The first time I ever paid to go fishing was when I took a trip to Iceland in 1980. I had never fished for Atlantic salmon and was looking for some romance, as well as for a new experience in a new land.
I had just finished a salmon and steelhead season in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia that had me discouraged because of the crowds, and this invitation came as a surprise, one which I thought of as an unexpected privilege.
In the real light of high overhead sunshine, $1,000 a day for six days to wet a line, no matter how fancy that line might be, was an insane idea for someone to whom that was a year’s earnings. What closed the deal for me, though, was the promise of a river full of fish with no one else on it, a river to which you essentially claimed ownership for a time, a river you could look across without seeing a band of armed loggers in hard hats ready to bean you with an assortment of heavy metal lures bristling with sharp gang hooks. So I committed to an absurd sum for a week of fishing, a perhaps twisted testament to the idea that if you’re living within your means, you have no imagination.
Our group consisted of 10 anglers, mostly older gentlemen (“The old men got all the money,” according to Mose Allison), all of them experienced Atlantic salmon fishermen. They had been coming to this river for years, and there was a lot of wagering on how many, how big, the first fish caught, and so forth. The year before had been a good one, and the high rod for the week had landed about 20 fish.
It was the middle of July when we landed at Keflavik, during a horizontal sleet storm of a velocity sufficient to knock one stout passenger clear off her feet on the long walk across the tarmac to the terminal. First stop was in Reykjavik at the fishing store to buy flies. Our group went into a frenzy, scooping them up by the handful. My friend Guy de la Valde`ne asked why I wasn’t buying any flies. I said I had plenty already, plus a vise and material if I ran out.
“But you’ve never even been Atlantic salmon fishing,” he said.
I explained to him my theory that the dozen or so varieties of salmon and sea trout worldwide were shirttail cousins and lived more or less similar lives, feeding on similar foods. Their brains were similar in size as well, which is to say exquisitely tiny and incapable of anything we might recognize as thought. Further, I liked my flies, loved them in fact, having spent decades refining a few simple but exceedingly effective designs, and I planned on using them no matter what.
This kind of talk prompted warnings from the group. The Atlantic salmon was a noble, demanding and highly selective fish, the subject of centuries of study and hundreds of books; the fly to which it was responding best on the Laxa y Kjos this season was the Forktail Rat Face Mary, fished on a dead drift. End of conversation. Only a fool messed with tradition when it came to Atlantic salmon.
Our guide for the trip turned out to be a likeable young man who spoke English very well, as do all Icelanders. When we arrived at our first beat, the area of the river we had been assigned to fish, we parked and walked to the stream. It seemed awfully small and low.
“Now,” our guide began, gesturing toward the river, “what we have here is a pool.” I was mortified. I had never fished with a guide before, and having fished with uncommon frequency, which is to say nearly every day for the preceding 30 years, I felt like Michael Jordan might if a new coach, assigned to help him with his game, led him out to the key, pointed at the backboard, and said, “Now, what we have here is a basket.”
Leaving Guy and the guide to fish the now identified pool, I walked upstream to the next holding water. Having worked about halfway through it, our guide came up to check on me. He watched a few minutes, then asked to see my fly. He shook his head and asked to see my fly box. He was visibly upset with what he saw and pulled out a box of his own filled with Forktail Rat Face Marys. “You must use this,” he said. “And stop moving it. Let it drift dead.”
I took it and tied it on. This was not the time for an argument about ichthyological genetics, lunar forces or behavior of species of fish on the other side of the earth. Besides, it seemed inappropriate, if not downright rude, to ignore the young man’s advice. He was just doing his job the best he could. After four hours of fishing any number of holes where nothing showed or was hooked, we went in for lunch. I expressed to Guy my opinion that there was not a single fish present in any of this water.
“How do you know that?”
“I just know, that’s all.”
In front of the lodge, actually a schoolhouse used as a lodge during June, July and August, there was a steep falls. The river was too low for fish to leap over it, and although a few had passed during the last freshet, most lay waiting below. This made fishing upstream, where we had been, somewhat like playing baseball with a bat but no ball. “I guess we might as well have taken a nap instead of fishing,” Guy said. “A $1,000 nap.”
