Haunted by Waters

My buddy slows his orange Volkswagen Vanagon to a crawl as we cross the Madison River. It is a March day in 1994. We are about twenty-eight miles west of Bozeman on Highway 84–what locals call the Norris Road. My friend looks over the bridge at the Madison River.

But I scan the high ridge on the west side of the highway where Madison County Sheriff Johnny France apprehended the infamous mountain men–Don and Dan Nichols–a little less than a decade ago. I recall the ordeal of a young Olympic bi-athlete, Kari Swenson. The father and son kidnapped her on July 15, 1984, while she was on a training run high above the Big Sky resort in the dark timber near Ulerys Lakes. A day later, two searchers heard a shot and a woman’s scream. When they rushed to the spot, they found Swenson chained to a tree and badly wounded.

Dan Nichols had accidentally shot her. In the ensuing confrontation, his father, Don, fatally shot one of Kari’s rescuers. His shot was no accident. Thankfully, Kari survived, but the Nichols duo escaped. They hid out for five months in the Spanish Peaks wilderness area before Johnny France captured them on the ridge above me on December 13, 1984.

I snap out of my dark thoughts when my friend Dave Hansen accelerates and crosses the bridge. The river beckons. I am about to get my first taste of fly fishing in the legendary Bear Trap section of the Madison.

Emergency Room Friendship

Ironically, what brought Dave and I together was another tragedy–a shooting in which the victim was a young Montana woman.

The shooting was accidental. The victim was a young wife and mom in her early twenties. I’ll call her Cindi. She was a member of the church where I served as pastor. Her parents were in the church where Dave was a pastor. Dave and I met in the emergency waiting room as the doctors fought valiantly to save Cindi’s life. But she didn’t make it, so Dave and I spent the next days and weeks and months walking with her family members through the valley of the shadow of death. Along the way, Dave and I developed a friendship and figured out that we both liked to fly fish.

So here we are a few months after the tragedy, hoping that our time on the river will be part of the healing process. As pastors, we have a unique relationship with pain. Obviously, we cannot feel the depths of grief that parents feel when they lose a daughter or that a husband feels when losing his young wife. But we do share in their pain.

This day on the river provides some solace from the harsh reality of Cindi’s death.

The snow is softly falling, and this triggers a Baetis hatch. The trout are feeding. Every couple of minutes, Dave or I land a rainbow, interrupting the silence as we stand lost in our thoughts. What is it about standing in thigh-deep water, rhythmically casting a fly over weed beds and between rocks, and watching the snowflakes disappear into the dark surface of the river that provides medicine for the soul?

River of Life

There is something haunting and healing about a river. I suspect this relates to the Bible’s description of paradise. The final book of the Bible says that a river runs through it—the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the very throne of God and bringing healing.

It is often the silence and solitude provided by fly fishing Montana rivers which force me to confront the pain I experience when I walk with families through the valley of the shadow of death.

I am not a melancholy person. I find great joy and delight in fly fishing. When I step into a stream or river, it is not as if a dark cloud suddenly hovers over my head. Most days on the river are filled with laughter, and sometimes, I am so intent on getting the right drift that I think of nothing else except catching trout.

But I do let down when I fly fish. When I am present with people in tragedy, I seem to suspend my emotional responses until days or weeks or months later. The emotions often hit me when I’m standing in a river. Then I may remember my own pain—the loss of my father to cancer, the betrayal of a friend, harsh words from a critic, or simply being misunderstood. When the painful memories come, I often think of the river in the Bible’s final chapter.

I am thankful for the promise of a river that brings healing and life. No wonder I am haunted by waters.

The Texas Ranger Who Taught Me How to Fly Fish

future of fly fishing

It took a Texas Ranger to introduce me to fly fishing. I credit him with teaching me how to fly fish.

This was not the kind of Texas Ranger who was armed with a six-gun or a baseball bat.

He was a college professor from Texas who worked every summer as a seasonal Ranger-Naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park. His name was Jerry Williams, and he led a weekly fishing demonstration in the Moraine Park campground amphitheater. My younger brother, David, and I attended our first one in 1977 when we were both in high school. We must have attended one of these hour-long sessions for five years in a row.

