Big Hole Journal

I am the meal ticket for 10,000,000 starving mosquitoes.

My rental cabin in Southwestern Montana, “on the banks of the magnificent, pristine Big Hole River,” sits on a former cattle ranch. Cattle ranches, as it turns out, have a lot of standing water, and I’m sure there was a nice balance, a real circle of life, when cattle were drinking the water and the mosquitoes were biting the shit out of the cattle. Cows are pretty implacable – that’s one of the qualities that make them sacred to Hindus – so they must have figured, hey, these mosquitoes are biting the shit out of me, but at least I’m not keeled over dehydrated. Small price to pay.

The cattle are gone now, and I lack their generous view of life. Whenever I drive onto the ranch, the mosquitoes cling to my Jeep, awaiting my emergence, like an angry, sleep-deprived spouse, saying, Where the fuck have you been. Do you know what time it is?

Mosquitoes are here to remind us that our place at the top of the food chain is tenuous at best. Anyone who has been feasted on repeatedly by a mosquito trapped in their bedroom knows this. Tangle with the wrong mosquito and it’s West Nile or malaria or worse. And the little fuckers are sweet on me, always have been. I slather on the Deep Woods Off and they swarm around til they find the one exposed part and dig in. I have mosquito bites on my thumbs, my thumbs, for chrissakes. You think that itches much?

But I digress. Or do I? What’s this journal about: what the trout are eating, or what’s eating me? It remains to be seen.

Day One
As Lao Tsu once said, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with brunch. I’m paraphrasing. And so after some trucker-worthy carbo-loading (fried chicken atop a waffle, no kidding), I embark. The 715-mile sojourn is punctuated mainly by my trolling the lower part of the radio dial to keep NPR in range whilst Billy Ray, Sean Hannity, and The Coming Armageddon (the three are largely interchangeable) occupy the remaining bandwidth. Following a hand-drawn map, I arrive at the gates of my ranch property to find a barbed-wire hoop enclosing the gates with a note bearing my name attached. Never a good sign.

Turns out that the good doctor that owns the place (identified as such in the note, presumably, in case I arrive with a medical emergency that extends beyond my need for sleep, or more likely, so that I will give his dickishness a free pass owing to his contribution to society) has decided, unexpectedly, to extend his stay another night, and accommodations have been thoughtfully provided for me, prepaid, at the “Kings Motel” back in town.

At the Kings Motel, the proprietress, bathrobed and towel-headed, with a reclinered, grunting husband in the background, directs me to single-wide trailer subdivided into two units, one of which is mine. Setting aside the modern miracles of aluminum and fiberboard that form my shelter, I seem to have stepped back in time to a 19th-century boarding house, replete with posted House Rules that include, yes, taking my boots off, and an admonition not to clean fish in the sink, as the guts tend to clog the septic. I have arrived in Troutland.

Day Two
I am on the banks of the Big Hole, about to be humbled in the way that only “blue ribbon” or “world-class” trout fisheries can do. These designations, as best I can tell, have no official meaning, but I’ve come to understand them to mean a) the trout are big, oh yes, they’re big, and b) they’re smarter than you. It’s basically an invitation to spend 30 years flogging these waters in order to become an old fart who can hold forth at tedious length about what a tough fucking river it is and not to be trifled with by the likes of me. In my experience, many men have accepted this invitation.

I’ve chosen the Big Hole not because of its Legendary Status (at least 7 rivers within 50 miles of here hold the same) or because of the many easy double entendres afforded by its name, but because it was and is the only major fishery in Montana judged to be fishable by this date, i.e., the only river not completely blown out by snowmelt in a year that saw 3x record snowfall across the West (thank you, La Nina). My fishing dates are, as is so often the case, not determined by fishing conditions but rather by domestic conditions, namely the imminent arrival of my mother-in-law, in my house, for a week. So here I am.

