Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I awoke in the early morning hours to the clacking of bighorn sheep hooves on dry ground. Or was I going to sleep? I poked my head from my tent to find a gray haze hanging in the canyon, sheep no longer visible. Wisps of warm sunlight occasionally and increasingly found their way into the understory as I made breakfast of oatmeal and coffee to shove back the chill.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The woods are bright, in the Lolo National Forest, even behind a dawny veil. Amber trunks of lodgepole pines laced chocolate protrude heavenward in open groves amid a green forest floor. Cedar waxwings flit and chirp about them. Dramatic raveling mountains serve as their backdrop and hint at the presence of the as-yet unseen novelty of bighorns and the elusive mountain lions that prey upon them. A fawn wades through dew-wet grass as Rock Creek dances by joyously, singing to all with enough care to listen—the very same who notice the waxwings and the pines and find spiritual rejuvenation in them.
Photo by Matt Reilly.
    Now I hold no prejudices against eastern Montana, and the prairies and the mountains and their canyons that populate it. In fact, I’ve developed a rather strong infatuation with the crystalline, cold creeks that run there, and the willing trout who have seen and consumed live grasshoppers frequently enough to have developed a reckless appreciation for them. But it occurred to me among that awakening Eden that the landscape where I had pitched my tent the night before, in the western part of Big Sky Country just a few miles short of Idaho, was not created by God in the same motion. I’d be more inclined to believe that God promised Israel a homeland and then, in an act of fairness, did the same for fly fishermen.

    As such, Rock Creek and the Lolo National Forest is no secret among anglers. Before the sun establishes a clearly visible position above the canyon, the Creek’s banks will be lined by the God-fearing.

    I’ve carefully planned my sleeping for when I’m dead, though, and not in Montana. So before those warm wisps of sunlight became the majority and broke the canyon of night, I discovered by foot and gravel road a promising-looking stretch of water to explore.

    Before my eyes, a strong, tight run a hundred yards upstream flattened out into a rather flat tail, and rolled over in pockets over rock shelves. Current seams were a dime a dozen, each one strong in character and potential.

    Small cased caddis blanketed the cobble river bottom. I broke one open to discover a gray larvae inside, and then returned him to the water to find the stomach of a hungry trout. Spruce moths were hatching, leaving the firs and spruces to live another day, and dappling themselves on the river’s surface to restart their lifecycle and contribute to the fish’s.

    Taking visual cues, I rigged a large stimulator with a caddis larvae dropper and began stripping out line. Three false casts and an aerial mend laid a 40-foot length of line on the water, and the fly at the head of the nearest current seam.

Photo by Matt Reilly.
    The stimulator disappeared. It quickly reappeared as a feisty brown trout of about 14 inches leapt from the lie with my caddis in his mouth, then bore downstream against the flex of my modest four-weight.

    I released the brown safely, keeping his body in the water. Several dozen more casts yielded about half as many fish—a healthy mixture of shouldered browns, rainbows, and cut-bows. Each had a preference for the nymph, though one large brown, rising rhythmically, made a dash for the stimulator when it touched down inches in front of his nose.

    The fishing slowed as sunlight took over the visible scene. The moths disappeared, and so did the shadowy corners of pockets in the body of the river. It was then that I looked upstream to see a fisherman and his guide taking a casting vigil upon the upper reaches of the pool, along the whitewater in the head. Another team strung rods, shut the car door, and stepped into the river 40 yards below me. The world was finally awake, and the dream over, only to recur when once again the light fades to gray and the spruce moths come out to play, and I’m alone in the canyon, again, to dream.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

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