SEASONS SLIPPING THROUGH AN ANGLER'S NET

Brilliant trout fishing days—the salmonfly spring, the calm beaver ponds of summer, the wood ducks flushing and wheeling overhead in autumn—stream by as surely as the river current
July 22, 1973

The pump in the well kept shutting off. I messed around with the pressure switch to no avail. And when I restarted the pump by hitting the breakers, it belched rusty water into the sink and the pressure wasn't strong enough to sprinkle the garden. The pump is 180 feet down there with its own dark and secret life. I call the plumber.

An hour later the plumber is in the well pit. I look at him in that gloomy hole with his rusty wrench, the water up around his ankles, the pale tuberous roots of vegetation sticking out of the cold earthen sides of the well. He asks me how I've been doing; he means with fish.

I go out to the mailbox and run into a man taking in the sights with his wife. He wants to talk. They live in a trailer near Red Lodge and he sells concrete animals for yards. He keeps a good quarter horse and is a weekend jackpot roper. He's looking to catch him a large trout, he says. It must be in the air.

I stood with fly rod in hand on my first day of trout fishing for the year. We were a mile above the bridge that leads to White Sulphur Springs. They were retrieving a strange souvenir of winter. A Texaco wrecker was backed to the bank, hauling a dead horse out of the river, hauling him up by his hind legs, swinging him out through the willows on the end of the boom in black, wet-meat totality. A sandbank had gone out from under him, and he was lost to the river as surely as today's water and streamside pasturage.

When the ice broke up, the flooded river had returned to its banks and the broad, dull floodlands reshaped along the road in their loops and meandering symmetry. By June the spring storms were light-shot and prominent, quite unlike the homogenous gloom of April: the first summer storms, perhaps. In the evening the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges overlapped like jagged sheets of palest slate under the pearly turbulence, and the river dropped from flood to a full canal gloss. Then, at last, the spangled river came out from under, braided in places like a glacial river, or lying along sandy bars in a green, bending slot of oxygen and trout.

Sunup got earlier and earlier until you woke under blue windows full of blowing cottonwood seeds, always with the feeling you had overslept. The pass above the ranch was already dropping its long lever of candied light into day. You could hear the creek from the bedroom window racing down stony terraces among dry junipers.

It was clear that if you weren't careful, another summer would slip through the net, trailing wasted time, mortgage payments and a number of things you could have saved.

The river stayed out of color well past the Fourth of July on our stretch. We hiked into the canyon of the Yellowstone to catch the last days of the salmonfly hatch, carrying rods and packs around geysers and poison springs with deer skeletons on their bottoms, and into pine copses through which sulfurous steam blew, and down long switchbacks of scree and crumbly rhyolite. The far side of the canyon rose trailless miles away with our slow descent. It seemed another world from us: absolute, remote and changing color with every hour's shift of light.

We were a true phalanx of trout bums, since dispersed as far away as New Zealand and as near as wives and families, that quicksand into which a troll's share is taken, generation after generation, spitting bamboo fragments and blue dun hackle, to join—with some decency—another of sport's secret mothball fleets.

Finally, at the bottom of this hot canyon there is the river, a terrific surprise. And the switchbacks jut in to trail along its sides. The river seems quite literally a crack in the earth, here so exposed as to be principally rock. So while our home stretch of the same river is still brown with spring runoff and irrigation, slough-connected and meandering among old ranches, here it is a lightning fissure in rock, empyrean-blue and slightly unearthly.

In the canyon the trout's range of travel is bounded by falls, sudden declivities or change of altitude in the slab rock: the blue river turns green-white in a right-angle downward turn, a long ribbon of falling water, roaring and blowing away. The trout live above or below such a place; these are separate civilizations.

We cast our big, visible dries on the glossy rush and quickly trout soar into focus and vanish with our flies. Rods bow and lines shear through the water. Handsome cutthroat trout are beached and released in the gravel, wriggling back into deep water and flickering invisibly into the pale water curtain.

A mile below the trail's end, we found a feeder creek that dropped almost vertically from pool to minute pool. And each pool held handsome cutthroats that took flies readily and leaped, dropping down the plateaus, until they were in the river itself. It seemed unfathomable to hook fish at eye level, watch their descent, then finish the fight under your feet. Many of these fish were in their spawning colors and shimmered in the current as brilliant as macaws.

We ended the afternoon's fishing in time to save an increment of energy for the climb out. A great blue lid of shadow had started down one wall, and the boulders and escarpments bore eccentrically long panels of shade. Above us, a few impressive birds of prey sorted the last thermals. In two hours they were below us, turning grave circles in polite single file.

At Tower Falls we stumbled tiredly out of the woods. It was getting dark and someone fumbled for the car keys.

Mirage on the road-crowns as I spring along under sage-covered ledges; pools of water on macadam hills. Blackbirds scatter before my truck.

