The Wading Game

Fly fishing southwest Montana

Confrontation on the banks of a trout stream.

My first summer in Montana, I was threatened with a firearm and the prospect of losing my job—in the same day. It was a summer gig at a high-end fly-fishing lodge in the Ruby Valley (hint: there’s only one). Washing dishes, mostly. Making a few beds, too, and weed-whacking miles and miles of split-rail fencelines. Typical bottom-of-the-totem-pole duties. But with long summer evenings and the promise of mid-summer mayfly hatches, it was easy to endure the monotony for eight hours a day. The only catch—and I didn’t find this out till the first day of work—was that as a lowly maintenance worker, I was not to fish the ranch property. Under any circumstances, ever. It was made specifically and unequivocally clear.

One August afternoon, however, I slipped into the river at the lower end of the ranch property and waded downstream. Thanks to Montana’s generous river access laws, any point where one can legally access the stream turns into a trailhead, and the river a trail. I kept my flies pinned squarely to my rod’s cork handle until I was far from the ranch. Then I pulled off my Chubby-and-pheasant-tail combo, and began plying miles of beautiful turquoise trout holes bordered by immaculately-manicured lawns and million-dollar mansions. All the landowners, of course, had manipulated the riverbanks to create ideal fish habitat, for what they consider their own “private water,” which doesn’t really exist here in Montana (see “A Rift Runs Through It”, Outside Bozeman, Fall 2015). Regardless, 20-inch browns moved onto the shallow gravel shelves to gobble emerging mayflies in the late-afternoon sun.

I must’ve been fishing and wading for a couple hours when a voice from atop a high cutbank startled me. “How’d you get down here?” the raspy, unfriendly voice questioned. I provided a vague answer about wading downstream. It clearly was not satisfactory.

“Oh yeah? Well I’ve got a group of anglers just around the corner,” it replied, the voice’s owner sliding a gun sling around his shoulder to reveal a shotgun. “They paid a rod fee to be here, and better not run into you.”

“Cool,” I calmly replied, and took a few more steps downstream. This man was wasting the precious last few minutes of a PMD hatch.

Irate and clearly fuming, the meddler hopped back on his ATV and took off. I enjoyed the rest of the evening, casting to rising browns until it was too dark to observe my flies. When I made it back to the ranch property a few hours later, a pair of truck headlights were illuminating the river. It was my boss. No way to slip out of this one.

“What the fuck?” he screamed. “Don’t ever try that shit again.” I took a verbal lashing for a few minutes. The usual bullshit about making the best experience for ranch guests, and how the lodge leases adjacent properties. Try that monkey business again, he said, and I’d be outta there lickity-split.

I nodded my head and returned to my double-wide trailer, still basking in the tranquility of an evening on the water. The following afternoon, I made sure to remove my Ruby Springs Lodge hat before fishing the same section of river.