Still Life with Brook Trout

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Overview

Brilliant, witty, perceptive essays about fly-fishing, the natural world, and life in general by the acknowledged master of fishing writers.

In Still Life with Brook Trout, John Gierach demonstrates once again that fishing, when done right, is as much a philosophical pursuit as a sport.

Gierach travels to Wyoming and Maine and points in between, searching out new fly-fishing adventures and savoring familiar waters with old friends. Along the ...

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Still Life with Brook Trout

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Overview

Brilliant, witty, perceptive essays about fly-fishing, the natural world, and life in general by the acknowledged master of fishing writers.

In Still Life with Brook Trout, John Gierach demonstrates once again that fishing, when done right, is as much a philosophical pursuit as a sport.

Gierach travels to Wyoming and Maine and points in between, searching out new fly-fishing adventures and savoring familiar waters with old friends. Along the way he meditates on the importance of good guides ("Really, the only thing a psychiatrist can do that a good guide can't is write prescriptions"), the challenge of salmon fishing ("Salmon prowl. If they're not here now, they could be here in half an hour. Or tomorrow. Or next month"), and the zen of fishing alone ("I also enjoy where my mind goes when I'm fishing alone, which is usually nowhere in particular and by a predictable route"). On a more serious note, he ponders the damaging effects of disasters both natural and man-made: drought, wildfires, and the politics of dam-building, among others.

Reflecting on a trip to a small creek near his home, Gierach writes, "In my brightest moments, I think slowing down...has opened huge new vistas on my old home water. It's like a friendship that not only lasts, but gets better against the odds." Similarly, Still Life with Brook Trout proves that Gierach, like fly-fishing itself, becomes deeper and richer with time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"In some ways," Gierach writes in this breezy, compact volume, "fishing with a good, familiar partner has many of the best attributes of fishing by yourself." For those unschooled in the particular joys and sorrows of fly fishing, Gierach (At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman) is that good, familiar partner as he smoothly details the finer points of tying flies; the agony of replacing an old, worn-out fishing vest; and the ethereal sounds wind can make. This work's power lies in Gierach's assumption that readers are interested. He doesn't stop and explain; his stories flow unapologetically from the singular viewpoint of the committed angler. Fishing in rainy conditions may "make fishermen seem crazy to the great mass of unimaginative people, but then few fishermen care what they think," he writes. Beyond describing the specifics of landing this or that elusive fish, Gierach's main concern is the drought that has plagued the American West since the end of the last century. He spikes his stories with accounts of ravaged streams, depleted fish stocks and forests devastated by huge fires fueled by bone-dry timber. His well-mapped territory is one of challenge and setback, good friends and comrades in arms, fact and poetry. It's a world that goes beyond the bubbling trout stream and into the stuff of everyday life. Illus. Agent, Harold Ober/ Knox Burger. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"One of the very best storytellers....Gierach recognizes the unspoken little truths about fishing that somehow in total help reveal the whole crazy thrill of it all."

— Steve Grant, Hartford Courant

"As always, Gierach deserves prominent placement among fishing's A-list literary writers."

Booklist

"Gierach has earned well-deserved recognition as one of fly-fishing's finest modern scribes."

Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743229944
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 3/22/2005
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

John Gierach is the author of numerous books on fly-fishing. His work has appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal, and Fly Rod & Reel, where he is a regular columnist. He also writes a column for the monthly Redstone Review. He lives in Lyons, Colorado. Visit JohnGierachBooks.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3

This was one of those trips that, before it was over, ate up nearly a thousand miles, five tanks of gas, three quarts of oil, God knows how many cups of coffee, and cost me one sixty-six-dollar speeding ticket from a polite but humorless cop outside Moneta, Wyoming, one of those towns where the elevation exceeds the population by hundreds of times. In this case, 5,428 feet, ten residents. As near as I could tell, there hadn't been a hiding place in the last fifty miles big enough for a jackrabbit, let alone a police car. I wasn't pleased about the ticket, but the cop had apparently come out of thin air and I had to hand it to him.

