The Heli-Logger Fly Fisher

A lot of my fly fishing memories have more to do with the people I’ve met than the trout I’ve caught. One fly fisher I remember well is Nolan, a heli-logger from Plains, Montana. His job was to fell a tree and hook onto it a cable, which dangled from a helicopter. Then the helicopter would whisk away the tree. It’s an effective method for logging in remote areas, and it lessens the environmental impact. Nolan, the heli-logger, took me on a float and it changed how I approached the sport.

One September in the early 1990s, Nolan was working with a heli-logging crew up the Mill Creek drainage in Paradise Valley, just south of Livingston, Montana. At the time, my parents lived within sight of the Mill Creek Bridge which crossed the Yellowstone River. One day, Nolan showed up at my folks’ house and asked if he could park his travel trailer on the edge of their property.

It would be a lot closer to where he was logging than if he stayed at a campground further down the road.

Floating with the Heli-Logger

Meanwhile, my brother, Dave, and I showed up at my folks to spend three days bow-hunting elk in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area several miles up the Mill Creek drainage. It’s rugged country, and we were exhausted after two days with warm temperatures and few elk encounters. My dad suggested that we might float the Yellowstone with Nolan on the afternoon of day three. Hel-logger Nolan had brought an inflatable raft with him, and had caught quite a few trout when he floated a stretch of the Yellowstone a couple days before we arrived.

Dave and I thought floating the Yellowstone would be a nice break from traversing steep terrain. Besides, we would be doing Nolan a favor. We could share our insights with this newbie to our river, and it might help him catch more fish.

It turned out that Nolan did us a favor by taking us on the float. Nolan was a predator — and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He stalked and hunted trout. The guy had an eagle eye. Every few minutes of floating, he would say, “There! Do you see those heads popping up about fifty yards to the right?”

“Uh, no. Where are they?”

I thought Nolan was imagining things. But when we closed to within twenty yards, I could see trout heads breaking through the film to sip bugs off the surface. What struck me, too, was Nolan’s sense of anticipation. He seemed to know where we would see rising fish. The guy could read water. He had fished this stretch only once, and I had fished it a dozen times. Yet he knew the river like it was his backyard.

Nolan had done more than spend his entire life outdoors, whether working or fly fishing or hunting. He had learned to observe and see patterns and draw conclusions. One afternoon spent with him challenged me to work harder on reading the water I fished and to be more alert for rising trout. As skilled as Nolan was, he didn’t have a smidgen of arrogance. He was curious about bow-hunting. He hunted elk with a rifle, but he had never tried calling them in with a cow call or bugle to get a thirty-yard shot with a bow. But I still had a hunch that if I could take Nolan bow-hunting, he would teach me a thing or two.

I know that we caught some trout that day. But I don’t remember how big they were or how many we caught. What I remember is Nolan. I think that’s the way it should be. Fly fishing is not just about the fish. It’s also about the people you meet along the way.