Montana Outdoors

March 31, 2007

The Moose and the Fisherman.

Filed under: Animals, Humor, Montana, Moose, Nature, Outdoors, Reflections, Writing — Tags: , , — montucky @ 11:31 am

There’s a beautiful trout stream in western Montana called Rock Creek which flows along the east side of the Sapphire Mountains from its origin in the Anaconda Mountain Range on the Continental Divide until it joins the Clark Fork River roughly twenty miles east of Missoula.

Rock Creek used to be one of the truly “blue ribbon” trout streams in the West until somewhere in the late fifties all of the fishing writers for the major sportsmen’s magazines discovered it and beat it nearly to death with their pens, after which the road was “improved?!” (pardon the sarcasm) and their readers from all over the world came and finished it off by bombarding its waters with their fly lines, lures and children’s toys.

For many years prior to the demise of the stream and the last rites were performed on it by those same writers, Rock Creek was home to a bountiful supply of very large trout; Rainbows, Browns, Cutthroats and even a few Brook and Bull Trout. In the canyon formed by the stream and extending on up the slopes of the Sapphire range to the west and the Flint Creek range to the east, other wildlife was also abundant, including Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Whitetail Deer, Elk, and large numbers of bears and Moose.

The road that followed along the stream was dirt and rock, and ranged from “pretty darn bad” at the bottom end to “nearly impossible” after about twenty miles upstream, then “passable” for another twenty miles or so as it turned toward the town of Phillipsburg. If one turned the other way at that point and headed toward the Bitterroot valley over the Skalkaho divide its condition was… well, that’s another story.

The “nearly impossible” section in the middle was the favorite of my Dad and myself and we spent considerable time there, fishing, hunting, camping and fixing tires. That section, maybe ten miles in length was also the approximate center of the local moose population, and at times it seemed they were everywhere. There were swamps or sloughs (bogs, if you will) along the stream there and it was common to see large bulls standing belly-deep in the water, feeding on their favorite underwater vegetation. Their heads would submerge then re-appear with their mouths full of plants and a plentiful supply also draped over and hanging down from their huge scoop-shovel racks.

Late in the fall the bulls become very territorial and aggressive and are to be carefully avoided by anyone who hasn’t inherited the “death-wish” gene but in the spring, summer, and early fall, moose are amicable and laid back with the exception of cows who have calves with them, at which time a tall climbable tree is a very good thing to have tucked away in your fishing vest.

One summer day in ‘fifty seven, my Dad and I were fishing one of our favorite sections of Rock Creek, where the stream left the road for a stretch of several miles and wound around, back and forth along some cliffs and meadows that contained some excellent deep holes crowded with huge trout. It was during the time when the human component of the fauna had not reached the point of being an infestation, and when those of us who spent much time there had a friendly and comfortable relationship with Mother Nature.

All true fishermen spend a certain amount of time in the water while fishing, some more than others depending on their acrobatic skills and athletic ability, and at times their presence creates more foot traffic on the stream bed than is beneficial to the underwater life there. Mother Nature, having a terrific sense of humor has devised some gentle ways to control the traffic. One of her favorite devices is called a “boulder”, and strategically placed in a section of fast-moving riffle where it can’t be seen by a pedestrian, a boulder will convert foot traffic to floating traffic which takes the pressure away from the actual stream bed itself. Being an avid fisherman myself, I learned at a very early age to be an avid swimmer as well.

On this particular day I was upstream from Dad several hundred yards and trying my best to gently set a Royal Coachman down on the water inches from the far bank, which necessitated wading in water above my waist in one of Mother Nature’s favorite fast riffles when one foot encountered one of her boulders and I became a floating object. It was much simpler to reach the far bank than the one I had left so, after swimming maybe thirty yards with one arm while holding my fly rod high and dry with the other I emerged on the far bank looking like something that was usually seen hanging from a moose’s rack with a fly rod protruding from its top.

