As they say, all good things come to an end. Such is the way with close friendships, sometimes. And also with family connections. We just buried my uncle — the one I wrote about earlier. He was the last of his generation and he had a long life — made it to 96 — and if you add up his time fishing, I suspect that those days were added on to his life.
My close relationship with Fred also came to an end. We two were on a road trip, heading to Florida one January, and he announced that he was going to divorce his wife…one of my best friends. Awkward, no? I knew before she did. The remaining days of the trip were a little odd. I tried talking it out but he was in a strange place. Mid-life crisis on steroids, I thought, though he denied it. It was one of the strangest trips we ever had…including the evening spent with the gay drug smuggler/dealer from the Bahamas. He was dripping with cash. Drinking 140 year old chocolate liquor was the highlight of the evening…no drugs or gay stuff. It took us a while to resolve things but we are still friends and he has been married twice since then. I always thought Fred should have written his life story — no one would believe it. He is the only person I know who was bitten by a Komodo Dragon and lived to tell of it…he has the scar to prove it. He’s still adding to his life story…which is good. We live too far apart these days and don’t fish or dive together but we are keeping in touch. My wife was a harder sell and their friendship was pretty much over.
But this is about fishing, right?
I was always happy as a solo fisherman. I miss fishing with Fred but since he could never learn to tie a knot it was sometimes aggravating. He could tie his shoes, thank God. But fishing alone has always been relaxing for me. The Ozark streams are quiet and uncrowded if you stay away from the trout parks. On weekdays you could fish for hours and not see anyone else on the water. Sometimes it is a little precarious. I recall camping at the edge of Mill Creek, one of the small self-sustaining trout streams, and being awakened at 2 AM by he sound of a large cat purring outside my tent. The cat walked around the tent a couple times and I laid as still as possible…hardly breathing. It went away and I didn’t poke my head out of the tent so I can only imagine what it was — there are mountain lions in Missouri.
My fishing trips were sometimes a part of family vacations. As long as everyone was having a good time I could sometimes sneak in a day of fishing. I spent a day on the upper reaches of the Chattahoochee River in the Georgia mountains on one trip after my daughter got to see where Cabbage Patch dolls came from. Yeah — they really do come out of a big cabbage.
Another year we went to Utah and stayed in Park City for a few days and then made a long trek down to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park and then back to Park City. I managed to squeeze in a day of fishing on the Weber River a short distance east of town. The Weber River — where I encountered it– was flowing through a broad valley and seemed like it was on overgrown ranch land. You had to park on a dirt road and cross a fence to reach the river. The guy at the fly shop said this was a good place to fish and was a public access spot. Okeydokey. The river itself was not large but it looked promising…more than just a little creek. You had to climb down a bank of dirt and gravel to reach the water and wading was really the only option. I spent a few hours fishing up and down the stretch of water with minimal luck. I enjoyed being out but I wasn’t catching much. I was alone and I don’t even recall hearing a car on the dirt road while I was there. Once you were down in the stream you couldn’t see beyond the bank because of a thick growth of some sort of unidentifiable cane-like vegetation about four or five feet tall on both sides of the river. I like to see where I am but it seemed like I was in a trench because the bank and then the vegetation was way over my head. After a while I began to hear something crashing through the vegetation heading toward the river where I was fishing. I was already a little uneasy about not being able to see anything and now there was something large coming my way. I looked around for an escape route…there was none. I wasn’t going to be able to clamber up the dirt bank and make a run for it through the overgrown field in my waders. Maybe it was an elk? Maybe it was a bear? It kept coming but seemed to be struggling to get through the thick brush. I moved to the far side of the stream to await our confrontation…expecting the worst. Finally I could see a large brown form coming through the weeds and the wall of vegetation parted and a large cow stuck it’s head out and gave me a startled look. We both seemed disappointed after the initial recognition. I continued fishing for a while longer but the cow just hung around watching me with bovine curiosity. I wasn’t used to looking up at a cow. Finally I gave up…this was too weird.
