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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!”