It Sure Beats Sitting On The Couch

Thomas Austin  |   Wednesday Feb. 1st, 2023

I sat on my couch in Bozeman, eyeing the mailbox like a rabid dog. The mailman would be there any minute with a package containing my car keys, which I had left in Oakland while visiting family, a boneheaded maneuver that would surprise nobody who knows me well. My cooler, stove, fly rods, and extra clothes sat patiently by the door, waiting to be whisked away to some clear stream brimming with trout. The moment the USPS truck slid up to the curb I sprang into action, grabbing all I could carry and hauling it to my tiny, sun-faded 1993 Toyota pickup fondly nicknamed “The Bean.”

“That’s for me,” I told the mailman before ripping open the perforated edge of the white bubble wrapping and dumping the keys out into my palm. I fired up the four cylinder engine and peeled away before Mr. Mailman was even back in his truck. It was already three o’clock by this time, meaning that it would be close to five before I let my first cast fly. And so I found myself on the banks of the Madison, stringing up two fly rods, absolutely certain that I would haul in as many fish as I wanted. I knew this stretch of river better than any other on earth, and I fished it as often as I got the chance. Stepping down, I felt the current grab hold of my boot, pulling it downstream. I waded out to a chain of islands and set down my spey rod. I worked the series of runs quickly, knowing that any trout large enough to chase down this fly would do so at its first opportunity. Fishless but no less assured of my eventual success, I continued upriver to a stretch of turbulent water interspersed by boulders known to fly fishermen as “pocket-water.” The fish in each “pocket” here attack flies recklessly so long as you can cast far enough to land it in their zone.

My plan was to use the spey rod to make the long casts into each pocket, using the rod’s extended length to control my fly and keep it in the kill-zone long enough for a trout to grab hold. I stripped sixty feet of line off the reel and slung the fly downstream. I had only recently acquired my spey rod but I had high expectations for my performance here on the Madison. I set up my first cast and let it rip. The fly and line landed in a heap fifteen feet in front of me. I chalked it up to rust and tried again. Ten feet this time. Over the next thirty minutes I made dozens of casts, some better than others and none very good. I had completely given up on catching fish and now focused on berating myself until I threw a perfect cast. The sun was reaching the horizon and I knew I was beginning to risk a long walk in the dark if I didn’t hustle.

I reeled in and trudged upstream, hoping to reach a broad run perfect for swinging a fly. I made it to the top of the run and tied on a new bug. As I stepped into the shallow water near the bank, I reminded myself to relax. Trying to bludgeon the river to death would do me no good. I made my first cast and it sailed across the run, just how I visualized it on my drive to the river. As I breathed a sigh of relief, it dawned on me that the sun had been behind the mountains for some time now. I was losing light fast. Then I heard the first rumble of thunder, looked behind me and noticed that the sky was nearly black.

Rain began to fall as I hastily reeled up and searched for my extra rod and jacket. I threw the jacket on and pulled the hood over my head. Keeping my rod tips low, I stomped through the grass in the dim evening light made dimmer by the black cloud approaching me rapidly from the west. I glimpsed occasional flashes of lighting as I marched down the stream-side trail. The rolling thunder that followed was at least twenty seconds out, putting the lightning roughly four miles away. Carrying two long sticks made of metal and graphite made me uneasy. The sky lit up in a violent purple spasm, followed by a growl of thunder fifteen seconds later. I trudged on, picking up the pace now while trying to avoid twisting an ankle.

The streamside trails on the Madison are made entirely of trampled grass and are remarkably slippery when wet. What’s more, these trails periodically have holes in them where the river has eaten away at the bank. I felt thankful to have walked this stretch of trail many times before, but I knew there was still a solid chance I’d go calf deep into a hole if I wasn’t careful. As I rounded a second corner, a bolt of lightning arched across the sky in front of me.

The thunder was now only ten seconds behind the lightning, and the reality of my situation set in. The second half of my walk would be in nearly pitch black conditions; there was no chance I would reach the safety of my truck before the thunderstorm’s epicenter reached me. I hurried as much as I could, splashing through shallow water on my way to the first of many islands in a chain. I reached the first island and hastily made my way across its length.

Each island here is roughly 50 yards in length, with about the same distance separating them. Towards the end of the chain, they grow smaller and closer together. I hopped off the downstream edge of the first island and waded to the next. I knew that I had a somewhat serious crossing between two of the lower islands, and my progress was growing slower as the light faded. As I dropped off the second island, I could only see the whitest rocks on the riverbed. Trees on the bank were now mere silhouettes until they lit up bright as day for a fraction of a second. Thunder followed seven seconds later.

My world illuminated once again. I stopped and flinched as thunder rippled across the landscape barely five seconds later. Proceeding carefully, I knew that this normally routine crossing would be exponentially more tricky now that I was nearly blind. Wading the Madison is deceptively difficult in its upper reaches. What appears to be shallow water can be hip deep, and its speed is enough to pull an angler off-balance at the slightest slip. Large rocks are tripping obstacles that must be spotted and worked around. A fall means baptism in icy water.

I stumbled through the waist deep water. With no ability to spot and avoid large rocks, all I could do was rely on my instincts to stay upright when I inevitably tripped every few steps. Just as I made it through the worst of the run, a brilliant flash lit up the river for nearly a second. Four seconds, and again thunder shook the air, impossibly loud and totally awe-inspiring.

The wind picked up to a howl and the rain fell in sheets. I was still nearly a quarter mile from my truck. The chances of being struck by lightning are generally low, but walking through a thunderstorm with an eleven foot lightning rod can’t help those odds.

I cursed myself as I made my way to the final group of islands. The lightning and thunder were so frequent and intense now that each bout of thunder was interrupted by a fiery bolt, making it impossible to tell which boom of thunder followed which stab of lighting. The rain had soaked through my synthetic-fill puffy jacket and was only falling harder. It was now so dark I could barely see my boots, but I knew I was close.

I reached the stretch of bank where my truck was parked and made it exactly four steps before my right boot found a hole and my face found the turf. Clambering to my feet, I spat mud and chuckled. What I expected to be a quick stroll back upstream to the truck turned out to be a treacherous blind trek through a hole-ridden mud pit. I slipped my way through, stepping in holes and slamming into the ground. Each time I went down, I laughed a little harder. I’d come to the river for an easy day of fishing, and been given something far better: An adventure.

By the time I arrived at my truck I was soaked, caked in mud, shivering, and grinning. Sometimes an adventure is all the river has to give, but it sure as hell beats sitting on the couch. 

About the Author(s)