It's easy to drive too fast across these flat, empty basins between mountain ranges where a trip of any distance can dissolve into a kind of pointless, caffeine-induced speed. It's daylight. You can see for miles. The roads are straight and there doesn't seem to be anything to run into, although the small white crosses along the side of the road suggest otherwise. Once you slow down closer to the speed limit, you notice more of them.

I was on my way to float the Wind River on the Shoshone and Arapaho reservation with Tom McGuane, Mike Lawson, Jack Dennis, and guide Darren Calhoun. Tom is the novelist whose work I've admired all my adult life and whose fishing books are among the rare few that read like they're true. Mike is the author of the landmark book Spring Creeks, but I first knew him as the slow-talking guru of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Last Chance, Idaho, and Jack wrote the fly-tying book that was propped open on my desk when I tried to tie my first trout fly sometime in the early 1970s. I've always been impressed by writers and, oddly enough, being a writer myself hasn't tarnished that one bit.

These are men I don't get to see often, but who I know and like, so there were none of the usual worries about celebrity fishing. It's hard to describe and impossible to predict, but there's often some sort of nonsense from the well known. I once fished with a famous angler who was actually a pretty good fisherman, but who only enjoyed catching trout when there was someone nearby who wasn't catching them. As for writers, I once met one who claimed that he couldn't start writing a book until he had "dreamed extensively in the voices of all the characters." That kind of thing.

For my own part, I've never been able to manage anything like dignity while fishing and I've never met anyone else who could manage it either. The few who I've seen try all ended up looking like pompous fools, although to their credit, many of them came to realize that and eventually would only fish with other pompous fools.

Anyway, I'd never fished the Wind — which is reason enough to go — but Jack had also told me there were some big trout in it. I probably asked "How big?" because that's the automatic response, but I didn't pay attention to the answer because it wouldn't have mattered. As always, we'd go to the river with no clear plan except to fish, and something would either shake out or not.

I stopped in the town of Shoshone and bought my reservation fishing permit at a twenty-four-hour gas station called the Fast Lane. Then I drove the thirty-some miles down the canyon to the motel where we'd check in and meet Darren for a half day shakedown float. I was ahead of schedule, so I drove slowly to calm the road jitters a little and pulled over here and there to look at the water. Stopping to check out the river before you start fishing amounts to a kind of foreplay, but it can also be the longest and best look you'll get. Later on, you can be too busy to take in the view in anything more than quick glances.

The canyon was loose-looking, beige-colored sandstone with its lip weathered into crags and towers, some of which looked like they could topple in a strong breeze. It was cut deeply enough that even in early afternoon most of it was still in shadow. The surrounding landscape was mostly thin grasses, shrubs and rubble rock. There were some scattered pines and junipers, but the trees even a little way up from the river looked dry and desperate and a few were just plain dead, with their needles the color of abandoned iron.

There were stretches where the canyon widened and leveled a bit, but what sticks in my mind are the long narrows where a good-sized river is squeezed into white water and foamy pools that you could never reach on foot. In most places it would be a long, steep scramble from the road to the water, then a grunt up, over and down to the next pool. It would be grueling and there'd be a lot of water you couldn't reach, including some of the best. People do wade-fish this, but apparently not many. In over thirty miles, on a beautiful summer day with the water looking near perfect, I only saw two fishermen, and one was standing by the side of the road scratching his head.

At the motel, we caught up quickly as fishermen can do, even those who haven't seen each other in a long time. How have you been? You're looking good. How was your drive? What do you think, a seven-weight rod and streamers? And Tom had to ask about my elderly pickup, knowing I'm one of those who proudly drive rattletraps to make some obscure populist statement and also to save the cost of a new one to spend instead on guides and fishing tackle. I recited the stats. Fifteen years old, 200,000-some miles, only three minor accidents, decent compression, nobody's gonna steal it and I just got a speeding ticket for doing eighty in a sixty-five zone: proof that my old horse can still run.

