What Makes a River Sacred

Many years ago, Eugene helped his dad build a cabin on the edge of a melted glacier.

Eugene’s family lived in Kalispell, Montana. When his dad’s butcher shop prospered after WWII, his dad purchased two acres on a low rock cliff on the west shore of Flathead Lake. The view of the Mission Range to the east is spectacular as a few of the alpine peaks shoot up to ten thousand feet. The cabin became a family home, and it still sits on this rocky perch.

Eugene eventually moved to New York City and later to Baltimore for graduate work. He ended up serving as a pastor for nearly three decades near Baltimore. Then he worked as a professor in Vancouver, B.C. I got to know Eugene later in his life, but he says he never really left his two acre homestead overlooking Flathead Lake. He explains:

    I have lived sixty years of my adult life in cities and suburbs in other places, but most of those years I returned for at least a month, sometimes more, once for twelve months — an entire sabbatical year—to clarify and deepen my pastoral vocation on this sacred ground. And even when I was not here physically, the internalized space grounded me.

I can relate.

Since moving from Montana to a Chicago suburb a decade ago, I often return to the places that keep me grounded. For me, these are two mighty rivers of the West and their tributaries – the Yellowstone and the Madison. I have been able to return and fly fish them at least once a year since I moved to Illinois. But even when I’m not able to walk along the banks of the Madison or to float down the Yellowstone, I spend a lot of time there in my mind.

What Makes a River Sacred

At the end of his novella, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean says, “I am haunted by waters.” In my case, I am grounded by waters. These rivers inspire me. They awaken a longing within me. They stir up thoughts and ideas and dreams about the future.

Dave, my podcast partner, and I have made the three or four mile hike (it gets longer every time we talk about it) up the Yellowstone River below Tower Fall a dozen or so times in the last few years. Sometimes, we talk. Often, we’re lost in our thoughts. It’s during these times of silence when my mind solves problems or generates new ideas.

These rivers bring healing, too.

When I’m catching trout, or trying to catch trout, I’m in the moment. But sooner or later, I’ll look around and get caught up in the surroundings. It’s then that I experience what novelist Leif Enger describes as “peace like a river.” After a stressful stretch of days or weeks, there is nothing like standing in the Madison River casting a size #18 parachute Adams to rising rainbows while the snow falls softly and melts into the river’s film.

Stress has a way of evaporating in those conditions.

The beauty of sacred ground is that you do not need to own it or live on it. It’s a unique gift if you do. But all it takes is an annual pilgrimage or (better yet) two for those rivers to ground you as they bring fresh perspective, clarity, and energy to your life.

If you don’t have a place like this, you will, as long as you keep fly fishing.

Your sacred ground — or river — may or may not be the stretch where you’ve landed the most rainbow trout.

But it will be the stretch which seems to breathe new energy into you like no other place. Keep fly fishing, and you’ll find it.

In one sense, it’s every river into which you wade and cast. Yet there will be places that stir your more than others. When you find one, keep returning. Look around at the landscape. Experience it in morning light and dusk. Fly fish it in the spring and the fall.

And during those cold winter days in an office cubicle or warehouse, spend some time there in your mind.

Episode 39: Wade Fishing vs Floating

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Wade fishing vs floating – it’s not either-or, of course. There is a time for each. But if you plan to take a fly fishing trip to the American West or some other area with bigger rivers, you’ll have a choice to make: should I use one or all of my days on a drift boat? Listen to this podcast, in which we help newbie fly fishers with the pluses and minuses of wade fishing vs floating. We also have thrown in some recommendations for your next float trip.

Listen to Episode 39: Wade Fishing vs Floating Now

How often do you float the big rivers? What do you prefer? Let us know your thoughts on this episode by posting your comments below.

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Episode 35: Breaking Out of a Fly Fishing Slump

fly fishing podcast safe wading yellowstone runners fly fishing lessons hopper season animal season fishing Rocky Mountain National Park

Have you ever been in a fly fishing slump? One of the signs is, well, the same old, same old. You fly fish with the same results: you keep losing the bigger fish that you hook, you struggle to set the hook on smaller fish, or you go for days without a good stretch, what Steve calls a “banner day.” In this podcast, we discuss a few signs that you may be in a fly fishing slump and offer some simple practices to break out of the status quo.

