Sometimes you find the fish; sometimes they find you.
Mid-June after a May-long drought and, weeks before we thought they would, the rivers had begun to "take shape," an idiom I've always loved for its suggestions of primal formation and rebirth. What was just days prior a brown blob squirming primordially down from Rogers' Pass is suddenly the jade-green Blackfoot, its boulders and riffly musculature apparent and alluring, the bankside willows laden with salmonflies three whole weeks before the bar-sidled, self-proclaimed experts—myself included—had anticipated. Why hadn't the bugs consulted us before emerging?
My old fishing partner The Dude was in town, which precluded normality. With his bushy gray-blonde goatee and sandy, slicked back, shoulder-length hair, The Dude bears an unmistakable resemblance to Jeff Bridges' Lebowski, and is routinely misidentified, a faux-celebrity he relishes around the world. In late 2001, we visited Havana together on journalist visas (The Dude was shooting photos for the cover of an American weekly and he'd gotten me in legally as his "assistant") while the Latin American Film Festival was in progress. Jammed with stars, the Hotel Nacionale's bar buzzed with the likes of Danny Glover and Matt Dillon, both of whom raised their glasses to The Dude from across the mirthful room. Later, on the veranda overlooking the Malecon, Marisa Tomei—there to promote her stunning In the Bedroom role—approached us with a round of mojitos.
A SALMONFLY SORT OF MORNING, OVERCAST AND FISHY-FEELING, IS A PRECIOUS THING IN MONTANA.
PHOTO BY DAN ARMSTRONG
"I bet a lot of people mistake you for Jeff Bridges," she said, and winked.
"Who?" The Dude said, deadpanning.
Tomei laughed and tossed her hair, a gesture I had witnessed onscreen countless times, but which in the flesh flushed my cheeks and set my heart to palpitating.
"And I'll bet a lot of people mistake you for Marisa Tomei," he said.
More laughing and hair tossing as I distinctly heard Sam Elliot's voice emerge from the ether: I like your style, Dude.
All of this is to say—aside from the shallow fun of name-dropping—that the uncanny often hovers around The Dude.
The Dude and I launched the driftboat into the Blackfoot while our third, JH, rigged the rods. During a September rainstorm seventeen years earlier on the Big Hole, I'd met the then-hypothermic JH and helped him build a driftwood fire underneath the Glen Bridge, and we made fast if lifetime friends. From the current-rattled willows, index-finger-sized salmonflies tumbled into the Blackfoot. A lone western tanager, fattened on the bugs, perched within arm's length. Where were all the other stonefly-loving tanagers? Up Rock Creek with the rest of Missoula's fishing traffic. First boat in weeks down a dropping Blackfoot on a cloudy mid-June day: I fastened the anchor and tried hard to check my big-trout expectations.
Once, under similar conditions, I had a fishing client catch a fifteen-pound bull trout that measured thirty-six inches. The client, a self-proclaimed crooked cop from California, had donned a "Bush-Cheney" sweatshirt in hopes of infuriating his guide who had taken to listing the Blackfoot drainage habitat damage said Presidency had by default supported. Watching my copclient release this once-in-a-lifetime denizen, my previously held notions of fishing karma washed downstream with great complication.
YOU CAN CRAWL BUT YOU CAN'T HIDE. A JUNE SALMONLY TAKES COVER ON THE BLACKFOOT.
PHOTO BY COREY KRUITBOSCH
Bull trout aside, truly large browns, rainbows, and cutthroat are rarities on freestone Montana rivers. To wit, a twenty-inch trout is a splendid fish, but anglers toss around the term "twenty-incher" as liberally as crushing teenagers use the word "love." Moreover, a taped twenty-two-inch trout is cause for taking a match to a good cigar, and a true two-footer justifies uncorking your cellar's dustiest Barolo. Many anglers who visit Montana from the East and catch their first big trout do so with forgivable overestimation; when you've caught twelve-inch trout your whole life, even an eighteen-incher throttles your paradigm. As my old boss, the late Tom Harman, used to say when a patron of his fly shop returned claiming to have caught a two-footer on the Big Hole or the Beaverhead, "Now, was that an Eastern or Western measurement?"
"I'm not sure I follow," the still-glowing sport would say.
"Well, out here we just put a tape measure next to the fish and let it go. You Easterners measure both sides."
