Vagaries of Experience

Editor’s Note: Troy Letherman is the best writer you’ve never heard of. His fly-fishing writing, which is limited in abundance, is absolutely kick-ass. Letherman “gets it” as an angler and his interpretation of a day on the water is no different than his consideration of any day in his life—in other words, Letherman is keenly aware that fish are no less and no more important than anything else. His keen observations, his sense of family, and his gift for language are our infrequent treat. We at Angler’s Tonic urge you to take the time to read this lengthy piece, more than once if you choose. There’s much to be gleaned here.

THE VAGARIES OF EXPERIENCE

By Troy Letherman

No one has ever confused me with one of those early-to-bed, early-to-rise assholes who have more pep than sense in the wee hours, but I will admit to more than the usual aplomb this morning. The sky is bright and clear and I’m coddled by expectations for a capital day. Cheery, even.

We’d pulled out of Hardin about an hour earlier, which means the cup of McDonald’s coffee I bought there, evidently brewed by special technique on the surface of the sun, can finally be swilled without fear of boiling the skin from the inside of my mouth. Now, standing in the gravel out front of Bighorn Fly & Tackle, I nudge a few loose stones with my toe, pull hard on a Camel, and generally attempt to look a lot more nonchalant than I feel. For the third time, I check to make sure I’ve grabbed the right fly box, that I didn’t miss any guides when stringing up my rod, that I’m in fact wearing waders and back in Montana again. I feel a little like I’m about to walk into a party hosted by an old girlfriend. Sure, we haven’t seen each other in a while, but that hardly means we can’t hook up one last time.

The ranch boy ripping them up on the Bighorn.

Normally, I would chafe against this sense of anticipation, at least when it comes to fly fishing. At worst, it leads to the kind of behavior made infamous by golfers and Little League dads. I’m not sure there is an at best. But today is different, even if I’m not fishing with a more humane outfit, Crack of Noon Charters of something of similar genius.

The river I can nearly see from where I stand is the Bighorn. My companion, currently negotiating for cooler space from our guide, is a great friend, even though he once tried to generate his own nickname, in this case Chugach. I’ve decided to run with it to save his altogether lovely wife the shame of having her husband outed as an unrepentant drunken poet and general enemy of mankind, which he clearly is. Still, and this probably says something about my own predilections, there’s little about the man or the morning I can take issue with. The sun is out, there’s some green to the hills, and rumor has it there’s water enough to keep a fish’s back completely covered. Plus, détente has been reached on the refrigeration front and Chugach is boating a cooler that lacks room for either sandwiches or ice.

Familiarity breeds contempt, they say (they most definitely being old girlfriends of mine), and in most cases they’re probably right. However, I’ve been away for a number of years, so I’m also hoping that a stretch of separation can make the familiar desirable, if not new, once again. In this I have little experience. Neither woman nor water has ever bored me, and I can’t cop to familiarity with the few things I do hold in contempt—irrigation boots and reality TV, seat belt laws and the writings of Henry David Thoreau. I just assume the Bighorn and I will reunite famously.

A solid Bighorn rainbow.

We don’t get off to a good start. In fact, by the time we put in at Three Mile, Chugach and I have been sufficiently reminded of an ancient fisherman’s adage. The river is buzzing with talk of an impromptu ant hatch the previous evening, a real monster by the sound of it, and apparently, as frequent a visitor as Halley’s Comet. It seems everyone has an ant-meets-trout story to tell, and most begin with an infuriating You should have been here yesterday. No one can control his own spit. As an aside, that’s what I think an exclamation looks like in spoken conversation, a fine mist spraying out behind sentences one could certainly have done without. Sometimes, of course, it hits you in the face.

