Dwelling on the Cast

Reflecting on a match made in heaven.

Two memories often percolate through the stratified bedrock of my accumulated fishing experiences, seeping into consciousness cold and clear like a mountain spring. One is my first fish: a glistening, foot-long brown plucked from the East Gallatin on a bright morning some 35 years ago. I grimaced as Dad pinched a squirming nightcrawler onto the hook and tossed it toward an eddy; within seconds my bobber disappeared beneath the swirling surface. Dad told me raise the rod up hard, and when I did, I felt that distinct stuttering surge that would soon become one of my life’s great pursuits. The relentless tug seemed like solid ground beyond a murky abyss, and my line the bridge between: a link to a mysterious underwater world that had heretofore been an abstraction. Now, finally, I could feel it, sense it, and wrap my mind and fingers around it—and it was all made possible by a length of line, and a cast across the chasm.

The second memory came much later, after a lifetime of experience had piled up: four states and three continents; beach culture, lake culture, urban culture; a stint in the army; bluegill, catfish, and too many bass to count. The setting was akin to the first: thigh-deep in the main Gallatin, under a warm summer sky. This time it was a football of a rainbow, slurping a #16 Adams in the waning August light. The massive fish surged upstream, broke the surface, and was gone. I never even heard a splash.

Twenty years later, I’m still here, chasing the same fish. No species, it seems, summons so well as trout: beautiful beast, seductive siren of the streams, enchanting archetype of the northern climes. And no fish better matches its surroundings: this handsome state, so steeped in superlatives, makes an eminently suitable home. Southwest Montana and trout: it’s a match made in heaven, no doubt about it.

Maybe that’s why that big rainbow never sinks too far into the depths of my increasingly muddled, middle-aged mind. Maybe that’s why, when, as Wordsworth wrote, “in vacant or in pensive mood,” I imagine that I heard no splash because there wasn’t one. That on that distant, magical night, through the conduit of my fly line flowed the river, the trees, the birds, the great pulsing heartbeat of life all around me; and I’d dissolved into it. My cast was to another dimension; the fly fell perfectly, drifted perfectly—and I hooked a god. Caught unawares by an invisible force, it fled to the skies.

Is the thought so fantastic? This is Montana, by God, and we’re casting for fish under a wide blue sky, with vast open fields to either side and stunning mountain peaks rising above. On the right day, with the right cast, it feels like heaven. And maybe, just maybe, it is.