Trapped in Fly Fishing Slump?

We’d love to hear from you if you’ve ever been in a slump – and then broke out of it! Post your stories below. We want to read about what you learned.

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Be sure to subscribe to our podcast feed. You can do that on your smartphone or tablet by downloading a podcast app. The most common app used by 2 Guys feed subscribers is “Podcasts.”

View our complete list of podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.

3 Disciplines to Master the Spring Creeks of the Driftless

Recently a friend who lives in the American West said he had heard of the great fly fishing in the Driftless (southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa).

He wondered if he should put together a trip.

I paused.

He lives within an hour of the Madison, the Yellowstone, and the Gallatin, the big freestone rivers. He fishes three or four times a month. He has hit the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Yellowstone, he has hooked into the big spring rainbows on the Missouri, he has caught the running fall browns on the Madison, and he has had those late summer days when almost every other cast with a hopper pattern surfaces a gorgeous cutthroat.

Why should someone who lives near such waters fly fish the Driftless? In short, it will put every facet of his fly fishing game to the test.

Here are just three disciplines that forced me to up my game and begin to master the spring creeks of the Driftless:

Casting in and around Trees

It’s one thing to cast with a modicum of precision and distance when your backcast has no competition. You load your rod and let ‘er rip.

It’s quite another to drop a size-18 nymph with a one-foot dropper at the top of a run in a nine-foot wide stream with branches draped over you. When I started fly fishing the Driftless after twenty years of fishing in the West, I was shocked at how poorly I cast. No doubt, I wasn’t great in the West either, but in the Driftless, I was a genuine hack.

The Driftless forced me to learn how to cast with greater precision. There is still not much art or science to my casts, but at least I am more aware of my shortcomings. Fishing the Driftless forced me to pay attention to my cast and focus on placement in the run. I’ve learned the art of casting sideways in the presence of brush and low-hanging trees.

Crawling Up to a Run

Frankly, I had read Gary Borger’s book years ago, but the whole “stalking trout” concept was lost on me. It wasn’t until I started fishing the Driftless that I realized that much of my fishless afternoons and evenings was due in part to how I approached the runs.

Just recently, I watched a fly fisher trudge upright like a drunk Sasquatch into a beautiful Driftless run and begin to cast. He stood in the middle and toward the back of the run and cast upstream, in full view of the run, the sun casting his huge shadow across over the run. He cast for what seemed like 20 minutes, and then moved on. With his giant profile, my guess is that the trout spooked ten yards before he stepped into the water. I never saw a fish rise to anything he cast.

In the spring creeks of the Driftless, you cannot ape the Brad Pitt character in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” You just can’t. Fish are wary. The streams seem to be heavily fished. And to catch them requires stealth and strategy.

If you’re catching trout in a spring creek, most likely your knees (and maybe even your elbows) are muddy. You simple cannot stumble mindlessly from run to run.

Rather, you size up the run, see the next run above or below the one you are fishing, and figure out how to maintain a low profile throughout your casts. And as you move stealthily to the next bend in the stream.

Eliminating False Casts

I like to false cast, to be perfectly honest. It’s a third-rate fly-fisher’s go-to move to gain distance and accuracy. I’m no athletic god, and my fly fishing skills are simply one more confirmation of that patently obvious truth.

With false casting, the problem is, of course, that what may work (or at least have fewer consequences) in the West (when you’re standing in the Madison River and casting 40 to 50 feet) is a sure fire means in smaller spring creeks to chase away fish. They react to the movement, dart back under the rocks, and refuse to take anything you drift by them.

The trick is to fight the urge to revert to false casting when you need it most. To cast with a minimum of false casts requires endless amounts of practice before you can shoot the line out accurately (or lob it out awkwardly) while hunched over the edge of stream on your knees.

In the end, I recommended the Driftless to the person asking about it. But he may not be as great as he thinks he is. After a few days in the Driftless, though, he’ll be a better fly fisher than he is today.

December’s Fly Fishing Miracle on the Bear Trap

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas. From our picture window I could see a dozen or more houses decorated with Christmas lights. Our house was perched on a hill overlooking the north floor of Montana’s Gallatin Valley. The valley floor was dusted with an inch of snow.

