riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.–James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake
I spent most of my summer building a relationship with our first drift boat, exclusively on the Missouri River tailwater downstream from Holter Dam, about 45 minutes northeast of Helena, Montana. If you think I’m revealing a secret spot, you haven’t been there. It’s been long found, centuries before Lewis and Clark made it happily scabbily through the Gates of the Mountains. And its known-ness doesn’t diminish, at least in my mind, its greatness. Some things last, even if they’re altered a bit (in this case, by dams).
Like most relationships of any kind, this one of mine with the drift boat involved other creatures, had its ups and downs, and asked me to think about it a little. Or a lot, depending on the day.
But none of that is actually very interesting.
What is interesting, I think, is just the fact that we can — and did — do it. And so can you, if inclined. First, it’s public land, er, water, so anyone can use it, regardless of whether it involves fishing. And, especially during the warmer weekends, inflatable unicorn rafts captained by drunk college sophomores shared the same runs, holes, and riffles with professional guides whose livelihoods are directly affected by how many mind-blowing rainbow and brown trout they get their Ivy League clients into. Wondrously, it all works, and everyone gets along, even if they don’t share the same musical tastes as the pilots of the flagellant flotillas (flotilli?).
Second, when fishing is your primary objective, whether it’s spin, bait, or fly fishing, all you gotta do is do it. There’s not much else in life that flows that way (chukar hunting is kind of that way, but requires much more intense physical exertion). And as long as you’re down with the goal, going about achieving it feels not just right but absolutely righteous. Or at least it did to me. No matter the weather, we were fishing. If the weather was really bad (which it was occasionally) we’d leave the dogs in the camper, double-check our rain gear in the boat, and put in. Otherwise we’d either go early, usually putting in before any other boats, as much for aesthetic reasons as angling, or late, after all the guides had launched, and we’d take our time moving downstream, often pleasantly surprised by a ripe mid-day hatch of Pale Morning Duns, caddis, or even a second wave of minuscule trico mayflies (tricorythodes). The most special floats, though, were the twilight rides down this placid, eurythmic stretch of the longest river in North America. The light, which you’re moving precisely through the middle of, sandwiched and slowly sliding between the sky and its reflection in the water, constantly changes, in concert with the river’s micro-currents and subtle upswells, not to mention the staggering number of very large trout rising to sip caddis or mayflies from the surface. It’s a very “commodious vicus of recirculation.”
The righteous feeling of doing this also has a lot to do with the fact that rivers are truly the earth’s major recirculating forces and vessels. Looking at a map of rivers one sees the obvious resemblance to a diagram of the arteries of the human body; the Missouri is the aorta, or maybe the carotid.
James Joyce’s “novel” Finnegan’s Wake (1939) poses Dublin, Ireland’s main river, the Liffey, as the ultimate repository of all sensation there, like the subconscious is for people; whatever the river ever witnessed could come back mixed up with anything else in its massive, infinitely expanding hard drive, as dreams do for us. Literary critics described Joyce’s experimental writing style, in which the English language spews forth in seemingly random, indiscriminate and made-up words and phrases, as “stream of consciousness.” It’s a beautiful idea to think of rivers that way, that they have a collective and collecting consciousness, and to think of our lives and minds as rivers. Not only do rivers manage and recirculate the earth’s lifeblood, they capture memories and experiences, and host the life cycles of the hundreds of species of mayflies, trout, carp, whitefish, salmon, perch, crawfish, raccoons, mink, muskrats, beavers, ducks and geese, ospreys, eagles, herons, engineering majors bucolically buoyed by inflatable unicorns. Imagine a world without rivers. You can’t.
And then there’s fishing.
Fly fishing isn’t easy to do well, and it’s harder to learn. The corny like to say, “That’s why it’s called ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching!'” Yeah. Thanks for that. But a cursory glance in a fly shop will tell you that despite its challenging nature, fly fishing still attracts a healthy clientele with disposable income, and guide services provide highly competent (and ridiculously patient) stewards of these liquid resources to capitalize on this demographic.
And there’s really two completely different types of fly fishing, distinguished by the boundary between air and water, which is manifested by the surface of the water: dry fly, and then everything else. According to Norman Maclean’s dad, who was a preacher and so I’ll take his word for it, even though Norman’s book A River Runs Through It was turned into the movie Robert Redford made that “ruined fly fishing in Montana” according to our guide on the Gates of the Mountain boat tour (who knew his sh*t), John the Baptist was a dry fly fisherman. Which makes dry fly fishing the only real fly fishing. As a bumper sticker I saw in the parking lot at the boat ramp in Craig, Montana said: “If it were any easier it’d be called ‘trolling.'”
I’m not trying to start anything here, ’cause I’m not like that, but this is the truth, and it has its costs: fly fishing is fishing with flies that ride on top of the water. Fly fishing is dry fly fishing. Sadly, for those of us who cop an attitude about this, about 80% of what trout eat comes to them below the surface of the water. So that’s the argument for nymphing and streamer fishing, and maybe those who claim to like to use an “emerger” and a dry fly (talk about hedging your bets). Dry fly, er, fly fishing is really hard because you have to make the fly you use appear to be an actual insect, un-connected to a leader and floating like a normal part of the trout’s puny on-top-of-the-surface diet. All non-fiction rivers have lots of different currents in the same spot which God no doubt designed to frustrate the hell out of John The Baptist’s angling progeny. Making your dry fly look to a trout like a “regular” bug is called getting a “good drift.” With 12 to 15 feet of 2-pound test monofilament leader between your plastic fly line and the fake bug you’re using to trick a trout into being tortured (and then released! so ridiculous), getting a good drift is a half-cent shy of a miracle. And the trout on the Missouri are miraculous and not easily impressed by mediocrity when it comes to floating bugs.
But that’s the game, and we disciples love it. Lots of us. The thing is, if you try to teach your spouse how to get a good drift, which involves a bunch of things ten times harder than learning how to drive a stick shift or split an atom, you’re surely headed for a conversation about divorce. Only John The Baptist can rescue you if you dare to try this. I know. So does my wife.
We did it. Somehow. Leslie caught fish, fly fishing (i.e., using dry flies), punctuated by vows never to fly fish, fish, set foot or bum in a boat, set foot in Montana, and other things equally tragic but unfit for print. Happily for the dogs, we managed to resolve these issues with plenty of good Montana craft beer, a beautiful Galvan 5wt reel, some wonderful interludes with family and friends, and pleas for forgiveness and second-chances. All of which allowed me, and us, to finish our glorious tenure up there with aplomb and a decent catch-rate.
It was right. My first summer of that much rightness in a very long time, maybe ever. We were obliged only to fish if we felt like it. We just floated and fished. It wasn’t shy of enough, or more than enough. It was just enough. It was just. It was righteous. I want to recognize that because it was rare. Just fish.
Peat and Angus might not agree with my paean here, and I need to acknowledge that as well. But their forbearance allowed us to do this. They are not crazy about spending 10 hours in a drift boat with only a few pee breaks on bug-infested islets. If they had a new brain, it probably would have run an endless loop of “this is cruel and unusual.” But they tolerated the program, which really is what has allowed me to rediscover fly fishing: before the drift boat, we’d have to leave them in the car or camper, which often wasn’t an option. Over the course of the summer, they calmed and adapted to the boat experience, usually finding a bit of shade in the boat and going to sleep. Thank you, pets.