A backyard view.
Aside from going to the lake house, another big plan when we got to Montana was that we’d be going fishing. Phil and his dad had been trying to work out a fishing trip with “some of the guys” and Phil’s brother, but it could never pan out for everyone to synchronize their schedules. So Phil’s dad wanted to take him fishing while he was in Montana. In a way, I felt a little like I was intruding upon the father-son bonding that fishing is assumed to deliver, but the alternative was staying home with the “wimen.” Not that I minded, Phil’s mom is nice. Betty Anne, too. But they were going to visit Phil’s mother’s cousin who was in a nursing home and that would be too awkward to tag along on. Besides, I’d much rather get my hands dirty fishing!
I haven’t been fishing since I was a kid. We’d go alot. My grandpa used to take my brother and I out to a dock along the St. John’s a couple of weekends a year. We never had any success and I wondered how my grandpa could be so patient. But I’d heard there was fish down there, even saw the little blue gill my grandpa and brother brought home the first time they went out there. Without me (how rude!). My grandma would later confess that they bought the fish at the supermarket on the way home, and thought it was funny that I never figured that out on my own, as though there were any clues to go on that might lead a reasonable person to that conclusion. All along, I had just lost faith in the artificial worms we used as bait, and all the fish it was costing us.
We lived by a lake, too, so we eventually just started finding ways to get out to the middle of it to drop our poles in and fish for bass. But it wasn’t a deep lake, and we’d forge out on a blow-up raft, only to find that the bass were so small, we had to throw back whatever we caught anyways. Despite all the attempts at fishing, the only real success I’d ever had were the sizable fluke we caught on a charter boat with my cousin in upstate New York. My brother and I weren’t even in our teens yet and our grandma was with us, proudly showing off her own astonishing handful she caught that day. That was the only day that fishing seemed easy and well, fun.
Phil’s dad was like a kid when it came to fishing. He must have heard good things about the fruits of trout fishing up in the mountain a couple miles from where we were staying at Betty Anne’s, and he had the idea that we would go check it out and, if it turned out to be good, he could bring his friend from Opheim next time on a fishing trip.
Phil’s dad said we’d be getting up really early to go fishing. I had winced a little at that, thinking this would mean having to get up before dawn, possibly when it was still cold out. But it really wasn’t so early, maybe after 8 or so when Phil and I finally wandered downstairs to have some breakfast and then out to the backyard to take a look around. Betty Anne had prime property in Montana for spectacular views, since her backyard was just up against a stream and behind it sprouted the huge, bluish mountains that, on that morning, were covered in a thick layer of fog.
We raided Betty Anne’s garage for at least three working fishing poles. And having so many leftovers from her kid’s sporting equipment collection, there were plenty to go through, and plenty to pass on by. Phil found a pair of waders that for some reason had either dried cat food or kitty litter stuffed in the shoes.
Betty Anne’s friend Warren, who was kind of a chubby, graying guy with a mustache, and his wife came over to the house that morning. Phil’s dad, Phil and I were going to follow him into town to buy some fishing licenses at the general store, and then show us where we should make our first attempts at fishing. His wife must have just decided to take a ride with him at the last minute, since she was still wearing bedroom slippers. Warren also lent us a good pole and his tackle box full of expert junk, since he fished all the time, pointed us to the mountains, back behind the mill that manufactured sod and mulching and other landscaping fixtures, and then sent us on our way.
Another guy that we’d meet later, Roger (“The Stick Man” … more on him later) told us that the mountain had a history of people who came panning for gold. Some waited patiently for government permits, and others did their own little bit of blasting, and panning, and sifting. The first place we stopped at was like the entrance to a state park. There were places carved out of the forested banks to park your car and set up a small campsite for the night. There had been some people leaving as we walked down to the rocky bank. Initially, I hate being out in really wooded areas near the water. There’s all kinds of bugs flying around, although we did remember to bring mosquito repellent. Phil’s dad baited my hook with a squirming worm on a hook, showing me how to wrap it around and leave a little dangling to entice the fish. He suspected I might be grossed out if I had to put on the replacement worm, and even though I’d baited hooks with worms before, I kind of was. The squishy squirming thing fighting for dear life, it’s guts oozing out and making everything sticky and stinky. When we ran out of worms later in the trip, we used some containers of artificial bait. They contained a fluorescent pink and green paste that you rolled into a ball and pressed into the hook so it didn’t wash away so easily. I thought we could do just as well with small bits of bread moistened and rolled into little balls, stabbed onto the end of our hooks, but Phil thought that was a little far fetched.
