Sparky sends great big bouquet of arrow leaf balsam root to all mothers, everywhere!

Sparky sends great big bouquet of arrow leaf balsam root to all mothers, everywhere!

Mothers are special creatures in all of nature, and if that’s true, then grandmothers fall right into the same category. That’s why it was always such a sweet privilege for me to share my thoughts about mothers and grandmothers in my weekly column for the last 27 years each Mothers’ Day. This week, I thought it would be fun to share a couple of those columns from many years ago. Of course my mother and my grandmothers are long gone from this mortal earth, but the gifts they gave and the spirit they shared with me and the rest of their progeny are with all of us every day.


From 1988:


My mother lives just down the street. We talk regularly. The other day I told her I was going fishing.

“Fishing? Haven’t you heard about the winter storm watch?”

“Yes mom, I know about the weather, but the trip is on.”

“You’re not going alone are you? There’s nothing more hare-brained than going off hunting or fishing by yourself, you know. They might not find your corpse for months.”

“No mom, I’m not going alone, I’m going with Erwin.”

“Well that’s reassuring. He has about as much common sense as you do. Neither one of you knows enough to come in out of the rain. Well I hope you have life jackets.”

“Of course we have life jackets.”

“And you wear them?”

“We’ll keep them handy Mom.”

“A lot of good that will do. You be careful!”

Such exchanges have been taking place between my mother and her children for upwards of forty years. My friend Erwin, who was full-grown when he met her, has been a target of her admonitions for nearly twenty of those years. I guess that’s because his mother lives in Minnesota and can’t get at him.

I never thought much about it before becoming a parent, but after a short career as a father, I marvel at human survival. How children manage to make it in one piece to adulthood, after plunging from near disaster to dangerous precipice to sure collision all along the way, is a matter of continual amazement. Here in Montana, the seductiveness and myriad dangers of the natural world make that survival all the more miraculous.

Admittedly our children here in Montana don’t face, at least to the same degree, the dark forces that confront children in an urban setting. No, but we do have steep cliffs, fast dark water, unpredictable weather, rattlesnakes, grizzly bears, guns and all sorts of wild and exotic things waiting just outside the nursery door. Thankfully, we also have mothers to guide the way.

For many who grow up here, this is all the stuff of dreams, but for mothers, mothers like mine anyway, these same ingredients have probably been responsible for many a nightmare. Mothers after all have been saddled with the glamorless part of steering the kids through the early stages of outdoor experience.

While the dads are concentrating on the how to’s of fishing, hunting, canoeing and skiing, the moms have more often than not ended up handling the hygiene, safety, first aid, common sense and tender loving care departments, often without getting to enjoy the outdoors themselves. For this usually thankless job, mothers clearly deserve most of the credit for survival of our species. In my case anyway it happens to be so.

It was mom, after all, who got me ready for my first camping trip. She inventoried my kit and made a few suggestions, like spare socks, a raincoat and some food besides candy. When I got cold feet, she buoyed me by telling me what a good time I would have. And when I came home, elated, tired and filthy, she hugged me, told me how she missed me, and then made me disrobe and sprayed me with a garden hose before letting me in the house.

It was mom who tended the blisters and sprains, poured salve on the sunburns and scrapes and mended and replaced the tattered clothing. She’s the one who tolerated the animal carcasses in the garage, and cooked the meat, despite a distaste stemming from a childhood with wild game to eat every day.

She was the one who waited and worried when an outing went too long. And she is the one who always, always, always reminded each of us to be careful with guns, to wear our lifejackets, to watch the weather, and to drive carefully.

When we returned from one outing or another it was mom who listened to the tales of beauty and adventure with a combination of delight and wistfulness. For even as she always encouraged our comings and goings, she must have yearned to see those places and things her children had seen and she had only dreamed about.

To be sure, there was a time when her wanderings were farther, wider and more adventurous. I have seen faded photographs of her in her youth, perched on rocky summits and lounging among the wildflowers of a high, windy pass. Somehow though, with the coming of family and the tenor of the times, she left that behind her, and did her adventuring vicariously through her children. It was expected in those days.

The only thing she saved for herself was huckleberry picking. She still attacks a huckleberry patch ruthlessly and recklessly, unmindful of the scratches and scrapes from tangled brush, ignoring the burning sun. She picks huckleberries like the future of western civilization is in the balance. Her children do not advise and do not interfere.

Her grandchildren are growing up in a different world. It is a world where it is easier, more often expected for mothers to participate in the main events instead of the support roles. Those children get to share the exhilaration of the wild with their mothers, and when their mom exhorts them to tie on that life jacket, she ties her own on too, then takes the oars.

So for the mountains they never got to climb, and for the bends in the river they have not seen, I want to thank my mom and all the others just like her out there. It was they, after all, who enabled us to love this place. Happy Mothers’ Day!



From 1998.


The other evening, son Sander and his Grandma Helen, my Mom, went off to a band concert together at the University Theater. As they walked away together like old pals, I found myself musing on grandmas. Sander is friends with his two grandmothers in a way that I never was with mine. I admit to being just a bit jealous of the opportunity he has had to get to know them.

But I did have a grandmother who exerted, unbeknownst to her, a powerful force on my life and, I am sure, on the lives of her other 14 grandchildren.

She had lived sixty jam-packed years before I became aware of her. Those years included the trip from Norway to a homestead shack in the United States as a young girl, with intermediate stops in Iowa and Minnesota before moving to the wild country of north central Montana and happening upon a teaching job over in the Blackfeet country. Then came a chance meeting with the handsome young homestead locator who had come from the same area of Norway she came from, Telemark Province, via the gold mines and trap lines of Canada. As they say, the rest is history.

I can’t pinpoint my first memory of my grandmother. It could be the image of her, apron-clad, leaning over the wood cook stove at the family cabin up at Swan Lake. She is forking doughnuts out of a grease-spitting, cast-iron frying pan, and dipping them in a bowl of powdered sugar. She is humming the good Lutheran hymns familiar to all of her grandchildren, but especially to my siblings, and me since our dad happened to be a Lutheran preacher.

