"Is that a rock?" asked Big Al from the front of the boat. I squinted over Al's shoulder into the tiny cone of light projecting from his cell phone, which, embarrassingly enough, was our only source of illumination as we felt our way downriver to a takeout already lost in the early night. A vague white smear arose from the edge of black water and, before I could reply, the boat bottom answered definitively as we glanced off the rock and swirled back into the dark current. LG spit a staccato burst of epithets from the rower's seat. It was his drift boat, and though we hadn't yet incurred any significant damage to his baby, it's a generally discomforting feeling to be navigating moving water stone-blind.
Told the story of three fishermen caught on a river after dark, most would assign the trio a combination of stupidity and inexperience. While all three of us suffer occasional bouts of the former, we've logged many thousands of river days collectively. This time, however, we'd fallen victim to the perfectly understandable desire to wring the most out of a season's final day on the water. The lesson here is that when the sun drops out of the sky at the beginning of happy hour, you'd best carpe your diem, lest the tables turn and it's the noctis seizing your sorry ass, instead.
For those who find peace and adventure in trout water, the onset of winter brings more than a metaphorical death. It brings the end of a fishing season that always seems to pass at a sadly tender age, with the same trout that just weeks ago savaged your fly now throttled down to refrigerated lethargy.
It also triggers a rabid desire for closure, a proper send-off that for me has evolved into a quest for one last big fish. Feeling the girth of a winter-ready trout as it slides through my hands back into water dark with cold is the best way I've found to put a trout season to bed, and the memory of that last fish vanishing becomes a lifeline months later when the winter blues lock down hard.
Two chief dynamics of late-autumn fishing give it most-favored season status among a certain subset of fly fishermen. The first is a matter of piscine biology. As water temperatures drop, the already highly-developed predatory instincts of big trout become sharpened by the need to pack as much energy (read: small fish) into their bodies as possible. Like the anglers who pursue them, big trout need a little help through the long winters. The second is a matter of cross-species timing. Late fall marks the peak of waterfowl migration and, for fly fishermen who also hunt ducks, it means keeping one eye on the water and one on the air. In Montana, we call this dual-purpose outing the cast-and-blast, which may not be as sexy a title as ménage à trois, but given the choice, I suspect a fair percentage of sportsmen would choose a big brown trout/greenhead mallard pairing over the Olsen twins.
In any event, neither a cast-and-blast nor any type of year-ender looked possible for me last fall, thanks to a work schedule loaded with crazy travel. But the understanding of a gracious wife and the availability of two of the best kind of fishing buddies (great fishermen and even better company) prevailed. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving we found ourselves rolling on I-90 to a section of a local river obscure enough to warrant a vow of anonymity from my fishing partners.
Out on the highway, the interior of LG's truck vibrated with a DJ mix of "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Run Like Hell." One might question the wisdom of blending Glen Campbell and Pink Floyd, but the result was startlingly satisfying. LG is a Missoula fishing guide and budding fly-fishing film producer. He's as fishy a guy as I know and possesses the sort of oversized personality and sense of humor that make every day on the water with him a balls-to-the-wall affair. When the sample of an Iron Maiden song rose from the mix, LG casually mentioned that Iron Maiden played in Santiago while he was imprisoned there a couple years ago. He can't talk about it much, as the case is still pending, but the bottom line is he went down for his right to guide in Chile. It's always a pleasure to share a boat with a man of conviction.
Big Al is probably the closest thing Missoula has to a man-about-town. He runs the taproom of a popular brew house and has so bewitched the general public that he's been voted best bartender several years running despite demonstrating no ability as a mixologist. He's also a great friend and a top-shelf fisherman predisposed to chasing big trout.
Our mission was clear. Late-fall trout fishing means casting big junk—streamer patterns designed to trigger a fierce predatory reaction—tight to the undercut banks favored by huge trout. What this style of fishing lacks in quantity of strikes is usually more than compensated for by the size of the fish involved. And from a technical standpoint, streamer fishing challenges even the most accomplished anglers.
I say this because, though I'd rate myself a solid third in that boat in terms of fishing ability, I'm no piker either. And so it was with no small amount of surprise that I observed Big Al slumped over in pain moments after I heard, as I powered a cast toward a succulent bank, a sound not unlike that of a hammer striking a two-by-four. It seems Al's melon got in the way of my cast and the big split-shot weight attached to the line just inches above the fly squared him dead center in the back of the head.
It's a mortifying moment for any fisherman and damn near inexcusable for an experienced one. If I had buried that hook instead of a chunk of lead into his head we'd have performed the sort of streamside operation no fisherman ever wants to be on either end of.
The upside of the incident is that it afforded at least one memorable fishing-related moment from the trip, because the fishing itself certainly failed to do so. Over the course of the afternoon Big Al drew three strikes and I two, eventually landing one rainbow that, though spirited and healthy, fell far below the threshold of a true season-ending fish. It could've just been an off day, but we concluded we had overshot the active feeding window by a week or two—that winter torpor had already claimed the fish of that river.
