Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

A cure for Mon­tana cabin fever is a day on the ice, fish­ing for trout with an old hunt­ing part­ner sport­ing a new hip and a daugh­ter home from col­lege. By RICK BASS


To say I’m not much of an an­gler is an un­der­state­ment. I get how fish­ing is kind of like hunt­ing — par­tic­u­larly, say, per­mit or bone­fish­ing, where you lit­er­ally stalk the animal, as if with a bow or gun — and I can see how read­ing trout streams might be a lit­tle like read­ing a con­tour map, or a forested cirque, a north-fac­ing slope, a gen­tle ridge with aspen — there, and there, and there, is where they might be, let’s go see — and yet: Most of the time, or so I un­der­stand, you don’t see the animal. There’s an ex­tra layer of sep­a­ra­tion, of dis­tanc­ing. (Or, it could be ar­gued, an ex­tra layer of faith.) So I un­der­stand there’s op­por­tu­nity for cross­over, but I’m just wired hard for hunt­ing, and not so much at all for fish­ing. So you’d think ice fish­ing would be way, way, way down on my list of things to do. Like maybe even at the bot­tom. And it does not even hold for me the cu­rios­ity of nov­elty, for I’d been once be­fore: a not-very-good ex­pe­ri­ence up in Fair­banks, in late Jan­uary, in the reck­less­ness of youth. It was 38 be­low, and there was some beer in­volved and a black Lab who played with the fish we caught, the fish freez­ing as solid as sticks of wood. I had never seen a dog re­trieve fish be­fore, and I went home as soon as I could.

But my long­time hunt­ing part­ner, Bill — a Mid­west­erner, an Illi­noisan — big­hearted, ex­u­ber­ant, gen­er­ous, sweet and tough — wanted to go, was get­ting north­west Mon­tana cabin fever, which as far as I can tell runs only a de­gree or two lower than, say, Fair­banks cabin fever. He’d had an ar­ti­fi­cial hip put in the day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing, and here it was mid-jan­uary — Lowry, my 18-year-old, was head­ing back to col­lege, at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in Madi­son, had never been ice fish­ing be­fore — and so it was a no-brainer; it would be Bill’s first post-surgery out­ing. A cer­e­mony: the new life, the new Bill. Bill re­turn­ing to the old Bill.

He asked if we wanted him to pick us up at 8, and we said how about 9 or 9:30? I could tell by his face that maybe ice fish­ing was bet­ter in the morn­ing, though that made no sense to me. Wasn’t it cold down there, and dark? Why would a fish, an ice-fish, care what time it was, and wouldn’t it be colder at dawn than mid­day?

Bill’s a sweet­heart. “All right, 9:30, sure.”

The Fish­bowl

I love how sim­ple things are in the Yaak. His old 1970 GMC pickup. For seats on the ice, two plas­tic buck­ets, and for Bill a real fold­ing chair, as Sue — Bill’s wife — in­sisted. A la­dle. Some tiny ice-fish­ing rods, look­ing like chil­dren’s toys. A tackle box with a few plas­tic jigs. Asty­ro­foam con­tainer of fat lit­tle worms. An ice chest of cheap beer.

Sue had found some old Yak­trax ice grips for his boots,

and we started up the trail slow and easy. It had been a cold year so far, but one of the dri­est; there was not much snow down, which was pre­pos­ter­ous for north­west Mon­tana, and Jan­uary. It made for good walk­ing, and we were at the lake in no time.

How won­der­ful it is, that con­di­tion of life when things are still new. Bill, in his 60s, with a new hip; me, in my 50s, work­ing an ice auger for the first time, and in my home val­ley, look­ing up at the high ridges and moun­tains where I had hunted, and killed, deer and elk be­fore. Lowry, still in her teens, for which so much of the world — per­haps the bulk of it — was still new. Not ev­ery­thing, but still, a lot: work­ing that auger her­self, and ladling out the float­ing ice, and drop­ping a line. Set­tling in on her bucket perch, and wait­ing.

Time, then, for sto­ries, from one of the val­ley’s el­ders, one of the finest sto­ry­tellers in the val­ley. For some rea­son, I can’t re­mem­ber what, Bill’s got Ray­mond on his mind — Flamin’ Ray­mond, named for the time his car caught on fire, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, but he just kept on driv­ing it, right on into town, like the prover­bial bat out of hell. Maybe he thought the wind would even­tu­ally put the flames out, but more likely, he just didn’t give a damn.

Low’s laugh­ing. The three of us, out on the smooth ice, mid-jan­uary. Noth­ing, just each other.

Flamin’ Ray­mond was bad to bor­row things, Bill said. He had this weird tic or some­thing, where if he didn’t re­turn it to you af­ter about six months, he fig­ured he owned it. So you had to go over there and ask if you could bor­row it back. What­ever it was. Elec­tric drill. Maul. Spark-plug wrench. What­ever.

