Ennis is about fifty miles from Bozeman, but if you’ve never been in a 1983 Chevy pickup navigating the winding, lonely highway that cuts through the dry foothills connecting these two Montana towns, the drive seems a lot longer. It’s just enough time to forget where you’re headed or wonder why you’re traveling in the first place.
Archie had come to depend on those fifty clicks. He did the drive most days, even in the winter when the road got icy. It gave him time to think and sing along to the cassettes stuffed into his glove compartment. Today it was Social Distortion, Merle Haggard, Radiohead and a few others.
He and his girlfriend, Sarah, shared an apartment in downtown Bozeman, right up the street from the university and not far from Ted’s, the bison steak joint owned -- like a lot of the land around here -- by Ted Turner. Archie said we should get ourselves a buffalo burger there before we left the state. We assured him we would.
Right now, though, the only game on our minds was trout. My father-in-law had signed us up for two days of guided fly fishing down the Madison, one of the most bountiful rivers in America, and had us holed up at a luxury lodge in Ennis with exposed log beams, gourmet meals and a big, friendly wandering black Lab named Jake.
Archie came to pick us up the first morning. He was all smiles even though it was about forty degrees and drizzling, not exactly the perfect Big Sky September Saturday we had signed on for. “Are you guys ready to catch fish?” he said with a sparkle in his eyes. “You bet,” said my father-in-law, and he meant it. I didn’t say anything, and I meant it, too.
We headed down to a parking lot by the rushing Madison and changed into our chest waders. Archie didn’t need to show my father-in-law what to do, but he knew a novice when he saw one and took me aside to introduce me to the unique rhythm of the rod. Pulling it back, pausing, and then letting it fly. It seemed so easy at first, but you could get lost if you started thinking about it. I think that’s why Archie liked it so much and why I took to it so quickly.
The plan was to drift down river twelve miles, hitting all of Archie’s favorite spots, before loading the boat onto the trailer and driving back to the put-in point for one more run. In the first ten minutes, my father-in-law caught three fish. I didn’t feel a nibble.
“Cast again, Tom,” Archie said over and over as the water continued to take my line out of the right spot. “Cast again.”
Archie had asked me about my prior fly fishing experience, and I told him it consisted of falling asleep during “A River Runs Through It.” He laughed and then I described a few flounder trips with full coolers of beer during high school in the salty waters off of Long Island. There, you’d take a spinning reel, stick a minnow on the hook, and let it hit bottom. After that, all you had to do was lift up once in a while and stir up the silt enough for the fish to hit. Once they did, you yanked on that rod as hard as you could to set that hook in that fucker’s mouth.
“This isn’t exactly that,” Archie said, “but I do want you to set the hook whenever you feel or see anything. Seriously, don’t hesitate. Just set the hook, or you might miss a fish.”
An hour later I had already caught and released two brown trout and felt a light tug on my line. I saw the orange bobber -- the “strike indicator” -- that sat atop the water surface begin to dart upstream. I yanked with all my might as Archie almost jumped out of the boat, screaming frantically, Strip in line, Tom! Strip in! Strip in!”
Archie’s mom had passed away only a few months earlier at the age of fifty. She was young when she gave birth to her son, who recently had turned thirty, and she remained young in his mind. She was the one who turned him onto “Social D,” the little band from Fullerton, California, that rode three chords and lead singer Mike Ness’ earnest, hard-fought lyrics to the radio and the big-time bills of punk rock. We floated along without any action while he told the story.
“She’s the reason for this,” he said, pulling up his sweatshirt sleeve and showing off a monstrous shoulder tattoo of a heart with an arrow piercing it, his mother’s name, Laura, and the hanging skeleton with a cigarette and martini glass known immediately to Social D fans as the logo printed on the bass drum during live gigs.
It had taken Archie’s dad a mere two days to stick a little fly rod in his infant son’s crib, and the sentiment stuck to this day. Even though Archie loved to write and had graduated from college with a degree in English, it had occurred to him a few years later that there were only two things he wanted to do for the rest of his life: snowboard and fly fish.
He spent the winters doing the former and the summers socking away enough dough from guiding trips to afford the latter. He fished on his days off, and his vacations spots were predictable: Florida to hook tarpon, New Zealand to score trout. His dad lived a few miles from Ennis. Archie would sometimes bunk down there after long days guiding.
He loved his job, he said, and how many people can say that? A quick glance at his fingers showed that love: chewed-up nails with almost no cuticles from biting at the prospect of his clients’ fish not doing so. The raw redness behind those nubs also revealed his unique method of replacing flies, the intricate, beautifully constructed bug replicas that made the trout bite at those precise moments of insect-hatching renewal atop the river’s silver sheen.
More polished guides might unsheath knives to cut off flies that had gone cold. Archie didn’t want to waste the customer’s time, so he bit his into submission. We tried almost every trick in his tackle box that day, from an olive zonker to a red copper John to a pheasant tail to the prince nymph. His teeth earned their tips.
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The prince nymph came alive on the end of my rod and I started pulling in one fish after another. By the time we had reached the end of the first run, I had boated ten trout, a magical mixture of rainbows and browns, although my prize, one Archie spastically predicted to be at least eighteen inches long while positioning the net in the middle of the fight, got away.
We stopped for lunch before hopping in Archie’s pickup to double back for the final run. I asked him how he thought I was doing, and he smiled. “You’re doing great. Shit, ten in the boat is a helluva day, and we’ve got one more go-around. I’d say you’re doing great.”
I had told Charlie I wrote about sports for a living and he told me that’s what he had wanted to do at one point in time, before the water and the fresh air and the fish called him back.
“But you’ve got a cool job,” he said. “No doubt. It’s a job that a lot of dudes would love to have.”
We were back in the truck. Merle and Archie were singing together loudly as the old rig bounced up and down the pavement in time with the beat. “Turn me loose, set me free, somewhere in the middle of Montana, and gimme all I got comin' to me,” they crooned.
“I can’t stop playing this song,” Archie told me. “It kind of says everything, doesn’t it?”
I nodded, not needing to answer and deciding instead to look out at the vast landscape unfurling to my side, something I’ve done as long as I can remember while riding in a car. I saw it all: yellowing grasses, a stark beige hillside, a wandering herd of antelope and sky. All that sky.
I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror and thought of drifting along on the river and showing someone else how to hold a rod, set the hook, strip in, and then tie on another fly.
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