Bridges of the Ruby River

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver1.jpgFor several reasons I watched David Letterman’s final show on May 20th signifying the end of his iconic twenty-two year career as host of the CBS “Late Show” and another ten on NBC’s “Late Night” starting in 1982. For one, his zany humor was always enjoyable. For another, not only are we the same age, but his career spanned about the same number of years that I lived in Montana. In fact, when I first moved to Twin Bridges in 1983 there was no cable or dish TV. On a good night and with the use of “rabbit ears” we might get the signal of two channels bouncing over the mountains from Butte resulting in varying stages of fuzzy static that offered a paltry choice of programs, so often Letterman’s was the only show available to those of us who claim to be night owls.

And after landing a job as a rod wrapper with Winston Rods in 1984 his late night program would be my entertainment as I wrapped guides on as many rods as possible into the wee morning hours in order to be free to fish as much as I could during the daytime. At that time I was fascinated with the nearby Ruby River and went there with regularity wherever I could gain permission to fish on private land or find a public access point - which were sketchy. But maybe the main reason I watched the show was that it was the neighborly thing to do, since Letterman, in a noteworthy twist, bought a ranch on the Upper Ruby River just a few years before I retired. Consequently, as the show that night neared its end, nostalgia set in. Not only did his retirement mark the end of an era for many a Baby Boomer, it was also a formal reminder of the three wonderful decades I lived in Montana that are now over for me as well. More importantly, his sentimental departure prompted a reflection back to those early days on the Ruby. But little did I realize then the impact that the unassuming Ruby River would have on the history of Montana.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver2.jpgNot much was known about the Ruby by the general angling public in the 80s. There was always a “best-kept-secret” aspect of this tailwater gem as it flowed out of the reservoir through forty-some miles of private ranch land until it entered the Beaverhead River near Twin Bridges. The same could be said about the river above the reservoir. After its headwaters pass through National Forest land much of the Upper Ruby winds its way through the mountains and then into a beautiful corridor of willows and private lands and pastures, including Ted Turner’s, until emptying into the reservoir. Back then it was mostly locals who fished the entire river after gaining access from angler friendly landowners, and the excellent fishing reports were intriguing. As it turned out, however, many of the old time Montana ranchers would grant permission to anyone who would kindly ask, local or not. But as these ranchers died or sold out, this kind of access to the Ruby started to fade away. Also there was a growing resentment from longstanding Montanans as a result of the passage of a stream access law in 1985. Although ranchers legally own the water in the river the law allowed for citizens to utilize river corridors by foot or by boat between high water marks for recreational purposes. This law rankled the ranching community because the ranchers deemed this to be a violation of their property rights. But in Montana fish and wildlife constitutionally belong to the public and the court recognized the right of the public to fairly access fish. Subsequently, conflicts arose.

But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that several critical issues on the Ruby came to light, and from that time forward this obscure Montana river would be cast into the national limelight forever. Undoubtedly, after the movie “A River Runs Through It” was released in 1991, a new age of fly anglers was unleashed upon every river flowing through the entire Big Sky State, and the Ruby was no exception. At that same time the entire state was still subject to an unabated drought that had begun in 1985. As a result, the dwindling water supply and the increased number of anglers desiring fishing access created a new age tension between ranchers and sportsmen that had actually started when a section of the Jefferson River was dewatered in 1988. And since the Ruby River is a tributary to the Jefferson watershed it followed that there was a closer scrutiny of water usage throughout the entire drainage with reports that sections of the Ruby were regularly drying up during that period as well, especially in the early spring.

