Piscatorial Pursuits, Brad Pitt, and the Meaning of Life

I haven’t been able to go fishing as often as I have liked to recently. My life is still in a transition of sorts.

It has been two years of transition for me, actually. I think I have been wary of thinking about any kind of permanency anywhere. My brother lives in Montana and I thought about moving there because the mountains still call to me. But I decided against that. I don’t really know why. Don’t think I had a set of criteria. I definitely had a lack of money. And I was stranded in Missouri. My car broke down too. Being strapped for cash effects your ability to do much.

So circumstances kept me in the Show-Me-State. And I kept fumbling around so it took me about a year to become a resident here. Still not sure how I feel about that….

So, back to fishing.

Early Spring seems a little schizophrenic. We have days in the 70s. We have days where it barely rises above 40. Sometimes we get a freak storm that dumps a lot a wet heavy snow in a short amount of time. I can remember right around my ex’s birthday–early March–when we had a foot of snow. I remember it because I took our daughter, who was almost two at the time, and poked her into a drift and took a picture. Her bright, happy personality lit up the picture like a daylily.

I took my retriever for a walk down by Hickory Creek and the morning air was chill but the sun was out and warming and the warmth gave me a little boldness and desire to get my fly rod out and head over to Roaring River State Park to get my line wet. The drive lasts about an hour and it was 8:30 a.m. on a lazy Saturday and I had an itch so I scratched it.

The sun continued to rise and warm the landscape and all around Spring was gallantly marching onward in spite of the chilly beginning to the day. I had a full cup of hot coffee and enjoyed the ride.

The Park is located in a valley and there is this thrill every time I begin the descent. I have so much memory tied to this place. It’s like seeing a friend you love. Heart skips a beat. It’s a unique place. It has been around for a long time. Lots of families visit. Camp sites are okay as that goes, but it isn’t Montana. And that’s because nobody lives in Montana. And at certain times of the year there are too many people here. Today was one of those days.

I arrived at about 10:30–because I also needed to get a cinnamon roll fix from my favorite coffee bar–and my heart literally sunk when I saw how many pickup trucks and SUV’s were huddled around like people around a fire at the cleaning station. Apparently the entire state had the same idea that I had. But nothing was really going to deter me from this expedition. I had been around crowds fishing before. But I also had memories of opening-day horror stories of grown men fighting one another, fisherman casting their lines across thirty other guys and then snipping the lines then angrily walking off, children wailing, and all-around general mayhem. It wasn’t uncommon for fisherman to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder down here. Cabin fever and the beauty of trout do strange things to the psyche of the male species.

Fisherman of every stripe seem to find their way down here to chase after Oncorhynchus mykiss (any outdoor writer worth his salt needs to throw in a Latin phrase or two once in awhile). As I drove around looking for a parking spot I took note of the vehicles. Most were from out of state today, notably from Arkansas and Oklahoma. Maybe one or two I saw were from Illinois, but they are a different class of people altogether. Ran into their types in southern Wisconsin while chasing after spawning salmon. Saw a lot of really nice pickups. Saw a lot of crossover SUV’s. Saw a lot of guys decked out in full fishing regalia prancing around like peacocks in a mating ritual.

You have to understand something about men who chase trout. The general populace became aware of the glory of this piscatorial pursuit in the mid-90’s when Robert Redford produced the now iconic A River Runs Through It starring the young Brad Pitt–who grew up in Springfield, Missouri by the way. This movie, while tragically and deeply sad, was about fly fishing. And fly fishing, unless you had grown up watching The American Sportsman, listening to Bing Crosby, reading Zane Gray, or Gary LaFontaine’s treatise on caddis flies, or lived on the East Coast the sport itself was rather esoteric. And it’s practitioners liked it that way. Hell, fisherman don’t like giving away the location of their honey hole  and fly fishing back in the day, before the mid-90’s (I’m laughing as I write that), was like the last bastion of an elitist ivy-league fraternity, or some hush-hush secret society which had plans on taking over the world. I have to admit that I became quite snobbish about the whole affair myself.

I grew up fishing. My dad took us often. I had even done homage on some famous western Montana trout streams and lakes. I had paid my dues. But I also bought into the culture and donned my uniform and drank the Kool-Aide too. I geeked out so much that my ex thought I had married someone else and this woman had crazy exotic feathers from a ringneck pheasant…so many nights hunched over my tying vise snip-snipping thread and hackle, crafting my latest Trout-fooling-Frankenstein-ish creation. I ordered so many catalogs with all the paraphernalia, and drooled when the good people at Orvis released their latest stick of aerospace graphite. I remember the very day I bought my first pair of waders. I remember the day I bought my first fishing vest. And then I remembered the feeling that I had when after a couple of hours of practice I could cast my first-tightly-looped double-haul. It felt like graduation into the fraternity of fly-fisherman and my chest swelled with pride.

Twenty-something years later I reflect on those days when I return to the Park. I see men decked out, fly-fishing gadgets adorning their vests like Christmas tree ornaments, obviously neophyte as they flail away with their rods barely making any pause in their backcast. Or trying futilely to present to a rising trout with a roll cast. Then there are the posers–who I really love to ridicule–who drive up in their $40,000 vehicles, pull out their G. Loomis rods infused with titanium and crafted with 24k gold, and $500 dollar Sage waders.

I laugh now–when I was just such a fool back then–because I have had to streamline so much of how I live. I also know I am not planning a weeks-long excursion into the hinterland of the Alaskan wilderness where grizzly toss around errant fly-fisherman like a beach volleyball. No, my pursuits are much more minimalist. I have one pack. One fly-box, usually one rod, rigged and ready to go at a moments notice–it’s a nine-foot-long, four-weight. I nymph now, seldom fish a dry and think a lot. I practice the Leisenring-lift and high-stick. My approach to fishing is the same as my approach to life: I fish deep, where the fish live. I have a beater of a car–in fact, the last three cars I have owned have been under two-thousand dollars. (Holy hell!  Do you realize how much money that is?) So, I’m not that impressed that much by what people own or put on or prance around in. Mostly I just shake my head and turn the other way, especially when I see one of my redneck brethren wrack up twenty fish in one outing consistently using a rig they picked up from Wal-Mart.

Now, I am not a good fisherman. I don’t even think I qualify as average. My fish-count usually numbers in the two’s. And on an absolutely glorious day I’ll usually bring 6 to net. So, I’m not that good. But I think, I watch, I observe. And that’s what I’m good at. I notice a lot. I’m happiest when I can fool a particularly snobbish fish that teases me as my beaded prince gingerly floats by on a perfect dead-drift and that small-brained, lightning-fast, steamlined raparian beauty Oncorhynchus mykiss reaches for the morsel and the fight is on. The flash of pink and silver and green in the clear, bubbling current lightens my heart, causing endorphins to surge through my bloodstream and my heart races and feels this vibrantly alive animal. And as I touch its life through this gossamer tippet the transference of energy is complete.

The fight is always brief–maybe lasts a minute–but it is intense and satisfying. Slowly and tenderly the beauty is brought to net and released, returning to its position but I stay kneeling at stream-side. I’ve touched something alive and all muscled and lean. Not flabby and broken and searching like me. And I get back up searching all over again.




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