Tooling eastbound and down on I-90 through the mountains of Idaho and far western Montana the other day, things weren’t looking good.
Blown-out. Blasted. Browner than a milkshake.
In the backseat of the Passat I had my flyrod, a box full of flies, and barrel full of hopes for tight lines. My ipod was fully queued up with the likes of James McMurtry, Neil Young, Gillian Welch, and Ry Cooder. Destination: Craig, Montana and the Holy Grail of western trout water itself, theMissouri River.
Sailing past such familiar haunts as LakeCoeur d’Alene, LookoutPass, andSt. Regis, MT, I started to get a gut sinking feeling. Every river was up – way, way up and often overfilling its banks. Every river I crossed over from Kellogg to the Clark Fork in Missoula was a stinkin’ mocha-choka-latte mess. I’d never seen it so bad.
On Highway 200 just outside of Lincoln, Montana (famous as the home of Unabomber Ted Kazinsky) I took this shot of the famous Big BlackfootRiver– the River that Runs Through It of Norman Maclean fame.
Not exactly the stuff fly-fishing dreams are made of. Visibility zero is not good.
For luck, I popped a cassette into the deck of the Passat and wheeled on down Route 200, one of our most beautiful highways, making my way through sun breaks and some of the most splendid scenery this side of a Scarlett Johansson swimsuit calendar. The cassette was a reading by the “Professor” himself, an elderly Norman Maclean making his way haltingly and hauntingly through excerpts from A River Runs Through It and my favorite all-time work of non-fiction, Young Men and Fire, his brilliant account of the Mann Gulch fire that took the lives of 13 smokejumpers in August 1949. It was an event that not only inspired Maclean’s great book of truth, grace, and redemption, but this fine song by James Keelaghan.
On the recording, Maclean not only reads his works, but stops from time to time to reflect and comment on the technical aspects of his work. At one point he stops and says with surprise in his quavering voice “that was actually a pretty good sentence.” Pretty good? I’ll say. Mad props to Norman’s son John Maclean (a peerless writer himself) for alerting me to the existence of this rare cassette, and to Amazon.com for actually tracking it down.
One thing I learned in listening to this recording, was that Maclean wrote A River Runs Through It to function on one level as a how-to manual about fly-fishing. Of course there are other levels as well (the novella is as layered as a veritable Walla Walla sweet onion), but you’ve got to start somewhere. I like it when that somewhere is rooted in something real. Or somewhere “reel” as is the case here.
After a long-ish drive of five hours I finally pulled in late to the house rented for the weekend by my long-time buddy (and one-time partner in crime) the Birddog (not his real name). Thinking ahead, I had prepared a jar of spicy homemade tomato sauce, one of a handful of dishes I feel confident that I have pretty much mastered. The sauce was cooked with spicy Italian sausages from Dave’s Meat and Produce and a half pound of large peeled shrimps that I had stashed in the cooler. Thanks to the wonders of cell phones, BD had the pasta water already boiling when I pulled in. My first move after finding the beer opener was to dunk in fistful of linguine. Dinner was on with barely any time or effort. We dug in like ravenous dogs, drank some Famous Grouse and called it a night with visions of sugar plums and rainbow trout dancing in our heads.
The next day we met our guide Mike Guerin at the highly recommended Trout Shop in Craig, collected a shore lunch (for me a rare roast beef sandwich piled improbably high) and set off for the river. The Mo was running as high as I had ever seen it, but thanks to a couple of dams upstream, the water was still relatively clear with at least five feet of visibility. It was amazing to think that we were fishing on perhaps the only fishable water in most of the Western United States. While we rigged up, Mike put his gorgeous handcrafted boat in at the Wolf Creek Bridge and off we went.
With the water so high, dry-fly fishing was out of the question and we were relegated to fishing impossibly small nymphs on tippets that appeared to have been spun by spiders. The Birddog caught several nice fish but my timing was off and though I had hits, I was not hooking them. Finally, Captain Mike pulled out his magic weapon: The Power of Negative Thinking. Passing through a stretch of decidedly unlikely and un-fishy water, Mike commented with absolute confidence that this stretch hadn’t been producing anything lately. Literally as the words left his mouth, I had a hard tug and eventually boated a sparkling 16-inch rainbow. Take that Norman Vincent Peale.
By the end of our float, we had brought a dozen fish to the boat, with Birddog clearly in the lead, outfishing me 2-to-1. His first fish, a dam scarred rainbow was perhaps the best piggie of the day and gorgeous specimen indeed.
We retired back to the hacienda and cracked open a couple (OK, more than a couple) Pyramid Curveball Blondes in celebration (beers, not babes). At risk of imminent starvation, BD fired up the gas grill while I prepped a gorgeous orange slab of Columbia River King salmon that I had transported from my favorite fish monger, Northern Fish in Tacoma, WA. I applied an improvised schmear of arugula pesto and sautéed some spinach with garlic and a squeeze of lemon. We uncorked a bottle of Andrew Will red wine circa 2004, a vintage from the Two Blondes vineyard (again with the blondes, what’s up with that?) and dug in. As we ate, the sun set against the stony bluffs guarding the swollen Missouri and we recounted glory days from some 30 years previous that would make the Boss himself jealous. We hit the hay early and slept like 50 year old logs. Warning: reader comments about “old growth logs” will be promptly deleted.
It had been a good day, a fine day on the river. At our age, a good day fishing can only beget a good nights sleep. Had we only known how fate would tap our shoulder the next day, our sleep might have been more like a couple of seven year old boys on Christmas Eve…
John’s Spicy Tomato Sauce (adapted from Giadia DeLaurentis, I cannot tell a lie)
One stalk celery, finely diced
One carrot, finely diced
Half a large onion finely diced (duh)
Several cloves of garlic, chopped
Red pepper flakes to taste
1 tsp fennel seeds chopped
3 tbs tomato paste
White wine, generous splash
Large can San Marzano brand crushed tomatoes
Oregano, basil, sugar, salt, black pepper
Saute celery, carrot and onion in olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, red pepper flakes and fennel seed and sauté 3 minutes. Add tomato paste and sauté until clumpy, about 2-3 minutes. Add generous splash white wine and raise heat to reduce by half. Add crushed tomatoes and spices. Can be served with sausage, meatballs or seafood.