It would've been a tidy story to say we made up for the poor fishing with a lights-out day of wingshooting, but the truth is my efforts in that area were on par with the day's casting. As we made the turn around a bend in the river, a group of four mallards locked up over a downstream side slough and dropped to the water's surface with back-fluttering wings. That sight will get any duck hunter's blood moving and, being the only armed member on this excursion, I grabbed my 12-gauge, loaded it, and proceeded to put the sneak on.
Some 60 yards out from the slough's edge I dropped to a crouch and followed a line of tall grass to the point I had reckoned to be the optimal shooting spot. When I stood slowly, the water 20 yards away was barren of ducks. But out of the corner of my eye I saw an explosion that became a dozen northern mallards busting off the water about 45 yards down the slough. I put one shot on a bird still within reach of the Browning, missed cleanly, and then watched the flock climb above a line of cottonwoods into the late November sunshine, the green heads and orange feet of the drakes lit up like neon signs.
Several hours later, we'd have paid a king's ransom for one of those neon signs. The early sunset and the considerable amount of time I had spent chasing ducks set us behind, and the river's hydrology did the rest. The bottom section of the float, which none of us had run in years, is a massive series of oxbow turns. At dusk we saw the pumphouse that marked our takeout in the distance and felt briefly cheered, but then entered the lateral madness of the river. When the light finally disappeared altogether the pumphouse appeared no closer. One of the last mid-river obstacles we could actually see revealed itself at close range as the bloated carcass of a bull elk beached on a gravel bar which, given the circumstances, we could have readily taken as a bad omen.
I believe all of our missteps on this day were explainable—if not completely defensible—except for the lack of a light. Not one of us had brought anything more than a lighter. That's when Al remembered the tiny light embedded in his phone, which provided some small measure of guidance. But it was LG's sonar-like powers—several times he swung away from a rock or bank a split second before it entered the cone of phone-light—that were most responsible for our ultimately safe arrival.
Fishing teaches you many lessons if you listen. Foremost among them are that you can never guarantee a favorable outcome, and that sometimes even really good fishermen have really bad days. With these homilies to salve the wounds, we could have let the '09 trout season slip away in a clusterfuck of bad judgment and incompetence.
But the value of perseverance is another of the many lessons. With the blessing of a slightly less understanding but still gracious wife, I stole another mutually free day two weeks later on the second weekend of December. The time for fishing freestone rivers now long past, we turned our sights to the northeast, to a tailwater fishery the name of which I cannot reveal under threat of dismemberment and/or death from LG and/or Big Al.
We spent the morning looking for ducks to jump and, to my great misfortune, we found several groups on which I would cleanly miss eminently makeable shots. The last flock of the morning couldn't have presented a better stealth jump-shooting scenario had we drawn it on paper.
We pulled into a high bank and 100 yards out at eye level a group of mallards milled about the near edge of a large slough. The ground between us was blanketed with tall prairie grass, so Al, who had finally had enough of my shenanigans and uncased his own shotgun, split off from me and we crawled through the grass commando-style, weapons leading. When we stood up on cue the birds took off as in slow-motion, at a nearly perfect range of 35 yards, and Al and I just watched as they receded, struck by nothing but the thin December sun. To this day neither of us can explain why we didn't pull the trigger.
Having taken our bird-hunting outing as far as it was apparently willing to go, we picked up and moved to different water, a semi-obscure stretch I will refer to only as Hall of the Titans, in order to protect my ass. We had time for one short late afternoon drift, and in the early going it seemed as if we'd be heading home, bowed once again. Then from my perch in the front of the boat I heard Al grunt, followed by the guttural sound of a big fish breaking the water's surface. The two things that make streamer fishing so goddamn sexy are seeing the fish flash toward your fly before the strike, and the deep sound of a big angry fish using its weight against you.
Though a bit skinny from the recent spawn, the 27-inch brown that Al landed was strong and healthy and the longest of his considerable career, and it redoubled my focus on the remaining water. I was throwing my favorite streamer, a long articulated fly that looks like an emaciated caterpillar when held out of the water but when swimming pulses with a motion that reaches deep into the instincts of big trout. It's called the Two-Week Bender, and the buddy of mine who developed it says it came to him in a fever dream.
I cast the Bender a couple of inches from a steep, weeded bank and on my second strip of the line a wide silver flash exploded from the dark water below the undercut. I was able to delay the retrieving motion long enough to hammer the fish with my line hand at the exact moment he annihilated the fly, the kind of gratifying hookset that means the only way you will lose him is if the line or the rod breaks. As my rod bent with the weight, the fish went berserk on the surface before tunneling back upstream, and even with my stout gear it took a handful of long minutes to bring him to net. The rainbow ranks among the most remarkable I have ever caught—two feet in length, wide through the belly and thick in the shoulders, a virile combination of brute strength and the sort of deep reds and purples painted only by cold water.
As it slipped from my hands and swam away into the liquid heart of winter, I knew that this one was a keeper.