Fishing unites and rewards

By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

I believe in fishing karma. Not superstition or luck, but a yin-and-yang-type thing. Yes, as fishing guides we have our lucky hat or special fly we use at exactly the right time, but knowledge and experience can be trumped by the idea that what goes around, comes around.

I was recently invited on a Warriors and Quiet Waters’ fishing outing. WQW was founded in Bozeman more than 10 years ago. Through its donors and volunteers, WQW provides traumatically injured U.S. servicemen and women with the therapeutic experience of fly fishing.

WQW brings wounded warriors to Montana for a six-day program of fly fishing and recreation, a previously unrealistic dream for many veterans.

Once here, warriors – most of whom are actively participating in military rehabilitation programs – are taken on a fly-fishing trip envied by the most experienced and well-traveled anglers. The warriors are guided and accompanied by a volunteer angling companion trained in working with wounded vets.

I was paired Mike Davis for a week. This veteran from Missouri suffers from various effects of PTSD, severe nerve damage in one leg, vision issues including blindness in one eye, and muscle loss in one arm. Davis’ best friend Dave Green, also a severely wounded veteran, was along with him for the week, guided by Steve Liebinger, one of the area’s top guides.

Our week was filled with the usual camaraderie that accompanies most men-only fishing trips – a little trash talking, plenty of bathroom humor and marriage jokes. But unlike many fishing trips of the male persuasion, a tangible sense of sincerity and generosity accompanied each day.

On day two, which happened to be Davis’ birthday, he chose to fish on a private ranch pond at the foot of the Tobacco Root Mountains. The pond is notorious for brown trout pushing ten-pounds. His two main objectives for the day: to hook into an eight-pound brown, and for Green to hook into a six-pounder.

Neither happened, but before lunch Green caught three fish before Davis hooked into one. I had tried all sorts of tactics and various flies, from sinking lines to Sex Dungeons (a well-known streamer fly). Despite my inability as a guide to get my guy into fish, Davis’ excitement over his best friend catching big brown trout – even when he wasn’t – is true fishing karma.

In a moment of humility, I rowed to Green’s boat and asked about the hot fly. He handed us a few flies he tied himself, including a black Woolly Bugger tied so sparsely it seemed like he was skimping on materials. Liebinger offered up more pertinent knowledge: fish it on a nine-foot, 3X leader with one B-sized split shot about 10 inches above the fly.

After lunch, Davis and Green caught several fish, including three double hookups, and his birthday was priceless: catching fish with his best friend.

The next day we fished Green’s water of choice, the Madison River below Beartrap Canyon. But it was Davis who offered the hot fly and rig as Green and Liebinger struggled to crack the proverbial angling code – a two-fly nymph rig using an unweighted crayfish pattern and a rainbow Czech nymph fished on 4X approximately four feet below the indicator.

On the final day, we fished the Madison above Ennis. Green’s boat was fishing a riffle corner as our boat floated into a run across the river. Davis’ line went tight. He yanked it once.

“Bottom,” he grunted.

“Keep stripping it,” I said.

“I think that’s moving upstream!” our angling companion, Jack Weiss, offered from the back of the boat.

“It’s a fish!” Davis yelled as the brown trout leapt in the air. Across the river Green, Liebinger, and their companion Ethan Edwards, let out hoots and hollers.

After a valiant fight in which muscle, nerve damage, and lack of vision amplified an already arduous location to land a big fish, the brown trout came to net as three other boats floated by. The anglers in each boat offered various congratulatory phrases from “Nice work,” to “That’s a pig!” Davis fell back in his chair and took it all in.

Green yelled across the river, “What did he eat?”

Davis, gathering his breath for enough force to yell across the Madison’s loud currents, hollered, “A scud about 12-inches below a rubberlegs. You got any?”

“Nope,” Green said. Liebinger pulled anchor and rowed across the river.

My dad, who served a quarter century in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot and then as an officer, would say to me, “Better lucky than good,” when we fished.

After a week with a wounded warrior however, I’m convinced we make our own luck. We just don’t know the exact recipe for it, but I know it starts with equal parts love and respect for friends, family, and those among us willing to serve others.

Contact Warriors and Quiet Waters for more information: warriorsandquietwaters.org or 406-585-WQWF.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and the forthcoming Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing* *but were afraid to ask. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.