When you think of a fisherman, what pops into your mind? Is it Ol’ Bill Dance, falling backwards off his boat? Maybe it’s that dad with his sons on their way to the lake on an early Saturday morning, or even that part-time guide who owns the fly shop down the street?
Or maybe…Just maybe…It’s one of these guys. One of MY guys…
The fishing bum.
We’re an odd breed of fisherman. We aren’t professionals. We’ll never be the ones to win tournaments or start making a living off the fish we catch. We rarely land the biggest fish of the day and getting skunked is certainly not unheard of.
Our gear isn’t the best. Sure we’ll have a few high end rods and reels, but our matching Simm’s outfit is far from complete. If it’s warm enough and we can get away with it, going barefoot is just part of the attire. Few of us own boats, and those that do certainly don’t own the nicest, or newest, or even most seaworthy of them all.
We’re a step beyond the avid fisherman. Sure the weekend warrior gets out there each Saturday and Sunday, but we won’t hesitate to go fish at 11, or even midnight, regardless if we’ve work the next day or not.
Speaking of work, we’re (for the most part) perpetually broke. Hence the term bum. We work random jobs to feed our obsession. Contrary to popular belief, most of us are educated. A bachelor’s degree is almost a prerequisite before one goes full fishing bum. But a career? Those are few and far between. Restaurant jobs, Exotic reptile farms, Lawn and Garden stores. You name it, we’ve, at some point, done it.
The obsession runs deep. It’s absolutely consuming. Dining room tables aren’t used for eating. They’re for fly tying and all the materials that comes with it. Freezers don’t have Hot Pockets or frozen ground beef. They’re full of dead Cigs and Chum. Closets refuse to give up a single article of clothing until you’ve cleared at least two rods out of the way. Your work vehicle has a breakdown rod and reel for lunch time (who needs to eat?), and damn near every article of clothing you own has a little fish blood on it. You’ve spent more time looking at maps and weather forecasts than all the cartographers and weathermen in the world combined, and losing a big one keeps you up at night for weeks.
We’ve an intense passion for beer. Call us…Enthusiasts, if you will. Beer makes the stories better, the spots fishier, and the fish bigger. Plus, there are few things better for a fisherman after either a successful day, or a skunking, than a tall cold one. Seriously, if you don’t enjoy a good beer, you’re to be untrusted and your fish tales are unbelievable.
There’s no such thing as “unreachable” waters. So what if it’s hard to get to? That just makes for bigger fish. There’s not a single fish bum out there who hasn’t hopped a fence, waded through waist deep mud, or bush wacked their way to a fishy spot at one point or another. No vehicle? Not a huge issue. I’m personally guilty of stuffing my fly rod into a backpack and peddling a bicycle across town in the rain -just- to get to a fishing hole. If there’s a will, there’s a way. And laziness is hard to come by with a fish bum. Well…while fishing, of course. Otherwise yeah…we’re total bums.
We aren’t purists. We’d never look down on someone for using “spin to win”, or something along those lines. Hell, half the reason we use fly rods is because it makes the story better at the end of the day and makes an already difficult task more difficult. Sure I love to fly fish, but I’ll never hesitate to throw on the snorkel and mask and go spearfish something. An obsession is an obsession. And we’ll do just about anything to get our fix and our fish.
A bolt of lighting ripped across the dark gray sky amidst the alpine riddled mountains, and the inevitable report of thunder sent small rocks skittering down the slopes and into the clear waters of a swiftly flowing creek below.
“Great”, I said sarcastically as I took a sip of beer and looked out across the creek as the rocks began to splash. It’d been a crappy day, and I was crouched underneath a small fir to try and avoid the rain…and lightning. With a heavy sigh, I pointed my 3-weight fly rod out at the creek. “Shall we? We’re here already”.
Jeb and Trent, the guys I was with, agreed and despite the cold, light rain and distant lightning, we proceeded to try and make the best of the situation. Water levels were low here in Western Montana, and this creek was no exception. Just a few fishable holes were available to us, and it made for an aggravating time. As the only decent fishing around, these holes got hit by everyone. Every day. And the fish in these holes had seen it all. Despite all of this, Jeb managed to luck out and land a nice Cutthroat.
Eventually, however, I got frustrated and left the others to the hole. I wanted to find something different. Explore some new water. Maybe, if I was lucky, I could find a new hole to fish.
So down the creek I walked, slipping occasionally as my Crocs were quite possibly the worst footwear choice for Montana. Soon I was forced to cross the creek and waded across the mid-thigh high, swiftly moving water to a nice rock bank on the far side. Up ahead, I spotted out a blown down tree that was situated near the center of the creek.
Well…It certainly -looks- fishy…
A combination of high brush along the bankside as well as the direction of the current meant that I had to stand in the water to cast, but the big tree did have a good looking hole on the down current side. So I found a suitable rock to place my IPA and proceeded to cast into the hole.
I should note that at this point I had still yet to catch a decent trout in Montana. Or ever, for that matter. All of my fish so far had been so small that I back cast them into the bushes behind me by mistake. I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
So I threw a big fat grasshopper patterend fly that my dad had tied years ago just to see what happened. The fly landed gently at the base of the log, and the swift current soon pulled it into a small eddy on its way down the creek. Suddenly, the water erupted around my fly.
No way…a fish?!