To rub it in, the Bighorn’s celebrated trout aren’t rising for anything this morning. Not an Elk Hair Caddis, not a Parachute Adams, not one of the many flies named after guys who most assuredly did not invent them. At our first stop, then, we get out to wade and work double nymph rigs through a midstream riffle. Here I could launch into a disquisition on the exact size and type of pattern I chose and why, or on the algebra of a properly tapered leader, but that would only be more bullshit designed to hide the fact that I didn’t catch a damn thing, that in fact I spent most of my time unwinding a particularly heinous series of coils and associated knots that had become wrapped around the tip of my fly rod. Suffice to say, at this point of the morning, I’m too distracted to fish well, too interested in the cottonwoods that flank the ground behind us, too transfixed by a piquant blush of sage in the air, too tickled just to be here. I’m not certain as to Chugach’s excuse, but he didn’t touch a fish either. Prior to moving along, however, he did send out an opening salvo from the cooler: High Life for me, Rainier for the guide. Later he’ll claim this is a random operation, but I notice he pulls a PBR for himself. It’s the kind of information I file away. We fish together as much as we possibly can, Chugach and I, and though it’s never enough, we do pretty well for living a thousand miles apart.

He grew up in Alaska, where I now live, while I was born and raised in Montana, a state he has hardly left since he first traveled to Missoula for college. Basically, we’ve swapped residencies, and I think we’re both secretly jealous of the other for it. The Bighorn, maybe more than any other river in the world, gets at the heart of our natal juxtaposition. Undoubtedly, Chugach first knew the river as almost everyone knows it—one of Montana’s finest trout streams, a mild-mannered tailwater that remains surprisingly versatile as far as big-fish rivers go. In my absence, he’s put together quite the catalogue of stories from the area, and it’s been these tales, told with staccato zeal and annoying regularity, that have kept alive in me the urge to return. For, try as I might, I remember the river as something else entirely. Usually it was just a few broken pieces of blue glimpsed through the heat and the trees that ringed the alfalfa field. Other times it was an obstacle, already six hours in the saddle and left with two calves that refused the chance to cross with their mothers, mean old bitches now raising hell on the other side, at any moment a threat to swim back and seriously complicate things. I also remember the Bighorn as a deep, green-colored pool where my brothers and I would swim when we should have been building fence, or as a backdrop for a number of Friday nights, filled with cheap beer and Boone’s Farm, gullible girls and the inevitable fistfight. I’ve both pissed in this river and drank from it, and that’s the sort of thing that tends to knock the exotic from a destination.

This morning, Chugach obviously wants me to hook a good fish, sort of a ticker-tape acknowledgement of my return, like the Filipinos coming out to welcome MacArthur after he’d landed at Leyte. Conversely, I want to watch Chugach catch the archetypal Bighorn brown and therefore reap the host’s rewards for myself, which is simultaneously strange and selfish, I know, for by now he’s immensely more familiar with the river than I.

As is typically the case, it doesn’t matter what we want. We float along and let fate and our closely attended drifts take care of the decision. Passing between a high, ochre-colored bluff and a couple of Crow teenagers reclined on broken-down lawn chairs and watching the tips of their spinning rods, I flirt with the notion that it shouldn’t matter. Despite the soft sound of the oars dipping into the water and the cadence of the river itself, it seems silent, or at least perfectly still. Definitely not conditions that require fish for enjoyment. Then my main man’s reel begins to whine and from my spot at the stern, I watch as his line slices past, heading upstream.

Though I like the thought, I won’t pretend I left Montana only to see the other waters of the world. I began to visit them anyway, and now I can’t stop. But as far as the simplest acts go—tying on a fly, tossing it at some form of liquid target, and then retrieving it with fish attached—hardly anywhere else can compare. It’s unfortunate we only learn these lessons after we’ve left, though with luck we’ll be compensated with knowledge entirely more important. In just such a roundabout fashion I discovered that the solitary dreamer standing with her longboard on Oahu’s North Shore has much in common with the skippers braving the seascape of the North Pacific for a winter haul of crab. They’re not really after the obvious, a big wave or a fat check; in fact, I’d say they’ve traveled to these far away places in search of something that they already possess.

Whenever I attempt to articulate this to some of the more civic-minded citizens I bump into, I usually hear something to the effect that we fishermen take this thing we do a little too seriously. Like a nine-to-five with dental and a pension plan means fuck-all when everything’s said and done. Besides, who’s to say purification at the hands of a shaman and wading to a first steelhead aren’t closer cousins than we might initially grant? For me at least, the line’s always been blurred.

