This isn’t a blog. It’s really an extended memoir of a 2014 fly fishing trip to Montana, USA. It contains six longish parts, so read it in pieces as you’ll surely find it’s too long for a single session. It’s not about communication – or maybe it is, really – if words about fishing can successfully capture what’s important in life, as Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” was able to do so triumphantly. And no, I didn’t make it to Yaak in 2015 ….. but fishing is really all about hope.
From the windy shoulder of the Triple Divide Pass in Glacier National Park, melt water from the lingering snows trickles westward to the Pacific; northward to the Hudson’s Bay; and southward to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the anvil of the American continent, and it’s one of the few places on earth where the same waters can feed into three oceans, or rather, two oceans and a sea.
Triple Divide Peak is 8,020 feet (2,440 m) and the hydrological apex of North America. At 7,400 feet, the pass is still high enough to make you pause to catch your breath. You’ll see mountain goats and young Bighorn sheep fooling about in the snow even in late July. There are views north into Canada, and the other way a hundred miles across the prairies of the Blackfeet Indian reservation.
Below Triple Divide Pass in Glacier National Park
Those dirty midsummer clumps of snowpack clinging to the scree, mark the spot where the very first molecules of water begin their great journey toward the ocean. On the southeast slope, water flowing into Atlantic Creek forms the true source of America’s greatest fishing odyssey. And just like Huckleberry Finn’s adventure, this one also ends in New Orleans.
First stop is Medicine Grizzly Lake right below, the aquamarine jewel beneath Razoredge Mountain that marks the source of Cut Bank Creek. The brawling little stream we’d crossed down in the valley a few hours earlier, will in turn make its way across the plains of the Blackfeet to join the Two Medicine River. Then it becomes the Marias River, named by Lewis and Clark in 1805 and itself a tributary of the mighty Missouri River. For as long as it flows through Montana, I’d argue the Missouri is the finest river in America. Later, it joins the Mississippi and ends its great journey toward the ocean.
Here on top of Continental Divide in the Lewis Range is where you just might, as I did, meet some tough-looking, clear-eyed Montanan natives. On the shoulder, a trio of them had just set down heavy backpacks with metal fly rod tubes strapped to the outsides. As well as big cans of bear-spray, these men could have been carrying concealed weapons.
One of them had hiked up the rocky trail shod only in battered docksiders. Their destination was way off the grid; an unauthorised camp down at Medicine Grizzly where a landslide had closed the trail and hikers are banned by the National Forest Service. Not least because the lake has lived up to its name as a prime grizzly bear haunt.
They traded fishing tips, telling me how I could trail a Woolly Bugger fly through the tumbling outlets of the blue glacial lakes we would meet on the way down the other side of the pass. But, said the mellowest of the three: “If you really want to fish the true wilderness, then go to Yaak, Montana and head for the Dirty Shame Saloon Bar. They’ll tell you where in the Purcell Mountains the fishing is real good.” But, he added, this saloon was not the kind of place to order a Manhattan, talk politics, comment on any man’s truck, or much less look at his girlfriend.
It was a woodsy tale with allure from the back-of-the-back of beyond that hooked me as surely as a hungry trout rocketing up through the park’s clear glacial waters for the fly. In this fishing story, the trout are as long as your leg and the Yaak River really does exist.
So does the Dirty Shame Bar. So does the fishing on the Kootenay River, location for a 1994 Meryl Streep movie The River Wild about violent killers loose on a whitewater rafting trip. And they still have mountain men living in the remote folds of the Purcell and Cabinet hills on the Canadian border.
Of course, you’ll need to join me in imagining a few things, like the taste of that first beer at the Dirty Shame. What the Yaak will look like when we finally get there.
Or just why fly-fishing for trout might play a pivotal role of God’s scheme of creation.
But in every other respect, I’m a stickler for the facts. Except … when people say fishermen are economical with the truth, they tell an unexpected verity. A proficient fly fisherman will tell you less, not more than what’s really going on. If a secret spot was so great, would you run the risk of strangers trashing the place and killing your fish?
So, in convoluted fishing logic, that’s why I want to check out the Yaak recommendation in 2015. I like the name, too. It would be my fifth trip to my favourite state in the world.
Not that the latest trip was anything to complain about. My wife Lucia and I enjoyed three weeks of fishing, riding, hiking and great hospitality across Montana. That must qualify as the most potent antidote you’ll find anywhere for the ills of modern life. If you believe that outdoors should trump the asphalt, and that hay-bales beat high-rises, then Montana is heaven – but with handguns. It’s just like being in a Hemingway story, with the pompous and brutal parts edited out.
After leaving the Montanans on the ridge, we dropped down over the Continental Divide into the more arid landscape of the northeastern-facing Rockies. And in a foaming aquamarine plunge pool where the river flowed out of a Christmas-card lake hedged by mountains as it hurried its way toward the Arctic, I caught a fine fat bull trout with orange flesh, exactly where the Montanans said I would.
Montana is, of course, a state of mind. One different to all the other United States. It’s a place of huge distances punctuated by provisional-looking human settlements, ringed by battered horse-trailers and broken-down farm machinery. A place with as many Harley-Davidsons as quarter horses, and where the wholesale price of beef is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
How much does an acre of range sell for? How many cow-and-calf units could your land hope to run in this bumper year of spring runoff? Precious water that has plumped the hay-meadows and over-filled the Beartooth mountain streams, to send it cascading right over the top of the big dam up at Mystic Lake.
This is a land of biblical proportions, whose horizons stretch with the imagination across the Judith Basin. Here, farmers from the Hutterite sect with frumpish pioneer wives and belt-and-braces John Steinbeck looks, are contained by the same vast perspectives as affluent incomer ranchers from ‘back East’ sipping choice Californian wines on their Big Sky terraces at sunset.
Biblical says it all. Landscapes reminiscent of Victorian genre paintings or the Hudson River school of artists. It’s exactly as though, resting after His six days of labour during the Creation, God had just rinsed his paintbrush in one of the glacial lakes to wash it out after completing His divine watercolour. That is what originally turned the lake teal blue against the tops of the Beartooth Mountains, still etched with snow.
To the south in Yellowstone Park, just as in a children’s bible illustration, slow, dense herds of buffalo roam down the extent of the Lamar valley as though this was still the fifth day of Creation, before mankind arrived. These huge beasts are indifferent to the fly-fishers dotting the wide stream, or the necklace of cars crawling along the park roads, binoculars glinting through open windows.
