My fly swirls once and is gone. The reel is emitting a high pitched scream. The hefty fish is a blur, just below the surface. Shimmering in the midday, Big Sky sunshine, the rainbow thrashes across the surface as if auditioning for a Field and Stream cover, vibrant against the jagged peaks of western Montana’s Mission Range, a small section of the Rockies. We’re floating the Flathead River through Salish and Kootenai Tribal land. Though the pieces of this intricate ritual occur almost simultaneously, it feels calibrated ever so slowly, like paging through a sheaf of timeless photographs.
We began our morning with a relatively late breakfast (Montana trout sleep in) at the Dixon Mercantile, which defies description but I’ll give it a try. Presumably in Dixon, although if there is indeed a Dixon, it is nearly imperceptible, the mercantile was built in 1912 on the Flathead reservation and has seen various permutations through the last century including post office, commercial venture(s) and a café or two. Operating since November, the current eatery is only open Sundays as a kind of bruncheonette, with music perhaps on Thursday, but that appears anything but certain.
What’s absolutely certain is a joint so at ease with itself that on this morning, it was peopled with legendary looking elderly cowboys as dark and rutted as the landscape; Native American ranchers; families with kids; babies being passed around; hipsters up from Missoula; and a couple of fly fishermen from Vermont. Classic country descended from somewhere near the hammered, tin ceiling as we strained to make out the multi-colored, chalkboard menu high above the counter that 3D glasses may have helped us decipher.
The food, like the clientele, was rich, varied and comfortable in it various skins. Bison sausage from up the road: “Buffalo Gal’s” or vegan hash; giant Belgian waffles; an extraordinary assortment of breads, cookies, pies; eggs with every conceivable accompaniment along with some bordering on inconceivable, like quinoa, mint, walnuts and arugula tossed with lemon vinaigrette and local micro greens. My comparatively pedestrian over-easy eggs, home fries and whole grain toast were dramatically enhanced by the feeling I was inhabiting a Merle Haggard song, hold the quinoa, please.
As we make our way to the river, I realize perhaps for the hundredth time that while I come out here to connect with my sons and fish for trout, Montana offers so, so much more and consistently delivers. As we’re putting Sam’s drift boat in the water, I notice for the first time that the Flathead is a huge river, fittingly vast considering the panorama that surrounds us: Windblown clouds skittering over the surrounding mountains and the foothills of the National Bison Range, established in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt, where we’ve encountered elk, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and several black bears. The bison themselves are such huge, formidable beasts that its difficult to comprehend they were nearly hunted to extinction on our push west when resources were ours for the taking – perceived to be infinite.
We harbor no such illusions. We try to absorb it all as we push off, although it’s challenging, simply because there’s so much to absorb. In the middle of the river, the wind picks up and for an hour or so we’re buffeted from shore to shore, awed yet again at how high plains weather changes can alter the best-laid plans. It’s generally pushing 100 degrees out here in August but right now it’s only in the low 60s with what’s probably a late summer wind chill factor.
We have the river to ourselves. No evidence of modernity intrudes on our vision and with ospreys and eagles circling above, it could just as easily be 50 or a hundred years ago ... for a number of reasons actually, not the least of which is that Montana is the only state in the lower 48 that still has every animal that was here when Columbus landed.
Although the fish are few and far between as we meander through long, flat stretches of calm water, a reminder of where we are arrives explosively as a 36-inch pike destroys our tranquility, as well as the 9-inch brown trout briefly on the end of my line. As we regain our composure, I notice a tattered love seat, imbedded in the overgrown bank as though the tribulations of visiting fishermen might very well be the valley’s unique version of summer theater.
Later, where the Jocko River dumps into the Flathead on their journey to the Columbia and eventually the Pacific Ocean, we hit a confluence of swirling eddies, drop-offs, bubble lines and channels where the fish are cued up and waiting on a veritable conveyor belt of nutrients. Interweaving our feathery impersonations with the real thing, we spend the next hour in fishermen’s nirvana.
As my glistening slab of a rainbow comes to net, we hold him for a moment or two, snap a picture and gently return him to the river, revering him for all that he unknowingly symbolizes: ancient, natural things that somehow manage to still exist, and the hope that they always will.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.