Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Heaven & high water

A kid’s first fishing trip reels the mind



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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.

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