It is a late October afternoon, and rifle season has just begun. But the Montana weather is unseasonably warm. So my son, Luke, and I grab our fly rods instead of our rifles and head for the Beartrap Canyon in the Madison River. I’m looking forward to time on the river with Luke. I wish my oldest son, Ben, could be with us, but he is in college a thousand miles away.
Luke and I find spots about thirty yards apart on a favorite run in the Madison about a mile upriver from where it leaves the Beartrap. On his first cast, Luke apparently gets snagged on a rock. He turned twelve a couple months ago, and his fly fishing skills keep improving. But it looks like he’s going to need help from his dad. I see him pulling his rod this way and that way. But he cannot dislodge his fly from the rock.
Time is short today. I make my way upriver to help him.
“Here, why don’t we switch rods,” I offer. “Let me see if I can get your fly loose. I’ll probably have to snap it off, and I’ll re-tie everything. Just go down and fish the stretch where I was standing. I only made one cast.”
I take Luke’s rod and give it a tug or two. I can feel the rock which has snagged Luke’s fly move up the river about a foot. “Luke, you have a fish on the end of the line, and it’s a big one!”
Luke’s eyes light up, and he splashes his way back to me to grab his rod. “Go easy,” I tell him. Let’s see if you can pull him back towards shore out of this run.” For the next two minutes, Luke battles the monster at the other end of his line. Finally, we get it in shallow water, and the fish rolls over in the film.
“Oh wow,” I say to Luke. “It’s a big brown. Did you see that cream-colored body and those red spots? What a monster! Just go easy and I’ll get in position to net him.”
Whatever I do, I cannot lose this fish. So, I move into position, a few yards below Luke, and I get ready as he guides the fish my way. But I get too close too quickly. The big brown senses my presence and scoots around my leg, line and all. SNAP. The line breaks, and the trout is gone.
“Oh nooo! Luke, I’m so sorry.”
Luke turns his back on me. He is angry. “What were you doing?”
Now I feel my anger rise.
“Hey, I couldn’t help it,” I tell Luke. “I couldn’t wait forever to net him.”
Then I throw him a peace offering. “Here, take my rod and keep fishing and I’ll tie a new fly onto your line.” Luke’s back is still towards me as I hand him my rod. Now I see why. A couple tears slide down his left cheek. Oh great. I’ve ruined what should have been an incredible moment for him. My anger melts into a sick feeling.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “There are more fish where that came from.”
“Yeah, right,” Luke mumbles. Neither one of us is convinced there will be another fish, let alone one like that.
So I take seat on the bank and sigh. I root through a pocket in my vest and retrieve the box. As I open it to retrieve a new fly, I hear words that bring back the joy. “Dad, I’ve got one!”
“Alright, keep your line steady, but let him take it if he wants,” I say. Moments later, another large brown breaks the surface, whipping its head back and forth in an attempt to discard the fly caught in its lip. “Wow, Luke, that’s as big as the last one.” After a couple anxious minutes, I land this one securely in my net! I would have swam after it before letting it get away. What a fish! It doesn’t quite fit in the net because it turns out to be nineteen inches long!
Luke goes back to work. Two casts later, his strike indicator disappears and his rod almost doubles over.
“I don’t think I can land this one, Dad.”
“Yes, you can.”
After five minutes I don’t know who is more spent – Luke or the big brown. This one measures twenty-two inches. It is certainly the biggest fish Luke has ever caught on a fly rod. The next forty-five minutes yield four more fish for Luke. All are between nineteen and twenty inches. All but one are browns. The lone exception is a twenty-inch rainbow.
Luke’s arms are too tired to continue, so I put my net away and start fishing. In the next fifteen minutes, I land a couple more browns, both around twenty inches. Then, the catching stops as quickly as it started. The daylight begins to dim, so Luke and I head down the trail towards our truck and towards home. Our time on the water did not start well. But thanks to some big browns, the anger turned to joy.