We were in a fairly open spot. There was a huge pilings of fallen tree limbs on one side covering slightly a deep pool of icy cold water. The rest of it ran fairly shallow, and we did what we could to climb along the banks and really scout the deepest points that we could reach on foot. Phil luckily had the waders, which are tough to walk in to start. For starters, they were some ridiculously large size. The waders were supposed to be fitted enough to at least go up to half of your chest like a pair of overalls, but these hung open considerably because phil was too thin, and I was too short. I don’t even know that Betty Anne’s husband, who originally owned the waders, fit into those things. But when you got in the water, the water sucked everything to your skin and it was like walking through mud sometimes, especially where the rocky bottom seemed loose and the water current was fairly heavy.
Phil, in wading in the wadda.
The problem with stream fishing is that you have to deal with a lot of obstacles. The rushing current pulls your line and sucks it into the crevices between the rocks below. The streams are narrow, so there’s lots of trees and even rocks on the bank to get your line stuck when you’re casting out. And the water is ice cold, and the bottom full of slippery rounded rocks that sometimes are never solidly in place, that you have to balance on to retrieve your line. The waders helped some of the time.
When we had first gotten got there, I walked around the pilings and found the deep spots where I could, climbed up to a fairly sturdy spot, and dropped my line in. If I’d have known about jigging, which we’d do later in the trip and is basically pulling your line up and down in the water repeatedly, I probably would’ve stood a better chance, but instead, I just waited for bites, felt a little pull, and lost a couple worms to the biting trout below. I couldn’t convince Phil or his dad that we should stick around and try it a little longer. We eventually got in the car and went a little further down the road to a bend that was a little bit wider. Phil put on his waders, climbed across the stream, and found a log to lay out on and drop his line down to the water below. I stayed closer to Phil’s dad, who stayed around the corner.
We had to be out there about four or five hours or so with no success. It was cold and gray when we left the house in the morning and sunny and hot by the time we left. We didn’t catch anything by the time Phil’s mom came back with Warren and his wife to see what happened to us. They drove up along side the highway, looked over and found us, asked us whether we caught anything, and then let us know that we were getting ready for dinner back at Betty Anne’s. Our catch for day one of fishing? Not a one!
Phil said to me that his dad doesn’t so much know people as he does characters, and this became more apparent as the trip went along. After dinner at Betty Annes, Phil and I had gone upstairs to busy ourselves in the glorious technology of iPhone gaming when Phil’s mom called up to say that they were taking a ride to meet Roger, who was going to show Phil’s dad where the great spots were for fishing along the stream back up in the hills where we were that day. With a little coaxing, we joined them on the drive in Betty Anne’s minivan out to Roger and his wife’s house. Once again, all the women grouped together to chat, while the men and myself gathered to do their thing, which was to hop back in the van and go investigate the stream. Roger was a funny guy. A guy who was probably in his mid-60s, he seemed shy. I don’t think he’d ever met Phil’s dad before, and tried to make friends with corny jokes, some of which it didn’t seem that Phil’s dad heard, given his hard hearing sometimes. I laughed at least at what I thought were the good ones. He took us back through the hills, further back than we had driven that morning. It went pretty far, and along the way, Roger had given us a little history about the place. He knew it well, being retired from the Parks Department as one of the guys they’d call on to deal with fires. He may have been a smoke jumper, something I saw signs for all over the place in the hills in Montana. Like California, they too have to worry about forest fires. He was the one who told us about the people who came to the stream banks to pan for gold, and though it seemed so 18th century, he said that there are still people who do it, albeit illegally, since you have to go through the rigamarole of reporting claims to the government.
Nowadays, Roger wasn’t sky jumping, though he seemed to keep in touch with the Parks Department in some sort of unofficial role. Kind of on call, for when they have major emergencies, and I guess that’s because he knew the layout of the land and everything, and could provide some expert consultation. In the meantime, Roger had spent a lot of his time in the woodshed in the basement making walking sticks. That’s why they call him The Stick Man.
Business card of a woodsman.
There were thousands of them piled around, and he said that he and his wife, Nita, filled orders for them, but that it wasn’t something they sold — they just gave them away. Neighbors, friends, people who asked them. All these walking sticks had to go to someone. He offered one to Phil’s dad who walks with a cane because of an old knee injury. He said he’d probably get around easier on the stream banks with it, and he turned out to be right. He gave one to Phil and I too, though I politely tried to decline, wondering what we were going to do with them, or godforbid, how we’d get them on the plane heading back home. Well, we wound up inheriting our very own walking sticks, and we put them in the back of Phil’s parent’s car, and they stayed in Montana after we left.
So, we’d take Roger’s advice of where to go fishing.
To be continued, of course.