Winter and Feathers and Magic

We arrived from Colorado in August of 1955, having passed through Yellowstone Park on the way.  We went, of course, to Old Faithful, which had a couple sets of those cheap green bleachers remote schools have in their gyms and an appalling amount of litter. Even at ten, I was aware that good manners were rare. And so I had a few days for important matters such as fishing before trudging off to the Longfellow School to serve my time. I had grown up in a house filled with books and a father who loved mathematics because at least they were certain, and I sat in a resentful, bored stupor which come to think on it I still had at the University of Michigan years later, with some notable exceptions for wonderful professors who taught…..ah, well.

Winter came and in December the temperature sank to forty below. The exhaust from the house furnace went straight up in a tight column to a pale sky. My mother heard of a course for small bored boys taught by a man who lived a couple blocks away. “You can learn how to tie trout flies,”she said. That was the most interesting thing I had heard since we had moved here.  Off I went, and all I had was a little red bench vise, a toy, really, and a bit of curiosity. I don’t recall the teacher or much else from that first class, but I will never forget and can see it yet the magic of a hackle being wrapped. A rather ordinary chicken feather from a rooster’s neck cape was stripped of fluff, tied by the butt of the center quill to the shank of the hook, and then it was wrapped round.  And there was a magnificent ruff, which looked vaguely like those ridiculous things men wore round their necks in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth.  It was a magical moment, right up there with the spider who had the underwater home.

Ever after I have been tying trout flies. It is soothing in the winter, and they make much appreciated gifts. I even tied commercially for a while, but concluded I could much more profitably take on a job at McDonald’s. I used the flies that I tied and I sold flies to older fishermen, usually colleagues of my father at Montana State College. It was a lot of fun.  I used trout flies in some rivers and seasons, and I used lures or bait in others.  I still do. I like fishing, don’t much care how I go about it.

I guided a little but concluded that if, fifteen minutes into the float, I was thinking about harvesting the client’s organs for transplant or mink food I probably should think of doing something else. I liked the fishing well enough, and had the luck to live in a place with great trout waters everywhere about. Long ago, when I was a young feller, there were a few fishermen about. I could go to the Madison and see perhaps four other people in a day……and then…..Industrial Fly Fishing came along and now all summer the ludicrous guideboats, prow against stern, parade down the rivers. Mackenzie riverboats, often enough, designed for the big coastal rivers and steelhead fishing, and now used here.  They are so noisy it is rather like hunting deer at the head of a marching band. The favored rods are stiff, so one may cast long distances, which has nothing at all to do with fishing, at least here. The visiting fishermen pretty much wear silly costumes–shirts with suncapes and embroidered flies on the pockets. Some wear their many-pocketed vests to restaurants. Christ, some wear their waders……but they do spend a lot of money, and Livingston depends for much of its income on them.

I need not expatiate on the opinions held by the residents here on the “tourons and fishdips” who come. Like any resort economy or occupied country the invaders are not loved.

But I do recall the hackle spun about the hook’s shank and the days alone on the river and never mind what it became.