River Touring

Department Literary Lode

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it... I am haunted by waters.  

Norman Maclean

Suddenly you’re gliding. The rubber raft comes clear of the shore gravel, swivels, picks up the main currents, and the guide’s oars grow rhythmic, then faint in your ears. Sitting in the front seat, with only inches between you and the water, you look out over the winding expanse of river before you, up at the yellowed cottonwoods and pink and yellow aspens, at the slope of the hills and at the stark gray buttes, up toward higher peaks — with jagged patches of snow at their crests. The air is crisp. The vast sky is pale cobalt, almost cloudless.

You strip line from your reel, test the knot on your fly.

You look backward and a ruddy face nods, so you turn front again and begin to watch the ever-varying line where the moving river meets the shore. Sky and hills disappear. You feel the raft slip into faster current. The willows, where they border and droop into the river, are moving upstream. Motion. All is changing now. You pass a pinched bend and watch the lace of the current dance and widen; you watch the eddies behind a dozen rocks, the slower water beneath overhanging willows, slight changes in the conformation of the shoreline that create a constant series of small moving targets, each different, each racing upstream as you float, never stopping.

Fish fun

Targets, one after the other now: pinched pockets, patches of backwater spotted with foam, swirls. Targets. Every one of them slipping noiselessly upstream, back, past you and out of range.

You begin to cast. There is time for one shot, maybe two if you’re lightning fast, a third before the target is gone. Inches are critical. Too far out and by now you know there will be nothing. You must watch the current: with fast water between you and the shore you must curve-caste properly, put the fly downstream of the line. Every muscle and nerve of your body is awake. Your eyes cannot turn for a second.  You do not want to miss one likely spot. There! And there! That run behind the boulder. Under the tree. In the slack water right up against the shore. Again. Then into the pocket where the mudbank goes concave. Pick that pocket. Into the foam line. Into that two-foot eddy behind the boulder. It is like jump shooting, but fast — extraordinarily fast.

The targets never stop.

Then down a quick sluice, a moment’s rest, quick glances to both riverbanks now. Left or right?

“There!” Phil says, his voice a sharp invitation, and I cast backhand to the right bank, into that pocket. “Again,” and the fly is up and, without a false caste, upstream and into the same pocket.  “And again!” I strain, accelerate, and force the fly upstream farther this time. It lands within inches of the bank, pauses, then begins to shoot downstream as I strip line frantically.  A good brown rolls, lunches, misses. I feel it in my chest. I start to reel in. My wrist already aches, my casting hand is calloused.

A deep dull, but satisfying pain is beginning to work into my shoulders.

We are floating the Big Hole, below Divide, Montana. Slowly I have been the learning the mechanics of this new thing for me — feeling the full challenge of it grow, and earning some of its special rewards.

~ excerpted from Bright Rivers

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Nick Lyons has 400 articles and 20 books to his name. Aside from his love for fly fishing, he founded Lyons Press and taught literature at Hunter College.  The press published classics and new authors, mostly in the genre of fly fishing. MSU Library holds some of its records in its Trout and Salmonid Collection. Montana has been one of Nick Lyons favorite places to fish.

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