FALL 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 2
by David CatesI love to row. Perhaps it's genetic-when I was a boy, my dad rowed while I sat in the back of the wooden boat and trolled for muskie. But whatever little failures might be going on in my life, whatever disappointments or anxieties I carry on the drive from Missoula to Helena, and then to White Sulphur Springs while the clients make chit-chat about thousand dollar fishing rods and five-hundred dollar reels, last year's trip to Argentina and next year's to Siberia, whatever I might be feeling at the Smith River put-in while we unload the trailer full of gear and load the rafts, I'm instantly comforted once I get the oars in my hands.
I smell the river and watch its glide. I dip the blades and listen to the oarlocks and feel the resistance in my back and arms. The wind touches my face and I breath new air-and I am not only a lucky man, but a happy one.
Which when trout fishing is not always the best way to catch fish. Sometimes it's better to be a little restless, a little unhappy. Sometimes it's better to park the boat and get out with the client and wade to a spot that you suspect will deliver. And I do wade with the clients, sometimes.
Which brings me to another bone-deep lesson from muskie fishing: I am hugely tolerant of not catching fish.
What these two traits add up to in a guide, I'm not sure and am afraid to guess. But there's something else I learned trolling for muskie, and that's that fishing is also about who else is in the boat.
My dad used to tell me stories about stickball on the streets of New York, about the Marine Corps, and about monsters that lived in the lake. I liked listening to him then, and I like listening to the clients now-especially after a couple of days when they relax and stop talking about gear and fishing and begin talking about their lives.
One of my favorites was a man who for twenty years worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. I asked him what twenty years of that kind of urgency does to a person. He didn't answer until the last day of trip. I'd pulled the raft over to the bank and sat waiting for him to come back from a short hike. When he finally appeared, he looked at me and asked what I was thinking.
I said I'd been thinking about our poker game the night before and how-given the cards I'd been dealt-how I might have been more ruthless.
He smiled, and then his face got serious. He pointed his finger and said, "That's what I thought about every night for twenty years."
Another favorite client was a woman from Southern California who'd just turned forty. For a present, her husband had given her these five days alone on the Smith. She liked to catch fish, and she did. But she was lonely, and she missed her children and her husband, and when it got cold and the wind blew, she wondered aloud how she ever got here.
One afternoon I found her curled up on the bank in the grass. Above her towered a thousand-foot red cliff. She had her waders on, her jacket was zipped to her neck, hood up against the wind, and I said, "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she answered. "I'll be ready in a moment. I'm having a really big feeling right now."
I walked back to the raft and I waited. Part of a guide's job, I thought: row the boat, keep off the rocks, wait. Which way today? Downstream, perhaps. And don't get in the way of the really big feelings.
Writer David Cates guides for Lewis and Clark Expeditions.