By Michael Grismer
Dad had been ill for some time, but Wes declared last fall that he was planning a professional guided fly fishing trip for the three of us the following summer to one of his favorite spots, a stretch of the Missouri River in Montana, between Holter Dam and Craig. As much as my dad loved fishing, Wes knew the trip was something my father would want to get well for. Dad rallied for several months and it looked like the trip was becoming a reality. Unfortunately, dad took a turn in late January and he left us in early February. Although heart-broken, Wes remained resolute and began to put the trip together for the two of us for the coming July as a tribute to my father. I’d never been fly fishing in my life and I was pretty intimidated at the prospect. I was also still pretty low after dad’s passing, but I couldn’t disappoint Wes or my dad. I knew I needed to go.
The closest I’d ever been to a fly fishing rod before this past summer was fishing as a young boy with my dad, my Uncle Bill and my cousins, tramping through creeks and streams in western Montana, east of Lookout Pass. The heavy blanket of brush, logs and trees quickly dispelled any notion of casting. To fish the water in these tight spaces, my grandpa loaned me his short fly rod so I could easily strip line from the automatic reel, using the line as weight to carry my tiny, salmon egg baited leader downstream. It was a simple task to drop my bait beneath a fallen log, behind a boulder or into a small ripple below an overhanging bush. To reel in, I simply drew the line with my left hand as if I was readying to place an arrow on a bow while steadily bringing the rod tip up, which quickly brought the leader to my chest. This was certainly not conventional fly fishing, but it’s the effective method my grandpa taught my dad, who then taught me and it provided an abundance of fun and great memories, catching native cutthroat trout with an occasional brookie lying among the fern leaves in the creel.
Wes rightly thought it best to give me a private fly fishing tutorial before we headed over to Helena, so I drove up from southern California an extra day early. I arrived in Post Falls on a Thursday in mid-July and the following day Wes drove us out to his cabin, nestled along the north fork of the Coeur D’Alene River. Just off the back porch of the cabin lay a beautifully serene stretch of water. In short order, we marched through some rocks and reeds to a point where the river gently bent south, just above some concrete bridge supports that kept the nearby road aloft and created several nice deep pools.
At water’s edge, Wes deftly demonstrated how to cast and work the line and stayed with me for a few minutes offering suggestions and ample encouragement. He then left and headed back to the cabin, wisely forcing me to figure out for myself how best to master this new art form. In spite of myself and my many failed attempts and tangles, in the course of about an hour, I somehow managed to land and release a couple of nice small cutthroats. Wes praised my success, but also warned that on Sunday not only would we be drifting together in tight quarters on a boat rather than standing shore side, but our prey would be craftier and stronger. In less than 48 hours, I would find out that Wes had quite a gift for understatement.
Saturday morning, I climbed into Wes’ Jeep, which he had fully loaded with gear and Costco snacks and we headed off to Helena. We settled into our Big Sky lodgings in the late afternoon and had time to drive around town through some of the old historic neighborhoods and visit a few local sporting goods stores before an early dinner. Our guide, Geof, who Wes had fished with several times before, greeted us at our hotel at six o’clock sharp the following morning.
After traveling through breathtakingly scenic countryside, the sun was just over the mountaintops as we rolled into Craig. Geof hitched his boat to his truck, which had been parked in the lot overnight and we ventured into The Trout Shop to pick up our lunches. It was a short drive to Holter Dam and although we were one of many boats lined up to launch, in a matter of minutes, Geof had us in the water just below the dam. He quickly rowed us to the far bank, anchoring in some still water tucked behind a small jetty and he proceeded to give me a condensed fly fishing lesson.
He handed me one of Wes’ fly rods he had outfitted with a small white balloon on the leader and one of his personally tied flies on a barbless hook. After a couple of cast and retrieve lessons, Geof proclaimed me ready and effortlessly maneuvered our boat out into the current. I learned that mend and marinate had nothing to do with repairing clothing or grilling steaks. Rather, mend meant to constantly remove the downstream loop in my line by flipping it upstream and marinate meant Geof wanted me to let my fly drift along a little longer and wait for a strike. Wes had insisted that I sit in the front of the boat, as not only could Geof coach me more easily, but the front was also the prime fishing location, much like the stern on a deep sea fishing trip. I reluctantly agreed, but only after receiving assurances from Wes that we would change places and even it up throughout our excursion.
For the next two days, with every set of the hook, rainbow trout flew like red flares shot across our bow. Airborne trout performed tumbling runs on the water’s surface that would make an Olympic gymnast jealous. Geof repeatedly placed us in hot spots throughout the river he knew so well and he selected flies the fish were eager to swallow. He was incredibly patient with my many tangles and re-ties and even though I lost far more fish than I landed, every explosive hook-up was a pulsating, thrilling experience. I could hear my dad playfully needling me with each fish I farmed. He was a terrific fisherman and would have loved this outing. I also noticed that every time Geof placed us in particularly productive water, Wes was poised with his phone ready to snap pictures when he should have been more focused on his fishing; he easily out-fished me nonetheless. Despite repeated coaxing from me, he refused to move to the front of the boat throughout our entire time on the water. But that’s Wes; always putting others ahead of himself. He wanted to ensure that I would have a great time with photos to accompany my memories.
When we returned to Post Falls after our trip, I was exhausted, but exhilarated! I realized that I needed a lot more practice to improve my fly fishing skills and that I definitely wanted to go again. I realized that I still missed my dad, but I was extremely grateful to have a wonderful friend like Wes. I also realized that something would definitely be different the next time we fly fished the Missouri River in Montana; Wes would be sitting up front.