In the early years, my grandparents would show up every June and whisk me off into their much more arcadian world, where I imagined my life to be very similar to the literary existence of the brothers Maclean, only without the religion. First I was taught to skip stones and then I was expected to keep myself occupied on the beach. I must have showed some aptitude, for I was soon squatting next to my very own fishing pole, hoping I could get the bobber to dip out of sight by force of will alone. Then one day I found myself in an out-building behind their home, and though I quite doubt I was headed off to be an astronaut or a classical pianist or anything else remotely responsible, nothing since has really been the same.

There were actually two sheds back there. One held our family investment in leather—saddles and bridles and several pairs of chaps—and thus, a romanticism completely different from that prompted by the second, my grandfather’s tackle room. Inside were all manner of rods and reels, enough tackle and fly boxes to stock an army of anglers, and a few wicker creels that smelled sourly and held an odd scale or two, dried fast to the inside. There was even some scuba gear and a spear gun for those rare summer outings to Fort Peck. Letting me in there was like handing a pyromaniac a blowtorch on the Fourth of July. For the next few years we fished together all over the place. I learned a bit about bugs from Grandpa during weeklong forays into the park, where the cutthroat proved as eager and as inexperienced as I. At my grandmother’s side on the big river near Livingston, I was taught to handle myself in heavy current and how to ignore the wind. Later, on the days they couldn’t come with, I was turned loose to practice anywhere I pleased. Maybe I’m suffering from what García Márquez called the “charitable deceptions of nostalgia,” but I swear I remember those summer mornings now: crisp and cool, a heavy dew on the pasture grass, Don Williams playing on the radio in Grandma’s kitchen, where bacon and eggs and burnt toast were the standard fare. After breakfast, I’d gather up a sack of cookies and sandwiches and set out, only my short legs limiting how far I might go.

During these summers there was but a single task to interfere with my fishing, minding the worm farm staked out for me in a corner of my grandmother’s garden. The worms I’d regularly pack in Styrofoam containers to sell to the country store near Cooney Dam, a contract she’d arranged. Like a jackass, I became a teenager one day and lost all this. My grandfather’s manners suddenly seemed boorish and I’d wince every time he referred to a waitress as “hon,” already knowing he didn’t mean an Asian nomad under Attila’s command. Their car, a ’68 Caddy with the fuel efficiency of an F-15 Strike Eagle and a relatively similar weight-to-thrust ratio, was simply embarrassing. I don’t even want to talk about the antique one-ton they’d managed to coax into another decade of service, the one with the hood tied down by bailing twine. Such a cliché.

I left my grandparents a little at a time, and then left Montana in a single shot. The worm farm went to the weeds, and I awoke one morning half a world away to learn we had lost Grandma to a heart attack. There was an unopened package of cookies she’d sent lying alongside my bed. Next to a fly rod, of all things. From the bonefish flats of the Bahamas to the wide-open tundra rivers of the Last Frontier, I’m still trying to make my way back. It’s been hours now and I’ve seen much of the ten miles that make up the Three-to-B float. I still can’t get a decent brown, and just as troubling, I’ve yet to pop the top on a Pabst. We round a bend and slide into a slot where the main channel funnels between a steep, rocky bluff and a small island. Chugach hooks into a good one and we beach the boat on the island to let him fight it. He’s been on a tear and is probably in danger of developing tennis elbow from hauling in so many fish. I can’t bear to watch another.

There’s a narrow strip of pea gravel that runs the length of the island, sandwiched between the water’s edge and a wall of Russian thistle. I walk downstream from the boat, knowing it’s fruitless. The river is screaming through the channel and there’s no way I’ll be able to get a fly down. I roll out a cast anyway and see my nymph swirling pathetically just beneath the surface. Then a boil as a trout rolls on the fly and in my mind hangs a snapshot of a broad golden flank. The line tightens for an instant and goes slack just as quickly. I don’t even have the strength for profanity. Karma being what it is, Chugach sees and starts towards me, snapping out a cast on his way. He drills another solid fish. While he fights this one, he lectures on the finer points of a drag-free drift. Returning to the boat, he again manages a PBR for himself and a Miller for me.

