For the next few days, I am publishing some very short, memoir-ish travel tales that have been swimming around my files for years. They aren’t necessarily about trout fishing though our hero goes trout fishing in them. Together, they form an odd, little book. I hope you like them. These are the first two.
One: Walking trout
Last autumn, my Trout Story and I sat on the gravel bank of Lake Creek among the willows. It’s a pleasant little notch of a creek that runs all by itself through the craggy hills of the Snowy Range. It widens into beaver ponds and alpine swamp and bog, its personality changing from the time it starts in a leftover field of winter snow to the time it joins the Laramie River down in the valley. Sitting on the bank, you can see that Lake Creek is lost in the clear cuts and forest roads and why people don’t care much what happens to it. But none of that matters much on an autumn day when the water in the creek is as clear as the air above it. The chill of midday breeze coming off the pines makes you think of your youth, when every stream smelled like turpentine and moss.
Above my Trout Story and me on the hills the aspens had turned yellow against brown meadows. We watched brook trout swim past us. They had only breeding on their minds and their undersides were red as fire.
She looked sad, her whirlpool eyes unfocused and distant beneath her pine-bough hair. “For a Trout Story, to swim is to dream,” she said, her voice soft as morning fog. “Her body is made to swim, and swim a long way. She is not made to lean or lie, to sit or slouch. Even the odd hunchback or crooked-tail trout story is made to discover who she is by swimming. She discovers home in new streams, and those waters define who she is, and she grows and must swim to find new waters again.”
I thought about what my Trout Story said. I supposed she had lost her way. But a Trout Story does not stop being a Trout Story because she’s lost the tools of rocks and gravel and sand; lost the ornaments of crayfish, rock nymphs and caddis flies. She is still a Trout Story.
It was a beautiful day and I felt badly for her. But there’s one thing I knew for certain. The snow would come, the stream would rise, and she would get unstuck from those beaver ponds. I only hoped she’d stay safe and cool and fat through the winter.
And I also thought of this: Like all trout stories, a writer swims up mountain trails and dreams, and in dreaming, writes. The dream becomes him and he it. And like a trout story a reader catches, reads, and leaves on the bank of a lonely stream like Lake Creek, a writer dies from living. What he writes gets left behind—another skeleton for someone to discover while they are out walking.
* * *
Two: Trout in the hand
When I met Barney Buzdikian in Three Forks, Montana, I was standing in a phone booth. I was making my way on foot from Kansas City to Helena, Montana. A friend of his in Casper gave me Barney’s number and told me to contact him when I got to Three Forks.
I’d just called him on that phone and he was so excited he drove his car up to that booth just after I’d hung up the phone but before I heard my coins drop.
He wanted to tell me he’d caught 41,380 trout in the 40 years he was counting.
It was late June the year the Atlanta Braves played their way into the World Series. I am not a baseball fan, and only know the Braves were doing well because Barney told me. He was one of the few Braves fans in Three Forks, and probably in all of Montana. He watched all the team’s games on cable television or listened to them on a small radio he kept at his fly-tying desk.
Barney was 72 that year. He had emigrated from an eastern European country as a kid and went to work for the Milwaukee Road in Three Forks in 1940. To fight off boredom and to stay out of trouble—he was apt to drink after a day of driving rail spikes—he began fishing for trout in the streams and rivers that flowed out of the Rockies toward the plains. Over the years, he had fished isolated basins and twists of mountain ravines all over Montana. In 1980, when he was 57, the Milwaukee Road left Three Forks an empty freight depot and abandoned sidings. Barney never thought of working for the Union Pacific or Great Northern. He took his retirement and went trout fishing.
Barney knew how many trout he caught because he wrote down the size and weight of every fish he met every time he went fishing in pocket-size books he got from the Montana Game and Fish Department. Barney was glad to help the agency keep track of its fish and turned those little books over to wildlife agents at the end of each year. They took his books, recorded the information, and sent them back to him.
Barney kept the returned books in a desk in a windowless room in his basement. For decades, he tied flies on that desk under a small lamp next to a transistor radio he used to listen to Braves games. It felt good to have them in the desk, he said, “as a way of keeping track of myself.” When he flipped through his little books, Barney said he could tell who he was by how, when, and where he fished, what he kept and what he threw back.
