A long­time guide’s love let­ter to Mon­tana, where rivers are deep with fish­ing op­tions and the field of play is as wide as the eye can see. By CHRIS DOMBROWSKI

W“Who’s Madi­son?” the girl asks, lift­ing her head and shock of red hair from your chest.

You raise your bare shoul­ders from the floor of her par­ents’ van, the rough car­pet­ing peel­ing from your skin, and hoist your­self up by the el­bows.

“I’m sorry. What?”

“You just said Madi­son in your sleep. Twice, ac­tu­ally.”

You’re 18, and it’s barely spring in Michi­gan, but it’s de­cid­edly hu­mid in the back of the ve­hi­cle parked il­le­gally at the trail­head of a for­est pre­serve. If you an­swer truth­fully — that you were dream­ing about a river in Mon­tana — she might be­lieve you. You weigh an ex­pla­na­tion against a faux con­fes­sion. Chance it? If she takes you at your word, she just may be the one.

She wasn’t, of course, but Mon­tana, with its dis­tinctly fem­i­nine rivers, was. We wed in high sum­mer 1995, and I cel­e­brate the an­niver­sary by start­ing a two-month string of guide trips each year just be­fore the sol­stice. The phys­i­cal work of row­ing against the rivers’ best for sev­eral straight weeks is nearly more than my 42-year-old shoul­ders can en­dure, but the gaunt­let helps me place a fig­u­ra­tive fin­ger on the pulse of this un­sur­passed land­scape as its charg­ing free­stones, vi­tal veins that they are, be­gin to clear and run hard for the tall horizon.

Though it largely cur­tails pro­duc­tive an­gling, runoff is a charm­ing hy­dro­log­i­cal rite. To look sky­ward to­ward the ranges — the Pintlers, the Cra­zies, the Flints, ad in­fini­tum — as the alpine basins re­lin­quish their six-month-old snow­pack re­viv­i­fies this rower of 20 sea­sons. What was on Mon­day a snow­field un­der cloud shadow is flux on Tues­day, with flow un­der­foot; ev­ery mol­e­cule of wa­ter

that didn’t rise as hu­mid­ity or wasn’t ab­sorbed by soil or veg­e­ta­tion joins other mol­e­cules to run off steep coun­try and down draws that tighten into creeks that, after wind­ing through dog­wood­choked bot­toms, of­fer them­selves in trib­ute — gift­ing vol­ume, oxy­gena­tion, cool tem­per­a­ture — to the big rivers glint­ing in the bot­toms thou­sands of feet be­low their be­gin­nings.

For a few weeks, our free­stones be­come nav­i­ga­ble only by the pluck­i­est pad­dlers. At high wa­ter, a river like the Black­foot is a ver­i­ta­ble crea­ture, a dan­ger­ous beast to which the ul­ti­mate re­spect must be dis­played. One missed oar stroke, one gun­wale edge leaned into the wrong wave, could mean a swamped or flipped boat — and quick. An il­lus­tra­tion for the math­e­mat­i­cally in­clined: Dur­ing late Au­gust, the river that au­thor Nor­man Maclean made fa­mous runs at roughly 500 cu­bic feet per sec­ond but might crest, on a big year, in early June at 15,000 CFS, leav­ing high­wa­ter-mark flot­sam in the branches of bank­side pon­derosas. Im­pa­tient an­glers mon­i­tor on­line stream flow sites like ticker-fo­cused stock traders, mea­sure wa­ter clar­ity with yard­sticks or oar blades, and check the riprap nightly for the first pil­grim stone­fly shuck.

Then comes a day that smells of pon­derosa duff and bal­sam­root pollen, an after­noon when the snow line climbs steadily to­ward the peaks, but the rivers drop re­gard­less and be­gin to shake off their re­spec­tive stains. The Black­foot trades its glacial, ashen hue for a largely pen­e­tra­ble blue; the Yel­low­stone goes from La­mar-made mud to sake-bot­tle green; the tan­nin-rich Big Hole turns from tea with cream to a straight, briefly steeped Earl Grey. Clear­ing sim­i­larly, Rock Creek bursts first with pro­lific hatches: waves of cad­dis and gi­ant bum­bling sedges; sev­eral va­ri­eties of stone­flies, in­clud­ing the mythic Pteronar­cys cal­i­for­nica, whose mat­ing flights as­cend the after­noon canyons like minia­ture alien in­va­sions; and mayflies, such as the line­backer-stout Green Drake, of­ten ne­glected by an­glers in fa­vor of larger bugs but never by the river’s big­gest trout. At evening in the half light, long after the last gre­gar­i­ous raft has been winched onto its trailer, a rel­a­tively dainty, just-emerged sul­fur dun floats into a slick be­hind a boul­der; a trout tilts to­ward it, and true sum­mer, with its mag­ni­tude of an­gling riches, of­fi­cially ar­rives.

