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“Desperately Seeking Salmon Flies”

Fly Fishing Salmon FliesIt’s not even noon and I’ve already broken my first rod of the day.

I’d been running a dry-dropper rig through some dark gray, unpromising water, deep riffles under an overcast sky. I methodically covered the water: cast, float, cast a bit farther, float. Cottonwoods and willows lined the far shore. Way back of them the craggy, snowy peaks of the Pioneer Mountains rose above the irrigation-green Big Hole valley.

A few times the dry dipped under the riffles and I missed the set. A few times the dry disappeared behind a riffle wave and I set the hook hard against nothing, making a bird nest of leader, tippet and flies. I always try to deal with my own tangles but Eddie at the oars rolls his eyes, motions to hand it over. He makes quick work of the nest and I’m back at it. It’s because this water looks so unpromising that Eddie’s stopped here. He’s fished this section of the river for thirty years and not only knows there are fish here, he knows other boats don’t stop here. Despite my worst efforts, before long I’ve caught two or three decent trout, twelve to fifteen inches.

Finally I hook into what feels like a nice fish. And when he jumps yep quite a nice one. Rod hand as high as I can reach, stripping line, rod bent and then – crack!

The top half of my rod’s at a right angle the rest of the rod. It slides down, following the line into the water right at the fish’s mouth. I’m stunned for a second. I don’t even know what the hell’s happening.  Eddie: “Strip! Strip!”  So I keep stripping and before long we boat the top half of my rod along with a nice brown, eighteen or nineteen.

Fly Fishing Brown Trout

After Eddie puts him back in the water he stands up to inspect the rod. He takes the broken piece in his hand. “It’s where that tungsten bead hit yesterday.” I’d completely forgotten but he’s right: a bad back cast yesterday and my heavy-beaded nymph slammed against the rod. Not the rod’s fault – it’s my casting yesterday that’s to blame.

“Unlucky,” Eddie says. “One and done. Had a guy a few weeks back who wouldn’t give himself any time on the backcast. Kept slamming his rod with the dropper. I was like dude you’re gonna break that rod. And it was a nice rod. Finally his rod breaks and he looks over at me like it’s my fault!”

Gotta love a guide who freely trash-talks his past clients, even if that means for the next few weeks Eddie’ll be telling side-splitting stories about my whiffed hook sets, sloppy casts and broken rods. (Yeah, “rods” plural. Just wait.)

Anyway, Eddie trash-talking me is a small price to pay for access to his trove of stories. Like he used to be the favorite guide of a media mogul and his super-model wife. The media mogul liked Eddie because he’d drive four hours round trip even if the mogul only wanted to fish for half an hour. The super-model liked Eddie because Eddie always had cigarettes. The mogul didn’t let her smoke and the minute they got out of sight, she’d put her fly rod down and bum a cigarette off Eddie.

Eddie’s in his late forties or early fifties – hard to say exactly. In a hoodie, board shorts and sandals, he looks more like an aging surfer with no forwarding address than the magazine image of a fishing guide. He’s cut back on his smoking but still smokes a few every day. He asked if it was OK the first day. Fine with me –  the smell of cigarette smoke reminds me of my old man. His relationship with cigarettes ended in an oxygen tent and an early death, but all the same that smell fills me with nostalgic contentment.

Our first fish this morning was a whitefish. We got into a pod of them, big ones, one after another. As he netted the fourth or fifth, Eddie offered a spirited defense of the lowly whitefish. “First of all, it’s a native fish. If browns and rainbows weren’t so pretty the state would call them invasive and be poisoning them. Second they fight –in their own way. They don’t jump but they fight. Especially when you get them in the boat.”

While I don’t mind a whitefish now and then, they’re not why I or anybody else makes the journey to western Montana. It’s browns, rainbows and cutties and, right now, it’s the salmon fly hatch. The chances of hitting it are slim, but if you do it’s a version of dry fly Nirvana. Or so they say: massive trout launching themselves into the air with reckless abandon, slashing away like great whites at the thumb-size protein bombs before they get clear of the surface tension and fly off like tiny Chinook helicopters. Yesterday we saw four salmon flies all day. So far today we’ve seen maybe twenty. We’re fishing dry-dropper but nothing’s looking up. Everything’s on the dropper. So yes salmon flies are hatching, but the legendary “Salmon Fly Hatch” hasn’t gotten going.

