Fished out 

Hungry for the old ways at Rock Creek Mercantile

It never occurred to the fisherman that the act of imparting the love of his craft would slowly deplete him of his own passion for it.

Doug Persico leans back in a black chair at a small table inside the Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile, a fly shop just off of I-90, in the shadow of the Sapphire Mountains. Wagon wheels serve as porch railing at the entrance to the shop. The screen door bounces twice before closing. The coffee—strongest coffee around, says the grandson—is served for free. It’s a Saturday in June. Doug and his wife, Carolyn Persico, have owned the shop almost 25 years, and Doug Persico dreamed about the business for two decades before that. Now, it has taken something out of him. He fishes less. He sits in his chair.

Before a fisherman ensnared them, the Persicos lived in San Francisco, wore suits, worked in tall buildings.

“There was an old fisherman,” says Persico, from behind a set of drawers marked Hot Flies. “He lived across the street from my wife.” His name, says Persico, was Jack Horner. Horner, he says, taught the Persicos to cast on Golden Gate pond. Then, in 1965, he brought them to Rock Creek for the first time.

Doug Persico made a promise to himself that morning, his first morning waking up on the creek: “Someday I was going to have a fly shop on Rock Creek. Took 25 years, but I got it.”

For 25 years, the Persicos visited and fished. Before they purchased it, the business was a bar and restaurant. In Montana, Doug says, you used to be able to buy property on a handshake. He and his wife were eating huckleberry pie and talking with the owner. The owner made them an offer. Doug looked at Carolyn. She nodded once. The men shook hands.

That was September, 1989. The fly shop opened the following May. The first year, Persico fished almost every evening. He fished every inch of the creek. Over the years, he saw bobcat, big horn rams, deer, a pair of wolves and a fox. He watched one black mountain lion drink at the creek. And over the years, in the backyard, he taught a lot of people to cast, to love fishing. And he himself fished less. In the past three years, he’s fished probably three times. Now, if he never fished again, he says, it wouldn’t bother him.

Persico has a belly, a small goatee, sharp brown eyes and a reputation. He has a reputation, he says, for being something of a “character.”

The word doesn’t sound quite right to him, nor to his grandson. They think the right word is “curmudgeon.” They laugh at that.

They sit at the table. It is covered with spools of fly line and small cardboard boxes and a pair of monofilm cutters—a good pair, says Persico. He ties leader butts onto fly lines. He gives advice. Today’s “hot fly” is the “cat puke,” a drowning salmon fly tinted a horrid shade of orange. He points out the bucket of cat pukes.

A storm rolls in. Then, so do customers, many in waders. They mill. They pull up chairs to the table. One lights up a pipe. The regulars serve themselves coffee. They are not shy about refills.

“Fishing was really good up until 35 minutes ago when the storm decided to blow in,” says one tourist, from South Carolina.

“It was raining like a son-of-a-gun until Tuesday,” says a local.

Persico surveys the scene. He knows which tourists will opt to float the river. He knows that one young man will try to purchase a resident license though he isn’t from Montana, and he knows how to change the boy’s mind. He knows that some folks will walk in the door seeking only a clue to the best fishing hole. He loses his temper with a customer about once each year, twice in a bad year, he says. As a rule, everyone gets treated well. Even people who just want fishing tips. Even people from Missoula. He isn’t keen on visitors who walk in just to buy a license. Or people who dump their trash in his dumpster, which costs him $65 each month to rent. Fries his onions, he says.

The South Carolina boys are authentic customers, but Persico notices one thing amiss.

“And for this, this great service,” he says to one of the South Carolina boys, “we’ve got one of you wearing a Grizzly Hackle hat?”

“Oh, me.” The boyish South Carolinian stands contrite, hat in hand.

Then he turns to a nearby shelf, rifles through the ball caps. He purchases one. It says Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile.

“I didn’t mean to bust your chops,” says Persico.

The man, wearing an Operation Iraqi Freedom T-shirt, says he’s a soldier and used to having his chops busted.

“Let me buy you guys a beer,” says Persico. “I’ve had a decent day.”

In the winter, he says, it’s pretty lonely. Only the locals show up, to chat or tie flies. And the UPS man, for a cup of coffee. When they’ve had no customers at all, the Persicos close the shop the following day.

A short, roundish woman walks into the shop. She is frustrated. She’s having trouble with her cast. She wonders if her 9-foot rod is too long for her height. She thinks she needs a new one. “Get your rod,” Persico says, and takes her to the backyard.

“Count to three.”

He casts.

“Watch where my thumb is when I finish my back cast.”

She watches. She casts. She casts again. And again.

“Beautiful!” He smiles wide. “You don’t need a new rod.”

Her husband appears. She casts. “That one was good,” says the husband. He’s pleased, but Persico seems more so.

The woman leaves the shop giddy.

No money exchanges hands. For the casting “tune-up” or for help tying flies, money never exchanges hands. Persico sits back in his chair, smiling.

That evening, the couple and their grandson plan to sit on their porch 10 miles up Rock Creek, eat ribs and drink beer. The grandson will fish. Doug Persico will probably just watch. He says he wants to be back the way he was before he opened the store, when he still felt hungry for the creek, and for fishing.

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