Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Heaven & high water

A kid’s first fishing trip reels the mind

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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.”

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