Of all her many grandchildren, I may have been the most appreciative of her doughnut expertise, I still suffer from a strong, almost irresistible, attraction for doughnuts, but nothing today compares to the anticipation I felt in the thick, sweet atmosphere of that kitchen on a summer morning.

More likely though, my first image of her is probably the one where she is sitting cross-legged on the edge of a low cut-bank at a place we used to go on the Swan River. She has on a pair of hip boots, and she is wearing a fishing vest, pockets stuffed with hooks, flies, leaders and whatever else she may have kept in there. She is topped off with one of those red felt hats we call “crushers” now. Cradled in her hands is handsome split bamboo fly rod with a black metal automatic Perrine reel.

As I remember it, Grandma is surrounded by a pack of grandchildren in the same general age group as me. The older kids and the men have disappeared up and downstream in search of trout and solitude, but Grandma seems content to hang around with the little kids and do a little fishing.

My Grandma fished with worms. That was bad enough, considering the top-quality fly gear that she used. Even worse, she couldn’t stand to bait her own hook.

The eager gaggle of grandchildren vied for the opportunity to bait Grandma’s hook. And when she caught a fish, which was common on the Swan in those days, a wave of excitement swept through the entire entourage. It was not unusual for Grandma to catch the biggest fish of all on those expeditions. The returning purists would discount it due to the means employed, but we kids and Grandma would know the truth.

When the time came, Grandma and Grandpa took me out, as they did with each grandchild, to catch my first trout on the Swan River. Grandpa didn’t even complain about me using worms. When I landed the first trout, both grandparents emitted those distinctly Norwegian chortles of glee that you can still hear sometimes at potluck dinners in church basements. Both grandparents were there, but for me it was clearly a Grandma event.

There have been many rivers, much laughter and lots of wonderful hours afield since the days with my own Grandma. But she is still with me whenever I venture out into the wild world that I have come to cherish so. She is always there, tempting me with fresh nightcrawlers. Even now, forty-five years later, I can still find the exact spot where I caught that first trout and I can remember the sound of their laughter.

I thought about this the other night when Sander marched off to that concert with his Grandma Helen.

It won’t be memories of fishing that connects him with either of his grandmas. It probably won’t be doughnuts either. But there will be something that stays with him.

With grandma Helen, it could be huckleberries.

Sander has loitered in that same kitchen at Swan Lake that I knew as a child, waiting for the next batch of huckleberry pancakes from his grandmother, and he has scouted ahead for her as she commanded a battalion of berry pickers.

Or it could be a hundred other things that she has been for him. She has cheered him on through years of basketball and soccer games. She has dutifully attended the school programs and concerts and has glowed with pride when he could finally toot a tune on his saxophone. She has nursed him through homework and treated him like visiting royalty when she thought he needed it.

Whatever the case, his grandmothers will always be there as part of who he is and who he will become. He’s a lucky kid.

And I was a lucky kid before him.












Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

Launching on the Swan, back when rowboats were enough.

I had just hung up the phone after negotiating a day on the river with my old friend Erwin when the phone rang. It was Erwin again.

“Did we decide who’s bringing the boat tomorrow?” he asked.

“No. I guess I didn’t even think about it.”

“Well do you have a boat we can use?”

Erwin and I owned this boat together 40 years ago. Notice the fancy seating.

Erwin and I owned this boat together 40 years ago. Notice the fancy seating.

I could see out the living room window from where I stood and my pickup was there with my son Sander’s fly fishing skiff sitting proudly on the attached trailer.

“Yes, I have a boat,” I replied.

“A drift boat?”

“Yes, Sander’s skiff is here. He’ll let me use it.”

I couldn’t help thinking that Erwin was getting a little picky about boats. There was a time when any floatable craft was acceptable. These days, when the water levels warrant, Erwin prefers the stability and comfort of a hard-bottomed riverboat to a raft. I do too.

It is about this time of year that boats become a topic of discussion and the focus of daydreams for me and many of my friends. With the heart of floating season looming in the weeks and months ahead, there is often a lot of activity in the boat business, buying, selling, upgrading, and adding to the fleet.

As I write these words, pal Slats is thinking about his next boat. He just sold his most recent drift boat and he’s in the market for something in more versatile raft. He almost bought on he found on Craigslist last week, but it was sold out from under him. He claims that the seller agreed to wait a day until Slats had a look at it. But money talks.

I’m always looking, and dreaming a bit, but right now I am happy with a good raft rigged for fishing. My pals have plenty in the hard boat department, and son Sander doesn’t complain too much if I borrow his once in a while.

Even so, just as I know Slats is suffering from a fairly serious case of boat lust right now, I can feel it sneaking in on me, too.

The boys were supposed to be hunting ducks that day. The Sportspal disappeared from its hiding place in 2014.

The boys were supposed to be hunting ducks that day. The Sportspal disappeared from its hiding place in 2014.


BOAT LUST is a disease folks. Modern science has not determined whether its causes are genetic or environmental, but all who study it agree that once B.L. takes hold, there is little a victim can do but ride it out or knuckle under.

I don't know how this speedboat got in here.

I don’t know how this speedboat got in here.

B.L. is characterized by an intense desire to have a boat. Not just any old boat will do. In fact, most victims, myself included, already have a boat or two at their disposal while the overwhelming urge to have another boat clutches at the chest. The disease creates a strong feeling in the victim that all future happiness is dependent upon owning and operating a new boat.

We called this the "Lead Sled," slow but sure.

We called this the “Lead Sled,” slow but sure.

The obstacles to owning the boat in question are usually significant. The first one is always money.