“Sadly,” he said, “there aren’t blanks in the books for the trout that got away—no ‘Trout Off’ category. Too bad I didn’t keep track of those. I never thought much about it until later. Those trout, the ones that got away, were maybe more important than the ones I met personally.”
Barney said he could tell from entry to entry whether his diary was about him being a real fly angler—the kind for whom the world becomes a fluid foot and a half either side of the line—or a guy screwing around in the landscape. There was no way to translate that into his records, he just knew from his script or from the words he chose to describe the trout.
Most of the time, he said he fished bony little mountainside streams and beaver ponds where “brook, brown, and rainbow trout grow to only five or six inches. The fish are too small to attract many other anglers, the streams too narrow and rocky, the banks too broken with willow, the ground too boggy.”
Barney told me he used dry flies for much of his work. But he was flexible and would throw wet flies when they were called for. “Trout sometimes won’t rise, and no dry fly will make them,” he said. “When the stream is high from winter melt or spring or fall rains, I tie nymphs and scuds, minnows and woolies. I throw these flies far upstream to sink before they drift into the slow water behind rocks and riffles and into pools, into the trout’s world.” Occasionally, he said he left his fly rod at home and took a spinning reel. “I’ll put a worm or live minnow on a hook behind a casting bubble and sometimes pull trout in just for fun,” he said.
He told me many an angler, fresh from the fly shop in their new waders, would take a Montana Game and Fish book and vow to be faithful to it. “At first,” he said, “they’re careful to fill in the blanks about what kind of fish they catch, where they catch them, what time they catch them—and the fishes’ length, breadth, and disease history, if visible. Most anglers begin to forget the books after a while. They forget a pen to write in the books, forget to write about their fish when they get home. Then they lose interest in trout fishing altogether.”
I paged through his little books under the lamp at his desk. Sometimes the books contained notes and comments about the fish, the streams, the weather. He chronicled the Braves’ move to Atlanta, his wife’s disposition through the years and her death, how work changed on the railroad. Barney’s frustration at work, with family or life in general streamed from the lists of trout, as did melancholy and lightheartedness. There was a birthday fish the day his daughter Helen was born. Here was a spite fish he caught after he almost lost his job for yelling at his boss. He left work early that day and pulled in “a fine, strong 22-inch rainbow with good color” out of the Madison above the Three Forks. “I really showed that bastard,” he wrote.
Obviously, he wrote that about his boss. I never detected that Barney held anything against trout.
As I looked through the books, Barney showed me a few flies he was working on. He picked up a minuscule Adams and a Muddler Minnow on number-twenty hooks. He rotated them in the light of the lamp. He liked the look of these flies. “They are damn near perfect,” he said. “You take them. You’ll need them.” Barney gave me about fifteen flies. I folded them into my fly box and tucked them into my backpack to use down the road.
Barney went upstairs to watch the Braves game. “I went to a Braves game once when I was in Milwaukee with the railroad in 1967,” he said as he climbed the stairs. “It was my 27th year with the Milwaukee Road. It was the only baseball game I ever attended.
I listened to Barney cheering for his team on the television and read further:
4/5 Sunny. 55 degrees at 8:13 a.m.
Brown Trout, Willard Creek, Johns Canyon, 11”, 15 oz., threw back
Brown “ “ “ 9 3/4”, 9 oz., threw back
Napped an hour. Fell into creek due to moss, came away fairly dry.
Rainbow “ “ “ 6 1/2”, 6 oz., threw back
4/7 Quick after work run. Cloudy, calm. 60 degrees at 6:20 p.m.
Rainbow Trout, Gallatin River, Three Forks, 16”, about a pound, kept for dinner
Rainbow “ “ “ , 12”, 12 oz., threw back
Damn fine day if the mosquitoes would cut this crap out.
4/8 Partly cloudy. 48 degrees at 6:12 a.m.
Rainbow Trout, Missouri River, Three Forks, 12”, winter starved, not worth weighing
Rainbow “ “ “ , 11”, 13 oz., better shape than his partner, looked like he got better sleep than I did.
To work at 7:30. Too bad. Great day to fish.
Barney dropped me off the next day in Helena, where I walked up into the mountains to tangle his flies in pine branches above knuckly little creeks with hardly any water in them. Besides Douglas fir and Ponderosa, I caught a couple of skinny brook trout. I wrote about them in my journal after I put them back into those pinecone-strewn gutters.