Then, in the fall of 1994 one last push of water from the already depleted Ruby Reservoir resulted in a release of silt that threatened to suffocate trout and bury miles of river below the impoundment in a slug of muck. Sportsmen groups, state agencies, and even concerned ranchers rescued many fish, but emotions between ranchers and sportsmen erupted to an unprecedented level in an on-going battle of finger pointing. And that catastrophe drew the attention of national media. To assuage the situation then Governor Marc Racicot appointed a task force made up of sportsmen, ranchers, and citizens to resolve the water flow crisis on the Ruby, and the result was historic. A watershed council was formed and an agreement was eventually reached with the landowners along the entire river to replace archaic head gates with more efficient water delivery systems partially paid for by the public to allow more water to stay in the river while providing sufficient enough flow for ranching operations. Although this win-win eased the conflict between the ranching and sportsmen communities, that task force revealed another issue simmering and ready to explode as well.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver5.jpgAt the time there was an out-of-state land development corporation openly planning to buy and/or lease as much property and river access along the Ruby as possible. In its brochures this company boasted exclusive members-only access to the entire river that it ultimately intended to privatize. To make matters worse the association’s representative was the modern day equivalent of a snake oil salesman from the Wild West. Since access to the Ruby was already limited, once again sportsmen were outraged, this time by out-of-state “interlopers”. So in 1996 the Governor once again appointed a task force to address this conundrum on the Ruby, and it was my privilege to serve on that committee. The public argued that since it was funding a portion of the new water delivery system, it had the reasonable expectation to access the river. In the end the effort of the task force resulted in a developed access site directly below the reservoir as well as another bought and paid for by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) with fishing license funds a mile below that. Then FWP negotiated several lease agreements for developed public access sites with three local ranchers to be renewed every five years. The important final component of this resolution, though, was the decision of the Attorney General at the time to issue a legally binding opinion that the public had the right to access any river at every bridge crossing below the high water mark throughout the entire state. In 2009 this opinion became law to the objection of many new age landowners, and once again the Ruby River stood out in the middle of the hard fought process.

Over time there have been several legal challenges to the stream access law in general, but none have been more contentious than the attempts to overturn access at the bridges. The latest challenge that went down to defeat in the Montana Supreme Court in 2014 was launched by wealthy out-of-state landowner Jim Kennedy. His Ruby River property is bookended by two bridges just south of Twin Bridges. Ignoring the fact that most of his stream and property improvements were made possible only by the efforts of public funding to maintain a viable in-stream year round flow, Kennedy has made it clear that the public has no right to access the river at the bridges bordering his property. In sharp contrast a few years back out-of-state landowner Craig Woodson bequeathed his reclaimed section of land and river to the Ruby River Habitat Foundation that allows for managed fishing access on the property. In fact, Craig believed that the Ruby is too precious not to share in some way with the public. Indeed, the tale of two neighbors.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_rubyriver3.jpgThe story of the Ruby River should never be forgotten. It has been the lightening rod for in-stream flow and the beacon for unprecedented public access that serves as an example for the rest of the Western states. Thanks to the tireless efforts of FWP, Public Lands and Water Access Association (PLWAA), Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU), the Lewis and Clark and George Grant Chapters of TU, various watershed, ranching and sportsman groups, the Ruby thrives today as both an ecosystem and a blue ribbon fishery.

And as the “Late Show” tribute concluded on May 20th who would have thought as I was wrapping rods watching David Letterman when his career began in the mid-80s that he would one day become another page in Ruby River lore. In my reverie I could only hope that he truly does appreciate the significance of the river that proudly flows under the bridges of time and through his piece of Montana.

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a1sx2_Thumbnail1_carpediem1.jpgI learned many Junes ago when high, discolored runoff was peaking throughout Montana, a fishing trip back East always seemed like an alluring alternative. Although this plan meant missing out on Big Hole salmon flies or Henry’s Fork green drakes for the season, the conditions in the East were prime at that time of year for a variety of angling opportunities, and a long road trip always resulted in many exciting adventures. From New York to Maine to Newfoundland, the drive never seemed too far -until it was time to return. But often the most exciting fishing prospects were the ones close to my childhood home on Grand Island in Western New York. From trout in local streams to bass in the Niagara River, there was never a lack of places to go or fish to catch. And before life drastically changed for me a decade ago, even carp became a sought after prize. But now that the dust has settled a bit, including a move back East, the time seemed right to reconnect to those days I left behind.

