The Best Trout Stream in the World

The Best Trout Stream in the World

Picture yourself in a boat on a river... where the trout are the biggest you've seen

  • By: John Gierach
Driving across Montana on the interstates, you can now intermittently pick up public-radio stations from the Idaho border all the way east to Billings, then down through Sheridan, Wyoming, and south to my back door in Larimer County in northern Colorado. I always try to get public radio on the road not because it's an absolute guarantee of quality (you can listen for 12 hours straight and still not hear a single Greg Brown cut) but because it saves me from the two other likely alternatives: Country/Western and Rock and Roll.I could happily listen to Country/Western back in the days when it was Country, but now that it's just Rock and Roll with cowboy hats, it rubs me the wrong way. Rock and Roll itself--the genuine article as heard on the ubiquitous "Classic rock" stations--gets it for me in a big way but, as with many other good things, I have to be careful with the dosage. After even just an hour of high-volume head-banging on a solitary, multi-day drive, I can catch myself going 98 mph while trying to chew my own teeth. Of course up until fairly recently, I could have gone 98 with impunity because Montana was the only state in the Union that didn't have a posted speed limit. "Reasonable and prudent" was the only daytime rule, although I do remember once riding in a pickup that was stopped by a cop who asked, as if he were just passing the time of day, "Don't you guys think a hundred and three is a little excessive when you're towing a drift boat?" But finally Montana tumbled for the standard 75 mph speed limit under the threat of losing its federal highway funds. It probably made the roads a little safer, but it was also another step toward the kind of Orwellian homogenization in which people with a distinct regional character are seen as just a bunch of misfits. Even when I was just passing through, I used to enjoy being in one of the last places in America that hadn't been entirely domesticated. Oddly enough, the arrival of law and order on the state's highways and the proliferation of public-radio stations happened at about the same time, but I'm sure that was just a coincidence. Anyway, I was up on a pass somewhere, temporarily out of radio reception and going a reasonable and prudent 80-some mph, when I caught myself wondering if I'd just fished the best trout stream in the world. I quickly shook off the thought because it wasn't really mine; it was just an involuntary echo of the media-driven obsession we have with the biggest and best, with everything else somehow falling short, even though "everything else" constitutes the day-to-day arena where we finally either locate happiness or we don't. Where I'd been was in a boat on a small river where the trout were uniformly the biggest I'd ever seen. I can't tell you the river's name or where it is because the man who invited me to fish it with him asked me not to. I agreed sight unseen (the invitation might have been rescinded if I hadn't) and it was the kind of promise that's sacred among fishermen. I guess I can safely say it's somewhere in the North American West within about a hundred miles of the US/Canada border, never mind which side. This was an obscure stretch of river where boat access is problematic, so it's not floated very often. But my friend, whom I'll call Sam, had worked out a clever way to get a boat in there, opening up a lot of otherwise unreachable fishing. When we'd first talked about it, Sam told me the trout were unusually big here because it's rich water that doesn't see many fishermen. It was just as simple, and rare, as that. He also said that if I wanted to fish it, I should do it soon because it had become sort of an open secret and people were bound to start sniffing it out before long. Most don't come right out and say that, but when the subject turns to great fisheries that have been overlooked, the thought is often lurking just out of sight. I think that explains the expression of tight-lipped determination you see on the faces of so many fly fishermen these days. If you're even marginally in the life, you can hear about a dozen places every year that you really should fish before you die, or before they're discovered, whichever comes first. We always seem to be looking for places that aren't used up yet so we can begin to use them up in our own small, modest way. None of us do any appreciable damage by ourselves, but hordes of us are a different story, and word inevitably leaks out because there are few fisherman so cagey that they can take their secrets to the grave. Sam and I had met by chance while fishing in a strange place far from both our homes, and we hit it off the way fishermen can sometimes do. There's no telling what he thought of me, but I immediately made him as anything but your usual self-promoter. I knew he wasn't giving me a sales pitch because no money would be changing hands and he pointedly did not want publicity for himself or the river. Still, I mentally reduced his claims of fish size by a third to avoid automatic disappointment. You know what I mean: We insist on making detailed plans for the future based on unreliable information, and then when a perfectly good, but alternate future arrives, we say, "What?" Anyway, I made the trip, and in four days on the river, catching a respectable number of fish each day, I landed exactly one trout under 20 inches. All the rest ranged from 22 to about 26 with a matched pair--a rainbow and a brown--that were both 28 inches. Sam had said that once in a blue moon someone lands a 30-incher there, but only a damned fool would quibble over those last two unlikely inches. I'm not much of a fish measurer or even a very good guesser, but I'm confident about the size of these things because of Sam. He's fished here for years and has seen other fishermen who'd also had trouble wrapping their minds around the scale of things. So on our second day on the river, when I had my fifth or sixth trout in the net--one that was comparatively on the small side--he staged what I suspect is a standard