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Fall 2006, Volume 23.1

Essay

 

Ruth Ann DandreaPhoto of Ruth Ann Dandrea.

Gift Giving


Ruth Ann Dandrea is a high school English teacher in the Adirondack foothills of New York State. Her essays and short stories have appeared in Blueline, Buffalo Spree, and the Boston Review. She was a recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award in 1990.

 

"Come to Montana," my friend said. "We’ll go fishing."

A few days floating on the Big Horn River near Custer’s battlefield sounded like just the place for me, awash as I was in the drudgery of detail that accompanies the aftermath of an ended marriage. I’d made a few last stands of my own in recent years and was still favoring some tender edges, feeling a little jagged.

I left a rainy upstate New York summer in the middle of a Friday night and landed in the Saturday sunshine of the high desert in Billings, Montana. Sagebrush and Russian olive and cottonwoods. It looks like every Georgia O’Keeffe painting of the West you’ve ever seen. My friend picked me up at the airport and we drove off to Fort Smith in the Crow Indian Reservation. Fort Smith consists of a post office, a small grocery store, and three fly shops. The one at which we are staying, The Big Horn Fly and Tackle, has been run since 1983 by Duane and Diane Schriener. The rooms are comfortable; Diane’s dinners delicious. A trout décor permeates from comforters to curtains to china. Duane’s friendly good cheer provides the best way to start and end days on the river. The camaraderie of the others fishing the river is a pleasant plus (like Diane’s chocolate cherry cake dessert).

My friend, Jim Shouey, is a guide for Eaton Outfitters, an organization run by his daughter, Julie Eaton. Jim is the quintessential teacher: a former high school science educator whose students learned not only biology, but also respect for the earth and the capacity to value its offerings. (In the spring when the smelt were running, Jim and his students made midnight smelting expeditions. Lab consisted, after an investigation of the small fish’s filament and functions, of frying up the catch and serving it to the other teachers.) In those days Jim moved mysteriously between worlds, in one wearing his white lab coat and heating his coffee on a Bunsen burner, in the other donning his hat and vest and captaining a trout fishing boat with downriggers and fishfinders on Lake Ontario. But those were earlier times. Now he spends 160 days a year on the water, rowing his MacKenzie driftboat, guiding clients on the Madison, Beaverhead, Big Hole, Yellowstone, Gallatin and Ruby Rivers. What remains, what connects the two lives, is Jim’s unquenchable passion for beauty, knowledge and joy.

We head to the river as soon as we are settled and my license is purchased. We put in below the Yellowtail Dam, planning to get a headstart on tomorrow’s lesson. The driftboat is launched; Miles, Jim’s new four-month-old wire-haired pointing griffon is leashed to the back seat; I am stationed in the front with a fly rod in my hands; Jim rows. The drift boat looks like a wide row boat, pointed at both ends. Clients fish from either end on swivel seats or standing, propped by leg braces. The guide rows upstream slowing the boat’s downstream drift. It is not as easy as it looks, a fact I will discover firsthand later in the week. This river, I am told, is the "Disneyland of Trout Fishing." But it will be tomorrow before I understand exactly what that means. For today, I pull from the sparkling emerald waters my first fish, or fishling. Jim insists on a picture. It is, he assures me, the very smallest trout he’s ever seen taken from the Big Horn. A half a day in Montana and I am already breaking records.

 

It means something, I think, that a person who spends his time guiding others’ fishing trips hires a guide for his own, ours. It says something about the profession, its respect for itself. Our guide on my first full day of fly fishing is Bob Turner. Bob will always be, for me, the best Big Horn River guide. There were other drift boats on the Big Horn that Sunday, rowed by other guides who were skilled and knowledgeable, but I can’t imagine that any of them had as much fun as we did or caught as many or as big trout.

