My life as a fly fisherman started off slow and went into suspended animation for a few years. I actually didn’t own my own fly rod until 1975. My limited fly fishing experiences were centered around visits to my uncle’s cabin on the Big Piney River in the Missouri Ozarks and that was almost exclusively fishing for bass or pan fish with small “poppers”. If any of you readers have ever had the experience of visiting Fort Leonard Wood you roughly know the spot I’m talking about. The Big Piney runs along the eastern boundary of the fort and on many days we could hear artillery firing in the distance. After a while you don’t even notice. My uncle grew up spending summers with relatives in that area back in the 1920s and 1930s – depression era. Fishing back then was for subsistence and it wasn’t uncommon to hear stories about fishing with dynamite. My uncle’s family would sometimes use a seine to herd fish up on the sandbars so they could pick out what they needed. Of course that was 80 years ago, times were hard, there was no work and people were starving.
Trout of any kind – Rainbows, Brook, Browns or Cutthroat – are not native to Missouri. The thousands of miles of Ozark streams are mostly too warm for trout to spawn and produce a self-sustaining population. Sometime in the late 1800s railroads were being built through the region and – as the story goes – railroad workers would salt the Ozark streams with trout for their own enjoyment or to supplement their food supply. This seems unlikely to me but, anyway, the fish arrived somehow and would live out their life but most would not spawn. A few found safe havens in the dozens of cold springs that feed into the creeks and rivers with water temperatures low enough for small breeding populations to develop in isolated areas. Only a few local people knew about these new-comers but they were alien fish and there was no real effort to fish for them. Today there are still a few protected places where these small populations hang on. Most of the trout in Missouri’s streams are stocked on a scheduled basis by the Department of Conservation. There are a few put and take trout parks where fish are released each morning and caught by fishermen who pay for the privilege by buying a daily trout tag. That kind of fishing has never really appealed to me but there are thousands of Missouri fishermen who show up on March 1st to stand shoulder to shoulder to pull fish out of the stream only a few hours after they were released. Most catch their limit by 10 AM and have to stop for the day but it all starts up again the next morning.
So – I spent a few years using borrowed equipment fishing for smallmouth bass and whatever else would take a popper. I caught a gar once. It was, for me, loads of fun and it was nice being out in the wild enjoying the solitude. You can tell what you have on your line by how the fish behaves when it is caught. A largemouth bass will take a nose dive until you muscle it out of whatever hole it found and then it will put up a fight. Smallmouth will usually be in swift and shallow water and will try to make a run for it. Pan fish, like perch or bluegills, are indignant at being caught and will fight from the very start and will keep it up even when you have them landed. Since I very seldom keep a fish – maybe one or two every couple years – they all go back into the water a little sore but wiser. I’m a fish educator in that respect.
I managed to meet a girl and fell in love in the early 1970s. Joanne did not fish but she was a reader and would go with me and read a book while I would fish. If you know me or followed some of my blog posts you might know about our backpacking trip in 1975 because I’ve mentioned it before. It was sort of a courtship trip. She was a city creature and the very idea of trudging through the wilds with a pack on her back was a foreign concept. But, when I asked her if she wanted to go she said “yes” to my amazement and everlasting joy. Her friends and family thought she was nuts to go off into the wilderness with this guy she only knew for a few months. What was she thinking?
After a couple more months of looking at maps and reading about trails we decided on the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming and the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. I knew we didn’t want to go someplace too rugged because we were not experienced and the Big Horns looked to be accessible and the trails were reasonable. There were also a lot of places to fish. We assembled our gear and took a couple break-in hikes with our new boots and our packs loaded to about the weight we figured we would have. We took a couple weekend Ozark backpack trips to try out the tent and the stove and some of the delicious freeze-dried food (yuk). We ended up experimenting with food and Joanne tried a few things until we finally settled on some things we could eat. Since I had never driven a manual transmission car I had to get a crash course because we were driving her Ford Pinto with a stick shift into the mountains.
