When he hit, he nailed it. Like a 20 lb. sledge hitting a finishing brad. Like a Mike Tyson uppercut. Like a Clarence Clemons sax riff.
My friend the Birddog (aka Don Hurley of www.donhurleyoutdoors.com fame) and I were floating down the seriously-swollen-but-still-clear Missouri River, in late June, fishing perhaps the only fishable trout waters in theWestern United States. On the oars we had our own Big Man, guide/outfitter Dan Kelly who calls Wolf Creek, Montana his home. The other Big Man, the one anchoring the E-Street Band passed away that very day, but we had the Big Man we needed. It was our second day on the water and Tramps like us, Baby we were Born to Fish.
Typically, on the Missouri by this time of year, you have at least a few hours opportunity for dry fly fishing; pale morning duns maybe, or if you are lucky some nice plump caddis will hatch toward evening when the sun starts to slant. Big Mo is famous for its awesome hatches of aquatic bugs that lure impossibly large trout to the surface, but on this day we were having none of that. Not this year. Due to crazy high water, the dry flies were off. I mean, we were talking about water so high that BD took one nice fish right out of a family’s lawn. Dude hooked up right next to the swing-set, I kid you not.
The Dog and I had fished with Big Man Kelly a couple years previous on a brutally cold day that with six inches of snow on the ground looked and felt more like February than it did early October. That day we caught more than our fair share of fish, holding the trophies up for pictures with frozen fingers. In fact, the brown trout featured on the masthead of this blog was one of those fine fish.
Since we had enjoyed success with Big Dan previously, we were eager to get on the water that morning. After a couple of toads in the hole (an Irish egg breakfast), and an extended game of “find the car keys” (Dude, look in the glove box), we met Dan at the Trout Shop in Craig. “Fellas, unusual times call for unusual measures,” was Dan’s morning analysis. Taking a tactic that could only be described as contrarian, we put the boat in right there in Craig rather than driving well-upstream near Holter Dam as is the usual practice.
Me? I love being contrarian. Game on.
While we were prepping our rigs, Dan introduced us to the magic weapon of the day, an itty-bitty, teey-weeny crawfish imitation. OK, it’s not exactly a yellow polka-dot bikini, but at our age, girls in bikinis tend to be in the rear-view mirror, if you catch my (drag-free) drift. We tied imitations of impossibly microscopic bugs onto tippets that only spiders could have spun and shoved off.
BD got the stink off the boat after about 15 minutes with a nice 15 inch rainbow, which was good. You don’t want a fish on your first cast as it ruins the power of negative thinking so necessary to success in fishing, not to mention Life. Then he hooked up again, at which time I thought we were seeing a replay of the day previous, where I was outfished by a nauseating 4:1. Déjà vu all over again as the philospher Yogi Berra would say.
Well, as we used to say in high school, fuck that shit. Finally, I hooked up with a nice rainbow, and then another and then another. While my status as an angler in no way requires me to tell the actual or whole truth, I will admit that I accomplished a difficult “long distance release” on the middle fish. Still, who cares? My friend Gordon Nacarrato (chef/owner ofTacoma’s excellent Pacific Grill) says that sex and pizza two things that are good even when they are bad, and I am persuaded to add a whippy fly-rod bent to the cork to that list, regardless of whether or not the fish reaches the net.
By the time we broke for lunch, we had almost already equaled our catch of the previous day. BD’s crawfish was producing best, but we also caught some nice thick piggies on San Juan worms and #20 pmd nymphs. Just before lunch I hooked up with a true oddity for the Missouri, a little 10-inch brook trout, which Dan conjectured had been blown out of one of the Missouri’s feeder creeks. In 25 years of guiding the river, Big Dan said this was only the second brookie he had ever had in his boat. Since brookies are neither indigenous nor exactly welcome in the big river, he offered to dispatch it for us and we accepted the offer. Happy Hour just got that much better.
Maybe it was the brookie, or maybe it was the way the clouds burned off, or maybe it was my switcheroo to the crawfish, but after lunch (tri-tip steak and black bean wraps), things got quite real heavy quite real fast. For a good couple hours it seemed like the fish were jumping in the boat. In fact, BD had one that almost did, a decent enough rainbow who went all Neil Armstrong on him and rocketed out of the water about 4 feet into the air in a desperate attempt to shake loose from the mysterious force pulling him into an unknown orbit.
I have neglected to mention until now that the Dog and I go way back, at this point in our lives way, way back. We did not go to high school together, but we raced our lungs out against each other in cross-country and track, with BD usually coming in a couple of steps ahead of me, although I did hit some fliers myself. Rivals on the track, but brothers off, we teamed up in college as Golden Gophers at theUniversity of Minnesota where we shared both an apartment and captaincy of the cross-country team our senior year, back in the olden days. This sidebar is pertinent if only to highlight in fluorescent marker our mutually competitive nature, not to mention our fraternal affection.
