US 287 is no Route 66
Wednesday, August 6, 1997
The moment I left Hwy 287 at the turn off to Wade Lake, the sun came out, a warm breeze kicked up from the south, pleasant thoughts of lost loves filled my head, scores of cows appeared out of nowhere for the dog to bark at. I found the two rolls of film I had lost a week ago. I got the last vacant campsite at Wade Lake, by far and away the best site in the campground. A 20-inch rainbow trout decided to sample my designed-by- Kohlie flutter spoon. My computer was humming and spewing finely constructed vernacular. The cows were there to bid Zelda adieu as we re-emerged onto Hwy 287.
Five minutes later I pulled into Blue Ribbon Flies to send some email and look for a fly reel. The evil spirits of Hwy 287 had again taken possession of its innocent travelers. The phone, which worked perfectly for Blue Ribbon Flies, would not give my computer a dial tone. Then my battery was dead. They could not be revived with the power cord. I was dead in the water. No dispatches. No email. No hope of quick salvation. I continued on Hwy 287 to Butte, hoping for a miracle man. It rained. My van shimmied, shook, and scared me as the brakes strained nobly to grasp the warped and abused front discs as I descended into the Ruby River Valley. Black clouds surrounded the van and the rain poured forth. Wipers squeaked irritatingly like nails on a chalkboard. I neared Butte, exiting Hwy 287. While the rain didn’t cease falling, I thought I detected a slight lightening of the dismal sky.
Inquiries were made of local computer doctors. The first doc showed me his best bedside manner. I sought a second opinion. The next correctly made the diagnosis, the AC converter, expressing his extreme reluctance at going internally. Empathetically he suggested a practitioner of alternative electronics, Charlie at Charlie’s Audio, on a side street behind Lenny’s Casino. At Charlies they visually inspected the converter and marveled at its specs. Nineteen point five volts. Ooooooo. Charlie offered to recharge the battery so at least my email could be sent. I thanked him, telling I would return shortly. I went to purchase a fly rod from Bob Ward Sports. Forty-five minutes later I returned to Charlie’s to charge of my ailing laptop. Charlie explained to me that the battery was still uncharged. My heart sank. He held up my AC converter and told me that in my absence he had decided to operate. From deep within the bowels of the black box was discovered a detached wire. It was resoldered and tucked back into place. The patient was immediately on its feet, eager to dispatch. Emails were sent. Messages were received. Beeps, bings, lights flashing. Hands were shaken all around. I settled my account of $25.
My laptop was back. I had a new, very cheap fly rod, new line, a few hot flies, and Hwy 287 in the rear-view mirror.
During the rain delay at the Copper Kings baseball game, Rita, the woman sitting next to me told me of her friends who had just returned from fishing the Big Hole River. They told her tales of scores of 19 to 21 inch brown trout caught. She told me they were ecstatic. I have fished the Big Hole before. I caught a native grayling. I also almost lost my life canoeing it. The Big Hole is directly in my path.
At Blue Ribbon Flies George told me of the Madison River, (a river rife with "whirling disease" which affects the cartilage of rainbow fry, preventing them from swimming) and how the fishing had never been better. "Fish like the old days. Thirty fish-days." People were catching fish all over the place. While I was there he talked trout with a friend who had stopped by. The friend had done well. Great. He asked me if I had fished the Madison. He suffered my embarrassment at hearing of my ineptitude. "But I lost my fly rod!" "I’m sorry." George’s friend went to fish and George talked on. He told me of a woman he had fallen for, who chose another, a married man. He told me how the scorned wife walked up to the woman, pulled out a pistol, and shot her, the bullet going in her mouth, through a lung and out her back. That’s the way the girls are in Montana. He told me about Steven Segal owning all the land across the road, and Ted Turner, the largest land-owner in Montana, posting his land, keeping locals who have fished and hunted the land for generations, off the land. George’s friend, a Vietnam vet, who owns a gourmet restaurant down the road in Ennis, will seat Ted but not Hanoi Jane. Michael J. Fox, Michael Keaton, Andi McDowel, Bobby Knight, Bud Grant, John Havlichek are frequent sightings. So is, "…that guy…you know, he played Jake in Lonesome Dove? He played a cop on TV… I think in Hawaii…what is his name…you’d recognize him…"
This year grizzlies are frequent sightings. Behemoth bears coming right up the river.
