Have Fly Rod, Will Time Travel

I fly fish for one reason: to catch fish. Of course, I love the opportunity to be outdoors and experience nature. But I could accomplish that without fly fishing. I could simply hike or camp or take up outdoor photography.

I fly fish because I love the thrill of catching trout.

However, this does not mean that I’m unappreciative of the side benefits that come with fly fishing. One of them is the opportunity to do some time travel. Yes, the fly rod in your hand also serves as a time machine, transporting you to some places in the past.

Brookies on the Au Sable

Recently, my son, Luke, and I drove to Grayling, Michigan, to fish for trout on the Au Sable River. We spent a day on the North Branch of the Au Sable and caught our share of brookies.

What stands out to me most, though, was the opportunity to drift the river in an Au Sauble River boat. These beauties look and feel much different than the drift boats from which I’ve fished the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers in Montana. They typically run 23- or 24-feet long and only two-and-a-half feet wide, resembling the shape of a dugout canoe.

The Au Sable River boat has been used on the Au Sable and Manistee Rivers in northern Michigan since the early 1870s. Lumber companies used this flat-bottomed craft to move tools and supplies to their logging camps. Loggers used them to maneuver between the logs as they floated down the rivers and to separate the inevitable log jams.

In the early 1880s, someone got the idea to modify the design a bit to use this craft for fishing.

Drifting the North Branch of the Au Sable with my son, Luke (pictured above to the left), and our guide, Justin, took me back in time to the days when the Grayling thrived in these rivers and the camp cooks used these boats to shuttle staples to their camps to feed hungry lumberjacks.

Fly Rod under the Trestle

I had a similar feeling of nostalgia last summer when I fished 16 Mile Creek in the north reaches of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. I caught a couple of nice browns under a railroad trestle on an old railroad grade used by the Ringling Brothers. Every off-season, they used to ship their circus equipment to their ranch.

More recently, a scene from A River Runs Through It was filmed on the same trestle—the scene where Jessie Burns drives wide-eyed Norman Maclean onto the tracks, over the trestle, and into a tunnel. What struck me was how this remote mountain valley had remained untouched and undeveloped. There were no power lines, roads, or highway sounds to remind me that I was fishing in the twenty-first century.

More than a decade ago, I remember the chill I felt when fishing the East Gallatin River about a mile from my where my house. I had read enough of Lewis and Clark’s journals to know that Captain William Clark and his Indian guide, Sacagawea, walked somewhere nearby the spot where I fished as they traveled east from the Three Forks of the Missouri to meet up with the Yellowstone River.

More recently, local resident Jim Doig was killed when thrown from his saddle horse in a pasture adjacent to the stretch of the East Gallatin I fished. His nephew, Ivan, tells the story in his memoir, This House of Sky.

Something stirs me about the history that swirls around the places I fish. To be sure, it cannot make up for a lack of catching fish. But when the fish are sipping my flies off the surface, the historical dimension of the waters I fly fish enriches my experience.

So what happened a hundred years ago in and around the rivers you are fly fishing?

Knowing the history may not make a bad day on the river good. But it is sure to make a good day even more meaningful.

Why Great Days on the Water Are Hard to Remember

Great days on the water are hard to remember. They just are. Last summer, Dave and I had one of our best days ever on the water. A friend invited us to fish a creek in a remote area of Montana. We fished a stretch that meandered through a large ranch, miles from any fishing access. In recent years, the ranch owners have allowed few people to fish on their property. They have saved it for veterans, particularly wounded warriors.

But thanks to our friend, Dave and I were invited to spend a day on the creek.

Slow to Crazy

The day began slow, with a trico hatch that, as Dave said, “I just didn’t have the energy to fish.” Tricos are so small, and we came prepared to fish terrestrials, the big bugs. This was one of the last days of July, and it was warm. The creek was small, but we wore waders, in case we stumbled across a sunning rattlesnake.

About mid morning, the trout began to rise to hoppers – and just about anything else that was big and floated. And they never stopped. By mid-afternoon, Dave and I had each landed over forty trout apiece. They were mostly browns and rainbows, most in the 14-16 inch range. We also landed a few brookies and a couple West Slope Cutthroat.

The crazy thing is that I can’t recall any particular fish I caught. That’s unusual. I usually remember the 17-inch brown that emerged from an undercut bank to attack my hopper pattern. Or the 16-inch rainbow that darted to the surface to snatch a Royal Trude as it drifted by a rock. However, I don’t remember anything like that. I have a couple photos of rainbows I caught. Both are striking fish with their crimson stripes against their dark bodies. But I don’t recall catching either one of them.

Great Days on the Water and Angler’s Amnesia

So why do I seem to have angler’s amnesia when it comes to those fish? I have some theories:

First, I think my inability to remember a particular fish was due in part to sensory overload. Catching 40+ fish is an exhilarating experience. I highly recommend it, and I would love to do it again. But the more fish you catch, the less any particular fish leaves an indelible mark on your memory. Maybe that’s the beauty of days when you catch only a half-dozen fish, and one of them is a plump nineteen-incher. I caught a rainbow trout like that a decade ago between Quake and Hebgen Lake. I fished all morning and only caught one other trout. Oddly enough, I remember that fish vividly, while 40+ trout I caught a few months ago have seemingly vanished from my memory.

Second, I think the surroundings had something to do with my case of angler’s amnesia.

I was more captivated by what I saw around me than I was by any particular fish. What I remember from that day is landing a trout right under the railroad trestle where a scene from “A River Runs Through It” was filmed, where Jessie drives her Model T through a tunnel with Norman hanging on for his life in the passenger seat. I also remember the sight of an old trapper’s cabin. And then there was the railroad bed over which the Ringling Brothers used to haul their circus equipment to their ranch for winter storage. The two railroad tunnels were stunning, too.

Third, I think the human imagination struggles to preserve sharp images of what moves us most, including our most poignant memories.

A few miles from the ranch where Dave and I had our banner day, the south fork of the little creek we fished curls by a knoll on which a sheepherder’s cabin is perched. Western writer extraordinaire, Ivan Doig, was in the cabin on his sixth birthday with his parents when his mother took her last breath.

Asthma claimed her life.

Doig writes about his struggle to remember the event in a haunting sentence near the beginning of his memoir, This House of Sky:

    Through the time since, I reach back along my father’s tellings and around the urgings which have me face about and forget, to feel into those oldest shadows for the first sudden edge of it all.

Every momentous event in life is a bit like that for me. I try reach around the photos or the accounts of family members in an attempt to relive memories which are trying to elude me.

Beautiful Memory Loss

So the next time you have an unforgettable day but forget the details, be assured that you’re not experiencing memory loss. You might simply have sensory overload. Or maybe your day was full scenery or experiences more remarkable than the fish you caught. Or maybe it’s the common human struggle to recall vivid images of life’s most momentous events.

Whatever the case, your inability to remember the fish you caught adds to the mystique of your experience and makes it unforgettable.

Episode 19: Our Favorite Outdoor Authors

A River Runs Through It

There’s only one “A River Runs Through It,” the classic fly fishing novella by Norman Maclean. But there’s a host of great outdoor writers who capture the joy and emotion of life in the outdoors. In this episode, Steve and Dave discuss their favorite outdoor authors, including Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, and Rick Bass.

Be sure to download a podcast app for your smartphone and subscribe to our feed. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or Stitcher for Android.

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.