demonstration: "How big do you think that is?" he asked. "I don't know," I said. "18 inches?" Sam already had a tape out and he quickly laid it against the trout. "A little over 22," he announced. Sam said I wasn't the first to make that mistake, but it's still an odd phenomenon, since like most other fishermen, I tend to guess high instead of low on fish size. I think it's just that when they're all so big, your mind struggles to recalibrate on the spot and gets it wrong. I should point out that in virtually all of the places I fish, a wild trout that's anywhere near 20 inches is a real show-stopper, and many 20-inchers would tape out at 17 or 18 if anyone bothered to measure them. These fish were sometimes difficult, but not in the bored, snotty way of tailwater trout that are so used to artificial flies that they'll sometimes refuse natural insects out of general paranoia. Here it was just the wild hair trigger that lets trout survive in a world populated with fish-eating critters like the golden eagles, white pelicans, ospreys, herons and river otters we saw daily. There's no human comparison short of combat. There was a good mix of water types--riffles, runs, pockets and glides--but we found a lot of our fish rising fastidiously in long, slow, glassy currents. It was usually a pod of three to five trout, all big, either bunched together or strung out, dep- ending on the shape of the feeding lane. The rises would be quiet and delicate, but the bulges beneath them would suggest a fish big enough to move a gallon of water with its back. Sam would ease the boat down with quiet oar strokes and anchor upstream, well off to the side and out of casting range. He'd lower the anchor slowly and wince if it banged along the bottom before we dragged to a stop. The cast would be down and across current with an upstream mend and maybe another light tug as a final course correction. Then you'd feed a series of upstream slack mends into the drift, trying to keep the fly from dragging while at the same time not laying out too much loose line for a good set. I don't guess range much better than I do fish size, but a standard fly line is 90 feet long and when I'd get a take at the end of some of my longest drifts, I'd be into the backing before I could say, "Oh shit!" It became obvious why all of Sam's dry flies had prominent white or fluorescent orange parachute posts. That far out, small flies can dissolve visually, but you still have to know if a rise was to your imitation or a nearby natural. If you're wrong and a mistaken set makes your fly rip across a quiet glide like a water skier, you'll blow up five beautiful, spooky trout, even the smallest of which could have the size and heft of an overripe zucchini. You think you've remained calm until you realize you haven't taken a breath in almost a minute. Since we're going to release them anyway, there's no rational reason to be more excited about a big trout than a little one--but then a rational man wouldn't waste his life fishing. The trout liked my favorite little Pale Morning Dun emergers, but I couldn't use them here because the fish are big enough to bend open the light wire hooks I tie them on. Even when I'd give them their head, the weight of a whole fly line and 50 yards of backing against the current was enough to do it. Sam admired the simple fly anyway and said he'd like to try the pattern. I offered to tie him some when I got home--on heavier hooks more along the line of bent nails. When we'd run out of risers for a stretch, we'd switch to a rod already strung up with a size 8 hopper followed by two beadhead droppers. There was one rocky, complicated bankside slot that was always good for a take on a dropper, though not always a hooked and landed fish. The 28-inch rainbow came out of there like that and the persistent thought of the little size 16 nymph hook in that big jaw threatened to unravel me before I got it to the net. Of course there's no point in saying that except to imply that I didn't unravel and to again just sort of casually mention one of the two 28-inch trout I caught--in case you forgot. This was clearly storybook fishing, the kind I once thought would be life changing, but am now just as happy it's not. When it comes right down to it, those fishermen who claim to have been spoiled by big fish have made life extremely difficult for themselves, and you suspect that they were actually spoiled rotten before they ever picked up a fly rod. It's easy to get this whole business of big trout wrong. We love big fish because of the difficulty of finding and catching them and for obvious reasons of vanity. (Those trophy photos we show off are really just portraits of our own egos.) When you're a young, gonzo fly fisher--simultaneously cocky and insecure and with adrenal glands as big as plums--you naturally gravitate toward the cult of size without giving it any thought, simply assuming that what you want from life is lots and lots of big fish. But then those rare days when something like that actually happens can later settle in your memory as the kind of greed riot you wish you hadn't indulged in. In fact, large, wild trout should be caught in moderation, and it's possible to catch enough really big ones that you'll finally begin to pine for your own little home water where, in just a few more days, a handful of eight-inch browns and brookies will begin to reestablish your perspective. If you begin to wonder what it all means, as we all do from time to time, your first thought has to be that meaning is a human concept that's totally unknown to fish. On that long drive home, I casually watched my speed and listened to the radio news that I blissfully hadn't heard for the last week. (I pay attention to the news in the same way you'll stare at a terrible accident by the side of the highway: knowing you could see something you'll wish you hadn't but somehow unable to look away.) Apparently things were as balled up as they'd been almost a week ago, only in a slightly different way. Unbelievably, the fact that an aging, disillusioned news junkie had just had four of the best days of trout fishing in his life had not impacted world affairs one little bit.