*****

Eddie stows the broken rod along the gunnel and we switch up to a soft six-weight. Fish the same run for a while more, land a couple okay browns, and move on downriver. Coming around a braided bend, moving from clouds to late morning sunlight, we pass a mama moose and a very new calf – a rabbit-eared chocolate lab on stilts. On the opposite gravel shore, another calf looks out quizzically from amid the driftwood. Is this a stranded twin? It has to be – there’s no sign of another moose on that side of the river. Hard to know exactly what’s up. But I do know that plenty of people would rather run into a grizzly than get caught between a cow moose and her calf. Eddie pulls us out into the main current and we high tail it downstream.

We’re fishing drop-offs and cut banks. Eddie pulls the boat in at the downstream end of the drop-off and then rows back into the eddy. I work my way up, letting the dry and dropper float over the drop-off and getting the occasional fish to take. Behind us, an osprey dives into the river behind us and takes a fish from a piece of water where we got blanked.

The cut bank fishing is just perfect, classic water and for the most part I make a perfect, classic mess of it. I’m all out of synch. By the time I get the fly on the water I’m already six feet beyond where I’m supposed to be. So even though I’m fishing intently, I’m missing all the best water. Get tangled in a tree and then on the next tree I’m so focused on not getting snagged I cast too late. Finally, I get a good drift under an over-hanging tree and a fish goes for the dry, I set too soon, get tangled and lose the fly in the tree. “But hey,” Eddie laughs, “it’s not every day you literally snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”  He pulls over so he can retie my rig. When he’s done we decide we might as well eat.

After lunch, the wind starts to pick up, blowing away the last of the morning clouds. A vast sky stretches between the mountains to the west and high gray foothills to the east. It’s the kind of blue that might make a guy want to use a word like “cerulean.” But since I’m not the kind of guy to use that kind of a word I’ll just say it was really, really damn blue. Which would be a great thing for almost anything you’d want to do today except fishing. As the bright sky shuts down the fishing, the wind ramps up.

Fly Fishing Big Hole River
We float along an under-cut bank. Wind’s at my back so I get some good casts and floats and finally a fish comes up from under the shaggy bank grasses, hits the dry and I get the set right. A decent rainbow. A bit farther along the same run, a white fish takes the dropper and gets off. But at least I found my rhythm for a bit and it translated to fish on the line.

I’ve been trying for some time to figure out the double haul and I’ve pretty much got it figured out  – as long as I’m in my backyard. As the wind starts gusting, riffling the still water and making white caps on the rough water, I start trying to put the haul into practice. There’s moments when it all comes together, moments when it’s a single haul. But mostly it’s just me using my brute strength – such as it is – to load the rod and get line out. “Backcast!” Eddie barks.  He says it so often it’s like a kick drum beating out the rhythm of the day.

The wind howls all afternoon. Late in the day, Eddie pulls us into a backchannel where a creek feeds into the river. There’s a nice gravel drop off and we’re facing right up it. So a cast straight in front of the boat will land parallel to the drop. Float the fly over the drop and then strip line as the fly floats back to us. The boat’s not moving, the target’s easy and we’re sheltered behind some trees. The double haul clicks and for the most part my casts land where they’re supposed to. We float the flies a few times and Eddie moves us up a bit.

I gradually cover the water, casting out a bit farther each time, letting the fly float over the drop off and then down a few feet. Pick up, cast again. Eddie says, “Cast way up there in that slack water.” I lift, I haul, I shoot line. The cast lands right where it’s supposed to, but as it shoots out the wind catches the line between my hand and the reel and twists it around the reel and the base of the rod. I’m fooling around with fixing this when a mouth comes out of the water at the dry. It’s not even that I missed the hook set – the moment had passed before I even had a chance.