At lunch we found out that the four fishermen who’d been lucky enough to fish the two beats below the falls had caught six nice fish between them. When they heard of our skunking, talk of wagers arose again, along with offers to sell us the correct flies at inflated streamside prices. Our afternoon was pretty much a carbon copy of the morning. We remained fishless, while several more salmon were caught below the falls.
At breakfast however, we learned we would get the good beat directly below the falls in the morning, then in the afternoon the tailout of the same pool. I immediately wanted to get out of the building and down to the water. Nothing doing. On this river it was strictly banker’s hours. You started at 9 and stopped for lunch at 1. In the afternoon you started at 3 and stopped at 6. At this latitude, at this time of year, it was light all the time, and given the freedom to do so, I would have fished all night, as I’ve subsequently done in Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Russian Arctic.
The plan was to drop me off on the near side, then our guide would take Guy across the river to fish. As the car drove off, I was shivering with eagerne
ss. Fish were showing everywhere, and as I ran into the river I was already establishing vectors between boulders and identifying seams in the current. I pulled the backing off the reel so hysterically I backlashed it. The first cast was a bullet, the line turning over quartered downstream at 100 feet. The take came in under six seconds, just after I tightened and began to strip. The salmon leaped out of the water upside down. I pressured it hard and had it beached within a few minutes, a beautiful silvery fish about 7 or 8 pounds.
It took two casts to put the next one on. As I led it to shore, I could see our guide’s car crossing the bridge to the other side a half-mile downstream. Adrenaline was making my ears hot as I carelessly rushed back into the water, tripping and falling. My left arm got wet up to the shoulder. Cold as it was, all that mattered was that this was the bucket of buckets, filled with hundreds of fish. Something happened on every cast: nips, pulls and takes that came off after a few shakes. The ratio of lost fish to landed fish was 3 to 1.
Instinctively, I looked around to see if anyone was watching, and the realization swept over me that there was no horde of gear boys spying on the action, ready to rush down the bank and edge me out, sewing up the hole with an impossible network of lines, sinkers, bait, spoons and 100 other doodad curiosities. Goddamn it, I had paid, and paid big, to keep those bastards out of here, and I let out a whoop in celebration and then deliberately made the longest cast I’d ever made with that particular outfit, which converted into another salmon in the air and then on the bank.
When our guide and Guy pulled up across the river, I was playing another fish. The guide got out of the car, pulling a long-handled net with him. I saw him stop and look across at me. Suddenly, he was jamming the net back into the car. He was going to drive all the way back to my side to help me land what he naturally assumed to be my first fish.
As his car crossed the bridge, I hooked another one. After landing it, I tried a different position, this time retrieving the fly rapidly at a perverse angle across the current. The take was vicious, the fight short-lived. I was playing another as the guide pulled up, maneuvering his net back out of the car and running down to help. I motioned him back and slid the fish up onto the grass. He ran and picked it up.
“Oh sir,” he said, “congratulations. It’s a wonderful salmon.”
“Thank you,” I said, getting ready to go back into the water. “Please, you don’t need to come all the way over here to help me. I’m managing. Just lay the salmon over behind that big rock with the others.”
He walked over there, and when he looked, let out a little cry. Scarcely an hour into the day, there was quite a pile of fish back there.
My obsession started maybe 45 years ago, during an era largely forgotten and in a place that even then existed well outside its own time. In the middle of the 19th century, my great-great-grandfather left the alpine village of Intragna, Switzerland, to search for gold in Australia. He took his find to California, where he purchased 5,000 acres from another Swiss family in about 1865. The elder Piazzoni then sent for his four sons and their families.
Today his house stands as it did nearly 150 years ago: no phone or electricity, the lovely old oil lamps working perfectly. When I was a child, the exquisite landscape of Mount Toro in Monterey County formed me. In summer I was encouraged to walk alone in the hills and canyons, to hunt, to paint and to fish.
My father, uncle and cousins fished for trout in Chupinas Creek, which flowed past our ranch house and down the canyon to the Carmel River. Whether or not they consciously thought of these 6- to 9-inch fish as baby steelhead, I cannot say. According to the Violini brothers, Victor Silva and Irene Piazzoni, steelhead ran upstream to spawn, sometimes past Papa’s gate, into our fork, past the house clear up onto the farthest reaches of Chupinas canyon and even up little Irene’s creek to the east, though, of course, I was never there during winter to see these fish with my own eyes.