Darren turned out to be one of those strapping young guys who is hardworking and earnest, but still has the fully functioning sense of humor that's a must when you deal with fishermen. He runs the guide service in the summer, floating fishermen for trout and white-water types for thrills and chills. He has the only outfit licensed to guide commercially on the reservation, and only reservation residents can float the river on their own, so he has what you'd have to call a lock on some very good water. Lots of things conspire to make the trout in one river bigger than in another, but difficult foot access and very light boat traffic would be two big ones.

In the off-season when he's not guiding, Darren is studying for a degree in psychiatry — looking to "do something with his life" as my father would have said — but the summer job would be good training. Guides get used to seeing raw emotions and exposed insecurities. And really, the only thing a psychiatrist can do that a good guide can't is write prescriptions.

I was a little sorry to hear about this impending career change, for entirely selfish reasons. Most guides — including most of the best — sooner or later move on to something in or out of the fishing business that actually lets them make a living. That's a good thing for them, but they're sorely missed on the river. Then again, if I ever decide I need a shrink, maybe I can find one who started out as a fishing guide.

I don't know enough about white water to guess at the classification numbers of the rapids in the canyon, but some are definitely in the oh-my-god category. You're drifting along casting your streamer to the pockets when you hear the dull roar. When you look downstream, the river just drops from sight and dissolves into spray. Darren slips the raft into a backwater, tells you to put on your life vest and you buckle it all the way to your chin without arguing.

Later in the trip you'll have more confidence and you might even try (usually without success) to play a big trout through the rapids. But as it is, you've only known the man at the oars for an hour. He's done fine in the slower water and he does run a river-rafting outfit, but you still wonder. If you're in the bow of the raft going over that first drop — feet braced on the tube, free hand death-gripping the seat, your back to the guide and the other fisherman in the stern seat — you can come to feel very much alone.

But then everything goes perfectly and you're casting again before you can even appreciate the relief because the good pockets come and go so quickly and you could hook a hog in any one of them. There aren't a whole lot of fish in there, but many of them are big browns and rainbows twenty inches or better, and as often as not you'll only get one good cast per spot.

We fished streamers on that first short float and stayed with them for the next few days, with only a few detours into dry flies in the rare stretches of quiet water. I ended up fishing heavy, lead-eyed Muddlers and sculpins off a short leader on a floating weight-forward line. A longer sink-tip with an unweighted streamer would have been more graceful, but the idea was to hammer the cast and sink the fly quickly in the small pockets. There was usually no time or room for the long, tantalizing swing. I didn't pay close attention, but I think Jack, Mike, and Tom used similar rigs.

Blow-by-blow accounts of fishing are usually boring to everyone except the fisherman telling the tale, so I'll just say we caught some trout and they were big. Little ones went around fifteen or sixteen inches; bigger ones were twenty-plus and upwards of four pounds. And of course we missed some, although I can't say how many. Sometimes there'd just be a little tick that could have been a half-baked strike from a big trout or the streamer bumping a rock. Other times there was spray and loud splashing and no doubt about it.

We were a little late getting out that first day because of the inevitable confusion generated by two rafts, two guides (Darren and Mike), several cars and a gang of fishermen trying to get organized while carrying on a six-way conversation. So we floated till past dark, derigged by flashlight and ended up getting supper wrapped in cellophane at the all-night gas station across from the motel. There was one evening when we drove to the one actual restaurant in the area and had a good sit-down meal, but the rest of the time we ate microwaved junk and lived with it. There's a basic rule of dining that says, Never eat at a place with gas pumps outside, but it's one of the many rules fishermen regularly break out of necessity.