And so it goes. I go back to floating the fly over the drop-off and before long a decent fish takes the dry. “Strip! Strip!” Eddie doesn’t love my casting but he hates my stripping. I strip and strip and strip and then – crack! – I break my second rod of the day.

Again I freeze, double dumbfounded. “Strip! Strip!” I strip in the fish and the top half of my rod. I don’t even see the fish as Eddie unhooks and releases it. Must not be anything to write home about or Eddie would have said so, even in the face of the day’s second broken rod.

I look it over. Over the course of the day the ferrule had come loose and finally the bottom was barely in the top and the force of casting cracked the base of the ferrule. A ring of varnish has broken and popped off most of the rod, like a cigar wrapper still half on. I put the rod back together. Good news is that it still works, bad news is that it’s going to have to go in for repairs. Is this my fault? I’m not sure. The rod company will probably tell me I should have checked the ferrules every once in a while. But does anybody actually do that? And I mean once you seat the sections together, isn’t it reasonable to expect them to stay seated?

Questions for another day – to be exact the day when the rod company calls me for my credit card number.

Meantime we’ve got more fishing to do. Or we would if it wasn’t for this wind.

As we finish up our float, the sun has softened and great purple slabs of igneous rock rise from the river on our right. The trees toss and rustle in the gusts.  A few times, sheltered by shore, I can make a decent cast, float the fly and get a few eats. But mostly it’s bad fishing and great sightseeing. Two juvenile moose big as horses emerge from the trees to cross a backchannel on our left. A dejected shore fisherman sits on a log and stares blankly into an abyss of frustration. We come around a bend, under the old iron Browne’s bridge, and Eddie pulls the boat up to the ramp.

There’s nobody else here, but as a matter of ingrained river etiquette Eddie hurries to back the trailer down the ramp. He pulls the boat off the ramp before we unload. I put my one unbroken rod, and my broken but functional rod in Eddie’s old 4Runner. I gather my boat bag and the pieces of my broken rod, we make quick plans for the morning and I wave goodbye as Eddie drives off. I’m staying just across the road.

Through the log gateway and up the gravel drive. On the left are two low buildings. One is older, 1920s log style with a small porch in front of each room. The next is a similar design but a bit newer. I trip stepping up on the porch and the remains of my five weight clatter onto the floorboards. I put my boat bag on the bench, gather the rod sections – pieces –  and slide them in their case.

Time for a drink.

Fly Fishing Big Hole River

The main lodge was built in the twenties with a huge boulder fireplace and brown shingle siding like you see on a lot of the funky old lodges in Yellowstone and the Northwest. There’s a newer part that the owner, Mark Lane, built himself in the early nineties. But even if it’s newer it’s still got a certain rough-hewn charm, big old bar with ranch brands in the bar top. This bar also has the best feature any bar can have, which is that it’s, um, open.

I go behind the bar, grab a beer and sit down to catch up on some emails. Before long, my friend Paul comes blaring in with his guide and pal Eric. For reasons that remain obscure, Paul calls me “Wally.” He strides across the room on the balls of his feet, “Whassup Wally!”

They’ve had an epic day. These two tend to have more epic days than the rest of us mere mortals because Paul is an excellent angler and Eric is an incredibly driven and intense guide. They floated a section of the river early, pulled out and floated another section. Caught a ton of decent to big fish on dries. We bullshit about moose and fish and boats and wind and the stunning increase in housing prices in Bozangeles and, after a couple of beers, head back to our rooms to shower.

It’s the three of us at dinner, plus Mark and his pal Larry in from Idaho. Mark’s in his sixties, looks ten years younger, and fishes with the intensity of someone half his age. Hell, a third. The lodge makes lunches for a big outfitter up the road. This morning they asked to pick up their lunches an hour earlier than normal. So an hour before that Mark was banging on everyone’s door telling us we gotta get on the river earlier to beat the crowds.

