Piscatorial Powerlessness

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Two Saturdays ago, I hiked into a small stream in the Park to self-administer some backcountry-trout-stream therapy, which Yellowstone offers in abundance. It was a great day, and badly needed.

Let me explain.

In June, I was away from Montana for three consecutive weekends. As residents of Montana are well aware, this is a class 4 felony under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Shortly after I returned home to the Treasure State, I got sick. Given my June hiatus, I assumed it was a deadly mutation of the SARS virus, but it turned out to be nothing more than a run-of-the-mill flu. Regardless, I lost another precious Montana summer weekend. Cruel, yes, but appropriate retribution for my June sins.

With my health restored, I finally got out to fish, and I went to $3 bridge on the upper Madison River with a friend. In early July, with its gaggle of anglers and various forms of watercraft, fishing the upper Mad Dog is sort of like attending a NASCAR race. Fun, for sure, and great fishing, but definitely a circus.

The following weekend took me to the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts for my younger brother’s wedding, which I officiated. It was an amazing weekend that I will cherish for the rest of my life, but I returned to Montana physically and emotionally drained.

Which is why I was hiking a dusty trail in the backcountry of Yellowstone two Saturdays ago. I needed to get away from the road, far from the crowds, to a small trout stream in prime wolf and grizzly country. I sought quiet, some solitude, a bit of wildness, and hopefully a few small, gorgeous, wild trout.

I left my streamers and nymphs at home and brought a selection of dry flies and my bamboo fly rod. (Dries and bamboo soothe thy soul, in case you didn’t know.) It was a crisp summer day, and the farther I got from my car, the more energized I felt.

I arrived at the stream, tied on a fly, and started fishing. The small creek is a quintessential mountain-meadow trout stream. It slithers, meanders, and goes wherever it chooses. There are no dams, no irrigation diversions, no cattle, no cute cabins on its banks. In the front country, we forget how altered our rivers and streams are. In the backcountry, rivers exist in their purest form, free to let snowmelt, erosion, beavers, and vegetation do as they please. The result is beautiful.

I worked my way upstream and caught and released a handful of lovely rainbow and cutthroat trout. The water was clear, and I could see the fish rising toward the surface long before they ate my fly. It was peaceful. I was content.

But as I got farther upstream, the pools deepened, and I hooked fewer fish. This made no sense, as the trout habitat was spectacular. I had been fishing a small black ant fly, and I began to wonder if the fish that surely lived in these deeper pools needed a larger offering to rise to the surface for a meal. So I cut off the spicy tuna roll, my ant, and tied on a half-pound Angus burger, a cricket. And slowly the calm, content, poetic angler mutated into the elephant-hunter, who lives somewhere inside all of us, whether we choose to admit it or not.

I cast the cricket upstream, and I could feel my expectations building. I wanted a large trout.

I worked my way through a few pools and saw no fish. The desire for something bigger continued to mount. And then I came to the deepest, fishiest pool yet. I cast the cricket up to the head of the pool, and, to my great astonishment, an enormous brown trout materialized below my fly, followed it for a few feet, and ate it. I raised my rod to set the hook, but I missed him. The elephant-hunter’s heart thumped aggressively. I figured a big fish or two lived in this pool, but I didn’t expect Moby Dick.

I breathed heavily, and I wondered if Moby Dick was still interested. His rise to my fly was more nibble than gluttonous attack, and I knew he never felt the hook. I cast again. Nothing. So I tied on a big hopper, advancing from Angus burger to bloody ribeye. I cast upstream, and Moby Richard appeared again below my fly. He followed it, but he didn’t eat. The elephant-hunter was pleased, as he knew the carnivorous brown was still hungry.

A couple of more patterns were tried, but there was no sign of the whale. I switched back to a cricket and cast. The fly floated towards me, and Sir Richard of Moby showed up beneath it. He again followed it for a few feet, and then he devoured it. I set the hook, and all hell broke loose.

He ran up, down, left, right, and then jumped. He was massive. I tried to keep him away from the undercut bank, but I had little control over him. He ravaged the water in the pool, and I held onto my bamboo rod for dear life. When he finally tired, I began to lead him downstream to a shallow bar where I could land him, hold him for a few seconds, snap a photo, and then let him on his way.

 I was fishing from the bank, which was a tangle of willows. I had to watch my step walking downstream, and I focused more on not falling than controlling the great whale. I took a few steps and then felt the line go tight. I pulled up on the rod, and I realized it was stuck on something. My heart sank, and I hurried to the edge of the bank and looked down. In the clear water below me, I saw my cricket wrapped around a submerged plant. There was no brown trout attached to the fly.

I was distraught, as that fish, in that stream, would have been one for the ages. But I was also elated, as I saw him, hooked him, and, notwithstanding the premature ending, it was one hell of an experience.

I soaked it all in, and then I reeled up my line. On the hike back to my car, I chuckled about my angling metamorphosis from content seeker-of-solitude into elephant-hunter. Even though I planned for quiet contentment, my DNA got the best of me.

I wish I could end the story here, with some words about a relaxing drive back to Bozeman. But I can’t, as that fish swam deep into my mind, and I spent the next week obsessing over him. And that’s why I found myself last Saturday back in the Park, standing on the same bank, tying on a huge hopper.

Did I catch him? Of course, not. Did I see him? Not even close.

And, though I know you won’t believe me, I’m okay with it. I was powerless over that fish, and I needed to go back there one more time. Saturday’s mission was rooted more in curiosity than ego or lust. I needed to return to that pool to see what would happen. Staying home or going to another river was not an option.

By not catching him, I think the content seeker-of-solitude might have strengthened his resolve against the genetic pull of the elephant-hunter. I think I’ll be more steadfast to temptation in the future. I think I’ll be a better man.

And if I’m wrong? Well, I know where he lives.


(This story originally appeared in the Bozeman Magpie.)