I was 15 once, for at least a year. I remember it clearly, it was the latter part of that year. My mother knew it had been my dream to fish in Montana and she also wanted to see a part of the world she had never seen. For some strange reason, my mother always found time to take me places that I wanted to fish, even in foul weather. My father has always told me that it was because I bugged her until she finally said yes. However, even he was guilty of taking me on a few random fishing trips. Not because I had asked, but as he would say, to relieve my mother of the burden. I know in reality there was a child’s excitement that fueled a sense of adventure in my parents. At least, that is how I see it now. With everything packed away neatly into backpacks (never had enough money for luggage), we headed out on a trip that would remain in my memory for an eternity. My mother and father are probably the best travel partners on earth. My father always had my brain going with his ideas and stories of grandeur. If you let him, he could keep you entertained for years. I mean that literally. My mother is the queen of snacks. She always had a cooler full of snacks (from cookies to crackers and cheese) and sandwiches to cut the cost of dining at restaurants throughout the trip. On the road, she is the first to tell, or yell at you to eat snacks. With our cooler packed we headed north from New Mexico for three days. A white knuckled mother driving through mountain passes, rolling fields, and busy traffic is not one to mess with. I was young and fearless and taunting my mother on the high altitude of highway 550 between Durango and Ouray may not have been the best idea I ever had. Something might have been thrown toward me on more than one occasion, my memory is cloudy. We stopped at a few places along the way including; an unknown river in Wyoming, old faithful, snow-capped Tetons, some bison, massive snow fences, houses on stilts, and finally rested in Ennis, Montana. My first and only Montana adventure would begin and end on the Madison river. It is where I got my first waders, and where I taught myself to wade a magnificent river. In all honesty, I could have died crossing the chest high current, but the other side had a pod of rising fish.
In my day, I was a die hard dry fly fisherman. I didn’t even know what a nymph was, let alone how and where to fish one. The river I taught myself to fish was only a .5 cfs stream, lots of pools and no current to speak of. The river I stood before was massive and the amateur tied blue dun #14 was the choice fly, even though I hadn’t the slightest clue of what a dun was. Quite a few small fish took the fly and I was probably the happiest boy on the river while my mother sat reading. Maybe she was proud of her son for catching fish on a river he had never seen before. Maybe she had found peace relaxing among a river that unknowingly changed her son’s life. Maybe we both just understood the same thing. We had fun and didn’t get eaten by any bears.
Years later, that boy learned to drive. Life had taken him places he would never believe. One of those life decisions took him completely away from fly fishing and taught him fall in love. After that boy lost his love, he learned that real love never goes away. It takes up residence and tugs at the coattails of your mind. During a fishing trip with his brother and father, he remembered what love was and dove into a pond after a catfish wearing clothes worth more than his rig. He had no care for his wallet, keys, cell phone, hygiene, or any opinions of others, he just dove in. His father would go on to say that he was baptized back into the water. His father is a wise man.
Lately, big rivers were on the list. The drought even quelled some water that rages out of control on any other given day. New rivers, bigger rivers, and fish with the power to live within them. It takes a certain kind of fish to live in a river that pushes 3000 cfs down some of the steepest slopes in the country. These fish have a power unlike tailwater fish and the spirit of wild beasts. That same spirit in a differing manifestation flew overhead during a hike up the river. There was an awestruck pause to watch the apex predator of the skies, the bald eagle, as it scanned the river below for life. A river that, fourty miles ahead, resided in the high country. As it built up steam and lost elevation, it carved a wide meandering canyon into the high desert. It was a familiar place with an unfamiliar element, water. The river looked fishy, but the environment seemed to harsh to support life. The consensus was, lots of small fish. But the first fish of the day would prove otherwise.
It took a while to get into the groove of things, but they turned out better than expected. John found his big fish, and I found that 15 year old boy on the Madison. Only now, hiking the length of an untamed river, catching big, high-flying brown trout. I also realized that a good fishing buddy is more than a buddy. They are family. No matter what, that family has memories that take you back to a simple time and you know you always have a place to hang your hat. That love that a boy thought he had was replaced by a real love that was always there and came from my mother, father, brothers, sister, and my fishing friends who have opened their doors to welcome me. Most of all, as my father had said, my connection with the river will live on and in the same way I am connected to the river, I am connected to all of you.
After all was said and done, John and I sat down at a local bar to have a beer and burger. He asked me, “What are you going to do with your life?”
I replied, “Fish.”
It was the most profound moment of my life that took nearly twenty years of fishing and a simple question to figure out. Sometimes best friends are that for a reason, and sometimes you add new members to your family everyday and I thank you all for being part of that family.