The first thing you need to know, if you’re fishing with Bob, is that you will wear waders. There seems an unspoken principle at Bob’s base: if you hope to take trout out of these waters, you must enter them wholeheartedly and whole bodily. The water temperature of the Big Horn this morning is 52 degrees. Water weight, outside waders, if you didn’t know, creates in them a vacuum. They suck in and stick to your legs like the arms of a thousand crying kids. Walking on water is divine; walking in water is difficult. Downstream lifts you, lures you, but the fish are always upstream, at the top of the run. So up we trudge, Bob with rocks in his boots.

Bob will, over the course of the day, teach me many lessons in casting. (Do you remember the scene in "Out of Africa" when Karen Blixen is on safari with Denys Finch-Hatton and the car stalls? He fiddles with the engine while a herd of distracted wildebeast watch, then hops in the driver’s seat, and Blixen is told to turn the crank—again, again, again, once more. The look on Meryl Streep’s face is the one you will acquire when you’re learning to cast. "Again, again, again, once more.")

"You’re still bending your wrist on your back cast," Bob will inform you. By now, your arm, like overcooked spaghetti, is so loose you can’t tell your wrist from your elbow from your shoulder. But your guide has the solution. (Your guide always has a solution.) He ferrets around in his boat, pulls from a tackle box an eight inch length of rope with which he ties the end of the rod to your wrist—tightly. "Now do it right."

And you do. As you cast in the waters below Red Cliffs, the green fuzz of the polypropylene strike indicator, which is tied to your line and floated with silicon above the two nymphs, orange scuds, which resemble fresh water shrimp, suddenly vanishes under clear water. Your rod arcs, your line quivers, shedding rainbows of raindrops. "Rod up!" calls Bob. "Rod up!" He is his own perpetual echo. "Don’t let that rod drop below vertical." Bob clomps toward you in the water forcing the rod’s tip to the blue, blue sky. You hang on with two hands. How will you ever reel in this fighting fish?

But eventually the line tension lessens. Bob has directed you downstream. Bob has tugged you by the straps of your waders to shallower waters. Bob has loosened his net from his belt and awaits while you let go of the rod with your left hand, lodge it against your tummy and turn the handle of the reel, turning toward the fish, away from you. If this doesn’t make sense, I’m sorry, and I understand. But you always tighten the line by winding away. (After you have landed the biggest rainbow trout of most people’s lives, Bob will amble back, querulous, and wonder, "Why did you wind it the other way?" He will give you as absurd a gaze as if he were asking, why did you lick that cactus? Trust me. You won’t have an answer. But you will stare at that reel in earnest before you venture to wind it backwards again.)

Trout on the Big Horn are about battle. For awhile you feel you have the advantage, but then the giant rainbow or brown gets his second wind and off he lurches, lengths of line whirring out behind him, lengths of line you’ve just strenuously and painstakingly recovered, remembering as you did it every word of The Old Man and the Sea. This happens once, twice, three times, or four—there are no time limits on the river, and no time outs. As long as the fish stays hooked and you stay alert, you maintain your connection with something wild. It is when you run out of line to reel in or the fish runs out of water to race through that your guide can swoop him into the net.

You may be thinking this is your fish. But you’ll be wrong. Almost everyone I’ve talked to since my return has asked me did I eat my trout, bring one home? No one on the Big Horn entertains these questions. I wouldn’t have dreamed asking them. You know when you are here, this is sport fishing. Ninety-nine per cent of the take on the Big Horn, I am told, is catch and release. It is clear the guides would like to make this be one hundred percent, or stay off the water. This river is a sublime and noble place. Trout are treated gently here, hooks removed with finesse. (You’ll notice the guide always undertakes this delicate surgery, never entrusts it to an amateur.) You may get to hold your catch, for a moment, for a picture; you may get to feel the life force thrusting through the luminescent scales, the bright red stripes, the multitudinous spots. Color is the difference, the guides concur, between wild trout, born and bred in the river, and the generic hatchery fish with which other streams are stocked. Wild trout sport more natural colors because of their more natural foods. Why they are also smarter is anybody’s guess. But you believe in it all, color, wildness and wiliness while you hold in your open palms the river’s life force for a fleeting second. Paul Quinnett, in his book Pavlov’s Trout, maintains: "we all need wildness—deep in our souls, but also at our fingertips…. On those days when we feel gang hooked ourselves…we need to call upon our wildness to struggle or break away, to right ourselves." With fish slime on my fingers, I’m inclined to agree.