Nevertheless by virtue of the online fishing reports I have obsessively followed in the weeks leading up to this trip, by which I narrowed my 30-some-odd rental inquiries down to this one, I have become convinced that the Big Hole will be in superb shape, that my timing could not be better. Let me just say for the record that if any fishing guides out there have a hankering to take a downscale career path and become an ad copywriter, I am holding a job open for you. You are the True Masters of Spin. The online fishing report that I have, for no good reason, chosen to put my faith in, describes the Big Hole as being in its typical “fantastic, tea-colored shape.” Yes. “Tea-colored,” of course, refers to the condition of mud in the river, a condition generally not thought to be conducive to trout-fishing, but which I have accepted as optimal in the manner of a Jonestown resident drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid.

This time of year, fishing in the Big Hole, as well as the other area fisheries, is universally agreed to be a streamer kind of deal, at least if you want to catch the “pigs.” A word on the pigs: unlike Oregon fisheries, which are simply managed for the health of the species, i.e., we want the rainbows in this river to survive, trout in Montana are managed for their trophy status, i.e., let’s allow enough takes in this river so that we get some really big three-year-old trout. You reduce the competition among trout, and you end up with fewer fish that are nevertheless Really Damn Big.

So you get down to the Solomonesque question of Quality vs. Quantity, and on that question fly fishermen are divided. I once spent a gin-soaked evening with a highly experienced fly fisherman from Traverse City, MI, who insisted that as one progressed along one’s trajectory (or in my case, flatline) as a fly fisherman, that size would increasingly begin to matter. I hold with the view that while there is nothing quite like landing a fat trout that managed to evade all capture until you came along, nevertheless The Tug Is The Drug, i.e., you’ve got to be hooking up on a semi-consistent basis to make the experience worthwhile. And it is there that the Big Hole and I begin to diverge.

Fly-fishing is replete with snobbery, and so I am surprised to find that no one has really gotten themselves worked into a good lather about what is inherently un-flyfishingesque about streamer fishing. I understood fly-fishing to be all about learning to “match the hatch,” i.e., to figure out what aquatic insects at what stage of development trout are feeding on at a given moment. This forensic skill has great appeal. Trout exist in a delicate equilibrium in which they must feed almost constantly in order to survive, and yet they must not exceed the amount of energy expended in feeding by the amount of protein gained. You decode the Equilibrium in a given situation – where the trout is sitting to preserve energy, and what he’s eating to gain energy – and you will catch the trout. It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

With streamer fishing, you’re not trying to match a hatch at all. You’re instead chucking (the term “casting” doesn’t really apply) huge furry flies that vaguely imitate bait-fish that trout may or may not be feeding on. Unlike traditional fly-fishing, which emphasizes the “natural” presentation of aquatic insects tossed around by the vagaries of the current, you try to swim your streamers against the current the way a hardy little minnow would. There’s nothing to match, really, because you can’t stand in a river and tell what kind of bait-fish are being fed on. You just have to chuck these various finger-puppet-looking things out there and see what happens.

At this point, I believe the line between us and bait fisherman, generally despised as a pack of PBR-chugging, PowerBait-casting, slack-jawed yokels, begins to blur. Is there really an artful difference between a bass spooner and a trout fly that has friggin’ plastic eyeballs glued to it? But this is what the Big Hole pigs want, so here I am with a fly box of mini-muppets with names like Zonker, Ugly Bug, and Egg-Sucking Leech.

This is all part of my Montana trout-fishing reeducation. In Oregon I fish for rainbows and cutts, which get most of their food intake from aquatic insects. In the Big Hole, brown trout rule, and a brown trout over 16 inches will get 95% of his food intake from bait-fish. He doesn’t have any choice about it: at that size, if he spent his days lunging at surface hatches, he’d throw off his equilibrium and quickly waste away and die. And so I’m chucking muppets.

On this, my first day, I fish this river hard, throwing every muppet in the box into the Nestea riffles and eddies, and I come up cold. Skunked by the Big Hole. No worries, though, because my Montana plan includes a back-up, or rather, two-back ups: two tiny sloughs wending through the property, loaded with fat brown trout, perfect for stalk-and-cast fishing. I gear up in the late afternoon, standing on the mosquito-infested banks of this pretty little slough on my 300-acre private ranch, when a guy putters up on one of those golf-cart-looking farm ATVs that everyone out here seems to own.

