From the Jan./Feb. 2008 issue of Sporting Classics.
Big John walked into my motel room, 270 pounds of rock-solid chief mate, and, with a voice born to be heard over wind and water, said, “Todd, this is what I want to do tomorrow.”
He handed me a single sheet of paper—glossy white stock with the caption “Three Hidden Ponds” and a picture of an angler holding a huge rainbow—and I took a minute to skim through the text.
“ . . . between 3 and 10 acres in size . . . Rainbow Trout in excess of 8 pounds . . . catch rates of 40 fish per day . . . reclaimed to eliminate competition from suckers . . . Fly Fishing Catch & Release ONLY . . . and $50.00 per rod per day.”
“Where’d you get this?” I asked.
“The sporting goods shop over on Main Street has a stack.”
“And you want to try ponds?”—We’re talking shallow, weedy stock ponds, John, those cow-watering depressions in the prairie —“instead of the spring creek we’ve been on?”
John nodded. Perhaps more importantly, he didn’t smile.
“Okay,” I said, “call them up and see if we can fish a half-day for $25. I can probably handle that.”
The next morning we drove south and west from Lewistown, leaving the geographic center of Montana (if the state was a dart board, Lewistown would be the bulls-eye) for the tiny town of Hobson. It’s always tough to forsake a productive spring creek, especially when that creek has good public access, lots of fish and very little pressure, for new, unproven waters. It’s even harder when you trade rising trout, multiple hatches and the challenge of intricate currents for the questionable attributes of a rancher’s anonymous stock pond.
Still, we’d already had two excellent days on the spring creek and there wasn’t any point in being greedy. As my dad used to say, “Might as well give it a try. The Lord hates a coward.”
So we loaded up and left Lewistown, with its weather-beaten, three-story brick buildings, pickup trucks and motels that request you “Keep your dogs off the bed and don’t clean your pheasants in the room.” behind, heading for the “Three Hidden Ponds” over the horizon in Hobson.
I have a confession to make. Just in case it’s not obvious, I should mention that, given a choice, I’d rather not fish still waters.
There’s something about ponds and lakes that makes me, if not indifferent, then less than enthusiastic about the entire experience. True, ponds and especially prairie ponds, fertilized by a never-ending supply of cow patties, tend to hold big trout. But that’s about the only thing that recommends them.
On the other hand, moving water offers the angler a veritable cornucopia of pleasurable experiences: the hypnotic rhythms of the river, the gentle pulse of the current against your legs, the subtle nuance of each individual cast, your fly riding the surface on a voyage of chance and discovery.
And while it may sound corny, there’s also something to be said for standing waist deep in water that started “up there” an hour, a day or a week ago; “up there” being a spring, a seep, a patch of melting snow, maybe even an afternoon cloudburst. Yet now, almost magically, it’s here—wherever “here” happens to be at this precise moment, wherever I find myself wading and casting— and then, perhaps in the space of a few heartbeats, certainly in no more than a moment or two, it vanishes downstream, around the bend, out of sight.
Only, and this is the fascinating part, the extraordinary thing that we’ve somehow allowed to become mundane instead of miraculous, while the water of a few moments ago is gone, at the same time, in a very real sense, it’s not.
It’s been replaced—seemingly by itself, or by something so close to itself as to be indistinguishable—but it’s changed, too. Much like life, much like our reflection in a mirror, a river is invariably familiar yet never quite the same. And consequently, each individual waterway carries, whether it charges downstream through a canyon or slips quietly through a grassy meadow, the very essence of infinite possibilities.
That, my friends, is why I love rivers, and that’s why I’d rather fish moving water than still.
Oh, and there’s one more reason. The half-dozen times I fished with my dad, thirty-odd years ago, we went out to a small bass pond. And those memories, of a father and son sitting in a twelve-foot wooden johnboat, talking and laughing, are a constant, painful reminder of how much I miss my old man.
The years, however, have also shown that my personal prejudices are no match for Big John and his quest for new places to fish. Consequently, at about 10 a.m. on the morning in question, we found ourselves driving through a pasture—sheep, surprisingly, not cows—and parking next to the smallest of the three ponds.
To be frank, our final destination didn’t look like much; shallow and marshy on the near end and deeper near the dam on the far side, with one shaggy cottonwood sprouting from the water’s edge like Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades.
For some strange reason the scene, normal as it was for central Montana, reminded me of a watering hole on the African plains, and I pictured a lion lazing under the big cottonwood, and hippos and crocodiles in the pond, while the flock of sheep grazing nearby suddenly metamorphosed into zebras and wildebeests.
Of course, there weren’t really any lions, or zebras, or hippos or wildebeests. We did, however, find crocs in the pond.
And we caught them on nymphs (hare’s ears, with a flashy wing-case) and streamers (brown, green and black woolly buggers). Fat, wild, spirited rainbow crocodiles, from a foot long to upwards of twenty inches.
Then, after a couple of enjoyable, if uninspired, hours, I experienced a moment of revelation. (Okay, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t actually a revelation. It was more like waking up from a nap.) I realized that I needed to pay attention to my surroundings.
There was a strong wind at my back, the air had warmed some twenty degrees, and grasshoppers were jumping all around.
“Why not?” I thought, “It might work,” and I tied on a deer-hair hopper with yellow rubber legs.
I made a couple of false casts and set my hopper down with a splat. I let the rings subside, then . . . twitch. A few seconds, then another twitch. Then I let it sit.
As it turns out, you can take the kid out of the bass pond, but you can’t really take the bass pond out of the kid.
The whole situation looked so good, and felt so natural, that I couldn’t believe I didn’t get a strike.
The next ten minutes went by to a predictable rhythm: Cast . . . sit . . . twitch . . . sit . . . twitch . . . sit . . . Cast . . . sit . . . twitch . . . sit . . . twitch . . . sit . . .
I wasn’t catching anything, but I’d slipped into another world, a long-ago place of rubber-skirted hula poppers and fat-lipped jitterbugs, chocolate milkshakes and little league baseball—and first tentative kisses—and to be honest, I didn’t care what the trout thought of my tactics. I was back home on a New York bass pond, and Willie Mays was playing centerfield, and my dad was still alive.
Believe it or not, when a six-pound rainbow boiled on my hopper, it was, in a very real sense, anticlimactic. After all, what is a fish, no matter how big, compared to the memories we hold inside? +++
Photo courtesy B&C Becky