I may be only a bit more at home in the great outdoors than a hothouse orchid, but, still, even at my age, I hope to get better.
The ideal of fly-fishing one’s way through life’s later chapters holds a certain wistful appeal to some of us. Blame Norman Maclean and his like. His “A River Runs Through It” is a collection that begins: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.”
Growing up in Florida, I’ve had plenty of brushes with fishing, and even the opportunity to write about it with a false sense of authority. Most of that happened in the brutish Gulf, and the even wilder Atlantic. Fly-fishing just seemed like a calmer, more spiritually satisfying pursuit by contrast. And who gets seasick on a trout stream?
Fly-fishing is supposed to inspire deep thoughts and poetic reflection. More than putting dinner on the table – I’m more a catch-and-release guy – it is meant to feed the soul.
Like, author of “Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing,” John Gierach, has written, “The solution to any problem – work, love, money, whatever – is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
Why, even DaVinci, not a man handy with a fly rod, sort of touched on the subject when he wrote: “The water you touch in a river is the last of that which has passed, and the first of that which is coming; thus it is with time.”
Those are the kind of thoughts you pack for a fly-fishing trip. So happens this one was a working trip, meant to record former Falcon’s quarterback Steve Bartkowski and the life he has made for himself and family at the Ruby Drake Lodge in Montana. Yeah, sometimes this job really pays off.
To do the story properly, surely there would be no choice but to go fishing for a day with Bartkowski and his son Pete on a stretch of the Big Hole River that the old quarterback judges one of his favorite places. I believe in being thorough and getting to the caramel center of a story. Just as I believe in, whenever possible, doing something fun on the newspaper’s dime.
Floating the Big Hole River last week, a wannabe outdoorsman is first struck by the revelation: Funny, there are wild things in the wild.
And many of them buzz and hunger for blood. Mosquitos – seems like every one of them – summer in Montana. These ones work as a cloud, and drill their way through cloth and skin. Nobody writes pretty words about that.
The difficulty of throwing a largely unweighted line to a specific point in a running river also should not go under-reported. Perhaps someday I won’t be as clumsy at that as a man trying to tie his shoes with chopsticks. But not this day.
Bartkowski gave me an out, a good, gender-based one:
“(Fly-fishing) ain’t easy, anybody who says it is, is lying to you. Like anything else, you get better at it every time you go. You get in a rhythm, get an understanding of the dynamics of it, letting the rod do the job, not your sheer strength.
“That’s why women are so much better than men at fly-fishing, the beginners. They don’t try to overpower the rod. It’s like a golf swing in a lot of ways, it’s the tempo of it.”
Great, so now there are two things I’m no good at: Golf and fly-fishing.
Concentrating on the line, constantly shaping it to a fish’s surprisingly persnickety tastes, is doubly difficult on a river like the Big Hole. So many distractions. A young moose nibbling on the leaves of a fallen willow. Golden eagles and osprey striking a pose. And, well, Montana.
The late naturalist John Madson had it right: “I salute the gallantry and uncompromising standards of wild trout, and their tastes in landscapes.”
Hence the one that got away. As I was lost in the scenery, a nice trout – a world record, no doubt – hit the fly and spit it out before I could gather myself and react. Gone in a flash of color lighting up the weak-tea-colored water.
One of these jeweled quarries did stick to the hook, surprising both of us. Then another. And another. There are certainly better, more productive days on this river, but none that I’ve had.
Holding a wild trout, borrowing its brilliance for a rare few seconds, the ideal becomes real.
A fly-fisherman? No, not hardly, not yet. Maybe never. But I could pretend.
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