The Trout Whisperers
Two vehicles were parked like toys left in the campground overnight. One, which had arrived in the middle of the night, was a maroon-and-gray pickup of uncertain vintage, with a few ovals of gray primer above the rear wheel wells and a bumper sticker that read, “Attention: Driver Carries Only $20 Worth of Ammo.” An aluminum camper was mounted in the truck’s bed, with lots of gear lashed to the roof with yellow plastic rope. Parked on uneven ground at a sloppy angle to the river, the rig listed perilously to the left.
Not far away, under the great cottonwood at the upstream end of the campsite, was an entirely different setup — one that, in the dim light, could have been mistaken for an entire village. This camp was discreetly screened by a muscular-looking, dark green SUV with Washington state plates and a handsome McKenzie drift boat on a trailer.
The SUV was jammed with camping and fishing gear in a bewildering if neat assortment of boxes and stuff sacks. Two float tubes were secured to the luggage rack like giant doughnuts. A dream catcher dangled from the rearview mirror, and the rear window was plastered with decals for organizations such as the Seattle Flyfishers and the lronfeather Society.
The SUV belonged to Raul Mendoza, who was just beginning to stir in his one-man tent pitched under the cottonwood. Not far away, on a grassy knoll just a few feet from the river, was another one-man tent, a blue one.
The tent expanded and contracted, breathing like a giant blue lung. Inside lay B. Louis Traub, stretched out on his back, snoring prodigiously. The B stood for Bonaparte, a fact that Louis took great pains to hide. His hands lay placidly crossed on his mound of a stomach, and his eyelids fluttered like mad butterflies.
This was Louis and Raul’s twenty-fifth annual fishing and camping jaunt in Montana. When they first hooked up as young men in their midtwenties, they had fished madly, carried minimal gear, shared a tent and even a single set of silverware. They drew the line only after a lengthy discussion on the pros and cons of using a common toothbrush.
Year after year, they fine-tuned their approach, seeking maximum efficiency and comfort, and when a conflict arose between the two — as it did after Louis, having put on a great deal of weight, became a vigorous snorer — comfort gradually had come to trump efficiency.
Over the years, these trips had become more important to both of them than any other activity, including vacations with their families. This was but one of the reasons that neither of them had much in the way of family anymore.
Louis was snoring so mightily that his jowls trembled, and even the magpie perched on a bough over the tent kept cocking its head, trying to decipher the meaning of the strange and terrible puffings and blowings and wheezings emanating at regular intervals from the little blue cocoon of a tent. Agitated, the magpie let loose again.
Caw-caw-caw . . . Caw-caw-caw.
The bird fell silent at the loud squeak of a hinge. The back door of the camper truck opened, and a boy of about seven jumped to the ground. His bare legs were covered with lumpy mosquito bites. Despite the cold air, he was wearing just a T-shirt that said, “Grandma’s Favorite Little Son-of-a-Bitch.” The boy munched a candy bar while his father climbed out, backward, wearing heavy canvas chest waders and holding a cheap, stubby fishing rod.
The sunburned man had a blond flattop and a “Semper Fi” tattoo on his left bicep, partially hidden by a T-shirt sleeve that fit him like a sausage casing. He swooped the boy up with his free arm, took a few steps, and let him drop again, saying, “Let’s get us a big ‘un son. Be quiet now so’s we don’t wake the neighbors.” The man’s name was Earl. The boy was Just Ray. Until recently, Earl had always called his son Little Ray, but his wife nagged him so much about using just the boy’s proper name that he took to calling him Just Ray — just to fix her wagon.
They walked the riverbank, past the campsite hidden behind the SUV and boat. Earl stopped, untangled the fishing line from around the rod, and slipped a fat, white maggot on the hook. He hoisted Just Ray onto his broad shoulders and waded into the river.
The current was so strong and the gravel bottom so unstable that Earl felt as if he were walking on marbles. But Earl had powerful legs, and soon he’d waded two-thirds of the way across the river — farther than any man could without the extra ballast provided by the fearless child on his shoulders.