Visualize the Almighty leaning back on his ample buttocks to muse upon the penultimate moment of Creation on the easel before Him. Then, with a tiny flourish of the smallest, finest squirrel-hair brush, He paints a handful of spreading rings upon the surface waters of the landscape, showing where a trout just rose. For when God made the earth and saw it was good, He then created Montana trout to make it even better.
Already, upon this landscape of mountains and prairies, He had set great beasts to walk. Elk and moose and bear and deer and marmot and coyote. Above them flew bald eagles and ospreys and golden eagles and skeins of Canada geese. And finally in those tumbling rivers and lakes, He then planted brown trout and rainbow trout and brook trout and golden trout and bull trout and lake trout and even cutthroat trout.
And after an age had passed, He sent Lewis and Clark to discover this land for the benefit of European settlers. And Izaak Walton was His prophet, teaching man to fish fine and far off to harvest the bounty of those legendary parts of Montana about which Norman Maclean would later write his novella A River Runs Through It – and where Hollywood would cast Brad Pitt in the role of that same story’s bad-boy hero.
And after another short age had passed, He caused dams and impoundments and reservoirs to be built, holding back the freestone streams on their journey from the mountains to the plains. All so their waters would help float barges on the muddy Mississippi, or fill canals and ditches to fatten the Idaho potatoes and help load the barns with hay.
And below those dams and impoundments, God ordained that for the recreation and delight of mankind there should be tail-waters of cold, transparent water, each mile of which would teem with 6,000 large and vigorous trout. And He made the water flows from those dam gates wholly dependable and measurable in cubic feet per second. And He created fly-shops, and high-modulus carbon fibre rods and precision engineered fly-reels. And upon the surface of the waters He set floating the Mackenzie drift boat, each one commanded by a guide who would honour and obey His Holy Law of catch-and-release.
And, as though they had heard but imperfectly the divine command to “cast your bread upon the waters,” these khaki-clad men (and some women) chose instead to cast their flies upon the waters. Yet God saw that fly-fishing was meet and good for His creation. And He ordained that mankind, wearied and ground down his labours in the field as though yoked to the plough, could over time redeem and cleanse himself from the Original Sins of salary-earning, and profit-seeking, and career advancement and wearing out the golden hours of life in conference calls and corner offices perched high above the humming rivers of inner city traffic, where no fish can ever swim.
And God saw it was very good. And so He sent forth fishermen – not fishers of men, but fishers of trout. And they came, drifting slowly down the Missouri and the Big Horn and the Yellowstone and the Flathead and the Smith and the Madison and the Snake and Green and the Gallatin, the Rosebud, the Musselshell, and the Stillwater. He set countless more to wade waist-deep in the Henry’s Fork, or other smaller streams.
And to each of these streams He bequeathed an allotment of strong and vigorous fish. Fish that would never render themselves willingly unto the hand of man. Fish that to this day obey His command to flee the net, bend the rod and throw the hook. Fish that plunge, leap and bore into the heaviest currents, defying the muscle and the skills of men bred to the monitor screen and the keyboard and flipchart and spreadsheet. Fish born to outsmart men with MBAs and consultancy skills and doctorates and coaching qualifications.
For God knew that in much the same way as they show such fierce animal lust to set themselves free, these fish would in turn teach men to set themselves free of oppression wrought by money or its lack, and the entanglements of middle age or thwarted ambition. So the thrumming, tugging ferocity transmitted upward through line and rod and thence into the aching arms of men, would affect their souls.
And that is how this corner of Creation, which has just 900,000 residents and makes negligible contribution to the GDP of the United States, was ordained to become the Valhalla of piscatorial sport. And the very, very last river the Lord made in the wildest, most backward corner of Montana, was named the Yaak.
So you see, God made Montana as a place for man to go fly-fishing in and feel freer. And that’s exactly why I keep on going back.
But if this is really to be an even partly true fishing story, that’s enough divine intervention. There won’t be any The Old Man and the Sea, or the nauseous mix of marine diesel and warm beer in a Gulfstream swell. But still, there will be freshwater triumph and disaster, victory and defeat, the satisfactions bestowed by releasing a few tricky Montana trout.
I said a few, but even for those who stubbornly refuse to keep score, fishing is a strongly statistical sport that’s every bit as results-driven as little league baseball. Don’t be fooled by any deceptive speeches that “Catching isn’t important to me: what matters is relaxing with nature beside the stream.” Fishermen are there to catch fish and, dammit, we’ll mortify the flesh until we catch more. Beside a trout stream, all modesty is false modesty.
Yet much like a ship captain’s log, personal fishing diaries created during (but mostly after) these trips tend to be punctuated not with bragging but terse references to wind direction, weather, fly patterns, hook size and even personal injuries. There’ll be a smattering of Latin entomology. Wildlife, companions, dogs and children may earn sparse mentions, but the real business is RBI or headcount – numbers, species, weight, length. These statistics may be logged in minimalist form – but they’re always there. After all, those releasing their catch will have little more to show in years to come than a faded photo or a pencilled-in score.
So how did Montana 2014 stack up for me in the results section? What does my fishing diary say?
– One $650 Loomis GLX rod snapped off at the tip section after clashing with my buddy’s fly rod on a Missouri drift-boat.
– One pair of prescription eyeglasses lost after an involuntary “hat-floater” swim while wading a deep side-channel of the Missouri at dawn. Miraculously, the expensive, 2 day-old new digital camera in my fishing vest dried out and survived the dunking.
– One fishless day after a thunderstorm on Holter Lake at the Gates of the Mountains. (Not fishless if you count couple of perch; but no sign of the big rainbows said to inhabit the upper waters of this Land of Giants).
– A truly fishless day on the Rock Creek (thanks to an unseasonable foaming torrent of melt-water).
– Torn shoulder muscle from a long day casting heavy flies into near-hurricane winds over the Missouri that drove every other drift boat off the river.
I said all modesty in fishing was false and yes, I also caught plenty of brown trout and rainbows, including some that ran to 22 inches and would have weighed in about 3 and a half to four pounds. Of course, there are still much, much bigger ones in there. That’s what people go to fish Montana for.
I could certainly have caught more. But although fishing certainly involves statistics, it’s scarcely a matter of simple addition. That means a small handful of fish that are really hard to catch, clearly outscores a larger haul of much easier fish. So there’s plenty more to fly-fishing than round numbers. But double figures seems like a goal for your first day fishing in Montana.
