Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters. ~ Norman Fitzroy MacLean, A River Runs Through It
In the summer of 1981, I worked as town boy and ranch hand for a small guest ranch tucked into a great stand of cottonwoods, aspen and pine at the confluence of Montana’s Blackfoot and Clearwater Rivers. I was given this gift and, like so many that are wasted on the young, didn’t fully appreciate it until the experience had been swept from my hands like so many granules of sand.
Montana is a rugged place. The Blackfoot valley was carved by an ice flow fist formed in the Pleistocene period by a great glacial lake. In this less traveled part of America, people live in respectful harmony at the foot of mountains that can be penetrated only by logging roads and on horseback. Some places in the adjacent Bob Marshall Wilderness remain untamed and only tolerate those who choose to pass through. And for the experienced angler, the Blackfoot ranks among the Madison, Frying Pan, and Fire Hole as sacred places to practice the mystical art of fly-fishing.
I had fished for perch, blue gill, sunfish and trout in local lakes as a boy, but never held a 9 weight switch of graphite rod that whipped neon line out across the water in a great rolling sine wave. My first day on the river, I watched spellbound – the last of a fisherman’s line hesitated, silent in the air, his monofilament leader attached to a microscopic artificial caddis fly that would alight gently on the ripples. As he stripped his line toward the shore, a flash of brown and red shot through the green riffle of water as a brook trout rose to attack. There was no bait, no shrill cry of victory nor creaking of a rusty reel. There was only sweeping wind, a splash and an ancient struggle as the angler landed a three-pound, 18-inch fish on a silk thread capable of snapping once two pounds of pressure had been applied.
Netting the fish was as much an art form as the act of hooking him. Yet, within minutes, his creel was opened and the fish was deposited to be served within two hours for dinner.
The Blackfoot is a magnificent and reckless flow of water that cascades 137 miles down from Rogers Pass atop the Continental divide — some of the wildest land in the contiguous United States. Fishing consumed my waking hours. My friend and I called it “Stalking Big Daddy.” Although chores on a working ranch never truly conclude, on brief breaks and on our one day off a week, we would ride rusted bicycles down long dirt roads through sagebrush and chaparral, bumping along with fly rods, creels and nets. We carried an insect net fashioned from a metal coat hanger and cheese cloth, which we would sweep beneath stands of cottonwood along riverside reeds, catching insects and hoping to match our fly patterns to the color of the captive bugs. Big Daddy was the term we used to describe the biggest fish in the river – a fifteen pound brown that lingered in the shadows of the cut river banks near our ranch.
Our heroes that summer were curmudgeonly anglers who would don neoprene waders and work the river’s edges and runs — whipping home tied, wet and dry flies with the precision of a lion tamer. As the trout would jump, tail and sip at the confederate lures, we would stand at a respectful distance trying to emulate the effortless bullwhip strikes of line that would extend across the water, dropping flies into places no larger than a postage stamp. Big Daddy was there, watching us from underneath a shelf of rocks and branches.
Fly-fishing was our new religion and these ancient fisherman had become our reluctant clergy. They would shake their heads in condescending contempt as we shook at branches and tore at tree limbs that had snagged our back casts. A retiree named Bud patiently taught us roll casting and how to read a dead drift. It seemed an innate obligation that they pass on this knowledge to the hungry neophytes who caught more leaves and sticks than trout. John, a local rancher, scolded us to understand that each day the river changes, so you need to know how the water will guide and place the trout you want to catch and release.
We became part of that river, spending hours wading its shallows and sand bars, often stopping to watch an osprey, eagle, moose or white-tailed deer hesitate for a moment then melt back into the deep forest. Each trout that rose to our fly had the potential of being Big Daddy. If you were fortunate enough to hook a phantom brown or cagey cutthroat, your fishing partner would stand in silent envy, torn between not wanting to acknowledge your superiority as a fisherman but tortured by the need to know what fly pattern you were using. “Black ant?” he would say nonchalantly, looking down river. “You say something?” I would smile, and then finally confess to the Wolf Hair Caddis.
Twilight lingers forever in the Montana summer. The dry, warm air slowly rises, giving in to small pockets of cool air that rush like phantoms down across the river at night. The “early evening boil” was something to behold, as the trout would once again rise to feed. We stood, silent silhouettes, swaying rhythmically with dark cords lashing quietly against a pink and purple sky. Suddenly it would be dark, and we would pedal by moonlight to the cabin we shared with wranglers who worked the corrals and led the guests on horseback rides.
Late that summer, I arose at four to take guests to the airport for an early morning departure and saw what looked like great wavy spikes of white light rising into the sky. Dawn was still an hour off, but these beautiful sheets of light moved and swayed – blown by some magic celestial wind. It was my first glimpse of the aurora borealis, and it is burned into my memory against the jagged skyline of the great Swan range.
As I get older, many of my senses have dulled while others have seemed to sharpen. I sometimes stop to just listen as the wind rakes pine trees that guard the adjacent woods. I can almost hear the dry Montana wind sweeping down pushing the tops of the pines, and shaking cottonwood and aspen leaves until they quake with exhilaration. The river moves tirelessly and is restless, always eager to lean somewhere beyond the bend of an adjacent dirt road. The Blackfoot is like the course of my life, creating new banks, patterns and places for others to hide and watch.
The river provides for everything that lives along it and ministers to anyone who takes the time to listen closely to its sacred theology. It flows back to me at night in my dreams. I am always standing in the river, the weak morning sun streaming over the trees. Just out of the corner of my eye, a faint riffle and flash. A trout rises. I roll a cast across the sequined water, squinting to see if I landed the fly on the narrow run that eddies into a deep pool. A large brown belly turns as the white mouth gapes for the fly. It is only eight in the morning and the Blackfoot whispers to me that there is no rush. We have all day.