The fishing trip was all my idea. A city girl from my highlighted hair to my high-heeled boots, I had nonetheless hatched a scheme to surprise my husband with a fly-fishing weekend...
The fishing trip was all my idea.
A city girl from my highlighted hair to my high-heeled boots, I had nonetheless hatched a scheme to surprise my husband with a fly-fishing weekend in Montana for his 50th birthday.
The biggest surprise of all: I was going with him.
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I knew the chance to learn fly-fishing would be a dream come true for David; I hoped it wouldn’t be a nightmare for me. Before we met and married, David had climbed mountains, skied, hiked and camped with typical Northwest enthusiasm. I, on the other hand, had conquered the canyons of Manhattan and preferred to vacation off my feet, preferably on a lounge chair somewhere sunny.
My husband likes to quip that my idea of roughing it is no room service, but he’s wrong: Really roughing it is going more than a month without a pedicure. To call me a tenderfoot is no exaggeration, so you can understand David’s shock that I was willing not only to sleep in a tent but planned to tuck my glossy fuchsia toes into waders and stand hip deep with him in a rocky stream near a place called Ovando.
Located in the Blackfoot Valley about 60 miles from Missoula, Ovando, with a population of just 50, has more dogs, horses and cows than people. A billboard boasts: “Ovando has everything.”
Among the cluster of buildings that constitute the town center you’ll find the Blackfoot Commercial Co., a general store/B&B/gas station (among other things); The Brand Bar Museum, devoted to local history; a welding shop that advertises espresso drinks; and the Blackfoot Angler, where we stop to secure our fishing licenses. This procedure requires you to publicly state your age, weight, height and hair color before the state will permit you to fish. For this humiliation you pay a small fee.
Trixi’s is still a big draw
Trixi’s Antler Saloon and Fine Dining used be where the museum is but now sits on a rise above Highway 200. Trixi McCormick was a 5-foot-2 former rodeo daredevil whose exploits are well documented on the walls of the saloon she founded in 1960. In her day, she tended bar with a sawed-off wagon spoke and a firearm at the ready in case a customer got too frisky. She sold the place 20 years ago, but it remains the community’s social hub: Hundreds show up for Saturday-night dances. But on the warm afternoon in early fall when we stop in for a bite there are only a handful of customers, most, like us, lunching on juicy buffalo burgers and excellent fries washed down with Moose Drool.
Then it’s on to North Fork Crossing. Three miles beyond Ovando we spy the whisky-stained pine lodge just past a bridge that spans the Blackfoot’s north fork. The Blackfoot is the river that runs through the 1992 Robert Redford movie based on Norman Maclean’s 1976 book, “A River Runs Through It.” But, in fact, the movie was filmed elsewhere in Montana because at the time, the Blackfoot was somewhat less pristine than it is today. In the early 1990s it was only just beginning to recover from a century of clear-cutting, mining and ranching that had devastated its tributaries and decimated the fishery.
Paul Roos, a local outfitter, legendary fly-fishing expert and lifelong resident of the Blackfoot River Valley, was, and continues to be, instrumental in the effort to resuscitate the Blackfoot. In 1996, in a gesture of faith, hope and smart commerce, Roos and John Kowalski, his partner in Paul Roos Outfitters, created North Fork Crossing. They rebuilt and expanded an old house to create a rustic yet plush lodge, built the outlying guest accommodations and restored the natural landscape, crafting a sanctuary for humans and wildlife alike.
Dana Post extended official greetings when we arrived. A seasoned river guide herself, as well as a trained chef, the 36-year-old Post manages the lodge and is also one of the owners. She and her three canine pals, Poncho, Lefty and Willie, live at North Fork Crossing year-round in a yurt, we learn, as they escort us to the spacious “canvas cabin” that will be ours for the next few days.
Now this is my idea of camping: thick rugs covering a wood floor, featherbeds and down comforters piled on thick mattresses, lamps on the bedside table and a heater. A small veranda overlooks one of four trout ponds on the property and best of all, just off the beaten path is our own private bathroom with shower.