Like any fishing guide in his sixties, Mark’s got quite a trove of stories. He first saw Montana summer of 1978 when his dad gave him a fishing trip for graduation. Stepped off the plane in West Yellowstone, took one look around and pretty much hasn’t left since. He’s got story after story about the wild days in West Yellowstone in the eighties. There’s the one about carrying two anglers across the Firehole River and coming back carrying the anglers and an illicit buffalo skull. There’s a brief history of his 1972 Econoline van. Drove it all over the Rockies pulling a drift boat and after four hundred thousand miles it only gave out when he hit a moose going seventy. There’s the one about guiding out of a spike camp in Alaska with a guy who was only three days out of New York City. They survived the grizzly but the camp didn’t. And, like any fishing guide worthy of the name, Mark’s got a story about spending two days in a Mexican jail.

About halfway through dinner, Paul says, “Damn Mark you should write a book.”

Mark says, “I did!”

He hops up from the table and grabs a thick binder from beside the fireplace. He flips through and shows us pictures of the ill-fated Alaska camp, pictures of West Yellowstone in the eighties. Pictures of his much-mourned Econoline van. And, it should be said, he shows us an enormous number of pictures of him with attractive women. “I worked with an editor and he said I had to change all their names. I’m like why, there’s nothing in here that’s not true? And he’s like Mark, they were hot girls in the early eighties but they’re grandmas now. And I’m like ok yeah I guess you’ve got a point.”

*****

Next morning, the winds are worse than yesterday. And while the sky’s bright and blue above the valley, black clouds loom on the western horizon. Despite the sun, the fishing starts off strong, lots of fish taking the chubby we’re offering and lots of salmon flies in the air. If we saw four salmon flies all day on the first day, and maybe a couple hundred all day yesterday, there’s rarely a point this morning where we don’t see more than four at any moment. As the morning passes, the wind picks up even more. But we’re still able to cast pretty well if we get a bluff or stand of cottonwoods behind us. The sun disappears just before lunch and with the clouds and wind and I put on my stocking cap. We switch to streamers and what with the heavy fly and the erratic, swirling winds I nail myself a few times on the back.

“Back cast,” Eddie says the second or third time I nail myself. Thankfully I don’t hit Eddie. Got him below the eye day before yesterday with a nymph. It’s an occupational hazard for sure, and he laughed it off but wouldn’t say he was happy about it.

We come around this bend and find some shelter behind the massive root ball of a fallen cottonwood. Good a place as any for lunch. Eddie fires up a cigarette as he parcels the sandwiches out from the cooler. We take our time eating and Eddie tells about when he used to guide waterfowl hunters in the winter. With the gray sky and the wind and the cold it’s not hard to imagine a flock of mallards turning to a flotilla of decoys in front of us.

After lunch, I run a dry dropper rig through that water. The clouds start breaking up, so one minute the water’s slate grey and then the sun comes out and plumbs its dark green depths. Not much happening. We move downriver alternating between the dry dropper and the streamer. There’s a ton of salmon flies in the air but nothing’s taking on the surface. Along an undercut bank I finally get the classic streamer take, big fish rushes out after the yellow streamer and I pull it right out of its mouth. Argh.

The wind’s really started to roar so in spite of my demonstrated incompetence we go exclusively to the streamer. But I’m so focused on not hitting myself or Eddie with the fly that I’m not really casting all that well. Every time I cast I’m cringing like a beat dog. Eddie is too.

Before long the river’s covered in white caps, the droplets off the waves sparkling in the sun. Small trees lean sharply against the wind and the tops of the big cottonwoods bend and swirl and dance. The line of black in the west is taller and nearer. My line gets tangled and as I reach back to hand the rod to Eddie the boat lists to one side. The wind gets under it and lifts it a little farther out of the water. It’s an old flat-bottomed Clackacraft with maybe five inches between the gunnel and the water. It’s all starting to get a bit crazy, even scary.