We eye each other warily, each giving the other “What are you doing here?” hairy eyeball. Fly-fishing offers so many of these encounters – accidental intrusions on hot fishing spots, private property, etc. – that it’s a well-practiced ritual. He’s wearing a fly-fishing shirt and has the distinctively ruddy, well-fed look of a Man of Property. Not good.

Sure enough, he’s the man of the property I’m standing on. The sloughs are his. I show him the map I’ve been given, which clearly shows a thick black property line that encompasses the sloughs. He claims the map is outdated by three years, that’s he’s bought up everything but the narrow sliver my cabin sits on.

But being lord of all he surveys has made him generous with his bounty. He insists I fish his sloughs. Insistent enough to stand over me while I do it (a condition Hemingway once compared to being watched while having sex), offering tips on what to tie on, where the lunkers are holding. A nice enough guy, I admit, but this is not what I signed up for, solitude-wise. I’ve already had more conversations in the last 24 hours than I was planning to have all week. Spotting a rise, I tie on a dry fly with a nymph dropper. He tells me I’m wasting my time. I immediately hook up with a beautiful 14-inch brown. Having officially wiped the skunk off myself and reasserted my manhood despite my shrunken property rights, I retire for the evening.

Day Three
I wake up too late to hit the river before a 9:30am conference call I have to cover. So I kill time before the call reading up on streamer techniques from the library of fly-fishing books I packed and perusing the mountain of Montana literature that came with the cabin. If I didn’t already know the cabin’s owner was a doctor, I could have deduced it from his epic-length orientation to the cabin and its environs: it’s nothing but warnings and admonitions about everything from diseases spread by mice to the perils of hot-tubbing while drunk, all of it with encyclopedic statistical support. I go right to the section on rattlesnakes, since I’m convinced I’m due for a deadly snake encounter. It helpfully explains that the Lewis & Clark expedition, which ventured right up this river, found the sandstone cliffs on the far bank loaded with rattlesnakes. Always nice to add some historical context to my phobias.

I am reading about the Big Hole browns in a Montana Fish & Wildlife Department pamphlet I found in the cabin when suddenly I become convinced I’ve Cracked the Code. I blather my way through the conference call, then hit the river, eager to test my theory.

My theory is based on the presence of whitefish in this section of river, and while I’ve never actually seen a whitefish fry, I assume they are a lot like adult whitefish in being basically, well, a white fish. Yesterday I had thrown only black and olive streamers based on the advice of pretty much everyone. This time I tie on a Zonker, one of the ugliest flies ever devised, which looks like a mouse carcass and casts like one too. (Most commercial flies are made in Taiwan, and whether real rodent fur is involved in the making of the Zonker is something I prefer not to contemplate.)
I have right in front of my cabin a nice back-eddy that extends about 6 feet out and 30 yards in length. It’s exactly the sort of place where big trout would hold when the river is high. The outer edge of the eddy is the foam line, friend to the fly fisherman, as the foam represents the kind of churn that delivers food to the trout. In short, the foam line is the food line.

The streamer technique in question is simple: you cast into the foam line, let your fly get sucked down, then the instant it crosses the foam line into the eddy, you pull up your rod tip to simulate a bait-fish scooting against the current. If you don’t get a taker, move 5 yards up, rinse and repeat.

On my second swing I get the mother of all takes. I’m in for a ride. Unlike rainbows, which take to the air, the brown trout stays deep as long as possible, darting off in long runs and literally thrashing at the line as he goes. When I finally land him, he’s the biggest by far I’ve ever taken on a fly. The Zonker is utterly destroyed.

But now that I think I’ve cracked the code, I’m set to be humbled again. The damndest thing about the Big Hole is that you can’t seem to make lightning strike twice. Over the course of the day, I do manage to take two more – no rivals in size – using the Zonker’s less garish but similarly patterned cousin, the Muddler Minnow. But it’s clear I’m going to have to work hard for every fish, regardless of size – no bonanzas here.

