Now my hands are empty of everything except the memory of those fish.
[by Todd Davis]
THE LAST DAY OF AUGUST IN A SUMMER OF DROUGHT, in a summer of temperatures hotter than they should be, which seems to be business as usual these days in Montana.
Seeking salvation in a tributary, some of the bigger cutthroat have swum upstream to find colder water. A respite from guide boats and floats, from overzealous anglers and their hopes for a trophy fish.
“…the water pushes hard and fast, shaping canyon walls, colliding with rocks, making a strangely musical noise that reminds me how our ancestors were at home in the sea, swimming toward an unimaginable future.”
I follow the example of the trout and move upstream, wet-wading a steep seam by myself. Not a single car or truck at the pull-offs. Nobody backpacking. Hunting season not yet started.
The big river in the valley flows on to the southwest, and I try to get lost, to forget the clamor of the larger world. As I move against the current, all that hurry and bustle drifts toward a point on the horizon.
I pause at the mouth of a pool that holds more than 10 bull trout, each at least 25 inches long, a few a good bit over 30. The water glistens the color of a turquoise amulet. The hues along the fins of the fish resemble the brook trout I catch and eat, and their girth reminds me of Buddhist monks meditating. Minds clear, fully present to what the river will bring them.
Are there any creatures better suited to their surroundings than these gorgeous, threatened fish? I’ve watched bulls, serene in their instincts, consume cutthroat in a single gulp. I remember once my son reeled toward the bank a small trout that suddenly vanished behind a cloak of jaws, as if part of some perverse magic trick. Gone forever as the leviathan finned away to settle between sunken logs, and my son and I, silenced by the rapidity of it all, left to consider its deadly grace and the smooth sweeping motions of its killing strike.
IN THESE VERTICAL NARROWS, even with summer’s drought and its accompanying fires, the water pushes hard and fast, shaping canyon walls, colliding with rocks, making a strangely musical noise that reminds me how our ancestors were at home in the sea, swimming toward an unimaginable future.
Then the wind comes up, opening the door to the world’s furnace, and I think about rivers swimming with fish that don’t belong here. Rainbows and browns and brookies. Trout from faraway places, carried here by human hands to compete with native fish, spilled into these warming waters as less and less snowpack hangs into June.
Most of our earthly problems started long before we were born. But how we address them, whether we were the prime movers or not, is the question at hand. What role do we play in a story that will continue to be written after we’re gone? And when these ancient fish are extinct, what will history and science say about our complicity in their disappearance?
My head hurts with the dire consequences. My soul aches thinking about all the parts of this world we’ve already lost.
Sometimes fishing alone feels like the right antidote for loss and despair. Moving water fills a space in my brain and centers my attention on the next seam, the next presentation. Nobody to crowd me. No one to impress or make small talk with. Today’s that kind of day—though I haven’t forgotten reports of a cranky grizzly roaming the headwaters.
With my focus on these riffles, if a bear were to lumber up behind me, I wouldn’t hear it. I’m trusting that a man waving a stick, yellow line sailing about his head, is enough to deter an attack. A foolhardy trust, I know, but I’m carrying pepper spray and a whistle, which I blow every few minutes. My wife made me promise to come back in one piece. She doesn’t want my final resting place to be a pile of bear scat fertilizing an aspen grove.