The next day, back in the canyon, I got my big trout. It was a pretty brown that took the streamer hard and fought it out in a stretch where I didn't have to try and keep him on through a set of class-four rapids. (It was only the second day, but we'd already lost some big trout trying to do just that.) The entire crew of the raft guessed its weight at around seven or eight pounds, so it was probably at least close to that. I mention it only to brag, although I didn't do anything special. He was just the fish that happened to bite on that cast.

We did a couple of days in the canyon, switching around between two rafts and guides so everyone got to fish with everyone else. It was big enough water that we could leapfrog and all meet up from time to time. Breaks and especially lunches tended to go long because the stories were so good and because, coincidentally, the fishing would be pretty slow in midday.

Mike's stories tended to be brief, plainspoken, light on ridicule and to the point. Jack's were long, incredibly detailed and filled with asides that sometimes all came together at the end and sometimes didn't. Tom's were spare, angular and character-based, like his books. McGuane has the most extensive vocabulary of anyone I know, but he doesn't use it as a weapon. Sometimes you can see him struggling to tone it down a little when he's talking to ordinary people who don't have dictionaries handy.

All the stories were either about fishing or at least had some fishing in them, but some of those Tom and I told also contained some counterculture shenanigans that now and then left the rest of the group gazing at us wide-eyed. If nothing else, it might have been more training for Darren's future practice: proof that people could act foolishly for a very long time, end up only mildly impaired and not regret any of it.

Naturally, all of us had those spates where we got strikes but couldn't hook up. My turn came on the last day. We'd checked out of the motel and driven far upstream, above the canyon, where we split up to fish two different stretches of the upper river. I was with Lawson and one of Darren's young guides who was also named Mike, so when I said, "Hey, Mike," they'd both answer.

The canyon we'd been fishing for the last few days was below a dam, so the flow was controlled. It hadn't seemed low, but then I'd never seen it before so I didn't know how it was supposed to look, and when a river gets squeezed through a narrow gorge, a comparatively small amount of water can still seem like a lot.

The river upstream was a whole other story. It flowed down an open, gently sloping valley with long views of grass and shrubland scattered with cottonwoods, sort of a North American version of the Serengeti. The river ran in long, lazy bends with sloping cobbled banks on the inside and deep undercuts outside. The river looked fine, but shrunken between its wide banks. Mike the guide said it was lower than usual, and that we'd have to get out and drag the raft over some shallow spots, but that it was still fishing well. It was the same story I'd been hearing all over the West throughout the drought: It's okay now, but if it gets much lower we could start to have a problem.

I landed some trout early on, including a beautiful five-pound rainbow that jumped once straight up, then tore off in a series of porpoising arcs. Then I proceeded to miss strike after strike over the next few hours while Lawson caught quite a few trout. He offered some helpful suggestions, but of course there was nothing anyone could do.

I went through the usual agonies. Am I setting too soon or too late? Too softly or too hard? Could I get more solid takes if I stripped the fly slower — or maybe faster? I am getting the strikes, so I'm almost there. It's just some little thing...Later in the day I began to hook a few fish again without doing anything differently. If I live to be a hundred, I'll never understand how that happens.

In the first bend pool after our lunch break, Lawson hooked a fourteen- or fifteen-inch rainbow on a streamer, and when he got it close to the boat a big brown trout flashed it, and then flashed it again. I won't guess at how big this thing was, but it was big. Way bigger than anything we'd seen there. Big enough that it took an extra second for it to register that this was actually a fish and not something like a curious beaver.

The guide and I were standing there with our mouths open when Lawson said, "Cast to him." So I did. On the second cast the brown wheeled and went for my streamer. I don't know if he actually ate it or just bumped it, but of course I missed him, and then he was gone. For the next half hour we told stories about one fish eating another off a fisherman's line in both fresh and salt water, beginning slowly with bass eating bluegills and ending with hundred-pound tarpon being bitten in half by giant sharks.