An easy way to spot a B.L. sufferer is to take a quick look in the back yard or garage. There you will see things like canoes up on sawhorses, usually more than one, or boat trailers and raft frames heaped unceremoniously about. Scattered around in the garage you will find oars and paddles, an outboard motor or two, and life jackets of all kinds hanging from nails and rafters. If the stuff looks like it hasn’t been used lately, look around some more. There is sure to be new gear around.

That’s because B.L. usually strikes people who use boats regularly. The particular strain of lust I am referring to involves fishing boats. I don’t know about B.L. as it pertains to ski boats or sailboats, or even white watercraft generally, but it is safe to assume that it has plenty of victims in those areas as well.

I have suffered from B.L. all my life. I have always been around boats. One boat that came into this world the same year I did, an aluminum and wood model, still bangs its way over the sandbars of the Swan River every year with me at the controls. It is a 1947 model Larsen rowboat, crafted from heavy aircraft aluminum stockpiled at the end of WWII.

Still my favorite boat of all time-67 years old and still afloat.

Still my favorite boat of all time-67 years old and still afloat.

So it’s not as though there hasn’t always been a boat available at almost any time in my life, except when I was marooned at various Marine bases or stuck in a dorm in the middle of Minnesota cornfields at St. Olaf College. If I had looked around hard enough, I would have found boats in those places, too.

Early on though, I recognized a need for specialized craft. The first manifestations were crude log rafts, lashed together on the shores of mountain lakes with lengths of the heavy old phone wire left along mountain trails when lookouts were abandoned. With the advent of cheap inflatables it was a long procession of canvas and rubber concoctions.

The first was a red and white striped “two-man” model ordered from a catalog. It’s maiden voyage was down an irrigation ditch in Billings, with a portage required every hundred yards or so when the water squeezed into a culvert for a street crossing. Then came the yellow “rubber duckies”.

Those “duckies” became the stuff of barter. As long as they still held air, they were like currency. One big old “duck” for two smaller, newer ones, for example. Or maybe it was two small ones for a battered canoe. Once I even lost one to Erwin in a cribbage game.

Brother Steve at the oars. I traded this boat to DelRay for a boat to be named later.

Brother Steve at the oars. I traded this boat to DelRay for a boat to be named later.

But usually there was a reason for any alteration of the fleet. There was a particular stretch of water, or certain water conditions, or some new comfort consideration like a place to sit, that made a new boat ideal.            With time, of course, the shortcomings of each new boat became evident. It might be tippy, or cramped, or sluggish in fast water. There was always something. So the fleet grew and changed quite often.

As Erwin has said at least 1,000 times, ” You can never have too many floatable craft.”

Not a single one in my crowd of outdoor pals disputes that. I certainly don’t, but I also know that monetary considerations sometimes interfere. Things like food, clothing and shelter are necessary for the family, for example. And that’s why, over the years, I have had to fight B.L. when it comes along. That’s why I never got a Barnegat Bay Sneak Box for duck hunting. That’s why I never got one of those folding boats to take along on trips like a piece of luggage. And that’s why I didn’t have a drift boat for a long, long time, even though I was filled with lust.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

Slats and Ruth once owned this boat.

That was going on long before drift boats became as common as magpies in Missoula. People would stop to watch when one floated by on a river, noting the graceful, pointy ended, flat-bottomed design that have long since become standard among the ever growing army of fishing guides on all of Montana’s rivers. They are easy to handle, roomy, comfortable and provide a nice stable place to stand and cast. And they are often beautifully crafted. I never knew what I was missing until the day I finally asked Stuart Williams to build me one.

For years, I had been shopping; making some calls; memorizing brochures; contemplating the accessories; and I had tried out a couple. Erwin and I carefully looked over several production models complete with waterproof dry boxes, swivel seats, handy foot-release anchor systems, the works.

One of the unwritten laws relating to dealing with BL is that a friend should generally never try to talk a friend out of buying a boat when the moment of truth arrives. A new boat, you see, is a joy to be shared by many. And, if I can convince Erwin or Slats or Homer to buy a particular boat, well then I won’t have to buy one for a while.

Brother Val enjoying the front seat of the Stuart Williams drift boat.

Brother Val enjoying the front seat of the Stuart Williams drift boat.

The thing about B.L. is that if you can get over the first few weeks, it goes away for a year or so. Once the fishing gets really good, you don’t worry about boats. You just use what you have and get out on the water as often as you can. But you never quite forget that it’s out there, waiting to strike when the time is again right.

After all, it is a well-known fact that you never outgrow your need for boats.


Today, with a little blue sky peeking through the April clouds from time to time, I am plotting about my next day on a Montana river. Right now, it is a bit of a game of chance, with flows seeming to be hovering the last few days, just on the verge of slipping into spring run-off mode, but not quite. Any fishing plans are dependent on checking the current stream flow at the USGS gauging stations on the various rivers. That’s because the fishing is dependent upon stream conditions like flow and water temperature. And we all know the old fishing guide mantra, “You can’t catch fish on a rising river.” So, all of my pals have that USGS site bookmarked on their computers for easy access.

Once the river has been decided upon, the next issue is figuring out who’s driving and who is going to be responsible for the shuttle. Whenever you float downstream without a motor to push you back up, it is important to put just a bit of thought into how you will get your vehicle from the beginning of the float to the end of it. Over the years I have found that no particular scheme is foolproof.

This is not always an obvious concern to people unfamiliar with river travel. Once, many years ago during my guiding days,one of my customers caught me off guard with the simplest of questions. As I helped a gentle lady into the raft for a day of floating downstream on the Big Blackfoot, she turned to me and asked, “Will we be getting out here at the end of the day?”

I suppose I could have replied in the affirmative, as in, “Yes, after lunch I’ll be rowing you back up here.” But, instead, I told her as gently as I could that, no, we would be stopping a few miles down river and the vehicles we had come to the river in would be waiting there for us.

When I think about shuttles this time of year, I am often transported to another time, an April day long ago when I pedaled my bike twelve miles up a muddy road in a driving rainstorm and swore to myself that I would never do that again.             By taking that muddy bike ride I was simply handling the one pesky detail of river floating that, even now, I have never completely ironed out. It has something to do with the old adage about paying the piper.

