Photos by Brian Grossenbacher
“Who’s Madison?” the girl asks, lifting her head and shock of red hair from your chest.
You raise your bare shoulders from the floor of her parents’ van, the rough carpeting peeling from your skin, and hoist yourself up by the elbows.
“I’m sorry. What?”
“You just said Madison in your sleep. Twice, actually.”
You’re 18, and it’s barely spring in Michigan, but it’s decidedly humid in the back of the vehicle parked illegally at the trailhead of a forest preserve. If you answer truthfully — that you were dreaming about a river in Montana — she might believe you. You weigh an explanation against a faux confession. Chance it? If she takes you at your word, she just may be the one.
She wasn’t, of course, but Montana, with its distinctly feminine rivers, was.
We wed in high summer 1995, and I celebrate the anniversary by starting a two-month string of guide trips each year just before the solstice. The physical work of rowing against the rivers’ best for several straight weeks is nearly more than my 42-year-old shoulders can endure, but the gauntlet helps me place a figurative finger on the pulse of this unsurpassed landscape as its charging freestones, vital veins that they are, begin to clear and run hard for the tall horizon.
Though it largely curtails productive angling, runoff is a charming hydrological rite. To look skyward toward the ranges — the Pintlers, the Crazies, the Flints, ad infinitum — as the alpine basins relinquish their six-month-old snowpack revivifies this rower of 20 seasons. What was on Monday a snowfield under cloud shadow is flux on Tuesday, with flow underfoot; every molecule of water that didn’t rise as humidity or wasn’t absorbed by soil or vegetation joins other molecules to run off steep country and down draws that tighten into creeks that, after winding through dogwood-choked bottoms, offer themselves in tribute — gifting volume, oxygenation, cool temperature — to the big rivers glinting in the bottoms thousands of feet below their beginnings.
For a few weeks, our freestones become navigable only by the pluckiest paddlers. At high water, a river like the Blackfoot is a veritable creature, a dangerous beast to which the ultimate respect must be displayed. One missed oar stroke, one gunwale edge leaned into the wrong wave, could mean a swamped or flipped boat — and quick. An illustration for the mathematically inclined: During late August, the river that author Norman Maclean made famous runs at roughly 500 cubic feet per second but might crest, on a big year, in early June at 15,000 CFS, leaving high-water-mark flotsam in the branches of bankside ponderosas. Impatient anglers monitor online stream flow sites like ticker-focused stock traders, measure water clarity with yardsticks or oar blades, and check the riprap nightly for the first pilgrim stonefly shuck.
Then comes a day that smells of ponderosa duff and balsamroot pollen, an afternoon when the snow line climbs steadily toward the peaks, but the rivers drop regardless and begin to shake off their respective stains. The Blackfoot trades its glacial, ashen hue for a largely penetrable blue; the Yellowstone goes from Lamar-made mud to sake-bottle green; the tannin-rich Big Hole turns from tea with cream to a straight, briefly steeped Earl Grey. Clearing similarly, Rock Creek bursts first with prolific hatches: waves of caddis and giant bumbling sedges; several varieties of stoneflies, including the mythic Pteronarcys californica, whose mating flights ascend the afternoon canyons like miniature alien invasions; and mayflies, such as the linebacker-stout Green Drake, often neglected by anglers in favor of larger bugs but never by the river’s biggest trout. At evening in the half light, long after the last gregarious raft has been winched onto its trailer, a relatively dainty, just-emerged sulfur dun floats into a slick behind a boulder; a trout tilts toward it, and true summer, with its magnitude of angling riches, officially arrives.