This goal doesn’t come cheap. Fishing the big tailwaters is done from a special drift-boat of the kind used almost only in the Rockies, and using one means hiring a licensed guide. While two fishermen cast from either end of the 15 ft. boat, the guide seated amidships rows to and fro to get clients over his favoured fishy spots, changes their flies, disentangles their line, nets and releases their fish. He has an anchor to pause on good spots, he takes celebratory photos of clients, he provides their lunch, hauls the boat onto his trailer, and ensures somebody’s left his truck at some remote bankside take-out to get everyone home at the end of the float. Then he pockets a tip.
It’s a whole economy. There are at least six drift boat manufacturers in the Rockies, and some fishing towns seem to have more boats than pickups cluttering the yards of the timber houses. Until fishing gives way to hunting in the fall, it’s what provides the work.
Which is why my friend Byron and I are up at dawn to drive 150 miles across the gravel roads of the Crow Indian Reservation to reach Fort Smith on the Big Horn River, just below the Yellowtail Dam. The ‘rez’ is a huge empty space in an already empty state. Almost nothing living is visible on the ranges that circle the horizon, where any visible habitation is more likely to be that of a white farmer leasing land from the Indians.
Fort Smith is a town with an over-wintering population of 50 souls, as icy and unforgiving in winter as it is scalding on the day we fish. The fishing guides either spend their winters in Florida, or take their clients bow-hunting for deer and – as we hear later on, even for mountain lion.
The Big Horn is a tributary of the Yellowstone River, which in turn flows into the Missouri. Below the Big Horn canyon at Fort Smith it becomes a tame tail-water, drawing cool water from the Yellowtail Dam to create a gargantuan chalk-stream with a mossy stream-bed and reliable flows. Today there are near as many drift-boats as vehicles at the dam, so we allow a whole regatta of boats to set off before us.
Fishing style: our guide is in the numbers business – or at least he thinks we are. With one steely glance Jim, good old Montana boy with a limp and a belly, has assessed us and decided we’re still at that entry-level stage of evolution. Which means he rigs our rods with heavy polymer leaders, a pair of sunken nymphs, split shot and something like a fluorescent orange golf-ball than any child would recognize as a bobber (though fly fishermen doggedly refer to as a ‘strike indicator.’)
The reason we’re fishing the Big Horn this way from a drift boat is that mid July is still too early in the season for sufficient hatches of airborne insects to tempt the fish up to the surface to gulp flies. No dry fly fishing today. And statistics show that even indifferent fishermen will catch more using sub-surface tactics.
The weight and ungainliness of this huge weighted rig means you’re unable to cast a line properly even if you’re skilled enough to do so. So you just flip the line out far enough from the boat where the fish won’t be spooked, and then twitch the floating fly-line on the water so the two flies under water achieve a “dead-drift.” This is called “mending.” Ideally boat, river current and flies are all travelling at the same speed, allowing long steady drifts of up to 100 yards between casts.
But mostly, you’re busy flipping, mending, pulling in, checking no weed has attached to the hook, flipping, mending, pulling in – and forever watching that goddam bobber (sorry, strike indicator). Should your concentration waver for a micro-second and the orange ball dip in the water, Jim will yell out “set, set, set.” Just lift the road-tip to set the hook and there’s heft, angry life and energy in the shape of a Big Horn brown trout or rainbow.
This kind of fishing might sound a mechanical, cognitive labour devoid of poetry. But it’s not at all: Intuition plays a large part. You don’t see anything going on. You feel it. You can’t say why but you lift the rod-tip to set the hook when you just know a fish is there, not when you see the bobber sink. In fact if you wait for that to happen, you’ll certainly miss your fish. Because your line must reach across the border that divides one medium (air) from another (water) in just the same way that your waking self can rescue fragments of dreams, this kind of fly-fishing nurtures your intuition. Deepwater nymphing will put you in touch with your unconscious. It’s a valid form of pisco-therapy.
Fish start to come in at both ends of the boat, netted and released by Jim. Not a massive stream, but a few every hour. It’s getting hotter and hotter. We start to relax, drink water, light cigars, trade stories. It would be quite wrong to say sunken nymph fishing from a boat is easy. It requires concentration, intuition, and above all discipline. Allow the line to drag and you’ll spook the fish, ensuring you catch nothing. Try to false cast more than once and you’ll create a horrendous nylon tangle. Lose awareness of your fishing partner’s timing and your rods will clash, perhaps fatally (That’s how I snapped the Loomis rod). Allow your fly to cross his line or simply invade his fast-moving quarter of river and you’ll get a cuss.
It has its quiet moments, but when things are hot this kind of nymph fishing resembles nothing so much as a Call of Duty style ‘splat the bad guys’ Nintendo quest game. Just like a video monitor, you’re focused exclusively on a square of water in front of you, oblivious to some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes unrolling like a movie poster. Golden eagles, otters, ospreys, and bankside animals all spin by unseen. You barely notice your partner landing fish after fish. You pause to rest your aching shoulder, and notice an hour or several miles have passed. Mountains that were there before have disappeared. It’s not unlike riding a racing bike through countryside you never see because you’re so focused on that square of tarmac in front of your wheel.
The Big Horn was good, although not quite as good as other rivers I’d floated before. The Box Canyon on the Henry’s Fork of the Snake, or the Madison and especially the Missouri. And the fish seem a little smaller too. Yet they’re healthy, feisty, as like as peas in a pod – and around seventeen or eighteen inches, meaning they run around two pounds. My partner Byron is catching more than I am.
During quieter spells on the water or over lunch, it’s customary for a guide to regale his clients with uplifting tales of the local environment and wildlife, or fishing culture. Usually involving some levels of discomfort or danger, stoically endured. Delivery style is usually laconic, like early Clint Eastwood. Firearms feature prominently. Jim’s first anecdote set the tone. I’d noticed he struggled a little to get his hip over the boat’s gunwhale. That, he said, was the result of an injury got while pursuing a fully-grown mountain lion into his cave during a bowhunt. Jim had fired his arrow into the darkness at short range and the lion leapt out, knocking him over a cliff-edge.
As I noted, some fish rank higher than others. And in my book, those caught with a dry fly are more rewarding. So by the middle of the afternoon and still a couple of miles short of the take-out, the bobber and the marine strength polymer leader and the BB lead shot and the pair of tangle-prone wet flies are all driving me insane. Call me vain, but what I came to Montana for was not to chuck metal but to paste out elegant long casts with a delicate floating fly, just like they do in the glossy outfitter videos.
