Heaven & high water 

A kid’s first fishing trip reels the mind

Page 2 of 3

Newmack and I cut our teeth guiding together 15 summers ago, and I’d quickly learned that the only thing bigger than Newmack’s mouth is his heart. He planned to fish with us for a while before dropping us at a killer campsite for the night, then pick us up the following morning.

“Hey, Luca,” Newmack said. He kneeled down to peel back the tent window and shake my son’s hand. “I’m Jason. You ready to go catch some trout?”

“Big ones?” Luca asked.

“Well, that depends what you call big.”

Nymph fishing with an indicator is nobody’s favorite fly rodding technique, but relenting to the effectiveness of dredging is sometimes necessary if the young angler is going to remain attentive.

As we motored up the Missouri Newmack handed me a stiff 5-weight rod rigged with two sowbug imitations, some split shot, and a red balloon for an indicator.

click to enlarge Montana Headwall

Clearly the admiral of his boat, Newmack doesn’t leave much up for discussion. “I know it’s not ideal,” he said, just after cutting the motor, “but with this bright sun the fish won’t be chasing streamers. Toss this into the bubble seam there and hand it to the boy. Once he catches a couple, we’ll teach him how to cast this awful rig without tangling it.”

I lobbed a wide-looped cast into the run and passed the rod to Luca, who leaned against the swivel seat between my legs.

“Jason,” Luca said, “why do we have a balloon on our line?”

“It’s a bobber, just like the one you use while perch fishing; it keeps the flies from sinking too deep, and tells us when a fish hits.”

“My dad has a friend who’s a clown who can tie balloons into anything, even aliens.”

Before Newmack could respond, the red balloon quivered and shot upstream.

“Luca, set!” we yelled simultaneously, and though Luca was a second or two late on the strike, the line pulled taut and rocketed to the surface powered by a 3-pound rainbow. The fish broke water, shook its head and, before long, turned and beelined it for the boat.

“Reel up the slack, Luca,” Newmack said. “Reel to beat hell!”

“Aww,” Luca said, cranking on the reel, “you said a bad word!”

Newmack hooted.

“It’s not the last one you’ll hear! I’ll tell you what, though. If you land this fish, I’ll give you a quarter for every bad word I say. Deal?”

“Deal,” Luca said, straining against the fish and the bent rod.

Soon I slipped the net under the colorful buck and we all three admired it.

“Look at the spots on him,” Newmack said. “He looks like a friggin’ leopard!”

“You said another bad word,” Luca said.

“Geez,” Newmack said as he slipped the fish back into the river. “I can’t believe I’m paying for ‘friggin.’”

The Mighty Mo, meanwhile, was cranking at about 13,000 cubic feet per second, about 4,000 cubic feet per second more than its 50-year average for early June, which is to say: If you threw a stick in the river and gave it a two-second head start, then ran your fastest along the bank to catch up to it, you would more than likely fail. Needless to add I kept a tight hold on Luca’s life-jacket vest strap whenever he leaned over the gunnel to look at the flotsam (which he called “fish farts”) or made an over-enthusiastic cast.

Newmack quickly taught Luca what he called “the water-haul,” a technique that allowed him to cast the cumbersome nymph rig by using the water to put tension on the line and “load” the rod.

“It’s really a flop, not a cast,” Newmack said. “Just pretend the rod is a windshield wiper going back and forth: back, stop, forth, stop.”

Within a couple of hours, for the most part thanks to Newmack’s impeccable knowledge about trout-holding water, Luca had caught more fish than I’d hoped he would catch in a weekend—too many to count. But then again, as my uncle once asserted, the object is to lose count.

Did Luca know how good he had it, stockpiling 18- to 22-inch rainbows while most anglers in the state were lamenting the latte-colored bodies of water hurtling through their valleys? No, he did not. Was he tickled, attentive, thrilled in an uncorrupted way? Yes, he was, in a way that left me envious.

“See you in the morning,” Newmack yelled as he motored away from our campsite. He left us tucked against the rimrock underneath several ponderosas, serviceable umbrellas shrouding us from the light rain.

After I pitched the tent I watched Luca scout around. The canyon wall across the river was lit by a setting sun busting through storm clouds. Most of the sedimentary lines in the red rock ran horizontally, except for one football-field sized patch that had, millenniums ago, been subject to uplift, and looked to the metaphorically-inclined observer like time turned on its side.

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