging with 3x-fluorocarbon tippet material (for added strength) and securing the flies with Duncan Loops (for added movement). The low-visibility fluorocarbon allows the angler to hook as many, if not more, trout and land these fish more aggressively. Your job, Tim says, is to get ’em in and get ’em back.
Excerpted from Castwork: Reflections of Fly Fishing Guides and the American West. Willow Creek Press, May 2002, 208 pages.