It’s hot. Real hot. The August sun blazes in a cloudless sky, reflecting off the stony shale bank, baking my left side while its reflected heat blazes off the placid, dead calm surface of the Missouri on my right. Hold up a hand against the glare and feel the heat toasting my palm. Even the air is hot. Not a breeze, not a breath.
Ninety-five said the savings and loan display in Helena as we headed towards Wolf Creek, and add at least 10 degrees to that as the afternoon heat reaches its climax. Add another couple of degrees of radiant heat from both side of this bake-oven-with-a-view and you have mad-dogs-and-Englishmen weather. Or in this case, sexually-aroused-Caddis-and-Fly-fishermen weather.
The trout have better sense, sliding up and down, back and forth in the cool, green depths of the Missouri, gently sipping a late lunch out of the surface film. Up for a bite, back down to the shaded, weedy bottom. Up. Down. Up. Down. In rhythmic hypnomy. Maddening hypnomy.
“Further above him, and a little close to the bank,” says Peter, from his perch on the culvert sticking out of the bank above and behind me. I false-cast out into the river, measuring my cast carefully and then aim for the slot two feet from the rocks and bushes 40 feet upstream where the trout slides up and sips another emerger.
“Tink” goes the fly on the bush behind me, “Splat” goes the fly line and leader on the water right on top of the arm-length piscine diner, like some ham-handed busboy upending a tray full of plates on the table. “Well, he’s down, my turn.” says my friend and fishing mentor, so I slip and slide downstream along the precipitous shale bank to see if I can find my fly while he does the same upstream, heading for the next pod.
It’s hot. Real hot. I, however, am not.
It’s a far cry from my first fishing trip to Montana. That time neither the weather nor I were hot. We were both cold. Real cold. A dozen years ago and later in the year, I said to Peter one day:
“Want to go to Canada?”.
“I’d love to, but I can’t afford it”
“That’s not what I asked.” says I. “I want to go to Glacier and Jasper National Parks and take some pictures, do you want to come along, my treat?”
“Let’s mosey,” says he.
A few years earlier, having come into a small inheritance, I’d solicited friends (and a couple of very cute casual acquaintances) to join me on a six-month tour of Australia, all expenses paid. Everybody said “you bet!”, but when told “We’re leaving September 20th,” all came up with some excuse why they couldn’t go. So I bought an airplane instead.
I loved that Maule. Take off on a postage-stamp, land on a dime. I spent a good many hours knap-of-the-earth over the western US, enjoying the scenery up close and personal in N332X, till I made that one little error and bent it beyond repair. But, being a Maule, she sacrificed herself saving my life. An honest and honorable airplane. Well, anyway, I had a bit of the insurance money left over—not enough to replace her, but enough to take a hell of a road trip. So we did.
“Now, this is a photographic expedition. I’m going to take pictures, but if we can, we’ll squeeze in a little fishing for you. Understand?”
“No problem.” said Peter.
Yeah, right. A legendary trip in itself. Bad weather all the way. Blown off the Henry’s Fork, the Snake, Big Hole, Boulder, Flathead and just about all of the famous fly-fishing waters of the west. Skunked. Nada. Zip. Not one single fish. Drizzle, rain, wind, wet-cold vinyl waders and oversized jungle-boots as wading shoes. “Rustic” motels with heaters leaking natural gas, toilets jammed in next to showers so tight you’d have to be Dr. Ruth to even sit down, and bedsprings that shrieked in protest at the slightest movement. Still, by West Yellowstone I was well and truly hooked. Upper lip, great big barb, ship hawser for tippet. Seven hundred dollars later we both left Dan Bailey’s in new neoprene, me with every gadget I could find except a fly rod and reel. A frigid, rain-soaked week later I caught my first fish ever on a fly-rod. Arctic Grayling from a spectacular lake somewhere west of Glacier National Park.
It’s a long way, temporally, from there to here; the very antithesis of that seminal excursion. I’m basting in my own juices, blowing mad Caddis out of my nose and from behind my glasses, casting to huge fish with the perceptions of a telepath. The result is much the same though. Skunked. Nada. Zip. They’re too wily for the both of us this afternoon. But, the story isn’t over yet.
“Let’s mosey” says Peter.
“Works for me.”
We scramble up the bank (you ever notice how you never have a climbing rope and a set of ascenders when you really need them) and take one last look at the three or four pods of enormous fish greedily slurping down bugs up and down the bank 50 feet below us.
