A River Runs Through Us

Fly-fishing the waters of West Yellowstone is the stuff of dreams. Casting alongside your 85-year-old dad is the stuff of memories. By Laura Fraser
Sunset Magazine, October 2013

Charles Fraser with his haul of cutthroat trout at Yellowstone Lake in 1950, where he was a fishing guide.

I never understood my father’s love of fly- fishing. He wasn’t content to fish our Colorado streams but would wake well before dawn and drive nine hours to Montana, where the rivers and the trout were bigger. He’d pack his gear in the truck — waders, rods, a bulging vest, all manner of midges, nymphs, and flies — and return a few nights later, without a single fish.

“I don’t like to eat ’em,” he would say. “I just like to catch ’em.”

What was the point? I was skeptical about any sport that required hours of trudging in freezing rivers and tying on an ever-changing menu of flies — all to outwit a fish. Plus, the few times I tried fly-fishing as a child, I was no good at it. For all the time my dad spent hiking and camping with his family, I suspected that he was more interested in being alone than in trying to teach his fourth daughter to fish.

I inherited my skepticism from my mother. Her disdain for the sport dated back to the first summer of their marriage, in 1951, when my father was a fishing guide on Yellowstone Lake and my mother worked in the hotel restaurant. One of the long-running disagree- ments of their 60 years together was who had it worse that summer. My father insists he was out suffering in the elements while my mother was sheltered and warm. Mom maintained that Dad was having the time of his life in the great outdoors while she sweated over a steam table. What they agreed on was how much they loved hiking in the grand landscape of Yellowstone, among lodgepole pines, rushing rivers, burbling mud pools, and majestic wildlife, then coming home to their tiny log cabin to cozy up by the fire.

My dad is 85 now and still a remarkably fit outdoorsman. Mom passed away two years ago. She was never a religious person, but the mountains revived her spirit. The wide-open West is where my memories of her feel the most alive, shimmering like a quaking aspen. So I wanted to go back to Yellowstone with my dad and revisit some of the wilderness the two of them loved.

What I didn’t consider was that the trip would involve fly-fishing.

We arrived at Lone Mountain ranch in Big Sky, Montana, about an hour from the West Entrance of Yellowstone, and checked into cabins that were considerably more posh than the one my parents stayed in, which had no hot water, electricity, or indoor plumbing during that long-ago summer. The ranch, originally homesteaded in 1915, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and over the years its lodge and cluster of log cabins have been a tycoon’s vacation home, a boys’ camp, and now, a summer resort and a winter cross- country ski center. Every day at the ranch, there was a full schedule of perfectly enjoyable activities to choose from — hiking, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking — but Dad was focused on only one: fly-fishing. Our first afternoon, I sneaked in a hike to nearby Ousel Falls, amazed at the huge tubes of crash- ing water only a mile up the trail, but had to return for a casting clinic that Dad insisted I attend. He was going fishing, and since one probably shouldn’t fish alone at 85, I would be forsaking all those lovely hiking trails.

In a grassy field at the ranch, equipped with a 9-foot fly rod, Dad tried to show me how to fling a fishing line around. It wasn’t long before he became frustrated and the ranch’s fishing manager, John McKinnie, took over. John taught me some moves, pulling the rod back, paus- ing, and then pushing, until he said I had a reasonable cast for a newbie. He was being polite. It was lunchtime.

The next day, fitted with waders, we set out for the Madison, a wide river that rolls through a western slice of Yellowstone. My father had fished it often enough he knew the name of every bridge, and probably some of the older trout. Dad and our guide for the day, Kurty Dehmer, discussed flies like hippies talking about their favorite ’60s bands: Flashback Hare’s Ear, Copper John, Bead Head Soft Hackle, and Woolly Bugger. At a section of the river between Earthquake and Hebgen Lakes, we walked down to the shore, steadying ourselves on wet rocks, and began casting. I caught a lot: branches, trees, the bottom of the river. Each cast seemed to twirl my line into an epic tangle. “Needs surgery,” Kurty, our laconic guide, would say, taking out instruments to patiently retie the rig yet again.

Fly-fishing is much more challenging than putting a worm on a hook and dropping it into a lake (an activity that fly-fishermen don’t even consider “fishing”). Dad says it’s about solving a mystery. Trout feed on thousands of different insects and larvae, and you have to figure out what they’re hungry for by inspecting what’s in the air, on the water, and under the rocks — which changes every day, every hour. You have to be observant: If the water’s surface is dimpled, fish are rising to bite. You also have to ponder where the fish might be hiding out — behind rocks, in pools, or near a sunken log — to know where to cast. And there isn’t just one way to cast, but many: a roll cast to avoid the trees behind you, a curved cast to sneak under a riverbank, a gentle cast that won’t alarm the fish, or one that plops to sound like a big insect hitting the water when the trout are in the mood to dine on grasshopper. In short, it’s not the kind of thing you can learn on the fly. Which is why having a guide is key.

The weather was chilly, threatening rain. None of this fazed Dad, who was casting in beautiful long arcs and even catching a few fish. It looked like a meditation — studying the river, casting the line just so, reeling it in, and repeating, the way the water repeated its flow over the rock. It was a quiet practice that must have given Dad a rare sense of peace during the years when he was a pediatrician surrounded by howling kids, including four of his own.

