“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. But we can still love them—we can love completely without complete understanding.” —Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
This is a fishing story. Like all good fishing stories, it attempts to transcend the immediate and strive for the universal. We love to fly fish because it connects us intimately and emotionally to the water, the fish, and each other. It shields us from the interference that exists in our culture—interference that alienates us from nature, one another, and ourselves. When we fish in cold water waving a streamer, in a creek high-sticking a nymph, or in the bow of a drift boat within reach of a good friend and full cooler, we are free to simply exist in the beautiful, ambivalent honesty of nature. We love those cold waters, even if we don’t completely understand them—same with nature, same with each other.
This isn’t a fishing story linked to a time and place; it’s not about a trip to an exotic locale, or about the one that got away (or is it?). My fishing story is about trying to make sense of fly fishing, life, and love. As I write this now, a full two months after my girlfriend decided to shag a young hippie in his rusted-out van, thereby officially prompting the long-overdue end of our eight-year relationship, I find myself being fairly sure of two things:
1. I am thoroughly addicted to fly-fishing, and there is a decent chance that it saved my life. When we moved out to Bozeman last year, I was a casual fisherman—dropping a worm for bluegills or chucking a gaudy spinner for bass, but without a sincere understanding of the fish I was trying to implant a treble hook into, or the ecosystem they niched out in. Within a few months, I had acquired a second rod, a few boxes of flies, a grasp on entomology, and was logging many fruitless miles on the Madison learning where to (attempt) to put my fly.
I’ll always remember the first wild Montana trout I brought in, and the first one I ate. They were forgiving rainbows on the Madison who—though caught months apart—both went for the same #16 Adams. I loved those fish because they gave me so much, and yet I knew so little about them—not as individuals, but as a community. Maclean was right: it was those fish I should have known, and they did frequently elude me—but I loved them anyway. My relationship with my ex was much like the rainbows who weren’t fooled by my slapdash presentation or thoroughly wrong flies—what we were trying to give each other just wasn’t what we needed (another point for Maclean). We try our best with the flies we carry, but sometimes what the fish need remains a mystery.
2. We need each other more than we like to admit. There was a day in the immediate fallout of the breakup when a friend of mine from Livingston took me to Pine Creek to fish for cutthroat, bushwhack, drink beer, and try to solve life’s problems. I was still a wreck, not really eating or sleeping much, and the thought of an afternoon of fishing sounded great. (I don’t need to elaborate on exactly where, but if you’ve been there in spring when the air is cool and the hills are carpeted with thick soft moss, then you’ll know; if you haven’t, it’s all a lie—it’s a horrible place unfit for humans and totally void of beautiful, eager, and abundant native cutthroat trout.)
We hiked and occasionally fished, hooking up with a few cutts, and there was a moment as we sat next the river, drinking lukewarm Pabst, reminiscing about music we’d seen, when I felt normal—human again for the first time since the breakup. This was the emerging of myself after so many years of codependence, and of course a river ran right through it. Maclean was right about not always being able to give those in our lives what they truly need—but on rare occasions, we do indeed have just the right pieces to give.
Fly fishing has become inseparably wedded with this time of my life—the time I truly committed to it. So many of my Montana memories are bittersweet now, and I like that. Montana and its cold-water fish are tough, smart, and unwilling to accommodate the haphazard Midwesterner. It used to keep me up at night thinking about the places I used to fish and camp with the ex, and I wondered how I could ever step foot in the Madison, the Yellowstone, the Shields, or the Gallatin again without feeling so much loss. But that is what fly fishing teaches me—you lose often in your pursuits to gain and if you can’t grin and smile when you break off a pig of a brown, when your rod tip gets snapped in the car door, or when you snag that same damn willow for the tenth time trying to reach a rising fish, you’re missing the whole point of life.