Day 1: The Bitterroot
There’s a point where normal, otherwise benign activities can border on the aesthetic. Everyday actions can achieve such a high level of proficiency that they transcend execution and approach beauty. They become an art form. Even without knowing a driver from a pitching wedge, watching The Masters in Augusta is inspiring. Even if you hate the Red Sox, seeing someone throw a ball as fast as a bullet, followed by someone sending it into the next county with a wooden stick—it’s just pretty.
When it comes to fly fishing, a good number of people think of Montana as the Fenway Park or Augusta National of trout country. As such, it’s bound to attract the fishing equivalent of Ted Williams or Tiger Woods. Floating down the Bitterroot toward Hamilton, I’m surrounded by experts of the craft. They throw gorgeous casts, big loops of neon whipping overhead, only to land the fly gently on the water. The practice is drilled so deep into their muscle memory, it’s as if it’s encoded in their DNA.
With veterans in all three rafts, my ham-fisted casting technique stands out like a boner in sweatpants.The only thing I have managed to hook all day is the bill of my hat.
For the eighth time in about three hours, I swing my fishing rod back so the guide can unweave my rat’s nest of a line and smile my best sorry I’m an idiot smile.
This was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. Three guided trips down three different rivers, with stops at six microbreweries scattered across roughly 200 miles of western Montana, and all the fish I can catch. I had warned everyone involved that I don’t actually know how to fly fish, and everyone had assured me I’d have a great time anyway. There were journalist/fishermen from Texas, Minnesota and Idaho who had been throwing flies since Reagan was president—and they’d all promised not to make fun of me.
The guide puts my knotted line in his lap, closes his eyes and rubs his temples. “Why don’t you sit the next few plays out, alright Bud?”
Oh man. Not “Bud.” The word reserved for people you detest, people whose name you can’t be bothered to learn. See also: Champ, Slugger and Sport.
Growing up near Billings, beautiful scenery was little more than wallpaper on the desktop of my life. Mountains were something to look at. Rivers were something to drive over. I need help.
I look back at my guide, hungry for advice—any tips or words of wisdom distilled from his years on the water. “I haven’t caught a single fish all day,” I say.
He rolls his eyes. “You know, that’s why they call it ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching.’”
On every fly but my own, feisty rainbows are being caught by the net-full. The rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is the handsome high-school quarterback of the fly-fishing world; around these parts, it’s probably what you think of when you hear the word “fish.” They fight well, they taste good and they’re pretty. Over the last 100 years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has stocked a few hundred million of these babies into every stretch of water that’ll hold them.
Laughs come easy as we approach the take-out. Arms swing in every direction to deliver high-fives and handshakes over what’s deemed a successful day. I don’t see what the big deal is.
Day 2: The Clark Fork
Different water, different guides. Just past Missoula, the Clark Fork flows wide and slow. There are fish in here, our new guide assures us, but they’re going to be tricky to catch in the summer heat.
Just great, I think to myself: fishing on expert mode.
A few miles from the put-in, my reel buzzes as something blasts downstream with my fly. The fish hops out of the water—it’s no bigger than a Costco croissant—but I reel it in anyway, beaming. Success.
“Aw, it’s just a whitey,” the guide sneers, popping the fly out of its mouth. “Don’t get your camera out—it’s a waste.” My smile melts as Señor Blanco just stares with blank eyes from the guide’s hand, popping its stupid mouth open and shut, looking almost embarrassed for me.
“But it’s a fish, right?” I ask as the guide overhands the fish back into the river like a Nerf ball.
“Yeah, but it’s kinda like reeling in an old boot.”
The mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni) is a native to Montana waters. It fights just as hard as its trout brethren and can make for some damn good eatin’. But it is often maligned as a trash fish by fishermen and guides, largely because it is ugly. My first and only fish apparently doesn’t count.
“So I still haven’t caught anything?” I ask my guide.
“You know, that’s why they call it ‘fishing’ and not—”
“Yeah, yeah, save it,” I say, taking another long drink of my beer. This sport doesn’t make sense.
Day 3: Middle Fork of the Flathead
A steep canyon of limestone frames this stretch of river. In water clear as vodka, you can spot individual fish lurking between the rocks and searching for food. My comrades start pulling in hefty rainbows and cutthroats. And right around my 800th attempt at casting like a normal human being, my fly doesn’t cartwheel uselessly onto the water and my line doesn’t fold itself into knots. I’m like a kid successfully riding a bike for the first time, a whole new world of possibility opening up.
After floating into a deep pool past a set of rapids, the guide pulls hard on the oars to bring the raft to a stop. “There’s always somethin’ good here,” he says. We cast. Dark, fishy shadows hover over the rocks, and in a second my rod buzzes and bends almost down to the water. My hands sweat against the smooth cork. My breath stops.
“Oh shit!” my guide says, stomping his foot to drop the raft’s anchor. “She’s a pig! Keep your tip up, give ’er line!”
I squeeze hard, clamping the wet nylon to the rod, but the fish rockets off and line burns across my fingers. My eyes go wide. I strip more line in, walking the delicate balance between the line is gonna break and it’s gonna spit the hook.
After taking three more big runs with my fly, there it is, gasping in the net: a 17-inch bull trout as thick as my forearm. “She’s a beaut! Nicely done!” the guide says, digging the fly out of its mouth with a hemostat. “You’re not supposed to catch it, but good job anyway!”
The bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) is very picky about where it makes babies, so after decades of mining, irrigation and dams screwing up its mojo, it’s on the threatened species list. You can’t deliberately fish for bull trout. You’ll get in trouble. In my defense, I can’t deliberately fish for anything.
“But it still counts, right?” I ask as the guide lowers the fish back into the water.
He smiles and nods. “Of course. It might be the biggest fish we’ve seen all day.”
As the trout kicks its tail and jets back into the safety of the deep, I slump back into my seat and smile. It was that perfect moment, the just-right angle when it all makes sense—like driving past a cornfield, and watching a jungle of random stalks resolve into a thousand clean rows.
It’s so clear now. That’s why people go fly fishing. Not just because a big trout ended up in my net as I rode snowmelt down to Flathead Lake, covered in sunshine, with the swishing action of fly rods on every side of me. I get it now. As in golf or baseball, every swing is another chance to improve. Chasing that perfect moment is frustrating and addictive, but so much fun. I might never be the Tiger Woods of dry flies but, as it turns out, all men are equal before fish. And hell, even if you don’t catch a thing, you’re still in paradise.
We down our last few beers at the take-out. On the drive home, every smooth piece of water beckons me. Like a lab with its head out the window, all I want is to be back outside: in the boat, on the banks, anywhere. Rivers are no longer just something to build a bridge over. Every riffle and line of bubbles whispers an invitation to come try my luck.
Since I’ve been home, I haven’t managed to catch another fish, but it doesn’t matter. Chasing the impossibly perfect cast is enough for me. You know, that’s why they call it fishing, not catching.