Eddie tucks the boat in beside a cliff and we get a break from the wind. For a few minutes it’s possible to imagine oh maybe the wind’s let up a bit. But around the corner and we’re back in the sparkling sunny gale. The winds had been predicted at twenty miles per hour. “There’s no way this is twenty miles an hour,” Eddie says. (Later we will find out the gusts this afternoon are over fifty.) He’s pulling at the oars but when the river turns to face the wind we’re barely moving. Casting’s a joke, my back-yard double haul is useless. We’re both being careful to keep the boat level as possible because when we list to one side it really feels like the wind’s gonna pick us up and dump us.

Finally I’m like, “Dude let’s get off this river. It’s not like we can even fish. And I don’t really want to be in the middle of that storm when it hits.”

While it’s true I’m ready to bail is it just me or does Eddie agree a little too readily? Anyway I reel in and we put the rods in the boat along the gunnel with the others. Eddie rows us back and forth across the river to catch the best currents to get us downriver fast as possible.

Fly Fishing Big Hole River

We pass new-fallen limbs and even whole trees along the river’s edge. The leaves are bright and green; the newly exposed wood blazes white against the shadowed shore. Eddie tries to keep the boat clear of the shore to avoid getting nailed by a falling tree.

Up around a bend, the notch comes into full view. It’s two great slabs of rock on either side, with the river passing through a narrow slot between. Though the black storm’s coming at us fast, the sun’s still out for now and the notch glows yellow. We finally come through it and Eddie swings us into the take-out. The clouds are nearly on us now. The sun disappears and the yellow rock stops glowing. Eddie backs the trailer down to the water and we hurriedly get it loaded, crank it up on the trailer. Just as I get my waders off, the rain starts.

We get in the 4Runner and drive back up the valley we’ve just floated down. It rains steadily for… like three minutes. Then it’s just the occasional droplet. The wind’s gone. The clouds have stayed. It’s perfect fishing weather and we’re headed home. We come around a bend into a big herd of bighorn sheep, milling around where an alfalfa field ends and scrub-brush wilderness begins. I can’t even enjoy them or be amazed because I’m dwelling on how bad I’ve just screwed up. We should have found a place to shelter, waited for the wind to pass, and then kept fishing. Of course in my mind, and even now as I write, I blame Eddie. It’s the guide’s fault. C’mon: It’s always the guide’s fault.

Of course I knew then and know now that’s total bullshit. But the disappointment is overpowering so even though I’m the one who explicitly said: “Let’s get off this river” I somehow feel grumpy and ill done.

We get back to the lodge a little before four. I fart around on the internet for a couple of hours before Mark gets back with his client. I run into him as I’m walking over to the lodge to get a drink. “Man he says, shaking his head, “once that storm passed, that hatch. My God, I haven’t seen anything like that in ten years.” I don’t ask for details. I don’t want to know. After another hour Paul and Eric come into the bar walking two feet off the ground.

“Dude, that was fucking biblical,” Paul says. “A plague of salmon flies.”

Eric: “It was fucking Egypt dude.”

Paul: “Did you just slay ‘em?”

“Um, well no.” I start peeling the label off my beer bottle. “We got off the river with that wind.”

Paul and Eric look at each other, stunned into a rare silence. In the moment, I can’t help but feel like all I’ve got to show for three days on the river is a two broken fly rods and a handful of colorful yarns.

*****

That vague nausea of missed opportunity lasts through the night. Paul and Eric have decided to stay an extra day because, well, in case you hadn’t heard hitting the salmon fly hatch just right is a once-in-ten-years thing. I have to be in Livingston later today so after breakfast I say goodbye to those guys, pack the car, and head out.

Plenty of time so I decide to take a scenic route, starting with the gravel back-road from Glen to Twin Bridges. It cuts off a big southern loop in the Big Hole valley, taking you up out of the valley and then back down to the river. As I’m coming back down and the road turns from gravel back to blacktop, for some reason I think of that great take I had on the dry from below the grassy bank. I’m reminded that in life as well as fly-fishing we can’t let what we might have had, or what we wish we had, let us lose sight of – or gratitude for – what we do have. I was on a beautiful river for three days, I caught some nice fish. More than once I was struck with awe at nature’s beauty and power. I heard some colorful yarns. Nausea, hell. Sounds like perfection to me.