But Jim isn’t having any of this. There are no insects visible on the surface and by God, we’re under orders to continue dredging deep while he proffers up the next anecdote. Jim is no exception to the rule that everyone in Montana has a story involving a Grizzly bear. His involved Alaska, a big male Kodiak charging down the foreshore to defend his salmon-fishing privileges, a heavy-calibre sidearm, and a damn narrow escape by boat. Now, with hindsight I can be charitable, because by the end of this trip I too would have picked up a personal Grizzly bear story.
But this was still Day One and in fly-fishing’s bizarre arithmetic (or mine at least), a dozen nymph-caught Big Horn fish don’t add up to one taken on the dry fly. So I tell Jim to string up my other rod and put on a dry fly so I can wade a small back channel. Good Ole Boys from Montana never do anything as stagey as roll their eyes or sigh, but the bulky set of his shoulders makes clear he views this as wholly wasted effort and unwelcome client initiative. Until some dorsal fins start peeping and I triumphantly locate a pod of fish on the rise. True, I don’t catch any, but before Jim warns we must go as a storm is sweeping in across the mountains, he has grudgingly owned that I “throw a mighty pretty cast.”
The benefit of starting a trip by catching plenty of Big Horn trout in the nymph is that it sets you free to hit the big Missouri the way it should be fished: 100% dry fly.
It’s a long journey from the Big Horn northward across the hot dry prairies of Montana to Great Falls and the Canyon section of the Missouri downstream of Craig. On the way north is The Fort truck-stop at Big Timber, where you can buy automatic weapons while you tank up. The snowy-topped Beartooth Mountains give way to the Big Belt and Little Belt ranges, the country flattens out and you sense Canada must be closer by almost 400 miles.
Some days after the Big Horn, and my buddy David and I are loitering beside the canyon section of the Missouri Rover at the paved boat put-in at Prewett Creek campsite around 7.30 am after a hasty breakfast. Up drives our guide Lindsay, scooping two new clients expertly into his long-handled net before we even get into the drift boat.
What does the trick is his mix of flattery, cajolery and the promise of some big, big fish. Like the trout-spotted basking shark he’s pictured holding on the back of his visiting card. There’s even a high-resolution gob of trout slobber hanging from the pictured beast’s kype or protruding lower jaw.
This guide knows how to play his clients — and the proof is ‘Bobber Liberation.’ We don’t need to fish any more sunken nymphs with strike indicators, he says. We’ll fish with dry flies.
That said, the dry flies we’re using bear about as much resemblance to the smudge-coloured British chalk stream flies I’m used to, as Carmen Miranda’s fruit-bowl hat. Think radioactive-iridescent plastic foam monsters with flapping rubber legs and eyes like basilisks. They look as though Divine has been let loose on the guide’s fly-tying vice, to come up with the purple and Pink Flamingo teenage mutant grasshopper patterns the size of a pan-scourer that we’re fishing with.
The proof we deserve this graduation is we’re not into numbers. We don’t need another double-figure score of those eighteen inchers. Instead, our day will be just like the parable of Jesus multiplying five loaves and fishes to feed the multitude – but in reverse. He knows we don’t want to hook enough trout to feed a multitude – we just need to catch and release five fishes. Real big ones. And forget the loaves, unless you count the excellent sandwiches stashed in Lindsay’s cooler.
Egos swell, as do expectations that Lindsay can put us over some real monsters. But, just as with stock market investment promises, there’s that nagging paragraph of small print about risk and returns. That bit about you perhaps getting back rather less than you put in. Lindsay doesn’t say we can actually catch these fish, like he and his wife do for their commercial website shots. And we’re advised that a day not catching any large trout on hoppers is way more frustrating than a day catching too many trout on the sunken nymph.
But like bold hedge fund heroes, we set our risk profile to ‘aggressive’ and cast off. Here’s the game-plan: we’ll drift the whole lower length of the blue-ribbon section of the Missouri, casting those big foam hoppers right under the bank. Maybe 10 miles. The objective is to get long drag-free drifts – up to 100 yards – running just inches from the bank where the big browns lie waiting for insects to be swept off the hayfields by sudden gusts of hot prairie wind. Then they strike aggressively.
Now I’ve described how you get a drag-free drift with a sunken nymph by constantly adjusting the length of visible fly-line upstream of the lure. Ideally, the lure floats at the same speed as the current, although that’s unlikely to be the same speed as the boat. So you’re constantly twitching and flipping and pulling in to cast again. And every second cast or so, you must remove any green weed that has snagged around the fly. If fishing the sunken nymph is like balancing on a floating log, then fishing dry fly from a drift-boat is like steering a Stand-up paddleboard with a wooden spoon.
Imagine doing all the twitching and flipping and pulling but with the additional challenge of maintaining a floating fly at a distance of no more than 18 inches from the bankside, while your boat is drifting downstream at a brisk walking pace. That’s where the big ones lie in wait, protected by stony outcrops or fallen logs. But to reach them you need to be able to cast 75 feet or so every time.
Too far though, and you’ll entangle with vegetation, or get stuck in the complicated currents right on the edge. Too short and you’ll just be covering empty water shunned by fish who can see your boat. But try too hard to make a really long cast, and chances are a big downstream-facing loop of line will soon develop, dragging the fly. There’s a multiplicity of other things that can – and will – go wrong. The loops of fly-line at your feet get snagged around something, meaning that if you do hook a fish the line will not flow smoothly out from the reel and it will break off.
And there’s wind. Gusting from every point of the compass, causing your forward cast to collapse in a heap, or your back-cast to sag and the fly become attached to your hat or backside. Of course, wind puts a chop on the water that makes the trout less wary and the fishing better – but it’s doubtful you can get your line out anyway.
And even if you’re doing everything right, the hook-up can still go wrong. I yank the fly from the open jaws of several astonished fish. Still too hasty. If sunken nymph fishing is intuitive, largely unconscious, this kind is all-too deliberate, calling for cool temperament and reflex control. Lindsay’s telling us a good day’s hopper fishing might run to a dozen bites and just four fish in the boat.
If fishing the sunken nymph requires Call of Duty style concentration, this is more like cracking Fermat’s Last Theorem while enduring a migraine headache. There’s no reason at all why a two-foot long trout would possibly be fooled by a pink-and-purple pan-scourer that looks nothing like the camouflage-green grasshoppers we find hiding on the bank. But a pink-and-purple pan-scourer that’s drifting perceptibly faster, or dragging slower than the current and leaving a tiny V-shaped wake behind: No way.