Earl instructed Just Ray to drop the line in the water and pay it out, allowing the bait to drift downstream, bouncing on the bottom. The boy obeyed, squeezing his legs tighter around his father’s neck.
A broad swath of thin, yellow light fell over the upper portion of the cottonwood and illuminated the top of the cliff. It would be a fine, fine morning.
The magpie flew off, discharging a wet gob of poop.
Caw-caw-caw . . . Caw-caw-caw.
Louis was vaguely aware of the guano landing on his tent with a soft plop. In his half sleep, he also heard Earl and Just Ray’s muffled voices.
It had been a rough night for Louis. He and Raul had hooked up with Bowen Kiick, a friend they had met some fifteen years earlier on the banks of Idaho’s Henry’s Fork River during the famous brown drake mayfly hatch. That was, as Louis liked to say, back in the day — back before the Fork was overrun by the folks he described as “Redford’s River Runs Through It crowd,” along with the more recent menace, busloads of fly-fishing Japanese. The best you could say about the latter was that though they scarfed up all the expensive reels and trout-related T-shirts in Last Chance, they largely left the trout unmolested.
Louis, Raul, and Bowen — “feather throwers,” as Louis, in his more fanciful moments, liked to describe fly fishers — bonded instantly that day on the Fork when Bowen showed them how easily medical syringes could be converted into handy dispensers. He used them for the various viscous substances that were of critical importance to feather throwers, including dry-fly floatant, hand cream, even commercial dishwashing soap — a product with many surprisingly innovative applications in fly fishing. From that day forward, half a dozen modified syringes dangled from the densely packed fishing vests that Raul and Louis carefully folded and placed at the foot of their sleeping bags every night on any given river. And that was many, many nights. For, like Bowen, the men loved fly fishing for trout above all other things.
Louis and Raul also appreciated that Bowen was a rebel. His father was some kind of Wall Street pooh-bah, but Bowen had dropped out of Wharton business school and moved to Bozeman, Montana. He wanted to spend his life casting flies to “big heads,” thumbing convention, and burning through his trust fund before he drank himself to death. The outcome of that race was by no means decided, for though it once had been an awfully big trust fund, Bowen was both a gifted drinker and flagrant spendthrift.
Such proclivities ensured that Bowen invariably was described by his admirers as “a real stand-up guy” and by his detractors — mostly angry members of the opposite sex-as “just another swinging dick.” Either way, he looked and acted the part. Bowen was handsome and built like a linebacker. He had wild blond hair, an impish gleam in his blue eyes, and a snaggletooth that he refused to have fixed. It lent him the air of a desperado.
Bowen had a squeeze in almost every trailer park from Helena to Ennis, and though he had nothing but contempt for the New York and Hollywood glitterati who were swarming all over Livingston and the Paradise Valley with their hand-painted cowboy boots, gelled hair, and three-picture deals, he was an intellectual. He had catholic tastes and read copiously. Fittingly, it was Bowen who, aware of Louis’s love for Montana, bestowed on him the nickname “Big Sky Bonaparte” — eventually shortening it to “Sky.”
In typical stand-up-guy fashion, Bowen had driven all the way out from Bozeman with his McKenzie drift boat to take his two friends for a float on the lower Beaverhead, and in typical swinging-dick fashion, he had brought along a bottle of Louis’s favorite tequila, Herradura. This was a touching gesture, for while Louis perceived himself as, first and foremost, a mountain man, he also was a man of discriminating taste to whom there was no such thing as simple vodka, scotch, or tequila. There was only Absolut, Albemarle single malt, or Herradura.
The men had enjoyed a feast the previous night to celebrate this anniversary trip, with Raul making his special spicy fish tacos from scratch — habanero peppers and all. They made a great big fire and ate prodigiously. With a few beers and a fair amount of Herradura already under his belt, Louis decided to make one of the elaborate toasts that flowed like honey from his lips when he was well lit.
