I admired Dan’s courage almost as much as his expertise. Trapped in a small boat with a dangerous novice armed with a nine-foot rod, he was cool and philosophical under fire. As my fish hooks whistled round his ears, he talked patiently of currents and the virtues of the Royal Trude fly. “Take your time”, he said as one of my flying hooks caught the brim of his cap and flicked it into the river. “Think about the fish, and forget about the line.”
To its devotees, fly fishing is a philosophical pursuit. In his great book on the subject, A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean begins with a simple declaration: “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” On broad rivers on summer afternoons while the rest of the world is busy being busy, one can hope to net, along with the brown trout and the salmon, nothing less than the meaning of life. Fly fishing is angling for existentialists.
In the hopes of bagging ‘the Big One’, I packed Maclean’s book and set off for the great rivers where, as a child, he had learnt to cast his line into the still pools of fish and philosophy. The Madison, the Snake, and the Henry’s Fork all run through the tangle of mountains where Montana, Idaho and Wyoming meet. They are some of the greatest trout rivers in the world.
Not that I would know – I had never fished before in my life. I arrived in Montana with the haziest of notions, my imagination fired by the poetic felicities of Maclean’s book and the scenes of casting on glassy rivers that were recreated in Robert Redford’s film of the book.
In Bozeman, a plain Montana town of sturdy houses with rocky-chair verandas, I stopped at fishing tackle shop. It was like something out of the Waltons, with wooden floors and tall windows overlooking Main Street. Customers were flexing rods and poring excitedly over cases of flies as spectacular as butterfly collections.
The flies are meant to mimic the insects that hatch on rivers – and they come like the insects themselves in an almost infinite variety. Flies are the sacred artefacts of fly fishermen, and mythologies surround them. Their names reflect their mysteries: the Royal Trude, Lawson’s Spent Partridge Caddis, the Floating Nymph, the Quigley Cripple, Tup’s Indispensable. The greatest fly fishermen tie their own, with a bewildering variety of ingredients: bird feathers, coloured thread, elk hair, goose down. Tup’s Indispensable is made from the scrotum hair of a ram. Another uses the urine-stained fur of a vixen, yet another the armpit hair of a polar bear. A letter writer to The Field caught a four-pound salmon with a fly made from his wife’s pubic hair. Gathering the raw materials was presumably more fun than plucking a bear’s arm pit.
Beyond West Yellowstone, I came to Firehole Ranch, my first stop. From the vast sofas in the timber and stone living room, you gaze across Lake Hebgen to where the Madison Mountains ride into the western edge of Yellowstone National Park. When you tire of the view, you can browse among the books – the formidable literature of fly fishing. There were titles like Fly Fishing through the Mid-Life Crisis, Casting at the Sun and Sex, Death and Fly Fishing. There was even a British import, Jeremy Paxman’s anthology of fishing literature. Not wishing to understate its case, it is entitled Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.
In the morning I set off for the mighty Madison River – a Mecca for fly fishermen all over the world – and crossed the lake in the launch with my packed lunch and my tackle. It felt like my first day of school. The mountains made me feel small and uncertain.
My guide was awaiting for me on the far shore. Dan was a bear of a man, with a thick red beard and a baseball cap that said “Big Sky Montana”.
“Every fly fisherman eventually comes to the Madison”, Dan was saying, as we bowled along the highway in his pickup, the boat rattling behind us on its trailer. “Like art lovers all go to the Sistine Chapel.”
At a promising bit of river, we kitted up and pushed out into the current. Dan took the oars. Swallows were diving on the river, and rose-coloured willows lined the banks. In these reaches the Madison is a quick shallow river, trout-coloured, murmuring over big smooth stones. It is what fishermen would call a free-stone riffle-run.
“The difference between coarse and fly fishing is rather like the difference between trapping and hunting” – Dan was trying to explain the rudiments. “In coarse fishing, you drop your line into a stream and nod off waiting for a nibble. In fly fishing, you are stalking the fish, casting the line to where you have spotted fish, or where you believe fish to be. And in dry-fly fishing, you are trying to present the fly on the surface of the water in a way that imitates a floating insect. It’s about intuition, disguise, stealth, prowess with the line.”
