The hypnotic allure of the Beaverhead was mystically enticing that evening. Mosquitoes buzzing, caddis hopping, and the sun’s descent beyond distant hills cast long shadows on the yellow tinted pastures of green that radiated fingers of stored coolness into what was left of the day’s warmth. The sweet scent of fresh alfalfa and the tea-like fragrance of the river’s clear flow offset the pungent odor of cattle effluent and other earthy aromas of a countryside waking up to early summer. The lighting. The smells. The memories. I have always loved to fish the evening hatch, and this was the kind of day I longed for in anticipation of another sublime experience that always seemed to be other world-like.
The Beaverhead River is a tailwater fishery as it flows from the Clark Canyon Reservoir located twenty miles south of Dillon. It rarely expands wider than sixty feet. For the first ten miles below the dam the Beav, as it is known locally, is possibly one of the best fisheries for big trout in the country. Although heavily fished, there are still many opportunities to avoid other anglers in an effort to find a memorable trout. As the river winds northward it takes on a more freestone appearance, and the fishing remains very good until it flows past Dillon. Once entering the sprawling Beaverhead valley, the river flows through wide-open grazing land while snaking its way beyond Twin Bridges to merge with the Big Hole forming the Jefferson River. For the most part, along this entire section the shoreline has been defoliated, and the cattle trodden banks have become so eroded as to cause massive siltation all the way to the Jeff. Although there are pockets of good fishing along the way, they are scattered throughout the forty-mile stretch—and that night I was about to fish one of those pockets.
Gazing out upon the river, many layered flashbacks flickered like a 35mm rerun on the frontal lobe of my brain. It was late June 2012, and already had I determined that this would be my last full summer fishing Montana, at least from the standpoint of a full-time resident. Too much rough water had passed under the bridge the previous eight years. There are times when it is worth the effort to swim upstream, but sometimes riding the swift current of life’s tsunamis to wherever they might lead makes more sense. And I was riding that tidal wave. Saying goodbye while remembering the reasons I got here and, ultimately, the reasons that I am now leaving, flooded my senses in a muddle of recollections. But tonight was different. In a way it seemed I had just emerged from a time machine. It could have been the 60s or the 70s. Who knows? But at that point it just seemed I had stepped back in time.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose” were the Janis Joplin lyric’s blaring from my tape deck as I pulled into the campground in Targee National Forest on the Idaho side of Monida Pass on July 22, 1975. My Datsun pick-up and camper shell were loaded down with everything I owned, and as far as I was concerned, I had already lost everything worth losing. My seminary days were behind me and so were the years I tried to “find” myself in Salt Lake City. More importantly, the ugliness of the war era was but a distorted blur in the rearview of life. In desperation, I clung to the vague fragments of an American dream that for me somehow portrayed fishing as the answer to my version of the angst affecting much of my generation at that time. On the road, I never felt so free. But then, with no place to go, I never felt so scared. Later, after catching a few trout in the stream that flowed past my campsite, I never felt more convinced that I was on the right path.
The next day, while descending the north side of Monida Pass, Montana unfolded like a panoramic postcard. Stunningly awesome, the views dotted with old homesteads could have been from the late 1800s if not for a major highway paved through the middle of the landscape. If only by sheer inspiration, a book written by Joe Brooks was leading the way. I had purchased Trout Fishing from the Outdoor Life Book Club mail order house in 1973. Those days, there was not much information to be had about fly-fishing, or where to go. But this book dealt with the necessary basics from casting techniques to standard flies of the day. It even talked about all the trout and named many rivers in Montana where to find them. I was particularly impressed with the “Dolly Varden Trout” (now bull trout) on page 45, and to that degree the book was guiding me to northwestern Montana. Also, on one page was the unique grayling found in the headwaters of the Big Hole River. There were even pictures of trout caught in Argentina. At the time I did not realize the stature of Joe Brooks and the long-term impact he was to have on fly-fishing, all I knew was that I wanted to emulate his life. From the town of Dillon that early July afternoon I followed Highway 41 toward Twin Bridges, and, on the way, drove over the very bridge I was standing on that June evening of 2012. In the flickering flashback of that night, I saw myself drive by.
This section of the Beaverhead had been hiding in plain sight for over thirty years. Although I always had intended to fish it, there were so many other choices every year, so one by one each season would slip away along with those noble intentions. When I finally did fish this stretch, it was in a state of great duress during May 2009. Wandering in a grief-stricken pall and numb to the core two months after my wife had died, I was looking for anything to pass the time and ease the pain. I have always preached that fishing is a good a cure-all for almost everything, and that day was an attempt to practice what I had preached for most of my life. Lost as a soul could be, the truck led me from one access point to another where I would make a few casts, and then move on in a pervasive dismal stupor. The sky was stone grey and my world seemed vast in its emptiness. I looked for non-existent answers in the Big Hole River, and then moved on to the Beaverhead.
I am told there is no secret formula for handling grief. However, an old high school friend has published a gut-wrenching book about dealing with the death of his eighteen-year old daughter who died of leukemia in the early 2000s. His work offers a fresh perspective to those seeking solace in times of extreme duress. Charlie is an ex-seminarian who ended up with a doctorate in philosophy. His blend of metaphysics and spirituality are not only uplifting, but also gives those who are in mourning an element of hope to keep on embracing life. He simply believes there are windows to the spiritual world where our departed loved ones often show themselves—that is, if only we would allow ourselves to be open to the possibilities. My friend offered some very compelling examples regarding his daughter, and I have to say, he made me a believer. Maybe it was a glimpse of Debra I was looking for that day while being engulfed by my grief-stricken meanderings.