written by Thom Garrett; edited by Danna Colman
My go-to on smaller streams is an elk hair caddis, but the choice isn’t so obvious on the Bitterroot or the Blackfoot. There are days in the early spring when it’s a tiny blue-winged olive or nothing. Later in the season, a pale morning dun might work its magic, but sometimes there’s just no telling what will do the trick, so I’ll try a simple Adam’s or a humpy and hope for the best.
Stepping into the frigid waters of a Montana river is a spiritual experience. Like a baptism, it cleanses me. It washes away the annoyances of the day. It washes away the worries of the week. It washes away the heartache of the years. I step in and feel the cold on my feet and then the tug at my ankles. I raise my pole and strip out some line, walking deeper into the current, and the dance begins. The heavy green line unfurls behind me, and my mind’s eye watches and waits for that moment when it has stretched its full length. Then I pull it forward, seeing the curl move like a wave through the air above the water, carrying with it the nearly invisible tippet and the tiny fly. I pull more line from my reel as I draw the rod back again, feeling the tug as the line reverses course and is launched behind me, and then even more line as it snaps forward one more time. My fly settles on the water like a feather or, hopefully, like an innocent mayfly, and time stands still. In those moments as I watch that barely visible speck drift without a ripple on the surface of the dark river waters, I have no past or future. I feel no guilt or worries. For just that moment, my multitude of sins are forgiven.
It’s not easy to let go of regrets. It takes time; it takes practice. I have many that have been with me for years, and some for decades. Not too long ago, I let them define me. I wore them in public like fashion accessories. I exposed them in private like scarred intimacy. Everyone loves a good story, and I had my share: my bad choices; my tragic circumstances; my broken heart. Even now I want to tell you all about my failures, to give you the details of my inadequacies and lay bare my selfishness, but I won’t. I might be unique in the specifics, but still, it’s just the same old story.
I first left Montana for Boise; I left Boise for Seattle; I left Seattle for Montana; I left Montana again for North Carolina; I left North Carolina for San Diego. I left San Diego with a bad attitude and everything I owned in the back of a rented car, and I drove to Montana. I wanted to get me some of that highly touted solitude. I arrived just in time for the pandemic, so I found solitude in spades. I went fishing.
I don’t fish from a boat, and I don’t fish from the bank. I wade into the current and feel it. It is almost always surprisingly cold and surprisingly powerful. It takes little effort to walk through ankle-deep water, but if it’s up to your knees, it can be difficult to make headway. Any deeper and every step is a gamble. I’ve crossed waist-deep streams many times. It’s a physical struggle, straining my muscles and testing my balance as I inch my way through the relentless force that topples trees and carves its name on mountains. It’s noisy and risky and feels personal, as if the water is alive, and it’s angry that I would try to stand my ground in the face of its flow. So it shoves and tugs, trying to wrestle me off my feet. Sometimes it succeeds, and instantly our struggle ends. Suddenly the water is quiet, gentle, and cradles me as I drift. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to go where it’s taking me, but it’s so much easier than fighting for what I do want. There’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
I came to Montana to get out of my life, to shut it all down. I had had a career, but I wasn’t very good at it. I had had relationships, both platonic and romantic, but it seems I wasn’t very good at those either. I had had hopes and dreams, but honestly, I just got tired, and I lost track of them. If I was looking for anything, it wasn’t a place to start over. I was done. I had no interest in starting a thing. I was after an absence, a void, and I found what I was looking for in a quiet basement apartment on the edge of town.
I step into the cold, clear water, and feel it pull at my boots, my ankles, my knees. I cast my fly, and it rests on the water like a passing bug. It drifts with the current, not faster or slower, so it makes no tell-tale disturbance on the unbroken calm of the surface. I watch it with laser focus, anticipating the sip of a mouth, the roll of a fin. There is no past, no future, just that fly on the water, just now. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred nothing happens, and I cast again, but with each cast, I have a moment. I don’t really expect to catch a fish, but even so, I feel a tiny twinge of hope. Like letting go of regrets, it takes time and practice to hope. It atrophies without use. Those lifelong hopes and dreams fade first, and then the more reasonable ones go, too. Pretty soon it’s hard to hope for much of anything good, and there is certainly no reason to expect it. Thankfully, Montana rivers have saved me from a hopeless life. Fishing, after all, is not about catching fish; it is the repeated practice of hope.
It’s been two years since my return to Montana. I arrived with my head full of noise and my heart full of regret. Since then, I have hiked hundreds of miles in the mountains and spent hundreds of hours fishing on lakes, streams, and rivers, and I have done almost all of it alone. I hiked alone, and I listened to the voices in my head. I fished alone, and I replayed the regrets in my heart. Slowly, the voices lost their edge; slowly, the regrets lost their sting.
I have an old friend. She lives in another town, so I don’t see her often, but when I do, we hike. We don’t talk much. Mostly, we follow a trail into the mountains and enjoy the quiet of each other’s company. I have another old friend. He lives in a different town, so I don’t see him much either. Sometimes we get together to fish, but we don’t really fish together. He chooses his stretch of the river and wades in. I walk upstream or down, find my spot and do the same. We’re not there to talk. We’re not even there to catch fish, not really. We’re there to hope we’ll catch fish.
Sometimes as I watch my fly, just a barely visible speck floating on dark water, there is a swirl and a flash. The fly vanishes and the line pulls tight. It’s a simple thing, just a small joy, but I don’t expect much these days.
Sometimes as I spend a little time with a friend, usually somewhere outside, we talk and we might even laugh a little. It’s a simple thing, just another small joy, like hooking a trout. Joy is a rare thing. I no longer expect it, but nowadays when it happens, I realize I’d been hoping for it all along.