We set out for Wyoming in July of 1975 and had a number of adventures along the way. Joanne wanted to see a herd of buffalo out on the Great Plains and we managed to find one but almost lost the car in a ravine. That was also the trip where we encountered a bear but that is another story. Amazingly, we ran into my brother and sister-in-law at a KOA campground in Colby Kansas. We finally made it to Wyoming and soon were in sight of the Big Horns Mountains. I still didn’t have a fly rod or flies or a net or much of anything I needed for my trout fishing. When we got to Sheridan I wandered into a sporting goods store that was well stocked with fishing gear and staffed with someone who knew what I was going to need. I walked out of the store with a four-piece fiberglass fly rod suitable for backpacking, a bargain basement reel, fly line and leader, a bunch of flies, a net and a few other odds and ends. Up to this point I had never caught a trout but now I was a trout fisherman. Or at least that’s what I thought and Joanne went along with it.
We drove up into the mountains and camped at a pleasant little place called Dead Swede Campground. We wondered what he died from…maybe mosquito bites. This was a national forest campsite located along the Tongue River. Joanne was beginning to wonder about this trip – dead swedes, Tongue River, mosquitos. I decided I would assemble all of my fishing gear and head over to the river bank and try my luck. I bought a fishing license in Sheridan with all my stuff so I was ready. Fishing with flies is a little different from fishing with poppers but I sort of got the hang of it after a few minutes. My smallmouth and pan fish experience was helpful but this was a faster stream than I was used to. The Tongue River was maybe twenty-five feet across and was making a slow curve downstream toward the left. The faster and deeper water was on my side of the river as it moved around the bend. I tied a fly on my line…I think it was a ZugBug. I stood there big and tall on the bank flailing the water for about fifteen minutes when suddenly I tied into a fish. It was dumb luck. I was astounded. The fish put up a pretty good fight but I don’t remember all of it. I looked around and realized I didn’t have my net. I was winning the contest with the fish – he was well hooked – but I had no idea how to get him landed. The rod was bent almost in half and I figured the line would break. Everything held together and I got him out of the water and over on the grass. He was about nine or ten inches long and was still feisty. I was disappointed (and clueless) about his size but I gleefully ran back to the campsite to show off my catch, pose for an appropriate photograph and then ran back and released the fish back into the river because he was too small. There were two other fishermen nearby who were looking at me funny and asked why I released the fish. “Too small” I said but the look I got was puzzling. Apparently that was a good sized fish for this river. It was the first trout I ever caught and I was happy – even thinking it was too small. Unfortunately, the photograph didn’t come out because I wasn’t standing still – I was practically running in place – and the fish was outside of the frame when Joanne snapped the picture. That was well before digital cameras so we didn’t know for a couple weeks that my first trout evaded the camera. That wasn’t the last time.
We finally made it to the trailhead and started on our backpacking trip. We didn’t plan on going far – only a few miles into the wilderness where we would set up a base camp for a few days. This was higher elevation than what we were used to and we were carrying about 130 pounds of gear. It was slow going. Joanne needed encouragement a few times. I devised a plan to keep her going by promising she could have a few M&Ms every half mile or so. Luckily I had a good supply of M&Ms. We hiked along one of the branches of Tensleep Creek and crossed into the wilderness. The trip was uneventful except for an explosive encounter with a mule deer that was concealed beneath the lower branches of a hemlock tree. When we came too close it jumped out and ran off through the forest. I almost soiled myself but I stayed calm and waved the M&M bag in the air and we kept on walking. After a few hours and most of a bag of M&Ms we reached our destination. We camped on a high spot away from the stream where the wind kept the mosquitos at bay. I fished in the stream every day and caught a bunch of colorful trout but they were the size of hot dogs. We were up high enough that the fish would only grow about the length of your hand. We kept a few and had one trout dinner – roasted them like hot dogs on a stick. They were better than what we carried with us but I really didn’t like eating them and Joanne was happy with what other food we had. I fished up and down the creek but didn’t keep any more fish. We had met a group of backpackers from Iowa who were heading up into the wilderness and they said they didn’t need much food because they were planning on catching fish. I suspect they might have been hungry much of the time.
So, anyway, I was now a fly-fishing devotee with a few trout under my belt. I was happily connected to this wonderful woman who would later that year consent to be my wife and life partner. We were married in January and there were many more fish in my future and many more books read along river banks or in tiny boats in her future.
Next: Arkansas and the Little Red River