The problem of the shuttle becomes especially complicated when there are large groups of people and several boats involved. Figuring out how to get the correct vehicles to the bottom of the float, then getting the drivers back to the start, then retrieving the vehicles that brought them back up, usually once the float is over, can become a logistical nightmare. It sounds like it should be simple, but it just isn’t always that way.

One might think, for example that taking two cars is a sure-fire solution for a simple one-boat float. It can be if you remember to put one vehicle at the bottom of the float for starters, and if you remember to send the other one along to bring the driver of the first one back before you start. There are other things to remember too.

For example, Homer and I are unloading at our take-out point and I ask him for the car keys so I can load up some stuff.

 “Just a minute, I’ll get ’em. They’re in my pants pocket…in the other rig!”

 The other rig is ten miles upstream.

  Another possibility is hiring it done, if there is somebody trustworthy around to do it.

 That brings me to the time Erwin and I were floating the Bow River up near Calgary. It was a three-day float. We made arrangements through a local fly shop to have somebody move our vehicle to the end of the float. Somewhere in the middle of the second day we passed an area that looked as if it was a developed campground. There were several vehicles parked in different locations among the cottonwoods along the north bank of the river. One vehicle looked vaguely familiar.

 “Hey Erwin, that looks just like your rig over there in the trees?”

“Kind of looks like mine doesn’t it? Well, I’m pretty sure they made more than one of those that year.”

The next day at the take-out, there was no truck in evidence. There were no cell phones in those days. So the first task was to hitch a ride to the nearest phone. That happened to be a farm house five miles down up the gravel road in the general direction of Calgary.

 “About the only people who stop by to use the phone are the ones who seem to be marooned down there where people take their boats out of the river above the dam,” the lady of the house said as she ushered me inside and showed me the telephone. It took several calls back and forth with the people at the fly shop to ascertain who, exactly, had finally moved the vehicle. That’s when it became apparent that the truck we had seen far upriver the day before, was the one we wanted.

 Erwin did the honors and stood by the road with his thumb out until another Good Samaritan came along to pick him up and take him to his truck. Meanwhile, I hitched back to the take-out to stand guard over our gear, as if someone might come along and rip us off. We had seen no other anglers during the float. There were no vehicles at the take-out. And I did not see another human being after being dropped off until I saw Erwin at the wheel of his truck several hours later.

Sometimes the shuttle can be just plain lonely business for all involved.

On another day, years ago, I was guiding on Rock Creek. Going on the recommendation of someone I had no reason to doubt, I handed my car keys to a young entrepreneur who was hanging around the Rock Creek Mercantile during the salmon fly hatch, trying snag jobs shuttling vehicles from put-in to take-out along various stretches up and down the creek. The young fellow seemed fine, and he assured me he would have the truck in the right place at the right time.

The road passes within sight of the stream many times on the part of of Rock Creek that we were fishing that day and it is common to see traffic on that road during that time of year, especially. Generally, that traffic is made up of vehicles, mostly trucks, towing rafts on trailers upstream, and towing empty trailers downstream. If it is particularly dry and warm, dust kicked up by those vehicles can sometimes hover over the road like a toxic yellow cloud.

 My customers that day were quite amused, I suppose, as they watched me watch my truck going up and down the road quite regularly throughout the day. We saw it again and again, usually at a high rate of speed, leaving a plume of dust in its wake. Only when a fierce, but brief, rainstorm dropped into Rock Creek in mid-afternoon did the dust from the road begin to abate.

 At day’s end, my truck was parked where it was supposed to be, but the short shuttle had somehow added about 120 miles to the odometer. The dry clothes my customers had left in the cab so they could get out of their waders at the end of the float had been thrown into the open pick-up box, apparently to accommodate extra passengers. The clothes were a sodden tangle. There were also a dozen empty beer cans rattling around on the floor of the truck, indicating that the shuttler and his friends had apparently made the days work into something of a festive event. And, of course, since those additional miles were on the Rock Creek Road which is know to be tough on vehicles, that day probably took years off the life of the truck.

Sometimes, of course, you can count on one-person hitchhiking back to get the vehicle at the end of the day, especially on bright, warm, sunny days when you wouldn’t mind the walk anyway. Those are the days when the rides come easily and people are always interested to know about the fishing and the floating if the hitcher is wearing part of the uniform, like a fishing vest or chest waders.

But I know from experience that you cannot count on hitching on rainy or snowy days, rarely in the dark, and never in the dark on the Swan highway near the Swan River Youth Camp in those days where that was operated as an extension of the Montana prison system. When the Swan River camp was in full operation, it was illegal to hitchhike in the immediate vicinity, anyway. Several very obvious signs warned motorists not to pick up hitchhikers. But there were a few times I can remember when my crowd just kind of let that little fact slip our minds. The Swan Highway can be a long, dark, cold and very lonely place to take a seven or eight mile stroll on a fall evening. We know that from bitter experience.

 The arrival on the scene of mountain bikes added a new wrinkle to the shuttle business. When there is any doubt about the shuttle, no drivers available for example, or just one vehicle, we would always just throw in the mountain bike and one of us would pedal one way or the other. The big drawback was that it was easier to put the ride off till after the float, at which time we were likely to be dog-tired and in no mood to pump a dozen or so miles in any direction. And of course, that’s when the rain always starts.

 For every shuttle story I repeat, two or three more occur to me, and each one seems to reflect more dunderheadedness than the last. I guess I’ll have to just saved the rest for another rainy day.

 Meanwhile, times have changed. Almost any river one chooses to float has a shuttle service or two available, offering to handle the whole process so anglers and other floaters can just concentrate on having fun. It has become a serious business for some, and the good ones take pride in having everything work out perfectly for the customer. Some I know even wash the windows and vacuum the vehicle for customers. And sometimes, the person who answers the phone at a shuttle service might just also be able to provide a tip or two about what to expect from a day on the water.