He rose and, losing his balance, sloshed a little Herradura out of his glass. “Bowen, Raul…” After a dramatic pause, he continued. “As we all know, this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Raul’s and my first, um, explorations of the Big Sky country. In light of that, I suggest that we all pause for a moment’s reflection…”
Louis looked up at the sky, as if searching for words. Then he said, in his rich, nasal voice: “Here’s to three old and great amigos and feather throwers. I suppose we are but relatively insignificant beings in what is commonly described as the grand scheme of things, yet, truth be told, we are bonded as brothers in the noble pursuit of a truly, um, aristocratic fish. A magnificent fish. This lovely fish — the trout. I stand before you, humbled by the good fortune that enables me to pursue this quest, year after year, through seasons and days, with such fine companions…”
“Hear, hear,” Bowen cried, greatly enjoying this preface.
“Join me,” Louis went on, “in partaking of the fruit of Agave tequilana…”
Louis took a long drink, as did Bowen, while Raul had a small sip. At this point, Louis digressed, pointing out to his friends that the plant commonly known as the agave was not, as even ardent tequila fans supposed, a member of the cactus family at all. It was, technically speaking, a succulent. Then he returned to the main subject, noting that the ancient civilizations of Mexico believed that the agave contained the mysterious power from which humans originally derived their ability to laugh.
He then speculated on the nature of ancient cultures, big heads, and stand-up guys, eventually finding his way back from the Mayan ruins and bloodied Aztec altars to the Rocky Mountains. He wound up his speech with the kind of exhortation that might just as easily have rolled from the lips of his hero, Capt. Meriwether Lewis, had the leader of the legendary outfit known as the Corps of Discovery at that moment been in Louis’s unusually small size-eight shoes.
On a roll now, Louis switched to the archaic language he sometimes affected: “On the morrow, we embark for parts unknown, borne along on the streaming waters of yon Beaverhead. We will gaze upon vistas heretofore unknown to us, pursuing our quest with passion and a sense of purpose unknown to most men.” After a pause, he added, “Gentlemen… Here’s to big fish — and lots of ’em!”
They roared and drank again, except Raul. A stream of tequila ran down Bowen’s chin and shone in the firelight. Louis’s rambling speech had so amused him that he shook with laughter and finally bellowed, “Damn all, Sky — isn’t there anything you don’t know?”
Now that morning had arrived, Bowen too was sound asleep. He was shacked up many miles away in a motel just outside Dillon, with a waitress named Amber, who had a pierced navel and worked at the Elkhorn Cafe.
The empty Herradura bottle lay on its side in the dirt near Louis’s tent.
All was quiet, and then a shout rang out: “Whoooo-eeee, you got ‘im! Reel on ‘im, Just Ray!”
Just Ray lost his balance and fell into the river with an enormous splash. Earl grabbed him by the scruff of the neck before he was swept away, and together they wallowed and lurched toward shore as the giant trout bolted downstream, heading for the safety of deep water. As he dangled from Earl’s grasp, the swift current pushed the boy from side to side on the surface, but he clung resolutely to the rod.
Earl and Just Ray hit the shore running. They scooted down the bank, the rod bucking in the boy’s hands.
The big trout just kept going, right over the top of the dam. Father and son ran out on the narrow structure. There was no easy way around it; the bank was steep and the brush was too dense. As the big trout continued to take line, Earl had a thought: “This here’s the difference between having a monster trout mounted above the sofa and just another story to tell.” Earl looked down at the seething water twenty-five feet below. “You hold on to him now, Just Ray,” he said. “You hold on, no matter what.” Earl ripped off his waders, held his nose, and jumped off the dam feetfirst. He landed with a massive splash, lurched to the shore, and took off downstream after the trout.
“Daddy!” Just Ray cried. “You git ‘im, Daddy!”
Raul, having emerged from his tent, hunched over the propane stove, patiently waiting to depress the plunger in the French-style coffeemaker. It was positioned in a pot of simmering water, ensuring that the coffee — a special blend of North Slope Kenyan and Sumerian lowland beans, with just a touch of chicory, that Raul had settled on after years of careful experimentation — would remain hot. Later, the hot water would be used for washing dishes.
He again read the hand-scrawled note that Bowen had left on the windshield of the SUV. Bowen wrote that he had some unexpected business to attend to and wouldn’t be able to make the float after all. The boat fished better with just two anyway, and he promised to be waiting at the downstream takeout at the end of the day to drive his friends back up to camp.
