“Throw in a couple good fly rods and I’ll trade you boats.”
The jovial voice boomed across the gravel parking area of the Big Hole River access site where Bev and I were pulling off our waders. I turned toward the boat launch and saw the rather frumpy looking owner of a well worn inflatable raft addressing a very distinguished looking older gentleman who was holding the bowline of an incredible custom made wooden drift boat. The boat was exquisite and, I’m sure, insanely expensive – a work of art with the late afternoon sun glancing off its highly polished surfaces. The drift boat owner’s face looked as if he’d just been invited to dine on earthworms but he declined politely and busied himself with loading the boat on its trailer. As he towed that beautiful boat out of the access behind his spotless Cadillac SUV I remember thinking that given the chance to spend a day on the water with either of those two men and their rigs, I think I’d climb into the raft - it would probably be a lot of fun.
It was great to be back in Montana. Five years had passed since our honeymoon in Yellowstone and now, thanks to the generosity of our parents, we were once again in the Rockies in late June. The last time we were out, years of drought had made the rivers extremely low and difficult to fish. This time would be different. The past winter had brought record breaking snow falls to the mountains and that, combined with abundant spring rain, meant that the rivers would be extremely high and difficult to fish. Fortunately the owner of the little motel where we stayed in West Yellowstone was also a fly fishing guide who was very helpful and who managed to put us onto good fishing despite the high muddy water.
We fished below the bridge at the Three Dollar Bridge fishing access on the Madison River that morning and found that by adding enough weight (roughly the amount needed to anchor a small canoe) to our leaders we could get a fly down to the fish. This method of fishing is commonly referred to as “chuck and duck.” We caught a few and started to get a feel for the faster western water. After lunch I fished above the bridge while Bev napped in our rented Explorer. The fish cooperated and I caught plenty of browns and rainbows ranging from 15 to 19 inches – they were an awful lot of fun in that heavy current. The following evening we returned and Bev went below the bridge while I went above and on the opposite side. The fishing was phenomenal. I was catching big fish on almost every cast. After my fifth or sixth trout I stopped fishing and went to make sure that Bev was also doing well (oh yes I’m still very much in love). Turned out she had not caught any yet so we added some weight to her leader and I showed her where I had caught a few the day before. After carefully wading into position she made a few good casts - or chucks (I was ducking) and on the third or fourth one was rewarded with a very large brown trout. After a spectacular leap right in front of us the trout headed down river and although Bev was putting as much pressure on the line as she dared he showed no sign of stopping. I watched as the fly line and most of the backing peeled off her reel and finally when there were only a few wraps of backing left I said, “I hate to do this but I need to take your rod and go after your fish”. I got no argument and as she thrust the rod towards me I could see the relief on her face. I began to move downstream as quickly as the fast water and uneven riverbed would allow and I reeled like mad to regain the line that had played out. By this time the big brown had stopped running and was wallowing in the slow water by the bank and so I was able to close the gap. I got him within a rod length while Bev caught up and she was able to finish landing and releasing this great fish. The smile on her face as she released that trout capped off a great day.
We took photographs of the mountains and rivers, of each other, of those incredible sunsets and of the occasional trout, even though we knew from experience that - just as even the best taxidermist’s mount will fail to convey the true beauty of a whitetail buck ghosting through a thicket with the early morning sun turning his antlers to gold and softly illuminating the mist of his exhaled breath - so would our photos, when later viewed, stare back at us glassy eyed. This land and skyscape so vast as to make us feel tiny, and insignificant, and grateful to be visiting in good weather – later reduced to a stack of 4x6 photos with the colors more than a bit off. The really sad thing is that over time the actual memory starts to fade and the photos begin to seem more real. I guess the lesson here is that once the pictures start to look good it’s probably time to plan another trip.
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© Allan Sutley 2015