In fishing manners matter. It’s true today as it was 40 years ago when this story took place.
One thing you never do is cross another fisherman’s line. You also don’t slip in upriver from where a fisherman’s working. Fly-fishers work on upriver after trout and stay out of each other’s way to the greatest degree possible. If you come to water another guy’s fishing, you come in below him and give him room. That’s the way it’s done. Lots of little things like that.
Where you lived in the Missouri River Canyon of Montana it was rarely ever an issue. But if you fished the Beaver Kill, the Au Sable, the Roaring Fork, or any of those famed rivers where you often found yourself damn near elbow to elbow with a lot of other folks wetting a line, one thing you do not do is float your line over somebody else’s. You don’t work water someone else is working.
George Olds was a gentleman and the nicest guy in the world. But he had his limits. When you’ve lived all your life on a stretch of river that is big, abundant, and almost unsullied by human hands for most of its existence, where there is so much clean, clear water, so many wild trout feeding on vast swarms of insects, and where there is nearly always nobody about, plenty of room for everyone to do what they want to do, you don’t take kindly to some guy who crosses your line. Not once, not twice, but several times.
There is something in the cosmic order of things that makes certain no matter where you live, be it however remote from other human beings, there among the few whom you do encounter will be a glaring asshole. Yours was a young guy whose name you have gladly forgotten.
From the Lodge where you lived, if you walked a ways, you could see to the north the home where George and Aggie lived. And in the other direction, across the creek and beyond the big pasture, you could see the original 7__9 ranch house where Lyle and the boys were holding down the fort. Way up high at the top of the canyon if you squinted a little and focused hard, you could make out the roof of Rocky Top. Otherwise, you could see just one place, high up on the canyon wall and slightly around the bend, a small red cabin only occupied part time by this guy, a long haul truck driver nobody cared for. With good reason.
Live and let live is the ethos. You don’t have to like your neighbors to just let them be. And sometimes you have to be a bit rude to let them know you’re not interested in their company. Which was how the few of us on the ranch had dealt with this particular fellow. And he eventually got the message.
But, he had a drift boat and, when he was around, like everyone else he spent a fair amount of time on the river. George and you one afternoon just as the sun was far enough off the water to make the fishing fine were casting from the pile of earth which held the foundation of the old bridge that washed away in the flood of some 50 years past and never was rebuilt. Folks on this side of the river liked it better without the easy access.
George like all of you enjoyed the sublime pleasures of fly-fishing, but he was getting older, it was harder to thread the eyelets on those tiny flies when you changed up one for another, and also like most of the local guys he knew that sometimes spinning gear can get the job done better. So although you both were fishing with fly lines well out into the channel above the island where the waters divided and big fish settled in the eddy to feed, George had his trusty spinning rod handy just in case.
The two of you had been pulling in a few fat fish and letting them go when our untoward neighbor came drifting around the bend and directly across our lines. He seemed to be smirking a bit as he drifted past the island and tucked into the backflow of the inside channel, which brought him around again and right across our lines once more.
George looked at you with an expression of “what can a guy do?” and said, “I’ll fix him if he comes around again.” He reached for his spinning rod, tied a lead sinker the size of your thumb to it, and waited calmly to see what’s what.
It wasn’t long before the guy came drifting toward you again. As he crossed our lines about 20 yards off shore, George flicked his wrist and cast the sinker at his boat. He hit him directly in the temple and the guy went down like he’d been shot. “That’ll teach him,” George said.
You watched the boat drift downriver in the current for a long way before suddenly the guy sat up, looked around, and reached for his head with both hands. Even from the distance, you could see his body language was stricken.
It’s a big, powerful river. Rowing all that way back against the current probably took a very long while. Or maybe he went ashore somewhere and walked back along the railroad tracks. Hard to say. All you know is that you fished in peace well into evening and never saw hide nor hair of him. Then or ever after.
An Excerpt from:
Where We Were: Adventures in the Last Best Place by James Pagliasotti (c) 2020 All Rights Reserved