Anything Fly Fishing

BONEFISH THERAPY

4 Mins read

The fly fishing community mourns the sudden passing of legendary angler Cathy Beck on a recent trip to Argentina in February, 2024. Along with her husband, Barry, they traveled the world hosting fly fishing get-aways while chasing angling adventures together for over three decades. Barry’s photographs have adorned the pages of numerous fishing publications and Cathy was the first woman ever to grace the cover of Fly Fisherman magazine in 1991 thanks to Barry’s talent. As as expert casting instructor and avid conservationist, her congenial personality will be sadly missed by all those who knew her. And despite only meeting Cathy a few times myself, it was a photo of her holding a Bahamas bonefish in the 90s that cast a long lasting influence on my angling life.

When the north wind cut like an icy dagger knifing through the foothills of the Tobacco Root mountain range with gusts of laser cold intensity, some January mornings in Twin Bridges were unbearable. Fumbling for the keys to open the front door of the shop, horizontally driven snow would rivet exposed flesh with frozen shards intolerable to endure if not for the heat that waited on the other side of the lock. Once inside, another day of rod building began, but not without longing for the warmth only a tropical day could bring. When living in Montana, a winter never went by without visions of a turquoise flat somewhere, anywhere, devoid of blizzards and three-foot snowdrifts.

Often my mind wandered to the days when summer visitor Bonefish Bob Berger stopped in at the Winston shop and regaled us with stories about the big fish – his nickname implied – that roamed the water near his fly shop in the Florida Keys. Another summer visitor Dr. Norm Christiansen regularly related his tales of the epic bonefishing he encountered on annual winter trips to the south Pacific atoll of Christmas Island. The fire these guys ignited during those summer months seemed particularly appealing during the bleak depravity of a Big Sky winter when snow piled up in windrows as far as the eye could see.

So when shop friend and Big Hole River resident John Rich routinely visited our facility and often talked about the several weeks he would spend chasing bonefish and enjoying the local culture on Andros Island in the Bahamas each March, his stories further piqued my enthusiasm. On one occasion John even encouraged me to join him for a week, and it was then the temptation became too much. After recalling that photo of Cathy Beck holding a big bonefish on a beautiful Bahamian flat, it took only one more glance out the window before deciding to take John up on his invitation.

Since the 1930s the water of the Bahamas was a best-kept secret of the fishing elite. Frequented by Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Joe Brooks, Lee Wulff and others, it wasn’t until the popularization of fly fishing in the early 90s that the Islands caught the attention of the broader fly fishing public. Subsequently, business opportunities popped up catering to traveling anglers that included the development of both lodges and guide services providing easy access to the multitude of flats available throughout the Islands. For the years that followed, the Bahamas became an easy destination for serious anglers seeking a taste of the tropics in the pursuit of bonefish dreams. At the same time it is notable that both Mexico and Belize were witnessing a similar awakening as well.

With this historical perspective in mind, the trip to join John on Andros the following March turned out to be the unique experience that he said it would be – great fishing and wonderful people. Then, the next March, when Tom Tollett of Frontier Anglers in Dillion had an opening to fill with a group of fisherman bound for Abaco, I did not hesitate to sign up. And once again the trip was wonderful. Although the fishing was spectacular, the charming warmth of the local folks living a life of tropical simplicity was the highlight of the journey. It was easy to understand why our friend John desired to spend several weeks on the Islands each spring. Escaping the burden of living in an ice box was reason enough to head south in late winter, but the desire to chase bonefish would have a more solemn significance for me several years later.

In light of my Bahamian experience I found myself longing to live a Jimmy Buffet lifestyle, to regularly wade knee deep in the warm waters far from the icy chill of another seasonal deep freeze. Although getting to the Caribbean from Montana was highly impractical, even the thought of making a cast to a far off bonefish helped quell the wintry gloom that settled deep into one’s bones and, at times, crippled one’s psyche. Unfortunately, however, the ability to once again get back to the tropics took an unexpected turn after life drastically changed in 2006.

When my mentor and bamboo rod master Glenn Brackett decided to leave the rod company he once owned, I decided to depart in solidarity with him. We then teamed up to found Sweetgrass Rods. Establishing a new bamboo rod production company and getting it up and running was a challenge, the work load immense, but that effort intensified after my wife was diagnosed with a terminal illness during the same period of time. Finding the strength to endure those difficult years was soul wrenching. And though needed solace was provided by the hallowed water that flowed through the rivers close to home, I never did lose the desire for tropical living even through the most bleak of years.

In 2011 the warm climate aspirations from days gone by were rekindled by a bonefishing trip to southern Mexico. It was then I decided to tap some retirement funds to build a small casa on a Caribbean beach next to a bonefish flat just north of Belize. Spending close to a year there in 2014, I did find a measure of peace searching the nearby flat every day for bonefish that were more wily than spring creek brown trout. Getting over those distressing years of my wife’s illness will always be difficult, but it was bonefish therapy that helped me get past them. “I can’t change the direction of the wind,” the late Jimmy Buffet once wisely wrote, “but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” In a way, that is what I did. Dropping out and living on a beach for nearly a year was my way of dealing with such a heartbreaking ordeal, and that detour enabled me to set off on a new direction in life.

Undoubtedly, the “changes of latitude” did some good; but sadly, the tragic passing of Cathy Beck brought back painful memories of those days when my wife finally succumbed to her ALS in 2009. Constantly adjusting my sails, there are times, when lost in quiet thought, I still find myself longing to once again search for bonefish on a flat that stretches as far as the eye can see.

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