Uncle Billy came calling on more than one occasion and it was always a pleasure when he did. He and you had been tighter than ticks in the bad old days in Boulder and Denver, spent a lot of time, effort, and money together dancing on the hyphen of irrationality, as he might put it. Although he was glad to accentuate your worst behavior, he also was quite good to you and every bit a friend.
Shortly after you were settled in the Cooper Lodge, he flew in and took up residence in the cabin closest to the spring, hard by the aspen grove. Billy was from a well to do and somewhat prominent family, Denver 400, debutant sisters, all that muck, and although he never had worked a day in his life, he expended serious energy in meeting the demands of portraying the landed gentry, absent the land which he was yet to inherit. An important part of all that, of course, was being handy with rod and reel. Billy was that.
So, shortly after he’d arrived and settled in, a cocktail or two was downed and maybe a reefer shared, he and you headed for the river. The fishing here always is somewhere between very good and extraordinary, but as George Olds always told me, fishing when the sun is on the water is always going to be the least of it. Many a time he tapped me on the shoulder, turned from the river to point at the rim of the canyon far above us and a ways off in the distance, and said, “When that sun goes behind that ridge, that’s when the fishing begins.”
It was early summer when Billy and I headed down to the river, a few hours before sunset and a few more before dark this far north, but the sun was only an hour or so shy of dropping behind the canyon wall and the fish already were feeding hard on the surface. From the sound of their strikes and the splashes that followed, the fish seemed to be hitting the first caddis hatch, as often as not jumping clear of the water to catch them in the air.
“Try a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear,” you said to him, “and a little later when the hatch gets heavy, float them one of these.” You handed him a few locally tied flies called Missouri River Special. A guy just couldn’t go wrong.
The next day at lunch, when you were roasting the previous night’s catch, Billy looked at you with that charismatic smile of his, and said, “I’ve been fishing since I was a seven year old in all kinds of water. The first fish I caught last night is the biggest one of my life.”
He nodded, smiled again, pointed at some of the smaller ones, a couple of one pounders on the grille above the fire pit, said, “Look at that flesh, the color of salmon. The ones I cleaned last night were full of shrimp and crayfish, and about a million little bugs. No wonder they’re so good. They dine on lobster!”
And it was. 99.9% of all the fish you caught over the years were released back into the waters. But a fella has to eat, too, and these trout were incredibly tasty eating. The flesh was firm and succulent. Like wine, it reflected the terroir.
They lived in a pristine river that hosted every type of aquatic creature and all the types, too, that lived along the banks and occasionally fell in. It wasn’t unusual when you gutted one for dinner to find a small mouse in its stomach. Crickets, ants, worms, shrimp, crayfish, smaller fish, and all manner of crawling, swimming, and flying insects that hatch near, on or under the water. These were not the bland, pale fleshed trout served at restaurants, which are bred and raised in tanks. Nor are they the sweet pale flesh of high mountain Cutthroat or Brook trout, whose environment is more limited in how they live and what they eat.
Missouri River trout thrive in one of the world’s great habitats, one that is much like a classic spring creek writ very, very large. There are holding areas of every kind in which the fish find relief from the powerful currents and dine on the smorgasbord flowing toward them. If it looks good, they’ll chase it down.
There are times nearly every day when masses of insects hatch, if less so in the dead of winter only when the sun is shining. In summer, those hatches are so prolific, especially in early evening when the sun is off the water, that driving along the river, you have to stop every couple of miles to clean the bugs from your windshield so you can see. There are times fishing one of those hatches when the greatest distraction, other than the swarms of trout voraciously feeding, is that you are literally covered head to toe with caddis or mayflies. The fish that eat them were well fed, fat, and very tasty.
Even for a well versed, practiced fisherman like Billy Hillyard, the Missouri was an unique and exhilarating experience. The image of himself he cultivated was a person of extraordinary taste and culture who accepted only what was best in what life offered. This was all of that. Were there room in any encounter to note the chinks, the clichés, the shortcomings, whatever was less than excellent, he was quick to call it. There was none of that here. It was what he sought and was thrilled to have. The finest. World class fishing in the last best place. To his way of thinking, it was exactly what he deserved.
He sat in a rocker on the porch of his cabin in the lazy afternoon digesting his lunch and admiring the view. Birds of prey were soaring on the currents high above the river. A dozen head of horses grazed in knee high grass in the pasture across the creek. A small herd of elk trotted through the far end of the front yard, jumped the fence and ducked under the railroad trestle. “So,” he said, and looked at you with great seriousness, “is this where you’re going to make your stand?” Clearly he was hoping so.
an excerpt from
Where We Were: Adventures in the Last Best Place
by James Pagliasotti (c) 2020 All Rights Reserved