A Man on the River

Fishing misadventure illustration

Tension & redemption on the Yellowstone.

“Damn it! Fish like a man on a man’s river.” My little brother’s shoulders slumped as his fly line collapsed into the Yellowstone River a mere ten feet in front of the driftboat.

A few weeks before, Bill had called me saying he wanted to come to Montana and go fly fishing. I didn’t know he was interested in fishing; after all, he was a city guy, intellectual and somewhat eccentric.

We talked about family still here in Montana and about when he could come to Bozeman. “Hey bro, I can’t wait to show you my new rod-and-reel setup. It’s beautiful.” He described his equipment as if he were reading out of an Orvis catalog. “Bill,” I said, “can you cast?”

“Well, hell yes I can,” he declared. “I have been practicing in the park by my condo.” I imagined Bill throwing a line in a park frequented by small children, leashed dogs, and mothers in skinny jeans. I would be happy to see him, but had second thoughts about the fishing. Bill then let the other shoe drop: “I want to fish from a driftboat. I’m sure you can arrange it, right? Hey, I’ve got another call coming in, got to go. See you in a couple of weeks. Bye.”

Kevin then turned to me and yelled, 'I told you before Billy boy even arrived here in Montana that he could not cast a fly line, and he just proved the point.'

Reluctantly, I called Kevin Murphy. He had recently purchased a driftboat. It was big, heavy, and difficult to handle in the wind. Kevin was proud of his watercraft, saying, “It’s an expensive vessel, imported from Oregon.” Kevin was just starting his one-man guide service and had few clients, so he agreed to take us on the Yellowstone River. I opted to bring the lunches and beer. Kevin said Bill could pay for gas and the shuttle. “What’s your brother like?” Kevin asked. I described Bill as a scholarly type, having studied history and philosophy in college. He was just finishing his fist year of teaching at a junior college in California. “Good God almighty, he sounds like a stuffed-shirt, pompous ass. I bet he can’t cast and I’ll be untangling his line all day long.” I responded, rather sheepishly, “He’s not that bad, and besides, as fellow Irishmen, you two will get along just fine.”

Not so. Upon meeting, they looked each other over, and an aura of suspicion and distrust was evident. Bill looked like he had just stepped out of a fishing catalog—big wading boots, chest waders, and a vest stuffed with gear. He even had a red bandana around his neck. He wore huge sunglasses and an Indiana Jones fedora pulled low. Kevin was dismayed and gave me a look somewhere between What the fuck and I’m going to kill you later. Bill, with a supercilious handshake, dismissed Kevin as some kind of riverine retainer.

Kevin got things going right away. “Hey, Billy boy, you take the front of the boat. Your big brother, who never catches a damn fish, can sit in the back with the dog. Tie this fly onto a tapered leader about seven or eight feet long. Make a good knot; I don’t want to lose fish to improperly tied knots. Can you do all that, Billy boy?”

'One more nasty comment from that SOB, and I’m going to throw the little bastard out of his own boat and into the river. Nobody calls me Billy, let alone Billy boy.'

“Of course,” Bill responded. “I can tie several types of knots, and one will be appropriately applied.” Studying the fly closely, he asked, “Are you sure this fly you gave me will attract a large brown trout? I don’t want to waste my energy on small members of the salmonid family.”

“Billy boy, that fly, of my own design incidentally, will attract every damn fish in this river,” came Kevin’s retort. “But it’s up to you to set the hook, play the fish, and bring it to the boat. Do you think you can do that, Billy boy?” Bill sneered at Kevin as we climbed aboard. We pushed off from the bank. The tone for the day was set.

It was a beautiful early-July day with a light cloud cover, and little wind. The river was uncharacteristically clear after an early runoff. Towering mountains displayed many shades of green grasses and trees punctuated by rocky outcrops. The tall cottonwoods provided shady areas along the bank—prime locations for feeding fish. But the tranquility was soon to be shattered.

I watched my brother stripping out a lot of line as he started his back cast. He quickly switched and started his hand forward. The fly line came whipping across Kevin’s shoulder and the fly impaled his hat. Kevin bellowed, “What the hell! You’ve got to watch your back-cast, Billy boy. Do that again and you can’t fish.”

Bill did apologize with a vague justification about the effect of the wind on his cast. Neither Kevin nor I bought his excuse. Again, Kevin turned to me with that I’m going kill you look. Bill’s next cast was also a disaster.

“Damn it!” Kevin cried out. “Fish like a man on a man’s river.”

Kevin then turned to me and yelled, “I told you before Billy boy even arrived here in Montana that he could not cast a fly line, and he just proved the point. We’re pulling over so you can give him a lesson. Neither of you can get back in my boat until he can cast.” With that, Kevin maneuvered the driftboat to the bank, and Bill and I walked up the bank onto a grassy field.

Once out of earshot, Bill grabbed my arm and with teeth clenched, said in an angry voice, “One more nasty comment from that SOB, and I’m going to throw the little bastard out of his own boat and into the river. Nobody calls me Billy, let alone Billy boy. Who the hell does he think he is, anyhow?” Bill sat down on a trunk of an old, downed cottonwood, dejected. “And I don’t need any casting lessons from you!”

As we came around the bend, there stood Bill in shallow water, about 20 yards downstream.

I responded, “Take it easy, man, he has a nasty Irish temper. It didn’t help that you put a fly into his hat. He’s probably crazy enough to leave us stranded on the river. Come on, I’ll give you a few pointers on how to cast from a boat.”

Twenty minutes later, we returned to shore and Kevin asked me, in a condescending tone, “Well, can he cast now?” I responded that Bill had improved, but maybe he and I should change places in the boat, with Bill in the back seat and me up front. Bill did not speak as we climbed in and pushed off. Bill made short, but effective casts from the back of the boat. Kevin looked over his shoulder, watching Bill’s every cast and drift with a wary eye.

We entered a smooth section with a seam of fast-moving water off to the right. Fish were actively feeding. Responding too slowly, Bill missed several nice fish, and Kevin became annoyed. “Billy boy,” he said, in an irritated tone, “six nice fish went for your fly and you missed them all. You’re not much of a fisherman, are you?” Bill exploded; standing up in the boat, he grabbed Kevin by the shoulders and shook him violently. “Take me to the bank, you SOB, I’ve had enough of your ridicule and I want out of this boat and away from you. Take me to the bank and let me out.”

“With pleasure,” Kevin responded. We watched Bill stomp down the riverbank and disappear around a bend.

“You were too hard on my brother,” I said. “He’s just learning to fly fish. What the hell is the matter with you?”

Kevin dropped his head and admitted his fault: “Yeah, I was too rough. I’m sorry.” We were quiet for a time before he confessed that his guide business was not picking up as expected, and in fact he had no clients at all. “I’m afraid I can’t make the payments on the driftboat and will have to sell it.” With a big sigh, Kevin said, “Let’s row out, pick up your kid brother, and call it a day.”

As we came around the bend, there stood Bill in shallow water, about 20 yards downstream. He was just about to net an enormous brown trout. Kevin lowered the anchor and we watched Bill net, admire, and then release the fish. Kevin called out, “That’s a fine fish you caught, Bill. I’m sorry for riding you so hard. Let’s have a cold beer and celebrate you landing a beautiful brown. You know, Bill, catching a fine fish like that proves you can fish on a man’s river.”

We drifted quietly down the Yellowstone; Bill was happy he landed a big fish and proud to be called a fisherman on a man’s river. I never told him that Kevin sold the boat to satisfy the loan.