“. . . if you have ever picked up a fly rod before, you will soon find it factually and theologically true that man by nature is a damn mess.”

                                                                                                                        – Norman Maclean

I am a fly fisherman and a broken man – broken by nature, and a fly fisherman by choice. There are many good things about the sport, ways it makes you a better person. There is something about it that makes you pensive – philosophical, even. One could even say it makes you wise. On the other hand, however, there is something about this particular hobby that makes you do really dumb things, like wading deep, dark rivers alone or taking moderately-expensive trips at times you shouldn’t. Either way, as a fly fisherman I can’t help being reminded both that I bear the image of an all-good and all-loving God, and that in my tendency towards idolatry I am a creature of the Fall.

If you’ve never fly-fished before, let me explain it to you. The sport consists of standing for hours knee-deep in frigid running water, miles from the nearest town, with a stick in your hand. On the end of that stick trails a few feet of line, and on the end of that is a tiny bit of fluff intended to attract feeding fish. There’s not much more to it than that: cold water, stick, fly.

Sometime early in 2001, my dear wife informed me that that summer or fall I would not be going fly fishing in Yellowstone country – that incomparable trout nirvana comprising the upper northwest corner of Wyoming, the southwest portion of Montana, and mid-eastern Idaho. She was pregnant with what would turn out to be our third son, and he was due in early summer. (Since she was not fond of the idea of taking on alone the task of caring for a newborn in addition to two wild, young boys aged five and three, she quite reasonably expected me to be around not only for the birth itself but also for a good period of time afterward).

The fact is, I was not starving for time up there: I had taken seven trips the previous four years – including three in the previous seven months. But, being the fanatic that I am when it comes to this sport, I pressed the issue, concocting a harebrained idea to head up there in the spring, sufficiently ahead of the delivery date. If you don’t already know, Yellowstone country in the spring is far from being a glorious time to fish – in fact, it can be quite brutal. When I asked around, none of my fishing buddies wanted to go with me. So I did what any reasonably rabid fly fisher in my situation would do: I got a plane ticket and went alone.

Landing in Montana in the early afternoon of April 6th, I was greeted by wet snow, howling winds, and empty rivers. No one was fishing. This was because no one should have been fishing. I wondered aloud whether this wasn’t all just a big, dumb mistake.

C.S. Lewis tells us that “the moral law may exist to be transcended: but there is no transcending it for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them, and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim, and fairly and squarely faced the fact of their failure.”[1] I don’t know that I’d broken any moral laws in going up there at that time of year, but I was seeing very clearly through the windshield of my rented Chevrolet that I may have been unwise.

My lodging was the Rainbow Valley Motel in Ennis, Montana, a town that calls itself “the fly fishing capital of the world.” The claim has some merit: running right along the edge of town – a very short walk from the motel – is the world-famous Madison River. I got myself settled in my room and spent the rest of the late afternoon and evening attending to the million little tasks required to ensure I was set up for success on the water: checking knots, assembling my fly rod and reel, setting out my waders and boots, and calculating into a single fly box what I determined to be likely the most successful flies given the waters I’d be fishing and, of course, the time of year.

Bright and chipper, I rolled out of bed for the first day of fishing. That bright mood soon dissipated. I spent my entire first day on the river attempting casts with bone-cold fingers, muttering to myself as I tied on fly after fly after fly. Despite a near-Herculean effort, I caught nothing. Thinking maybe it was the river, on day two, I decided to head out in the morning through new snow over the pass to the Beaverhead River, another mega-famous watershed about an hour and a half away. I fished all day. I caught nothing. Enormously frustrated, on the morning of day three, I broke down and asked for help. The motel owner, no mean fly fisherman himself, offered kindly advice, so I tried an area downstream on the Madison, a place called Bear Trap Canyon. Now, where the first two fishing spots were at least lovely to look at, Beartrap Canyon appeared for all intents and purposes to be a carp stream. I wasn’t sure I’d better be occupied plying the waters of the Raccoon River in beautiful downtown Des Moines, Iowa. But I get why he suggested it: the water was bound to be warmer, an important consideration when you’re trying to find feeding fish that time of year. I caught nothing.

