How many brook trout do you want?

We lived in a small two-bedroom house on Grand Street, a few minutes walk from the campus. Langohrs nursery was the other direction, and they had a pond which held the water for irrigating their flowers and trees and shrubs which served for the trackless Amazon and so forth, when a kid could pole a small and sodden raft around or, as a friend did one day, pour the gasoline in the handy can for the lawnmower on the water. The culprit tried to get me to throw a match after the spreading rainbow stain but I was too wary even then. So he did and there was a whoosh and sudden flame and his eyebrows and the front half of his hair burned away. I pointed out that he might not have tossed the match from the end of the little dock. Shore would have done as well.  He was too busy blinking and sorting explanations for his peculiar appearance to pay much attention.

The water was diverted from a little creek that meandered through the meadows south of town, deep soil accumulated in the holds of the beaver dams that once had been here in some numbers. William Clark and his men tried to cross the gathered waters at dusk, on the return trip from the Pacific, and between the mosquitoes and the deep ponds it was unpleasant enough for him to recall it years later as one of the worst times of the trip.  The little creek had cut down into the old pond beds, and ancient beaver dams were visible in the walls cut by the stream.  The bark of the sticks used by the beavers had turned orange, and all the dams were in the shape of a V inverted, the top sticks flat and jiggery. The beavers were wiped out by trappers, but the dams held for decades, and when Bozeman’s first settlers came in from the west–Oregon–to grow crops to sell to the miners in Alder Gulch, they pulled the dams down and turned the black soil, rich as soon as it got some air.

The little creek was a spring creek and thick with scuds, freshwater shrimp, and brook trout fed well and had pink flesh, mark of the crustaceans. Most trout are about as flavorful as a wedge of newspaper, but these small fish were good.  There was no limit back then but a vague “twenty pounds” and I soon learned how to catch as many fish as any friend wanted to cook.  I had a long pole, a few feet of line, a hook with a split shot right on top of it, and a piece of worm. I dabbed this through the holes, standing back enough so I could not see the stream or the fish see me, and flipped out fish on to the meadow grass. Twenty out of one hole the size of a pool table wasn’t unusual, and all of them were fat and bright- colored. The creek itself was beautiful, the water weeds swaying in the currents so gracefully, the fish hiding in them, easy to see if one looked for a bright orange pectoral fin amid the dark pulsating green.

At a pond in my mother’s hometown of Pierre, South Dakota, I saw a spider run down a cattail and into the water.  I sped back to my grandparent’s house and made up a tube with some clear cellophane taped to one end.  I went back to the cattail where I had seen the spider and poked the tube in the water and there the creature was, in a little bell-shaped spider house. The spider was scraping bubbles of air off its body, to add to the air at the top of the bell. It was wonderful and marvelous then and it still is to me. So I made a larger one and explored the creek as well as I could.  There were great numbers of fish, amazing for such small waters, and no matter how many I took–a hundred was not unusual–it never seemed to make any difference whatever to their numbers hiding in the weeds.

Now it is a ‘burb, houses here and there, cheek by jowl clear to the mountains, and the creek is still there but doesn’t look healthy, and it actually doesn’t make me all that sad, since my time there was a long time ago now, and do have that. The past is past and people need houses to live in, and if there are more people in Bozeman now, there are fewer in eastern Montana, and the fish are much better eating.