Getting out of the truck in the parking area overlooking the Upper Niagara River a few weekends ago I realized that it had been nine years since I last stood in that very spot. Gazing at the river flowing serenely beneath a June-blue afternoon sky several miles before the vast volume of water makes a turbulent tumble over the world famous Falls, I appreciated that it was indeed rare to return to a place that looks very much the same as it did when I was a kid sixty years ago. Appearing more like a lake than a river, the Niagara’s current is deceptive, but these days the water is crystal clear as well as much cleaner and healthier than in my youth. Back then cousin Paul and I would catch the occasional smallmouth or northern carefully casting lures so as to avoid hooking dead fish floating by in varying stages of fungal rot. And in June we were always fascinated with the large numbers of huge carp flopping around the shoreline in a swill of stinky water and slimy algae. Although we tried to hook them on worm or lure, the effort was often thwarted by snagged dorsal fins resulting in the complete obliteration of our wimpy Zebco outfits as Volkswagon-size fish screamed straight toward Canada. Back then, we didn’t know much better.

For many Junes that followed I would wade the shoreline of the Niagara in search of smallmouth bass while disregarding the prodigious population of plump carp prowling the shallows in a frenzy of spawning and feeding activity that was quite the spectacle. Apparently these fish have been doing this ever since they were introduced from Europe and long before I was a kid in the 50s, but remained mostly ignored by anglers- as is often the case with carp. At one point, however, it occurred to me that since the knee-deep water along the shore no longer resembled a flowing cesspool, maybe fly-fishing for these behemoths would be a logical consideration. At the very least, I figured, the challenge should be good practice for my next bonefish trip. But it wasn’t until a dozen years ago that I finally made the leap into the kingdom of carp thanks to a local fly angler known to everyone in the area as “Coach.”

It seems that Coach is a Buffalo legend noted for his dedication to the pursuit of carp and his relentless effort to elevate this piscatorial porker to the well-deserved status of sportfish worthy of its porcine-like size. Until his retirement, Chris “Coach” Garcea was a physical education teacher and swim coach at a nearby high school, and on the nice guy scale, he is a ten. I met him about fifteen years ago at the Oak Orchard Fly Shop in Buffalo. Although Coach loves fishing for Lake Erie steelhead in the fall, he devotes six weeks every May and June to the sole purpose of stalking carp. And while many of the other local fly anglers are chasing Atlantic salmon in Quebec, striped bass in New England, smallmouth on the river and Lake Erie, or trout in area streams or even the Catskills, the Coach’s singular commitment to these Great Lake’s goliaths is unwavering. He has developed flies, tactics, and techniques based upon all the subtle nuances it takes to understand this particular species of fish. So when Coach offered to take me to his favorite spot on the Canadian shoreline of Lake Erie in 2003, I jumped at the opportunity. And after an entire day and an exhaustive effort of casting to a cadre of innumerable finicky carp, the lesson paid off with a few chunky fish. Coach is truly a guru. Thus, armed with that knowledge and a few of Coach’s flies, I finally caught my first ever carp in the Niagara River a week later, along with a few more the year after that. But unfortunately those days were short-lived as time then slipped away.

a1sx2_Thumbnail1_carpediem2.jpgStanding at the tailgate of my pickup while stringing up the rod amidst a barrage of random memories and solemn thoughts, I prepared for smallmouth bass, but listened for the familiar wallowing and splashing that would indicate the presence of my long lost quarry. Unlike so many other occasions in the past, however, this time I would be ready for any carp encounter. But just before heading to the water, a vehicle pulled into the lot and out stepped a familiar face.

“Is that Coach?” I yelled across the blacktop and added, “I can’t believe it!”

Shaking hands and laughing about the chance meeting, we then caught up on the many years that have passed much too quickly. After telling him I was just reflecting upon that day we spent on Lake Erie and how it barely seemed like yesterday, I thanked him again for sharing his enthusiasm for carp with me. In turn, he thanked me for alerting him to the carp fishing along the shore of Grand Island. In fact, he said, it saves him from going to Canada as often. I suppose telling the border guard that one is entering their country to go carp fishing could raise a cloud of suspicion in this heightened era of security, so why take the unnecessary chance. Coach then told me he was on a scouting mission that day to get ready for the annual Carp-O-Rama tournament that would be taking place the following morning.

