Featured Fish TaleFrom A Wisp in the Wind by Jerry Kustich

There's nothing more uplifting than an outing on the river, especially when all routine affairs have been put to rest beforehand and the only care in the world, at least for the day, is your choice of a fly.  Such was the case when, with great expectations, I approached the Bitterroot River on what promised to be a splendid morning for late March.  According to the angling grapevine, the hatch was on - though it is higly questionable what that assessment actually means.  The skwala is a medium-sized, dark green colored stonefly which has stirred quite an early season fervor of interest around the land amongst those who fly fish, particularly throughout the nineties.  This unique phenomenon occurs in fishable numbers on some rivers of Western Montana from mid March through early April.  The size eight skwala, as it is commonly acknowledged, emerges on the quiet edges of slow moving water and the drifts for great distances upon the surface, often sitting still as a stick.  The fish love them.  Even when there are only a few around, once the trout have developed their early season appetite for these mouthful morsels, attractor patterns will bring many fish to the surface for those anglers willing to pound the water with a stimulator or other favorite imitations. 

On this particularly fine day I had worked my way up the river a good mile from the public access point below Hamilton.  The thin layer of clouds flattened the existing sunlight while muted shadows breathed a warmth more associated with mid April.  As late morning ushered an increase in air temperature, the first skwala floated by - and without fail, a hungry trout intercepted it along the way.  It should be noted that the fish in the Bitterroot aren't dumb; so even a well placed imitation doesn't always produce a rise.  But on this morning several trout were willing to give serious consideration to what I had to offer.  All was good!  That is, until a sudden realization hit me.  At that exact moment of cranial registration, the same flash hit the pit of my stomach like a bad-baloney sandwich. 

I am a law abiding citizen, and that has always been the case.  I am sure this has as much to do with nurturing as anything else.  In my family there has never been any option other than doing the right thing.  Another explanation, I suppose, was my religion.  As a former Catholic I was born with a propensity for guilt.  This compulsive leaning may be due to a genetic predilection coming from a long line of believers molded in that persuasion.  It is hard to describe guilt.  More like an eternal nagging than an emotion, the beauty of guilt likes in the fact that it makes folks very uncomfortable - so unpleasant, in fact, that it forces them to be good even if they don't want to be.  Thanks to this affliction, looking over my shoulder even when there is no apparent reason has always been a part of my make up.  It's like waiting for a great eternal shoe to drop in judgment of something you are sue you did, but you don't know what.  The Kafkaesque cloud of uncertainty keeps many religions in business.  The inner gnawing, like a mouse in the wall, lies just below the surface in wait of something to be truly concerned about.

In Montana everybody's fishing license expires on February 28th, unless, of course, it is leap year.  I even made the effort in 1992 to catch a few fish in the Yellowstone River on the 29th of February just for the novelty of it.  The added pleasure of squeezing the last extra drop out of this official document was especially satisfying.  Normally, being compelled to do the right thing leads me straight to the local convenience store on the morning of March 1st to purchase the permit for another year.  But it was pushing late March that day on the Bitterroot, and I had already been fishing several times during the month.  So when the awareness struck in an instant of mindless lucidity that the ritual to renew my fishing license for the present season was irresponsibly neglected earlier in the month, pleasure turned into pure panic.  Then, instant paranoia.  A that moment I was sure that the aforementioned cosmic shoe would drop in the form of a lightning bolt.  Immediately, I was convinced that somehow the local warden had already figured out my scheme.  That inner gnawing had me mired in the belief that the trap had already been set to bring me to justice, to mete out retribution commensurate to the scum-sucking lowlife I had instantaneously become.  For sure, the verdict would read: BANISHED FROM ALL RIVERS FOR LIFE.  And guilt, in the religious sense, does not discriminate between innocent civil slip-ups or blatant moral blunders.  It is bad enough to fish part of a day without a license, that may even be excusable, but to get away with it for a while month catapulted me into the realm of shamelessness that even a few thousand Hail Marys couldn't rectify.  Staying out of jail was one thing, staying out of hell was altogether another. 

On top of it my dread of game wardens is not without foundation.  It dates back to a story I once read by Patrick McManus many years ago.  Where he grew up in Northern Idaho lived the legendary warden, Darcy Sneed.  It seemed Sneed had this built-in radar which was able to detect any violator perpetrating any type of wildlife crime in his jurisdiction at any time, day or night.  As a youth, McManus indicated he couldn't get away with anything without Sneed knowing about it.  The guy had an uncanny omnipresence which prompted many to theorize there were actually several Sneeds based upon multiple, simultaneous sighting on any given day.  This is the kind of story a person with a guilt tempered background shouldn't be reading. 

My fear was further fortified by first hand horror stories of folks throughout the West who knew of some poor citizen getting nabbed for a violation of inadvertent negligence.  In fact, you'd never even hear of anyone who was caught actually doing something really bad like possessing too many deer or lugging away a cooler full of fish, but tales about the sorry soul who forgot to pinch the barb on his fly or something similarly innocuous were rampant.  To add to the anxiety, at one point in my career I had been checked on the stream at least twenty times in several states.  In fact, once on White Sand Creek in central Idaho, two conservation officers crashed through the bush like a couple of grizzlies in a bacon factory to surround me while I was casting flies to small cutthroats.  With guns drawn they came at me from two directions, and after asking a few questions, they left me there to "enjoy" the rest of the day. In all other instances, I came up clean too, but for years afterwards I had a permanent crimp in my neck from always checking my backside.

The first reaction to my reversal of fortune on the Bitterroot that day was to jump into the high grass and lie prone until dark.  But damn, the fishing was too good to blow off the rest of the afternoon.  Although continuing on wasn't even a consideration, I figured a low profile route back to the parking area would be the only wise alternative.  So with visions of Sneed dancing through my head, I took a dewatered side channel that led to a little bigger channel.  Wading knee deep downstream, the use of some rip rap along the bank completely blocked this clandestine withdrawal from general view.  For the final five hundred yards I ducked behind cottonwoods and crawled through willows until, at last, I was sitting in the front seat of my rig.  Although I didn't notice until later that the tip of my favorite bamboo rod broke in the process of my stealthy retreat, I just wrote it off as a form of penance for my unforgivable faux pas.  But before heading down to the convenience store to buy a license, I dug into my lunch.  Such enough, though it shouldn't have been much of a surprise, the local warden drove through the parking area shortly after my first bite.  As his rig circled the fishing access site and then rolled on by, I slid down in my seat with a mouthful of sandwich tucked firmly against my uvula. 


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