I catch a couple of nice rainbows and then so does David. His best must be 22 inches, easy. Then I get a nice brown unintentionally, while I was retrieving the fly. Then a long spell of nothing but heat and glare, punctuated by mooring up for lunch. Lindsay moves into “managing client expectation” mode. He flatters our casting. We’re doing everything right. Then he reminds us that, just like Trappist monks or Stoic philosophers, we’re indifferent to failure and steeled with patience. He blames the fish. I wonder fleetingly about The Bobber, then banish this impure thought.
I smoke a cigar to celebrate, but anyway David is clearly catching more fish than I am. I’ve had four really big difficult fish, yet crave more. But how long, O Lord, how long?
It’s so hot I want to take a snooze after all this flailing. Then, finally it all comes together just right. On the very last curve before the take-out, the fly that I’ve been watching for eight hours goes down definitively. The rod tip comes up with a hard, angry heft. I feel the line and its burden going down heavy like a sea-fish, circling the boat deep down, far underneath. When I horse it up to the surface it’s not quite the two-foot trout I’d hoped for, but close enough to make my day.
This makes up for the fact that I’d broken my fly rod earlier that day. Luckily I’d brought along a spare. I didn’t break the rod on a fish. It just snapped about an hour after there had been a sharp crack when I accidentally collided with Dave’s own rod on my back-cast.
The breakage doesn’t matter, and because the sensation is so good we decide to do it all over again two days later. Same guide, same river. Yet this time there’s a different David on board and the weather’s angrier too. In fact the wind is double the strength it was last time out. We don’t see any other drift boats on the water because all the other guides have cancelled. Even though it’s very hot and bright, it’s also blowing a hurricane.
I’m using the first David’s spare rod and once again, the fish are all hanging within a foot of the bank or lurking behind features. The wind makes it near-impossible to punch those big pink hoppers far enough. My shoulder muscle feels torn and trashed in the same way it was in Norway after fishing right through a midsummer night. The second David says it’s the most challenging day’s fishing he’s had – and he’s hugely experienced. True, the really big browns elude us, but we both have four or five up to 22 inches, browns and rainbows. Because we have taken fish on a day like this on dry fly, David and I share a quiet, understated satisfaction that makes us feel almost Montanan.
Let’s not forsake modesty, though. There’s a simple reason fishing from a drift boat as you float down the river has its determined fan-club across the United States, but especially in the Rocky Mountains. You can’t deny it’s a reliable way of catching many, many more fish. For a simple reason that has everything to do with mathematical probability, not competence.
Fishing is mostly a business of first chances: trout look at what’s coming past them and if they like what they see, then they’ll eat it right away. These opportunists don’t need any second opportunity to “make up their minds.”
In a day’s float you might cover six or seven miles, making many hundreds of one-time only casts, over water holding tens of thousands of fish. In a fertile tailwater there might be 6,000 trout per mile living below the surface. So even though you can’t cover every fish, during a day’s fishing your flies will have gone right over a fair proportion of those 35,000-plus trout. So why wouldn’t you catch at least a dozen good fish?
Compare this very favourable math to the opposite situation: You’re standing on the bank, or have waded to a fixed point in the river where you’re able to reach feeding fish with a 90 foot fly-line (and remember few people ever cast more than half that distance). These might be solitary fish or a pod. So instead of one cast over many fish, you’ve got many, many casts over the few fish that you can reach. If you spook them, they will certainly stop feeding, although no others will take their place.
Compared to the numbers game of drift boat fishing – whether with a sunken nymph or dry fly – standing on your own feet calls for much greater guile. You can surely guess where I’m going with this – if fishing from the bank or wading in the stream is tougher than boat fishing, then it must be better. For a start, you’re standing in the same medium the fish inhabit. You feel the welcome coolness of the rushing water pressing against your body. And right close up, you have an authentic trout’s eye view of what insects are doing on the surface. Shadowy forms dart close past your feet. You’re no longer guessing what’s happening down at water-level, because you’re now a part of the ecosystem.
There are many Western streams and big tailwaters you just can’t fish at all without a boat; they’re simply too powerful and dangerous to stand in, too wide and fast to cast across, or too remote to reach from the road. Their banks may be lined with vegetation, while in Montana there are plenty of landowners ready to shoot you for trespass if you step above the high-water mark without authorisation. For that reason fishing from the bank may limit you to official put-in ramps where the drift-boats enter and leave the water. But if you can float on it, then you can fish it.
For is this not old England, with its arcane restrictions to protect sporting privileges and the resulting cancer of commercial exploitation. The 1776 Revolution was at least in part about affirming the American People’s right to hunt and fish by rejecting such restrictions. So yes, there are places you can fish even the big blue ribbon rivers without a guide, a boat or anything more expensive than a Montana State Fish and Game license. On the stretch of Montana’s Missouri river above Craig and below the Holter Dam there are numerous public access points where anyone can park a car, string up your rod, step into your waders, and cross the meadows to fish. Not just local good old boys, but students, visitors of every stripe who are fishing addicts.
At dawn on a cool July morning when the sun rose obscured by a high, thin cloud of smoke from forest fires over the Canada border, I too made may way down to the Missouri to fish. There were just one or two cars already parked at other gate entrances, but it was the right time. The July Tricho midge hatch on the Missouri is legendary and can look like a summer snowstorm. But to catch it, you need to be ready to start fishing at dawn. By six in the morning, the fish are breakfasting busily and every good hole has someone fishing it.
On this stretch there’s a chain of long, thin, brush-covered islands dividing the bigger stream. This creates a series of back-channels and cool eddies where the fish gather and where, for a magical hour or two, they sip the tiny Tricho flies off the surface. If you can find the right spot and stay quiet, this is where may catch as many fish as you would from a boat.
Yet for fish and fisherman alike, the Tricho is so small it’s barely visible. Rather than singles, the fish are going after fluffy floating balls composed of dozens or even hundreds of insects, that cover the water like grey goosedown. Shadowy dorsal fins break the surface as trout roll over in the flat water, after scooping mouthfuls of Trichos like salted peanuts at a drinks party. This feeding pattern is something you glimpse out of the corner of your eye, and that just stops if you look too hard. I don’t want to jinx it.
No wonder then, in the faint pearly light, it’s a challenge to thread the hook of my tiny fly. A challenge too, to see where my artificial fly has landed. The merest ball of pale grey fluff with its two long white tails, it jostles vainly for space on still patches of surface water alongside hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of natural flies. There’s no reason why any trout should choose my artificial fly, when there’s so much honest protein on the water.