I’m driven to bed early by my unrelenting allergy to cottonwood, virtually the only tree that grows in this valley. From my childhood in Illinois I tend to think of cottonwood as a weed among trees, sprouting up along riverbanks the way grass grows in cracks in the sidewalk. Its annual procreative blitzkrieg, in which it releases flurries of airborne seeds, gives me fits for days. Here it’s doubly cruel, as I keep mistaking its drifting wisps of cotton for a mayfly hatch.

Day Four
I awoke convinced that today would be Salmonfly Day. The annual salmonfly hatch on the Big Hole is the subject of anticipation that borders on messianic, with about the same level of accuracy. The salmonfly is a chunk of protein juicy enough to rouse the fattest of trout from the depths for a little surface supping, providing a rare dry-fly opportunity for the well-timed angler. The fishing reports in the days leading up to my arrival were full of salmonfly sightings, and I had one of my own this morning, as freighted with meaning as a dove with an olive branch: as I was crossing a small channel into the Big Hole, a red-winged blackbird directly overhead chased down and chomped down a hapless newborn salmonfly. This is what it means, I thought, to be at the bottom of the food chain: fish, fowl, and mammal all eagerly await your birth so you can be devoured seconds later. I’ll try to work that into some kind of catharsis when I get back to my advertising job, i.e., at least I wasn’t eaten at birth.

I am still hooking up every couple hours but it is hard, harder than I feel like it should be, so in the afternoon I throw myself on the mercy of the local fly shop back in Twin Rivers. A luckless fisherman is fresh meat for a fly shop to ply their locally tied flies, the secret weapons missing from his fly wallet when he naively tried to ply his out-of-state ways on these local waters. In the fly shop, success has many fathers, all of them in the two-to-three-dollar range.

But surprisingly it doesn’t go that way. I tell my hard-luck story to the young guy minding the store, and he acknowledges that the Big Hole is “fishin’ kinda hard” while steering me to all the flies I’ve already been flinging. I have mixed feelings about this: glad to know I’m in the zone, disappointed I won’t walk out with a magic bullet (I do still manage to blow thirty bucks on flies). I ask him to point me to a mountain lake, which I consider a required box to check for the full Montana fishing experience – plus it’ll get me away from the heat and cottonwood for a few hours.

I never make it to the lake. It’s at about 6,000 feet, and at two miles out, the snowdrifts on the steep dirt road leading up there are too much even for the Jeep, or maybe just too much for me as the Jeep’s driver. The trip is not a total loss though: I pay a visit to the long-abandoned Smuggler Mine, a collection of crumbling log cabins clutching the side of the mountain at about 4,000 feet. The mine tapped a vein of gold and silver from 1897 to 1934 (I learn all this later through a Google search), but the holes it dug in the mountain are now, I’m disappointed to discover, all mortared up. (It’s also a bit of a let-down to learn that the mine didn’t live up to the romanticism of its name. This wasn’t a mine manned by smugglers – which I suppose would fail pretty quickly, with everyone pocketing the ore – but a mine owned by the Smuggler family. Damn.) Still it is eerie and cool in its immediacy of purpose, the sense you get of something ambitiously started and suddenly stopped, the equipment still rusting in the weeds from the day the camp was abandoned.

I’m struck by how such a piece of history exists so indifferently, on a dirt road deep in the mountains, a road on which I have passed not another living soul. That’s how rural a place this is. In Oregon, where the entire population takes to the wilderness every weekend, a place like this would have a visitor’s center with a multimedia slide show and a pack of aging docents, all of them volunteers, regaling eye-rolling tweenies and their parents with tales of the days of yore, when the Smuggler Mine thrived. I think I like this better.