They are now nearly extinct, their decline accelerated first by the San Clemente Dam and later by the Los Padres Dam. Thoughtless stocking of hatchery fish from other locations weakened the gene pool, but the final blow was dealt by years of drought, combined with the endless development, whose thirst for water pretty much dried up the Carmel River. Back then, though, there was an abundance of steelhead.
Once, before I got my driver’s license, I was with my family in Carmel at Christmas. It was one of those beautiful clear winter days, and we were headed for the drive down the coast, and after we crossed the Carmel River, my dad pulled off so we could get out and walk on the beach. In those days there was almost no traffic, nor was there a single sign posted warning you not to do anything fun or dangerous, so I walked out on the bridge in order to look down at the river. It was low and clear, but the lagoon was fairly large. It took me some minutes to become aware of a dark mass in the middle of it, longer still to realize it was fish, big fish.
As I squinted through the telescope of my hand, I could sometimes see individual forms detach for a few moments from the school, then rejoin it. I already knew about steelhead from the creek that ran by our house in Marin County, but my credulity was now being seriously stretched. I was so tense and shivering with frustrated desire, I could just about not stand it. In a vision that has drifted in and out of my consciousness for nearly 60 years, I was looking at a school of at least 300, if not 400, steelhead waiting for a rain to send them upstream throughout the Carmel Valley, including, naturally, Chupinas Creek.
Years earlier, when my father decided I was old enough to go fishing with him, we walked down the road past the Favorite Tree, where we had our rope swing, past the big sycamore, where my uncle Phil had carved his son Tom’s name in the most beautiful letters deep into the massive tree’s trunk, past the bull oak, where there was always a Hereford or two dozing in the deep shade, on to Papa’s gate, past the spring from which we drew our drinking water, stopping finally at a small wooded flat near the double creeks.
The equipment was wholly primitive: a three-part steel telescoping pole, well used and dented, and a tiny, ratchety skeleton reel with a short length of waxed line. It didn’t matter. It was enough to drop the bait into the holes. The basic skill was to avoid frightening the fish.
My father made me sit away from the creek while he looked for bait. A yellow jacket cruised by, and he stunned it with his hat, then impaled it on the hook. I cowered, remembering the nest we had inadvertently disturbed earlier in the summer while gathering firewood. I was stung more than 100 times.
My father leaned very slowly forward, cautiously lowering his bait. Within seconds he was lifting a wiggling 7-inch trout into the air. He turned and grabbed it, smacked it on the head with a stick, and put it in his creel. He caught two or three more, then motioned for me to come over to where he knelt, behind the shrub he’d used for concealment. “I’ll hold you,” he said, “and you can look down and see them.” He slowly leaned me out over the hole. Six or seven fish darted about, some rushing under the watercress, others nervously facing the current in the deepest part of the pool.
He must have held me there for a long time, because it’s one of the clearest images I have from my early childhood. The sun had managed to get through a hole in the trees above, and the little pool, hardly as large as an old fashioned mattress, had a laughing quality, as if lit from within. The water flowing into it murm
ured softly, like a particularly delicate Chopin etude.
I watched the deep red tendrils of dead watercress wave in the current below; on the surface, the new growth was bright green and bursting with life. The bottom was half gravel, half sand, heavily flecked with sparkling fool’s gold. And the trout were dark and alert, drifting back, waving in the flow, then shooting forward. My father, whom I loved so much, held me there as if time had stopped.
What did the little boy see? Was it a window through which he sensed the shape of his whole life? Or a cosmic mystery, dimly perceived but glimpsed for one split second in a fragile, vanishing element? What was it about this insignificant place that forged such a longing that no matter how wide a circle the boy turned, the man traveled, he would forever seek to return to it?
