Falcons Ring of Honor QB Bartkowski chasing the wild life - in Montana

The Big Hole River wends 150 miles through southwest Montana without a single dam to stop it. Left purely to its own imagination, it cleaves the land whimsically, in random twists and bends, as if its course were drawn in finger paint at the pre-K stage of creation.

It is one of the world’s great water features, its banks giving way to copses of willow and cottonwood, wispy fields of wild grass, rocky outcrops that appear almost in ambush around the next turn of the river. At the most memorable places, the scenery comes with the distant backdrop of mountain peaks, here in July still wearing traces of the snow that feeds the river’s flow.

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Steve Bartkowski, he with an everlasting place on the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, the franchise’s first quarterback who left a mark, was at the moment concerned with a very small, very specific section of the Big Hole. His son Pete worked the oars of the drift boat, keeping Pops in range of where they figured the fish were.

They figured correctly. For suddenly, Bartkowski’s fly rod was bent and shivering with a fish just realizing that the presumed insect it attacked had other plans. Bartkowski held the rod high, keeping the pressure on, while retrieving line by hand and closing the gap between fisherman and fish a few inches at a time.

He’d not take much credit in the brief post-catch review – “I did everything I could to lose it,” Bartkowski would say. But proof otherwise was soon beside the boat, and officially netted. A fine brown trout, whose name does no service to the iridescent gold of its belly nor the pointillist display of red and black on its flanks. It is like naming a ruby a “red rock.”

Posing unwillingly for a few photos, and measured at 19-1/2 inches – “It’s 20 inches, we round up,” Bartkowski insisted with a smile – the beautiful fish was then given back to the water.

ExplorePhotos: Bartkowski content in Montana

Bartkowski tries hard to explain the draw of this part of the world, the attraction that ultimately has won him over from the big city where he could have just spent the rest of his life comfortably wrapped in the shawl of his football fame. A man seldom at a loss for something to say, he finds that words can fail him on this subject.

“People all want to know what it’s like, they say, tell me what it’s like out there. What’s the attraction?” he said. “I start to try to describe it and I just can’t come up with the words. I tell them you just got to come out here and see it, come out here and experience it. It’s like trying to describe a sunset to a blind man.”

The better explanation comes in the snapshot of Bartkowski and a brown trout meeting on the Big Hole River, the kind of moment of natural simplicity that makes him most happy.

Credit: compton@ajc.com

Credit: compton@ajc.com

It's not all lazy days of fishing and hunting, because this also is a working life out here for the Bartkowskis – Steve, his wife, Sandee, and son Pete. They run the Ruby Drake Lodge, a compound consisting of a main lodge building and five tidy cabins, all of a pine-paneled, mounted-animals-on-the-wall theme. It's an enterprise built on sharing wilderness with the paying guests, many of them on retreat from the corporate world and many coming from the Southeast, where Bartkowski built so many ties.

Pete's the guide, the one responsible for navigating the five trout rivers within range of the lodge and the wide valleys when it turns hunting season. "Pete has taught me so much about fly-fishing that I could have never learned on my own," his dad said. "He's the teacher, and I'm the student now."

Sandee brought the necessary style and taste when it came to revitalizing a lodge that had fallen into grimy disrepair.

Steve is the CEO in charge of public relations, a good name and a big personality that comes in handy when fishing for customers. You need someone to maybe scramble an egg in the morning, drag a dead, decomposing skunk out from beneath one of the cabins (that really happened) or wash and dry the dishes, he’ll do that, too.

They all are a very long way from Buckhead, indeed.

As a young man Bartkowski came to Atlanta as the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 1975, a big, blond promise of better days for a franchise that had spent the previous nine seasons of its existence on the outside of the playoffs. He played 11 seasons in Atlanta and lived to tell about it. Cultivated for a town hungry for a hip sporting personality was the persona of “Peachtree Bart.”

As a 66-year-old, Bartkowski is the antithesis of all things urban and slick. Peachtree Bart now lives off a dusty gravel road, the view out his front door an alfalfa field, that when newly mown draws herds of deer and squadrons of hungry hawks looking for the varmints flushed from cover. Welcome to one of those where-are-they-now stories that always seem to surprise fans who have frozen a favorite player in another time, another place, another image, another body.

Credit: compton@ajc.com

Credit: compton@ajc.com

He has taken many forms in his 66 years. He was the dashing two-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who took the Falcons to their first three playoff appearances and led the NFL in touchdown passes in 1980. He has produced outdoors TV programming that showed up on The Nashville Network and ESPN. He invented a $3 million made-for-TV golf tournament that had a very brief run. He has survived colon cancer and potentially fatal blood clots after a dual knee transplant. He made a career for himself with the Atlanta firm, DPR Construction, with which he still has ties.