All the grass that seemed to indicate something about possibility, that turned up in mountain edges full of yellow-blossomed clover, was sun-dried like hard wire, annealed and napped in one direction or in whorls like cowlicks but distinctly dun-colored on the hard hills.

Now when the sheep yarded up in the orchard, their fetor hung slowly downwind with an edge that was less organic than chemical. In the heat of broad day I saw a coyote on a yellow grassy bench digging along the length of a pocket gopher's workings, throwing up an industrious stream of dirt behind himself like a beagle.

In midsummer big streams like the Missouri headwaters can come to seem slumberous and unproductive. The great sweeps of river are warm and exposed; and the fishing can be perfectly lousy.

Then, evening fishing on the spring creeks—streams that jump full-grown, quite mythically, from under ledges or out of swamp ground, and flow for miles before joining a river, often at some secretive or wooded confluence. The stub ends of such streams are seen by passing fishermen who seldom suspect the trout network lying beyond.

The angler parcels out the midsummer months with pocket situations, good for a few amusing visits. I always make two or three trips to my nearby beaver ponds, wallowing through swamp and chest-high grass to the beaver houses, beyond which stands water full of small brook trout. In the still ponds are the gnawed stumps of trees, big enough in diameter to suggest the recently solid ground these advanced rodents have conquered.

If we fish here in the fall, we bring back wild crab apples for baking with the easily gathered creel of brook trout. The fish in these ponds live on freshwater shrimp and their flesh is salmon pink on either side of their pearly backbones. The trout themselves are as surpassingly vivid as fine enamels, and the few meals a year we make of them are sacraments.

The stream that flows through our place, Deep Creek, is lost in irrigation head gates by August, so it has no trout. Obliviously, my 6-year-old son fishes the pretty pool next to our cattle guard, year after year increasing his conviction that trout are a difficult fish. Morbid friends say he is a sportsman of the future. I will explain to him as an acceptable Realpolitik: if the trout are lost, smash the state. More than any other fish, trout are dependent upon the ambience in which they are caught. It would be hard to say whether or not it is the trout or the angler who is more sensitized to the degeneration of habitat, but probably it is the trout. At the first signs of deterioration, the otherwise vigorous trout just politely quits, as though to say, "If that's how you want it...." Meanwhile, the angler qualitatively lapses in citizenship. Other kinds of fishermen may toss their baits into the factory shadows. The trout fisherman who doesn't turn dangerously unpatriotic just politely quits, like the trout.

It's October, a bluebird Indian summer day. Opening day for ducks, and you're going to need your Coppertone. It will be over 80°.

Standing on the iron bridge at Pine Creek, I look upstream. I suppose it is a classic autumn day in the Rockies; by some standards, it is outrageous. The China-blue river breaks up into channels that jet back together from chutes and gravel tongues to form a deep emerald pool that flows toward me on the bridge with a hidden turbulence like a concealed shock wave. Where the river lifts upstream on its gravel runs it glitters with oxygenated brilliance.

The division of the river makes a multiplicity of banks, but the main ones are shrouded with the great, almost heartbreaking cottonwoods that are now all gone to a tremulous, sun-shot gold, reaching out over the river's blue rush. Where the pools level out, the bizarre free-traveling clouds with their futuristic shapes are reflected.

I can see my friend and neighbor, a painter, walking along the high cutbank above the river. This would be a man who has ruined his life with sport. He skulks from his home at all hours with gun or rod. Today he has both.

"What are you doing?"

"Trout fishing and duck hunting."

I feel like a man who has been laid off to be only trout fishing.

"As you see," says the painter, gesticulating strangely, "I'm ready for anything. I spoiled half the day with work and errands. I have to pull things out of the fire before they go from bad to worse." Across the river, the Absaroka Range towers up out of the warm valley with snowcapped peaks and gold stripes of aspen intermittently dividing the high pasture and the evergreen forest. My friend heads off, promising a report later on.

The last chance you get at overall strategy in trout fishing, before you lose yourself in the game itself, is during the period called "rigging up." I stand next to my truck looking upstream and down, and remove the knurled brass cap from the aluminum tube. I am deep into the voodoo of rigging up. I draw the smoky-colored bamboo shafts from their poplin sack and join the rod. I fasten the old pewtery Hardy St. George reel my father gave me to the cork seat and knot the monofilament leader in place. Then I irritate myself over the matter of which fly to use, finally darting my hand into the fly box blindly. I come up with one I tied myself that imitates the effect of a riot gun on a love seat. I swiftly return it to its lair and take out a professionally tied spruce fly and attach it to my leader. I get into my waders, slipping the blue police suspenders onto my shoulders. Rigging up is over and there is fishing, or angling, to be done.

