Just Fish

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).

Our wonderful Adipose Flow, made in Helena

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.”

Twilight highlight

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.'”

A typical specimen

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.

My 6wt rod bent like a baby willow

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.

Leslie and her audience

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.

Peat thinking about September 21
Angus thrilled to be off the boat (and on the Madison for a change)
3 Generations (me, my dad, who taught me how to cast in 1973, and my nephew who got us started on this boating thing last summer)
Leslie taking her turn on the oars. Peat wants off (not because of Leslie’s rowing; he just wants off).
One of Leslie’s many browns
Finn breaking the news to me that my rowing sucks
Dick (stepdad), me, brother Geoff, and our mom setting off for a bird-watching float
In addition to many happy hours on the boat, we also had many Happy Hours on the boat
Tying up some hoppers. We left the Missouri just before the fish began looking for them.
Tying my go-to fly: the PMD cripple
A brief interlude on the Madison added a lot
Can’t tell you where
Anchoring and wading made the days go by fast
Geoff releasing a hard fighter
“This 35-year-old fly your dad tied seduced the biggest fish I’ve caught here!”
Peat’s love and Angus’s patience
Finn’s football of a brown – tiny head and tail, huge, round body
Porter (Finn’s brother) rows for Finn and their mom April
Taking the Gates of the Mountains tour (highly recommended)
Hanging out with family before the tour and during one of the remarkable rainstorms
Morning thunder in the water
Full moon float
Until next year when we can just fish

12 Replies to “Just Fish”

  1. Hi Bob and Leslie, Dale and I enjoyed reading about your Montana fishing trip—I read it to him at lunch today. It sure brought back memories of our first time in Montana the year Geoff and April were married. Dale caught the biggest trout ever in the Gallatin River Valley at Rat Lake. The only reason we found that tiny lake was because I looked for a campground a few miles off the main road. Rat Lake just happened to be nearby. After our trip, Geoff told us about the book, “The View from Rat Lake.” We appreciate your terrific storytelling and wonderful photos—thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing your summer adventure with us. I would love to do the same trip next summer in our drift boat. Beautiful fish for sure. Looks like an Amazing time.

  3. The great thing about fly fishing and fly tying is that they are both an opportunity to learn new things for a lifetime. Every day on the river is different and a challenge to figure out what works. There are the new streams or other floats on places like the Missouri you have not tried.

    With fly tying, everyone looks for new patterns that are guaranteed to work or they are going to “improve” old reliable ones. Then there is the accumulation of materials and tools.

    During the winter, you had a great piece on the essential things for a chukar vest, Fly fishing vests are the same catch all and will grow with use. The number of flies you carry will probably grow exponentially by year!!

    By October you and Leslie will have your thoughts locked into chukars, but maybe I could trade a little of my five decades of fly tying for one of your home brews.


    1. Truth, Cliff! I love trades, and would gladly take you up on your offer. But you have a lifetime free pass for my homebrew for all the wisdom you’ve shared with us! Looking forward to seeing you all before too long.

  4. Bob. Awesome photo essay. I love that area of Montana. I was out there with the family in late July.
    I’m going to be in the White Bird area in early December for my first ever chukar hunt. Bucket list hunt for me. If you’re going the up that way give me a shout. It would be great to hunt some chukar with you. Thx.

  5. Looks like it was a great summer, you made some spots come to life! And your “can’t tell you where” river sure is a great place, a little solitude and a whole lot of fish, thanks for keeping it nameless!

  6. very nice photos, especially the ones with the dogs.. i usually go fishing between march and June.. the rest of the months i prefer mountain dog work 🙂 learn the kids to aport some fish though .. hehe .. be good, be safe and healthy.. cheers from Cyprus (waiting for chukar season.. we start end of October, even though i will hunt Greece for chukar mid October with two puppies English pointer and setter just for practice).. Molly will stay home to charge batteries, get ready for the season and enjoy the meaning of life, playing with the girls until October 😛

    1. Good to hear from you, Haris! We are on the same schedule, even though half a world apart. Good luck in Greece, and let me know how the beginning goes in Cyprus with Molly. I be she’ll be eager and fantastic this season for you!

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