LIVINGSTON, Mont. — A river ran through me.
It ran through my shoes, my socks, my pants and my underwear. Cold Montana river water. Did I mind? Ha! I am rugged. I am tough. Besides, I was too busy having this stimulating discussion with my fishing guide:
“Look! I got something! Is it a fish?”
“It’s a twig.”
Reel, cast . . .
“How about that? Is that a fish?”
“It’s a branch.”
Reel, cast . . .
“That’s my hat.”
I have no skill for fishing. You probably can tell. We fished a little as kids in Philadelphia, but mostly we just sat around, throwing worms at each other. When a fish actually appeared on our lines, we were so shocked, we ran away. “How did THAT happen?” we’d say, racing down the hill in case the thing had a gun. Eventually, fish would get yanked out of the water, take one look at us, say, “God, not you again,” and unhooked themselves.
Which is pretty much all I knew about fishing — until I reached Montana. Suddenly, here I was, beneath the mighty Absaroka Mountains on the Yellowstone River, fly casting in the same hallowed waters as the characters in “A River Runs Through It” — only with less music, less slow-motion camera work and certainly less luck. Actually, no luck. Unless you count catching the back of the boat as lucky.
Reel, cast . . .
Nonetheless, I was happy to be here, simply because, compared to my previous experiences — surfing the Great Lakes, climbing Devils Tower — this was like a La-Z-Boy recliner. I was now halfway through my fantasy week of adventure travel. Soon, my boss would return to discover The Expense Account From Hell. I figured a nice big rainbow trout might soften the blow.
Not that I’d figured to catch one.
Reel, cast . . .
“Is that a fish? HEY! IT’S MOVING!”
“That’s my boot.”
Why fly-fishing? Well. What adventure trip would be complete without a sport that used to be for old men in ugly hats, and is now so trendy it makes Esquire magazine’s cover? Fly-fishing. Everyone’s doing it. They arrive in old campers or new Chevy Blazers, with aged wooden poles or yuppie graphite models. Fly-fishing is religion. Fly-fishing is Zen. Fly- fishing is . . . expensive.
“You’ll need a rod,” they said at the Montana Troutfitters Orvis Shop in Bozeman, where my adventure began.
“A rod,” I said. “Hmm. Can I rent that?”
“And a reel.”
“Line would be good.”
“Waiters? They serve lunch?
“Waders. These things.”
They handed me a pair of what I thought were Dom DeLuise’s pants. I shrugged and pulled them on, putting the straps over my shoulders. I looked liked part of a German oompah band.
“Uh, sir,” the owner, Dave Kumlien, said, pointing at my feet, “you put your shoes on after the waders.”
“Of course,” I said, turning salmon.
Did I say salmon? Sorry. I meant trout. We were fishing for trout. That’s what my guide said as we drove through the countryside. Like the guides who took me surfing and rock climbing, my fishing guide, a hearty, dark-haired fellow named Paul Tunkis, had this way of making the most complex things seem like common knowledge.
Common to everyone, that is, but me.
“I’ve got flies,” he said.
“I’m sorry. Did you see a doctor?”
“Flies for fishing.”
He opened a small case to reveal — and I say this with all due respect to fishermen like Ted Williams — some of the most disgusting synthetic creatures
ever created. They had big tails and hairy wings. I’m telling you, if fish get hungry looking at these things, they deserve a hook in the mouth.
“You wanna try a nymph?” he said.
“I’ve got a girlfriend . . .”
“A nymph. One of these little flies. We can fish those first.”
“Oh! Sure! Nymphs are good.”
I shook my head as we bounced along. Nymphs? What’s next? Hookers?
We parked the trailer by the edge of the river. Paul pulled the boat off the hitch — by himself, naturally, as he is a member of the Guide Race, a superior form of human being — and handed me my rod and reel.
“Let’s talk casting,” he said.
“Great,” I said. “I thought Robert Redford was all wrong in ‘Indecent Proposal.’ “
He stared at me. So I guess humor hasn’t found its way to Montana yet, either.
“People say fly casting is difficult,” Paul continued, “but it isn’t. It’s a touch thing. Just pull the rod back, then flick it forward like this.”
He snapped his pole quickly, and the line came flying off in a sweet little whoosh, landing gently on the river and floating downstream. He yanked it back, it flew up and over his head like a large lasso, then he snapped it forward again, midair, and it danced the other way, once more touching down gently on the current. Up. Down. Up. Down.
“See?” he said.
“Beautiful,” I said.
I did what he did. I pulled the rod back, then snapped it forward. The line came shooting out, same as his. Right at my foot.
“Stop a little sooner,” he said.
This time, I reached water — very shallow water. I tried again. A little farther. Again. A little farther.
“You’ll get it,” he said, pushing the boat out. “People tell you casting is some religious thing. It isn’t. Knowing where to drop your fly is the trick.”
