When are we gonna be there?
Why didn’t you pee 10 minutes ago while we were at the gas station?
Why do we suffer so much if we’re merely going to turn to dust?
These are the eons-old unanswerable mysteries, though some clues can be gleaned after periods of deep meditation or while sharing Doritos with one’s six-year-old son on a road trip in early June.
I had lit out with Luca (five hours after his last day of kindergarten) in search not of epiphanies but of clear water to fish on our first father-and-son camping trip.
Given the weeks of rain, merely hitting the road seemed a great accomplishment. Montana’s rivers, charged by the melting of the densest snowpack in decades, had been rising to flood-stage at a torrid pace, and one plan (salmon flies on the Firehole) after another (soft hackles on the Beaverhead) had gone the way of driftwood during runoff. Watching the USGS Hydrograph chart for the Upper Missouri and Columbia River Basins was like monitoring the Dow Jones in the fall of 2008—one disappointment after another.
Not that I was a Wall Street type, as anyone could tell by our food supply. Our travel menu consisted of some non-organic hotdogs, fixings for s’mores, and a bag of Doritos that we opened as we crossed County Line on Highway 200.
To our right the Blackfoot looked thoroughly menacing as it hurtled nauseatingly under Blacktail Mountain, completely covering the car-sized boulders from which tourists like to cast their flies mid-summer. It made me think of Brad Pitt, standing in for Paul Maclean in the famous fly fishing movie, filmed on a river that was standing in for the Blackfoot, which we’d soon be standing in.
I took one hand off the wheel and reached back toward Luca.
“How about a handful of those, Bud?”
He didn’t stop munching but rooted around the bag and placed some chips in my hand, one and a half chips, to be precise.
“You have the entire bag and you give me one and a half chips?” I asked, worried briefly about his future political leanings.
More bag rustling, more munching sounds from his orange-stained lips.
“Where are we going again, Dad?”
“We’re headed over to the Missouri to fish with an old friend of mine.”
“I thought you said the water was too high and muddy.”
“It is, everywhere else in the state, but Jason’s got a secret stretch for us. He’s gonna motor us to a cool camping spot, then come pick us up the next day.”
“If I ever get a ranch I’m going to name it Tyrano Raptor Ranch.”
What ranches named after species of dinosaurs had to do with high water, I hadn’t the faintest, but on the way to Rogers Pass, our conversation continued to jackleg like this, Luca’s exhaustion-induced non sequiturs energizing me with their hilarity.
“Are there going to be grizzly bears where we’re camping, Dad?”
“No grizzlies, but there’ll probably be some mountain lions nearby.”
“I saw an elephant’s penis at the circus. It was, like, as big as my leg.”
We passed the “Entering Prime Beef Country” sign just west of 434 with Luca’s slap-happiness at its peak and he soon slipped off into sleep, his head resting on the window.
I looked back and forth between my son and two antelope literally roaming the dusk-lit prairie between the Front Range and the Big Belts and thought: This is what I always wanted before I knew I wanted it.
Knowing that there are innumerable uncelebrated locations where Lewis and Clark shat their drawers, I find it difficult to get excited about celebratory “Lewis-and-Clark-Camped-Here” spots. Luca, however, was thrilled to learn, upon waking on Saturday morning, that the Corps of Discovering What Others Had Discovered Centuries Earlier had camped just as we had, on the west shore of the Missouri near Eagle Rock. It was here, at the mouth of what’s now known as Cooper Creek, that Lewis witnessed “a large herd of bighorned animals on the immencely high and nearly perpendicular cliff opposite to us,” as he wrote in his journal. “On the face of this cliff they raked about and bounded from rock to rock with apparent unconcern where it appeared to me no quadruped could have stood, and from which had they made one false step they would have precipated 500 feet.”
Roughly 200 years later the site is home to the Lodge at Eagle Rock, a luxury fly fishing outfit managed by my friend with the camping spot: veteran guide Jason Newmack.
Formerly a catcher on his college baseball team, Newmack sports the type of brick-shithouse body one would want to slide around, not collide with. He stood over me as I unpacked the car and folded up the rain fly.
“Listen, Dombrowski,” he said, before I could introduce him to Luca, who poked his head out of the tent briefly before returning to his coloring book. “This spot I’m taking you to is one of the last secrets, so if you write a kiss-and-tell piece, I’m gonna slash your tires.”
Newmack and I cut our teeth guiding together 15 summers ago, and I’d quickly learned that the only thing bigger than Newmack’s mouth is his heart. He planned to fish with us for a while before dropping us at a killer campsite for the night, then pick us up the following morning.
“Hey, Luca,” Newmack said. He kneeled down to peel back the tent window and shake my son’s hand. “I’m Jason. You ready to go catch some trout?”
“Big ones?” Luca asked.
“Well, that depends what you call big.”
Nymph fishing with an indicator is nobody’s favorite fly rodding technique, but relenting to the effectiveness of dredging is sometimes necessary if the young angler is going to remain attentive.
As we motored up the Missouri Newmack handed me a stiff 5-weight rod rigged with two sowbug imitations, some split shot, and a red balloon for an indicator.
Clearly the admiral of his boat, Newmack doesn’t leave much up for discussion. “I know it’s not ideal,” he said, just after cutting the motor, “but with this bright sun the fish won’t be chasing streamers. Toss this into the bubble seam there and hand it to the boy. Once he catches a couple, we’ll teach him how to cast this awful rig without tangling it.”
I lobbed a wide-looped cast into the run and passed the rod to Luca, who leaned against the swivel seat between my legs.
“Jason,” Luca said, “why do we have a balloon on our line?”