Dad and our guide discussed flies like hippies talking about their favorite ’60s bands: Flashback Hare’s Ear, Copper John, Bead Head Soft Hackle, and Woolly Bugger.

After an hour of wading, Dad wanted to move to another section of the stream, frustrated at how few and puny the trout were, and by the fact that it wasn’t as easy to keep his balance on slippery rocks as it used to be.

We drove to another spot, with a more even surface. There, too, the fishing was meager — “it has something to do with their metabolism today,” said Kurty, shrugging.

The next day, Dad and I took a break from fishing to drive into Yellowstone National Park, following the Madison from the West Entrance. After a day on the water, I couldn’t help looking at the river the way he did, with a fisherman’s X-ray vision, watching for spots where the fish might be hiding, in smooth eddies and pools along the banks. “Shoulda brought my rod,” he said, passing a meandering section of calm water.

As we drove the road that rings the caldera, the big crater of the super- volcano that underlies the park, Dad had a story for almost every road sign we passed. At Shoshone Lake, he recalled hiking to the main road and hearing a big bear behind him, attracted to the fishy smell. Dad dropped a trout, ran, then dropped another when he heard the grizzly gaining on him again. “Bear tax,” he shrugged. “About 20 percent.”

We drove over the Continental Divide — with Dad explaining which of the 10 rivers in the park flow to the Mississippi and which end up in the Pacific — then came to an expansive view of Yellowstone Lake. “One of the largest mountain lakes in the world,” he said, “full of fish.” Dad, a farm boy from Ohio, first arrived here in 1950, the year after college. He’d heard a rumor there was work in Yellowstone and took a bus to Cody, Wyoming, then hitchhiked the rest of the way. He cleaned and hauled boats at the lake until one day a fishing guide didn’t show up; he guided that day and the rest of the summer, and the next, when he brought along his bride. “The first time I saw this,” he said, as we stopped to look out over the vast lake, the Teton Range looming in the distance, “I was just about blown off of my saddle.” At Fishing Bridge, we went behind the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, the yellow colonial-style inn where Mom had worked, to the pier where Dad’s boat once tied up. But the pier had disappeared, except for a few wood pilings. We drove to the village, afraid their honeymoon cabin would be gone too, but finally found it, boarded up. Dad smiled. “Yep, this is where we lived.” For a moment we could both picture my mom, in her bobby socks, high-waisted jeans, and white blouse with a Peter Pan collar, sunning herself on the brown-painted porch. She may have hated to fish, but she thought the summer in Yellowstone — like the rest of her marriage — was one big, wonderful adventure.

“She was game,” said Dad. We stood there next to each other for a few silent minutes, smelling the pine needles and the mountain air.

Virginia Fraser on her honeymoon in Yellowstone, 1951.

The next morning, after I’d barely blinked over my bacon and eggs, I found myself in a truck towing a drift boat, headed for the Yellowstone River. The sky was as big and blue as only Montana sky can be. We passed bison lolling in the grass on the way to putting in near Livingston. There, the Yellowstone is wide and swift, with a few eddies below the rocks, where the water smooths like stone and the fish await their lunch.

My plan was to sun myself on the boat and scan the shore for wildlife while Dad fished, but my guide for the day, Rick Reed, had other ideas. Rick — whom I would nickname Rambo — made me practice casting as he blended some New Agey patter about being intuitive with high school football–style coach- ing in pulling, pausing, and pushing. “Let the rod do the work!” he shouted when I was throwing the line like a baseball. He demonstrated how to “mend,” twirling the line to keep it above the strike indicator in the water so it would appear to be a real nymph, floating naturally. I followed his orders: Jump up right! Cast at 1 o’clock! There, by the bank! Mend! Strip! Mend! Recast!

I felt the barest tug on my line. “Set!” Rambo yelled, and I snagged a quivering fish. I started stripping in line slowly, following his directions to keep the pres- sure even and the rod tip up, and landed a thrashing rainbow trout. Rick high-fived me. I couldn’t believe it had worked. I’d actually caught a fish — a big rainbow trout, which wriggled out of my hands before I had a chance to take my trophy photo. I couldn’t wait to cast again.

After that, our peaceful boat ride became thrilling. Every few minutes, I’d cast and feel another tug. I kept pulling them in: a rainbow trout, a whitefish, a brown. “Pretty exciting, huh?” said Rick. We high-fived again. By the end of the day, we’d high-fived 12 times, one for each fish.

Dad, in another boat, had a pretty good day himself. I’d bet his cheeks hurt from smiling. When Rick told him that my technique of “giggling and dropping the line in the water” seemed to work every time, Dad shook his head. “Out- fished by my own daughter.”

As we drove under the wide-open sky back toward Lone Peak, Dad remarked that it had sure been a lousy day. I understood that, in fisherman-speak, he meant any day fishing, or in the wilderness, was a great day. There were just too few of them, and too few big rainbow trout.

Charles Fraser fishing with his daughter, Laura, on the Madison River.