A year or so after my Icelandic trip, Bob Nauheim, of Fishing International in Santa Rosa, California, invited me to go with him to Norway to check out a river on which he hoped to hook fishermen. The river was the intensely beautiful Gaula, near Trondheim. We fished with several young Swedes, all excellent fishermen and casters. One in particular, Mikael Frodin, exemplified the Scandinavian temperament with respect to fishing: a high level of organization and competence combined with the emotional resonance of an Ingmar Bergman drama. His attention to hook styles and hooking techniques was so intense I finally had to ask him what percentage of the salmon he hooked was lost to pullouts. (In Iceland I had lost at least 50 percent.) “None!” he said, seriously, “An Atlantic salmon expels a fly out of its gills,” he explained, “instead of forward like a steelhead. Therefore, the strike on an Atlantic salmon can never be too slow, only too fast.”
Bob and I fished relatively hard for five or six days, and each of us hooked and lost two salmon. We took a few grilse, and every one of them was scarred from passing through a mesh of nets. When Frodin told me that he and Johan Abelsson once caught nearly 80 salmon out of one pool in a single day, the problem suddenly became clear: criminal overharvesting of Atlantic salmon. The Gaula’s run had been wiped out.
One afternoon, Frodin and I and some of the other guides and fishermen had a friendly casting competition. These were the best distance casters I’d ever seen outside of California. They gave an impressive demonstration of the effectiveness of the 16-foot, two-handed rod fitted with a 50-foot shooting head. None of them even owned waders. They fished right off the gravel bars, feet dry, routinely dropping their flies at 200 feet. But the two best, Frodin and Abelsson, could not beat me with the one-handed rod, and this clearly puzzled them.
My uncle Phil had a pretty good assortment of fishing tackle that he used on the Russian River at Summer Home Park. He started Tom and me fishing for small-mouth bass when we were 10 or 11 years old. Of course, we fished with baits of different kinds, baby lamprey eels when we could find them (I still love bait fishing), but Phil spoke rapturously about fly-casting. When the shad ran in the spring, he said, they took only silver flies. That was it, then. We had to learn to fly-fish, or we’d never catch any of these wonderful, mysterious shad.
Phil had several bamboo fly rods — a South Bend, a Montague, and a three-piece Granger, which was the best of them. He set this up for Tom with a size B shooting head and Medalist reel. My dad subsequently bought me a similar outfit for my 16th birthday. The rod cost $25, a lot of money in those days. The Medalist was $3.95.
Phil decided that the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club in Golden Gate Park was the best place for us to learn what to do with this equipment. He was still fishing with his Marvin Hedge Seven Taper but quickly saw that a new invention, the shooting head, made this otherwise beautiful silk line obsolete. While he used the South Bend, Tom and I shared the Granger.
“Let’s see that outfit, boys,” the man on the casting platform said when we arrived for what was to be our first lesson.
He stripped off what seemed like a mile of line, made a couple of powerful, amazingly fast false casts, and shot the line forward with such force I thought the rod would break.
“This outfit has a maximum distance of 130 feet, but you won’t get anything like that out of it fishing, especially wading deep. When you shoot it from here, aim for the top of the eucalyptus trees. But it’s much better to practice out of the pit, not here on the platform. You’re not going to catch anything until you can tangle your line around those old men sitting on the bench over there. That’s about 100 feet.”
Our instructor, Joe Paul, was one of the best steelhead fishermen and distance casters in California. Later we saw him casting from the pit, a concrete box sunk into the casting pools to simulate wading waist-deep. Forget the old men. His line went over the trees they were sitting under.
When Tom and I got down into the pit, those old men were worlds away. It was 85 feet just to the cement edge of the pool, and we could barely get within 20 feet of that. We went fishing anyway, of course, but we didn’t catch anything, just as Joe predicted.
Our fly lines were made out of tan-colored Dacron from the Sunset Line & Twine Company in Petaluma, California. The light-colored line was helpful in learning to cast because you could watch other fishermen and see exactly how their lines were behaving in the air. It was obvious who knew how to cast and who didn’t.
Joe Paul has been dead for many years, but some of his friends are still around, among them three of the greatest distance casters and salmon and steelhead fishermen who ever lived: Frank Allen, Alan Curtis and Bill Schaadt. I’ve been everywhere in the world where fly-fishing is practiced, and I’ve yet to meet anyone who could carry a suitcase for any of those three. [Editor’s note: All are now deceased.]
