‘Pissier’ Than a Grizzly

A lifelong infatuation with irascible, beautiful, boulder-leaping rainbows
By Chris Dombrowski,

The first rainbow trout I ever saw caught in a river was a 5-pound Skamania steelhead. My best friend, Nick Popoff, hooked it in the Red Cedar, where we normally targeted blue-collar smallmouth not far from the chained General Motors factory gates in Lansing, Michigan.

It was mid-August; the crankbait’s trebles rattled as the buck leapt through the humid air. That both the water and our typical quarry were earthen in color only served to visually amplify the gill-red stripe running the length of the cartwheeling summer run’s lateral line. Some hundred miles from its Lake Michigan residence, the fish had struck at the base of what we called “the spring” but what was, in all likelihood, our town’s waste draining from a rusty culvert into the river. Later, while riding our bikes to Nick’s cousin’s gyro shop, we debated whether the anadromous spawner had been building a redd or simply relishing being oxygenated in this lie; regardless, we agreed, it was, other than a few unmentionables, the coolest thing we’d seen all summer.  

“It could only have been cooler if you’d caught it on a fly rod,” I asserted, revealing my early poetic propensity for the romantic, if not a dash of jealousy.

To which Nick, who would go on become a respected fisheries biologist, replied, “Oh yeah? How so?”

Practicalities aside, we would take up fly-fishing in earnest the following season, venturing farther north in Michigan, where wild browns and native brook trout were staples, but rainbows were still a relative delicacy. Our angling budget was sparse, as it often is for the unemployed, so we shared a box of flies, two rolls of tippet and a bottle of Gink that we tossed back and forth. We lived off fried gas station fare and jammed to Bruce Springsteen bootlegs on unnamed northwoods two-tracks, which mercilessly worked the shocks of the Oldsmobile 88 that Nick’s father had loaned us. 

One evening beneath a dense stand of white pine, our Rosalita bottomed out in the sandy soil, and we decided the prudent measure would be to pitch camp for the night, fish the headwaters of the small river we could see glinting through the forest, and get the sedan-named-after-a-song unstuck in the morning. 

While Nick paced around the car estimating his father’s potential wrath, I strode downhill and hooked what I assumed was my first fluvial rainbow trout, a scrappy 10-incher, then another of similar size. I hollered for Nick to “tie on a Yellow-Bellied Mattress Thrasher and get ready for rainbow heaven.” It wasn’t long before he sat on the bank beside me and asked with a chiding eye, “Having fun with those smolts?” I stared back, confused, as he explained that the silvery parr-marked fish I’d been hooking were actually coho salmon smolt that the Department of Natural Resources stocked to help curb the alewife population. 

“Wait,” I asked, removing my Roy Orbison look-alike sunglasses to look my friend in the eye. “You mean to tell me these rainbows aren’t even rainbows?”

He shook his head.

“Well,” I said, wading deeper into the hole and flicking a serviceable roll cast into the wave that lapped against a sweeper, “I’m going to pretend they are for a couple more casts.” 

In the days to come, we would free Rosalita from the two-track rut and, over the years, catch many actual Oncorhynchus mykiss together, but none more memorable than a foot-long, mayfly-eating fish I watched Nick stalk in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We were, per usual, short on flies, so when, after casting from a kneeling position for the better part of an hour and missing two of the fish’s strikes, Nick hooked his last March Brown pattern in a pine’s overhead limb, I climbed the tree and retrieved it for him. While looking through the foggy viewfinder of the Kodak disposable a few minutes later at my friend and his catch, I thought “rainbow” seemed an ill-fitting moniker for a fish whose horizontal marking gleamed like a vein suddenly opened, spilling red fluid of the brotherly kind. 

Names, of course, are ultimately reductive, and had I more imagination, I might have given each rainbow I caught a more original and fitting name. After two decades of guiding in western Montana, where the O. mykiss is the most commonly encountered catch, I’ve come to love the star-white bellies of otherwise weed-colored ’bows that frequent shallow sloughs along the Bitterroot, and the cheeks, like “apples in fog,” of their current-fighting cousins. The nose of a Clark Fork rainbow sipping Mahoganies in the shallows at last light in October shines like the underside of a polished pewter spoon, while the milk-blue back of a Blackfoot rainbow caught when the river runs glacial green in runoff reminds me of a shade that painter Mark Rothko invented for one of his sparest canvases.

And the Blackfoot ’bows fight the hardest, too — Norman Maclean asserted that only grizzly bears were pissier. A 3-pounder sometimes leaps over midriver boulders to free itself. A 20-inch Clark Fork chromer hooked on light tippet will give you a few token head shakes before running to the middle of the river and banking for Puget Sound. Locals are fond of saying that a 16-inch, brick-shaped Bitterroot rainbow “will give you your money’s worth,” but I think such efficient creatures have earned divestment from our convoluted economic milieu — though, upon hooking a rare 2-footer on the ’Root, it is fair to estimate that all bets are off.

Like us humans, most Montana rainbows are hybrids, wild surviving strains of stocks that began in 1889. A ’bow of one strain, say the Eagle Lake variety, might spawn with a rainbow of the Arlee strain, for instance, but many ’bows also hybridize with native cutthroat, which share the same spring spawning season and tributaries, a mating practice that makes for some stunningly beautiful if banally named offspring: the cutbow. It’s strange these days to catch a rainbow whose under-jaw isn’t decorated with at least a slight orange slash, an aesthetically pleasing marking, sure, but one that demands the partially native fish be released and not kept for the smoker.

Despite the odds, I stumbled into a rare, pure-strain river dweller of singular proportions last fall while hunting birds not far from home. In the shallow backwater of a river I’ll not name, I was watering my thirsty setter, Zeke, when the huge fish cruised by us like a chrome seal. The fish was so far beyond my ken for this drainage — the girth of five combined ’bows might have equaled this denizen’s — that I could only squint with bafflement. I thought of the rod on the dashboard of the truck parked half a mile away: If I walked back to get it, the fish would probably be gone when I returned. But “probably” is a very flirtatious girl.

It took me 20 minutes to return, undergunned by my estimation with the 4-weight but armed with my favored fly for big ’bows everywhere: a No. 8 Conehead olive Woolly Bugger snatched from the windshield visor (no fly box) and knotted to 2x. I stood and stared through the clear water, combing the back eddy from the current’s entrance to my feet — and there, as if memory had set it before me, was the fish, hovering over a spring no more than a rod length away. I flicked out a roll cast and finished high, hoping the fly would land lightly, but the fish banked hard on the subtle impact and tilted down on the sinking fly like a permit. 

I heaved on the rod like a kid at a trout pond, burying the hook. For a few seconds the hen wallowed with disinterest, then made hard for the river, dragging the line in shearing zigzag before ultimately deciding against the current and doubling back toward my feet. Sensing her momentum, I backpedaled up the gravel bank with Zeke in pursuit and leaned as hard as I could on rod and tippet, beaching the fish, then ran back down to the bank before she could harm herself or gator-roll back in. The fight was over almost too fast. Almost. There would be no grip-and-grin, no Facebook fodder, though with dog as my witness I’ll call her 28 inches, pushing 9 pounds. And while reviving the brute in the cooling shallows, her belly heavy as a bag of birdseed in my hand, I recalled an old Lucinda Williams line that seemed an appropriate coda for the moment and my sentiments on the often overlooked species itself: “Baby, sweet baby, if it’s all the same. Take the glory any day over the fame.”  

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