Joe Cantrell down in St. Regis is one such operator. He is always happy to arrange a shuttle and at the same time provide a rundown on what’s happening with the bugs on the river, what the water conditions are, and he might even share a story or two about the big ones that have gotten away lately. Of course he wouldn’t mind if you bought some flies or equipment in his fly shop, either.

 In the end, however you decide to handle your shuttle, if you are going to do it with your own sweat, or pay for it with actual money, it’s still a small price to pay for any day on the water. And it ain’t rocket science.

I was chatting with Homer the other night, comparing notes about our latest outdoor adventures and doing some preliminary horse-trading about what we might do together in the near future when the subject of hunting and fishing licenses came up. We had both been off in search of steelhead in neighboring states, since we don’t have those beautiful silver giants in our Montana rivers, and we had several weeks of questing to catch up on. But when that was done and we began to throw out some possibilities for hitting the rivers closer to home, it dawned on me that I had failed to take care of one of the basics.


“I’ve got fishing licenses in Idaho and Oregon now, and I just realized I don’t have my Montana license yet,” I said.


“Jumping Jehosophat! Me too! I’ve got a Washington license but I haven’t re-upped at home yet. And I’ve already been fishing a couple of times. I better trot on down to the sporting goods store and correct that tomorrow morning,” Homer replied.


Okay, he didn’t really say “Jumping Jehosophat,” but I wish he would some time. And he really did admit that he had been doing some fishing and had forgotten to get himself fully licensed ahead of time. I am certain that by the time anyone reads these words, if they ever do, Homer will have rectified that situation, and any legal ramifications would be based on my word against his anyway.


Regardless of the license situation, which I will get back to in a minute, I intend to bring the subject of Jumping Jehosophat up sometime when we are in a boat together and spending time between reeling in slab-sided trout lamenting the demise of the English language in general. Somewhere in there, I will just slip in the question, “Where do you think the phrase Jumping Jehosophat came from?” I expect we will then engage in some interesting speculation that will provide a pleasant sort of intellectual counterpoint to the non-stop action with trout that we are sure to be distracted by.


But, what I really wanted to say here was that, subsequent to that conversation, I rounded up my son Sander and we went out together and bought our licenses so we would not find ourselves in any uncomfortable situations on or near the water involving Fish, Wildlife and Parks law enforcement personnel. But, that’s not the only reason we went out to take care of those annual fishing and hunting license matters.


You see, I really do believe that we who are lucky enough to live right here in Montana are doubly fortunate to be able to enjoy the countless pleasures afforded by the abundant fish and wildlife resources of this wonderful state. I have felt that way every time I have walked up to a counter in a sporting goods store or fly shop where I could buy a license since that very first one 55 years ago. I can still feel how proud I was to stand at the counter at Q’s Sporting Goods in downtown Billings and ask for a fishing license and carefully provide all the information necessary. When that was done, I slipped the $2.00 of hard-earned paper route money across the clear glass countertop and folded the license to fit in the tiny manila license sleeve to keep in my wallet.

A ticket to paradise makes everyone happy!

A ticket to paradise makes everyone happy!


It was probably the best $2.00 investment I ever made. And in the years since, though the prices of licenses have climbed dramatically, those prices have not kept pace with the other kinds of inflation that we have experienced in every other facet of our lives.


Just for your information, a few years earlier than that day I bought that first license, in the year I was born, 1947, the entire budget for the then Montana Fish and Game Department was $90,000. That was all the money that went into managing fish and wildlife resources across this entire state. I don’t know if there was such a thing as any kind of protected wildlife species in those days. In fact, the woodland caribou season may still have been going on in northwest Montana. The whole discipline of wildlife management was really still in its infancy. Elk were only then starting to reappear in substantial numbers around the state after nearly disappearing entirely in the early part of the century. We had already begun messing with things by introducing brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout into the wonderful native cutthroat and bull trout fisheries, with no idea what that might portend for the for the future of native species. The mining industry was still pouring poison into the rivers and streams in the Upper Clark Fork country, something that we are still working to correct today. What I’m really trying to say, though, is things were different then, and we really didn’t think much about what we were doing to the fish and wildlife and their habitat in Montana because the seemed like there was just so much that there would always be plenty to go around.


Well, things have changed plenty since then, and the present day Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is tasked with protecting and managing those fish and wildlife resources in a way that assures that future generations of Montanans will be able to enjoy them as we do. It is an extremely difficult job, one that is often thankless. And if you have been paying attention while you are in the field, hunting, fishing, watching wildlife or engaged in other kinds of outdoor recreation around the State of Montana, then you know that FWP is struggling to stretch the resources it has to attend to the job it is tasked to do.


That’s why remembering to buy that license is so important, and why I think of it as an honor to put my money down every year for a new one. After all, it is the absolute best recreational dollar you can spend. In my case now, yes, with some benefits of advancing age, an investment of less than $70.00 provides me with an entire year of fishing, big game hunting, an elk tag, a deer tag, upland bird hunting, recreational access to State Lands, and even a tag good for one wild turkey. That’s less than dinner for two at a nice restaurant, or a day of skiing or a round of golf at lots of places. In fact, it’s not much more than a tank of gas cost until the recent price drop. That license is nothing less than a little ticket to paradise, if you ask me.  Oh, by the way, Naomi, the lady who took care of getting us those licenses at Bob Wards this week, made it a smooth as silk operation.

With license in hand, you might just find one like this.

With license in hand, you might just find one like this.


So, if you haven’t already done it, get out there and pick up your Montana fishing and hunting licenses. it will be pure pleasure.