Nick Pionessa, the manager of Oak Orchard Fly Shop, founded the Carp-O-Rama event ten years ago to promote the joy of carp fishing as inspired by Coach. It is an informal gathering that concludes a day of carp capers with beer, barbeque, and fish stories for all those who participate. A uniquely odd carp wind chime is first place prize for the longest fish of the day as measured and determined by the honor system. The winner then gets to hang the chime at his or her house house until the following year. My brother Rick usually takes part in the festivities and notes that a good time is always had by all. When Coach asked if we were going to be there, I told him that Rick and I had intended to go out for musky in a small lake an hour away the next day, but added that all plans could change due to the stormy weather system approaching the area. Before going our separate ways, though, Coach encouraged me to show up for Carp-O-Rama, and also invited me to join him and another mutual friend for a day or two of steelhead fishing in the fall. Hopefully we will make that happen. After his departure, by the way, the carp I eventually found that sunny afternoon never even looked at my fly.

Next day the weather was as crappy as predicted, so Rick and I weighed our options – Carp-O-Rama or musky? We concluded that the bad weather would likely have less of an impact if we stuck to the musky plans, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. While the toothy predators went AWOL during the storm, we were told that Carp-O-Rama was the best one ever. It seemed that the hulky critters liked taking flies in the rain and many were caught. In fitting tribute to the tenth anniversary of Carp-O-Rama Nick caught the longest one of the 2015 event.

As it turned out, Rick and I should have “seized the day” on the Niagara. But instead of carp-e diem, for us it was crap-e diem. The coincidental meeting with Coach the day before was the foretelling omen we should have heeded.

In the end we learned that trying to out think Mother Nature is one thing, but ignoring the Cosmos is another.

To make matters worse, according to Nick, this was likely the last year for Carp-O-Rama. So unfortunately for Rick and me, next year is not an option either.
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The Pursuit of Permit

Permit FishThere are probably easier ways to catch permit than moving to the remote tropics to pursue them, but then again I have never heard it said that catching a permit is remotely easy. I recently read an article about a guy who spent over nine thousand dollars on guide services before he accomplished the feat. Then there is a local angler here who finally got one after thirty years of trying. But that is not to say it can't be done more reasonably either. Several friends of mine have landed permit here and there in the process of searching the flats for bonefish. There is even talk of an angler who came to this area a few years back and caught eight in one week just poking around on his own. The story goes that he has been down several times since and hasn't seen another. And on the wall at Sweetgrass Rods hangs a permit caught by my partner Glenn in the 60s while fishing the Florida Keys. It was one of the first known of the species to actually be taken on a fly - quite a significant accomplishment when one considers there are no "silver bullet" methods yet discovered that makes them easier to hook fifty years later.

Referred to as the "ghost of the flat" the permit is a saucer shaped silver dynamo with big eyes, thinly forked tail, a skinny dorsel fin, and a heightened sense of sight and smell. Long revered as one of the most difficult to catch fish that frequent the Caribbean flats, it is precisely this trait that has attracted a quirky brand of angler seeking the ultimate fly fishing challenge. This cunning quarry is wary, tricky to approach, and loathe to take even the most well presented fly, which is usually some sort of creative crab pattern. There are really no secrets to catching a permit either. It is more a matter of persistence, stealth, and seeking out as many opportunities as possible to get it right.

Dan Blanton wrote an article a decade ago entitled "In Pursuit of Permit" that honored Del Brown, arguably the most dedicated permit fly angler ever. Del fished saltwater at least one hundred days per year, sixty of them were spent chasing permit. At one point he set a goal of catching 500 before he died. By the time he passed in 2003 when he was in his eighties Del had landed 513 permit. This incredible number represents an astounding commitment of time, money, and energy. But more than anything it is also a testamonial of one man's singular drive to attain a goal that most people on the planet could never appreciate, let alone understand - perhaps, in fact, the fly fishing equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. The practical knowledge he shared over the years about fly fishing for this phantom has been invaluable to others smitten with the same passion to chase them. In the end, however, it was his intuitive mastery of the total process, as if becoming one with the fish, that was most impressive. When an angler once asked Del how close should the fly be presented when one encounters a permit, Del's Zen-like response was, "Just close enough."

