Keep a tight line: Diary of fishing Montana’s Little Blackfoot River

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy childhood friend William Kelsey Haviland, no longer walking among us, wrote his thoughts on fishing a few years back. It’s worth sharing, if no other reason than to hear Bill’s voice one last time, much as we heard Norman Mclean speak of the ghostly water as he ended A River Runs Through It. Bill describes his favorite fishing hole north of our hometown of Deer Lodge, Montana. He died in the summer of 2014 when complications from diabetes stole his eyesight, stilled his legs, silenced his heart. In his essay, he speaks of Bob Finch, another childhood friend who died of leukemia at age 30. And so the river runs over rocks from the basement of time.

By Bill Haviland

I fished the Blackfoot downstream of the bridge that crosses the river coming off Beck Hill. The river closed to fishing after noon because of low water and high temperatures. The Little Blackfoot seems to stay cool because of the many springs feeding it along its banks.

I crawled under two barbed wire fences, one between the road and railroad tracks, and one between the railroad and river. Old fences are loose enough to get under. I walked downriver through the tall cottonwoods.

Once in the Blackfoot I made short casts to a line of water in the shade of brush along the far bank. Right away I caught two small browns and released them.

Normally I would be standing rib deep in the river but this year there was little water in the river and wading was easy. I only fell a few times and would not have provided much entertainment to someone watching me wade that day.

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I held my 8 and ½ foot graphite rod up high in front of me, but I didn’t cast; I just held the line in the current. Drop fly fishing. A 10-inch brown split the water and hit what would look like the middle of the leader to an observer. The trout was hooked, though. I played the
fish onto a bar of pebbles. The morning sun brought out the jewels of red in the yellow translucent sides of the German brown trout.

Having lived in Colorado and usually battling thousands of other anglers on most streams, I said to myself, “I deserve this fish.” I put the trout in my canvas bag.

The drop fly setup is a muddle minnow tied on the end of the leader. Two feet up the leader I tie a loop that I attach a fly with a 4-inch leader to the drop fly. There was a small olive mayfly hatch going on that the fish were rising to. So I put on a fly to imitate the mayflies flying above and on the water. It helps to dance the drop fly around in the air and skip it off the water, just like a real fly.

The 10-inch brown flopped back and forth in my bag. This brown hit the drop fly because he probably saw it first and was feeding on mayflies. Most of the time fish hit the muddler. It is easier to hook the fish with the muddler.

I do not know if big fish think the muddle is going after the drop fly. I know the drop fly dances on the water like a real fly and attracts fish. I learned this drop fly technique from Bob Finch. He often used a renegade as the drop fly. I miss Bob Finch.

My happiness is dissolved into the river environment.

I miss fishing until midnight. With no night vision any more I cannot see where I am casting, let alone find my way back to the car.

I miss arriving back at the car and meeting my brothers and friends. We would stand in the dark and drink a cold one, slap mosquitoes, and talk about family, trout, grouse, mountains, and elk. The sound of nearby running water in the river and cottonwood leaves shivering in the breeze still gives me a warm feeling inside as it did back then, standing in the chill of the night in wet bib overalls and muddy tennis shoes. Hey Bob, good times!

My brother John said I was the same as the brown trout I hunted. I swam back and forth across the rivers to the best fishing, with one arm paddling (side stoke) and the other holding up my rod.

As I look back on all my fishing, I enjoy seeing the fish, being in the river environment, and the technique of fishing.

On the Little Blackfoot the fish were feeding from when I arrive at 9 a.m. until I had to take my rod apart at noon. Because of the hot weather and low water conditions you were not to fish past noon and put excessive stress on the fish. The stream was cold to the touch. As browns do, in some holes they were rising and in other holes nothing was rising on the surface. Fish were feeding in all the holes. Usually browns only feed for an hour or so then quit. Today they feed the entire morning. I would have fished the entire day if I could have.

I walked down the river to the next hole. A whitetail deer doe walked out of the cottonwoods to the river. It stopped to drink then walked back under the trees.

In a large pool where the river hits the hills, there were no fish rising. After five minutes of working the muddler a fish hit and broke the leader at the clinch knot. The muddler was gone. At least I got a large fish to hit. I like missing a fish almost as much as catching one.

I put a new rig on to see if I could get a big fish to rise again. I tied on a Joe’s hopper. This hopper was tied with a trimmed deer hair head and turkey feather tied in a knot and soaked in head cement to imitate the stiff hind legs of the grasshopper.

The first float of the hopper through the hole had a large fish hit in a swirl. As often happens with large fish, the rise did not reveal what the fish looked like. However, the power of the fish came up the line and down the rod into my fingers.

The fish put a good bend in the fly rod trying to go downstream. The  brown was big enough to take some line. I gave the fish all the line it wanted while keeping a tight line. I worked him up and down the hole a number of times. When the play of the fish was over I turned serious and brought the 20-inch brown onto the gravel.

Conclusion of A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean:
Now nearly all those I loved and did not understand when I was young are dead, but I still reach out to them.

Of course, now I am too old to be much of a fisherman, and now of course I usually fish the big waters alone, although some friends think I shouldn’t. Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.

Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.