Fly-Fishing and Coping on the Big Hole

By Beacon Staff

When I want to gain a better understanding of eternity, I head to water. On an ocean beach, we witness the boundless possibilities of saltwater stretching to all corners of the planet. On a riverbank, we experience the sensation of constant motion, ever-flowing water that trickles from the mountaintops into the great sweeping prairies, giving life along the way.

I once thought of myself as eternal in much the same way as I view rivers: unstoppable and endlessly carving out my own path. But time has nurtured within me a refined sense of human vulnerability, though I would caution against calling this wisdom. Today, I go to water not to concern myself with the issue of immortality, but rather, quite the opposite, to ponder the fragility of life and its delicate grandeur.

With all of this in mind, I recently embarked on a week-long fishing vacation with the sense of empowerment that can only be found in a young man who has no responsibilities and has chosen to take his newfound freedom to the state’s finest trout streams. I packed my camping supplies, met up with my best friend Justin and headed to Southwest Montana, where we would live with my family’s Yellow Labrador in a wall tent for the next week.

On the third day of the trip, I stopped in a bar in the tiny town of Wise River to see if I could find a phone to check my cell phone messages. There’s no cell phone reception where we were camping. Of my six new voice messages, three were to inform me that my grandfather Charlie Reece had passed away over the weekend. I later found I had many text messages from people expressing their condolences. It seems I was the last to know.

To learn of a loved one’s death in a dark bar far away from home is enough to bring a man to his knees. But over the next several days, I discovered that a fishing trip with your friends is enough to bring a man back to his feet. True friendship and flowing rivers have always given me strength.

With Justin Ibes, I have been through misery and ecstasy, the wild and the mild, the mundane and insane. We once spent more than four months bussing and hitchhiking across Central America but have since tried to focus our adventures on fly-fishing trips closer to home. For all intents and purposes, he is my brother, and my family treats him as such.

Aside from a few moments, our fishing excursion was without the usual dramatic flair that has marked our past trips. The most excitement we experienced was when we took a wrong channel on the Big Hole River and ended up having to pull the boat 200 yards upstream as heavy water pounded against our chests. Penny, the dog, sat in the boat deeply perplexed.

Mostly, we fished quietly and reveled in the sounds of nature. On the river, you listen more than you talk. When you do talk, it’s often about what you’ve just heard or seen in the water or on the banks or in the sky. You have time to breathe and think – it’s the most therapeutic environment for coping with loss that I know. Much of the chitchat is saved for the campfire, which provides its own form of therapy.

We made our way down the Big Hole, to the Beaverhead and finally to the gorgeous Ruby River Valley, wrapping up the trip on June 20. On the Big Hole, 16-inch brown trout slurped bulky salmonfly patterns off the surface. On the Ruby, huge rainbows devoured tiny nymph patterns and often snapped off after being hooked. On the Beaverhead, not much happened.

We lived well throughout the week. We cooked elk back straps, pork chops and potatoes over a campfire grill. We had wine and beer. Even though the rains fell hard everyday, we slept on pads in a rainproof tent at night and during the day we didn’t care about the rain because we were fishing. Penny was happy, and so were we.

In the absence of a loved one, we discover the presence of thoughts we never before knew, particularly when the mind is uninhibited by the demands of work and thus free to wander to bold new places. On the trip, I came to understand that it is not enough to merely accept the inevitability of death, which is hard in itself. Rather, we must embrace the lessons learned from dealing with life’s fading twilight. It gives us a chance to reflect on the full and lovely lives of the departed, and it helps us understand our own purpose and place in the world.

Ultimately, we are not the river and the river is not us. We are not eternal, at least not in body. But, in fact, we do carve our own path with the passing of each day; we do give and nurture life. We do shape the world. And, when we take nature’s heed, we can also be strong, even in the face of a loved one’s death. When I think of my grandfather Charlie, I will forever think of flowing mountain streams. This is a beautiful thought.

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