For a few weeks, even the guides can get along, so deep is our list of viable fishing options, so wide our field of play. You can get on early and pull streamers while shade still glazes the water, or twitch leggy dry flies for a critter that slid into the shallows after dark and hasn’t returned to its midday station. You can join the masses during bankers’ hours and, what with the ample pace and still-imperfect water clarity, do far better than fine while jockeying with several boats. Or you can sleep in, cruise the farmer’s market for a potential fishing partner clad in a gauzy sundress or Carhartts and a cowboy shirt, and wet-wade the witching hour just before dark, when masses of ovipositing caddis fill the air with impossible density, land in your ears, your nose, your mouth, laying their eggs at waterline on your bare knees or thighs. Sit back on the bank when it’s too dark to see your fly, open another beer for your partner, a bottle of wine, maybe hum an old Ry Cooder tune because you doubtless are, as he once sang, living in a poor man’s Shangri-La.
Then get up and do it again. Amen.
Broom the fishing for a morning and bathe yourself in warbler song, the birds’ noise and plumage garishly bright in green willows. Climb a ridge spine scorched last summer by forest fires and pick a bucketful of fresh morels, making blood-pact plans not to sell them to a bistro but rather to hoard them for an evening marsala sauce. Follow a leapable spring creek far into a meadow where the windblown grasses toss in sync with a lone chestnut mare’s tail. Ignoring the mosquitos you stir, creep on all fours toward the shadow fish you might or might not see finning in shallow, air-clear water, the largest brown trout — if it is, indeed, a trout and not a swaying bed of weeds — you’ve laid eyes on in years. Forget retrieving the rod you left at the boat and inch closer, watching the maw of the buck flash white as it opens to take scud, closer still. From your knees, ease your left arm under the cutbank, and when the fish sees your upstream shadow and instinctively whirls toward its sanctuary, feel all 2½ feet of it, kipe to tail tip, slide across your open palm.
It is Montana, after all, where these sorts of things can happen.
Or these: Beneath a bald eagle on the hunt, I was anchored one late-June afternoon with a fishing partner, discussing a third but absent partner who was, as we spoke, under the surgical knife, his health gravely in question. Counterclockwise, the eagle orbited the clockwise-turning eddy in an act of quasi-hypnotism, while downstream against the cliff, waves galloped by at an astonishing pace. Suddenly the bird dropped from its thermal loft and waylaid the water, its wings frothing the surface as it tried to sink its talons into a fish whose fins soon frothed the surface from beneath. After several laborious wing beats, the bird aimed its sharp yellow beak upstream and hefted a large brown trout into the air. Ponderously, like a foundering kite, the bird got enough sky under its wings to clear the canyon wall and swoop into a juniper overlooking the river.
Gawking, John and I ate lunch for several minutes until the bird — perhaps spooked by another creature on the canyon rim — took to the air again, swooping near enough for us to note the trout’s open eyes, its gasping gills. And yet the eagle hovered, its shadow unmistakably mingling with ours on the sand. Headed upriver, the bird soared past us one more time and dropped the fish — a mistake, an offering? — into the water, failing to double back or attempt a recovery.
Down the riffle the fish came bobbing, witless, no kick left in its fins. Net in hand, John rushed into the waist-deep current to scoop the fish. Its eyes were wide, and its flaring gills stretched elastically in oxygenated water, but its spine had gone stiff, talon-snapped. For several minutes, I braced it in the aerated shallows, hoping to revive it, but each time I released my grip, the fish spun upside down, as good as dead. In more than two decades of fishing this river, I hadn’t kept a trout; there was talk of what to do. Finally, against a tape on the net handle, we measured the fish: by a quarter inch, a legal keeper.
That evening, after learning that our friend’s lymphatic tumors had been successfully removed, we filled the dispatched fish’s cavity with lemon slices, onions, butter slabs and dill. We covered it in foil and grilled it over a charcoal fire. From the backyard bushes, we picked wild roses and floated them, per an old monk’s suggestion, on wine. Life will deliver its brutalities, he reminded, so have all the fun you can. We toasted river, eagle and fishing partners. We peeled back the foil, then the trout’s muted golden skin, and with forks and fingers relished the warm, pink flesh. We cleaned the bones all the way to the spine.