On the Blackfoot as a soft rain began to fall, The Dude and JH caught scads of nymph-fattened cutthroat and rainbow on stonefly patterns, took a few large browns on lead-eyed sculpins, and had one whopper ("That was a two-footer!") eject itself from a deep hydraulic for a white articulated streamer, and fall back unhooked—but our prized catch of the morning wasn't even a fish.
Off a heavy riprap bank just above a feeder stream, JH had hooked a long-running cutbow that pulled heavily against the 2X, and came to the net a quarter-mile downstream on a soft inside bend. After a quick picture, I released the fish and watched it right itself, then spotted something that looked like a chess-piece half-buried in the shallows. I reached down and drew a small, well-worn stone Hotei statue from the sand.
We marveled at our fortune, wondering how far the rotund, smiling Buddha figurine had traveled—in a river that had just weeks earlier been pushing boulders along its bed—to get to this precise spot where we had anchored the boat. We knew that it could quite easily have been otherwise.
RAMP-TO-RAMP. SUN-UP TO SUNDOWN. JUNE DAYS ALLOW FOR A LONG DAY OF MONTANA FISHING.
PHOTO BY BRIAN GROSSENBACHER
The following morning I woke with a slight wine hangover, a pre-fishing state that I find oddly readying. One would think a haziness would lead to sloppy preparation, but ever since—at age eighteen, on my way to look for bonefish at first light, I drove a Volkswagon Westfalia down Highway 1 out of Key West with the camper top still popped and a buddy screaming from the upper bunk to "stop the fucking bus!"—I've learned to slow down on jangled mornings.
With the good word out on the Blackfoot and the guide boats flocking there, we decided to slip over the sloppy pass to the Missouri where the drizzly forecast portended mayflies and large brown trout sipping them in the shallows. JH had contracted a "streamer bug" the day earlier, and wanted nothing more than the back of the boat, a 7-weight loaded with a sink-tip, and a handful of brown and yellow bunny flies. He couldn't miss. The Missouri's brown trout had endured high skies for a week, and were unabashedly on the chase, boiling on his every third cast, and latching onto every tenth.
The Dude, on the other hand, could find no rhythm. He would try a dry fly with dropper, and get a strike or two, then a short-leash nymph rig with the same results, then the exact same streamer JH was fishing, and ditto. At best, he floundered; at worst, he looked like Pigpen, with the line and leader coiled whirlwind-like around him.
WHY IS IT THAT BOTTLES OF JAMESON AND CAMPFIRES GO SO WELL TOGETHER?
PHOTO BY DAN ARMSTRONG
After JH had caught roughly twenty pounds of trout, The Dude asked "What am I doing wrong?" in a tone that recalled Lebowski's "He peed on my rug, man."
"You've got to stop stripping your streamer so fast," I said. "JH is crawling his parallel to the bank and you're quartering."
"Well, if you had to do everything right," The Dude said with palpable resignation, "fishing would be like golf. And that would suck."
"Here," JH said, reaching into his rain-jacket pocket and proffering a green plastic butterfly ring that my three-year-old daughter Lily had given him two days earlier, "you can touch this for good luck. I've been hanging onto it like an old lady clutching her rosary."
The Dude cocked his head in disbelief, and then slipped the ring onto his left pinky finger. He tied on a small blonde caddis and, on his third cast, hooked a robust foot-and-a-half-long brownie.
"I've always asserted that talent supersedes all superstition," he said while fighting the trout, "But I'd rather be lucky than good."
There was, as the immortal Raymond Carver once titled a short story, "so much water so close to home," and yet we elected to fish the Missouri a second day. We had nick-named JH "Ramp-to-Ramp" because he caught fish from put-in to take-out, and also "Feeder-of-Families" because, though he had released them all, the trout he had caught would have easily filled a chest freezer, Kenmore, 14 cubic-foot.
His run continued, effortlessly. From the front of the boat, fishing the same fly in the same manner with steady but paling results, The Dude could do little but marvel at his friend's success. JH's efficacy was such that I had little desire to fish myself. Maybe the no-mind of our Hotei, now housed in the boat's dry box, was leaching into JH's angling body, because as we began our third float JH said little, and registered only a pleased grunt when his line lurched tight and a solid brown thrashed hard at the end of it.