At the end of that last day, we split up at the Crowheart Store to go our separate ways, Tom to Montana, Mike and Jack to Idaho and Wyoming respectively, me south at least in the direction of Colorado. In the store I poured a cup of sour, lukewarm coffee and when I went to pay for it the guy said, "Aw, that's okay. I was gonna throw it out anyway." I drank half of it and threw the rest out myself.

The Crowheart Store is in sight of Crowheart Butte — a local landmark — and a few days earlier I'd asked about the name. According to the story, back in the old days the Shoshone and Crow chiefs decided to have it out once and for all on top of this flat-topped hill. The Shoshone chief not only won the fight, he cut out the Crow chief's heart and ate it, making a lasting impression.

When I got out on the paved highway, I began feeling for the ideal speed that was fast enough for the wobble in the truck's front end to level out, but not so fast that the leaky sunroof would begin to howl in the wind. This invariably works out to be either ten miles an hour under the speed limit or ten miles over.

It was late and I was tired, so that night I only planned to go as far as the first motel. In the morning I'd decide whether to go on home or maybe stop and fish some of the several dozen trout streams I'd cross depending on the route I picked. On the way up, a few streams had looked a little too low to fish well, but the rest had seemed okay, given the quick look you get as you drive over the bridge. But at the moment I didn't know where I'd go or when I'd get there: a feeling that makes me happier than almost anything else.

And then somewhere around Bull Lake Creek, I remembered something Tom had said one morning after one of us had just finished yet another long story about the old days: "We have a hundred and fifty years of fishing between us," he said, "but only a short time to figure out why." It was a good line; good enough to momentarily stop three chronic talkers in their tracks.

Copyright © 2005 by John Gierach

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First Chapter

Chapter 3

This was one of those trips that, before it was over, ate up nearly a thousand miles, five tanks of gas, three quarts of oil, God knows how many cups of coffee, and cost me one sixty-six-dollar speeding ticket from a polite but humorless cop outside Moneta, Wyoming, one of those towns where the elevation exceeds the population by hundreds of times. In this case, 5,428 feet, ten residents. As near as I could tell, there hadn't been a hiding place in the last fifty miles big enough for a jackrabbit, let alone a police car. I wasn't pleased about the ticket, but the cop had apparently come out of thin air and I had to hand it to him.

It's easy to drive too fast across these flat, empty basins between mountain ranges where a trip of any distance can dissolve into a kind of pointless, caffeine-induced speed. It's daylight. You can see for miles. The roads are straight and there doesn't seem to be anything to run into, although the small white crosses along the side of the road suggest otherwise. Once you slow down closer to the speed limit, you notice more of them.

I was on my way to float the Wind River on the Shoshone and Arapaho reservation with Tom McGuane, Mike Lawson, Jack Dennis, and guide Darren Calhoun. Tom is the novelist whose work I've admired all my adult life and whose fishing books are among the rare few that read like they're true. Mike is the author of the landmark book Spring Creeks, but I first knew him as the slow-talking guru of the Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Last Chance, Idaho, and Jack wrote the fly-tying book that was propped open on my desk when I tried to tie my first trout flysometime in the early 1970s. I've always been impressed by writers and, oddly enough, being a writer myself hasn't tarnished that one bit.

These are men I don't get to see often, but who I know and like, so there were none of the usual worries about celebrity fishing. It's hard to describe and impossible to predict, but there's often some sort of nonsense from the well known. I once fished with a famous angler who was actually a pretty good fisherman, but who only enjoyed catching trout when there was someone nearby who wasn't catching them. As for writers, I once met one who claimed that he couldn't start writing a book until he had "dreamed extensively in the voices of all the characters." That kind of thing.

For my own part, I've never been able to manage anything like dignity while fishing and I've never met anyone else who could manage it either. The few who I've seen try all ended up looking like pompous fools, although to their credit, many of them came to realize that and eventually would only fish with other pompous fools.

