I will never forget the first time my Dad took me fly fishing. As far back as I can remember, fishing has been a major part of my life. It’s an experience my Dad and I still share together today. But that day was significant to me; more than most fishing trips. I was ten years old. As a very young boy I was always fascinated with watching my Dad cast his fly rod to a rising trout. He held off on teaching me to cast a fly rod until that summer to ensure that I was not only physically able to cast the rod but that I also had some semblance of patience. After weeks of “10 o’clock to 2 o’clock” and “you’re going too far forward/back”, it was finally time to chase trout on the river with a fly!
The time I spent in western Montana as a child is filled with fond memories. The valley and the mountains that surrounded our quaint little town was a seemingly endless playground for my two brothers and me. I was spoiled by sunsets, scenery, mountains, and countless other things. The first day I went fly fishing embodied all these things.
It was a warm evening in August and Dad pointed out the bugshovering over the stream in thick clouds. Grasshoppers leaped from all sides as we wandered towards the bank. From what I recall, almost every cast result in an eat from an eager trout. The rod pulsed in my hands as the fish shook their heads, and my smile grew larger by the minute. From that day on, I knew I loved fly fishing. I sat in bed that night filled with joy after a successful outing on the water. It felt different than my normal fishing excursions and I knew fly fishing was special. Fourteen years later, memories of that day stick with me as if it happened yesterday.
As I got older, I reminisced. “Was it really that incredible? Did we really catch that many fish? Did it just seem that great because I was young and easily impressed?” My family moved away from Montana the following fall, removing me from the proximity to the stream my Dad took me to that day. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to fish some incredible waters. Yet, I would often find myself pondering over that day long ago and the stream that began my fly fishing obsession.
Fast forward to the summer of 2018. I attended a Trout Unlimited event held near the western Montana town I lived in during that fateful tenth year of my childhood. In between workshops we were granted some fishing time, and I visited the exact spot on the stream my Dad took me to that day long ago. I didn’t have much time to spend there, but it was enough time to leave me wanting more. When the event came to an end, I made the long drive back to West Yellowstone. I knew I had to return to that stream as soon as possible.
Labor Day weekend came a few weeks after. One last, extended weekend before college classes were back in full swing and hunting season would become more of a priority for me than fishing. I chose to return to that stream and attempt to relive that summer day when I was a child. My friends Connor and Tyler made the journey with me, and we planned to camp multiple nights in the area. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions. The warm weather and breeze made perfect conditions for fishing hoppers during the day, and the cool evenings were left for resting by the fire, roasting hot dogs, and enjoying good conversation at night.
From the moment we arrived on Saturday to the moment we left on Monday the fishing was spectacular. Cut banks, rocks, and seams regularly held fish that were eager and willing to attack a dry fly. SLURP! SMACK! GULP! It wasn’t uncommon to see grasshoppers tumble through the wind and onto the water, twitch on the surface, and be eaten by a hungry cutthroat. Each evening the sunset glistened over the peaks and through the trees signaling the end of an incredible day. The more time we spent there, the more clearly, I remembered what it was like to be there as a ten-year-old, fly fishing for the first time.
On our last day, we fished another lesser-known stream in the area that I had fond memories of fishing as a kid with conventional tackle. I recalled memories of good numbers of quality fish that I had caught there with my Dad in my youth. My childhood memories had served us well on this trip so far, so we decided to put our faith in them once again.
The stream meanders through grassy fields of the valley. It was, and still is, a slow-moving stream with deep cut-banks and overhanging grass on both sides. We tossed our hopper patterns as tight to the bank as possible while moving upstream. Resident brown trout attacked our flies throughout the next few hours, but now, time was running short for our trip. I found myself hoping for one last memorable fish to complete this perfect weekend. Connor and Tyler had both netted browns in the ballpark of eighteen inches that morning and, perhaps a bit selfishly, I wanted one, too.
In the final minutes before our departure, I changed flies one last time. I happened to glance up in time to see a fish dart from the cut-bank, gobble a drifting hopper, and return to its ambush spot. I couldn’t see exactly how big it was, but from the sound it made slapping the surface I could only assume this was a big one. I prepped my fly and lined up my cast. I laid my foam bug on the water about six feet above where I had seen the fish rise to ensure the drift looked as natural as possible. Before my fly could move two feet it was slammed by a different fish! A feisty little brown was in my net, but this butter-colored beauty wasn’t the fish I was after.
Once again, I lined up my cast. I placed the fly roughly four feet above the target location this time. I watched in anticipation, waiting for the predator I knew that was lurking in the shadows to expose itself. In an instant, a gold flash bolted from the bank and attacked my fly. Fish on! The fish bulldogged, pulled, and fought hard to stay under the cut bank it called home. Eventually it conceded the battle and found itself in the bottom of my net. After a quick photo and moment of admiration my opponent returned to its home. It was the perfect ending to a perfect fly fishing weekend.
Today I look back on the streams of my childhood with even more nostalgia than I had previously. If I fished those waters regularly throughout the year, I would surely have slow days and fruitless trips. But, in my mind, they remain pristine. Places that represent all things good in a world that can sometimes be overwhelming. I believe that’s why we have memories that we romanticize and glorify. The idea that there was a time and a place where nothing could bring us down is comforting. Everyone should have a special place like that in their heart. For me, it will always be the first place my Dad took me fly fishing. Maybe one day I will doubt again how amazing it was. When that day comes, I will return there, and hopefully I’ll be reminded all over again that, in reality it’s better than I remembered.