The secret of a good fishing story, I’ve learned, is not really about fish at all. Just like a good book, a lot depends on the telling of the story, and a lot depends on the characters. The following episodes were retold to me, and I only hope I can do justice to the telling.
The Big Switch
Tim, Allen, Howard, and Roy. Good friends, used to each other’s company, they all shared something vitally significant—they knew the importance of pink wine. Medicinal, of course, when the cold waters froze your fingertips or a cruel wind blew your favorite fishing cap just out of reach.
Tim was a kind and decent fellow and very well thought of because of his good humor about what would be, to most people, an impediment to fishing—he only had one arm. He had another arm, but he usually left it at home. Because of this, Tim didn’t usually catch a lot of fish. But on this particular day...
Wait, you should know where the men were and what kind of day it was. They were up in Centennial Valley, on Elk Creek, in late April or early May, although it could have been June—when the weather is predictably unpredictable. It was cold enough to drink pink wine, but warm enough to stay out long enough to think it tasted good.
In order to get into this particular favorite fishing spot, they took a road that crossed a creek, passing some ponds. Nice ponds. Ponds that have nothing whatsoever to do with this story, but nice all the same. You know, worth mentioning.
The men were fishing for brook trout that day. Brook spawn in May, maybe June—it could have been June. Just so you know.
When the merry foursome got to a good place in the road, Tim and Allen went down the river a ways and Roy and Howard went up the creek a bit.
Normally Tim caught fish that were itty bitty. But on this day, he got a big one-—two or three pounds. He was pretty proud of himself, if he did say so himself and, well, no one would blame him.
When Roy met up with Tim, on the way back to the truck, Tim couldn’t help but brag about his catch. But Howard, who was taking up the rear, had heard it, too.
In order to get back to their vehicle, all four had to crawl under a fence. As Tim crawled through the gap in the fence, his creel opened and his big catch fell silently into the tall grass. Tim never heard the kerplop.
Tim happily made it back to the Jeep, took a cold one, and waited for the others so he could share all the gory details about his big catch, and perhaps gloat--a little. It wasn’t everyday he caught a fish like that.
Howard also caught a fish that day. But it was nothing to brag about. It measured about ten inches, big enough not to throw back. When Howard went through the fence, he saw Tim’s fish and carefully placed it in his creel.
Getting back to the Jeep, while Tim’s attention was elsewhere, which is easy to do in the Centennial Valley in June (or May) at the end of a rewarding day of fishing, Howard placed his teeny weeny fish in Tim’s basket.
Finally, all four were back—imbibing quietly—when Tim, who couldn’t wait to show off his prize, told the mighty tale and then dumped his basket out on the ground.
But his big fish wasn’t there. A tiny 10-inch fish lay pathetically prone in the long grass.
Tim just stood there. His mouth moved, but no words came out. He couldn’t think of anything to say.
Everyone else (except for Howard) thought this was just another fish story, an exaggeration. And they all had a big laugh.
Well, then Howard had a fish story to tell. And tell it he did. He’d caught a big fish this time, he said. Must weigh at least three pounds, he said. Then he dumped out his basket.
Tim recognized it right away and called all the guys every name he could think of, and a few he didn’t think of right away.
On the Way Home
Later that very same day, after stopping in Ennis for a drink at the Longbranch, as hearty fishermen are wont to do, Howard was driving the foursome home. And there was the Ennis cop.
Everyone saw him. Everyone except for Howard. Howard just kept driving, thinking of the great trick he had put over on Tim, and chuckling a little bit to himself.
Everyone knew the cop would follow the guys. And he did.
He followed the Jeep along the road, just about to McAllister, when the policeman switched on his siren and lit his cherry top. But Howard kept on a’going.
“Pull over, Howard,” Roy said, careful not to actually grab the steering from Howard.
“You better pay attention,” the others echoed.
But Howard just kept a’going.
Finally, his mates convinced him—or rather badgered him enough—that he pulled over.
Howard, hands in his pocket, walked over to the policeman. Everyone else stayed in the Jeep, tucking stray bottles under the seat.
Howard talked to the officer. And he talked. And he talked.