My new side of the stream was rocky with intermittent cliffs interspersed with wide gravel bars and I soon came to one of these at a point where the stream took a sharp turn to the left. On the far bank I could see my Dad slowly moving downstream to the next fishing hole, following a very active game trail that paralleled the stream. His side of the stream was mostly grassy along the water, but there were also stretches of heavy, dense brush that the trail tunneled through.

As he entered one of these brushy sections, he turned his fly rod around so the reel end was in front, making it easier to keep the rod free of the foliage. Now this thick stretch was thirty to forty yards long, and at the other end of it I could see a huge bull moose just entering the same stretch of brush, heading up stream directly toward my Dad, turning his massive rack a little to the side to fit between the tight branches. What little sound they were making was completely lost in the murmur of the flowing water, leaving the impression of complete silence.

I settled down on a small patch of sand and rested my back against a convenient rock to watch the show, with not much immediate concern for the actors on the stage across the creek. I was pretty sure the moose could take care of himself, and I always knew Dad to be in full control of things once he left Mom’s kitchen back in town.

Slowly and quietly the gap between them narrowed, with the bull carefully altering the tilt of his rack to fit through the brush and Dad using his forward hand to part the leaves as he proceeded through the tall bushes hiding the trail. Closer, and closer until when Dad thrust his hand ahead to part the last few leaves between the two he nearly brushed the nose of the moose with his hand. It was at that exact second, give or take a few micro-seconds they both realized that they weren’t alone on that narrow trail.

Dad’s eyes grew wide as he changed hands on his fly rod and started to do an about-face. From my exclusive seat in the very front row I could also see the moose quite well. Even today the image is very clear of one large brown eye with its brow arched high, looking down a foot and a half of nose at a creature roughly a tenth of his size who was apparently attempting to smack him in the face with a hand full of leaves. His look was one of puzzlement at the situation and wonder at the audacity of the small creature with the big attitude, mixed with uncertainty about just what his best plan of action should be. For a split second he froze in his tracks. When he did move it was lightning quick and decisive. He spun and headed south just as Dad spun and headed north and the whole scene brought an image to my mirth-wracked mind of Moses parting the waters of the sea.

Dad wasn’t entirely happy when he finally became aware that I had witnessed the entire episode without making the slightest attempt to intervene, although he calmed down a little after I told him I wasn’t worried a bit about the situation because I knew he would never hurt the poor little moose.


  1. I laughed at this one – my brother is quite a fisherman and I dabble a bit too. That being the case I can completely related to the idea of spending time in water – and wobbling clumsily across boulders. My family laughs at me because every single time I angle a line I end up two feet in the water, then two and a half, and eventually waist deep in the water. So my brother got me some hip waders – expensive thinsulate ones – which thus far I haven’t worn. I really can visualize this story as well as quite a bit more of your writing. You have an eye for detail and have mastered the way to express it. By the way – I have noticed that the actual amount of fish I take home seems to have nothing to do with how wet I get. I can only see a relation between how wet I get and how much firewood I burn.


    Comment by aullori — April 12, 2007 @ 6:36 am

  2. Yes, I, too, spend a lot of the summer being wet. I do wear boots in the early spring, but after that it’s just jeans & old fishin’ shoes.

    This story took place in the mid-50’s and it’s one of my fondest memories. It’ sad now to think of it though. That beautiful area that I loved so much has seen so much “progress” and development now that I can no longer bring myself to go back for a visit.

    On the bright side though, there are still relatively un-spoiled areas around here where there’s still fish to match wits with and still moose to be seen and enjoyed.


    Comment by montucky — April 12, 2007 @ 1:15 pm

  3. Oh how my father would have loved your story about your father and the moose. I have to believe he’s reading over my shoulder!


    Comment by Cedar — March 5, 2010 @ 8:13 am

    • Despite being nearly a continent apart, I have a feeling that our families might have been close, Cedar.


      Comment by montucky — March 5, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

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