Then the guide will release the fish, return him to the waters that gave him. If the fish has been too long out of water, or too much traumatized, the guide will cradle him between wind-worn palms, rocking him gently under the surface, moving him slowly through the rushing current, allowing the fresh water to run over his gills, reviving him. Everyone watches when a released trout slips away, into the shadows. In answer to the unasked question why, Bob quotes fellow guide, Ed Hill—"You can’t catch a dead fish." The Big Horn gives its gifts freely and profusely, but those gifts must be honored. Respect and reciprocation.

 

"It’s impressive how worn this grip is," Bob notes as he readies Jim’s fishing rod. The "lessons" change now, turn into conversation between equals. I relax, entranced by the scenery and sunshine, munching the lunch provided by the guide service, and entertain the puppy, while Jim fishes. These men share a vernacular I lack but am intrigued by. They note "a rise." Jim will be instructed to cast toward the "riffle," beyond the "shelf," or to put it "right in the seam." He will be asked if he sees the big one lurking in the "frog water."

The guides do what fellow practitioners of any profession do when they get together: they "talk shop." Only here that means discussing the three year drought that’s lowered the water levels, commiserating about cranky clients (two out of eighty, I am told—who can gripe with a two foot brown trout in his grasp?), and contemplating aloud their successes and failures: Bob had a client yesterday who landed a 26", 7 # fish, and another one during the previous week who crumpled up a pop can and tossed it into the water. I can’t stay quiet when I hear this. What did you do? I ask. "I handed him the net," Bob says laconically, "and told him either he fished the can out of the river, or when we got back to the parking lot, I was going to vandalize his car." We believe him. We all believe him.

There are other concerns for the guides: people on the river who thoughtlessly fish the many trout spawning beds; the influx of giant whitefish and brown pelicans, each a threat, in its own way; the cormorants. But mostly there is an overriding contentment with their chosen lot. Jim remembers his teaching days, noting that never once did he dread going in to work, and it’s clear he’s carried the same attitude to his new place and position. Bob, who quit his job as a guide in Oregon and headed to Detroit to work regular hours and earn steady money as a machinist for a while, regrets nothing about his decision to return to the river. I notice that Bob never stops humming while he fishes, or helps me fish, and I wonder how many other people’s jobs inspire them to continual song. "I haven’t known the time or day or date for the last seven years," Bob professes.

But he knows this river that he’s coursed 1200 times. He discusses the fishing holes by name: There’s the Meathole, with its own set of ethics, the Drum Roll, the Drive In, where, seventeen early model cars are planted perpendicularly into the river’s bank and filled with gravel to prevent erosion. Young trees protrude from their windshields, testifying to their effectiveness. And, though he knows fish as well as anyone, he still questions their behavior: "What perplexes me about the Snaghole—why would they [the trout] sit there if they’re not feeding, dead in the hard current?"

 

But I am back in the water now. I’ve learned Bob’s triple-step instruction, ingrained it, incorporated it. "Pop it!" (Cast the line hard down, aiming with your thumb, over the water, from the position in which Bob puts your arm, to the place on the river to which he points.) "Mend!" (Wiggle your line back in a loop so your flies are going down the water with a natural drift, a perfect presentation.) "Point!" (The tip of the rod points, always, at the strike indicator.) "Pop it! Mend! Point!" And because I listen, and because I have good teachers, and because the river gods are smiling on us, I am rewarded with five beautiful fish, ranging from nineteen to twenty-four inches, browns and rainbows, and one small "silver bullet" of a trout, little, fast and feisty. I am rewarded, too, with sunburned ears, fatigue that comes only from physical exhaustion, and as deep a sense of satisfaction I have ever felt. As Arnold Glasgow notes, "fishing is far more important than the fish." I have been given great gifts this afternoon on the water. I am happy. And I am conscious and conscientious enough to be grateful.

