Fifty Days on the Water

Can an extreme amount of trout fishing solve your worldly problems? No—but it comes close.

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Last May I was at my wit's end which I admit is never all that far away. Every reader of this magazine knows that life can be a ceaselessly unpleasant squabble with reality, and that's why you escape to the field to hunt, or to the stream to fish. In my case I had recently experienced two years of wrangling with lawyers, real estate agents, and courts over three properties involved in our move from northern Michigan to Montana. The buyer on the farm we were selling had put 36 contingencies on the sale and had deftly noticed that one survey was 40 feet off. Meanwhile, we had put 52 contingencies on the farm we were buying; plus, the river property where we eventually hoped to build had been virtually condemned as a "floodway."

The move itself wasn't uprooting because I had fished every late summer in Montana, missing only one year since 1968. I am old and vaguely smart enough to know there was nothing particularly novel in my confused situation. Our wounds tend to be shared though our cures can be unique.

One cold and blustery May morning after taking my dog Rose for a walk on a plateau above Livingston, Montana, I came to a grand conclusion. The dog had spent an hour chasing two curlews which led her this way and that until she collapsed. There is a Newtonian principle in bird dog behavior that they run away from you much faster than they return to you so I watched Rose at an ambling distance, then chased her down and loaded her exhausted body into the truck, at which moment I realized that I would never have a nifty, well-ordered life of financial security. The odds against it were as bad as Rose catching a curlew. Down a long hill I could see the serpentine Yellowstone River. I realized that the only possible equilibrium I could offer to my life was to book my friend and guide Danny Lahren for 50 days beginning the next day because the May caddis hatch was rumored to be on the verge of happening.

I've fished with Danny Lahren for the last 15 years, partly from fear of drowning. During my first season on the Yellowstone in 1968 I was still an aggressive wader and went under three times. In the ensuing years I went under a few more times so that when I finally made some of what is called "real" money I started booking Danny and fished from the kind of MacKenzie boat I had wistfully watched passing for years. I realize this is not accessible to everyone but any angler that comes West should save up for a few days with a guide for the very pragmatic reason of seeing how to handle the water. You learn the hot areas you may wish to fish later if you can gain access, not always an easy matter. Most fishermen secretly think they are experts but why not take advantage of an actual expert?

Eastern fishermen can't immediately understand the volume of water they're dealing with on huge western rivers like the Yellowstone or the Upper Missouri. The most valuable tactic you can bring along is the ability to cast well because nearly all other conditions make the skills you learned back East irrelevant. For instance Livingston, Montana, is said to be the second windiest area in the United States. I had several gorgeous days of fishing this year when the wind was gusting from 30 to 50 knots, which blew many terrestrials into the water. These are difficult casting conditions, a profound euphemism, but then you don't want to miss a day of fishing because you can't make the throw. The best thing you can do is a lot of lawn practicing on the windiest days possible. I always carry a couple of light rods (No. 5 Orvis Trident and a T-3) but also a No. 7 Sage overloaded with an 8 line which can handle the wind if you pause between extreme gusts. One day on the Upper Missouri I could spot the dimples of rising trout in between whitecaps on the broad river. When you reached the rise between the foaming waves the trout would invariably strike. They knew the fly had to be natural because no fisherm would be dumb enough to be out in a gale.

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I suspect that at some point nearly every angler becomes sunk within the mystery of water. There is a primitive but totally justified awe. Often when I look at a river I feel a somewhat goofy swelling in my heart. For me? What luck. The idea that fish spend their entire lives in this moving water comes to mind. As a boy of five years on my first trout fishing expedition to the Pine River in Michigan I became obsessed by the idea that truly enormous brown trout lived in the impenetrably dark and deep holes in the river's bends. Later, in my mid-20s, I saw a 23-pound male brown in a trap during a fish count in the Manistee River. A few years ago Chester Marion caught two brown trout in the 12-pound range on the Yellowstone, but then I should remind myself that Chester is a consummate angler and has been fishing this river obsessively for 50 years. I have the same chance of equaling his performance as a mule does winning the Kentucky Derby.