One day at Watson’s Log, I watched Schaadt, Charlie Napoli — a friend of Bill’s — and Curtis fish from their boats. They were backlit by the sun so that every movement was highlighted, their lines illuminated. Bill was still smoking Pall Malls in those days, and the puffs of smoke drifted slowly away from him on the light breeze.
The three casters had unique styles, yet all shared the essential elements of fine casting: tremendous line speed; tight loops; fully extended, perfect turnovers; maximum distance; no bad casts; and no tangles, even with the kinky monofilament we had in those days. It was breathtaking and humbling. Another fisherman came walking down the beach, someone I recognized but didn’t know. Frank Allen waded in and started casting. A lefty like Curtis, he was at least as good as the others.
That day left a permanent impression on me. Here were four of the best fly-casters in the world in the same place at the same time. It was like listening to the best string quartet ever, or watching Jordan, Barkley, Bird and Magic in a pickup game. At the end of an hour I left and went up to the narrows where I could be alone.
I would not have dared fish where those men could see my struggles. I wanted my line to soar out over the river like theirs, but it would not. My monofilament was kinked and fouled up, and even when it wasn’t, my fly often hit the water behind me, and on the cast the line tangled around itself, falling in a pile. I cursed my lovely Granger as if it were the problem, a bad workman blaming his tools. I whined that I wanted a one piece glass rod like those guys had, but I had yet to learn that the price of a fly rod, or its action, no matter how good, in no way guarantees its performance. Beautiful rods and reels are nice, I now own more than enough, but only two things count when you’re up to your chest in a river and the fish are lying 100 feet out in front of you: the balance between the action of the rod and the weight of the line, and your ability to apply to this, proper timing, grace and style.
During the late ’50s, Frank Allen opened my eyes to a great many things. It was through Frank that I got to know Bill Schaadt, Jon Tarantino, Jimmy Green and Myron Gregory. Tarantino held all the world records for distance casting at that time. Green, of course, was the architect of the essential shooting head. And Gregory, who had once held the distance record, was developing the system by which all fly
lines are known today, assigning them numbers designating weight instead of letters indicating diameter.
If the rivers were out, we’d go to the pools and refine our equipment, trying out new and different things. Sometimes we watched the tournaments, especially if Tarantino was casting. At the pools, any illusions you might have had about your abilities as a caster were straightened out right away. After all, you were in the company of experts, and the numbers were there on the cement in white paint. Someone was alwa
ys happy to give you an accurate report on how short your cast fell and that it failed to turn over properly.
When not fishing, I spent at least an hour or so practice casting, every day, at home on our lawn. In the off-season, when there was little or no chance of finding any fish, I visited the tidewater of Paper Mill Creek, where I was surprised to catch baby stripers, proving that bass spawned there; Walker Creek, Salmon Creek and Bodega Bay, where I caught nothing; or the lower pools of the Russian, where I learned how to get big carp to take a fly. Once, I was fishing for sharks and rays with bait at Tomales Bay when a surprise school of stripers surfaced nearby. I had a fly rod rigged, so I dropped a cast into them and caught a 22-pounder, which won the Field & Stream contest that year. The catch was especially satisfying because it came in July, when fisheries biologists working in the bay had guaranteed me there were no bass present.
At these beautiful coastal haunts — lonely places where there were never any tourists, swimmers, campers or boaters — the wind always blew, shaping the trees into mournful sentinels that gave form to the solitude. Early in the fall I always went to Watson’s Log, waded the riffle and walked up to the spot where I had first recognized Frank Allen on that memorable day. I waded out and cast, even though there was nothing to cast for. I peopled the pool with my heroes and imagined myself fishing with them. I could still clearly picture those crisp, bright lines slicing through the air with impossible perfection. The years passed, and I was continually obsessed with learning to cast well, sometimes thinking I would just never get it right.
Once in a while I’d go over to the pools on weekday afternoons. The old men weren’t there on such days, but their bench was, and I’d start working toward it. Usually, I’d get one cast out of five up onto the sidewalk. Finally, after a cast no different from those before it, I saw my line draped over the bench. I set the rod down, climbed out of the pit, walked over, and just stared at it. Had this been a Saturday or Sunday, I thought to myself, with those geezers sitting here lying to each other, I could have jerked their hats off. It had taken 10 years, but I had finally arrived at Joe Paul’s recommended starting point.