 

There ensues a series of days on the water, one as alike as it is different from the last. We drive through Yellowstone National Park swooning at the sights on the Bear Tooth Highway, marveling at the abundance of buffalo and elk, awed by Inspiration Point, and curious at the peculiarity of hot springs and geysers, as we move to the Madison, Jim’s home river.

It seems less broad than the Big Horn, shallower, faster. It is fished for one hundred miles, rather than the Big Horn’s thirteen. It is a classic trout stream, probably the classic trout stream. Here, in these clear waters, we fish from the boat. Here we skitter dry flies (Caddis or Mayflies, crafted by Jim during Montana winters, from feathers, foam and rabbit fur) across the water’s surface to see the wide mouths of trout in too much of a hurry to feed to worry about which bug they swallow, close on the colorful fly at the end of our tippit line. Here I learn to cast without the rope anchoring my wrist to the rod, without the overwhelming output of energy, "Let the rod do the work," Jim’s quiet voice encourages. Here we settle into a rhythm of sleep with the dark, fish with the light that so satisfies our souls. It only suffers a minor jarring the day I forget to put our lunches into the boat and we spend eight hours on the river with nothing but two cough drops and a leftover half bottle of orange cream soda between us.

Jim’s years in the classroom stand him in good stead on the river. He is a gentle teacher. Instructions are delivered in soft words, demonstrations presented with tender touches. His style suits this river, its quiet grandeur, its nurturing views. This section of the Madison consists of fifty-three miles of riffles, runs and pools, providing the best fly fishing here, maybe anywhere. The river’s banks give way to open plains on either side, providing an endless panorama of the Madison Mountain Range to the east and the Gravellys to the west. Pockets of pristine snow are still visible in early August. By September, Jim tells me, the peaks will likely be snow-capped. Indeed, Bob, on the Big Horn, recalled fishing in snow in July. But now there is nothing but sunshine and azure sky, Woody Guthrie’s "Big Sky," a bowl above us capping in promise and peace.

While we fish, we talk. We talk endlessly, about everything. In Bob’s boat, we talk about fishing. In Jim’s, we talk about life. It isn’t too great a stretch to see these subjects as the same.

Much of my time in Montana is spent learning to see. "See that tan rock?" Bob asks. "Can you see the darker feathers of that stone fly nymph?" Jim queries; "Look for the green spot in the river, the bare tree, the cloud shaped like an elephant." I spend my days looking and looking, trying to train my eyes to recognize these new patterns and places. Sometimes I am tempted to fib, "Yes, yes, I see it," when my vision is really lost in a tangle of shadows, but I know these markings are too important to miss, that my time here will be less valued and valuable if I let slip the slightest offering of land and sky and water. So I peek, peer, scan, squint, scrutinize, until my eyes feel more tired than my casting arm, until I behold.

Sometimes the vision gift is a small trout hitting on your strike indicator instead of your nymphs; sometimes it is a column of orange sky stretching from horizon to the ether above us; sometimes it is the puppy nibbling wild flowers or managing his first wobbly point at a passing finch or barking a black Angus inland from the shore. And sometimes, if you are paying attention, you become witness to an everyday miracle of river life, a miracle that you too often miss at home washing dishes or driving your car or thinking about something that seems important at the time—you witness a dark oval shape perched next to an aerie just as it lifts, becomes a bald eagle circling your boat, and, for your eyes only, because you care, because you are there, dives in a feathered rush to the river beside you. Though his spray doesn’t sprinkle you, you know that you are blessed. The gift is the present. This statement is not redundant. Think. Appreciate. It may be true, as the old fishermen’s lore claims, that "the gods do not deduct from a man’s allotted span the hours spent in fishing."

 

I knew when I agreed to take this trip that Montana would change me—it’s why I came. I was ready to be new again, to let the river waters wash away ancient aches, to be smoothed and cleansed and tumbled ashore fresh and ready—like any river rock—whole and round.

 

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