Well. I’ve always said so.
It began to rain as we floated down the river. The dark clouds mixed like water paints in the huge Montana sky. Fortunately, rain doesn’t hurt fishing. It doesn’t make the fishermen very comfortable, but it doesn’t hurt fishing.
“Let’s cast from the banks,” Paul said. “Maybe we’ll have more luck.”
“Do you carry an umbrella?” I asked.
He smirked. We walked along. The bank was dirt and stone.
“Step forward before you cast,” Paul said.
“You mean — like, in the water?”
I squished ahead. My boots were submerged. A little farther. My shins were submerged. A little far– ooops.
Splash! I was soaked.
“Careful of the footing,” Paul said.
I stood up. I cast. I reeled. I cast.
I reeled. I rocked. I reeled. I rolled.
“Maybe it’s the flies,” Paul said.
He opened his little case — or, as fish like to call it, the munchie pack
— and picked some weird colored insect, which might have been the Hemingway Caddis, or the Olive Elkhair Caddis. I cast that a few times. He tried another, which might have been the Gold-Robbed Hare ear, or the Tan Caddis Pupa.
I am not making these names up. These are real flies. Well. Real fake flies. Here is a list of some more, along with their distinguishing characteristics.
Yellow Humpy: Dry fly.
Mayfly: May not.
Brown Wooly: Likes Elvis.
Prince Nymph: Thinking of changing its name to symbol.
Hairwig Fly: Once dated Brooke Shields.
How do you know which fly to use?
Simple. You let your guide decide.
After two hours, we still hadn’t caught anything. I didn’t mind. Fly-fishing, I learned, is really about fooling the fish into thinking your fly is real, and not some ugly, hairy thing you bought in a shop. I never was much into fooling animals. Besides, the casting was hypnotic, and the scenery in Montana is so spectacular, you almost forget what you’re there to do. I swear we floated past some of the prettiest real estate in America, mountains, green meadows, clear streams. Unfortunately, it was mostly owned by movie stars.
“That’s Peter Fonda’s place,” Paul said. “I think Meg Ryan owns that . .
. the guy who started Mad magazine owns that . . .”
Suddenly, there was a jerk on my line.
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “It’s a sunken refrigerator.”
“No,” Paul said, slowly, as my line began shooting out, “you’ve actually . .
. got a fish.”
I sprang to life. I squeezed the rod. Suddenly, I realized Paul had never shown me what to do if I caught something, probably because the idea was so comical.
“Work it!” he yelled. “Point the rod tip up!”
“Where’s the tip?”
“Reel in the slack!”
“Which part’s the reel?”
“It’s swimming toward you!”
“Why? What’d I do?”
“Take up the slack! Take up the slack!”
For the next three minutes, I moved like a member of Devo, jerking every which way, fighting the fish. It ran left, right, out, in. Somehow — it probably go so dizzy — the thing did not escape. And there came a moment when I reeled and reeled and suddenly, at the end of my line, was a beautiful, live rainbow trout, 16 inches long, which looked at me as if to say, “You! That idiot from Philadelphia! I’m so ashamed!”
Paul threw a net over it.
“Congratulations,” he said. “You want to unhook it?”
“What? Touch it? You must be crazy.”
He laughed, mostly because he finally could go home, and we took a photo. He then released the fish, and it swam off in total embarrassment, unable to ever go home again.
As for me, well, I was exhilarated. The thrill of landing a fish is everything it’s cracked up to be, and slimier. My breath was coming in nervous spurts, and I kept saying, “I caught something. I caught something.” I didn’t even ask what insect I used, although I am guessing, as a city kid, we went with Superfly.
“Well, what did you think?” Paul asked, as we floated back toward the trailer. I looked down the Yellowstone River, and up toward the mountains. The shower had stopped and through the clouds a rainbow, an honest-to-goodness rainbow, shimmered in the sky like a gift. I felt a piercing emotion.
“I think,” I said, wistfully, “I’m sitting on a hook.” Friday: Home On The Range.
WANT TO TRY IT? In the Bozeman, Mont., area, where “A River Runs Through It” was filmed, fly-fishing trips are offered by Montana Troutfitters Orvis Shop, owned by Dave Kumlien, who has some Michigan connections. The shop offers guided trips
— you can ask for Paul — on the Yellowstone, Gallatin and Madison rivers. A full-day float trip (with a boat) for two people costs $245; a half-day (two people) costs $175. There also are walking trips and tube floats for lesser rates. Equipment can be rented for $15 a day. Call ahead for bookings, because summers are busy. Call 1-800-64ORVIS. Or write 1716 W. Main, Bozeman, Mont. 59715. For information on fly-fishing outfits in other parts of Montana, call the Montana Department of Commerce, 1-800-541-1447.