Every year, the demonstration played out the same way:

Jerry Williams began by showing us three dry flies that would work in most places in the park– a size #14 Adams, a #14 Renegade, and a #14 Royal Coachman. Then, he had us in stitches telling us how some kid with a spinning rod and a big ugly Budweiser plug for a lure caught the monster brown trout that he had been trying to catch for weeks out of a stretch in the Big Thompson River, which meandered through the meadow in Moraine Park. Next, after admitting that his favorite meal was catfish and hush puppies, he said that he had found a sure-fire recipe that would work with even the biggest, tasteless brown trout.

“Just put that trout on a pine board, put it in the oven at 350 degrees for twenty minutes. Then, take it out, throw away the fish, and eat the pine board!”

The audience, usually about thirty campers, doubled over in laughter every time.

All of this led up to the dramatic moment of the presentation.

Brookie Coaxing

For over a decade, Ranger Williams had always gone down to the Big Thompson in the meadow below the ampitheater and caught a trout. He had never failed in a decade of weekly fly-fishing demonstrations.

Would today be the day to end the streak, or would it continue? The tension was palpable. But every year he caught a fish and kept his streak alive.

His secret?

The Big Thompson River, and all of its side-channels that ran through the meadow, were full of brook trout. Even on a bright sunny day, Ranger Williams could coax an eight-inch brookie from an undercut bank to take his fly.

This inspired my brother, Dave, and I to pool our money and invest in a fiberglass fly rod. The reel set us back about $7.99, and the double taper fly line (Jerry said we needed to get a decent double taper line) was more expensive than the rod! During our high school years, we dabbled off and on with fly-fishing. Our casting was, well, nasty. Often, the slap of our fly line created ripples and sent trout scurrying.

But most of these pools and runs had ample time to recover, though, because our #14 Royal Coachman spent about as much time lighting in the branches of a choke cherry bush or a Ponderosa pine as it did on the water’s surface.

Still, we always managed to catch a handful of brookies.

Rise amid the Clutter

It was almost two decades later before I really got serious about fly fishing. But even with my crude skills, I had enough sporadic success to keep me hooked on fly fishing. The moral of the story: find a good stream or lake with brook trout. Not only are they a beautiful fish, they are forgiving. They fight like crazy, too.

Ranger Williams was right. Even when your line and leader land in a tangled mess, a brookie will often ignore the clutter and rise to take the fly in the middle of it.

The Tenuous Nature of Life in the Outdoors

Every year, Steve and I fly-fish a stretch of the Yellowstone (the ‘Stone) River near Tower Fall, a 132-foot waterfall that empties into the Yellowstone. We generally park at the General Store at the top of the canyon and hike the switchback trail to the bottom. Then we hustle up river three or four miles, trying to leapfrog any fly fisherman. The farther you hike, the better the fly fishing (and the greater the risk for encountering a grizzly bear). This is simply part of the tenuous nature of life in the outdoors.

One year, while returning at dusk, we plodded along the trail along the river and looked up to spy a herd of bison lying like lazy milk cows in the trail. Maybe eight or nine bison, including a calf or two. I’m terrible at judging distance. Perhaps the bison were 150 yards ahead of us.

“What do you think we should do?” Steve said.

There was no alternate way back to our car at the top of Tower Fall. The swiftness of the ‘Stone’ and its slippery rocky bottom was too treacherous to cross, even (or especially) with waders. And there was no route around herd to get to the switchback that would take us to the top of the canyon. There was no going back upriver. Darkness was falling.

“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “They’ll get up and move up the ravine.”

Sauntering Curiosity

We did, and they did. Well, at least all of them except one. One of the bulls.

He did not appear overly anxious with our oncoming presence and when he finally scrambled to his feet, he switched his tail and began to saunter toward us.

It is now conventional wisdom that the male brain does not fully mature until its mid-twenties and even thirties, and my over confidence simply confirmed that the prefrontal cortex brains of our late forties had more room for development.

There was an uncomfortable silence between us after we stared at each other, at the river to our right, and at the oncoming bull, who seemed curious to meet his new trail mates.