As an added incentive, I am reprinting a column I wrote for the Missoulian that appeared on March 20, 1994, detailing some of the inconvenient and embarrassing consequences that might result if you let that license matter slide too long. Here it is:


The balmy weather of late has made it real hard to concentrate on the business at hand. The thought of fishing keeps getting in the way. Erwin called and we agreed to try to get on the water later this week. Meanwhile, friend Mike stopped by on Friday and suggested we steal away for just a couple hours to see what was happening on the river close to town. One of the many wonderful things about living here is that you don’t have to go more than a few minutes from the front door to find a piece of water with trout in it. I gave in.

I hurriedly grabbed my gear from the pile in the basement, threw it in the back of Mike’s car, and we were off. I had just two hours until I would have to pick up my son Sander from day care, so we didn’t waste any time.

It felt good to be out there. A few high clouds moved through the sky and the slight breeze was enough to remind me that it would have been nice to have worn a jacket. We dabbled here and there along a little channel, trying an assortment of big road kill variety wet flies because there wasn’t much in the way of bug life visible.

Mike caught a couple of nice fish in fairly short order, but that was about it. We chatted and watched each other cast. Mike made a few derogatory comments about my technique, which is something few of my fishing partners can resist. Then it was time to go.

I was strolling along a high bank, heading in the general direction of the car, and looking down into the cold water just to see if I could spot a fish. Because I was dawdling, Mike was a hundred yards or so ahead. Looking up, I caught a glimpse of somebody coming in our direction through the trees. Something on the person’s chest glinted in the sunlight. A second look told me it was a game warden coming in our way.

My first thought was that it was a bit unusual to see one of those folks out here on a weekday. In fact, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks enforcement people are spread so thin, that is not all that uncommon to go through two or three seasons without ever encountering one afield.

My second thought was “AARGH!”

That’s because it suddenly dawned on me that the game warden was going to ask me for my license, and I didn’t have one that would satisfy him. March 1 was the date when new licenses were required, and I had forgotten all about it. Don’t laugh!

I immediately set about trying to make myself invisible. These days, when fishing attire makes us all look like some weird cross between a frogman and a drugstore cowboy, it is not an easy task to blend into the natural surroundings. I had the strange sensation of growing bigger instead of the opposite.

My next frantic wish was that he would stop Mike, check his license, and then wander off in the other direction, ignoring me altogether. If there is such a thing as a guilt pheromone, I am sure my body was manufacturing them at a record rate. The game warden must have had his guilt detector switched on, because by the time I reached the car, he was done with Mike and coming, inexorably, my way.

I tried to be casual about it, but in my embarrassment, I failed miserably. I was absolutely mortified. Dan, the game warden, could tell how extremely uncomfortable I was, and he did his best to be nice about the whole thing. It didn’t help.

A few days later, when I lined up in court to face the music, the judge was understanding as well. He didn’t do anything to make me feel like a hardened criminal. And he saw fit not to levy the maximum fine that I had envisioned. That didn’t help much either.

Anyone who pontificates as much as I do about things like sporting ethics and our obligation to know and follow the regulations should at least know enough to have a license when it is required. I have tried to think up a good excuse for my failure, but there really isn’t one I can think of.

I am one of those who think that we don’t have enough people in the field enforcing fishing and hunting regulations. And I still think that, but there were certainly enough wardens out last Friday to find me. It kind of reminds me of those people like Lee Trevino, the golfer, who have been repeatedly hit by lightening. The chances of being hit even once are infinitesimally miniscule, but they get hit again and again. I’m like that. If it’s wrong and I do it, I get caught.

On the brighter side, I am also one who contends that our fishing and hunting licenses are the absolute best entertainment bargain around. I have often been heard to say that I would gladly pay twice as much, or more, for the privilege of hunting and fishing.

This year I had to put my money where my mouth was. In fact, considering the new license and the fine, I paid substantially more than twice the going rate for my license. If you don’t want to end up in the same boat, I suggest you run out and get your license right now.












A Steelhead River

A Steelhead River

I guess it’s no secret that steelhead fishing can have an addictive quality to it. I think I recognized that long ago, and maybe that’s why I waited until late in life to do more than occasionally dabble in the whole business.


Beginning almost thirty years ago, I made a few clumsy forays to the steelhead waters of the nearby Idaho panhandle, but never put in the time needed to feel like I had any real idea what I was doing.


I had never seen a steelhead until my first trip over to the Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho one December day long ago with local experts Steelhead Steve Stergios and his fishing buddy, Pat Robins, the Doctor of Steelheading. Sadly, both Steve and Pat are gone from the river now, but their spirits endure in the hearts and memories of many who they introduced to the mysteries of the steelhead.


I don’t remember the name of the hole we stopped at, but all the places known to harbor steelhead have names that are generally used by the people who fish there. If you aren’t familiar with the long windy road, the highway closely follows the rivers all the way from the first encounter with the Lochsa west of Lolo Pass to the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers at Lewiston. The river is often so close to the road that it would almost be possible to complete a cast to the river from the open window of a passing vehicle. The place we stopped had room for a couple of vehicles to park next to the highway. Steve and Pat stood atop the riverbank, just on the far side of a highway guardrail to give me my first tutorial.


We weren’t five minutes into the basic casting demonstration when Steve hooked the first steelhead of the day and I got to watch as he played the beautiful creature into the net, very adeptly handled by Pat. In no time, the hook was carefully extracted from upper jaw of the brilliantly colored fish and it was released back into the cold, dark water. It took my breath away.


Many years later, after another pair of steelheading friends, Butch and Sundance, took me under their collective wings and taught me at last how to get the job done, I finally landed my first steelhead on my own.


That’s what ruined me. Now I have to go every year when the time seems right.


Two weeks ago, Slats and I met up with old friends Erwin and Sleepy for a couple of days of steelheading. Erwin and Sleepy were alternating between fishing from a drift boat and wade-fishing, or “fishing by hand,” as Erwin used to refer to it. Slats and I were boatless, so we spent our time fishing water that allowed us room to wade and cast our fly rods without too regularly getting tangled up in the stream bank brush on our backcasts.