Sometime around 2004, we took a family vacation up to Glacier National Park, Montana. I took my fishing gear and looked forward to fishing one or two Montana streams. This was a long road trip with stops along the way. We saw Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie and were essentially following the old Oregon Trail all the way to Wyoming. We made a side trip through the Big Horn Mountains and regaled our daughter with stories of our backpacking trip forty years before…almost to the day.
It was a good trip and I enjoyed eyeballing some of the trout streams along the way — although I didn’t get to wet my fly. We were on a schedule and I had to be content with just looking at this point. It looked pretty good but my wife and daughter aren’t into fishing so on we went. I managed to get them out of the car where the Missouri River is created by the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers. They were impressed — our little town sits on the bank of the Missouri River — but it is a big muscle-bound river compared to the headwater streams.
Our visit to Glacier National Park was everything we hoped it would be. We stayed in one of the lodges and took the Red Bus tour. The glaciers are shrinking fast….go if you haven’t been there yet. As they say now, one visits the park to see evidence of glaciers…not the glaciers themselves. It wasn’t always that way. We saw a bear and a lot of mountain goats posing on the rock ledges. I bet fishing would have been pretty good in places.
Finally…finally we made it to the Big Hole River country. I was going to have a day of fishing – all by myself – on a real Montana stream. I had been studying maps and looking up streams and access locations. I decided to fish the Wise River, a small stream that is wade-able that flows into the Big Hole River. It is in the Beaverhead National Forest and access was not an issue.
As I drove along the forest service road I could see that it was a pretty little stream…hardly a river but that is my kind of water. There were low mountains on both sides – the Pioneer Mountains – and some open park-like areas. I found a place to park and got my gear together — waders, vest, net, camera, rod and reel, dozens of flies…some homemade. My first actual attempt to get to the water was thwarted by an impenetrable jungle of willows. I could hear the stream about fifteen feet away but there was no way to get there. I needed a machete or a personal lumberjack and the forest service would not be happy if I mowed down the willow trees. So I wandered up and down the stream and finally found a way.
Much of my time was spent getting untangled from willow trees but I enjoyed it anyway. Fishing was slow….by the time I got on the water it was already well into a bright morning. The fish were small…or at least the ones I was seeing. I had some strikes and landed a few. I felt a little claustrophobic due to the willows so I after a while I decided to drive upstream to find some more open water away from the willows. The road crossed a slight rise and then came down into a broad valley with the stream meandering through. There was a parking spot where other fishermen had parked so this looked like easy access. The stream was only a creek but the twists and turns offered a lot of holes and hiding places for trout. It was easier fishing without the willows but the sun was on the water and I’m sure I stood out like a giant sore thumb to any fish in the area.
I was down to my last half hour or so and loving every minute. I wasn’t catching much and there were fewer strikes so I was thinking about packing it in. I had people sitting in a motel room, after all. I started moving downstream toward the car…stopping here and there to try a likely spot. I tossed my fly along an undercut back near some roots and — sure enough — it got snagged. Or that’s what I thought at first until the fish made a run for it. We were only a few feet apart…the stream was fast and very narrow and the fish and I were doing a dance in the middle of it. When I finally got it in my net I was puzzled…what the hell is this?? It was an Arctic Grayling…I was stunned. I knew that there were a few Graylings holding out on the Big Hole River but I hadn’t actually anticipated seeing one — I never figured I’d catch one. I stood there and stared at it for what seemed to be an eternity but was only a few seconds. The ling dorsal fin curved over it’s back like a pennant… it was a beautiful fish. Graylings are gray…not the brighter colors of the trout but they make up for it with a fine torpedo body and that draping fin. I put it back carefully in the water…forgetting to take a picture, of course. It was a rarity and I wanted it back where it belonged.
Graylings are not endangered in the lower 48 states…they are almost extirpated and beyond endangered in most places except for a few spots like the Big Hole River. Up north, in Alaska or Canada they are more common but are quite rare anywhere else. Well, I decided to end my day on that note. My last fish was something special and worth remembering…probably my first and last Grayling. I don’t even recall what fly I was using but I like to think that it was one I tied…it makes the story better.
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Next: New Mexico