Anyway, I'd never fished the Wind -- which is reason enough to go -- but Jack had also told me there were some big trout in it. I probably asked "How big?" because that's the automatic response, but I didn't pay attention to the answer because it wouldn't have mattered. As always, we'd go to the river with no clear plan except to fish, and something would either shake out or not.

I stopped in the town of Shoshone and bought my reservation fishing permit at a twenty-four-hour gas station called the Fast Lane. Then I drove the thirty-some miles down the canyon to the motel where we'd check in and meet Darren for a half day shakedown float. I was ahead of schedule, so I drove slowly to calm the road jitters a little and pulled over here and there to look at the water. Stopping to check out the river before you start fishing amounts to a kind of foreplay, but it can also be the longest and best look you'll get. Later on, you can be too busy to take in the view in anything more than quick glances.

The canyon was loose-looking, beige-colored sandstone with its lip weathered into crags and towers, some of which looked like they could topple in a strong breeze. It was cut deeply enough that even in early afternoon most of it was still in shadow. The surrounding landscape was mostly thin grasses, shrubs and rubble rock. There were some scattered pines and junipers, but the trees even a little way up from the river looked dry and desperate and a few were just plain dead, with their needles the color of abandoned iron.

There were stretches where the canyon widened and leveled a bit, but what sticks in my mind are the long narrows where a good-sized river is squeezed into white water and foamy pools that you could never reach on foot. In most places it would be a long, steep scramble from the road to the water, then a grunt up, over and down to the next pool. It would be grueling and there'd be a lot of water you couldn't reach, including some of the best. People do wade-fish this, but apparently not many. In over thirty miles, on a beautiful summer day with the water looking near perfect, I only saw two fishermen, and one was standing by the side of the road scratching his head.

At the motel, we caught up quickly as fishermen can do, even those who haven't seen each other in a long time. How have you been? You're looking good. How was your drive? What do you think, a seven-weight rod and streamers? And Tom had to ask about my elderly pickup, knowing I'm one of those who proudly drive rattletraps to make some obscure populist statement and also to save the cost of a new one to spend instead on guides and fishing tackle. I recited the stats. Fifteen years old, 200,000-some miles, only three minor accidents, decent compression, nobody's gonna steal it and I just got a speeding ticket for doing eighty in a sixty-five zone: proof that my old horse can still run.

Darren turned out to be one of those strapping young guys who is hardworking and earnest, but still has the fully functioning sense of humor that's a must when you deal with fishermen. He runs the guide service in the summer, floating fishermen for trout and white-water types for thrills and chills. He has the only outfit licensed to guide commercially on the reservation, and only reservation residents can float the river on their own, so he has what you'd have to call a lock on some very good water. Lots of things conspire to make the trout in one river bigger than in another, but difficult foot access and very light boat traffic would be two big ones.

In the off-season when he's not guiding, Darren is studying for a degree in psychiatry -- looking to "do something with his life" as my father would have said -- but the summer job would be good training. Guides get used to seeing raw emotions and exposed insecurities. And really, the only thing a psychiatrist can do that a good guide can't is write prescriptions.

I was a little sorry to hear about this impending career change, for entirely selfish reasons. Most guides -- including most of the best -- sooner or later move on to something in or out of the fishing business that actually lets them make a living. That's a good thing for them, but they're sorely missed on the river. Then again, if I ever decide I need a shrink, maybe I can find one who started out as a fishing guide.

I don't know enough about white water to guess at the classification numbers of the rapids in the canyon, but some are definitely in the oh-my-god category. You're drifting along casting your streamer to the pockets when you hear the dull roar. When you look downstream, the river just drops from sight and dissolves into spray. Darren slips the raft into a backwater, tells you to put on your life vest and you buckle it all the way to your chin without arguing.