In my life it was the obsession to catch a bull trout in the 70s that fueled a magical journey eventually leading to where I am now, so I could relate to Del's quest to a certain degree. I was also led astray and steered in another direction in the 80s by our Twin Bridges' resident physician Dr. Bruce Beithon after he shared with me the goal he had once set for himself to catch one hundred steelhead on a fly rod, a feat he eventually did make happen on Idaho's Salmon and Clearwater Rivers. I was so impressed with Doc's story that it compelled me to take a steelhead detour myself for twenty years down a road that led around the Great Lakes, up and down the West Coast, and even over to Russia. And somewhere in there I also got distracted by my childhood dream of catching an Atlantic salmon which consequently resulted in nine very long drives from Montana to Canada's maritime provinces to satisfy that urge. So after reading about Del Brown's monumental sojourn my interest was piqued. Not that his achievement could be duplicated in anyway, but one last fish-quest in my declining years would only seem appropriate for a guy who defined a major portion of life by chasing one species of fish or another with a fly rod. The goal was simple, and it was to catch just one permit.

It has been said that fly fishing is a metaphor for life, but I have read where some ridicule this very notion. The same consideration, however, could also be applied to life-long passions like exploring continents, seeking lost treasures, sailing the oceans, climbing mountains, or engaging in any other all-consuming venture that would define one's existence in a unique way. Although there are those who may deem these options as a frivolous avoidance of life's necessities, at the very core these driven pursuits actually symbolize the essence of what life is all about on many levels, and these lifestyles should serve to inspire us all. It is in the pushing, the striving, the seeking, the reaching for but never quite attaining quality of the path less followed that potentially leads to success, even if it is only in one's mind, while just possibly nurturing a state of peace and contentment in the process. On the other hand, I suppose, one could just choose to be a couch potato or any equivalent. As for me it has been fly fishing and all its related side roads. And in the pursuit of a permit, I have found, it is more a metaphor for life than anyone could imagine.

According to Del Brown, one of the most important ingredients for permit success is opportunity, the implication being that practice makes perfect. In Mexico and Belize there are a number of guide services and lodges that specialize in tracking down permit. The guides know where to look, so they can buzz their pangas from one flat to another covering many miles with the hope of finding numerous opportunities. I booked such a trip to Belize a few years back and for the first two days my fishing partner and I were fortunate to encounter enough permit to work out all the kinks. We considered that practice. So by day three we were brimming with the confidence of a grade A student taking a math exam. But as bad luck would have it, stormy weather blew in for the rest of the trip making it impossible to find fish. Consequently, the remaining six days were a monumental lesson in saltwater frustration. We were so close to making it happen. Yet like many other aspects of life, success is not only a matter of much effort, it is also dependent upon good fortune as well.

I migrated to the tropics as a grand experiment to see if there was one last adventure left in me. I also figured that the move would provide another chance to accomplish my goal of catching one permit before I die, but to do so on my own terms. After the Belize trip busted years ago, it was time to make amends. And without the aid of a boat, it would require miles and miles of walking in order to accumulate enough opportunities to even have a decent shot. I know it can be done because my young friend from Montana had the same goal. Matt Boland finally landed a permit in May on the flat in front of the house after months of looking. Earlier this year I met a fit and trim fly tier from Germany who spent four months fishing afoot every day and he landed a few - his best year in a decade of trying. For me, I keep searching, but the drive and endurance to do what it takes at my age are very much diminished.

It is not that I haven't had a chance. While fishing with Matt this past June we did intercept at least two tailing permit on a far off marl break. Since Matt had recently landed the aforementioned permit, he graciously deferred the honor of stalking them to me. It was a thrill to actually have a legitimate opportunity. And after making a stealthy sneak, a good cast in the vicinity of the circling tails resulted in one of the normally elusive fish swimming over, picking up the crab pattern, and bolting for the reef. Unfortunately, it only took one run before the fly came undone, leaving me heartbroken - but hopeful. So close again. Since then the opportunities have been scant, chasing tails in the distance...but never quite catching up with them.