Still, one must try. The May caddis hatch was upon us and the first two days brought nasty weather, with the second day having the additional problem of too many insects. Caddis are wonderful except when clouds are coming up your nose and the trout are only hitting the underwater emergers. I was literally choking on caddis but luckily had a fine bottle of French wine in the boat and was able to flush them. The third day was a bonanza. We caught 17 along the current line of a pool we'd always thought of as insignificant, the kind of water Danny refers to as a "carp pool." This had happened to us before when the temperature had suddenly dropped from 80 to the mid-30s with sleet and snow, and the hen browns had become hyperphagic, literally wild for food against the coming winter, and we caught 30 on a stretch of river we'd always thought of as "dead." There is a sudden urge to jump over in scuba gear despite the many drownings the newspapers report. It would be far safer to ask the local ospreys.

In June we spent a total of six days in three separate trips on the Big Hole south of Butte. The Yellowstone in June was roiling and turgid with snowmelt and carrying enough water to give anyone pause. The Big Hole is relatively discreet and charming but possibly overfished by those in a rush to get there before the ranchers draw off an unhealthy amount of water for irrigation by midsummer. I also strenuously avoid the armada of fishermen drawn by the June salmonfly hatch. A trick is to start earlier than other anglers or a couple hours later. I offer myself the luxury of avoiding a full day of fishing that visiting anglers naturally demand from their guides. I burned out on saltwater flyfishing in the Florida Keys by fishing every day all day for as much as 30 days in a row and now find that four to six hours constitutes a perfect fishing day.

Certain stretches of the Big Hole possess a haunting beauty that constitute what I think of as the prettiest trout stream in America and occasionally the most irritating. You can go through a dozen fly changes and draw a two-hour blank. Curiously it doesn't take a visible hatch to get things started. On a float that began with a considerable spell of disappointment, the fish suddenly became active and we caught 13 good brown trout in an hour. I trade shots with Danny, partly because I've loved to row since childhood, and partly because I like to watch a fine angler in action. Even when casting in a strong wind he is as perfectly composed as if he were tying his shoes.

One afternoon on the Big Hole I knew we were in for good fishing because a hundred yards downstream an improbable number of swallows and nighthawks were coursing above the stream catching insects. There was even a solitary and rare Clark's woodpecker-the only woodpecker to feed on airborne insects flying around with his mouth stretched open. Sure enough, when we reached this run the fishing became active with the added delight of being watched by a puzzled infant moose and its mother. We couldn't match the minuscule insects but a small Olive Woolly Worm did the trick for a dozen fine browns.

Looking back at the season I've become calm enough to accept several unpleasant surprises. One day I was annoyed by the fact that we couldn't fish the Jefferson because no shuttle was available in the area to take our car and trailer to the destination point. We ended up on the Lower Madison which is too monochromatic in shape and flow for my tastes. We were blanked the first two hours. It was very hot and windy and I was fantasizing about drinking a gallon of margaritas when I put on an enormous stone fly. Since nothing was happening I wanted at least to see the fly I was casting without squinting through my poor vision. On the first cast a large brown slashed at the fly and missed and I flopped the fly back in the same place. I had a 5-pound brown trout, the second of my life on a river. (I don't count the huge Lake Michigan browns I have caught whose colors are bleached out until they resemble an Atlantic salmon.) Then minutes later I hooked another brown half again as large which passed near the boat both up- and downstream on separate runs. I guessed the fish to be between 7 and 8 pounds but on its downstream run the fly line was looped around my ankle and we parted ways. Naturally I was pissed though I recalled losing both tarpon and permit with the same loop around the ankle. A grand fish on the Upper Missouri broke off when my fly line caught on a boot buckle. Another big fish on the Yellowstone slowly encircled a boulder and the leader broke despite my yelling at him not to do so.