Later in the trip you'll have more confidence and you might even try (usually without success) to play a big trout through the rapids. But as it is, you've only known the man at the oars for an hour. He's done fine in the slower water and he does run a river-rafting outfit, but you still wonder. If you're in the bow of the raft going over that first drop -- feet braced on the tube, free hand death-gripping the seat, your back to the guide and the other fisherman in the stern seat -- you can come to feel very much alone.

But then everything goes perfectly and you're casting again before you can even appreciate the relief because the good pockets come and go so quickly and you could hook a hog in any one of them. There aren't a whole lot of fish in there, but many of them are big browns and rainbows twenty inches or better, and as often as not you'll only get one good cast per spot.

We fished streamers on that first short float and stayed with them for the next few days, with only a few detours into dry flies in the rare stretches of quiet water. I ended up fishing heavy, lead-eyed Muddlers and sculpins off a short leader on a floating weight-forward line. A longer sink-tip with an unweighted streamer would have been more graceful, but the idea was to hammer the cast and sink the fly quickly in the small pockets. There was usually no time or room for the long, tantalizing swing. I didn't pay close attention, but I think Jack, Mike, and Tom used similar rigs.

Blow-by-blow accounts of fishing are usually boring to everyone except the fisherman telling the tale, so I'll just say we caught some trout and they were big. Little ones went around fifteen or sixteen inches; bigger ones were twenty-plus and upwards of four pounds. And of course we missed some, although I can't say how many. Sometimes there'd just be a little tick that could have been a half-baked strike from a big trout or the streamer bumping a rock. Other times there was spray and loud splashing and no doubt about it.

We were a little late getting out that first day because of the inevitable confusion generated by two rafts, two guides (Darren and Mike), several cars and a gang of fishermen trying to get organized while carrying on a six-way conversation. So we floated till past dark, derigged by flashlight and ended up getting supper wrapped in cellophane at the all-night gas station across from the motel. There was one evening when we drove to the one actual restaurant in the area and had a good sit-down meal, but the rest of the time we ate microwaved junk and lived with it. There's a basic rule of dining that says, Never eat at a place with gas pumps outside, but it's one of the many rules fishermen regularly break out of necessity.

The next day, back in the canyon, I got my big trout. It was a pretty brown that took the streamer hard and fought it out in a stretch where I didn't have to try and keep him on through a set of class-four rapids. (It was only the second day, but we'd already lost some big trout trying to do just that.) The entire crew of the raft guessed its weight at around seven or eight pounds, so it was probably at least close to that. I mention it only to brag, although I didn't do anything special. He was just the fish that happened to bite on that cast.

We did a couple of days in the canyon, switching around between two rafts and guides so everyone got to fish with everyone else. It was big enough water that we could leapfrog and all meet up from time to time. Breaks and especially lunches tended to go long because the stories were so good and because, coincidentally, the fishing would be pretty slow in midday.

Mike's stories tended to be brief, plainspoken, light on ridicule and to the point. Jack's were long, incredibly detailed and filled with asides that sometimes all came together at the end and sometimes didn't. Tom's were spare, angular and character-based, like his books. McGuane has the most extensive vocabulary of anyone I know, but he doesn't use it as a weapon. Sometimes you can see him struggling to tone it down a little when he's talking to ordinary people who don't have dictionaries handy.

All the stories were either about fishing or at least had some fishing in them, but some of those Tom and I told also contained some counterculture shenanigans that now and then left the rest of the group gazing at us wide-eyed. If nothing else, it might have been more training for Darren's future practice: proof that people could act foolishly for a very long time, end up only mildly impaired and not regret any of it.

Naturally, all of us had those spates where we got strikes but couldn't hook up. My turn came on the last day. We'd checked out of the motel and driven far upstream, above the canyon, where we split up to fish two different stretches of the upper river. I was with Lawson and one of Darren's young guides who was also named Mike, so when I said, "Hey, Mike," they'd both answer.

