One Final Fish

Shared with an old friend at the oars, in the place where the Stillwater River joins the Yellowstone

By Rob Breeding

I’m an educator by trade, teaching college journalism to aspiring reporters and editors. It’s a great job, working with young 20-somethings, many of whom are aspiring to do great things with their lives.

Still, no job is all rainbows and unicorns. And in those moments when work life reminds me that horned equines are imaginary creatures, I tell myself summer is coming. Soon I’ll have three months to myself with time to drink my favorite craft beers, write something other than memos to administrators and make myself an annoyance to the trout of Montana.

That’s the story I tell myself to get through the rough patches during the school year.

Unfortunately, life retains the authority to turn even the simplest plan — in this case, a month or two reliving the trout bum days of my youth — into a unicorn.

And so it has been for three summers now. Stuff has happened and my plan to be knee deep in rivers comes to me mostly in dreams.

I get that this whine may be a bit of a First World problem. For that I apologize. On the other hand, we all need an escape, especially right now. So I got mine on the Stillwater River.

I arranged a float with an old Kalispell friend. He’s an eastern Montanan by birth, but his career took him to the Flathead. He eventually returned to be close to family. After some very not First World problems, including a life-threatening illness, he remade his life and career in the part of Montana where the mountains give way to plains.

It’s hard to say any float is a bad thing, assuming things don’t go awry in some dreadful way. This one didn’t, but as summer winds on fishing success grows more difficult. We saw hardly a rise as our float began midway between Absarokee and Columbus. The temperature was approaching 90 and the river was warming.

We tied on big stuff. I used a Jack Cabe, a classic fly that had previously eluded my awareness bubble. It’s a popular pattern on the Stillwater, however. The fly is a down-wing style dry, similar to a Trude or Stimulator, and it is a good pick for this time of year when mayfly hatches tail off and hoppers become a thing.

I caught my best trout of the day early on, when we shored up to work over a fishy looking stretch. It was a rainbow, about 16 inches, that nailed my new friend, Jack, then got up in the air a few times and added a couple of decent runs before it tuckered out.

The weird thing was that the fish had a drastically malformed upper jaw. I should say, there didn’t appear to be an upper jaw at all. The snout ended abruptly, just in front of the eyes. I assume it was the result of an old whirling disease infection. I was surprised to see a fish in its condition that had lived long enough to grow into such an otherwise fine trout.

We stopped to wade another fishy looking side channel, and my friend landed a 16-ish brown on a pink foam hopper. As we continued downstream we got a few more takes, then things slowed as evening settled in.

When we neared the confluence with the Yellowstone River, it grew dark enough I didn’t realize my dry fly was sinking. I felt a tug, and one final rainbow, not as big as the first, but with an intact snout, put a fine cap on the day.

Maybe my summer of endless rivers comes to me only in replicant dreams. But there was this one final fish, shared with an old friend at the oars, in the place where the Stillwater River joins the Yellowstone.

That’s a great dream by any measure.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.