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Drear and loathing in Anaconda

Finding a rainbow in a frozen fishing funk

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The 47th of Marchuary broke like most days belonging to that godforsaken two-month pustule on the ass-end of winter: cold, wet and aggressively gray. The barometer in my head had been stuck in a low-pressure pattern for the better part of a month by then, so the bleak scene outside the window matched my mental landscape perfectly. It could have been the winter blues, it could have been work-related stress; hell, it could have been disgruntled biorhythms. Whatever its source, this black funk possessed serious juju, persevering on a day in which no funk should ever find purchase. For this was to be the first fishing day of the year.

Missoula attracts and nurtures a freakishly diverse set of outdoor enthusiasts. For a significant subset of that group, winter is a destination unto itself, a snow-covered playground of intense adrenaline rushes and/or serene beauty. I do not count myself among them. As a hunter and fisherman I loathe the time from the December lockdown until the rivers open up in earnest in April. That loathing reaches fever pitch during the months of February (so short in length, so long in feel) and March (the cruel, false promise of official "spring")—a seemingly endless series of days flattened by the boot heel of inversion.

The never-ending winter of 2010-2011 being particularly interminable, the prospect of a fishing trip should have been a bracing tonic for the soul. The particulars of location should have fueled optimism and confidence: The water in question carries the reputation of breaking out of winter's cocoon sooner than most, and the last and only time I had fished it I landed a slew of trout, punctuated by the stark heft of a 24-inch, football-shaped rainbow. In short, I should have had sunshine beaming out of my ass as I grabbed my gear and headed out.

But it was with the aforementioned funk in tow that I headed east, a late start under my belt, riding the wake of a storm that left a full inch of frozen snot pasted to the north side of every standing structure in sight. In the early, ugly twilight I drove straight past the river access and into town. The fish would be there in the morning, and I needed a warm burger and a cold beer.

In addition to being one of the longest small towns conceivable, Anaconda may well be populated by aliens. As I began drifting along the long one-way straightaways that bisect the town, the otherworldly sight of the Club Moderne sucked me in as if with a tractor beam. A 75-year-old legacy of Bozeman architect Fred F. Willson, the curvy, bulgy Streamline Moderne-style building houses a fine bar and friendly folks. But when asked for a burger recommendation, neither the affable young lady behind the bar nor the kindly gentleman on the stool next to mine could name one.

That's the first time it occurred to me these people might be the front wave of a Martian invasion. Most legit Montana towns have numerous "best burger" joints and all have at least one—Potomac, for example, is barely even a town and it spawned the Ugly Burger. It's exactly the sort of detail extraterrestrials would miss as they stealthily replaced townsfolk in their scheme of total domination. And the people—they were all so strangely nice.

Things got no less weird at the Classic Café, where my burger quest ended. A 50s-style diner with two tables up front modeled after Herbie and Millie of "Love Bug" fame—engine blocks and leaf springs serving as the tables' foundation—the Classic was staffed that evening by Evelyn, the bartender, and Connie, the cook. Despite her occupation, Evelyn confessed to finding tap beer too messy for her taste and pronounced Corona as "Cor-ee-na." She hooked me up with a one-dollar Rainier and Connie served up a damn good burger, though due to incomplete data I cannot say if it was the best in town.

When I mentioned I was in the area to fish in the morning Evelyn assumed I meant ice fishing on Georgetown Lake, and when I told her my intention was to fish a local creek she said, "Oh, that kind of fishing," pantomiming a fly rod cast, and it was unnecessary to expand further. Over the course of the evening Evy—we soon reached nickname terms—relented to repeated requests and playfully let the hair she had corralled behind her head down to her waist, the great mass swinging behind her as she grabbed another Rainier.

I learned that Connie owned four hounds, two Saint Bernards and one cow dog, and that she had recently been diagnosed with MS. A former registered nurse, she described her reaction to hearing the words "multiple sclerotic lesions" spill from her doctor's mouth: "The first thing I thought was 'It's the goddamn arsenic,'" she said matter-of-factly, referring to the town's namesake smelter stack. As we sat contemplating that bomb a sugary PR spot appeared on the TV at the end of the bar, sponsored by "Your Neighbors at Golden Sunlight Mine" in nearby Whitehall, one of the largest open-pit, cyanide-leaching mines in the world.