While we long ago left behind the desire to run each other’s legs off, we both still gain no small satisfaction from outdistancing the competition, which in this specific instance became the other anglers on the river. Just before I hooked up with the Mike Tyson of brown trout, I had noticed that we were coming up on a couple of boats of anglers parked on the shore next to a nice looking hole. I may have mentioned something about how nice it would be to take a fish from right under their nose. No sooner had the words left my mouth, but the fish hit. I lifted my rod and it doubled over. For a moment I thought I had bottom, he felt that immovable. But then my rod pumped with life and I knew it was game on. “Look out,” Dan cautioned. “This hole is full of boulders and he’ll wrap around one if you give him the chance.”
“O.K.” I thought to myself. “I have a huge fish here on a tiny hook with a barely-there tippet and a deep hole full of giant boulders. This is going to get complicated.” Immediately, Mike Tyson dove straight for bottom of the hole, while Dan rowed frantically upstream against that huge current trying to get me in a position where I would have a fighting chance. He ripped off line yards at a time, putting my antique Browning reel into overdrive reverse and into the backing line for the first time in its 20 year life. Gradually, with Dan’s expert boat handling, I eased the fish toward us, gaining ground a foot at a time and lifting him off the bottom with soft hands so he wouldn’t have so much heavy fly-line to lean against.
Then we saw him. Turning sideways in shallow water, his golden brown speckled sides looked the size of an oar blade. Granting that water and memory magnify all things, the fish was in the range of 25 inches. Fortunately I had evacuated my bowels before boarding the boat, otherwise we would have another fine mess on our hands. Holy crap, this was easily the biggest fish I had ever caught on a flyrod. He ripped off more line at will, again diving deep where he could use the leverage of my floating line against me. I could feel him shaking his oversized head, my rod no match and quivering like jello. I eased the fish back toward the boat and we got a second look, only to have him bolt again. “Oh boy,” Dan chuckled, again leaning into the oars. “You pissed him off now.” Yet again I eased the fish half-way back to the boat and we saw him a turn a third time.
And then he was gone: the hook of my bitsy fly had finally straightened out by our game of tug-of-war. When the line finally went slack, my stomach sank, but really only for a moment. It would have been fine to possess the picture of such a fish, but I knew right away that the memory was all mine, psychic ownership of the best possible sort. The fish was going to be released regardless, so the game ended up exactly where it would have anyway, with a big fish swimming back to the bottom of the hole where he lived. The only real loser was Big Dan himself, deprived a money shot for marketing purposes.
After, we sailed on down the river continuing to hook and land fish hand over fist, with astounding frequency. While the Birddog and I never double-dated in college, we scored numerous “doubles” that day on theMissouri, both of us hooking fish at the same time. To our mutual satisfaction, we hooked-up several times right in front of boats parked on the shore, taking fish right out from under the noses of competing anglers. That happened often enough that Captain Dan finally shook his head and chuckled “you guys are on fire.”
Some days, but not always, it pays to zig when others are zagging and this was one of those days. While literal busloads of anglers thrashed the waters just below Holter Dam, Dan snuck us off on the path less traveled. Proving poetry true, it made all the difference.
Back at the cabin that evening we uncapped numerous frosted Blondes, those of the Redhook trademark. I fried our little brookie simply with nothing but salt, pepper and a cast iron pan smoking hot with olive oil to make the skin extra crispy. Fresh from the water, it tasted like a clear, cold river. Luckily, I had thought to bring along two ultra-thick New York strip steaks from Dave’s Meat and Produce on North I Street in Tacoma. Along the way, I had stopped and purchased two pounds of perfectly ripe Lambert cherries ($6) from a road-side stand in St. Regis,Montana, so I improvised a reduction sauce of blood red cherries, garlic, and red Barolo wine from Italy. The steaks were grilled a perfect medium rare over a red-hot grill. On the side we had wilted spinach (imported from my Tacoma community garden) with copious amounts of garlic and a squeegee of lemon.
Over such a dinner, we drank the Barolo and revisited memories recent and long past, reliving these treasured moments as though they were happening all over again. Solutions to problems vexing the world were solved, if only they would put us in charge. Later, lying in bed with the wind blowing sage-scented air through an open window open I tried to imagine a better day, but could not.
New York Steak with Cherry-Red Wine Reduction Sauce
Procure the best quality NY strip steaks possible, the thicker cut the better
Handful of pitted cherries
In a pan, sauté some garlic in olive oil over low heat for 2-3 minutes. Add red wine and turn heat up to high to reduce by at least half. Reduce heat and add cherries to heat through until softened.
While cherry reduction is being made, heat grill to high (charcoal is best, but gas works if that’s what you have). Rub steaks with olive oil and liberally season with sea salt and coarse ground pepper. Add steaks to hot hot grill (live dangerously) and cook to medium rare. You want a nice carmelization on the outside of the steak without overdoing the inside.
Pour hot cherry reduction over steaks. Serve with sautéed garlic spinach.