And they don’t. Not one. Fish are feeding everywhere, coming up inches from my fly. Having the discipline to leave the unwanted fly motionless on the water, rather than hauling it away with a fruitless strike at a fish eating the next-but-one Tricho on his dinner plate, feels like a hand-tremor test for aspiring neurosurgeons.
Moments such as these reinforce not only how irrational fly-fishing is, but also the inscrutable quality of a sport relying upon on close observation of cyclical patterns in nature, most anglers are capable of understanding but dimly. Insects hatch in gargantuan numbers, reproduce, and then are eaten or die. Fish follow this calendar of hatches, year after year. Thanks to seeing this repeated on well-known waters, a competent fisherman learns to anticipate, reproduce and exploit these natural events. The result is a piece of magic, connecting his own brain with the rudimentary limbic system a fish – all by means of a 33-yard fly line.
All the while, though, wider cyclical patterns may pass us by unseen. The mysteries of rainfall, evaporation, precipitation and ceaseless flow of water toward the ocean – all those things defining a “good” fishing season over a bad one, are pretty much beyond us. Like the erratic elliptical path of a comet around some distant center we cannot fathom, we remain ignorant of what really governs the trout’s world.
The Bible captures it best. Chapter One of Ecclesiastes reminds us that: “All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” Fishing is the pursuit of circles, providing endless opportunity to repeat the same mistakes. And the biggest mistake would be to attribute too much meaning to this activity. The Bible extract is part of the same section from which Hemingway lifted the title of his best book, and which reminds us that sunrise and sunset regulate our fishing hours: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”
Poetical this may be, time is passing on a July morning and these reflections are not helping me to catch any Missouri fish. So I shift my ground to find some faster water that has produced a back-eddy under the bank, where leaves and sticks rotate and the surface is mercifully free of Tricho clusters.
Here trout heads are coming up, feeding on single Trichos without any of that exasperating pickiness they show on the slower, flat water. To reach them without my line being dragged away in the faster current, it’s necessary to wade across a deeper part where the full force of the Missouri charges down toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Here the water is waist-deep and more, seeping into the lower pockets of my fly vest. It’s cold. But I have a wading stick; I’m confident, and already I’m catching fish in the eddy where several are lined up feeding. I take a fat brown trout, and then in pursuit of a larger one, I take an unconsidered step forward to make a longer cast.
And suddenly the river takes my legs from under me and I fall spluttering into the water, hat floating, chilly jets down my waders forcing gasps, as I flail and stumble for a foothold. Mustn’t drop the rod.
I quickly make it to the bank, retrieving the hat but finding my prescription glasses are gone. The biggest anxiety is the digital camera in the front chest pocket of my wader. It’s expensive and just two days old. Back at the car I strip off, wring out my clothes and remove the camera batteries (it later makes a miraculous recovery).
Falling into a big Western river at dawn isn’t just teeth-chatteringly cold; it strikes the vanity too. In the past I’ve felt sorry for those older men I’ve rescued in similar straits. Has my turn finally come? Just as there’s a younger trout ready to instantly take over the real estate of any older and larger fish accidentally killed or damaged, the same Darwinian rule applies to fly-fishermen. The younger and stronger will quickly colonize riskier wading habitats left vacant by older men.
Sure enough, at the car park another fisherman chats noncommittally while stringing up his rod, as watches me slowly drain my waders and strip off wet clothing. With barely concealed haste, he’s off to the river. And when the time comes for me to resume, he’s standing in my hole fishing that same back-eddy where I took the fish.
The circle of life. But anyway I’m too soaked and too cold to fish well, and so David and I head back home for breakfast. Later that the morning, and on other mornings too, we would wade fish for small, aggressive rainbows in the Dearborn, just above the point where it flows into the Missouri. Of course, a trip to Montana is comprised of many sessions beside many streams – but falling in the Missouri is a great reminder of our frail limitations, and a reminder just why so many fish it from a boat.
After engaging in any sporting activity for a couple of decades, we inevitably develop preferences for places, for practices, and for people. These form the map or value system that informs what we do – not for the pursuit of fame and fortune – but for fulfilment of our natures and the ease of our spirit. Through such practices, we discover to which clan we truly belong.
So as a fisherman, I believe the strong wild trout of the great American rivers springing from the Rocky Mountains, trump their gentler cousins living in the softly meandering idleness of the southern chalk streams of my native Britain. They beat their cousins on the eastern seaboard too. And I believe that building up the skills need to catch these tough American fish, has conferred an evolutionary advantage upon American fly-fishermen, that has left my compatriots far behind. That’s why I cross the Atlantic to learn from men I’m happy to call my friends.
In terms of practice, let’s say there’s not just a hierarchy of piscatorial merit, but also a personal ladder of values, visible in the eccentric scoring systems devised by some fishermen. I’ve explained that in mine, fishing dry-fly from a drift boat is more valued than using sunken nymphs with the help of a bobber. Fishing dry-fly from the shallows or even the middle of any large river is tougher than floating.
Yet the hardest of all, is to catch, kill and then satisfy real hunger by eating a wild trout taken in the pristine wilderness. Hardest not least because today we so seldom experience real, authentic hunger. And seldom put ourselves in the few surviving places that call for genuine self-reliance. And hardest of all because we must confront a very modern taboo against killing game fish that was unknown to earlier generations.
I was taught to fish by my father, who owned a heavy old Greenheart fly rod he’d inherited from his own father. He was old enough to have been in contact with an era in which Britain’s tweedier country landowners maintained there were only three true sports – everything else was a pastime.
Those sports where foxhunting, fishing, and shooting. Anything involving a ball, no matter what its size or shape, was just a pastime. He had also been taught that when you caught a fish, you killed it, and that the measure of a good day’s fishing was a “heavy basket” of fish to take home. He had a pocket-sized wooden cudgel with a weighted brass tip that was called “the priest,” for it delivered the last rites.
Actually, my father was a naturalist rather than the avid sportsman his own father would have wished him to be, and so his pleasure was in growing things, not catching or killing. Yet my father wanted to pass on to his son something from the vanished pre-war world of his own boyhood. And so he did. Stiff with age, the dirty canvas rod bag he gave me still sits behind the modern rod tubes in my office.