For a few weeks, even the guides can get along, so deep is our list of vi­able fish­ing op­tions, so wide our field of play. You can get on early and pull stream­ers while shade still glazes the wa­ter, or twitch leggy dry flies for a crit­ter that slid into the shal­lows after dark and hasn’t re­turned to its mid­day sta­tion. You can join the masses dur­ing bankers’ hours and, what with the am­ple pace and still-im­per­fect wa­ter clar­ity, do far bet­ter than fine while jock­ey­ing with sev­eral boats. Or you can sleep in, cruise the farmer’s mar­ket for a po­ten­tial fish­ing part­ner clad in a gauzy sun­dress or Carhartts and a cow­boy shirt, and wet-wade the witch­ing hour just be­fore dark, when masses of oviposit­ing cad­dis fill the air with im­pos­si­ble den­sity, land in your ears, your nose, your mouth, lay­ing their eggs at water­line on your bare knees or thighs. Sit back on the bank when it’s too dark to see your fly, open an­other beer for your part­ner, a bot­tle of wine, maybe hum an old Ry Cooder tune be­cause you doubt­less are, as he once sang, liv­ing in a poor man’s Shangri-la.

Then get up and do it again. Amen.

Broom the fish­ing for a morn­ing and bathe your­self in war­bler song, the birds’ noise and

plumage gar­ishly bright in green wil­lows. Climb a ridge spine scorched last sum­mer by for­est fires and pick a buck­et­ful of fresh morels, mak­ing blood-pact plans not to sell them to a bistro but rather to hoard them for an evening marsala sauce. Fol­low a lea­pable spring creek far into a meadow where the wind­blown grasses toss in sync with a lone ch­est­nut mare’s tail. Ig­nor­ing the mos­qui­tos you stir, creep on all fours to­ward the shadow fish you might or might not see finning in shal­low, air-clear wa­ter, the largest brown trout — if it is, in­deed, a trout and not a sway­ing bed of weeds — you’ve laid eyes on in years. For­get re­triev­ing the rod you left at the boat and inch closer, watch­ing the maw of the buck flash white as it opens to take scud, closer still. From your knees, ease your left arm un­der the cut­bank, and when the fish sees your up­stream shadow and in­stinc­tively whirls to­ward its sanc­tu­ary, feel all 2½ feet of it, kipe to tail tip, slide across your open palm.

It is Mon­tana, after all, where these sorts of things can hap­pen.

Or these: Be­neath a bald ea­gle on the hunt, I was an­chored one late-june after­noon with a fish­ing part­ner, dis­cussing a third but ab­sent part­ner who was, as we spoke, un­der the sur­gi­cal knife, his health gravely in ques­tion. Coun­ter­clock­wise, the ea­gle or­bited the clock­wise-turn­ing eddy in an act of quasi-hyp­no­tism, while down­stream against the cliff, waves gal­loped by at an as­ton­ish­ing pace. Sud­denly the bird dropped from its ther­mal loft and way­laid the wa­ter, its wings froth­ing the sur­face as it tried to sink its talons into a fish whose fins soon frothed the sur­face from be­neath. After sev­eral la­bo­ri­ous wing beats, the bird aimed its sharp yel­low beak up­stream and hefted a large brown trout into the air. Pon­der­ously, like a founder­ing kite, the bird got enough sky un­der its wings to clear the canyon wall and swoop into a ju­niper over­look­ing the river.

Gawk­ing, John and I ate lunch for sev­eral min­utes un­til the bird — per­haps spooked by an­other crea­ture on the canyon rim — took to the air again, swoop­ing near enough for us to note the trout’s open eyes, its gasp­ing gills. And yet the ea­gle hov­ered, its shadow un­mis­tak­ably min­gling with ours on the sand. Headed up­river, the bird soared past us one more time and dropped the fish — a mis­take, an of­fer­ing? — into the wa­ter, fail­ing to dou­ble back or at­tempt a re­cov­ery.

Down the rif­fle the fish came bob­bing, wit­less, no kick left in its fins. Net in hand, John rushed into the waist-deep cur­rent to scoop the fish. Its eyes were wide, and its flar­ing gills stretched elas­ti­cally in oxy­genated wa­ter, but its spine had gone stiff, talon-snapped. For sev­eral min­utes, I braced it in the aer­ated shal­lows, hop­ing to re­vive it, but each time I re­leased my grip, the fish spun up­side down, as good as dead. In more than two decades of fish­ing this river, I hadn’t kept a trout; there was talk of what to do. Fi­nally, against a tape on the net han­dle, we mea­sured the fish: by a quar­ter inch, a le­gal keeper.

That evening, after learn­ing that our friend’s lym­phatic tu­mors had been suc­cess­fully re­moved, we filled the dis­patched fish’s cav­ity with le­mon slices, onions, but­ter slabs and dill. We cov­ered it in foil and grilled it over a char­coal fire. From the back­yard bushes, we picked wild roses and floated them, per an old monk’s sug­ges­tion, on wine. Life will de­liver its bru­tal­i­ties, he re­minded, so have all the fun you can. We toasted river, ea­gle and fish­ing part­ners. We peeled back the foil, then the trout’s muted golden skin, and with forks and fingers rel­ished the warm, pink flesh. We cleaned the bones all the way to the spine.

The faith­ful wait pa­tiently for true sum­mer, with its mag­ni­tude of an­gling riches, to of­fi­cially ar­rive.

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