Missoula Don’t get me wrong, the pluses of some time off-the-grid in the beauty and harshness of the great American west in Montana, also come with some minuses. A 1978 Airstream stands long and tall against the rocks on the mountainside, but is a constant, shiny target for every possible critter with four legs that takes it as a shining beacon hiding who knows what goodies and presenting a personal challenge. A 1979 Toyota pickup is the tortoise to the many hares of the highway as well. The spare tire was stolen over the winter by someone who understood how hard it might be to find another, and we’re still looking if you have a clue. Having the gas gauge and the lights work, we called a “win,” and laughed at the fact that the air conditioning and radio still were even held in place.
All of which of course means that coming back to civilization isn’t easy either. Puttering into town on four-cylinders in a 35 year old ride with 60 mph our top speed on Interstate 90 posted at 75 mph, or the rutted dirt that marks a normal tour on Rock Creek road and becomes an obstacle course of washboard and water pools potted along the route after the rain. A 45 mile journey easily drifts into an hour-and-a-half each way, sucking out a substantial part of the day when Missoula is calling with emails to be answered, Skype and cell calls to be made, and provisions, supplies, and repairs being required. Add to that a shower and a quick visit doing a load of wash at a friend’s, and we felt lucky to see the Silver Bullet at 6pm, having left in a morning fog at 9am.
We were undaunted though. Having been chased away twice the evening before by lightning and hard rain, Chaco and I were on either side of the creek, several hundred yards from each other, casting for all our might in no time. He was working the bank, and I was in the cool water up to my shins, glad to be out of the heat of town. Within five minutes a small trout picked up my lure in a riffle fifteen feet away in an almost lazy way, and spit it out five feet later, as if to say, “Hey, my mistake, this never happened.” You say to yourself, oh, well, it’s beautiful, but this is going to be one of those days. A half-hour later, still working myself down the river in the stumble bum, spastic way that humbles every fisherman on the tricky, slippery rocks who ever thought he had good balance on dry land. Casting towards the road side of the creek, I was snagged for a bit, so ended up wading across in my sandals and jeans until I could jerk the line free. I was surprised how much faster and deeper the water was on the other side next to the steep bank that Chaco always embraced, and I had always avoided.
But, if that’s where you find yourself, you make the best of it. Several minutes later I had a hard strike casting towards the middle. Another couple of minutes and the line tugged downstream and it wasn’t long before I had pulled a small brown trout up to the bank and in the creel. It was what we call a “breakfast brown,” large enough to keep, but more a snack than a meal. Always nice to catch the first of the season though, if for no other reason than to get it out of the way and relax the rest of the week. I would settle if I had to. I had spotted Chaco upstream off and on, so I knew he either had reel problems or was catching a few.
I cast out towards a rock downstream and reeled the line through a pool below me under an overhanging tree branch. Suddenly my whole rod was pulled down and bent at an arc from the tip. Something big had grabbed me and taken the line down and was fighting. Moments later the water boiled twenty feet down from me as the fish fought the hook in a frenzy. I still couldn’t see what I had, but I kept trying to reel whatever might be there into me so I could figure out whether I could get it into a net or take a chance of flipping it into the grass on the bank. All the while the trout kept fighting and pulling. Finally only feet away from me, I could see the fish, while gripping and pulling the rod, I managed to stagger near enough to the bank to lift the fish up into the weeds about chest level. It seemed huge, but my first thought when the sun hit the specks along the glistening beauty of the trout, was, “Please don’t be a rainbow!” Last year and again this year, rainbows on Rock Creek require a release, and I was already debating whether I had the character to let him go, when, seeing no rock at hand, I grabbed him by the gills, twisted the hook out of his mouth, and forced his fat, brown and red speckled body into the opening of the creel, firmly fixed under my arm, where my elbow held him tight. He was one of the biggest brown trout I’d ever caught on Rock Creek without a doubt!
Exhilarated, I took ten more casts, counting them carefully, because I knew this was going to top my evening. Scrambling up the bank, Chaco must have had the same idea, because he was already walking up the road towards me. He signaled “three” to me and I signaled “two” back. Suddenly it had become a great day!
Getting to the bridge, a US Forest Service ranger was pulling out and stopped by us. A helicopter had been steadily flying overhead with a bucket since we had been on the river, so we asked how close the fire was. “Around the ravine,” he replied, “but only about three acres.” We commented that we had been sensing smoke since we hit Rock Creek, and he thought it was mainly coming from Oregon. I mentioned how bizarre it had been to watch giant helicopters with 200 gallon buckets fight fires in New Orleans after Katrina, flying back and forth to the Mississippi River to fill up, but was there a lake around here or how were they managing to get water. He said their bucket was smaller, only about 160 gallons, and there was a deep spot in the river below us not far, and the current filled up the bucket quickly.
“But, you’re from New Orleans, right? You know Trombone Shorty? He was in town last night. It was a great show! Wow! I didn’t want to come to work this morning.”
I smiled and said, “Or any morning on a day like this, huh?” He grinned, we all waved. He drove away, and we walked over to the other bank and cleaned our fish, giddy with happiness.