It contains a nine foot six, three piece rod, made by Enright & Sons, a firm now justly forgotten. A lot of discoloured brass and burgundy-coloured wrapping, with the varnish peeled away. Not really an antique, just a heavy piece of obsolete technology. Along with the rod, my father inherited a bag of country traditions, and likewise these mostly got broken when he tried to pass them on to me.
Before fibreglass or carbon fibre rods came along, you fished with a wooden rod. These were either made with costly split-cane – longitudinal bamboo sections bonded into a hexagram profile – or Greenheart, a whippy, mahogany-coloured hardwood from South America that was cheap and easy to turn into rods. Though there still are plenty of split-cane aficionados, no one uses Greenheart rods nowadays. So when I broke off the tip a bit over 40 years ago, that’s the way it stayed.
Over the decades, I’ve come to accept or at least partially understand more than a few of the lessons of history my father tried to pass down to a son who must have seemed to him blighted with resentment, reluctance, or downright refusal. We can’t discuss these things any more, but perhaps the conversation will continue with my own son.
It’s been a mixed bag in terms of country sports – fishing excepted. I tried, but was never a good shot. I sold his old Winchester .22 rifle and don’t even possess a shotgun any more. Riding far over the open range on a fast horse remains one of my deepest pleasures, but I’ve never once dressed up in a red jacket to chase the English fox.
And though I really bought into the fishing, I have held out staunchly against the parental view on killing fish. Well, mostly. I practice the doctrine of catch and release simply because that’s the only way it’s possible to catch a fish more than once. Each dead fish leaves behind an empty niche to be filled by natural reproduction or artificial substitutes from a hatchery. Either way takes years.
And in the United States, catch and release is followed much more rigidly than in Britain. That seems to me way of putting things to rights, because killing trout makes no more sense than killing the buffalo that once roamed the Montana range.
The wholesale slaughter by military scouts, trackers and pioneers in the 1860s was a deliberate stratagem to deprive the Indians of their livelihood and drive them into reservations. Buffalo Bill Cody, Bridger and the others who opened the Bozeman Trail, were the first generation possessing the technology of repeater firearms that made it possible to for one man to kill 30,000 buffalo in a lifetime. The Indians certainly had their own destructive technologies, being ready to send hundreds of stampeding beasts crashing over their buffalo jumps onto rocks below before picking a few choice parts from the mound of carcasses. But relative to the white man’s firepower and his numbers, the damage was modest. After all, there’s only so much carnage you can wreak with a muzzle-loading flintlock.
I think there’s a valid comparison to be made between effects the Indians and the white settlers had on buffalo populations back in the 1860s, and the environmental impact of fly-fishermen past and present. True, they killed fish back in my father’s day, but it didn’t make that much of a difference.
If you like, yesterday’s fly-fishermen – my father included – were not so dissimilar from what we know of the plains Indians. Their fishing technology was primitive enough to prevent them doing much damage. Heavy but underpowered wooden rods, leaky canvas waders, leaders made of animal gut. Their scientific knowledge was limited.
And, like the Indians, their behaviour was governed by chivalric codes of honour that now seem fatally naïve. While the Indians signed and mostly respected treaties with the Great Father in Washington, in the same way the fishermen of a former age followed a lengthy list of “though shalt nots” laid down by the fathers of fly fishing, F. M. Halford and G.E.M Skues. They made things far more difficult for those following them with rules about casting upstream only, or fishing only with surface flies while trout resolutely stayed below, or fishing only with single flies.
In contrast, the modern fly-fisherman is a formidable predator armed with the Winchester or Martini-Henry of piscatorial mass slaughter – and a century of accumulated knowledge in the fields of entomology and fish behaviour. His high modulus carbon-fibre fly rod might come from the same bar stock as the blades of Apache attack helicopters. His reel also benefits from military aviation’s expertise with precision aluminium milling. His knowledge fills libraries, spilling over into social media sites with a profusion of relevant scientific data and shared expertise.
You can say that if today’s dedicated fishermen didn’t exercise restraint, then trout would quickly be wiped off the face of the earth, just like the buffalo. It would be the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel. Which is why most fishermen let them all go: the more vociferous count themselves paid-up members of Trout Unlimited. The less so, general supporters of the conservation lobby. Yet there are occasions when you do need to kill a fish. For reasons of attitude, or simple hunger.
Attitude? Fly-fishing may have at least partially severed ties with the blood sport from which it originated. But it’s hardly zero impact, and nor can it be called truly sustainable. It’s still a form of hunting, and clearly causes pain and stress to fish. However responsible the angler may be in releasing them, fish do get hurt and sometimes involuntarily killed. And the presence of human predators negatively impacts pristine environments in so many ways.
So killing the very occasional fish (and here I mean a couple a year, unless they are hatchery fish) introduces a needed reality check if we’re to avoid adopting behaviour traits reminiscent of cruel cats persecuting mice. If we really think catch and release fishing has nothing to do with hunting, and that hunting has nothing to do with killing, then we probably shouldn’t be doing either. So, each year I do levy a tribute, but usually not on the fish of my home stretch of the river Avon in southern Britain.
And hunger? Could the few calories that a trout contains ever justify killing it – or satisfy the energy needs of the middle-aged, middle-weight, middle-class guys standing in the average stream? Not if they have a car parked nearby.
But yes, if you’ve been out hiking and camping in the Rockies for a week – only to discover you’ve miscalculated the number of dehydrated meals needed to complete the trip. Then catching, killing and cooking your trout in the woods isn’t some primal masculine rite. It’s the source, not so much of sober reflection about life’s verities, but simply of much-needed protein that will help anyone heft a full rucksack.
Just getting to a place where you have a hunter’s need for that extra protein takes time and some effort. In the northern hemisphere, it’s really not easy to get far enough away from all retail activity, to reach the places where you pretty much drop off the grid. I’ve been lucky enough to find a few such places in the Highlands of Scotland, and also in the Brazilian Amazon.
At the beginning of our trip, Lucia and I left Montana to drive over the Beartooth mountains into Wyoming to visit Yellowstone National Park. We saw black bear, elk, buffalo, eagles and more. And we appreciated its magnificent landscapes from the customary roadside perspective, or through a car windscreen. I know you can get away from all this Yellowstone hoopla, for instance by riding a horse up to fish Slough Creek, as I did some years back. That time we fished also the Yellowstone River. But the smooth roads and the crowds make Yellowstone a spectacle you’re looking at, rather than a place to inhabit.
