Heading south in the late-spring Montana-Wyoming evening, I had the pickup's radio dialed to Act Two of Bacchus and Ariadne by French composer Albert Roussel, as performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic. It was not that I just can't get enough of ballet music, as much as it was the only kind of music I was able to tune in at that time, in that place, that didn't have something to do with eighteen-wheelers or Mama. Besides, I liked the idea of there being a "Buffalo Philharmonic," whether one envisioned orchestral bison or the disconcerting image of that western New York port town's actually having a "philharmonic."
"Buffalo," the town's name, was also a probable corruption of the voyageurs' original name for the spot, Beau Fleuve, "beautiful river." I glanced over at the passenger's side at the kid slumped against his seat belt, little spit bubbles forming on his lips as he slept, and wondered if he were dreaming of the beautiful river and its fish. It had been a long day on the water, the kid's first time in waders and using a flyrod, and now he was worn out. Looking with great emotion on my 11-year-old son, I wished he were awake so I could tell him that if he ever outfished me like that again, he should plan on hiking home from the river.
That river would have been the much maligned-and-praised Bighorn ("nobody fishes there anymore because it's too crowded") in southern Montana, north of our home. I had talked local guide cum outdoor writer Bob Krumm (307/673-1505) into taking us onto the river and to showing my son how to cast a flyline. (If any of you has ever tried to teach your own offspring how to drive a car or use power tools, you will realize that sometimes it is best to involve a neutral and infinitely patient third party in the instruction process, particularly of a skill as subtle and potentially exasperating as flycasting-unless, of course, you are willing to run the risk of ultimately having child-protective services drawn into the case.) Bob proved to be a generous instructor, even arranging for us to come by his house some weeks before the trip so the kid could learn the basics and then take them home to work on. And for those weeks we did work on them, he and I, Bob having made the way much easier and far less likely to result in raised voices and traumatic childhood memories.
Then Bob was rowing us in his driftboat away from the put-in on the river in the early morning cool. We passed over shoals of carp and whitefish and big trout finning deep in the channel, the kid fascinated by them all. We came around a point where a side channel flowed into the river, and Bob saw on the far side that the bank was empty at one of his favored fishing spots. Stroking across the current, he landed us on the rocky beach. The kid stepped into the river now for the first time-Heraclitus having told us you can't do it twice-and Bob walked him downstream and I went up.
We were both fishing Bob's rig of choice, a No. 16 flashback Baetis nymph (of his own design) on a 4X tippet, with a No. 18 gold-ribbed Hare's Ear on a foot of 5X tippet tied to the eye of the Baetis, all topped by a plastic orange strike indicator. Too many folks underrate, or disdain, fishing wet versus dry, but if anything, a wet fly requires a level of concentration several degrees higher than a dry as you try to detect, in Bob's words, the slightest "perturbation of the meniscus" that can tell you that a trout has taken the nymph. Concentrating as intensely as I could, though, fishing my stretch of the river a hundred-and-fifty yards up from Bob and the kid, I was perturbed by the distinct lack of perturbation. I kept checking out the kid, hoping he wouldn't be overly disappointed by the slow pace of the day-"that's why they call it 'fishing,' and not 'catching'"-except on my third or fourth look over, he didn't seem disappointed at all, his 6-weight rod having a rather telltale and deep bow to it.
From a distance, I watched him play the fish carefully, and maybe just a might too expertly, adjusting to runs and leaps, and after five minutes I saw Bob step out with the landing net and I reeled in and walked down to see what he had.
What the kid had was 20 1/2 inches of wild rainbow for his first trout on a fly, and all I could think was what have I done?
It goes without saying that although I did manage to catch many nice fish that day, the trout the kid hooked, landed, and released surpassed mine in number, length, and weight by a long chalk. Trying to salvage some paternal dignity, I had worked myself into a zone of angling determination where the only thing I saw was the afterglow of the strike indicator passing across my retina, when Bob walked up and said that the kid was getting tired, and maybe we should float on down to the take-out. I was about to tell him that it was still early, when he told me that it was nearly 5:00; I thought it was about 1:00-either the mark of a good day or total obsession.
I fished as we drifted, but the kid sat in the back, peering into the passing river and watching the trout and muskrat and goldeneye, and that seemed to be enough. After a while I put my rod up, too, and just enjoyed the river, seeing the geese and ducks, the wild roses, the beaver lodges, all the things I would have missed if I had only kept staring at the river as if it were nothing more than a conduit for fish sport. I came to an honest appreciation of Mr. Toad's, or whoever's, belief that there "is nothing-absolutely nothing-half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." In this way, as well, the kid had shown me up. Then we were out of the boat and the river and heading home, the kid out cold ten minutes into the drive.
There's something awfully anachronistic, and maybe just slightly selfish and even quixotic, about wanting your kid to learn how to fly-fish-largely, if not entirely, because it's what you like to do, too. And let's be honest: Odds were that the kid could have just as easily been dreaming about Star Wars as about beautiful rivers and big rainbow. The only thing I could say, as the ballet music faded and the lights of home come into sight, was that at least, now, he had a chance to dream about water and trout, and what he did with that would be up to him. He started to stir into wakefulness as we turned up the drive to the house, and I also had to admit that he had given me a chance, too, of not looking at rivers the same way twice.
Thomas McIntyre has written for Sports Afield magazine for nearly a quarter century. He is the author of four books on hunting and fishing, including the critically acclaimed "Dreaming the Lion", published by Down East Books. His newest book, "Hunting Days", will be published next year by The Lyons Press. Tom lives with his wife and son in northern Wyoming.
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