I tried to set the hook to no avail. In my excitement, my fly was immediately back-cast into the bushes behind me, and I was forced to plow my way through them in order to retrieve my fly. After what seemed like an eternity, I got my fly back, and gave the hole another cast.
This time it was even quicker. The fish exploded on the fly, and unlike last time, I set the hook on the fish.
I felt that addictive pull, I knew the fish was on, it pulled out of the hole, into the current, and that was it….
The hook fell out.
The whole thing lasted less than two seconds, but it was enough to get me overly excited. I certainly never thought that a little creek trout would give me the shakes, but this had been a three week long quest at this point, and all I wanted was to land a decent fish. I immediately made another cast and…
Another. And yet again, nothing. I cast for another hour before finally switching flies and continuing. But still. Nothing. I’d missed him.
I walked back to Jeb and Trent completely defeated and totally distraught. What was I doing wrong? How was everyone else catching fish and not me? Was it my gear? Was it my honed offshore/saltwater hookset method? Was I just freakin’ unlucky?
I didn’t know, but here’s where the true fish bum in me shined through. I became obsessed. I didn’t sleep. Couldn’t…actually. All I could do was think about that fish under the log, what I’d done wrong, and what I needed to do to land it. Come hell or high water, I was getting back to that creek, and I was going to land that fish. I just needed a way to get back there. A spot 45 minutes from town when you have no car is technically impossible to get to. Unless, of course, you’re a fish bum.
So for a full week I stewed. I told buddies and strangers at the bars about the fish and about what happened, but was careful to never give away exact locations. And it wasn’t until the following week that a chance to redeem myself finally emerged.
I was happily sitting on the couch with my friend Alaina, watching the Big Lebowski, and enjoying a beer when the topic of conversation turned to fishing. I described my lost fish to her and explained how badly I wanted to redeem myself.
“Game to give it a try this evening?” I asked, praying she’d agree.
Without hesitation she responded. “Yeah…Absolutely”
I’ve always driven either a truck or a Jeep. So it honestly felt a little weird to begin loading fishing gear into a bright blue, late 90’s Honda Civic hatchback, but at that point I didn’t care. I was about to get another chance at this fish, and being a true fish bum, I literally bummed a ride out there.
After winding our way down a dusty, gravel mountain road, Alaina and I arrived at the spot. I cracked a beer and weaved my way down the poorly traveled trail through the thicket to the water’s edge. Unfortunately, upon walking out onto the edge of the creek, we discovered two other fly fishermen had beaten us to the the first hole. But to be honest, I couldn’t have cared less. I had a hot date with that log farther down the creek. So we politely walked past the two men, weaved our way down the bank, crossed the swift creek, and made it to the tree.
Once there, Alaina gave me first dibs. Using the same grasshopper fly, I cast below the log and…
I tried again. And still again, nothing. I cast for about a half hour before finally giving my friend a turn. She too was using a grasshopper fly, but a slightly different pattern, and part of me dreaded the idea that she might catch the fish I was after.
Eventually, however, she broke her tippet off on the log and that meant I had another chance at the hole. By this point, the sun had begun to dip below the nearby mountainside, casting us in its shadow, and I’d made the decision to switch up flies. Obviously the hoppers weren’t working, so I threw on a sinking nymph and began casting.
It should probably be noted that as a born and raised saltwater fly fisherman, I’ve never been in the situation where a strike indicator/Bobber/Thing-a-ma-bobber is necessary. So I’m not sure if it was pure Floridian fisherman speaking, or lazy fish bum, or beer, or what, but I opted to just tie the nymph on with no indicator and see what happened.
By this point I’d caught onto the whole “current’ thing. Your fly line pulls at the fly and makes it look absurd to a trout. So I made a cast underneath the log, held my fly line out of the water, and guided it carefully down current.
I’ll be the first to admit; It was subtle. I barely saw the line twitch. But twitch it did, and with the grace of a newborn giraffe, I set the hook into a fish, and the fight was on.
At first I thought I’d hooked another little guy like I’d done countless times beforehand. But soon it began pulling out line on my 3-weight and got caught in the current. Immediately I knew I was outgunned. 4X tippet and a fish in the current meant I was just a hiccup away from losing the fish, so I did the next reasonable thing; I started running. Down current I chased the fish, trying the whole time to reel in at least a few inches of fly line at a time. Instantly I felt the Croc on my right foot slip off.
I passionately wish I could describe how painful it is to run along slippery river rocks barefoot, but I haven’t the words in me to give it justice. It’s like someone hitting the sole of your foot with a wet baseball bat. But I honestly didn’t care. I soon realized that this was the fish. This was the one that had haunted my dreams for the past week. My only goal was to land this fish.
With no net and only one shoe on, the landing was sketchy to say the least. But by the end of it all, I looked back to discover I’d run about 80 yards down current to land this fish. I’m usually slow to excite, but as a fish bum, this did it for me. It’s a miracle I held the fish still for the picture, and Alaina just laughed at how hard from excitement I was shaking after finally having landed my first…Real…Montana fish.
Obviously not the biggest in the world, but this fish made my entire trip. I’d never been more thankful to have put forth the effort and time into chasing a fish before. I just hope my Croc is out there somewhere, floating around with my other lost Crocs, waiting for the day that my adventures lead to their colony. Maybe somewhere near Fiji. Or New Zealand. Who knows? Only time will tell.