In the pursuit of permit I have learned that at a certain age maybe some goals are just unattainable. I have also learned that at a certain age maybe one has to face his limitations, and living in the tropics might be one of them. Pondering life, as I often do, I walked out on the flat yesterday, and there they were - two permit tailing right in front of me. It was almost spiritual. In what seemed like a set up for a storybook ending, I was able to slowly creep into perfect position. Then I readied both the rod and the fly. The first cast wasn't quite far enough. And after calmly retrieving the crab pattern, I steadied again. On the second cast the fly dropped, but this time it was apparently too close and both fish retreated into deeper water. Then they disappeared completely. Hmm, I thought, as I recalled Del Brown's advice to cast the fly, "Just close enough." I guess that sage tidbit will make more sense the day I hear the sound of one hand clapping. Until then, I will have to be content with knowing that I was once again so close, but not quite close enough. Sometimes that's life in a nutshell. And as the curtain falls on my tropic days, I can at least say I gave it my best shot.

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Jerry Thanks for letting us share the dream. I still remember the first time I asked Gelnn about the permit. We all miss seein... Read More
Monday, 13 October 2014 17:18
Kathy Scott
Great read; looking forward to the next.
Friday, 07 November 2014 17:38
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Fishing Buddies

Norm ZeiglerEvery time Norm phoned he would begin the conversation with the question, "How's Montana's Greatest Fly Fisherman?" This was his traditional salutation for years. After answering back with something like, "Only in my own mind, Norm," or some other lame response of feigned humility, I always asked in return "What's the Snook Meister up to?" To which he usually replied "Wishin' I was in Montana!" before qualifying his quip with a few stories of recent snook conquests. I wouldn't expect anything less, I'd tell him, from the guy who wrote the book on snook. Back and forth the banter regularly flowed from Montana trout tales to varied fish encounters in the waters near Sanibel, Florida, each of us vicariously reveling in the other's deemed far off ventures.

Norm Zeigler owns a fly shop on Sanibel Island and he did write the definitive book about fly fishing for snook entitled Snook on a Fly. As a former outdoor editor for the country's armed forces newspaper Stars and Stripes based in Germany, writing about fly fishing throughout Europe and subsequently North America has not only been Norm's profession, but also his lifeblood. After early retirement from the paper Norm moved to Florida in the late 90s where he continued to write for numerous publications only to eventually open a retail business on Sanibel for wayward saltwater fly anglers. But several times throughout the year Norm still flies to Montana to visit his Mom who lives on the shore of the Beaverhead River in the town of Dillon. This convenient arrangement also provides him the opportunity to fish for the trout he cherishes in the state he truly loves. We met on one of those trips over a decade ago and have been friends ever since. Maybe even more significantly, we have become fishing buddies.

I am a solitary angler and usually prefer to fish alone, but not always. For nearly 50 years my brother and I have routinely fished together throughout the continent, and our angling expeditions are too numerous to recall. We always fish as one, sharing information to the benefit of our team effort. It is the bond that we have nurtured throughout a lifetime of memories, however, that is most important, and I sometimes wonder if two brothers have ever fished so much together anywhere.

Also I fish with my business partner and friend Glenn Brackett, but when we do he customarily goes off in one direction and I go in another. And when it is time to depart for the day we both return to the vehicle at precisely the same time without ever looking at a watch. Then on the ride home we rarely talk about the fishing other than agreeing that it was a good day to be on the water. For us it is sort of a Zen thing, an opportunity to be in the moment in the spirit of peace and goodwill.

And during my recent stay in the tropics I have partnered up with a fellow young enough to be my son. Despite the generational gap that separates us, Matt and I are both looking for the same thing, but I am not really sure what that is. It does have something to do with understanding saltwater fishing on our own terms, though we each would agree that it is difficult to quantify exactly what we have learned so far. Because Matt grew up fishing in Montana, we have a lot in common and that helps us assess our current situation. I admire the fact that he has committed a year to this venture. In the end though I can't appreciate enough that he has my back in this remote corner of Mexico.

Then there is Norm. Not only do we share the same passion for fly fishing, but we also enjoy peering into looking glass of life through the prism of a fly rod. It's the nuances of the sport from the oneness with nature to the thrill of the chase that connect us also. Additionally we are equally dedicated to the conservation of water resources throughout the country, and we regularly chat on the phone or email each other about the highs and lows of our ongoing fishing exploits including any environmental issue that threatens to impact fisheries we each know and care about. And when it came time for Norm to visit Montana, I would scout out all the hot spots appropriate for the season of the year to assure reasonable fishing opportunities throughout his stay. In return he would do the same when I occasionally showed up on his doorstep in Florida. This is what fishing buddies do.