We edged our way to the few feet off the trail to the bank of the ’Stone and held our collective breath. We could wade out only a couple yards into the river before needing to turn back. There was no escape hatch.

I don’t remember who blinked. But at about 50 yards (again, I’m a lousy judge of distance, just as I am the size of trout I catch), the brawny beast simply switched its tail and turned up the ravine to catch up with the rest of the herd. Steve and I hiked in silence most of the rest of the way to the top of the canyon, which was still almost an hour away.

Tenuous Reality

Like many, I’ve always found a greater sense of the grandeur of God while in the outdoors than while sitting on a pew in a church. The pew has its role, though maybe more of a kind of Puritan stocks to force discipline on my restless mind than anything else. And while feeling close to God in nature is always pleasant, there is another dark and important narrative to the outdoors. Beauty is over-rated when you think you’re going to die. I really could die out here.

There is the bison, the grizzly bear, the snow squall, the slip of your boots while wading into the ‘Stone, the rattle snake bite with no bite kit, or the turn of an ankle four miles upriver with no cell coverage.

It’s not morbid, just a reality that strangely helps me see the tenuousness and beauty of life.

Fishing with a Sage

All I really need to know about fly fishing I learned from Bob Granger, a veteran fly fishing guide and fly tier.

When you ask him how many flies he tied last weekend, and he says “twenty,” he means “twenty dozen.” Bob tied for Orvis for many years. Then he worked for Ted Turner, supplying Turner and his friends with all the flies they used. The people Bob has guided in his drift boat reads like a “Who’s Who” list:  Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Jimmy Carter, Hank Aaron, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Yes, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian leader.

The list makes me laugh, because Bob is politically conservative. Yet he speaks graciously, if not diplomatically about the people he has guided over the years. When I asked him about Jane Fonda, he said, “She was a very good fly fisher.” Hank Aaron? “He was a better baseball player than a fly-fisherman.”

Bob’s Pearls

I met Bob in the winter of 1996, the year I finally decided to get serious about fly fishing. My buddy, Brand Robinson, and I had signed up for a fly tying course at Montana Troutfitters, a fly shop in Bozeman, Montana. For about eight Saturdays in a row, Brand and I drove eighteen miles into Bozeman to learn the art of fly tying. The name Bob Granger meant nothing to me at the time. But he turned out to be a sage—a profoundly wise man when it came to fly fishing and to life. I can’t remember how much I paid to take the course, but the lessons I learned were priceless. Here are a few of the pearls Bob communicated.

  • Nymph fishing is most productive since eighty-five to ninety percent of a trout’s diet comes from below the river’s surface.
  • Like the rivers, you can always nymph on the spring creeks.
  • The best weather for fly fishing is an overcast, cool day. A sunny day is the worst. If you want to catch the “big boys,” try a streamer on a dark, overcast day or during times of low light in the early morning or late evening.
  • An old extension cord will provide you with a lifetime of copper wire for fly tying.
  • If you want to fish during a mayfly hatch, the best time is mid-day, between eleven and two. But if you are fishing during a caddis hatch, the evening is when the majority of these flies emerge.
  • Tie your nymph and streamer patterns with bead-heads. This will create a natural drift when your fly is in the river. If you insist on weighting your flies in another way, use a different color thread for your weighted flies to tell them apart from your non-weighted flies.
  • The more you fly fish, the fewer flies you will use! For dry fly fishing on the Yellowstone or Gallatin Rivers, an Adams or an elk hair caddis will work most of the time.
  • If fish are refusing your fly, change the size before you try another pattern. Also, check your tippet size. You may need to go smaller.

Now Mend Your Line

Thankfully, when I got my Certificate of Achievement for completing the Beginners Fly Tying Course—signed, of course, by Bob Granger—it did not mark the end of our relationship.

In the fall of 1996, my podcast partner, Dave Goetz, and I scraped together enough money to hire Bob to take us on a day float of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, south of Livingston. It was a perfect October day. The weather was cool, overcast, and drizzly. We floated a stretch which took us right by my parents’ home on the banks of the Yellowstone near the Mill Creek bridge.