Glacier National Park is quite different. There’s only one road through it (Going-to-the-Sun Road) that was built by US Army engineers in the 1930s and runs over Logan Pass at 2,000 metres. And there really aren’t many visitors, because Glacier is on the way to nowhere, expect possibly Canada.In the days before the automobile, the Pacific Railroad people tried to attract tourists by building grand old hotels in the Swiss style. We stayed at the Many Glacier Hotel, and the Belton Chalet. Very fine they were too. But in preparation for our longer hike up to the Triple Divide, we wanted an overnight camping trip. We wanted nature.
So we hiked up to Lincoln Lake, located at around 4,500 feet in the shadow of Gunsight Mountain. Yet it’s a dead-end. At the end of a seven-hour trail there’s no escape at the head of the Lincoln valley, which forms a sheer cliff just like a hydrodam, with Lake Ellen Wilson immediately above it. You admire the water cascading down the picturesque Beaver Chief Falls into Lincoln Lake, but you can’t get up to the other high-altitude trails frequented by many long-distance hikers. You have to go back down to Lake Macdonald.
Which makes the spot we picked one of the remoter spots in Glacier National Park. We were alone in the Lincoln valley catchment, seeing no one all day. Except a big grizzly bear. As bear sightings go, it was almost perfect; short, sweet and not too close. He was on a rock or a bump right beside the overgrown trail, some 30 yards away. Big humped shoulder, dark brown against the green vegetation. A startled look on that huge face, rounded like a dinner plate. And within a few seconds he turned with a graceful agility that seemed impossible for his huge bulk, and with extraordinary speed was gone. We could almost have dreamt it up.
It was near nightfall. Too late to turn back; so we headed up the trail to the empty campsite, bear-spray in hand. Several times that day we’d seen piles of bear scat purple from the ripe huckleberries they’d been harvesting alongside the trail – just as we had been – yet we hadn’t expected to see such a creature, so wild and self-possessed. We lit a fire that night before crawling into our fragile little tent. Like any self-respecting Montanan, we now had our own bear story. And this sighting had no car windscreen to frame it, no easy exit.
Later on, we reported the bear sighting at the Ranger Office, because a US National Park is not entirely “off the grid.” The experience of nature is mitigated by federal regulations, backcountry permits, safety briefings, campsite rules, food storage discipline, inflexible itineraries, trail crews and patrolling Rangers. In truth, we are only there on sufferance – and so too are the bears.
Because “our” bear showed no interest in us or the food we carried, the Ranger told us he’d be classified as “well-behaved.” But on another hike, as we parked our vehicle at the trailhead to begin walking from the Cut Bank park entrance toward Morning Star Lake, we met a Ranger with rifle, shotgun and handgun. “Badly-behaved” bears had been haunting the campsite nearby, and wouldn’t survive for long.
I couldn’t kill a bear, but in the end I did kill a fish.
Which brings us right back to where I started. The place in Glacier National Park where this whole Montana journey begins and ends, right up there on the top of the Rockies at the geological location where the Great Divide and the Laurentian Divide meet up. The source of the finest trout fishing in the world, and where I met the guys who inspired me to visit Yaak, Montana.
Of course, you can’t actually catch trout at this altitude here above the treeline, where the snow is still densely layered and releases only an icy trickle into the rocks. Only marmots and Bighorns live up here. But if you follow the water downhill, there’s a place not too far below where you can.
The spot is Red Eagle Lake, which lies at 4,700 feet and is right beneath the Triple Divide Pass. Heading down, you’ll have to take your boots off and wade the icy Hudson’s Bay Creek a couple of times. Later on it gets too big to wade, but the US Forest Service puts up precarious-looking suspension bridges every summer to permit a crossing. A few miles further through an eerie dead forest that was burned in 2006, and you’ll find the fishing spot.
Nearing the end of our hike, we wanted to camp two nights at the eastern end of Red Eagle. That’s where we celebrated my 60th birthday. There was a welcoming and convivial group camping there including a third fisherman David from Great Falls, and his friend Ron. No cake of course, but they rustled up an energy bar with a candle on it, and more than a few welcome shots of Fireball cinnamon whisky. The next day we would hike with them along Eagle Creek with them to St Mary’s, and civilisation.
The lakeside camp was where we got hungry as the food started running out. So after a morning swimming in the lake and lazing around camp, I caught that fine fat trout with the orange flesh in Red Eagle Creek. Perched on a rock right above a white water cascade just a few yards below the lake’s outlet, I’d been trailing a weighted fly through the pool just as those had suggested.
It didn’t take long to get a couple. Fish come aggressively in these remote spots. And they fight back too. Such was my position on the rock, I could only seize each fish from the water by placing a finger under its gill cover. This meant my finger protruded up the gullet and right into his mouth, where his sharp teeth shredded the tip so deep I carried the marks for many weeks.
It was only some time afterward I realised I shouldn’t have killed that fish. Brightly dappled with orange, pink and yellow spots across his back, he looked just like a lake trout. Or maybe a brook trout, an introduced species from further east. In fact he was one of a subspecies unique to the Pacific slope of the Rockies.
Later, I cleaned and filleted those fish in the lake, as the afternoon sun angled its way behind Red Eagle Mountain and its hidden hanging lake. Later still, the hillsides morphed pink and gold as the waterfowl cut their trails across the still mirror of lake and sky, and the northern stars unwrapped that brilliant density only visible when far from the illuminations of man.
The fish was simply delicious. It was the only trout I ate, and for that matter the only one I’ve ever killed in the United States in over 20 years of fishing trips. Hope that redeems things a bit.
It would have made for a tighter story-line if that bull trout really came from waters eventually flowing into the Missouri, where I’d fallen in while wading, and where David and I had caught those big browns on hopper patterns, and which carries the waters of the Big Horn, where Byron and I had flipped our weighted rigs below Fort Smith.
But it’s not true. This particular trout only inhabits the drainages heading towards the Pacific and Hudson’s Bay, not the Atlantic. The lake is the source of Red Eagle Creek, which flows northward into St Mary Lake. The St Mary River then makes its way to the Saskatchewan and Nelson rivers and eventually into Hudson’s Bay.
But looked at it another way, it was kind of poetic, and justifies my plan for that fifth trip to Montana. During 2014 I fished in two of the three rivers starting their journey at Triple Divide Peak, flowing to Hudson’s Bay and Gulf of Mexico.
2015 offers the chance to complete the full “Triple Divide Trio” by fishing the Yaak River, which is a tributary of the Kootenay. This in turn flows along the Columbia River to Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean. And that is why “I’ll See You Next Year in Yaak, Montana.”