Fly Fishing’s Unbidden Grace

Tower Fall in Yellowstone Park is one of my happy places. It’s a beautiful waterfall of Tower Creek that cascades into the Yellowstone River. Upstream from the confluence is a stretch of the Yellowstone River where Steve and I have caught so many cutthroat trout that we’ve dubbed it “Hopper Run.” During the peak of the terrestrial (grasshoppers, for example) season in August, we’ve had a handful of days through the years where for a few hours the frenzy of catching and releasing fish causes time to stand still.

Several years ago, though later in the season, we made our way upriver towards Hopper Run, alternating the best runs. It was about noon early fall, not long before the Park closed for the season. This year, we fished on a slightly overcast but warm September day, perhaps in the sixties. Days later, the landscape of Tower Fall would be dusted in snow.

Steve was thigh-deep in the river, dropping a fly around a boulder, and I was eating lunch, watching him cast. I saw movement across the river and said, “Hey Steve, look at that coyote over there.” The animal was making its way down from the higher elevation to the bank of the river, almost directly across from us.

“That’s no coyote,” Steve said. “It’s a wolf.”

Sure enough. It was almost twice the size of a coyote, lanky, and unafraid. Only forty yards wide, the river was impossible to cross, but the wolf’s curiosity was unnerving. It lay near the bank for about 20 minutes, ostensibly watching us, and then got up and ambled back to the ridge. No anxiety. No hurry.

Most likely, this wolf was a descendant of one of the Lamar Valley packs, introduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995, amid a cacophony of controversy. The Lamar Valley was the next drainage system directly to the east of us.

Harbinger of Grace
In the West, the wolf is either hated or worshiped.

Many western ranchers rue the day the wolves were introduced back into Yellowstone and elsewhere in Montana. Wiped out as fast as the bison in the nineteenth century, wolves often prey on exposed livestock. There is also likely an inverse correlation between the number of wolves and the number of deer and elk in an ecosystem. Other than environmentalists, few celebrated the return of the wolf to its native habitat. And in movies and literature, the wolf is often a symbol of evil, a harbinger of darkness.

But on this day, the wolf was a symbol of grace, a pause in the way the world operates. In all my years of fishing in the West and hunting in the Dakotas, I’ve had less than a handful of moments like this, where the fear between what is wild and what is domestic dissipates. Fear is replaced with curiosity, if only for a few seconds. It’s a “wolf lies down with the lamb” moment, which anticipates the New Heaven and New Earth. Perhaps, more specifically, it’s a “New Earth moment,” where the curtain is pulled back and I see the mystery of something that is perfectly wild.

Rick Bass, one of my favorite authors of the wild places, writes, “How we fall into grace. You can’t work or earn your way into it. You just fall. It lies below, it lies beyond. It comes to you, unbidden.”

On this day, an unbidden grace lay across the Yellowstone.

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