We drifted downstream, Dan manoeuvring the boat in the current.
“Okay, let’s try some casting. Try to get the fly on to that slack water below the bank.”
Casting is a thing of great elegance, the calligraphy of the angler. In the right hands, the line unrolls in tight loops, forward and back, singing in the air, then shooting far out in a long graceful curve to land the fly on the surface of the river with a precision worthy of a locksmith. Mine were not the right hands. My early attempts had all the grace of a lynch mob trying to untangle the hangman’s rope. As for precision, I was lucky to get the fly on the river. I hooked a bush on the bank; I hooked myself; I hooked Dan; and once, to our horror, I even managed to hook a passing bird. While the swallows dived for cover, the trout were in little danger.
Dan was phlegmatic as he untangled my fish hooks from his sweater.
“Move the rod from 10 o’clock to two o’clock”, he said. “Pause for a beat before coming back. Keep your arm straight. Let the power come from your forearm. But not too much power. Set the fly down on the water – don’t throw it.”
With practice, I began to get the hang of it. At first, the fish ran off with my flies, but I was learning to see them in the river, and to ‘set’ the rod at the right moment. At the end of the first hour, I bagged a couple of whitefish in quick succession. I was triumphant, but Dan was unimpressed. To a fly fisherman, the only thing worth catching were trout.
We changed flies, moving on to the Lemke’s Fluttering Stone, then trying a Royal Coachman and an Air Head. The latter proved a hit, and I finally landed a lovely brown trout – a good size, just over a foot long. In the water beside the boat he looked sleek and glamorous, his flanks mottled with pink on a yellow-gold background. Dan expertly removed the barbless hook and the trout squirmed away into the river again and vanished. In all these waters, fishermen operate on a catch and release basis. It was eminently civilised. The worst crime to a fisherman on the Madison is to injure your catch.
By day’s end, I had caught four trout – one of them a glorious rainbow measuring 18 inches long. Speeding back across the lake to Firehole, I was already adding six inches to their length. “Fishermen are born honest”, someone once said, “but they soon get over it.”
The next morning I headed South across the Targhee Pass and the Continental Divide into Idaho and down to the Henry’s Fork, a legendary stretch of river. Henry’s Fork Lodge is one of the great fly-fishing lodges, feted with awards and accolades. A study in red cedar and yellow pine, it is furnished with oriental carpets, Japanese and Turkish antiques, American wicker chairs, and deep-stone fireplaces.
From the porch, you gaze down on a quiet stretch of the Henry’s Fork. Trumpeter swans were beating upriver on heavy wings. A moose stood in the shallows beneath the far bank, where the aspens were already showing yellow. On the smooth, dark sheets of water, you could see big rainbow trout rising. I could hardly wait to get out there. I had caught the bug.
In the morning Todd, my guide, whisked me off to Cardiac Canyon, where we waded thigh-deep in the river, alternating our fishing between nymphs and dry flies. The river was silver between banks of boulders, pines and willow scrub. A bald eagle was circling downstream.
We fished all morning in Cardiac Canyon, then had a packed lunch gazing across forests to the Grand Tetons. An osprey, who seemed to have missed the notice about catch and release, dropped suddenly and lifted a huge trout out of the river, then flew ostentatiously downstream, passing a few yards from where we were messing about with flies.
Lazing around on this river, it was easy to drift off, to daydream, to lose your focus. Todd knew this danger, and gently tried to warn me about it.
“You must cast every time as if you are about to catch a fish”, he said. “Don’t lose your concentration.. Each attempt you make, each time you land your fly on the river, you must believe this is the moment you will find your trout. Belief and confidence is everything. Do it every time as if it is the first time, or the last time.”
Later on sitting in front of the fire at Henry’s Fork Lodge, with the river darkening beyond the windows, I mulled over the wisdom of this advice – a mantra for all those fishing philosophers: that everything should be done with focus and belief, as if it was your first or last time. They were right. It wasn’t just about fishing. It was about life.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.