“I went over there to re-col­lect my sock­ets one time,” Bill says. “He was busy fas­ten­ing this metal ammo box to the floor of his Jeep, to use like a glove box. He was wear­ing this big old Colt .45. I didn’t know if he’d bor­rowed that from some­one or not.

“His tool­shed wasn’t 20 steps away, but ev­i­dently he didn’t feel like walk­ing all that way to get a drill, so he just pulled that gun out and shot four big holes in the floor­board of his Jeep, blam blam blam blam. I thought I’d be deaf for­ever. He shoved those lag bolts into the bul­let holes, screwed the nuts on, and that was that.

“He used to burn tires out­side and cook over them, the way you or I would cook on an out­door bar­be­cue grill,” Bill says, shak­ing his head. “It wasn’t right. I was over there one time, he was grilling a deer leg over those burn­ing tires. He asked me if I wanted any. I said ‘No, thank you.’”

Sto­ries, while we wait. I be­lieve Bill could fill eter­nity with sto­ries, and with none of them ever hav­ing to take place out­side of this rel­a­tively small val­ley — the mil­lion-acre fish­bowl of it, with the high, snowy moun-

tains help­ing sep­a­rate us from the rest of the world, and shape us, over time, into some­thing more akin to the val­ley. It’s a ragged fit, for sure — just ask Flamin’ Ray­mond — but it’sa fit, nonethe­less, or the start of a fit, and an amaz­ing thing to realize, to wit­ness, to par­tic­i­pate in. I’m so glad Lowry’s here, get­ting to hang out with Bill, and lis­ten.

We don’t get to lis­ten long, as it turns out. Fish on the line, the sud­den and lovely tug-and-arc that you don’t have to be an ice fish­er­man to un­der­stand. What to do about it, I’m not sure, how­ever, so I sit there watch­ing the rod dance and buck, and, not want­ing to get Bill too ex­cited, want­ing to stay cool and mel­low so that he doesn’t leap up and blow out or oth­er­wise un­string his new hip, I point to the rod and say, as calmly as pos­si­ble, as mild as pud­ding, “I be­lieve some­thing is hap­pen­ing.”

Mye­qua­nim­ity has the op­po­site of its de­sired ef­fect. Bill springs up and to­ward the rod, in the process un­string­ing some­thing — a wrench of pain crosses his face, cou­pled with an oh-crap-i-just-made-a-mis­take look — but he makes it to the rod in time, sets the hook and reels it in, ex­pertly keep­ing the fish in the cen­ter of the ice hole: And what a lot of fish it is, a big bull­headed hump­backed cut­throat, close to 2 pounds, Bill says — pleased and sur­prised, even in his pain — and the smile on Lowry’s face, the rab­bit-be­ing-pulled-from-a-hat dis­be­lief — this one big lake, this one lit­tle hole, and a fish, a big fish, came up out of it — is one of the ster­ling images, ster­ling mem­o­ries, of a long, white win­ter.

Just be­fore the fish was killed, it rolled and thrashed in the snow, writhing and twist­ing, and was quickly caked in snow, snow like the pil­ing of a fleece jacket, white

as cot­ton — it looked warm, like that, against the great cold, and even big­ger, too; furred, al­most like a mam­mal — a husky, a mala­mute — and we grinned at one an­other and set­tled back into our seats, ready for the next, and, of course, for more sto­ries.

Only one more fish pre­sented it­self that morn­ing — an even larger fish, from the same hole, and it, too, was reeled out and killed, placed next to its com­rade. We would each be able to take one home; the morn­ing was es­sen­tially com­plete. Not that the suc­cess of any out­ing, any jour­ney, can or should be mea­sured by pro­duc­tiv­ity — that damnable word — what is the pro­duc­tiv­ity, for in­stance, of a story, or a friend­ship — but still, there was a nice sym­me­try to it, the twoness of the big fish, snow­clad and paired like that.

We drilled a dozen more holes that morn­ing, per­fo­rated

the ice, Swiss-cheesed it to the point where we joked about fall­ing through our­selves, but we never caught any more fish. Two more bites came, also from that same ini­tial hole, but we weren’t able to bring them in — one a gi­ant, by the weight on the rod and the look on Bill’s face when it slipped the hook — the pre­vi­ous win­ter, some­one had caught a 5-pounder in this lake — and soon enough it was early af­ter­noon, time to walk to the edge of the lake and gut the sil­ver fish and pack up and walk back through the woods, meat-laden, and be­ing cau­tious on the down­hill, with Bill’s new hip.

In the morn­ing Lowry and I would drive to the air­port so she could fly back to col­lege and learn things.

This story first ap­peared in the on­line pub­li­ca­tion Nar­ra­tive Mag­a­zine.

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