Wednesday, August 05, 2020

A spring fishing tale from Montucky

| June 25, 2020 1:00 AM

Our guide Sancho carefully drew a map in the air with his index finger, uttering words that cause fly anglers to scratch their chins with a measure of dignity, before scratching themselves.

He spoke quietly of off-color water, of salmon flies and big rivers. He self-consciously pontificated about spring creeks, rubber rafts and tailwaters, backroads, cutoffs and weather, then left it all hanging fog-like, this menagerie of words and geography, while we discussed among ourselves.

It was spring in Montana and if the fishing didn’t hook you, the pulled pork sandwiches would.

From our starting point in an established neighborhood — as the real estate magazines like to call places with mature trees and grossly outdated homes — in arguably the most Western of Montana cities named after copper king graveyards and geological features that are a tribute to the Charlie Russell country to the north, we loaded up the carry-all and drove south and east.

Pronghorns grazed in this the land of fences, cottonwoods and gurgling streams.

The vista was conducive to historical reflection unless you live here and then you just pony up, ask politely for a beer, tip the bill of your ball cap with a forefinger and wonder if you’ve got enough rubber leg bugs for everyone.

“How about a cold one?” You might say, as you press your flip-flopped toes against parking lot dust along a shadowy river. “There’s gotta be one colder than this.”

We drove over a mountain pass and under one too, swept grand curves listening to newer versions of John Prine like those that got the crowd stomping at the Mother Lode theatre several years ago, and we stopped in a place where a young guide named Cracker, a cross between your doctor and the kid who cuts your grass, sat behind a counter with one hand on the cash register and another on your self-image.

We bought a handful of flies and a few sundry items we forgot to bring along in the many hours of preparation for the few hours of fishing on a river called Ruby.

Where you headed? Cracker asked.

We told him.

That should be fishing fine, he said. The bugs in that bin have been heavy hitters.

OK, we said and fondled a few.

You from around here, or out of state? Cracker asked.

The customers whose shoulders we brushed in the doorway carried sacks of fly fishing shirts, straw sombreros and fleece-lined undergarments with the price tags flapping in a breeze to their BMW with Florida plates ...

They were from out-of-state by any measure. We considered ourselves from a neighboring state. One that has its own gold medal fisheries, as well as its own ties to hilljacks and trout:

Idaho, we said, but he was unimpressed.

Welcome to Montucky, he mused, a regular 19-year-old Milton.

He spooled line on a reel for us, intimating that neither the line nor the reel were worthy of our destination and recommended some fly line hanging over there on the peg board because it was pocked with microscopic craters that cut friction like moon boots and had a life expectancy of an elephant in the Bronx zoo.

“As much as you fish,” he said. “You’d never have to buy another fly line.”

We crooned. Fawned actually. Wow, we said, then wondered about its $100 price tag.

Not that 100 bucks is a bad deal for some outstanding fly line, but we had 30 bucks and a few balls of lint between us, pooled for hand-crafted burritos at a caravan in Dillon if we made it there.

We had purchased a set of out of state fishing licenses, Cracker said “good luck,” and we said OK, thinking we already had it, because our guide had a name grounded in the hallowed halls of literature, not alt-rock, or the self indulgent neck tattoos of the new world as the bell above the door went ting-a-ling. Heading deeper into the land of milk and honey, our fly rods were now fully loaded and strapped to the hood like harpoons.

That sounded like good floating line, we said as we headed south.

It’s crap, said Sancho, our guide, who had one hand on a sweating bottle of brew, and the other lacing a wading shoe, the steering wheel neatly tucked into his lap.

“Ridiculous!” he moaned.

You can get it for 20 bucks on eBay, he cried. And don’t worry about leaders, he continued. I’ve got some 15-pound Stren to use. I don’t want you’all losing my rubberlegs on brush and such.

We motored past historical markers and the place where a Kentucky Derby winner was foaled in 1886 or so. Our guide, Sancho, a horse aficionado, said Spokane was the horse’s name and the chestnut thoroughbred was born in that round barn, over there.

If this seems absurdly redundant it probably is.

We had all been here on numerous occasions in various shades of inebriation ... only today, we started the morning with tea and had resisted compulsion the night before to liquidate our limited assets in the fine taverns of this sterling state, so everything, from the horizon to the rubber traction of the radials seemed awfully new.

Montana rocks on many levels, especially in summer.

Winters here suck. We get that too, because there was a time when we lived here year round, but for now we enjoy what our pocketbooks afford us: Driving the sweet grass back country looking for trout in June, or May, or sometimes February and on into the rest of the year — yes, October too — while we reside elsewhere in those months when even the mercury heads south.

We’re here for fish and the weather is tick tock, clouds and sunshine, back and forth and we walk trails to the river’s edge and Sancho leaves us to catch fish on his own. When he returns we have made neat little dream catchers of fly line, flies and alders, quilted them out of back casts, quaint contraptions netted with feathers from a sandhill crane and a robin’s nest, and he scoffs.

We lose all of his titanium-head rubber-leg bugs and dig into our own stash for woolly worms and grasshopper patterns that we drown with lead sinkers and eventually we catch fish, big rainbows that run and jump and splash and Sancho starts sticking closer to us.

The day gets dark.

There is lightning, and thunder growls like a belly overhead.

Sancho hangs tight and pulls a bundle of pulled pork sandwiches from a backpack.

And beers.

We sit on the river bank in the grass watching the sky.

Eat up for soon we will die, he says, but I have misunderstood.

“Kill these and let’s sack some fish,” he says.

We trudge the trails back to our vehicle as daylight fades and later, sit around a pine table in a small house in Butte drinking icy suds and knocking down the rest of the pulled pork sandwiches. Sancho, his eyes droopy now and his face dark, his skin like saddle leather on a new saddle, corroborates the tall tales of the day.

He understands the necessity of this and for that we are grateful.

“That was a big fish,” he says. “They were all big fish.”

We feel blessed.

And we go to bed.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt is a staff writer at the Coeur d’Alene Press. He can be reached at