Raul was dressed in a navy zippered fleece that was sold in a catalog featuring heavily tanned, blue-eyed alpinists. Raul was dark-skinned, as befitting his Dominican roots. He was a superbly fit, handsome man who stood just over six feet tall, with glowing chestnut eyes, a full head of glossy black hair, and a neat Zapata mustache.
Although he appeared imperturbable, Raul was high-strung and prone to stuttering when he was nervous. Those who just met him often were surprised to learn that before Raul dedicated himself to a career in dental hygiene, he had been a highly touted major-league pitching prospect.
Presently, Raul’s thoughts were far from baseball — or molars. He was troubled by Bowen’s note. As Louis or any of Raul’s three former wives could attest, Raul did not take well to sudden changes and frequently expressed his revulsion toward “flying by the seat of the pants.”
As the years slipped by, Raul had become increasingly devoted to routine and lost his urge to see what lay beyond the next bend. He liked that he and Louis knew exactly which rivers they would fish and in what order. Indeed, they often knew whom, among their many friends in the fraternity of feather throwers, they might rendezvous with along the way. And they always returned to their favorite campsites.
Raul frowned and gently depressed the plunger in the coffeepot. As he waited to pour his first cup, his mind drifted back to the first day of their trip.
Louis’s nonstop flight from New York to Seattle had arrived on time. As usual upon meeting, the men performed the Shoshone embrace — the greeting the Indians had taught Lewis and Clark. Face-to-face, each man flung his right arm over his friend’s left shoulder and clasped the small of his back so firmly that their chests met and cheeks touched.
Then they returned to Raul’s home, where the camping and fishing gear was all laid out in the garage, neatly sorted, stacked, and ready to load. That evening, they made their ritual visit to the local Home Grown supermarket to stock up on essentials that might not be readily found on the trail-aged Kobe beef, cornichons, macadamia nuts, kippered herring, and such.
In the produce department, they’d had an encounter that even in retrospect made Raul wince. They’d come upon the manager, a guy named Bud, reaming out a scrawny, longhaired kid for smoking in the employee break room. Caught unaware, the embarrassed manager tried to engage Louis and Raul in pleasant conversation, while the kid returned to stacking grapefruit.
Bud recommended some choice plums that had just come in from the Klamath River Valley in southern Oregon. On hearing the name of the Klamath, Louis stopped squeezing peaches and turned to Bud. “I beg your pardon, sir — did I hear you correctly? Did you say the Klamath River Valley?”
Bud looked quizzically at Louis, who continued: “Are you aware, sir, that thanks to the sweetheart irrigation deal the fruit growers have down there — not to mention abject consumer indifference and irresponsibility among retailers — one of the last remaining strains of wild chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest is presently endangered?”
Louis went on, lecturing Bud on the Klamath ecosystem and the lobbying powers of the nefarious California Fruit Growers Association. Bud began to twitch and turned whole-body red. He finally stormed off, sputtering, “Go ahead then, eat the lousy California plums if you’re so gol-darned smart.”
“Wow,” the scrawny youngster had said, as Bud vanished around a corner. “That was, like, trippy.”
“He da-da-da-doesn’t mean to offend anyone,” said Raul.
Louis, remembering that they still needed some scented hand wipes, left Raul to guard the overflowing cart. Raul conversed pleasantly about fishing with the kid, who had the sleek black hair and high cheekbones of a Native American. His name tag said Phoenix. Raul felt a spiritual affinity with the boy, even though he smoked cigarettes and appeared to have some kind of a dragon tattooed on his back and lower neck. The kid liked fishing, and Raul gathered from the brief conversation that, like himself, he came from a broken home.
Raul extolled the joys of fly fishing, and Phoenix seemed interested in Louis and Raul’s trip. By the time Louis returned with the hand wipes, Raul felt conflicted about breaking off the conversation. He’d connected with the kid, and that left him with a certain feeling of responsibility. That’s how it was for all the men who, like Raul, belonged to the male empowerment group known as the Ironfeather Society of Warriors.