What Did I Do Wrong?

A fishing guide's dilemma.

It’s a fairly typical fall day on the Yellowstone River. We’d managed a few whitefish, a few trout. I’d told my one and only joke and it had gotten mixed reviews. We saw a bald eagle. We saw some mule deer. I got a text from a girl I’d been chasing all summer and now I was trying to respond surreptitiously while rowing. “A trout just rose,” I say. “Right next to the bank. About three o’clock.” My client casts frantically.

I text: Murray bar. 6:00 tonite?

She texts right back. Sounds good :) Things are looking up.

After lunch, clouds form and the blue-winged olives hatch. Regattas of sailboat-shaped mayflies ride the current film, getting picked off left and right by trout. We catch a few decent rainbows, 14-inch crowd-pleasers that jump and pull hard. All the while I’m keeping my eye out for the one. During a hatch like this it seems like the bigger fish, usually brown trout, post up in the more difficult lies—inches from a mid-river rock, just underneath an overhanging branch, right along the edge of a current break—where it’s nearly impossible to get a natural presentation. These are the challenging fish, the really fun ones that can drive you crazy.

Eventually, I spot a good-sized snout poking up rhythmically in a pocket between two boulders. It’s moving in the small area of calm water, not even bothering to fully submerge after eating, just swimming back and forth near the surface with its mouth agape.

“Goddamn,” my client says. “That thing is huge. Over 20 for sure.”

It’s a nice fish. Probably more like 18. I check his leader for windknots. I put on some floatant and blow the fly dry. “There he goes again,” he says. “Look at that thing.”

I detect a faint tremor in his leg. The guy is from Texas. He does something with oil—sells it, or buys it, or finds it—I can’t remember. This trout has his leg shaking and it makes me like him a whole lot more.

I tell him he’s ready to go and he starts casting. All day he’s been doing a decent job but now he loses it. Too hard, too fast. The wind has picked up and he’s forcing it. The line slaps right on top of the trout’s back. The fish bolts, leaving a wake. It cuts just in front of the boat and we get a better look. It might have been 20 inches after all.

The client sits. We don’t say anything. He digs a beer from the cooler, drinks and belches. “Well,” he says. “What did I do wrong right there?”

I get this question fairly regularly. What did I do wrong? As if there is just one thing, a single problem to be fixed by a simple, silver-bullet answer. The answer I like best is the one I never say, this one:

What you did was, you didn’t drop out of college at age 20 and move to Montana. You didn’t work crappy construction jobs and go fishing every single evening. You didn’t rent dingy basement apartments in an overpriced resort town, just so you could live a stone’s throw from the river that stole your heart. If you had done that, I want to say, I guarantee you’d have caught that fish. Easy.

Instead, I say something like, “Well, I think maybe you were breaking your wrist a bit on that cast. You need to tighten that up. Don’t worry about it, we’ll get the next one.”

Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. We’ll give it a shot and in the end I suppose it doesn’t matter. Catching a trout is a rather inconsequential thing to be good at—something I try to remember to keep my own ego in check. There are jobs of great importance to humanity and guiding fishermen will never be one of them.

Just before the takeout I see another trout working, maybe not quite as big as the first one but still respectable. It’s already been a good day and I’m tempted to just row on by. If I hustle we could still make happy hour. Instead, I drop anchor. When you’ve reached a point as a fisherman where the possibility of redemption on a big fish no longer excites you it’s probably time to hang it up.

“Alright,” I say. “Lead him. Nice and easy, we got this one.”

I slide my phone from my pocket. This is a bit painful. She has 50s pin-up girl stockings tattooed from ankle to mid-thigh. Very intriguing.

I text: Fishing is good. Gonna b late.

This essay first appeared in Big Sky Journal.