Disgusted, I tossed my fly rod into the trunk of the rental car, drove back to the hotel, and took a long nap. Dreary-eyed, as I’d slept too long, I stared out the window at what was still an overcast, wet scene. I thought to myself that the trip was a bust, now officially. I had to be back at the Bozeman airport by lunchtime the next morning, and, as I figured it, the rest of my day might best be occupied in trying to find a “Leave it to Beaver” episode on the rabbit-eared television.

Fishermen, particularly struggling fishermen, tend to talk to themselves. And something inside me said that I needed to give fishing one more try. Not wanting to invest too much in something that had clearly been a bad deal from the get-go, I very reluctantly decided to head somewhere close to my hotel room, just a little way upriver on the Madison to a public fishing access site called Eight Mile Ford. I mean, if the trip’s going to be a bust, it might as well do it in the part of the river I came to fish in the first place.

After pulling into the completely empty parking lot at Eight Mile, an open area surrounded by scraggly trees and brush and shaped like a large double-track circle from fishing guides with drift boat trailers, I got my waders on, strung up my fly rod, and selected a wet fly. This particular type of fly can be enormously effective if you have actively feeding fish. It is something intended to be swung across the current, requiring little effort on the part of the fisherman. It was an easy choice, a surrender of sorts since I figured that I wasn’t going to catch anything anyway. I might as well make the thing as painless as possible.

I waded out into the river, knee-deep and just bankside of a medium-sized, heavily-forested island that cuts the river in two. A sudden gust from the constant frigid, wet wind that had been my companion for the previous couple of days blew the last few remains of leaves from the previous fall season across the island and right at me. A couple of them pelted my face and chest, falling to the water at my feet. I paused to watch these crimson and gold sailboats race each other downstream. Figuring that I came here to fish and not to sightsee, I started to cast here and there, still not really paying much attention to the fishing.

In a flash, something changed. I caught out of the corner of my eye clear evidence of a fish feeding on the surface! It was a confident rise – the first evidence of the trip that fish still existed in southwest Montana. A moment later the fish rose again, and I was able to make out exactly where it was: just downstream of the island in a bit of slack water. My heart, already steadily beating with some vigor, nearly leaped out of my chest when the third rise occurred, this time with a demonstrably splashy vigor. All disinterest disappeared; animal instincts took over. This was a large fish rising to early-season caddis. And a wet fly was the perfect choice of fly.

With a thoroughly soaked, frigid casting hand, I perfectly placed the fly just upstream of the fish, right next to a stationary log, right where it needed to be. The fly line swung across but stopped in the current, promptly hooking an underwater branch of the log. Cursing myself for the most-untimely mistake, as the cast was surely going to scare the trout and cause it to cease feeding when I retrieved the fly by hand, I pulled back and slightly upwards with my rod-hand to see if I might be able to dislodge the fly without having to wade over and disturb the fish. To my utter astonishment, I found that the ‘log’ started moving. It was the fish.

After what had to be about ten minutes, I finally slipped my shaking hands under the ample belly of a similarly astonished rainbow trout that measured exactly 29-and-one-half inches from snoot to tail. I recognized that if this wasn’t the largest rainbow trout ever caught on the famed Madison River, it was pretty close. A true trophy, a fish of a lifetime. Naturally, I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed the event. No one was there. (I think I mentioned that no one fishes Montana in a wet snowstorm in early April).

Kneeling prayerfully, joyously, I held underwater this monster of a fish, a rainbow hen, for a minute or two so she could regain her strength. And taking one last look at the freckled face, I gently let her go. As she lazily made her way back into the depths, giving me a final flip of her tail before gliding into deeper water and out of sight, as if on cue, around the bend came a boat carrying two fishermen. They were as shocked as I was to even see someone out there, much less catching fish. I can still see their stares as they stood looking back at me, rounding the bend in their drift boat and out of sight, no doubt wondering at the tale I’d just hurriedly and nervously relayed to them.

The trip was a damned mess from the get-go, a horrible idea. I am a damned mess, pressing on as I did when all signs indicated I should have never come. But redemption is real. I learned on that trip to listen to that whisper that encourages you forward when you’ve nearly given up on hope. I’ll never forget that freckled face.


Citation Information

James M. Swayze, “Fly Fishing and the Fall,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 129-135.


Endnotes

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 59-60.