After that first morning in Iceland below the falls, my lunch mates expressed astonishment at the degree to which beginner’s luck had penetrated the inscrutable traditions of Atlantic salmon fishing. When my catch was recorded in the log, the custom for more than a century, my three-hour catch equaled that of an average week. When “type of fly” was requested and I answered “Comet,” there was some hesitation, but it was written down because that was the truth.
Guy, too, began catching fish that afternoon. I had built two special sets of shooting heads, one for myself, one for him. Based upon what I’d been told about the size of the river, I made them short No. 8s, each 25 feet long instead of the normal 30. (On really big water such as the lower Eel River in northern California, some of the boys went to AA 35-footers.) I made these lines in five densities: floating, slow-sinking, fast-sinking, very-fast-sinking and lead-core. We could change heads in under two minutes, thereby matching whatever conditions we confronted.
In Iceland, salmon fishing is one part sport, three parts business. There is virtually no public fishing, and the fish themselves are commercial products. One of the rules on this river was that all salmon caught had to be killed. If you wished to take home gravlax or smoked salmon, you gave the lodge three fresh fish in exchange for one that was processed and packed frozen to be taken home. This created a rather gruesome picture. I didn’t keep notes on that trip, and lately my memory has turned on me, but by the end of our week we must have had over 100 fish in the freezer. The lodge keeps precise records in its logs, so anyone interested in going to the trouble can look it up.
I know that word reached Reykjavik and that a reporter from the paper drove out to the river to see what was going on, and after his story appeared, carloads of Icelanders drove out to sit on the banks and watch us fish. Since we drew the good beats only several times, we did catch a few of those $1,000 naps. And we also went into Reykjavik once for dinner and nightclubbing, where the locals gave us a terrific demonstration of what it means to get really drunk.
We had become somewhat unpopular at the lodge dinner table because not only were we trashing the parameters of the possible on the river, but we insisted on bringing to the table armloads of hot sauces from around the world in an attempt to salvage the food we were served, which tended to be colorless and bland. This was too bad, as Iceland raises good lamb, and the rock lobster from its continental shelf is one of the most succulent crustaceans on Earth.
One night an old Scottish lawyer asked if he could see one of my Comets. He studied it and said it shouldn’t work, but the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming.
“They say you retrieve the fly when you fish it. Why?”
“You cover more water. Show it to more fish. I think it also activates the long tail.”
I pushed a few across the table to him, and he wrapped them in a napkin and put them in his pocket. The next day, he caught more salmon than on any day ever before, and he’d been coming to the river for 20 years.
The first time I ever saw a Comet, on the Russian River at Austin Riffle one March day in the late ’50s, I was fishing just above the mouth of the creek. Al Curtis was fishing across from me, on Brown’s side, laying out long casts in my direction, his fly landing within 30 feet of me. His turnovers were so deliberate and perfect that I could easily watch his enormous fly as it settled to the water. It was orange and looked as long as a pencil. He played a lot of fish that day.
Al was secretive about his flies, so I asked Frank what he was using, and he told me it was a fly Joe Paul had come up with. It was big, meant for high, murky water, its most remarkable feature a 3-inch tail. Both Joe and Al frequently fished with this fly, which Joe had dubbed his “O-Cedar mop.” [A story about this appears in Trey Combs’ Steelhead Fly Fishing, from Lyons & Burford.]
A couple of years later, when I made my first trip to the Smith River to fish for king salmon, Bill Schaadt was using a Comet-style fly I admired. He called it the Golden Goose because to enter the annual Field & Stream contest, which he frequently won, you had to give the name of the fly on which you’d made your catch, so he just made something up. My interest renewed, I tied up a bunch of Comets in different colors and, in deference to the crystal clear water, made them extremely sparse and thin. They have been my favorites since I was 18 or 19 years old. Clearly they work as well on Atlantic salmon as they do on Pacific salmon and steelhead. Their versatility was soundly proved in Iceland, then again on two trips to the Kola Peninsula in Russia, where the Icelandic scenario was repeated on the Umba and Ponoi rivers.
