Anything Fly Fishing

Trout Stream Enlightenment

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Growing up and sharing the good word of fly fishing.

My adulthood is rapidly approaching, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. The responsibilities associated with this next step were stalled by enrolling in graduate school immediately following college, but the comfortable familiarity of academia is set to expire with another impending graduation. Time’s progression has backed me into a corner between my youth and full-time employment.

I knew I had to do something, something grand, before my life was consumed by a 9 to 5. Rivers have always provided solace in times of crisis, and this time was no different. I needed to immerse myself in wild landscapes and wild trout before I succumbed to the trappings of the real world.

The realization came quickly. I had to go west.

Unfortunately, my university research stipend doesn’t cover much beyond rent and food, and no inheritance from a distant relative has yet to hit my bank account. Gallivanting unemployed across the Rockies was out of the question. Therefore, I did what any near-broke, 23-year-old, want-to-be trout bum would do—I became a guide for the summer.

I signed on with Lillard Fly Fishing Expeditions, whose slogan reads, “Where adventure, conservation, and education create memories to last a lifetime.” The company caters to adolescents aged 12-17, offering guided trips across the country and abroad. The gist of these trips is as follows: The guides pick up the kids at a regional airport and then lead them through one-to-two weeks of camping, backpacking, fly fishing, and conservation projects. The trips provide incredible experiences for both the participants and, I soon learned, the guides themselves.

Hopper-rising cutthroats were found at the end of the rainbows. Better than two pots of gold.

My fishing karma must have been in good standing, as I was assigned to lead the Yellowstone Expeditions. This meant I’d spend a solid chunk of my summer guiding on, fishing in, and sleeping next to the storied trout streams of Yellowstone National Park and the broader Southwestern Montana region.

I drove across the country with fellow guides Hunt McClary and Jacob Gallagher in a maroon 2001 Ford Econoline the kids later named “Red Rocket.” The van had neither a CD player, aux port, or Bluetooth adaptor, so we listened to the radio from Massachusetts to Montana. I can sadly report that we didn’t pick up a station playing real country music until we reached Western North Dakota. I find this telling about the current state of the nation.

But persevere through shitty music we did, and though road weary and addlebrained from a Morgan Wallen overdose, we made our destination of Ennis, Montana, with enough time to recuperate on the Madison. Two days of wild browns and rainbows rising to caddis flies soothed us. When our trip commenced on the third day after our arrival, we were ready.

Recounting the day’s adventures by the fire. Humankind’s longest-running tradition.

Twelve participants from all corners of the country met us at the Bozeman airport. The group was an eclectic bunch. Some deplaned with rod tubes in hand, wearing sweat-stained hats that had been worn on skiffs and drift boats the world over, so eager to start fishing they tried rigging their rods in the baggage claim (which I thought best to put a stop to). Others came with no fishing experience and were only here because their parents thought it would be good for them to spend time outdoors and maybe learn a new skill. Many of the latter returned home wearing fishing hats of their own that were sure to see continued use.

Once everyone was collected and accounted for, Red Rocket ferried us to the Yellowstone promised land. We made it to our campground along the banks of the Upper Madison as a silky evening sky replaced the day, then set up tents and made dinner under the growing luminescence of starlight. Everyone’s sleep that night was fitful and riddled with expectations for the coming days.

I’ll spare most of the details of our two-week trip, as it would take thousands of words to fully cover our band’s experiences. In short, water conditions were perfect, the trout were happy and hungry, the grizzlies left us alone, and the kids were eager to learn, fish, and care about the surrounding environment.

But as I sit at my desk on campus several months later, procrastinating on writing my graduate thesis, there is one memory from my guiding stint that I keep returning to. On our trip, we had a kid named John from Southern Louisiana. I liked John from the start. He was one of those with almost no prior fly-fishing experience but expressed a strong desire to learn and did so quickly. But despite his growing fly-fishing skills, John held steadfast to his belief that conventional bass fishing was the superior piscatorial pursuit. Like a stubborn sinner, he continuously espoused his bass fishing ways. Hunt, Jacob, and I, acting as the patient preachers of fly-fishing, would always rebut with praise for the trout fishing we love.

Another scoop of Yellowstone gold, please.

These conversations came to a head on the last day of our trip. The morning started slow, but once the sun rose above the surrounding mountaintops, the fishing became frenzied. Rod tips began to bounce up and down the river, and it wasn’t long until John’s rod doubled at the head of a run. The trout peeled drag, racing into a downstream pool. The fish made several pulsing laps before tail walking across the water’s surface. The trout then broke downstream again, this time into a shallow riffle rife with tippet-slicing rocks and branches. I tossed the landing net I was carrying to Hunt, who stood below John and me and was better positioned to land the trout. Hunt splashed across the riffle and netted John’s trout just before it reached the snag-ridden opposite bank. Eighteen inches of wild brown trout briefly parted with the river.

“Hell yeah!” John yelled as his trout hit the net. “Screw bass fishing. This is awesome!”

A trout stream baptism if you will.

As the weather warms and the academic finish line nears, I’m beginning to spend more time reflecting on my guiding season. Maybe I can delay my adulthood by another few months. Summer is just around the corner, and there are always more souls to save from a life of bass fishing.

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