Day Five
Still fishing hard. I hook up with a trout (small) and a whitefish (even smaller) before deciding that I had better make this trip about something besides fishing lest I go home more agitated than when I left. So I light out for the next valley over, intent on finding some good mountain biking trails, and I just happen to wind up in Ennis, fly fishing capital of the known world, home of the famous Madison River, and of course I have to at least wet a line, just so I can say I did. At the moment, the Madison looks like chocolate milk and fishes like it too. But it’s in my guide of “50 Places to Fly Fish Before You Die,” and I’m not dead, so here I am.

An old bone out for a riverside stroll with his wife spies my Oregon plates and calls out, a little sadistically, “Bet you’re disappointed you came all this way!” I inform him that I am not the least bit disappointed, that I’m holed up on the Big Hole, really just slumming it over here on the Madison, and the BH is fishing beautifully.

But he’s right, I am disappointed, and so I pack up the rod and head up the legendary Bear Trap Canyon section of the Madison, a spectacular wilderness area of rocky bluffs and sagebrush, and, I’m told, rattlesnakes. I weigh whether my knobby bike tires could take out a rattler if it came down to it. I believe they could. I bike the canyon trail just long enough that I can justifiably say I did more than fish while here. Admittedly I did spot an evening mayfly hatch on my ride back and hit it (to no avail).

On my way back to Twin Bridges, in the failing light, I stop to, yes, wet a line in a picturesque series of roadside ponds in a garnet quarry (Garnets are from Montana; who knew?). A couple of locals are spinner-fishing the spot; they give me a beer and commiserate on river conditions. Montanans are nice, I decide. I could get used to this.

I’m also starting to understand why Montana is so reliably a Red State. In a state with the fourth-largest land mass but one of the smallest populations, Nature is in charge, and Nature is, of course, a Republican – red in tooth and claw. Nature says, Hm, that’s all very interesting, thanks for your perspective, now let’s do it my way. Having Nature in charge of your state, in all its brutal efficiency, gives you a certain respect for power.

Day Six
Last day on the river and, appropriately enough, I get skunked. I had decided to hit the river relentlessly, throwing everything in my fly box untiI I crack the code. I toss flies for 6 hours straight, with nothing more than the occasional gravel bump to raise my pulse by a flicker. My right hand has gone numb from repetitive motion. I’m beaten. I slump back to the cabin as evening storm clouds gather over the Tobacco Root range to the West, fix myself a consolation G&T, and fall asleep until dark.

Sitting here listening to the river in the dark, with no daylight hours on the water left to me, I wonder if I’ve missed something here. Before I took up fly fishing, I lied to myself and others about my great love of the outdoors, because the truth of the matter it just didn’t signify for me. A beautiful view doesn’t sustain me for long, nor does it stay with me for much longer. But fly fishing engages me – it puts me in the water, in the middle of the food chain, attentive to the river’s hydromechanics, its temperature, its temperament, its flow, the wind’s strength and direction, the endless birth and death cycle of insects, the behavior of trout, the position of the sun, and on and on and on.

But the downside is that it threatens to turn the river into just another problem to solve. I came here to rest my mind – to temper its tendency to coil around a problem and squeeze it – through the mindless motion of an open-loop wet-fly swing. Fly-casting does have that power. But somewhere along the way I have lost my Zen. I wanted everything to be perfect. By needing the river to signify, I missed its significance, lost my Equilibrium, and used more energy than I got back. May I not waste away like a trout entranced by the surface world.

But as in all the old stories, it’s good to go home chastened. It grounds you. It reminds me that taking a feisty 8-inch cutthroat on a dry fly in a tiny mountain stream 40 miles from my home may indeed be as good as it gets, and that’s good enough. Montana can keep its big browns. I am a fly fisherman.

One thought on “Big Hole Journal

  1. What a great piece of writing. I felt like I was there, and I could definitely relate to the descriptions of the West, its down-to-earth inhabitants, their no-frills conservatism, and its grandeur that can humble a person and reduce their sense of being to a small player in the the larger plane of being. And I learned something about fly-fishing…and that I don’t think I’ll ever give it a try. Awesome, Eric, just awesome.

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