It was difficult to comprehend that four years had passed since my last visit to Montana, but the surreal time warp caused by COVID eroded those years more quickly than it would seem possible. And when there aren’t many years left in one’s life, that time lost in suspended animation was significant. My friend Norm and I would often talk about that on our frequent phone calls. Living in Florida for decades, he would lament not being able to get to his summer home on the banks of the Beaverhead River in Dillon since 2019. And because he has now had some serious health issues, getting to his Montana dwelling this past summer was not able to happen either.
So before my trip out West last September he asked me to catch a fish for him in the section of the Beaverhead that borders his property. We had fished that stretch a number of times, thus the effort would be quite meaningful. And though I usually fish alone, Norm and I have shared some very memorable days on Montana waters throughout the years; and we both hope there will be more days in the future. Whether it be in Montana or near his Florida residence on Sanibel Island, we have caught some notable fish together that are regularly recalled whenever we do get together. Those memories always take us back. Time traveling to bygone years, they remind me of why fly fishing has been such a potent force in my life.
There are times when catching a fish is much more than just catching a fish. I have never been much interested in the new age techniques of fly fishing intended to improve one’s hooking rates since deep down I feel those tactics might interfere with the more esoteric aspects of why I fly fish. I have never been driven to catch a lot of fish, but there has always been a desire to hook special fish that will be remembered long after I get off the water. Sometimes that occurs when I am fishing with a friend, or on a trip, or by myself; and when it happens, my soul shivers as if being touched by an answered prayer. Like a conduit to the another dimension, my spirit is elevated as if a primal presence within nature takes me to a place where everything makes sense and the meaning of life comes into full view. Such moments are the reasons I keep casting and keep hoping that the right fish will come along at the right moment and choose my fly when I need it to happen.
On this ten day trip I intended to get to that special water honoring Norm’s wishes sooner, but with social commitments and other impending fishing engagements the time seemed to evaporate much more quickly than I had planned. My objective was to spend several hours each day on select pieces of favorite water. And though my intentions were noble, I found out early in this western visit that my endurance was not what it once was, nor were my legs, so accomplishing these goals had to be trimmed back a bit. Losing a day to wet and extremely windy weather didn’t help either, and as a consequence it wasn’t until the final day of the trip that I was able to drive to Dillon.
The morning was a beautiful one for so late in September, and I was hoping the Beaverhead would be in fishable shape. Maybe there was a bit of reluctance to go directly to Norm’s because I feared being let down, more so for his sake than my own. Often in life, high expectations are met with disappointment, and at times, perhaps, good memories should be left undisturbed. As a result of that reasoning, I decided to spend an hour retracing a career of steps on Poindexter Slough before fishing that section at Norm’s. One of my favorite pieces of home water for decades, Poindexter is a spring creek that flows into the Beaverhead south of town.
The Slough was reconstructed shortly after I left Montana in 2013. Muddy bends were reshaped and mucky bogs channelized giving the creek a totally different appearance from what I remember while stalking fish there for thirty years. Getting lost in memories, it was difficult to relate to all the “newness.” Intrigued with the changes, the morning passed much too quickly as several hours clicked by leaving little time to head on over to Norm’s property. Having yet another social commitment in Butte that evening, I only had an hour or so to fish the Beaverhead, but at least I would finally be able to make good on my promise.
To my surprise the Beaverhead could not have looked better. The water was crystal clear and shimmering with chards of reflected sunlight. As to my main concern, it appeared to be quite wadable too. These ideal conditions are not always a given in this section of the river. Wading becomes impossible when water is released from the dam for irrigation purposes. But obviously the flows had been cut back, and since the bright, calm morning spent on Poindexter gave way to a pleasantly perfect Montana afternoon, at least the last leg of this recent fishing journey promised to be a fitting finale.
A golden hue accented the sunny late September outing with a surprising number of hoppers still buzzing and dancing in the tall grass alongside the well covered banks. Pushing upstream with my wobbly legs was a bit difficult, but I was able to land one of a few small browns that showed a lazy interest in my fly. Coming upon a bank of overhanging brush that always produced a decent sized brown or two in the past, my floating hopper failed to elicit any response from the uninterested inhabitants hidden within. Undoubtedly, at this point my final day was more about fishing for memories than fish anyway, but in my mind I was hoping to conclude my visit on a high note.
The hour didn’t last long as I recalled some of the noteworthy brown trout caught in this section of the Beaverhead throughout the years. And as the final moments dwindled I started to make several “last casts” until that inner gnawing telling me to get on the road got too overwhelming to ignore. But just then, amidst those nagging feelings, a big brown sipped in my Dave’s hopper at the very head of a deep riffle. As the spirited battle ensued, I thought of Norm, and like a story book ending, the biggest fish of the trip finally slipped into the shallows. After releasing the beautiful trout while dedicating it to my friend, I snipped off the hopper and reeled up the balance of the leader through the guides of my bamboo rod before wading down river to my rental car and driving sixty miles back to Butte. On my last day and my last cast, I caught the last fish of the trip. It was a beauty, and because it couldn’t have been more special, my soul shivered.