Tight Lines

I’m standing at the edge of Two Medicine Lake, casting a tiny Copper John nymph into the pearly fog at six in the morning. Frigid winds howl down the slope of Sinopah Mountain and fuse my hands to the rod. I drag my fly back, again and again, without piquing the interest of the brook trout that dwell in the lake. The fishing is hopeless: too cold, too early, too windy.

I don’t mind. A pair of beavers hurls long silver wakes as they cruise around their lodge; a flock of mergansers stumbles drowsily into the water. Dawn paints Glacier National Park. And a squat, curly-haired man wanders down from his campsite to watch me fish.

After several minutes the man sidles over, and poses the icebreaker with which fishermen have been introducing themselves since line was first tied to hook: “Any luck?”

“None,” I say. “Beautiful morning, though.” I cast again and the golden head of the nymph disappears into the lake.

“I can always spot a real fisherman,” the man offers. “The impostors, they’re the ones with the LL Bean waders and the fancy vests and all that crap. I saw you wearing sandals and sweatpants, and I thought, that’s a guy who likes to fish.”

“Nothing better,” I say as I retrieve the heavy fly line. I am, in truth, a crappy fisherman, still a rank amateur, but the stranger is right that I love it. The beavers haul themselves ashore a hundred feet off and I stop casting to watch them groom each other. Their paws make surprisingly dexterous movements as they ruffle through dripping fur. I’d heard them last night slamming their paddle tails against the water, those echoing warning shots that are so evocative of America’s northern lakes. “I work for the National Parks Service down in Yellowstone, fisheries science stuff,” I say when the beavers slip back into the lake. “I get out on the water a fair amount.”

He’s excited to hear I come from Yellowstone – he’s just fished the park’s Lamar River, and plans to hit the Madison later this season. He presses me for info, and I tell him what I know: the Lamar fish have been hitting grasshoppers, the Madison brown trout attack soft hackle. The man’s name is Jerry, and he’s from a nearby Montana town. He asks if I want to see some of his flies. The brookies aren’t biting, so I accompany Jerry to his RV.

Jerry disappears into a rear compartment of the camper and comes back with six shoeboxes. He opens the boxes one at a time and they’re packed with gorgeous, meticulously crafted flies, brilliant rows of feathers and fur and fluorescent rubber. Delicate mayflies with swooping tails; tightly wound caddisflies wrapped in tinsel; flashy streamers meant to provoke a fish to strike.

“You made all these?” I ask, unable to keep awe from my voice.

“Sure did,” he says, round cheeks split in a grin. He takes out the streamer. “Go try this stimulator!”

“I couldn’t,” I reply. “It’s yours.”

He rolls his eyes. “Take it. And, you know what, take this caddis… and this ant… and this woolly bugger here, just caught a huge bull trout on it… you have to try this.”

I walk away twenty minutes later with two dozen flies and a standing offer to borrow Jerry’s float tube, canoe, and pontoon boat. Not a bad morning.

***

Every region has its lingua franca, the dialect in which visitors must be fluent to survive socially. In Boston it’s sports, in DC it’s politics, in Southern California it’s surfing and fish tacos, or so people tell me. In Wyoming and Montana, the coin of the realm is fishing.

If you can chat about trout, you will befriend every person you encounter. When I lived there, I gave flies to hitchhikers, complained about low water levels with bartenders, solicited tips from the guy who changed my oil. Fly-fishermen aren’t reticent about asking for advice, or sharing it. Back east, where I’m from, conversations with strangers often degenerate into uncomfortable silence as the two participants wrack their brains for commonalities. In Wyoming, in Montana, there’s never such awkwardness: any breach can be filled with the rhetorical question, “So… you fish?” And the conversation is off and running like a three-pound rainbow.

I grew up spin-casting for panfish and bass in fetid Northeastern lakes, a hobby that usually entailed skewering a worm on a hook, flipping it into muddy water, and waiting for the bobber to plunge beneath the algal surface. A lot of fun, don’t get me wrong, but artless. After I left college, though, I moved west, where the water runs icy and clear and the fish have patrician taste buds and fly through the water like sleek dappled rockets. Out there, I couldn’t expect to plop a wriggling, dying thing into a patch of weeds and wait for a voracious smallmouth to vacuum it up. Trout are discerning fish, finicky in their diet and cautious about their choice of habitat. I had to learn to match the hatch, to land a delicate elkhair caddisfly in the riffle above a pool, to let the fly swirl downstream to the lair of a haughty cutthroat trout. In fits and starts, with much snarling of line and even more snarling at my uncooperative quarry, I learned to fly-fish.

At a ranger station one day, I met a 75-year-old volunteer named Walt, a fishing guide in his former life. Walt seemed supremely bored at the station – clearly, handing trail maps to day-hikers was a poor substitute for matching wits with a salmonid. Sensing a potential mentor, I asked for whatever advice he could offer. “Screw advice,” Walt growled in a voice that made Clint Eastwood sound like Mickey Mouse. “Son, I’m taking you fishing.”

Walt didn’t mince words. As soon as he saw my first cast, the rod tip thrashing the stream-side brush like a blunt scythe, he sighed, “Okay, let’s start at square one.” Within minutes he’d vastly improved my casting – maybe I’d never be able to land a mayfly in a coffee mug from sixty feet, as Walt could, but at least I could handle a rod without embedding a hook in my ear. Soon enough, Walt had me identifying riparian insect species and connecting with trophy brown trout.

Walt himself had a supernatural intuition for reading water – he knew, with unerring accuracy, which eddy, undercut bank, or standing wave harbored a monster brown. In time, as I proved myself capable of catching fish and, by extension, proved myself trustworthy, he told me things that had nothing to do with fishing. How he’d had a heart attack while skiing just last year, miles from civilization, and had skied through the night to escape the woods so that his wife could rush him to the hospital. How his great-grandfather had been captured by a Native American tribe as a child and, after he was released years later, spent his life fighting in court to return Western lands to his captors. How Walt doubted that his own children had developed respectful relationships with nature; how they didn’t know how to fish proper.

Fishermen are generous, gregarious people, and when I took a job conducting fish research in Yellowstone, I gained access to a world of insider tip-trading so profitable it would make Martha Stewart jealous. I swapped our findings at High Lake for a scouting report on Slough Creek; I offered data gleaned from the Lamar River for a nymph guaranteed to entice a brown trout on the Gardiner.

My knowledge and the contents of my fly box swelled, and, more important, so did my roster of acquaintances, and my ability to make new ones. I earned admission to a community that is no less tight-knit for being so large, and found myself able to hold conversations in bars, earn invitations to barbeques, make friends in dusty unpaved parking lots overlooking crystalline creeks where the trout face upstream and quiver in the current.

And you better believe I caught more fish.

Ben Goldfarb lives in Connecticut, where his fishing trips are now tragically infrequent. The fact that he was born in New York rather than Montana can only be attributed to cosmic error. Send him an email at ben.a.goldfarb@gmail.com.

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