Inside our house, the tree was decorated, and the sound of Karen Carpenter singing, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” filled our living room. Christmas was seven days away.

Shiver Me Timbers

But all I wanted to do was to go fly fishing.

It had been two months since the last time I had cast a fly on the water, and I was itching to spend some time on the river. Tomorrow was going to be in the high thirties, and I could take off work a couple hours early.

So away from the window I flew like a flash, tore open my duffel bag where my fly gear was stashed. I got everything ready for the next day. When I retired for the night and nestled all snug in my bed, visions of rainbow trout danced in my head.

The next afternoon, I left work early at two o’clock and arrived at the mouth of the Bear Trap Canyon an hour later. My plan was to park at the Warm Springs fishing access and walk up the Madison River about three-quarters of a mile to a run where some decent sized trout always seemed to lurk.

But the visions that danced in my head the night before had not included the gale force wind that I felt as I opened up my door. No wonder mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot. Every other fly fisher had the sense to stay home and tie flies. I was angry at the wind, but I was too stubborn to give in.

Fly Fishing Miracle

After I lost my zest for hiking three quarters of a mile, it occurred to me that I could fish the elbow of a bend in the river that jutted up against the parking lot.

I had never fished it before. That, too, was due to stubbornness. I refuse to fish water that is so accessible. But with the howling wind whipping around the falling snowflakes, I was in no mood to be true to my mantra: “Always walk at least a mile before you start fishing.” Besides no one in their right mind would have fished this elbow during the last few days of blustery weather.

I tied on a beadhead prince nymph and dropped a little copper behind it. For the next few minutes, I got into a consistent rhythm: cast, shiver, mend, shiver, retrieve, shiver, complain. Then, suddenly, I saw a happy sight for tear-stained eyes (from the cold wind).

My strike indicator disappeared.

For the next minute, I felt that old familiar feeling of a fish on the end of the line. It turned out to be a 14-inch rainbow, which looked surprisingly plump for the time of year. I wouldn’t call that catch a true Christmas miracle. But I would call it a small (and cold) fly fishing miracle on the Bear Trap a few days before Christmas.

After I released it the fish, my shivering increased.

It was bone-cold, the sun now below the mountain. I began the long walk back to my truck — all fifteen steps. When I returned home an hour later, I stood at our picture window and looked out over the Gallatin Valley. Beyond the houses dotted with Christmas lights, I could see faintly the gap in the distant hills where the Madison River emerged from the Bear Trap Canyon. It was almost dark, and I was thankful for the light and warmth of home.

But I was also thankful for those fifteen minutes on the river that lifted my spirits. Now I was ready for Christmas.

Episode 27: Your Next Guided Fly Fishing Trip

A River Runs Through It

Your next guided fly fishing trip – how should you prepare for it? Hiring a fly fishing guide seems easy enough: just pay and fish, right? Yes, it’s an extra expense, of course, but we believe in regularly fishing with a guide because doing so ups our fly fishing game. In this podcast about your next guided fly fishing trip, we discuss why a guided trip makes sense and offer some keys to making your next guided fishing trip worth the expense. Fishing with a guide can improve your skills and identify new waters to fish.

Listen now to Your Next Guided Fly Fishing TripFishing with a Guide?

At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

How do you prepare for a guided fly fishing trip? Please post your ideas below.

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The Fly Fishing Classic on My Nightstand

In episode 19, Steve and Dave talked about some of their favorite outdoor authors. Here are Steve’s reflections on a classic that is charming and full of wisdom:

A slender volume with a faded dust-jacket sits in my nightstand. It is slightly thicker than my cell phone. My wife wonders how I can read its small print. A friend who loves old books picked it up in England. He recently gave it to me with a note that read: “When I acquired this, I knew it wasn’t for me. I just wasn’t sure who it was for. Now I know.” I’m guessing he realized it was for me after hearing me talk for the umpteenth time about my love of fly fishing.

A fly fishing classic, my nightstand edition was published in England in 1950. But it’s a reprint of a book that was originally published in 1653 and brought to its current form in the fifth edition in 1676. It’s a classic by Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler. This book expresses one man’s love for fly fishing. I suspect that like the Bible, it gets talked about more than it gets read. I have to admit that I have never read The Complete Angler by Izaak Walton until now.