I bought a new fly reel and told George I’d see him around.
Divide, Montana, the Big Hole River -
Sleeping in beat-up, unreliable vans…waking up in parking lots…is this anyway for a 45 year old man to be behaving? The last time I visited Butte five years ago, I think I spent the night in the same Montana Tech parking lot. After a Copper King baseball game. Like last night. Last night’s game went just long enough to be a completed game. Butte lost 5-2 to the Medicine Hat Blue Jays. Alexander Nizov, the Copper King’s Russian spark plug second baseman didn’t play much to my disappointment. Five hundred fifty-two baseball fans were in attendance last night. They witnessed a possible no-hitter into the fourth inning. Most of the fans seemed to get more entertainment, however, from Stanley Sellers and his champion Frisbee-catching dog, Zulu, who performed between innings.
Sandwiched between Zulu and his owner, there was also a paper toss, sponsored by the daily paper, the Montana Standard, where selected fans would attempt to throw a rolled up newspaper into the windows cut out of cardboard houses which would move around propelled by the humans inside them. There was a radio-controlled car race, which no one should have won since both cars, on their way from second to third ended somewhere out in left field. And of course the evening was filled with free give-aways to owners of specially signed programs. It was an October-like evening. Black clouds obscuring the mountains in all directions. The rain, obvious and moving toward the stadium. It was not an evening to be out in the backcountry looking for a place to camp. I was happy where I was. The rain fell all night. I slept contentedly. I dreamt heavily.
The morning was bright and inviting.
Between Wisdom and Wise River on the Big Hole River -
If there is a slippery place than the Big Hole I don’t want to ever step foot in it. Wading the Big Hole River is akin to walking a city sidewalk after a 28-degree rain. The fact that all these old fly-fishermen aren’t sporting some sort of cast on their wrists or ankles is surprising. But it is with much remorse that I leave the Big Hole River, truly one of America’s great fishing rivers. To fish this river successfully, perhaps any river, would require four or five days, the last couple days being the only days you would catch fish. Or, of course, hire a guide- $275- and learn from him. Only today, I learned I was fishing the river all wrong. Using the wrong flies. Having the wrong length leader. Fishing the wrong places in the river. Stomping instead of observing. In a perfect world, I would spend the next several days re-fishing the same parts of the river. Five years ago when I last fished this river, I remember most the terror of canoeing it; being here again I am reminded of its famous mosquitoes. Clouds of them. While Minnesota mosquitoes may be large, they are clumsy, bushwhacking about. Big Hole mosquitoes land proboscis-first, like a cartoon mosquito. Drawing blood even before its feet have touched down.
I caught one little rainbow on the Big Hole, but then I was fishing it all wrong. I was in the middle of the river unable to finesse my way back to shore, taking water down my hip waders, while acrobatically maintaining my balance. Despite the glowing reports as to the numbers of fish being caught on this river, the other fishermen I talked with claimed little success. By now I am accumulating fish stories.
My lost fly rod always surfaces early in the conversation and, before they form an opinion as to my fishing competence, I add the 20" rainbow I caught in Wade Lake. Using this conversational formula I have discovered that losing fly rods is not an uncommon occurrence. Barry Mawyer of Great Divide Outfitters told me he had left a fly rod behind, to remember it 100 miles down the road. He returned and it was still there. Another guide told me that he is prone to forgetting things, things of his clients, and has developed a routine. Mine is walking around the van once before departing.
Last night I had my trout for dinner. Plenty for me and the hounder. It was cooked in the traditional Kohlie fashion: dip the fillets in egg and coat them with crushed buttered cracker, like Keebler Club or Ritz. Place them in a cast iron fry pan in an equal parts butter and vegetable oil. Cook over medium heat. Before turning the fillet over, pour the remaining egg over the fillets. Serving suggestions: hashbrown potatoes. Cut a baking potato into thirds, leaving the skin on. Boil for ten minutes. Place in cold water to stop the cooking. Grate. Using cast iron pan, melt 3 tsp. of butter. Dump grated potatoes in pan. Place 3-4 pads of butter on top of potatoes. Cook over moderate heat until golden brown on both sides.
Rush to nowhere