“It’s a bobber, just like the one you use while perch fishing; it keeps the flies from sinking too deep, and tells us when a fish hits.”
“My dad has a friend who’s a clown who can tie balloons into anything, even aliens.”
Before Newmack could respond, the red balloon quivered and shot upstream.
“Luca, set!” we yelled simultaneously, and though Luca was a second or two late on the strike, the line pulled taut and rocketed to the surface powered by a 3-pound rainbow. The fish broke water, shook its head and, before long, turned and beelined it for the boat.
“Reel up the slack, Luca,” Newmack said. “Reel to beat hell!”
“Aww,” Luca said, cranking on the reel, “you said a bad word!”
“It’s not the last one you’ll hear! I’ll tell you what, though. If you land this fish, I’ll give you a quarter for every bad word I say. Deal?”
“Deal,” Luca said, straining against the fish and the bent rod.
Soon I slipped the net under the colorful buck and we all three admired it.
“Look at the spots on him,” Newmack said. “He looks like a friggin’ leopard!”
“You said another bad word,” Luca said.
“Geez,” Newmack said as he slipped the fish back into the river. “I can’t believe I’m paying for ‘friggin.’”
The Mighty Mo, meanwhile, was cranking at about 13,000 cubic feet per second, about 4,000 cubic feet per second more than its 50-year average for early June, which is to say: If you threw a stick in the river and gave it a two-second head start, then ran your fastest along the bank to catch up to it, you would more than likely fail. Needless to add I kept a tight hold on Luca’s life-jacket vest strap whenever he leaned over the gunnel to look at the flotsam (which he called “fish farts”) or made an over-enthusiastic cast.
Newmack quickly taught Luca what he called “the water-haul,” a technique that allowed him to cast the cumbersome nymph rig by using the water to put tension on the line and “load” the rod.
“It’s really a flop, not a cast,” Newmack said. “Just pretend the rod is a windshield wiper going back and forth: back, stop, forth, stop.”
Within a couple of hours, for the most part thanks to Newmack’s impeccable knowledge about trout-holding water, Luca had caught more fish than I’d hoped he would catch in a weekend—too many to count. But then again, as my uncle once asserted, the object is to lose count.
Did Luca know how good he had it, stockpiling 18- to 22-inch rainbows while most anglers in the state were lamenting the latte-colored bodies of water hurtling through their valleys? No, he did not. Was he tickled, attentive, thrilled in an uncorrupted way? Yes, he was, in a way that left me envious.
“See you in the morning,” Newmack yelled as he motored away from our campsite. He left us tucked against the rimrock underneath several ponderosas, serviceable umbrellas shrouding us from the light rain.
After I pitched the tent I watched Luca scout around. The canyon wall across the river was lit by a setting sun busting through storm clouds. Most of the sedimentary lines in the red rock ran horizontally, except for one football-field sized patch that had, millenniums ago, been subject to uplift, and looked to the metaphorically-inclined observer like time turned on its side.
Pelicans swooped by, a Swainson’s thrush banked its song off the basalt—I was surrounded by “the wonder of nature.” But I turned my attention to study the nature of wonder: my son, immersed in his surroundings.
He clambered across the rocks, through the wild raspberry and barely-flowering Solomon’s seal, oblivious to my observation, picking up stones, placing them back, shaking branches and letting the water fall on his head. He was still fishing, just without a rod and reel, and I was reminded of something he told me at age three while exploring on a morel hunt: “I’m finding everything I see.”
“Hey,” he said, snapping me out of my reverie: “Look at this owl pellet. I think it has teeth in it.”
Sure enough, the bottom tooth that had once belonged to a small rodent protruded from the grayish pellet, along with two small bones that someone from another age might have carved into whistles.
“It makes me hungry,” he said. “For s’mores.”
With fingers still covered in tacky scorched marshmallows that had been smashed between graham crackers and chocolate the night before, I unzipped the tent and glanced out, sans eyeglasses, at two blurry aspens backed by a blushing sky. My own Monet, I thought.
I lay there looking out at the river musing about whether I was spoiling Luca by letting him catch more 20-inch trout in a weekend than I had caught in my entire first five years of fly fishing. Having taught myself to fish, I wondered what, exactly, I wanted to teach my own son about my passion.
Not much, really, I concluded, except that fishing was a wonderful ritual, by turns mindful and mindless: nothing the water itself, over time, won’t teach.
Soon I heard the growl of Newmack’s boat motoring upriver, and it was time to break camp. There would be an hour or so of shadow in the canyon, and Newmack had mentioned that pitching streamers, particularly crayfish imitations, might fool one of the Missouri’s whopper Brown trout, like the 12-pound denizen one of the Lodge’s clients had landed in 2010.
Half an hour later, not two strips into the retrieve of my first cast, the line lurched tight. Luca raised his arms in joy as a big rainbow, 4 pounds on my mental deli scale, exploded through the river’s surface. The lanky post-spawn hen came quickly to net. I released her without much fanfare, with as much respect for the creature as I could muster at 7:30 in the morning, and headed with Luca down shore for the takeout and the trip home.
Always take a different road out than the one you took in, my grandpa used to say. Why not? After finishing off a little road fuel, a fabulous filet cooked by chef Geoffrey at The Lodge at Eagle Rock, we made our way home over Flesher Pass, where the high mountain streams were beginning to clear, albeit slightly. Newmack had generously offered us a hot shower and a room for the night, but Luca was anxious to get home and do some more camping.
An introspective father, a writer, can know failure at every turn, every sentence, but you know you haven’t flubbed your first father-and-son camping trip when you pull into the garage and your son asks if you can pitch the tent in the backyard.