This stretch of river had a healthy population of cutthroats and rainbows, with a smattering of browns. With Bob as our guide, I was sure it was going to be a thirty or forty fish day. Instead, it turned out to be a three or four fish day, and there were whitefish involved. Nothing seemed to work. Still, I gained more wisdom. Bob kept after me all day during the float. “Good cast, now mend your line.” Those words still ring in my ears after a cast. I repeated them to my two sons when I taught them to fly fish, and I expect them to pass on this bit of wisdom to their children as well.

The lesson in all of this is, don’t try to be a self-made fly fisher. Find a sage, a guide for the journey. That guide might be sitting behind the cast register or the fly tying bench at your local fly shop.

Bad Weather, Great Day

bad weather, great day

The rain is more of a West Coast drizzle than a hard shower.

At three o’clock in the afternoon the gray clouds hovering over Montana’s Gallatin Valley release the droplets of moisture they have been hoarding for the better part of the day. Before long, the rain droplets morph into wet snow flakes.

Five minutes later, the snow turns back into rain. The temperature hovers around 40 degrees. A September day like this is a terrible day for a fly fisher to venture outside. But I have learned that the worst weather for fly fishers is the best weather for catching trout.

On days like this, Blue Winged Olives emerge en masse on the East Gallatin River. When they do, the trout go into a feeding frenzy.

Stories of the River

I park my little red Toyota 4×4 at the edge of a rancher-friend’s pasture, a few feet from the river.

I can see my house, one mile away, perched on the first of several foothills which lie at the base of the Bridger Mountains. Captain William Clark and his Indian guide, Sacagawea, walked somewhere nearby as they made their way from the Three Forks of the Missouri to meet up with the Yellowstone River about thirty miles to the east.

More recently, local resident Jim Doig was killed when thrown from his saddlehorse not far from place where I am going to fish. His nephew, Ivan, tells the story in his memoir, This House of Sky. I peer into the Cottonwoods, Aspens, and the buckbrush which line the East Gallatin River. I am not expecting to see the ghosts of Clark or Sacagawea or Doig. But I half expect to see the large whitetail buck, which jumped across the Dry Creek Road in front of me a week ago about a mile from this spot.

The drizzle continues as I take my fly rod and walk through the tall grass to the river.

This stretch of the East Gallatin is no small challenge to fish. From an aerial view, the pattern of the river must resemble a piece of ribbon candy. This pattern slows the current to a crawl. Its surface is glassy, and a vague seam will appear for a moment and then disappear. The best places to fish are in the seams which separate an occasional stretch of riffles from the calm water. I find one of these stretches about fifty yards below a bend in the river. As I arrive at the river’s edge, the drizzle turns into snowflakes. BWOs flutter everywhere on the water. I prefer to keep things simple, so I tie on a size #18 parachute Adams.

Size #20 Dreams

Crouching at the edge of the river, I flip my fly at the head of a riffle, quickly mend my line, and get a reasonable drift.


Fish rise all around my parachute Adams. Five minutes later, I still have nothing to show for my efforts. It occurs to me that the insects with the smoky blue wings are tinier than my size #18 parachute.

So I switch to a size #20 — a fly that is ridiculously tiny, smaller than the head of a Q-tip. I drift the fly through the same riffle I had been fishing a few minutes ago. This time I get a strike. My rod doubles over and quivers as a healthy rainbow tries to shake free from the fly. This scene repeats itself again and again over the next twenty minutes. I end up landing eight healthy rainbows, all fifteen to eighteen inches long.

A quick glance at my watch tells me I need to head for home. I don’t want to leave.

The snow is softly falling. There are more trout to catch. There is a longing to stay in the moment. But if I don’t leave now, my cell phone will begin to ring. I know that my wife can see my red truck from our living room picture window a mile away. Dinner awaits. Then a work-related meeting. Reluctantly, I turn from the river and from the only run I have needed to fish, and I start walking back through the wet grass to my truck. It’s been a great day. But great days don’t last forever—not in this life. As I approach my truck, the snow turns into rain.