By the time my friend is out of sight, I am scrambling down the bank to the river, which here is in three channels around long willow-covered islands. By cautiously wading the heads of pools in these channels, one can cross the mighty river on foot, a cheap thrill I do not deprive myself of. Regardless of such illusions, I am an ordinary wader and pick my way over the slippery rocks experiencing the various nuances of having my heart in my mouth. I have friends who are superior waders. One of them, significantly a former paratrooper, glides downstream whenever he loses his footing until he touches down again, erect as a penguin all the while. At any and all mishaps when wading big rivers I tend to scream that I am too young to die, then later fob off this noisy cowardice as "reverence for nature."

This late in the year, the first channel crossing is child's play. I wade over to the long willow island that is decorated on this shore by a vintage automobile, a breakaway bit of Montana riprap, high and dry with river sand up to the steering wheel.

The brush willows form an interior jungle, all the details of which contrive to slap you in the face over and over again as you bushwhack through. I come to a small clearing where a shallow sandy-bottomed slough has penetrated. A school of fry, a couple of feet wide and maybe 10 feet long, dominates the end of the slough. With my approach these thousands of fish scatter toward the river; this is as fertile a nursery area as it is possible to imagine, dense and dark with infant fish.

I continue across the island, sweating in my waders, and end up at a broad, bright channel. The tenderloin of the spot is a 150-foot bevel of current, along the edge of which trout persistently hang. I wade into position, false casting the necessary amount of line to get underway. Then I make my first cast, up sun, and coronas of mist hang around the traveling direction of the line. I mend the line, throwing a belly into it to make the streamer continually present itself broadside to trout holding upstream in the current. I have a short strike early on, but I miss it.

Then nothing except the steady surge of the river against my legs until I can feel it bending with enormous purpose toward North Dakota and its meeting with the Missouri. In the green of the river, the ghostly orbs of white boulders are buried in running channels. The river is a fluid envelope for trout, occasionally marred by the fish themselves rising to take an insect and punctuating the glassy run with a whorl that opens and spirals downstream like a smoke ring. The boulders are constant, but the river soars away to the east.

After a period of methodical fishing, I finally come up tight on a trout. He holds throbbing for a long moment, then without any run at all is suddenly aerial. Four crisp dashes later and the trout is vividly alive and cold in my hand. As I return him to the river, I bend over and watch him hold briefly in the graveled current between my feet; then quick as light he's gone.

I stand up and I feel that mild, aching joy of the first fish and I look to the long river moss in the crystal gravel channels, streaming and wavering like radio signals.

I return to the bridge and court my soul, gazing into the rapids. The painter appears within the hour, empty-handed. "I want a drink." Trout fishermen express themselves concisely, communing with nature having deprived them of any affection for small talk. Today the painter is both a duck hunter and a trout fisherman so that when he says, "I want a drink," he does so with such simplicity it is like a dog's bark, "IWANTADRINK!" When we have had some drinks, we begin to talk faster and faster with less and less simplicity, frequently interrupting one another.

The painter pours out his origins as an angler on the California streams, fishing the Truckee with revered uncles and cousins. The palmier days in the Golden State were good to anglers who wandered the great drainages from Sierra to Pacific. Now California has gone on to bigger stuff, helping our republic to really pour on the coals. Some of the trout the painter caught were heading for the sea. As a Midwestern angler, I feel the pinch conversationally, and so lay great emphasis on the native brook trout we tracked down in the swampy headwaters of our own cedary and painfully recalled streams.

The thing is this, my trout memories precede my actual sighting of a trout. They go way back to a time when, inflamed to angling by rock bass and perch, I read hunting and fishing magazines and settled upon the trout as the only fish worthy of my ability. Also the broadbill swordfish. I had examined the Rockwell Kent illustrations in my father's copy of Moby Dick. I didn't for the moment see what I could do about the white whale. Among my friends a rumor persisted of giant squid in the Humboldt Current that assaulted cabin cruisers and doused anglers with black ink before sinking a parrotlike beak into their brain pans. Not even this enormity could compete with the trout for my attention, though putting the gaff to a wilderness of tentacles had its appeal for a bloodthirsty child. Finally, I fished for trout in ways other than my fantasy and for many ruinous years haunted Michigan's cheerful trout rivers. Now, here, the painter and I were loath to confess we'd moved family, bag and baggage, to Montana for the sake of, well, not even a mammal.

We walk back, one trying to outremember the other. I can see the sun roosting deep in the aspens and spruce. Chick-weed and wild roses flow down out of the forest carpet around the garden and up the sides of the compost heap. A sleeping bag floats on a clump of laurel, sunning out. You can walk in any direction of the compass from here and sooner or later you will run into a trout. And you see, at some point, that you will keep making that walk.

The Indian summer day ends with an edge; and during that night the temperature falls 40°. In the morning you squint out the kitchen door into a snowfield. The orchard looks like a corsage, and the poles in the corral are snowcapped in stillness. Trout season is over.

THREE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)