As another hot summer day cools, Larry,
Jackson and I are stowing gear in the drift
boat, affectionately known as the Dancing
Bear. Father and son, they’ve come
out from Maryland to fish for a week. For
11-year-old Jackson, this is all new.
Larry and I are old friends and have been
planning this trip for months. As dusk
falls, we’re a few beers deep now, and
we’re raving. The evening glow exaggerates
the memories we recount of our
first fishing experiences. Jackson tries to
follow along. We’re anxious to impart
our enthusiasm, hoping he, too, will develop
our passion and begin the lifelong
journey that is fly fishing.
We haven’t seen each other in too long,
and our thoughts boil with excitement
streaming out in a torrent of Latin and
arcane language. Baetiscidae, Trichoptera,
Royal Wolff, Single haul, Leisenring
Lift. Our fervor grows with the pile of
We start into fishing access: success in
protecting the waterways has moved attention
to fishing access rights, the next
great battle. Montana’s Stream Access
Law is the gold standard, yet even it is
under constant attack. Southwest Montana
is a region built on fly fishing, home
to world class companies like Winston
Rods in Twin Bridges, RO drift boats in
Bozeman, and Simms, the only company
manufacturing waders in the U.S. Ours
is a flourishing tourism economy, boosting
the state’s well being and rising with
the return of healthy waterways.
Catching our excitement, Jackson
asks about tomorrow’s trip. “Where
are we fishing? How long will we be
gone?” We explain we’re headed out
early, to the Yellowstone River, and
we’ll be out all day.
The next morning is less focused.
Larry and I are up and moving, but
Jackson, approaching the rhythms
of his teens, is slow to wake. On our
drive to the Yellowstone, he shakes
off his growth hangover and asks
many of the same questions.
We launch the Dancing Bear to a
beautiful dawn, and our morning is
consumed not in the glory of flashing
rainbow trout, but in mastering
the learning curve. Larry and I
want Jackson to succeed so much we
smother him with instruction and
good cheer. We discuss hoppers and
droppers, explain the nuances of
river etiquette, and expound on the
holistic nature of our sport. Jackson
catches nothing. His good humor
remains intact, but his focus slips.
Dark clouds build through the morning
then explode into a thundering
hailstorm. Rowing toward shore, we
hunker down against a cut bank, which
offers no real shelter.
Jackson plays in the falling hailstones,
laughing as though in a summer snow
shower. The hailstones grow larger,
and Larry and I exchange anxious
looks. Should we flip the boat for
cover? How large will they get? Could
they knock a grown man out? We fend
off golf balls, and Jackson hunkers
Then the storm slackens. Larry and I
survey the Dancing Bear for damage,
but the sky clears, and Jackson is all
energy, hunting the stream bank for
cool rocks. He finds a garter snake. A
lightness of heart prevails that had
been missing in the crush to fish.
After lunch, we shove off for
the afternoon’s angling. As
quickly as the weather clears,
so does our mood and attention.
Despite better judgment,
Larry and I serenade
Jackson with old Motown
hits. The morning’s laserlike
focus on casting Larry’s
hopper/dropper rig to all the
right spots has turned into a
festive hunting expedition.
Larry pounds a natural
Zonker against the banks,
stripping it like a man possessed.
With a flash of silver
yellow, the fight begins. A
beautiful brown breaks the
water and a tail dances across
our bow. Jackson is at the
heart of the struggle, videotaping
Larry versus the trout.
I row toward the shallows.
Larry’s fight with the brown
trout captivats Jackson’s
growing curiosity. He casts
with renewed vigor.
“Try behind that rock, on the
right,” I advise.
“No, I don’t get good drifts
there. Row over to that line,”
I don’t agree, but Jackson
has a program, and this is
“I got a strike!” he says. In
the zone, he watches for
Then, as we float downriver,
his thoughts drift.
“Why do trout eat grasshoppers?”
he asks. “Why do fish
strike behind rocks?”
With Jackson concentrating
on keeping his fly drag-free,
we drift in the fading afternoon.
I look up at Emigrant
Peak, then across the river
at the broad Paradise Valley.
The dry wind cools my face
“What’s a streamer?”
Jackson asks, bringing me
back. “Why am I fishing a
hopper and not a streamer?”
I start to explain the difference
to him, but he cuts me
off when he feels a tug on
“Was that a fish?
What’s that bug?”
Watching him, I think
about my own experience.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve
focused on smaller details,
and my view of the world
has shrunk. But in youth,
the thrill of discovery
enlarged my scope—and
ended up blowing my
mind. Fishing with
Jackson reminded me that
every day of fishing is a new adventure.