As we crossed into Montana, I saw two things: a school-bus graveyard and lots of fishable water. Granted I had traveled next to the Snake River in Idaho, but Montana’s water seemed like my kind of water. Bendy and shallow.
I traveled to Missoula for an academic conference. Kacy, my wife and our two-month-old, Henrietta came to visit my wife’s sister, Nikki. While I listened to essays presented on authors I had never read, I thought about that water. The conference center overlooked the Clark Fork River, which is where I took breaks, breaks much longer than I needed. I had been to Missoula before, but had never fished there. In the car, buried beneath a pack-n-play, a stroller and a humidifier was my rod.
I had tried to resist, but in the weeks prior to the trip, I looked up Missoula fishing reports. They had photos of wiry men in baseball caps holding trout with two hands. Their faces smiled, but their teeth were grit, making the trout look heavy.
I asked my brother-in-law, Ryan, to find me “a creek, preferably on private property, teeming with trout.” What he gave me was the Bitterroot. There wasn’t a good way to slip out on my own, so we all went—Henrietta, Kacy, Nikki, Ryan, and their toddler Wyatt. We pulled up to an underpass where the wide river wicked up columns supporting the highway. Leaning against the remnants of an old bridge was a man in his mid-fifties with a potbelly and yellow sunglasses. He looked like what I imagine my dad would look like if he lived in Montana. I nodded a hello and kept walking.
“What are you going to use?”
“Hadn’t decided yet.”
“Well, come here then.”
From the footings of the old bridge we had a good view of the river. Two channels dug down with a sandbar in the middle.
“They’re rising on both sides of the sandbar.” He pointed with his whole hand. “And there seems to be a decent hatch happening.”
“Well, nothing has come up this high, but it looks like mostly caddis.”
At the farmer’s market that morning I had purchased an October caddis of spun elk-hair, with two antennae jutting out. I hoped that I would get to use it.
I thanked the man for the advice and he nodded. When I was walking away he said, “Careful, this river will break your heart.”
I helped my wife get settled on a camping chair with Henrietta and asked again if it was all right that I was fishing. She whipped her wrist and told me, “go, go.” I walked into the water followed by my nephew—who wasn’t wearing waders. I looked back to see Ryan lift his son out of the river. Wyatt’s shoes dripped cloudy water back into the river.
Fish were rising, and in addition to the caddis hatch, there was a mayfly hatch, too. I was surprised to find that I could walk across the river without much trouble. I tried to anchor into the sandbar and fished both sides. Pods of what looked to be 18 inchers rose lazily to gulp from the surface film. Their bodies looked hefty and their dorsal fins often broke the water’s surface.
On the shore Kacy and Nikki danced with their babies and took pictures. Ryan tried to show his son how to skip rocks.
I started with the farmer’s market elk-hair caddis. I cast right to them. My flies nearly drifted into their snouts. Nothing. I switched to an Adams. Nothing. I heard my leader snap because my casting became desperate and sloppy. I went subsurface (as per the man on the bridge’s advice). I saw one fish bend to let the current take him downstream, following my fly. He rose up. His pectoral fins pushed him closer. His nose nearly touched my fly. But, nothing. I slapped my rod against the water and dug my heels into the sand. For a while I just watched the fish rise.
I walked to the bank to get a soda and check in. My family didn’t seem to notice I was there or that I had left. My nephew threw rocks into the river to feel the splash back. My brother-in-law asked how it was going and I said, “not good.”
“Well, there’s been a guy jumping just over there for the last half hour—you should go get him.”
I looked where he pointed and saw the eradicate splashes of a small fish feeding just off the bank and upstream from where the boy threw rocks I took off my vest and half-heartedly cast in. On my second cast I connected with a trailing nymph. When I set the hook the fish skipped across the surface of the water like the stones Ryan threw. I netted the fish quickly and my brother-in-law and nephew came to look at the haul.
“Fish?” my nephew asked.
“Well, technically, yes,” said my brother-in-law.
I chuckled and shrugged.
The rainbow lay in my hand. His tail tickled the tips of my fingers and his nose bumped my wrist. He had exaggerated fins and parr marks that measured his length by quarter inches. This, clearly, was a fish that never fought for food in cement runways.
“You can touch it,” I said to the boy. He looked at me and his mouth formed a perfect O, but he didn’t say anything. He reached out one finger and slid it across the body of the fish.
As the fish swam away, its dorsal fin also broke the surface of the shallow water.