By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST
On Sundays in autumn when we Northern Rockies denizens return to our rivers, re-wetting lines of connection in the cooling currents after months of usurpation by outsiders, Mike Person dreams of his homeland, too, but from afar. Such idylls help him still the nerves as he puts on his armor, preparing for battle in the truest American form of gladiator.
On his afternoons, Person’s mind becomes intensely focused on repelling an invasion, this one a war over turf. Hunched down in a three-point stance, squaring off against foes who want to pummel the colleagues behind him—and for whom he is paid handsomely to protect—Person ponders holes, though not the mellifluous, placid kinds that hold trout.
As a starting offensive guard for the San Francisco 49ers, Person’s job is opening up running lanes for ball carriers or buying quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo time to stand poised in the pocket. He knows success for the team comes down to something seemingly simple yet actually complicated and hard to executive—his ability to block.
“From a standpoint of physics, we are the only guys on the field taking a hit or giving a hit 70 times a game,” Person said. “Those add up over the course of a season. Mondays I’m sore; Tuesdays really sore; and then, when Wednesdays roll around, it’s time to stop worrying about what hurts because we’ve got to get ready for Sunday.”
Bruised and bloodied week in and out, sacrificing his 300-pound frame to crunching hits, he’ll soak his weary muscles in ice baths, get deep tissue massages and take Ibuprofen to help make the pain go away before he does it all over again for months until the season ends.
But, what does Person’s profession have to do with fly fishing, his expanding respect for wild places and doing right by his family?
As it turns out, everything.
Person’s career in the trenches reminds him of contrasts—of Sundays past, present and future. Where he escapes during the offseason, home water means peace but not quiet. Compared to the deafening roar of 70,000 fans, so loud it drowns out the quarterback’s cadence, there is solace in the hum of a river like the Yellowstone, Madison or Gallatin, he says. Wading into a bend casting, stripping line, mending, tying on a fake gnat with no one else around, no cheers or jeers, is an activity where Person can go to hear himself think.
He understands why clean water matters.
Fly fishing has trained him to be more instinctive, to read patterns on water, to move with ease and grace, rather than like a bowling ball knocking down pins. There’s no brawn or quarter ton squatting weights required to lay down a midge. Typically, casters need not worry about blown out ACLs, concussions, broken fingers and torn rotator cuffs. And yet a parallel can be drawn between how a ball moves downfield and a trout navigates its linear sanctum.
Many people have stereotypes when it comes to pegging football linemen, equating them almost to stolid members of a bison herd. Person, the youngest of four siblings, is soft-spoken, contemplative and big-hearted, residing more on the laconic side of the spectrum than evincing any pretentious temptation to name drop who his employer is.
That’s not how he was taught to impress people in Montana.
“There is lot of pride when it comes to being from there and it is present from Libby [in the northwest part of the state] all the way down to Wibaux [in the southeast]. Every kid who grows up there feels it in some way but you’re not always aware of it until you’re gone,” he said. “Being from Montana, that’s more important than what you do.”
Person never needed anyone to teach him how to meditate before games; it’s second nature, rooted in afternoons, sometimes following Sunday morning Catholic Mass when he and his buddies repaired to the river, using night crawlers bought at the local gas station to hook catfish and sauger. By “the river,” he means the Yellowstone.
Person grew up in remote Glendive only a few blocks from the Yellowstone’s banks lined with cottonwood trunks as big around as Greek columns.
He stood out in football and earned all-state honors on the o-line. Bobcat coaches at Montana State recognized him as a kid with raw talent that could be molded for the next level. When he first reported to campus, he was 6 feet 4 inches “and extremely skinny” at 250 pounds, he said.
It wasn’t until Person decided to play at Montana State, he says, that he started to think about angling as a high art form. He gained a newfound appreciation for Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding ecosystem. He counts it as a favorite destination, where his family is constantly reminded why it’s important to care about the environment.
Part of the perk of being a Bobcat is having access to some of the best-known trout streams in the world. Fly fishing is something many players learn and it’s those memories that they take with them. It’s uncanny how many pro athletes take up fishing to unwind.
When Person talks about landing big browns and rainbows in the 49ers locker room, teammates pay attention; Montana, to some, sounds almost like a mythological place.
At age 31, Mike Person, wearing number 68, is indeed in the prime of confidence though he knows football won’t last forever.
As a history and education major, he’s thought of teaching and coaching, like his dad. He also said he wouldn’t mind penning a fly-fishing column for “Mountain Journal.” The family still has a cabin north of Butte. With the rivers around Bozeman getting crowded, he enjoys wandering the Boulder River. Planting a fly perfectly on the seam of a riffle, he says, is as amazing a feat to him as watching a perfectly-thrown spiral 60 yards into the outstretched hands of a receiver.
“There’s beauty in both,” he said.
He can relate to the analogy offered by noted Bozeman writer Paul Schullery, who once said, “Calling fishing a hobby is like calling brain surgery a job.” Schullery also observed, “If you aren’t a fisher, you’ll see many things, but the river, except where it is ridden by a waterfall or waded by a moose, will rarely enter your thoughts, much less stimulate your spirit. It’s different if you fish. The surface of the water tells a story.”
Person does fish, and it stimulates his spirit and it reminds him there’s always an abiding place where he can return, though for now fall fishing on Sundays in Montana will have to wait for a while. Still, he says the rivers have already given him stories to tell.
One of them is this: like safeguarding his quarterback, clean water needs protection too.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based “Mountain Journal” and is a correspondent for “National Geographic.” He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399, which is available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.