Written by: Dwight Livingstone Curtis
I moved back to Missoula, Montana, recently enough that I’m still catching up on the fishing trips I missed while I was gone. That’s why I was sitting shotgun in Nick’s truck last Friday, when we spooked a scraggly, adolescent bear on the road to our put-in spot on the Blackfoot.
The bear gave us a hard look and loped off to the side of the road. He did his best James Dean as we passed.
“This beer is excellent,” I said to Nick, whose face had gone pale. In addition to being my pal, Nick is a guide and a conservationist. He’s also afraid of bears, even by guide standards. He has rhyming sayings about what to do when you meet one of whichever species.
“Black bear,” Nick said, even though the bear was brown. I’m sure he was right.
The river was clear at the launch, and I studied the bottom. Apparently this palette is characteristic of the Blackfoot: round stones in mottled blues, browns, and tans. Norman Maclean says the water here runs too fast for algae to grow on the rocks. It was a mighty trout river in his time, and then for a while it was a crummy trout river, and now it’s a mighty trout river again, thanks in part to the efforts of Trout Unlimited, where Nick works. He takes special pride in fishing the river. This was all news to me: I’d never fished the Blackfoot before Friday. But it was fast and clear, there were bears and eagles, and my rod hand was twitching.
Nick’s Duck Toller, Lander, slept on the cooler, while I fished from the forward seat, and other than a pretty strong “W factor”—Nick refuses to say the word, so I won’t say it either, other than to mention that the W made it difficult to pee off the bow—it couldn’t have been a prettier Montana day. A few bends down the river, I hooked a big, healthy westslope cutthroat on a stonefly. The westslope is a Montana native, and this one was hook-jawed and rude-bellied, more oil paint than watercolor. I sat down, feeling loose and a little shaky, and made eye contact with the dog, who understood that I needed to get into the cooler. He got down and stretched his legs.
Landing the cutty let some of the steam out of my kettle. On an easy stretch of river, I took the oars, while Nick sent long, astonishingly flat casts across the water, his fly line leaving cloudbursts of mist over the boat. We ate lunch. One of us went for a swim. The Toller and I achieved an easy rhythm with the cooler.
“Beats the office,” I said.
“You don’t have a job,” Nick said.
We emerged from the bottom of the canyon. I’d been practicing my aerial mends, catching small fish near the bank and dehooking them without fanfare. I dropped a cast a couple of yards off the reeds and watched a fish no bigger than my hand launch clean out of the water to eat my fly.
“Fish on,” I said.
“Little guy?” Nick said, without altering his stroke.
“Affirmative,” I said. “Or—”
The fish shot into the air once again, and this time there was a long yellow flicker beneath him. The small fish somersaulted, flicked spray, and landed in what appeared, for an instant, to be a crater in the river.
Nick held his oars, dripping, beside the boat. “Was that—”
I lowered my rod tip. My fly line lay slack on the surface. There was a commotion in the water, where something was happening. I stripped in a yard of line, and my rod tip doubled over.
“Fish on,” I said.
Nick jammed his oars into the river.
There was an action scene that lasted a few minutes or longer, or shorter—I have no idea. Time bent around the tensions between arm, rod, line, water, and hook. Everything thrummed. I heard the mechanical click as Nick extended his net to its full length, and suddenly all those tensions felt terribly fragile again.
“Head out of the water,” Nick said, and I lifted my rod tip as high as I could. My tippet zippered across the waxed rope at the midsection of Nick’s oar. Nick slipped his net under the long yellow belly, gave a frying-pan shuffle, and the fish slid in the correct direction.
We chanted cuss words until we bumped against the rocks. Nick kicked the anchor pedal, and we leapt out of the boat.
“Give him a drink,” Nick said, and I did. “Now here’s what you’re gonna do.”
Like most good guides, Nick is also a choreographer and photographer. I followed his instructions, curling back my fingertips, while the dog snuck a lick of the big brown’s tail.
“All right,” Nick said. “Where’s my net?”
It was ten yards downriver. Nick sprinted after it, while I lowered the fish into the water. He slid out of my hand. He wasn’t in any hurry, and as far as I could tell, he headed right back to his spot, a couple yards off the bank, where the skinny bottom dropped off at the edge of the shadow of the trees.
It took a few minutes for my fine motor skills to recover. We told each other the story a few times to make sure it was true. I’d hooked a small trout on the dry, who’d almost immediately been eaten by a two-foot brown. Somehow, the hook transferred clean to the bigger fish’s lip. Had he swallowed the juvenile? Neither of us was sure—if so, it was already in his belly by the time we got him to the boat. If, somehow, the little fish got away, he might have been the only guy on the river having a better day than I was.
“What’s this thing called?” I asked, studying my fly: yellow and orange foam indicators on a tan body, rubber legs, ginger hackle. I re-dressed it, and dropped it in the current.
“It’s a Plan B Golden Stone,” Nick said. He navigated a bend, then tucked his oars under his knees and opened his tackle case. “I hate to break it to you, though,” he said, as I cast toward the drop-off. “The big guy wasn’t eating golden stones.” I glanced over and saw Nick studying his streamers.
We made the boat ramp by dusk. “Technically,” Nick said, as he fiddled with the winch, “I don’t think you caught guy that on the dry. I’m not even sure that was fly fishing. It might’ve been bait fishing. Either way—” He twanged the strap, then plucked something off his lapel and handed it to me. It was the Plan B Golden Stone. “Keep it,” he said.
I stuck the fly in my hat.
It’s good to be back.
Dwight Livingstone Curtis is a writer and angler living in Missoula, Montana.