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)

 

4 Comments

  1. Howdy, Greg, “PEACE BE WITH YOU”!!

    My well-beloved spouse Peggy piqued my curiosity, so I just had to
    subscribe to your blog, to receive your weekly contributions to our lives;
    I HAVE MISSED THEM SO!!, time to get back on track with you.

    Grace & Blessings, Joe Korona OFS….

    (P.S.: After so many years that I can’t remember, on this coming Friday, 2/13/15,
    Peggy is working her final shift as the bookkeeper for Reineking Construction.
    “Thanks, Slats, it’s been a good run, and Happy Retirement to ya.”….)

  2. Greg,

    I have a friend that could be Spot’s twin brother.

    Thanks for this story, there were several laughs here before I was through.

    Best from New Braunfels, TX.

    Skip

  3. Reruns are wonderful! The nicknames of Butte are timeless. I recall “Mugsy” Walsh, “Moose” Petritz, and “Japes” Kasun. I knew them all for 30 over years but never did know their real names.

  4. Too much fun Greg! Thanks for the rerun!

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