Shucking the Swagger

fly fishing, boating, guide

Nonconformity has its benefits.

“Hey Jeff. C’mere.” I heard Vince call as he readied the boat. “Let’s show these guys how it’s done.”

We were at a popular boat ramp on a popular Montana river. The morning put-in, or launching of the driftboats, is a time to show off. While the guides ready the boats, the clients stand around and look cool. Sometimes, one of the guides runs into another guide he knows and they talk a while. But mainly it’s a bunch of people who came to Montana to see if they can catch some prized wild trout.

They hover around in their fly-fisherman finery, lookin’ goooood in their fashionable, many-pocketed vests stuffed with high-tech gadgets, most of which they will never use. They pose in their neat sun hats and pants that zip off at the knees. They don shirts with the backs that flop open to the breeze. Around their necks are ruffled gaiters, ready to be stretched up and over come game-time. The morning assembly at the edge of the river is almost more important than actually getting out onto the river itself. It is a shindig, a jamboree, a gathered swagger.

That morning, we didn’t join the crowd at the river’s edge. We stood quietly aside and sipped coffee from store-bought paper cups. We weren’t very fancy. I did wear a vest, but it had seen its days. It was faded, frayed, and hangdog—certainly not fashionable. Vince, who had been my guide for many years, didn’t wear a vest. He didn’t have a tackle box. He did have a couple fly boxes, but they looked as though he’d salvaged them from the bottom of the river. He kept extra flies in little plastic cups. The kind one would put ketchup in at a fast food joint. He stowed these along with the rest of his gear in a plastic grocery bag tied shut with an overhand knot. He wore clippers slung around his neck on an old shoelace. We kept things to a minimum. It was always more important to us to simply be there, enjoying the day, the river, the company we kept, life in general.

“Here.” Vince handed me a rod he’d pre-rigged. The fly tied at the end of the tippet was so small I had to squint in the bright morning sun to make out that it was some kind of midge, size 22.

He pointed toward the river. “You see that group of rocks? Just to the right of those guys there?” I did. “Wade out about ten feet and cast gently to those rocks.”


“Yeah. The water’s only about 12, maybe 16 inches deep, but there’s always some big browns around there. Go catch one.”

I walked to the river and waded out. Instead of synthetic pants that zip off at the knees, I wore bleached-out cargo shorts and flip-flops. I had a red bandana tied on my head like a pirate. I looked more like a beach bum than a fly fisherman. The water was cold. The other anglers congregated together. No one paid me any mind. They were probably wondering what the heck I was doing. I casted a time or two and let my tiny fly float in the easy current. Nothing. I looked around at Vince. He swirled his arm at me indicating for me to keep at it. I casted again, and that’s when the trout rose.

At first, I wasn’t sure what happened. The trout sipped the fly so gently that I could barely see or feel it. But Vince always reminds me to “be jumpy,” so I struck. Suddenly, the gawking on shore stopped. No one was checking out some other guy’s expensive rod or hand-carved wooden fly box—all eyes were on me as I raised my rod, the tip bent toward the water, line running through my fingers. Vince grabbed his net, scrambled down to the bank, and waded out in his flip-flops beside me.

“Let ‘em run,” he said. I did.

Amid a burgeoning crowd of onlookers, I brought the fish to Vince’s net. We admired it and then slid it gently back into the river. Vince was beaming. We didn’t even take a photo of it. When it was our turn in the line-up, Vince launched his boat into the river, rowed us away from the put-in, and grinned.

“Wasn’t that just the best?” he said. “All those guys standing around and you go catch an 18-inch brown right in front of them.”

I was smiling.

“You know what?” he said. “We’ve caught a lot of fish together and we’ll catch a lot more, but you’ll always remember that one.”