With the perspective gained from the sweet, lovely ladies at the Classic, my funk shifted off its foundation a bit and I checked into the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. I ordered a double Jameson-and-ginger at the hotel bar and while I waited for my drink a tipsy young lady rattled loud requests to a one-man-band (he didn't know "Me and Bobby McGee"—further supporting the alien invasion theory—but nodded vigorously when she landed on "Mr. Bojangles").

In the hot mineral-water pool I settled in a couple of shadows away from a loud group that included a buzz-cut brute of a young man repeatedly vowing to fight anyone who bad-mouthed Butte or Missoula. I eased back into the 104-degree water and gazed up at the moon. It was a "supermoon," in fact, the name given to the coinciding events of a full moon and its closest orbital proximity to Earth. With only 14 such supermoons occurring over the past 110 years, I was expecting some sort of lunar extravaganza. But it just hung there in the sky like any other full moon; I wouldn't have been able to pick it out of a lineup.

I arrived at the creek just as dawn was breaking, the cloudless sky affording a bona fide solar appearance. But even at full bore the sunlight was flat and weak, no match for the heavy, dirty grays and browns dominating the landscape. A viciously cold wind blew my fingers numb as I struggled to tie a black wooly bugger on the end of my fly line, further hindered by my beer and whiskey encounter from the night before. I stepped into the very run where years before I had landed a half-dozen fish in less than an hour, the trout averaging a good 18 inches and peaking with the lunker rainbow that bent my rod double for a good 10 minutes. I worked that piece of water hard with the bugger and came away without a single take.

Another angler, who had arrived a short time after I did and visibly slumped his shoulders when he saw me in the honey hole, moved into the run below me at an uncomfortably close distance. Though I'm not confrontational by nature, my initial impulse was to address this breach of etiquette in direct fashion. But fighting over water should be left to those who believe they can own and sell it, and besides, it's not like there was anything to defend. I headed back to town for a pork chop sandwich and a thawing soak in the hot pool.

I returned to the creek in the early afternoon as revitalized as my condition would allow, determined to stick and land a fish by whatever means necessary. My interpretation of necessary in this case was to run tiny nymphs through the deep runs in the creek, the same method that had rewarded me so richly on my earlier trip. Nymphing is my least favorite form of fly fishing but I will do it when desperate, and brother, I was desperate.

I fished and moved aggressively up and down a mile or so of prime water, trying to talk myself into believing that the few telltale pauses of the strike indicator were actual fish and not the flies bouncing off the creek bottom. At one point, buried deep in the futility of my activities, I looked up to see an upstream confluence of the creek I had been fishing and another of the same size, and came to the realization that I was standing in the exact origin of the Clark Fork. In my book the headwater of a trout river is as sacred as it gets, but as I looked at the water in each feeder branch and then at the water flowing around my waders, none of it looked holy. It looked winter-black and cold.

I hiked back up to the top of the stretch, intent on trying one more combination of flies in the honey hole. But as I stood there looking at the deep rock shelf under which I knew swam monstrous trout, the wind kicked into another gear entirely and blew my fly line into a nearby bush, which promptly ate the entire leader. Chilled to the bone, defeated, and in need of expunging the aftermath of an Anaconda weekend, I walked back to the parking area.

It was a typical fishing-access outhouse, a vented structure covering a block of concrete and a tall toilet. When I sat down to do my business a bitter wind howled through the bottom of the repository and flash-froze my ass. I did the best I could under the circumstances, seriously concerned that the wads of toilet paper I forcibly chucked down the hole would fly back out and hit me in the face.

The drive back to Missoula was an odd one, as I processed the events of the preceding 24-plus hours. What I had hoped would be a liberation from the tyranny of winter turned out to be a brutish reaffirmation that seasons end only when they're good and ready to. I began the trip with a black cloud in my head, and ended it with a frozen sphincter.

Would it be a cop-out to suggest there is some inherent valiance to the attempt, no matter how ill-considered and unlucky it might be? Probably. I sure couldn't find anything redeeming about the beat-down I received at the creek.

But as the miles piled up my mind drifted back to Evy and Connie at the bar, to the odd scenes at the hot springs, and to the strangely endearing town of Anaconda. It occurred to me that even though the dark clouds in my head were making the return trip with me, they were at least beginning to show some movement. Maybe the accompanying wind didn't quite smell like spring but it did carry a sniff of change—and in certain circumstances even a little bit of change is worth the trip. Missoula was still clamped in the grip of gray inversion, but I couldn't help a small smile as I saw the lights of the place I call home.

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