The canyon we'd been fishing for the last few days was below a dam, so the flow was controlled. It hadn't seemed low, but then I'd never seen it before so I didn't know how it was supposed to look, and when a river gets squeezed through a narrow gorge, a comparatively small amount of water can still seem like a lot.

The river upstream was a whole other story. It flowed down an open, gently sloping valley with long views of grass and shrubland scattered with cottonwoods, sort of a North American version of the Serengeti. The river ran in long, lazy bends with sloping cobbled banks on the inside and deep undercuts outside. The river looked fine, but shrunken between its wide banks. Mike the guide said it was lower than usual, and that we'd have to get out and drag the raft over some shallow spots, but that it was still fishing well. It was the same story I'd been hearing all over the West throughout the drought: It's okay now, but if it gets much lower we could start to have a problem.

I landed some trout early on, including a beautiful five-pound rainbow that jumped once straight up, then tore off in a series of porpoising arcs. Then I proceeded to miss strike after strike over the next few hours while Lawson caught quite a few trout. He offered some helpful suggestions, but of course there was nothing anyone could do.

I went through the usual agonies. Am I setting too soon or too late? Too softly or too hard? Could I get more solid takes if I stripped the fly slower -- or maybe faster? I am getting the strikes, so I'm almost there. It's just some little thing...Later in the day I began to hook a few fish again without doing anything differently. If I live to be a hundred, I'll never understand how that happens.

In the first bend pool after our lunch break, Lawson hooked a fourteen- or fifteen-inch rainbow on a streamer, and when he got it close to the boat a big brown trout flashed it, and then flashed it again. I won't guess at how big this thing was, but it was big. Way bigger than anything we'd seen there. Big enough that it took an extra second for it to register that this was actually a fish and not something like a curious beaver.

The guide and I were standing there with our mouths open when Lawson said, "Cast to him." So I did. On the second cast the brown wheeled and went for my streamer. I don't know if he actually ate it or just bumped it, but of course I missed him, and then he was gone. For the next half hour we told stories about one fish eating another off a fisherman's line in both fresh and salt water, beginning slowly with bass eating bluegills and ending with hundred-pound tarpon being bitten in half by giant sharks.

At the end of that last day, we split up at the Crowheart Store to go our separate ways, Tom to Montana, Mike and Jack to Idaho and Wyoming respectively, me south at least in the direction of Colorado. In the store I poured a cup of sour, lukewarm coffee and when I went to pay for it the guy said, "Aw, that's okay. I was gonna throw it out anyway." I drank half of it and threw the rest out myself.

The Crowheart Store is in sight of Crowheart Butte -- a local landmark -- and a few days earlier I'd asked about the name. According to the story, back in the old days the Shoshone and Crow chiefs decided to have it out once and for all on top of this flat-topped hill. The Shoshone chief not only won the fight, he cut out the Crow chief's heart and ate it, making a lasting impression.

When I got out on the paved highway, I began feeling for the ideal speed that was fast enough for the wobble in the truck's front end to level out, but not so fast that the leaky sunroof would begin to howl in the wind. This invariably works out to be either ten miles an hour under the speed limit or ten miles over.

It was late and I was tired, so that night I only planned to go as far as the first motel. In the morning I'd decide whether to go on home or maybe stop and fish some of the several dozen trout streams I'd cross depending on the route I picked. On the way up, a few streams had looked a little too low to fish well, but the rest had seemed okay, given the quick look you get as you drive over the bridge. But at the moment I didn't know where I'd go or when I'd get there: a feeling that makes me happier than almost anything else.

And then somewhere around Bull Lake Creek, I remembered something Tom had said one morning after one of us had just finished yet another long story about the old days: "We have a hundred and fifty years of fishing between us," he said, "but only a short time to figure out why." It was a good line; good enough to momentarily stop three chronic talkers in their tracks.

Copyright © 2005 by John Gierach

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