By Allen Morris Jones
How to describe the headwaters of the Missouri River without going either objectionably trite or unforgivably sentimental? I mean, it’s the Missouri. Where do you even begin? Maybe you parse it out into its three principal pieces.
Not far from my front door, the Gallatin River has always seemed to me to be the essential gist of some-damn-thing. The ruler by which every small river should be measured. For a trout fisherman, it’s a Chekhov short story. Simple enough, but more complex the deeper you get. You can start catching fish inside of ten minutes but to fish it well takes a lifetime. Every year, runoff shifts the gravel bars around, turning a page. When it’s late fall and the cottonwoods go yellow and mallards flush out from every backwater…
There are all these millions of words written about fly fishing but no one’s ever been able to really describe this. The mutter of water over rock, sunlight refracting back into your eyes, the rhythm of line and the slow-floating, ennobling lie of a well-cast fly. In the American West, a place where the first commodity is solitude, to fish a favorite river these days is to eulogize it, to compose a series of private, melancholy obituaries. We’re all of us trying to own a piece, even if it’s only momentarily, even if it’s only inside our own heads.
Ten years ago things were better. Twenty, thirty. The longer you’ve been here, the more poignant the loss. If you squint and close an eye, maybe you can ignore the ridgeline development on the horizon, the runoff trash caught in the lower limbs. Two hundred years ago John Colter was dodging Blackfeet around the corner. Now we’ve got knapweed and spurge, diversion dams and Costco. The Gallatin’s overfished at the access points, but there’s still some good water if you don’t mind a hike—either an ankle-twisting stumble inside the high water mark or a quick, furtive trespass from road to river. If it were a dog, the Gallatin would be a little Jack Russell terrier, aging and on the downhill side of heartbreaking, but still willing to take a piece out of the mailman’s ass on your behalf. When I was in my early twenties, a buddy showed up at my door, ten o’clock at night, Wranglers damp to the pockets. He opened his tailgate to show off a twenty-two inch brown he’d just caught below Axtell bridge. “Look at this hawg.” Catch and release, sure, but I’m still allowed to go sentimental for that less judgmental time.
Down the road thirty minutes, the lower Madison is most conspicuous now for the summer recreationalists, the flotillas of glaringly-white Montana college kids bobbing along on inner tubes, cheerfully drinking themselves into second-degree sunburns. But if you’re around in February, and don’t mind a hike up from Bear Trap trailhead, the midge fishing is like…well, Jesus, it’s like hitting the sweet spot in tennis—that mystical thrum up your arm. Catch it quiet and gray five minutes before a storm rolls in, when the eddy foam is stirred by slow-finning rainbows, it becomes a vindication of all your otherwise questionable life choices. And when it’s cold enough so that you have to keep dipping your rod to clear ice from the guides, the self-congratulation is almost as fine as the fishing. No fair-weather hobbyists around here, thank you very much. Another college buddy used to wear a custom-printed T-shirt when he drank in Bozeman’s old R-Bar: “Fish hard or go home.” Twenty years later, that T-shirt still comes to mind more often than it should.
Of the three rivers in the headwaters, I know the Jefferson the least well. It’s always been ten minutes too far out of my way, and so stands now as accusation more than destination. I wish I fished it more often. (Eight blunt little syllables you could put on my gravestone.) But particularly in the fall, after the most avaricious ranchers have taken their third cuttings and turned off their pivots, when the browns have gone amorous and the rainbows are keying in on egg patterns, pretty much anything could happen. Four-pound balletic rainbows, five-pound sullen browns. Anything.
The triumvirate. Three rivers that, in retrospect, have formed the bedrock—or maybe the groundwater—of my life as a fly-fisherman. Thirty years now since I first fished the Gallatin and the Madison. No time at all, really. But it’s still more than ten percent of the valley’s written history. Jim Bridger to Bridger Bowl, it feels significant. Downstream you can catch bigger trout below Holter dam. You can troll for walleye and sauger in Fort Peck and snag a paddlefish around Slippery Ann, but this is where the whole serendipitous shooting match has its start. Three valleys feeding together to form, moment to moment, something unique to the world. That eternally-fresh confluence of geography and poetry reductively described as a river. The next thirty years may be more crowded than the last thirty, the views might have more power lines and the riverbanks more footprints, but for my money it’s still going to be the best place on the planet.
About the Author
Allen Morris Jones is the author of three novels, a children's book, and a well-regarded look at the ethics of hunting. He lives in Bozeman with his wife and young son.