A little downriver we come to a spot our guide has been looking forward to all day, a sandy beach where a slough-like side channel and the main river come together to form a holding pool flanked by a seriously tempting seam. We can’t get out of the boat to fish it fast enough. Just as our flies first hit the water, though, we notice another boat drifting towards us. It’s been a relatively peaceful day on the river, the fabled Bighorn Armada mostly absent. We hold our flies to let the boat pass and are stunned when it doesn’t. Instead, the middle-aged man at the oars pulls up on the bank just across from us, and he and what must be his teenaged son step out, strip off some line, and begin to cast. No one speaks or smiles, though I think Chugach may have loudly snorted once or twice. I’m facing the father, separated by a distance roughly equivalent to the length of my grandparents’ old Cadillac. At best our drifts are missing each other by a few feet. If you’ve ever had this happen, you already know what the man looks like. Certainly he’s never turned up for dinner proudly toting his wine in a box. I feel sorry for his son and the lessons in anti-etiquette that he’s receiving, as this kind of conduct can get you killed, or at least severely beaten in some areas of the world. But then the little shit hooks a rainbow that puts on some impressive acrobatics right in front of my face. I contemplate seppuku for a moment before reeling in and sounding the retreat.

For the most part, I think fly fishermen are good people, plus one or two guys who like to write books about knots. However, at times like these I think of grabbing a toboggan and heading for that slippery slope of misanthropy that often leads to prison or a one-room cabin up in the hills. Walking back to the boat is probably the better idea.

From my new vantage—on top of the cooler—I watch as the elder of the hole-snatching duo works his way towards Chugach. It’s like seeing two planets collide. Half-crazed and completely drunk by now, Chugach is having none of it. He digs in and starts tossing an obscenely weighted fly at the man’s feet. He’s ignored, which only serves to ratchet up his form of protest. Violence appears to be a real possibility. Thankfully, our guide intervenes and shepherds him back to the boat, where we decide to move on rather than soil another second of our day.

Not a half-mile away, I drop a streamer snug with a grassy cutbank and my line goes taut. Finally, I’m into something big. It pulls even and heavy, kind of sulking at the bottom of the deepest trough like Alaska’s chum salmon are prone to do. I think it’s a brown, of course, just lazy enough to be really big. Eventually, I gain some ground and the fish flashes near the surface. Our guide sees silver and decides it must be a rainbow. I’m amenable either way. Once it hits the net, I exhale and approach with that certain mix of relief and anticipation that attends the catching of a trophy fish. The son of a Montana cattle rancher, I should know better. Drought, forty below, a bottomless beef market—here I am still hoping. And in the net? The biggest goddamn whitefish I’ve ever even heard of.

At least I’ve learned to hide my disappointment well. Chugach, on the other hand, is thrilled and demands a series of photographs. It doesn’t arise in conversation, but he’s as likely to turn up with nude pictures of Halle Berry. The fish, like Crazy Horse, escapes into history without being molested by the spirit-capturing machine.

This story ends well, though. On the way out I did pick up three or four nice rainbows while slinging a Conehead Bugger about the size of a hummingbird until neither Chugach nor our guide could tolerate having that thing zipping around their heads in the dark. It felt like skill but I knew it wasn’t. I guess you could also say I felt like I was due, but thanks to Father Decorum and his son, I remembered there really is no such thing.

Somewhere in a box at my aunt’s house there’s a photo of my grandma and I standing on the banks of the Yellowstone. She’s holding my shoulders and I’m clutching a gorgeous trout. It’s surely the first big fish of my life, and we’re both wearing smiles that appropriately stretch the limits of happiness. The thing is: I don’t remember anything about that fish. I’m just happy that I was there, with my grandmother, sharing something we both loved. Try as I might, I’m pretty sure there’s no returning. But with a little perspective, I can also see there’s no reason to. I can find that feeling, and in some ways, her, in the experiences still to come. Like now, finishing out a float in utter darkness, whipped by the sun and the early start, one good whitey to my credit.

Ants my ass, I think. You should have been here today.

Chugach, finally, is holding a Rainier.

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