Solitude is hard to find

Solitude is hard to find


One of the things that an angler gets used to when heading to steelhead waters is that solitude is in short supply. There is often a fairly narrow window of opportunity when the big fish are in the part of the river easiest to get to from our side of the mountains. It sometimes seems like everyone from Montana shows up over there in Idaho on the same day and at the same hole.


The deal is that the anglers are all at the same place because the fish are, too. And, once you sort of get a grip on the protocols, and learn how to stake out a place on the river without creating conflict, it’s not so bad.


Then you just start fishing. You cast, and you cast again. Sometimes you might get your gear hung up on something on the bottom and have to replace a fly or two. And then you keep casting. You may cast a thousand times without getting so much as a nudge. You may do that while the person just upstream or downstream from you has landed a fish, or two or three of them. Or, you may be able to see six or eight other anglers and not one of them catches a fish for an entire day. But you all keep at it because you know the fish are there.

Time to re-rig

Time to re-rig


Slats and I worked a hundred yard stretch of river for six hours our first day. We watched several beautiful steelhead being caught and released just upstream of us. And late in the day I hooked up with one. The wonderful sensation of the big, broad shouldered fish, swiping at the fly, feeling the hook, and turning to head away and downstream in a fraction of a second. Two, maybe three seconds later, my line went slack.

Keep Casting

Keep Casting


My response to that turn of events was a unique combination of unintelligible profanity, arm waving and fist shaking, followed by me slogging ashore and sitting down in a heap on the bank to collect my thoughts. And, yes, I was pleased when I examined the end of my leader where the fly had been attached. The fly was gone. The squiggly bit of leader at the end of the line made it clear that my carefully tied knot had failed.




At the end of the day, we debriefed with Erwin and Sleepy and heard tales of the several steelhead they had boated, and Sleepy offered me some assistance.


“I’ll be holding a knot-tying clinic back in the motel tonight, right after dinner. It might be a good idea if you took it in. It doesn’t hurt to brush up on those things, you know,” he said.


Bright and early, we were back in our places the next day. For the first couple of hours, we cleaned ice off our lines and out of the line guides frequently. Then, with the day warming up, we kept at it, casting, casting, casting.


Standing there, feeling the frigid water wrapping around your legs, and imagining the fly you are casting as it bounces along the boulder-strewn river bottom, it is easy to slip into a sort of trance, where nothing exists except you and the river and the fish you visualize finning silently down there in the dark.


Late that afternoon, I had decided it was time to call it a day. I shouted as much to Slats a few dozen yards upstream.


“Just this last cast,” I said to myself.


That magical tug came again then. The line tightened and pulled away hard. I set the hook hard, three times. The line did not break. The knot did not fail. And Slats was soon at my side with the net.


"Fish On!"

“Fish On!”

That evening, there was no kidding about bad knots. It was just a little bit of joy shared by all. And I know that’s true, even though I was thinking that it would be awfully nice for Slats to hook up, too.


On the third day, he did. But this time, it was in the boat with Sleepy at the oars. Of course it became “Captain” Sleepy as soon as we were in the boat with him.


We were all surprised when Slats called “Fish on!”


And things got a bit confused as Captain Sleepy tried to handle the net from his place at the oars while I tried to snap photos of the whole event from my seat in the rear.




Slats deftly played the big fish. It made a hard run downstream and Slats had to work hard to get it back to the boat. I snapped pictures with my phone while Sleepy tried to duck out of the way and net the fish at the same time.


The result? Several photos of Slats holding a bending fly rod as he fought the fish, a photo of Captain Sleepy ducking out of the way, and several partial photos of Sleepy’s arm, part of a net with a fish in it, and several photos with my thumb obscuring almost everything. I did not get a photo of Slats with the fish before he slipped it from the net, and back into the river.

There is a steelhead in this picture, and a thumb!

There is a steelhead in this picture, and a thumb!


But the trip was complete.


A week later, Slats and I went back and did the same thing again.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin after a good day.

Sleepy, Slats, and Erwin
after a good day.


Now we are making plans for the fall.
















Erwin called the other day for a mid-winter check-in. We chatted about family and friends, and each of us provided a summary of our recent outdoor activities. We lamented the fact that we would not be heading down to Billings this weekend to take in the Montana State High School Wrestling Tournament, something Erwin has done almost every year since I first met him more than four decades ago. Other obligations and plans got in the way of that, this year, but we made a pact to be at the tournament together next year. And somewhere in that conversation, Erwin mentioned that our friend Spots and wife Marilyn had left town for their annual winter exploration of the Southwest.


Well, the mention of Spots got me thinking about the way sometimes, when we come across one of those people who become a friend for life, like Erwin did with me, how some of those friends bring friends of their own right along with them. And those people end up becoming lifelong friends of mine as well. And that’s how Spots came into my life not long after Erwin. Here’s what I wrote about Spots long ago:

“Most of my fishing pals handle fly rods as though they were born with one in hand. When we are fishing from a boat, each of them reads the water ahead for trout habitat and for floatability at the same time, and they deftly and expertly maneuver boats through the trickiest currents. They are serious fishermen first. They are generally pleasant company. And finally, and perhaps most important, they are all good friends. So it makes me a little sheepish to say I have met the ideal fishing companion, and he’s not like that.

He’s a Butte Irishman who goes by the name “Spots”. Everyone from Butte has a nickname. It was my friend Erwin who introduced us.

30 years later and still friends, Spots-taking it easy on the Smith.

30 years later and still friends, Spots-taking it easy on the Smith.


“I hope you don’t mind if I bring someone along,” Erwin offered tentatively as we planned our weekly fishing trip.

“Not as long as he comes with your recommendation.”

“Well, he’s a little different,” Erwin was cautious.

“I don’t know what that means, but as long as he has his own equipment it’s fine with me.”

“And he hasn’t been around boats much.” Erwin added.

“If he’s okay with you, he’s okay with me.”