But the pampering doesn’t stop there. North Fork Crossing can provide everything the first-time fisherman needs, from gear to guides to a gourmet lunch on the riverbank.
As it happens, we have our first fly-fishing lesson from Paul Roos himself. Though Roos, now 61, and Kowalski, now 58, sold their interest in Paul Roos Outfitters and North Fork Crossing to Post and Brandon Boedecker two years ago, they remain an active presence. The day we arrive Roos conducts an impromptu session outside the lodge on “line management.” Most beginners, he says, start out by getting the fly stuck in the tip of the rod. Getting it unstuck is a pretty frustrating business. He shows us how to hold the rod with one hand, grasp the fly in the other hand and spread-eagle our arms to extend the line.
Guide is key to success
The next morning, we meet Garrett Munson, who will be our guide for a day of float-fishing on the river. Even for experienced fly-fishermen, river guides are invaluable for their insider knowledge of the terrain and the river’s secrets, not to mention their grasp of Montana’s fishing regulations.
“There’s nothing you can do to me that hasn’t already been done,” he assures me later, after my rod narrowly misses hitting him on a back-cast. Perched on a 14-foot rubber raft, with Garrett rowing, we diligently practice “line management.” Garrett does everything else. He changes the flies when they don’t seem to be working; guides the boat to each “fishy looking” spot; patiently disengages our lines when they end up wrapped around each other or a shrub on the embankment; and entertains us with fish tales. When it’s time for lunch, he finds a sunny spot along the riverbank, sets up a table and produces a picnic lunch of sliced beef filet, fresh greens and crusty bread.
It is Garrett who spots the fleeting shadow of a brown trout just about to snatch my fly. I pull up on the rod to set the hook, then start to reel it in. But it’s Garrett who scoops it up in a net, removes the hook and presents the little six-incher to me as if it were my first-born, before releasing it back into the crystal clear stream.
I end up hooking two trout that day; David lands seven, all of them released. It is enough to give us bragging rights in the lodge that night as we join other guests to dine on velvety corn chowder and elk medallions with sour cherry sauce.
Though Dana, who trained at the Colorado Art Institute’s School of Culinary Arts in Denver, sometimes cooks, dinner is the domain of Michael Carlucci, who consults for Drew Nieporent’s New York-based Myriad Restaurant Group in the off-season. Both cook with just the right sort of robust elegance to please the prosperous fly-fishionados who find their way to North Fork Crossing.
The second day Roos is our guide. We climb into his dusty Ford crew cab and spend some time traversing the valley in search of a herd of mating elk, a popular spectator sport here, it turns out. Eventually we head for the river and don waders.
We experiment with both dry and wet flies. David has some luck, but I’m pretty sure I’m not fooling anything with fins lurking in those murky green depths.
Getting in sync
By late afternoon, my rod starts feeling less like an awkward prosthetic device and more like part of me. I am able to shoot the line farther and land the fly closer to where I want it. I don’t hook any fish, but fly-fishing hooks me. Balanced on the slippery rocks, I am a speck in a ridiculously beautiful gold-tinted russet and sage landscape framed by mauve mountains and capped by that famous Big Sky. Time slows; worries loosen their grip. I feel the peace and hear the poetry that is part of the zen of fly-fishing.
On our last day, David goes off to attempt spring creek fishing on a private ranch (access is another advantage of being a guest at the lodge), but that sounds way too ambitious for me. When Dana proposes a girls-only outing on the river with her as a guide, I drop my sightseeing plans and leap at the chance.
On the flight home, when I put my novel aside to join David in perusing the Orvis catalog, I know I’m truly a convert. Paul Roos is right: “I’m pretty sure the object of fly-fishing is not catching fish, because there are easier ways to do that. The object is to enjoy the process. The art of fly-catching is a kick in the pants if you’re in it for the fun.”