When I moved to Livingston, Montana, in 1972, I was running away from what I saw happening in California. The Russian River was dammed to death, then used as a convenient dump for the raw sewage of booming Santa Rosa, which today very much resembles Los Angeles. The preposterously burgeoning wine industry, as hell bent on limitless profits as anyone can imagine (what’s the difference between God and a California wine maker? God doesn’t think he’s a wine maker), stuck draw pipes into the river pretty much as they wished, reducing non-winter flows by two-thirds.
Marin County, once the hunting and fishing backyard of San Francisco, had become one of the two or three wealthiest counties in America, shopping mall on top of shopping mall, freeways jammed to a standstill with BMWs and Jaguars. The value of its beautiful creeks was ignored and disrespected, Corte Madera Creek in particular, channeled into a disgraceful sluiceway in a stupid effort to prevent flood waters from inundating a few ill-advised, pathetic shacks built too close to the creek. The wild pigeons we used to hunt on the ridges above Lagunitas now frequently saw gold jewelry flashing up at them as they roosted, and their numbers diminished with every passing year.
They say a person raised near the ocean can never be really happy away from it, and I’m no exception, but I needed freedom and space. Montana had all of those things, and I had to put my need for the sea on hold.
My new home at the head of Deep Creek was less than 10 minutes from the Yellowstone River, about five from Nelson’s Spring Creek, and 15 from Armstrong and DePuy Spring creeks, waters that were completely deserted most of the year and very lightly fished during the season. In those days, there was only one tackle store, Dan Bailey’s. There were two or three guides who hung around the store in the mornings, but mostly they waited in vain for an inept sport to show up with money to burn.
I often wondered to myself why anyone needed a guide in Livingston anyway. How hard was it to drive a couple of miles out of town, park and walk to the river? And what happened to the thrill of discovery when somebody took you by the hand and pointed everything out? By being guided, the very essence of fishing, like the proverbial baby, has been thrown out with the bath water. When I declined to buy the local flies that day in Reykjavik, I had no secret knowledge, no knowledge at all; I simply wanted to use my own wits and intuition instead of having everything preordained by so-called experts. I would much rather fail by my own wits, or lack thereof, than succeed on someone else’s shoulders.
This season, tens of thousands of the faithful are expected on the banks of Montana’s Madison River. I will not be among them. Nor will I be found on the Yellowstone in Paradise Valley or Nelson, DePuy or Armstrong creeks. On these last three, you must now pay a fee to fish, and reservations are made years in advance. There are seven fly shops in Park County.
The Yellowstone River has hundreds of boats, manned by hundreds of guides, all with canine mascots. The once peaceful spring creeks — those lonely, quiet alternatives to the big water, deserted big water, mind you — resemble a kind of outdoor mall, where all manner of dick-measuring gear is shown off and compared by virtue of chattering reminiscent of Monkey Island in the Fleischacker Zoo. And, once in a while, a 12-inch hapless creature, born as a trout, is brought to hand, though now it is wane and resigned, its mouth little more than a lace doily, its eyes trained to roll as if to say, “let’s just get this over with, again.”
The rejuvenation of the human spirit requires periods of solitude in a natural environment. Yet that environment is fast becoming the rarest commodity on Earth. All scientists, and not necessarily rocket, agree that we’ve done more harm to the planet in the last 50 years than in the preceding 10 million.
In their deepest, simplest manifestations, all forms of fishing, and hunting as well, are the same, which is to say you effectively become married to an experience uncontrolled by, and outside, the self. This year I will fish in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, New Brunswick, Panama, Florida, New Zealand and a few other places as yet undetermined, and all of this will be great fun. My soul, however, does not reside in any of those places. Most of it must remain forever attached to the ruins of California. The balance resides in a secret Montana that tourists will never see.
I know of a little creek with an unfamiliar name, located far from the interstate. You will not find its name on a map or in the governor’s letter to potential visitors. It is not red, yellow or blue ribbon, or ribbon anything. I plan on taking my 4-year-old son, Paul, there this summer, to a particular little pool I like. If he manages to stay still long enough, I might hold him so he can watch the trout. Who knows what he’ll see? If the television he’s so fond of hasn’t already spoiled his imagination, something definitely in question, maybe the spirit of the Earth will liven for him, and he’ll glimpse his future.
This piece was written in 1993 and originally appeared in Esquire Sportsman magazine.