So we went fishing together. Spots had a nice little hand-made fly rod. I don’t remember if he had built it himself or if it was a gift, but it was real pretty, though not designed for the big water we were fishing. The six or seven flies he had were the remainder of the supply his uncle Knobby had given him thirty years earlier when he took Spots out to the Big Hole River for some fly fishing. There were a couple of Pott Flies made in Missoula, a couple of George Grant specials, made in Butte by George himself, and perhaps one big sofa pillow salmon fly imitation that was not likely to be of much use until the next salmon fly hatch, not due for another nine or ten months.


Spots later told me the story of how he was so excited for that fly fishing trip that he spent several hours filling a Mason jar with houseflies so he would have bait for the trip. He was surprised to learn that real flies were not used in fly fishing.


For our trip, Spots was also sporting a new fishing vest that doubled as a self-inflating life jacket. He emerged from Erwin’s truck wearing the vest. He must have been wearing it for the entire two-hour drive from home to our put-in rendezvous. A gentle pull on a red plastic tag hanging from the left breast pocket would send him floating safely to the surface. I was tempted to give it a try, just for fun.


Spots was a congenial fellow from the start, full of jokes, funny stories from his youth in Butte and his many years in the Special Education profession. He also had lots of questions about our fancy gear. He was self-effacing and humble through all of it.


Spots took to the fishing with the same enthusiasm he must have displayed collecting a jar full of houseflies on that first trip. He flailed away from the front seat of our boat with that little rod, and whipped the water in front of him to a froth. In his defense, it was mostly an equipment problem, not technique, but either way he wasn’t overly concerned. His constant chatter and commentary on all aspects of modern culture was punctuated by frequent murmurs of appreciation for the day, the place, and the fishing.


I don’t think Spots caught anything on that first trip, but his excitement when Erwin or I caught a fish was genuine and fun for us. Clearly the word “serious” wasn’t in his vocabulary when it came to fishing. “Fun” was the word that applied for him.

After the big tussle, safely in the net.

After the big tussle, safely in the net.


I was apprehensive when Spots’ turn to row came, but we were on big, slow water, with no trouble spots. He took the oars on a long, flat stretch where all he had to do was hold the boat a short distance from one bank with an occasional sculling motion with one oar, and let it drift downstream.


Even so, it wasn’t easy for him. He handled the oars as if they were both left-handed fly swatters and he had two right hands. Moments after taking control, we were twirling all over the river, oars splashing in jerky, uncoordinated stabs at the water. One moment I would cast to a rising trout along the left bank and the next I would see the same spot over my right shoulder while trying to get my line untangled from Erwin’s.


“Hang on boys, I’ll have you in position in a jiffy.”


He was as good as his word, but we were barely there long enough to cast before the boat again swung drunkenly to one side, leaving one of us in the overhanging brush and the other staring down the middle of the river.


Spots resisted our offers to take over and our frustrations eventually melted into laughter as he regaled us with an endless supply of Butte stories, idle chitchat, and general social criticism. Were it not for his self-effacing good humor, his joy at being on the water and his sense of boyish wonder at the business of fishing, I might not have been interested in fishing with him again, but Spots got under my skin right away, and in a good way.


Because he and Erwin live a couple hours north of Missoula, I don’t get many chances to fish with Spots. It’s tough to get three schedules to mesh and Erwin and I often end up fishing without a third companion. But, I never avoid a chance to fish with Spots when that opportunity arises. His rowing, by the way, has even improved some, though he still has a long way to go.


Recently the Spots, Erwin and I made a trip to Canada to spend a few days on a well-known trout stream.          To our dismay, the river that greeted us was coffee-colored and full to the banks. Erwin and I were ready to throw in the towel before we even got started, but Spots would have none of our pessimism. He wasn’t bothered by the color of the water, or the levels. In fact, he was excited as usual.


“Hey fellas, we’ve got this creek to ourselves!”


He was right. By the time we were ready to go, the river level had peaked, and it began to drop and clear almost before our eyes. As it turned out, we didn’t see a soul for the entire trip, and the fishing was great.


Spots has upgraded his gear by the time we took that trip. He was now in the practice of maintaining an arsenal of fly rods for various purposes, just like the rest of us. And his fly selection was as eclectic as they come. But, though he knew it wasn’t in vogue, he was still wearing that fishing vest with the built-in life preserver in deference to a concerned family member. And I was still resisting the temptation to yank the red plastic emergency tag.


New look aside, Spots retained his enthusiasm and showed no burning need to catch the most or the biggest. His rowing was still exciting and often unpredictable. Sometimes he forgot what he was doing when he got caught up in a story, so his stints at the oars involved many strange locations for fishing. Despite his lack of a classical approach, our complaints were few.


With all that in mind, it was probably appropriate when, moments after commenting on the “fishy” look of a bank we were passing, Spots cast his grasshopper imitation close to the bank and tied into a brown trout that was big enough to scare all three of us.


We beached the boat and Spots stumbled out, somehow keeping his balance while maintaining tension on the line. Erwin and I were as excited as Spots as he gently cradled the big fish in shallow water until it was ready to fin its way back into the current. With no scale the weight would be a guess, but it was over twenty-five inches long, a monster by any standard. It turned out to be the fish of the trip by a large margin.

In hand just before release...not a catfish, really!

In hand just before release…not a catfish, really!


Spots has a way of doing that.


Only a few minutes later, with Spots at the oars and telling the story of his trip to the Super Bowl, I noticed that we were going downriver backwards, and the likely fishing water was thirty feet beyond my casting ability. Resisting the strong urge to reach over and pull the red plastic tag on Spots’ fishing vest, I sat back and enjoyed the story. And Erwin, in the front seat of the boat, and me, in the back seat were both reduced to tears of laughter when Spots got to the part where he was mistaken for the head coach of an NFL team and found his way into an exclusive party, where folks gathered around him top ask his predictions for the big game.


I’ll fish with Spots anytime.

(This column was originally published in the Missoulian on September 9, 1988)