Expecting the Yellowstone River to be quick flowing and mostly whitewater, we did not pack along our fishing gear on our Black Canyon hike. This seemed to make great sense because extra weight in the pack means extra work carrying that weight, and, as we expected, the majority of our time near the river consisted of views of whitewater and rushing rapids—not the kind of water I wanted to chase trout in. However, to our surprise and a bit to our chagrin, our campsite on the Yellowstone River that first night came equipped with a lovely little beach and a calm bit of water. More to our dismay, the brook trout, sensing that we came ill equipped, were feeding only feet from us.
Sitting on the river bank while reading A River Runs through It and watching trout rising in front of me was an experience that slowly devolved from relaxation into torture. After one particularly big splash, I finally had my fill of the situational irony and decided to send the story in a new direction. I went back to my tent to rummage through my pack for any hidden bits of tackle or line that I might have left in it, but I knew it was somewhat in vain; I had a distinct memory of where I had stuffed it away in my other bag, sitting in a car trunk, miles away from where I was. It seemed as if tragedy had struck. But, with time on my hands and a little daylight to burn, I did not give up. Looking around, I remembered seeing a short piece of rope that had been tied around some sticks by a previous tenant of our campground. I examined the rope/shoelace and saw that it was comprised of an interior of smaller pieces of string, made of even smaller pieces of string. I began to see the makings of fishing tackle.
Back at the beach, I announced to my hiking companions that there was no luck finding gear, but I was going to make a fishing pole out of other items that were on hand. I believe that they had their doubts as to my sanity as I began unweaving the twelve inch pieces of string and then re-tying them into a five foot or so length of fishing line. I knew that my trekking pole could serve as a decent rod and that there was a safety pin in my first aid kit. I tied the line to my pole and bent the safety pin into something resembling a fish hook and tied that to the line. The black flies that had been a pest to me earlier in the afternoon soon became a prize as I swatted at them in the attempt to find my bait. A decent sized black fly that was still twitching after a knock from my palm got stuck onto the tip of the hook, and I was in business to do some fishing. Now, if memory serves, there were some snickers coming from my two onlookers. But with pole in hand, I began the contemplative process of tricking a fish into biting at a hook. Several flies and one butterfly were sacrificed up to the hungry and quick trout, partly because of my impatience to set the hook as the trout went in for a nibble. As I continued to walk up and down the beach, scaring away one trout and then another, the episode began to border on comedy. Perhaps, it had reached comic proportions already. Then everything changed. In a swift and heroic jerk of the trekking-pole-turned-fishing-rod, a trout was jerked out of the water, up into the air, and onto the sand.
As a young child, fishing with my grandfather, I had perfected this maneuver. Finesse is not essential to the execution of this technique. All you need is a can-do spirit and raw excitement, as well as a disregard for where your line and fish might fly. As a child, still new to the serenity inherent in the pastime of fishing, my jerk-it-out-of-the-water maneuver usually resulted with my line, hook, and lure wrapped around a tree limb or knotted around my pole with no fish in sight. Now most seasoned fishermen would quickly see the flaw in this maneuver: if you don’t catch the fish, your line is out of commission until you get it untangled. However, my secret was in my reliance upon my grandfather. Having botched up my rod, he would, with the patience of Job, begin working on untangling my line while I proceeded to do it all over again with his rod. Perhaps, the novelty of catching a fish with such a make-shift rod made me regress into a state of childhood exuberance. Or, perhaps, it was that I didn’t truly believe that I was going to catch a fish that afternoon. But, the fact is, when I saw that fish bite at the poor fly on the end of my hook and when I felt the tug on my line, the only course of action available to me was that overreactive yank.
In the commotion that ensued, there was only one thing keeping me from utter failure and buffoonery: the tall grass. My trout (I call him ‘my trout’ rather than ‘the trout’ because I had immediately taken the kind of ownership over him any fisherman does when he has a big one on the line) was flopping around, trying to make his way back into the water. Only the tall grass kept him from sliding back into the safety and familiarity of the river. Once the surprise that I had actually caught a fish wore off, and as my companions’ suggestions to get him quickly sunk in, I picked him up and held him in my grasp. At that moment I knew that I’d be eating trout for dinner. And so I did. And it tasted great. It tasted like victory. And cumin.