Day 1: The Bitterroot
There’s a point where normal, otherwise benign activities can border on the aesthetic. Everyday actions can achieve such a high level of proficiency that they transcend execution and approach beauty. They become an art form. Even without knowing a driver from a pitching wedge, watching The Masters in Augusta is inspiring. Even if you hate the Red Sox, seeing someone throw a ball as fast as a bullet, followed by someone sending it into the next county with a wooden stick—it’s just pretty.
When it comes to fly fishing, a good number of people think of Montana as the Fenway Park or Augusta National of trout country. As such, it’s bound to attract the fishing equivalent of Ted Williams or Tiger Woods. Floating down the Bitterroot toward Hamilton, I’m surrounded by experts of the craft. They throw gorgeous casts, big loops of neon whipping overhead, only to land the fly gently on the water. The practice is drilled so deep into their muscle memory, it’s as if it’s encoded in their DNA.
With veterans in all three rafts, my ham-fisted casting technique stands out like a boner in sweatpants.The only thing I have managed to hook all day is the bill of my hat.
For the eighth time in about three hours, I swing my fishing rod back so the guide can unweave my rat’s nest of a line and smile my best sorry I’m an idiot smile.
This was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime. Three guided trips down three different rivers, with stops at six microbreweries scattered across roughly 200 miles of western Montana, and all the fish I can catch. I had warned everyone involved that I don’t actually know how to fly fish, and everyone had assured me I’d have a great time anyway. There were journalist/fishermen from Texas, Minnesota and Idaho who had been throwing flies since Reagan was president—and they’d all promised not to make fun of me.
The guide puts my knotted line in his lap, closes his eyes and rubs his temples. “Why don’t you sit the next few plays out, alright Bud?”
Oh man. Not “Bud.” The word reserved for people you detest, people whose name you can’t be bothered to learn. See also: Champ, Slugger and Sport.
Growing up near Billings, beautiful scenery was little more than wallpaper on the desktop of my life. Mountains were something to look at. Rivers were something to drive over. I need help.
I look back at my guide, hungry for advice—any tips or words of wisdom distilled from his years on the water. “I haven’t caught a single fish all day,” I say.
He rolls his eyes. “You know, that’s why they call it ‘fishing’ and not ‘catching.’”
On every fly but my own, feisty rainbows are being caught by the net-full. The rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) is the handsome high-school quarterback of the fly-fishing world; around these parts, it’s probably what you think of when you hear the word “fish.” They fight well, they taste good and they’re pretty. Over the last 100 years, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has stocked a few hundred million of these babies into every stretch of water that’ll hold them.
Laughs come easy as we approach the take-out. Arms swing in every direction to deliver high-fives and handshakes over what’s deemed a successful day. I don’t see what the big deal is.