When he got back in the truck, not a word was said about tickets or summons or even passing motorists for that matter. Howard did not volunteer any information.
To this day, no one is sure whether Howard received a ticket or merely shared a fishing story with the Ennis cop.
But he slowed down a bit, the rest of the way home.
It was winter. And it was cold. But if the Madison had running water, and there were fish to be had, a fisherman had a duty to take out his rod and give it try.
It was Roy, some of the other guys, and Bobby who decided to gather up their tackle boxes and waste an afternoon in the water.
Bobby was fishing above Roy and he noticed there were some rapids, but it wasn’t too fast.
Oh, and a note here: Bobby was wearing waders.
The funny thing about wearing waders is that the deeper you get, the more buoyant you become. Something about the air inside the waterproof rubber. Anyway, Bobby wasn’t all that tall. So the waders were up to his chest. Just the tips of his toes were touching the rocky bottom—just enough to bob him along. Not quite an anchor but not an inner tube either.
But then Bobby went a little too far into the current.
One minute Roy was nodding over to Bobby. The next minute Roy could not see Bobby at all. He was gone.
Roy figured Bobby would show up sooner or later, so he cast his line again.
Sure enough, a little while later, there came Bobby floating by Roy, like a message in a bottle, fully taken over by a rapid—holding his fishing pole high over his head so as not to lose it. Bobby could have cast his line to the shore and reeled himself in, but then he might ruin his rod. That was not even a possibility. After all, there are some things worth drowning over.
When Bobby finally managed to catch hold of the bottom and make it over to the bank, Roy noticed Bobby taking off his waders. He was pouring the cold winter water out of his boot and then, as all good fishermen do, he put them back on—cold and wet, disregarding the possibility of frostbite. Then Bobby trudged back up to the riverbank and took the plunge, fishing until dark.
Double Crossing the Creek
Then there was this time in Logan.
The same four guys, Tim, Allen, Howard, and Roy, went fishing one evening on the East Gallatin.
To get to this spot, you had to drive up to the railroad tracks, park your car, and get out. Then you had to cross the tracks and walk down a hill, then cross the creek because there was no room on that side to stand. These guys, careful to remember the pink wine, fished until dark.
Roy was done and headed back to the car when he heard Tim coming up behind him, still on the other side of the creek. From Roy’s standpoint, he could just make out Tim’s figure in the oncoming evening light. Tim stopped about where the guys had crossed the creek when they started fishing.
Tim could see Roy standing up on the rise and yelled to him, “Where did you cross?”
Roy yelled back, “About where you’re standing, Tim.”
So Tim hiked up his pants and took a step toward Roy. He promptly proceeded to sink into the creek, soaking his pants past his knees.
“I thought you said you crossed here!” Tim hollered at Roy.
“I did,” Roy said. “But I got all wet!”
As I said, fishing stories rarely have to do with the fish you catch, or even the ones you don’t catch. So pack the pink wine along with your sense of humor. After all, that’s what memories are made of.
Cowboy Trout: Western Fly Fishing As If It Matters
by Paul Schullery
Montana Historical Society Press
Paul Schullery, former director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing, is out with his latest book, Cowboy Trout: Western Fly Fishing As If It Matters. Part musings, part manifesto, the book is a collection of essays on fly fishing’s history and its cultural impact in the West.
Schullery’s fundamental question is whether fly fishing is an organic part of the culture of the West or if it is merely a manifestation of East Coast expectations about what the West should be like. Considering the East-to-West historical journey of the sport and fly fishing’s newfound trendiness (and internal social strata), Schullery’s query is provocative. As such, Schullery doesn’t ignore the effect of A River Runs Through It and other media attention that has elevated, and in some cases, overglorified fly fishing. He also devotes a fair amount of the book to a history of Yellowstone’s remarkable, abundant fishing, beginning with the Washburn party in 1870 and gradually turning to the introduction of nonnative species (and whether that has really harmed the sport or the ecology).
Although there are a lot of books out there about the philosophy and life lessons of fly fishing, Cowboy Trout uniquely considers the meaning of the sport.