Casting life 

Jim Harrison's fishing guide talks about their lifelong friendship floating Montana's waters

Dan Lahren met Jim Harrison on a September day 30 years ago. The Livingston-based fly-fishing guide had seen the late, great poet and fiction writer hanging around the Wrangler Bar dating all the way back to the 1970s, but he'd never spoken with him. Years later, when Harrison and his wife, Linda King, started spending more time out West, Lahren was tapped to take Harrison on weeks-long trips along the Yellowstone and other prime spots.

On March 26, Harrison died of a heart attack, five months after Linda passed away. Lahren, who spent time with Harrison both in Montana and at the writer's other home in Arizona, was supposed to meet up with his longtime friend this week. Instead, he spoke with the Indy about Harrison's work, the publishing industry and their days together on the river.

What was your favorite day on the river with Jim Harrison?

Dan Lahren: We were on the Big Hole during the salmon fly hatch and we'd hit it perfectly. Jim used to row part of the day and I would fish and then we would trade off. But on this one particular day we floated the canyon, which is class 2 or 3 waters, and you had to have your shit together. I said, "Jim, you just fish and I'll row." That was a day he caught 40-plus brown trout on a dry fly.

Peter Matthiessen [writer and cofounder of The Paris Review] spent years fishing with you and Jim before Peter died in 2014. What was it like being in a boat with two literary greats?

DL: I remember in 2001 Peter was on his way to Montana ... and he was grounded because of the Twin Towers. But then when they allowed planes to fly he came right out to fish with us. And, I must say, for two literary wizards there was not much spoken that day. But all the other days, when Peter and Jim and I fished, the banter between those two—I wish I could dig everything that was said out of the gray matter of my brain because it was just so profound. A lot of conversations they picked up again exactly where they left off the year before.

What did they talk about?

DL: The publishing business and how the magazines and the publishers and everybody just basically cut the throat out of the writers, so to speak. They talked about how hard it was for writers to get a book published. As Jim said, "The MFAs have become cannon fodder in the publishing business." He called them mid-range roadkill.

How was Jim as a fisherman?

DL: Fishing out of a boat is a lot different than fishing from shore. You have to be a pretty good caster and you must read the water. Jim became very good at that. I'd pinpoint behind a rock and—bang!—his fly would be there. He was spot on—for a period of time. And then there was something troubling him and I could see it in his casting. A few years ago, his wife got sepsis of the heart and was six weeks in intensive care, and she almost died. Jim told me, "Danny, Linda almost died and I never thought for a moment that I would outlive her." He was always thinking about people dying but he never thought for a moment that she might die before he did.

click to enlarge Writer Jim Harrison, who died March 26, spent several decades fishing and hunting in Montana. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DAN LAHREN
  • photo courtesy of Dan Lahren
  • Writer Jim Harrison, who died March 26, spent several decades fishing and hunting in Montana.

What was your first impression of him?

DL: I was thinking, "Who is that one-eyed Indian?" though he was really a black Swede. You try to look him in the eye, and which one is looking at you, right? Is he looking at you or is he looking away, at some girl's butt? Which he did a lot, by the way. Everybody knows that he liked pretty butts, including his wife.

Had you read any of his writing when you started fishing with him?

DL: I knew the man was a writer but I didn't know at the time that he should be winning the Pulitzer. I've read most of them now, and the ones that stood out were Legends of the Fall and Brown Dog, but his poetry really stood out. That is where he started and [at the end] he was writing the best poetry of his life.

When was the last time you spent hunting and fishing with him?

DL: I drove him and his dog down to Patagonia in early December and then flew back to Montana to finish a [construction] job. His daughter ... was there for two weeks, but Jim was going to be alone for Christmas Day. I told him I'd come down and bring the dogs and the guns and some food and we'd hang out. I left in a blinding blizzard and drove the 1,314 miles from my doorstep to his doorstep, arriving at drink time, which has been a set time for the 30 years I've known him as 4:30—or, as he likes to say, 4:37. He never talks in evens.

Did you have plans to see him this summer?

DL: I was supposed to go down and pick up Jim next Wednesday. We were going to spend the day and look at birds and then go eat fresh Mexican seafood from the Gulf. The plan was he was going to cook a pot roast so we could have pot roast sandwiches for lunch on our two-and-a-half-day drive back to Montana—it's something we've done the last 27 times we've done the drive. With Jim it's all about the food. You just don't get a microwave burrito at a gas station.

What were you going to do in Montana?

DL: He wanted his dog, Folly, to be here because he was planning his last hurrah. He wanted to go to Seville, Spain, and France because he hadn't been there in so long. Everything was in place for him to go. I talked to him the day before he died, before his black Swede heart gave out. It gave out because of the death of his wife, and that's what happens so often to people that have been married for as long as they have. Despite the cigarettes and the alcohol and his excesses that kill most people, his broken heart is what killed him.

How would you describe your friendship with him over the years?

DL: We fought and made up and fought and made up and I internally and externally wept over our breakups, but we always made up, whether it was over a glass of wine or a phone call to say, "I'm sorry." Many, many of our friends said, "You assholes are married." His words had power.

What did you love most about Jim?

DL: Jim was a friend, then a brother, then a father and mentor. I called him during my divorce because I needed to hear his voice, and he goes "Danny, I love you—get your shit together." And after all those therapists and the drinks and all the pills I took, that one statement from him was what I needed to hear to move forward. When you needed Jim, Jim was there.

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