We had lunch, an antipasto—roasted red peppers, goat cheese, capocolla, salami, pepperoni, tapenade on baguette—and washed it down with a semi-cold Cotes du Rhone. Afterward, a few PMDs began to trickle off the shallow foamy riffles adjacent grass banks. I thought I saw a push of water, a big fish chasing an emerger to the surface.
"Dude," I said, "you should try a big dry with a real shallow nymph dropper."
"I want what he's having," The Dude joked, pointing at JH, though his rig already matched his partner's. He knotted on a large, leggy dry, and to the bend of its hook he tied twelve-inches of tippet, and to this tippet a #16 pheasant tail.
PHOTO BY DAN ARMSTRONG
The dark sky fell in on us, the low grey ceiling head-high, making it seem that little else other than the river and The Dude's floating fly existed, or was, at least, of consequence. The Dude caught a nice trout on his gaudy purple-bellied dry fly, and then another, then clipped his dropper off after a third butterscotch colored fish swirled under his dry. But when we came to a long river-left cut-bank where I have caught many large browns in the past, The Dude hauled off for a long cast and wrapped his leader around his head, and his tippet around the tip of his rod.
Just then, I saw a trout's nose, its veritable beak, poke out of the surface of the water so close to the bank that it was almost beaching itself. I didn't say a thing. I moved to drop the anchor and hold us in position but knew such a move would spook a fish like that. I opened my mouth to tell The Dude, now fumbling to untangle his line, about the size of the rising fish but cut myself off, knowing such a revelation would only serve to further unnerve my already anxious friend.
The fish—not just big, but very big—sipped a mayfly one-eighth the size of our fly just as The Dude finished un-crocheting his monofilament leader. He tossed his slop to the front of the boat.
YOU CAN TELL FROM HERE THAT THAT FISH IS AN EASY 22 INCHES.
PHOTO BY DAN ARMSTRONG
"Eastman," I said, calling him by his last name so he would know the gravity of my instruction, "throw a cast into the left bank at nine o'clock, as far back under the cut as you can."
What followed called immediately to mind the phrase "8-ball, corner pocket": the fly landed precisely where the water met the land—so close I could imagine soil ticking from the cut onto the bug's white wing—and floated no more than six inches before the big brown opened its wide maw and vacuumed The Dude's fly into its mouth.
The great Thomas McGuane once wrote an essay called "Angling Versus Acts of God." I thought along similar lines—angling versus acts of Hotei, angling versus acts of a daughter's green plastic butterfly ring, etc.—as I hung the net over the side of the boat and waited for the brute of a trout to tire. A reverent quiet came over us as the fish sawed back and forth in the current. We had caught and measured numerous fish over twenty inches in the past few days, but even from a few rod lengths we could clearly see that this fish was of a different class.
PHOTO BY DAN ARMSTRONG
I told The Dude to "Be careful because that fish is gonna bolt again when it sees the boat," but it made no last dash, simply slid under the surface of the water toward the bow, and we all exhaled when the net's rubber basket bowed with five pounds of kipe-jawed brown trout. We measured the buck twice—just over 24"—and took a couple of pictures with The Dude holding it, abiding, as it were, with a freshly lit cigarette in his mouth.
That night at dinner JH equated the entire boondoggled procession of moments to "blowing two-thousand bucks in a Vegas gentleman's club, crying over the hole you'd just blown in your kids' college fund, then pulling a twenty-dollar slot with the last chip in your pocket and winning three-thousand." Then added, "Not that that's ever happened to me."
PHOTO BY DAN ARMSTRONG
The waitress came by and I ordered a salad, "A Caesar with nothing on it, please." "Not even croutons?"
"Sure, I guess I'd take some croutons. How about seven of them," I joked.
A few minutes later she set the salad in front of me. I counted seven croutons. I forked the lettuce around the plate to make sure none were hiding: seven.
"That was really sweet," I said. "You put seven croutons on my salad for me."
"No, I didn't," she said. I just punched ‘Caesar salad' on the computer and picked up the order. Are you telling me there's seven croutons on the plate?"
"We're playing Powerball tonight," JH yelled to the waitress. "And you're picking one of the numbers!"
Later at the Sinclair gas station we chose five numbers. If I could have bet on us winning the $54 Million, I would have. Even after taxes and split three ways, I thought, that's a lot of green. But then again, the little stone Hotei that I found—or that found me—carries just the pack on his back, and he looks pretty happy.