Into the truck, pat the dog, who’s perfectly comfortable (he’s parked in the shade with a wet bar right beside him) and happy to lick the sweat from my right cheek. Downstream we head, peering at every turnout and stopping occasionally to check a favorite lie for rising fish. Not much going on though, so we head to a big bend where we’d had some success the day before.
Corps of Engineers reclamation efforts can be ugly as sin, but the trout love them. The bank had been stabilized with jute and nylon mesh, and long fingers of rip-rap pointing upstream, each topped with a huge root-wad from a tree. To stay below the high-water mark makes for a chancy hike on a 40 degree slope covered with slippery fabric, but the rewards are worth it. Look down and you see the Corps of Engineers at work. Look up and you see Bierstadt’s or Remington’s. Look down again and see a juvenile marten curiously and hilariously working his way down the bank towards me, ducking in and out under the edge of the jute, hiding behind weed stems and peering between grass blades like Arty Johnson. He slinks by, about six inches from the toes of my boots as I stand quite still and chuckle at him, and makes his way downstream.
It’s cooler here, the sun is going down now and the breeze is up a little, but the record-breaking wet spring has brought a record breaking crop of mosquitoes. Smart enough to spend their time in the shade in the desert heat, now that it’s cooled off, they make up for lost time with a vengeance. So, I slather on the DEET and hope I don’t melt anything important.
Another hour or two of fishing in the eddies behind the stonework, this time with some success, a couple of lively browns for each of us. The view just gets better as the sun sets, and I start wishing for my camera instead of my fly-rod.
“Works for me.”
Now for the main event. Everything before is just a warm-up for this, and the action doesn’t even start till the sun is well off the water, and doesn’t heat up till the stars come out. I stake out the spot while Peter noodles off upstream to look for a pod of early risers for a couple of warm-up bouts. Good thing I need a break, because as twilight comes, so do the bait-casters, roaring up in their pickups and roaring away, frustrated, when they see me fiddling with flies and tippets at their favorite meat hole. Make no mistake, it’s a meat hole. It’s chock full of trout, big and little, some very, very big, and the locals all know it well. But these finny boys and girls don’t come out to play till after your kids are asleep in bed, and they party all night.
About the time you need a light to tie your fly on, unless you can do it by the reflection of the neon from the bar across the river, they begin coming up by the dozen.
A symphony of bug-sipping trout smorgasbord delectation going on up and down the bank in the dark. You focus using your ears and your experience. You might catch a glimpse of a rise reflected by the starlight, but even the best night vision isn’t up to more than trying to keep from stumbling and falling headlong into the river. No, it’s sound and kinesthetic sense, knowing just how much line you have out, and where your fly is going and when that “bloop” comes where your fly is, or should be. It’s an exercise in patience and skill that will make a better fisherman out of anybody. Have a problem with premature strikes? Try night fishing on the Missouri.
Tonight, it’s hot. Real hot. Hour after hour we cast, all our concentration focused on invisible rises, listening for the regular risers. There must be 50 fish rising in one spot not more than 50 feet long and 35 feet wide, in the little eddy behind the obstruction in the river. The sounds overlap and mingle till it’s a continuous melody of gustatory excess. Just cast and wait, cast and wait, cast and wait. Very Zen. Most times you don’t know you’ve caught a fish till you raise your rod to set up for the next cast. Then you know. The line screams off the reel as the fish heads for the tavern a quarter-mile away, and you begin to worry about your backing and how the hell you’re going to work your way along the bank fast enough to keep up in the pitch dark. Keep the tip up and reel in like mad as the fish bores his way upstream, shout in exultation as it turns and runs for the Mississippi, leaping invisibly and hitting the water in the night like a gunshot. Feel the power of the rod fighting the fish, every twitch and headshake magnified by the blackness, straight from the fish to your rod to your brain through the palm of your hand as you wait for the tippet to snap or the number eighteen hook to unbend into a straight-pin.
A heart-pounding ten minutes later, twenty inches of steel-bright Midnight Rainbow undulates gently in my hand, the first of many that night. I revive the weary fish and send him back to the dinner table, lit only by the tavern’s warm glow and the Montana night sky.
Tonight is the antithesis of a dozen years ago, and of this afternoon. My best fishing day ever. Though I’m perfectly happy to spend the day up to my armpits in senseless beauty and majesty, I fish perhaps more for the companionship and camaraderie than the fish. But tonight is special, it has it all. Good friends and great fish, the Milky Way, meteors and the Missouri.