Wisdom from the Fly Fishing Classic
One passage that particularly struck me was the first stanza of “The Angler’s Song.” So allow me to reflect briefly on that stanza. If you’ve not used to reading literature, let alone poetry, here is your chance to taste it.

    As inward love breeds outward talk,
    The hound some praise, and some the hawk:
    Some better pleas’d with private sport,
    Use tennis, some a mistress court:
    But these delights I neither wish,
    Nor envy, while I freely fish.

Pure wisdom. It’s an insight into people like me who would rather fly fish than do almost anything else. Even when I’m in Wrigley Field watching the Cubs take on my Cardinals, I find my mind wandering to fishing a high mountain lake in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When I play with my grandsons and pretend to be Captain America (or whatever Super Hero they assign me to be), I love every minute of it. But in that moment there are wistful thoughts of helping my grandsons drift a fly down a favorite run on Montana’s Madison River.

The odd thing is that I never experience this sensation in reverse. When I’m fly fishing, I don’t wish I was at Wrigley Field or some other major league park watching baseball. If I’m fly fishing a mountain stream with my boys, I don’t wish we were playing football in the back yard. No, the one time I avoid any struggle with envy is when I’m fly fishing. There’s no other form of recreation in which I would rather engage. Alright, there is bow-hunting for elk. But I remember times when I was elk hunting and I’d cross a stream and wish I had my fly rod in hand.

I don’t envy my cousin who spends weeks in Florida alternating between sky diving and sitting on a beach with a drink in hand. I don’t envy the friend who spends a week at a posh resort and plays eighteen holes of golf every day. In fact, I feel a bit sorry for these folks. They probably feel that way about me. To each his own.

You can have Cancun or Hilton Head. I’ll take the Firehole in Yellowstone National Park. Enjoy that week on a cruise ship somewhere in the Caribbean. I’ll gladly spend my week in a drift boat on one of the great western rivers. You can have your 9-iron. I’ll take my 9-foot fly rod any day. Run that marathon, polish that ’68 Corvette. Head to a tailgate party before the big football game.

    But these delights I neither wish,
    Nor envy, while I freely fish.

Monster Brown Trout Save the Day

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.

Episode 11: Five Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip

A River Runs Through It

In this episode, we tease out five lessons from one of our great trips fishing the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Listen to Episode 11: Five Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip.

Listen to Episode 43: 5 Lessons from a Recent Fly Fishing Trip

What lessons have you recently learned? Do you have any great stories to tell? We’d love to hear from you.

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View some of our most recent podcast episodes on iTunes or on Stitcher, if you have an Android.

Episode 9: Fishing the Hatch

A River Runs Through It

Fishing the hatch is always a thrill. Nothing beats the joy of hooking into a big fish during a hatch. In this podcast, we offer four ways to make sure you catch fish when the trout begin feeding selectively. Listen to Episode 9: Fishing the Hatch.

Listen now to Fishing the Hatch

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” It’s the last segment of each episode, where Steve reads one of the comments from our listeners or readers. We enjoy hearing from you, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experiences.

What is your best story of fishing the hatch? Is there a time when you caught no fish while the trout were rising all around? What did you learn?

By the way, we’d love for you to refer our podcast to a friend, your TU chapter, or fly fishing club. Be sure to pass along our podcast to others.

Other Articles on Dry Fly Fishing

    7 Spots to Cast Your Dry Fly

    Improving Your Dry Fly Vision

    Know Your Pattern: The H and L Variant

    Know Your Pattern: The Parachute Adams

    Know Your Pattern: The Royal Coachman

    My 6 Favorite Dry Fly Attractor Patterns

    Make Your Dry Fly Irresistible

    3 Truths about the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch

    7 Basic Facts about Mayflies

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Or you can simply subscribe to the RSS feed here:

Subscribe to 2 Guys and A River2 Guys and A River

To see every episode that we’ve published, click on “Fly Fishing Podcast” on the top navigation.

The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists

For this episode, we are the Sponsor!

We’ve published a book called, The Fly Fisher’s Book of Lists: Life is short. Catch more fish.

We like to say it is a book of bite-sized snacks. Maybe even like a handful of potato chips. It’s an entire book of lists. The goal is to help you find practical help quickly and in an easily digestible format!

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