So when I told Norm I was retiring and moving from Montana to Mexico, he was more shocked than if the moon exploded. And I have to say if there are any regrets about leaving Montana it is in the sad reality that there will be no more days on the water with Norm in the near future. Although I have assured him that we would get together there once again, we both know it won't be for a while. Until then we will reminisce about glistening autumn cutthroat reflecting the spectacular fall colors of the upper Ruby River, or recall the free rising grayling as they dimpled a very special pool on the upper Big Hole. Then there is the memorable Mother's Day caddis extravaganza on the Beaverhead, or the magical discovery of new water on beautiful Big Sheep Creek, or the big rainbows on a snowy, windblown Clark Canyon Reservoir, or the 105 degree day on the Kootenai and its dry fly redbands, or so many other experiences in our memory banks still waiting to be jarred by our collective consciousness. Recently Norm reminded me of the wonderful spring day we shared wading my favorite side channel of the Big Hole River where he caught a 23" brown trout while recovering from an operation and how that outing really uplifted his spirit. I could say the same thing to him about the days we fished together as I struggled after my wife passed away and how meaningful they were to me. And no matter how either of us felt at the time, we always enjoyed the cold hot dog sandwiches and rich chocolate brownies prepared by his mother Jan. She didn't want us "boys" to starve while on any of our adventures.

The Zeigler SchminnowOf all our remembrances there is one story Norm will never let me live down. This time we were looking for snook off one of the beaches on Sanibel Island. It should be noted that Norm is the creator of the well known very effective white fly he calls the "schminnow" which has accounted for more than a fair share of snook on Florida's west coast. Of course I had one tied on when we spotted a beauty creeping up the shoreline, but as is my custom in saltwater fishing I blew my one shot at it. After that Norm was noticeably dismayed when he saw me exchanging my schminnow for a Clouser's minnow. He just shook his head as I sheepishly explained that I needed a mojo adjustment. In mid change, however, another snook came sauntering along the shoreline. Although Norm urged me to try once again I told him to go for it since I wasn't quite ready. Of course it took Norm just one cast to hook the fish on his famous fly. After landing the 31" snook he looked at me with great disappointment and said, "You should have been using the schminnow." We both laugh about it now, but my blunder wasn't so funny then.

So the other day I was in a canoe on the local lagoon when a snook came moseying by. I had a popper on and cast it into its line of sight. Pop. Pop. The snook came up, looked at the fly, spooked, and then headed for the mangroves. Again Norm's words came to life and echoed through my memory, "You should have been using the schminnow."

Afterwards I emailed Norm and regaled my most recent blunder and implied that it will be quite a while before I become "Mexico's Greatest Fly Fisherman." He concluded his consoling response by saying he would tie a few schminnows and mail them to me as soon as he could.

Now that's a fishing buddy!

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The first time I visited Norm was the first time I tried fishing for snook. He gave me a couple of pointers and a few schminnows a... Read More
Wednesday, 27 August 2014 00:43
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Chetumal Bay, Mexico with Sweetgrass RodsOn a distant beach road at the very point where paradise begins far from the last vestige of modern civilization sits Costa de Coco's. Located on the Caribbean near the Mayan village of Xcalak at the very southern reach of the Yucatan Peninsula it is a pilapa style bar and restaurant complete with thatch roof accompanied by several nearby thatched cabins for lodging. After catering to scores of fly fisherman for over a couple decades the establishment is a bit tattered around the edges, but that is the essential charm of basking in its ambiance. Owner Dave Randall "found his beach" in the late eighties and has led a lifestyle ever since that many only dream of when watching a Corona beer commercial or longing for the day when they themselves can slip into the oblivion of a simple existence on the edge of nowhere - or rather a creative somewhere so far from anywhere that one can truly meld into the vastness of the open sea as it hastens a mystical renewal to burdened spirits and wayward souls.

