If the Blackfoot River I saw in late June looked half as gorgeous as the one upon which Norman MacLean fished, then I fully understand his fascination with that river.
I’d never fished the Blackfoot before, or much else of Montana, either. It’s not that I have anything against Montana or its rivers. It’s just easy to get sidetracked between my home south of Salt Lake City and the big waters near Missoula.
An invite from my friend Blair finally put me in Montana. His vague—yet promising—message of fishing “some rivers up near Missoula” tore me from the rut of familiarity all fishermen fall into at some point, though we’re loath to admit becoming creatures of unbreakable habit. Instead of driving east to Wyoming, or west into the Sawtooth Mountains, I met Blair at his home in Idaho Falls and he drove north. If I’d been driving we’d have ended up in Missoula . . . eventually. Likely with a detour to the Greys, Gros Ventre, and the Firehole, but hey, I’d get us where we needed to be.
Blair took me straight from Idaho Falls to his uncle’s house, which was an adventure in itself. Vaulted ceilings shot at least 30 feet above my head, complemented by sparklingly clean wood floors and expansive grounds through which whitetail lazily walked, knowing the humans in this part of their forest posed no real threat to their well-being.
The next morning it was off into the forest. Blair casually slung his Smith & Wesson .45 into a shoulder holster.
“I usually see bears here,” he said. He didn’t elaborate.
I tucked my Glock .40 inside my waders as well, and we set off on my first true foray into Montana’s mountains.
The first time I visited Montana, I did so to meet the late Tom Morgan. He and his wife, Gerri, built me a rod, and like other anglers before me, I made the drive to their Bozeman home to see Tom and pick it up in person.
That trip lasted three days, and on the last night I lay in my hotel bed, on the phone with my father. He’s the one who taught me to fly fish (and, therefore, the one responsible for my dubious lifestyle), and I regaled him with fish stories of my day out on the Madison River. At the end of the call, he said, “Is the sky really bigger in Montana?”
I glanced out the windows of my cheap motel room at the fading sunset and the sparkle of stars. The sky’s expanse was so vast and untouched by light pollution I couldn’t help but feeling like Mark Watney from Andy Weir’s bestseller, The Martian.
“Yeah, it is,” I told my dad softly.
As I hiked through the forest with Blair, the trees finally breaking and the trail leveling out on the top of a ridge, the phrase “Big Sky Country” took on an entirely new meaning. We stood at the entrance to a glacial valley, at the bottom of which a river carved its way south. Even hundreds of yards away from the water I could hear the dull roar of rocks halting the river’s path. Above us, the crumbling peaks of the Rockies poked curiously at the sky, as if they too wondered just how high their tops could go. And on all sides the sky stretched out with no beginning or end.
The sky stayed impossibly big all day, even as we left the high mountain stream for an evening on the Blackfoot. I kept craning my head upward. Like most anglers, I’d gone fishing with a host of problems on my mind. The vastness of the sky and the seemingly endless range of mountains, though, put those problems into fierce perspective in the way only a righteous appreciation of the outdoors can do.
I remember the reality check Montana’s mountains gave me. I recall the solitude I felt between their peaks. I don’t, however, remember the fishing.
Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, outdoors columnist, novelist, and sports writer from Utah. He’s also the Managing Editor of The Modern Trout Bum. Connect with him on Twitter/Instagram: @Spencer_Durrant.