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Near the end even of temperate winters, fishermen long for open water. Ice and cold have their places. But sun and waves are better, as is the inestimable chuckle of water spilling from higher elevations to lower, over rocks.
I was thinking about this late Friday afternoon as Dave Zentner and I hiked high above a North Shore stream, looking for steelhead. The sky was blue and the afternoon nearly windless.
Steelhead -- migratory rainbow trout -- aren't easy to catch under any circumstances, especially this spring, when rivers and streams that spill into Lake Superior are running not quite on empty but nearly so.
Confusing both to fish and fishermen, the low water had poleaxed plans Dave and I had laid Friday to bring a steelhead to hand.
A few weeks back I reached the end of my line, winterwise, and called my older son, Trevor, in Montana, hoping to cash in a few chips.
"I'll come out and fish during your spring break,'' I said. "Maybe the skwala hatch will be going.''
Trevor attends school at the University of Montana in Missoula, and when his mother and I dropped him off there last August to begin his freshman year, it nearly broke my heart. Then as quickly I considered the school's proximity to the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Missouri rivers, among others, and considered also that in addition to the cell phone, laptop and other worldly goods he pilfered from his mother and me prior to his exit interview, he had taken our drift boat with him to school.
At which point the pinprick of certain jealousy sutured any heart tear the boy's leaving had caused.
"Yes, come on out,'' Trevor had said when I called recently. "I'll be fishing anyway.''
Thus a plan was laid to assuage my wintertime blues by fishing four different rivers in five days last week, split between Minnesota and Montana.
On Monday, Trevor and I would be on the Missouri, followed on Tuesday by the Bitterroot and on Wednesday, Rock Creek, all in Montana.
Friday, Dave and I would wade whichever North Shore streams we thought might cough up a steelhead or two.
So it was Monday morning that Trevor and I pulled into Craig, Mont., hard by the shores of the Missouri. This was a 2 1/2-hour drive from Missoula, over the continental divide and through vast expanses of big country.
On weekends when he can get away, Trevor drives here to fish all day and sleep in his car at night.
"Save a few bucks that way,'' he says. "Buy more flies.''
About 7 miles upstream from Craig, below a large dam, we launched the boat, and Trevor took the oars. The day would warm into the 40s, and maybe touch 50. But the morning was chilly enough that I needed to throw some line to warm up.
I tossed a pair of nymphs, though come afternoon we would see a few fish rising, and cast dries to them.
"Keep your line tight,'' Trevor said as the currents swirled us downstream. "Or you'll miss a strike.''
To my credit, I no longer bristle when the obvious is reiterated to me as admonition by Trevor or his younger brother. I figure it goes with the territory of being the Old Man. Anyway, Trevor has his Montana guide's license now, no cheap trick, and he really did want me to catch fish.
Which I did, setting the hook in short order on a fat rainbow whose chromatic sides glistened in the sun.
So the drift went, a trout around this bend and the next, and the next, the day pretty as we passed through dry landscape.
At day's end, at the takeout, three of Trevor's college buddies were hanging around. They had finished their drifts in inflatables they keep at school and were cold.
One young man was from California, another from New York, another from South Carolina.
That night they would sleep in their vehicle, but not before one of them was dispatched to nearby Wolf Creek, Mont., to purchase "the largest mass of food possible for $10.''
Said Trevor: "It's not easy being a college student and a fisherman, Dad.
"Not like when you were a kid.''
Friday afternoon, from a trail high above Lake Superior, looking down onto a North Shore stream that Dave Zentner and I would fish, I recalled easily the float Trevor and I made Tuesday on the Bitterroot, and the innumerable cutthroats and browns we caught while wading Rock Creek on Wednesday.
Each year in March, lasting through about mid-April, the Bitterroot's skwala hatch draws trout bums from far and wide, providing some of the continent's first, and best, dry fly action.
Tuesday, this hatch was still in its adolescence, and we took only a few cutthroats whose noses were tipped up. Otherwise, fish that we caught were fooled by nymphs drifted along shore.
Wednesday was altogether different
I had fished Rock Creek before, a couple of years back, and had come away having not done very well. This time Trevor drove us nearly an hour on the dirt two-track that winds alongside the river, before we hiked to a stretch of water as pretty as any ever painted, or photographed.
When Trevor caught four cutthroats and browns before I made my first cast, I knew the day would not end soon.
On Monday and Tuesday evenings, we hadn't returned to Missoula until nearly 10, and dinner was after that. Looking back, this was the same schedule I often kept with the boys when they were young, staying on the water until late, and driving home with them in the back seat, asleep.
On Wednesday, Trevor returned the favor, thinking that wading and casting until dark was all quite natural -- if he thought about it at all.
Now it's late again, Friday evening, 10 o'clock, and I'm in my truck, parked on the North Shore, needing really to finish this story, send it to the office and drive home.
Because steelhead are steeped deeply in mystery, and often keep their mouths shut, had Dave and I ended our day fishless, there would have been no shame.
We almost did.
Then Dave said, "Let's try one more spot.''
One cast. Nothing. And another.
Then time, Dave's line drew tight and a flash of bright chrome streaked downriver and disappeared.
In pursuit, Dave stumbled over greasy rocks and exposed boulders, his rod doubled over.
This wasn't my fish.
But minutes later, as Dave dislodged his hook from its mouth and freed it to swim again, I knew, just as I had realized earlier in the week, that my longing for the reassurance of open water had not been misdirected.
Winter had ended, I was sure of that now, and prospects for the coming season were good.
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org
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