“Fishing a Watershed” is excerpted from THE SEARCH FOR THE GENUINE © 2022 by James T. Harrison Trust. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Eight years ago I quit teaching forever. My swan song at the State University of New York at Stony Brook was the administering of a twenty-five-grand international poetry festival with over one hundred poets in attendance for a number of days. As might be expected, it was the sort of bombazine booze gala that tends to wound and petrify, mixed in with camaraderie, adulteries, fistfights, and general good spirits; the aftermath produced a kind of terrifying cultural exhaustion in me that I’m not sure I’m over yet.
Two weeks later—in the interim I moved to northern Michigan—I stood on the spine of a ridge some eleven thousand feet above sea level in the Absaroka mountains of Montana. Aside from the beauty, it was an acrophobic nightmare with visibility approaching the hundred-mile mark: to the north, the Crazy Mountains, and to the west, the Gallatin Range. Far to the south, peeking over the top of Yellowstone Park, there was a hint of the Tetons. At my feet a snowbank was melting into rivulets in two directions downward: one rivulet toward the Yellowstone and the other toward the Boulder River. It was an eerie moment, laden with vertigo and stoked with as much religiosity as I have ever mustered. It was merely the earth in pretty much the same state as we found it.
In my following eight annual visits to Livingston, Montana, I’ve never again quite matched that sense of seeing the world as do big birds and God. But this is mostly because I’m so involved with fishing the rivers of the valleys. To be honest, I also find mountain climbing and backpacking needlessly exhausting, a form of outdoor masochism engaged in and deserved by the young.
On that first trip a rancher friend of Tom McGuane took the three of us, including Dan Gerber, along on an expedition to check out his hunting camps. We rode horses for two hundred miles and saw only one other human, a lunatic forest ranger who scared me senseless with tales of recalcitrant grizzlies. My ass turned raw and plum colored. I favor only looking at horses, knowing that if God wanted something on their backs he would have grown it there.
The wilderness fishing that mountains offer requires no true finesse—the trout are willing virgins that any clown can catch—compared to the subtleties of dry-fly fishing for brown trout in the valleys. The real added onus to this current rage for backpacking is the freeze-dried food—tasteless bilge that only the most redoubtable nature freak or hippy could enjoy. One time in the mountains I caught seventy-five trout on fly in an afternoon, and this experience reduced fishing to something akin to a yo-yo tournament.
As a fisherman I have always been fascinated by the idea of a watershed. This might be partly because my father was a professional conservationist, and early in my life the word “watershed” had an air of strangeness to it. In the western part of the United States the terrain is topographically a great deal more obvious than in the east. In Michigan you have to be in a plane to sense how a river system is formed. In the West the watery courses that form the great Missouri watershed are as lucid and transparent on the map as those of the Amazon basin. By mute fact of gravity every single raindrop tends one way or another.
Montana is a spectacular casebook for the births of rivers. The history of geological upheavals is such that within an hour’s driving of Livingston you can find a half dozen fine trout rivers and an equal number of splendid spring creeks, those mysterious water courses that emerge from the earth nearly whole. The negative aspect of the watershed is, of course, the fact that any of our foulness—any impurities we produce—ends up in our watershed system. But Montana has little industry and an extremely slight population density, though trout rivers are readily destroyed by dams, both necessary and otherwise.
Just south of Livingston the canyon walls of the Yellowstone narrow to a few hundred yards; beyond this aperture you can see the whole broadening sweep of the canyon sixty miles south to where it narrows at Gardiner. This part of the watershed forms my favorite trout river on earth, though many favor the broader stretches from Livingston to Big Timber, after the waters of the Shields River have joined the Yellowstone.
Coming out of Livingston I often squint my eyes in a Cézanne effect to render out everything man-made. After the Civil War, the Story and Shorthill families pastured remudas of thousands of horses here. Before that, such illustrious names as Jim Bridger and Lewis and Clark passed through. At the far end, Chief Joseph paused in a doomed flight from the cavalry. In a dry creek bed near his ranch, McGuane found the silver snuffbox of an eighteenth-century Austrian explorer.
But the river itself, sometimes flowing placidly above great pools, sometimes hurtling over rocks in the narrows. It is superb for brown-trout fishing, particularly for the “headhunter”—one trying to catch a brown over four pounds on fly. Many fishermen, especially those from the East, prefer the confined waters of either Armstrong or Nelson’s Spring Creeks, both emptying into the Yellowstone.
Oddly, and one learns it very slowly, purist fishermen are among the great bores of the world. They see with a pointillist’s vision, similar to the professional dieter, the habitual dope smoker, the tennis fanatic, the granola muncher who forces their new crop of blanched alfalfa sprouts onto your plate. Or the hard-core Manhattan business drunk. You get the same shot of torpor from big-game fishermen who don’t actually know anything about the ocean and from wing shooters who are ignorant of their prey. “Ecosystem” has become a profoundly homely word from misuse. It quickens again if you add the whole humanist notion, our own survival, preferably in a state of grace, along with other creatures who don’t know we are trying to speak for them.
Thus, gradually over the years my vision of the Yellowstone valley changes. If I only wanted to catch fish, I would stay home—a few weeks ago on a food-gathering mission it took us only two hours to catch two chinook and six lake trout within five minutes of my front door. But a few times a year it is good to rid yourself of your average baggage, partly to see if it was worth carrying at all. You enter the new place with a little trepidation, fearing orthodontists might have bought the whole thing since your last visit. Within one hundred miles you get the grain and livestock reports on the local radio station. This reminds you of some of the faded, mildly crushed and weathered people you play pool with on many western nights, who insist on trying to make a living from a small ranch. You see the same people at the dozens of small county rodeos, and in numbers, seemingly unafraid of their own anachronism, of the way in which farming and ranching have become part of what the near-futurists call agribusiness. Just down the street from your favorite bar, the Wrangler, is Dan Bailey’s tackle shop, with an immense collection of fishing flies and other sporting equipment, all of which you pore over as intensely as you viewed similar equipment in the Montgomery Ward catalogue in 1946, when your uncles returned unscathed from the South Pacific.
September in Montana is so definite with the deep greens of the aspen fading, and even the shadows become precise though liquid after the density of summer. There is frost on your sleeping bag and coffee owns some of the pungency of your first cup. There is a decidedly crazed though noncommunal sense in the gathering of fishing friends; “communal” most often means people who don’t really like each other and are trying to figure out why. Real affection is in short supply between mammals. Once we gathered for dinner and pushed ourselves to a satisfying vulgarity: a dinner for eighteen that offered trout six ways, raw clams, oysters, Dungeness crabs flown in from the coast, roast pork, turkey stuffed with oysters, cases of a superb Burgundy—Côte de Beaune-Villages—and a case of Château d’Yquem, plus a mixed case of Calvados and twenty-year-old bourbon. Reeling eaters were lost in the woods and only found by bird dogs that had been fighting in the barnyard for scraps. Nobody wanted to dance for hours. Clothing was soiled. Nasty liaisons were begun but the meal was too splendid to allow for recriminations in the aftermath.
The next evening, with a mildly aching brain you notice the nightly powder snows are creeping down the slopes. The turbid waters of midsummer have become low and clear with the long chutes above the pools brilliantly defined. You don’t mind getting cold, because you can soak it off afterward at the hot springs up at Chico. Meanwhile, you make long sweeping casts across the pool with your fly rod, mindful for the clear bulge and break in the skin of fast-flowing water that might mean a large trout.
Jim Harrison (1937-2016) was the author of over thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including seven volumes of novellas. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, and the New York Times.