An article appeared the other day in one of the regional newspapers and it began with the words, “Anglers: The Bitterroot River is warming up – do you know where your fly rod is?”. It went on to point out that toward the end of this month the skwala stonefly hatch should begin, signaling the start of the fly fishing season here in western Montana. It reminded me of a story that I wrote back in 2007 about a boy and his father and the beginning of a life rich with the love of trout fishing. I will repost it today, with apologies for the repetition to anyone who read it back then.
I should know better than to write another fishing story, since as I recall, that was the activity which caused my banishment from polite society in the first place many years ago. Oh well, old dogs may not learn new tricks, but they remember all their bad habits very well! So, here goes…
One Saturday morning near the end of May, a small boy, four years of age, stood just behind his father in the bright green grasses of spring on the bank of an icy trout stream which was swollen by the melting snow; the west fork of the Bitterroot River. Despite the heavy run-off that year, the water was still pure and crystal clear. Behind and above them, six thousand feet closer to the sky, sunlight glittered on deep snow which sat like an ermine crown on the top of Trapper’s Peak in the beautiful Bitterroot Mountains.
Miles up stream, on the green, heavily forested slopes just below the snow line, new bear cubs had emerged from their winter dens and their mothers were already beginning to teach them the rules of living in the wild country; what to eat, where to find it and all the whos to be sure to stay well away from.
It was learning time in western Montana.
The father was not a large man, but he was wiry and tough from a lifetime of earning a living outdoors. He wore a heavy green jacket over his usual bibbed overalls, and a wicker creel which was heavy with trout and the new green leaves and grasses that kept them fresh hung from his left shoulder. His fly rod was old and made of split bamboo, but in good repair; a cherished veteran of innumerable trout battles, spring after spring and summer after summer.
There had already been many lessons on the ways of trout in the four hours since day-break in the canyon. The boy had been a rapid learner, he was quickly becoming skillful at landing the hard-fighting trout that rose to take his father‘s fly, and the fly rod already felt comfortable in his small hand. It was a pleasant experience and he was thoroughly enjoying the challenge. During the previous summer he had been just too little, but this year it was different. He was finally big enough now and it was time to begin learning the love of a sport that he would enjoy for the rest of his years. There was another lesson as well.
America was still at war. Battles were raging in various parts of the world and there were family members and friends who had answered their calls to duty and were still in harm‘s way. In such times it is a good thing to know a way, for however short the time, to achieve a break from all the stress and concern; a brief diversion of one’s thoughts from distress to pleasantness, to catch a deep breath and have a time of soul’s rest before returning to the cares of the world. The boy knew little of what all this meant, but he was learning a lesson none-the-less. He would understand it all and how to use it later, and it would never be forgotten.
So far the fish had all been small, judged by the standards of those now distant years, around a pound apiece, but colorful and full of fight; an excellent beginning.
A few hundred yards upstream from where they stood was a sharp bend in the stream, and along the shore on the outside of the curve there was a large pile of logs that had been deposited there years before during high water times. Far into the bank beneath the logs the water had scoured out a hole some thirty feet deep and twenty yards long, and the man already knew that it would be the exclusive domain of a large trout. And that it was.
They approached the hole and he began casting, sending loop after loop of line out toward the far bank, floating temptation down into precisely the right place, and when the line was extended perfectly straight over the water, let the fly drop lightly like the feather it was, mere inches from the edge of the log jam. Immediately there was a flash of silver, crimson and green as five pounds of Rainbow broke the surface of the water; a carefully cultivated reflex, a lightning-quick movement of the man’s wrist, and the battle began.
As soon as he knew the hook was well set, the father handed the rod to his son, saying, “He’s all yours now”, and assumed the role of a coach, watching carefully and giving instructions as needed.
“Keep the line tight, but not too tight.”
“Let him run, the water’s open! He‘ll take some line now.”
“Come, move downstream with him. You can’t hold him in that swift water!”
“Snub him up a bit, he’s heading for that underwater log. See it? Good move!”
For over thirty minutes the battle went on and the boy’s arms ached, but he was still game for the fight, and still responded immediately to the commands. Finally, several hundred yards down stream, the big trout began to tire.
“Keep the line snug and bring him over to the bank.” The stream there was a little slower, forming a deep riffle: a good place for the landing. As the boy fought the fish toward the bank, his father could see the hook was beginning to loosen: the trout would not be on much longer.
Acting quickly, he entered the stream below all the action and came up behind the tired fish. Chest deep in the icy water, he slid both arms under the trout and scooped it up on the bank where the boy dived on it as a good lineman would dive on a loose ball and held on until his father scrambled up to him and subdued the still struggling fish.
Then the final words: “You did it, Son! Good job!”
The grin on the boy’s face was visible for miles and stayed for a lifetime! A fisherman had just been born.
There’s a formula I use for catching trout and it’s very simple, really. Just tie on one of these: (my own design, by the way, and far from perfect, but perfect flies don’t catch fish… convincing ones do.)
Apply it appropriately right along here: (this is one of my favorite slow riffles about a mile upstream from my house).
You should end up with one of these (16 inches, exactly 2 pounds) which, once cooked properly, makes a very nice meal. A pleasant way to spend an hour on a summer afternoon!
I love the opening day of trout season in Montana, when I get to re-learn everything I forgot since last year! While the season doesn’t open for two more weeks yet, I can vividly remember opening day last year because I took notes:
Yesterday I Drove out to the Little Thompson River.
The fun started with the hip boots when I got cramps in both shoulders putting them on. (The fact that the temperature was only slightly lower than at the top of Mt. Everest didn’t help much.) I finally got them on my feet, stood up and then realized I didn’t have a belt. No problem, I attached them to my belt loops (BIG mistake!)
I broke the ice away from the edge of the stream and carefully waded out. Geez, these rocks are more slippery than they used to be! It was then that I noticed that the slight splash I was making was freezing to my hat. There were some deer about 100 yards away in the meadow and I felt bad about getting them so wet, but I was pretty occupied doing the “Hamsterdance”.
As it turns out there’s a very good reason why you wear a belt with hip boots: then they don’t pull your jeans down to your knees. (That in itself isn’t too bad a problem, but it also means your boots are also down to your knees.) So I slogged back to shore and emptied out the boots.
Finally got to fish for awhile.
There were two routes back to the Jeep: the route I had come, through the high grass and thorn trees, or the direct route through a slough. I didn’t want to go back the way I came because I couldn’t bear the sight of all those little pieces of skin hanging from the thorn trees. The slough looked like a better choice. I calculated the depth of the thing to be about 38 inches and stepped in. Found out the calculation was correct. Also found out the height of my boots was 34 inches.
Slogged back to shore again. This time I sat down, took out my fishing knife and cut holes in the bottoms of the boots. It made emptying them out much quicker and easier!
Next week I’m going to take the only fish I caught to the taxidermist. If he mounts it correctly, I can wear it on my pinky finger. It ought to go well with the Bass lure that’s still embedded in the ring finger. I’ll feel a little guilty, though. I didn’t exactly catch the fish: he came out one of the times when I emptied the water out of my boots.