A good night at Coco's is gazing at the ocean, sipping a margarita, and watching a bonefish swim by on the flat out front. A bad night at Coco's is gazing at the ocean, sipping a margarita, and seeing no bonefish at all. And while Sirius FM plays an array of musical nostalgia sung by artists like Jackson Browne, Gordon Lightfoot, or the Beatles through the softly lit background, one may drift into the reverie of catching an ephemeral glimpse of Papa Hemingway or even my hero Joe Brookes sitting at the bar reminiscing about the pioneer days of saltwater sportfishing while nursing a nightcap in anticipation of yet another day at sea. Instead in reality there is often a handful of knowledgeable anglers eager to share their stories, secrets, and even flies as they look forward to another day on the water in search of bonefish, permit, barracuda, and tarpon. This is a laidback atmosphere befitting of the tropical experience many serious fly anglers seek - myself included. And while the music sets the mood that stimulates many reflections from the past, a mind can effortlessly slide from thoughts of fishing to matters of uncertainty.

It has been a year since I left Montana and I often wonder what the hell I was thinking. I love the Big Sky State and its people. I love the rivers and the trout. I love building bamboo rods and all the friends I have met as a result. But still there was something missing, and a path that had yet to be followed defined this something. I always wanted to do more saltwater fishing, but this was a difficult task when living in Montana. Sure, booking a guide, being chauffeured to find fish, and subsequently being told where to place a fly has its merits, but learning the nitty gritty aspects about saltwater fly fishing without a guide and without leaving after spending a week in the sun was actually what I have longed for the most. But, I have to now ask myself, was giving up everything and risking it all to find my own beach at end-of-the-road Mexico worth it? At this point I really don't know. But when I heard Jimmy Buffet's classic tune "Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude" playing on the radio at Coco's the other night, I was struck by a bolt of perspective. Life is too short, as I learned with my wife's passing, so when a path beckons - one should follow it.

Thus here I am, living on the Caribbean staring at the Mexican equivalent of Montana's Big Sky splendor. But so far what I have learned about saltwater fly-fishing could be written on a matchbook cover. Some info has come from other anglers. Some insight has been garnered from the guides at Coco's. Whatever else has been gleaned from sweating it out on any piece of water that looks good. The one thing I do know for certain is that catching bonefish on a bamboo rod is sublime. But other than that, being in the right spot at the right time on the right tide for the right fish with the right fly and the right rod is ultimately difficult. And more times than I would like, I have found that it doesn't hurt to be extremely lucky. Unquestionably it is exciting though to hack away here and there just like days of old when I learned to catch Montana's trout back in the 70s one fish at a time, one river at a time. At this point in life it is fun just to be challenged once again.

Perhaps the most intriguing tidbit I have discovered in my first few months of being here is that heavily pursued bonefish can be as testy as the most seasoned spring creek brown trout. For example, there is a nice bone that shows up on the much fished flat out front of my home every time the tide gets to a certain depth before ten in the morning or again after six in the evening. However, the timing of these tides is irregular at best, and also very difficult to predict. This particular fish feeds in the turtle grass about three feet from shore and it has become my nemesis. Numerous times I have tried to stalk it with no success. I saw it again this morning while drinking my morning coffee.

It should be noted that when it comes to saltwater the number of variables that can go wrong for me, and often do, are too many to list. Despite this fact every now and then I have been able to get my act together enough to deliver a few casts to this fish before the fly tangles in the wind or hangs up on the thick carpet of underwater grass signaling an alert that causes it to swim casually back to deeper water. But this morning I was ready for the opportunity presented once again. The rod was on the porch and the attached fly was the perfect size and weight. I put the coffee down, snuck out the door, and by the time I readied for a cast, the crafty bonefish was gone even before the fly hit the water. No way! This fish has taunted me for months. I swear it heard the cup clunk on the table and my footsteps tip-toeing in the sand. I am convinced it can sense what I am thinking. Even with my stealthy Sweetgrass Rod in hand this fish is not impressed. At this point I am considering calling a truce and maybe giving it a name....Joe, Carl, or even Bob to honor an old friend Bonefish Bob. Sometimes you have to be lucky, but sometimes you have to know when to quit. For sure, the next time I see "Bob" I'll sit back, relax, gaze at the ocean, and just enjoy another gulp of Mexican shade grown. Or better yet, sip on a margarita.

Like I have learned at Coco's. Down here, it's all good.

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