And, now, here he is, in a place where the nearest town – Twin Bridges – contains 300 souls and where a traffic jam is defined as waiting for a rancher to move his herd to the other side of the road. This is a place where you can’t throw an elkwing caddis brown dry fly without hitting a Lewis and Clark historical marker, and still maintains just a hint of frontier. This is the setting of his last act, Bartkowski figures.

“There is no question about it, my ashes will be dumped right out there in the Ruby River,” he said, nodding toward the gentle stream that runs directly behind the lodge. “I’ve already requested that of Pete, and he said, Dad, no time soon, please.”

It was Pete who led the way west.

Both he and Bartkowski’s eldest son Phil had followed their father into jobs with the construction company. By 2014, though, Pete was growing increasingly dissatisfied, to the point that he abruptly called an audible at 31. He’d finish one last big job, then pack what he could in his car and head to Montana.

“I didn’t have a plan. My plan was to keep driving that way,” Pete said.

The family dream of owning a little piece of Montana had gotten as far as buying some riverfront land. But finding the money to actually build on it was proving difficult. That’s where Pete headed, pitching a tent on the property in April and freezing his ideals off. The morning a moose poked its head through the tent flaps was a sign that he might need something more permanent.

Pete supported himself working construction in Montana, but events were lining up to push him outdoors. His godmother died and unexpectedly left him $10,000, money he could have used in any number of practical ways. Or just enough to buy a drift boat and scratch an itch he had to become a fly-fishing guide. He got the drift boat.

And enter Jim Cox Kennedy, the Chairman of Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He’s a friend of the Bartkowskis, a big outdoorsman and Montana-phile. Kennedy had another vision of Pete. There was this lodge on his property that needed resurrecting, and Pete might be just the fellow to give it new energy and new purpose.

Leading Pete to ask, um, mom and dad, could you come help?

“I’d never run a lodge either,” Steve said. “I do know what hospitality is, and I do know a lot about lodges. I think we put together a pretty good team. Give people a nice destination where they feel comfortable. At the end of the day those are the things you can control. Whether or not the fish bite on any given day, you’re at the mercy of the fish.”

He was an easy sell, for his son’s plea to come west was like an answered prayer.

“I would sneak out here as much as I possibly could (through the years) and every time I got on the plane to go back to Atlanta or wherever I had to go, I would beat myself up. Why are you leaving? Why are you going back?” Bartkowski said. “You can only take so many years of that self-peppering before you finally say this is where I need to be.

“Here we are through a series of just-short-of-miraculous events. I’m living the dream.”

Sandee, a native Atlantan, had to go a few rounds with the idea. This man she met at an Atlanta racquetball club (remember those?) in the late 1970s was all these years later asking her to move somewhere so remote and far away that it could be another country. A photographer and graphic artist, she was going to have to put all that largely on simmer while renovating a lodge, re-branding the whole business and then giving full attention to running an outdoorsy B&B.

“I wondered, oh, gosh, can I do this?” Sandee said.

The answer came on an October visit to Montana.

"The Aspens were shimmering. The sky was blue. The air was crisp. It was like I heard the voice of God saying, 'You got a problem with this?"

Leasing the lodge and renting a home from Kennedy, the Bartkowskis are in their third summer in Montana (while Pete wintered, his parents can escape to a Hawaiian condo or, like this year, hang around Atlanta and a Super Bowl scene).

Credit: compton@ajc.com

Credit: compton@ajc.com

Montana is a stoic, broad-shouldered place, slow to accept outsiders. But, as Sandee said, “We’ve found something here, a real solitude, a real community.”

“I’ve never seen Steve so happy,” she added. “He cooks and cleans and loves it.” (Fixing a brisket for the next night’s meal, the former Pro Bowl quarterback found himself up at 3 in the morning, preparing it for the smoker).

For all his medical mishaps, the old football player said he is in surprisingly good health now. Although, with fingers that had been regularly stomped and otherwise displaced, it can be difficult to thread line through the opening on a fly that is about as minute as the commas in this sentence.

And out here, so far away from the source of his football fame, a man almost never has to think about January 1981, and what was the Falcons’ most painful playoff loss until a certain blown 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Almost.

Of the day that Dallas scored 20 in the fourth quarter to beat the Falcons 30-27 in the NFC playoffs, Bartkowski said, “I’m miles away from it, but that’s one of those scabs I’ve got still. That was our chance. We had the best team in the NFL that year.”

He’ll still follow certain Atlanta favorites. He loves the Braves and believes his old NFL team is poised to make some serious noise this season.

But closer to his current home – the place he chose, not the one that chose him – they play a little ball, too. And on fall Fridays, he might be found on the sideline cheering. It’s high school football to scale, where because of the lack of bodies, they play eight-on-eight.

Sometimes, big changes can come with little, almost snickering hints of the familiar. Sometimes, a sign that you might just be where you’re meant to be is posted on a road leading into a Montana mapspeck. Because, like the sign says, this place that Bartkowski now calls home also is home to the Twin Bridges Falcons.