I'm a bit too sloppy and diffident to ever reach the level of truly great fishermen. For instance, if fish are hitting tiny tricos I yawn while others tie on size 20 imitations which I wouldn't see (Continued from page 82) if one were hooked in my nose tip. With occasional success I go in the other direction, tying on an enormous Black Woolly Worm that I call the "dead bat," or a new Orvis fly with the amusing name of Conehead Rubber Bugger. On the Upper Missouri we had no luck with Danny Lahren's hopper invention I named "the divine perineum." I assumed it might work because we had visited a Great Falls strip club the evening before and saw this actual part of the woman's body. If you want to you can check your dictionary. The only fly that worked on the Upper Missouri that violently windy day was a grasshopper imitation the size of the nail on your little finger. This is a spectacular piece of river. One day I saw an uninterested brown that looked like an all-night fire log.

About two months into the season my life evolved into something quite pleasant, a balance I hadn't achieved in a couple of years. Gasps and sobs totally disappeared and when I saw a lawyer or real estate agent I no longer leapt backward screaming like a chimp hit with a cattle prod. In four days of work I would develop stress-related eczema, and then in two days of fishing this skin disease would retreat back into its venomous lair. I'm not saying that trout fishing is a disease cure but that it creates a glorious vacuum where mind and body achieve stability because all the severely nagging problems can't penetrate the mind. For me at least a river can easily overwhelm the piddling problems of near-bankruptcy and a wobbly stock market. Of course back in my studio the bad stuff can emerge from the woodwork mouse holes like baby cobras but at least you know how you can hold them at bay.

With only one month to go in September I stepped up the gas. My friend Peter Matthiessen showed up for our annual two days on the Yellowstone. Unfortunately, his arrival was accompanied by the most powerful winds of the season, not to mention a cold wave that chilled the kidneys. This ghastly weather, however, didn't disturb the trout who fed intermittently throughout the day. I tested the middle of the river while Matthiessen hit the banks. I was watching an osprey fight the wind for a meal when I hooked and landed a 5-pound brown. I didn't digest the impact of this until later because the three of us were busy identifying the strange influx of birds along the river. Peter is a grand writer and a naturalist who's taken birding trips simply everywhere in the world. The three of us identified a golden eagle, four bald eagles, a prairie falcon, two peregrines, two Cooper's hawks, two Swanson's, a sharpshinned, a harrier, and a rough-legged, along with dozens of other species including so sandhill cranes that flew low and over our heads. It was boggling. For a change I had to leave most of the rowing to Danny. Trying to maneuver a high-bowed MacKenzie in 50-knot gusts is work for an expert. I recalled us once being caught in a thunderstorm squall that blew down trees and Danny had to jump into the river with the anchor in his arms at our take-out spot. The next access was four hours away and the lightning was giving the air the smell of burned water.

Now, at my cabin in Michigan's Upper Peninsula near Lake Superior, I'm speculating on the world problem of what recipe I'll use to cook a grouse and two woodcock for dinner. I've been thinking that it's unlikely I'll be able to afford fifty days in next year's season. I quit writing for Hollywood six years ago but now I'm thinking that one more project could give me another 50 days without a bad conscience. Maybe 75. Why not? It's so good for what ails you. There's the easy camaraderie of fishing with a friend rather than the inevitably contentious atmosphere of working with men on the job. The obvious origin of fishing was in getting food, and maybe the love of this process has become genetic since Pleistocene man dropped a boulder off a cliff onto a river pool full of trout. I'm not going to figure the odds against catching a 10-pound brown but you'll hear about it if I succeed, and I want to do it where I already am rather than catching a plane for New Zealand or Argentina. Maybe life is a succession of trading one obsession for another. I noticed this fall with a waning interest in bird hunting that I was working my dog Rose more often along creeks and rivers so that I could look down long steep banks as if I were an osprey and watch what was happening in the water below.

From the May 2004 issue of Field & Stream. Photographs courtesy of Danny Lahren.