Lexi and I drove up the Madison Valley. The early morning air was clean and crisp as my first sip of lemonade. Herds of cattle and antelope dotted the landscape. Long shadows highlighted the curvy foothills.
After fifteen miles of yellow lines we could see the silhouette of the Beartooth Fly Fishing Lodge. Near the lodge we could see several driftboats and rubber rafts, signs of fishing activity.
As we entered We were greeted by Dan and Nancy Delekta. As always, Dan said, “What’s happening? Have you been out on the river? It’s been great. Yesterday we really spanked them on Hurless Stones and Lime Juices!”
After thirty years on the river Dan knows about every rock and fish on the river, including what those fish are eating and when.
The shop was fully stocked with flies, rods, clothing, waders, flylines, reels, fly tying materials, and many other fly fishing accessories. We told Dan we needed a few flies to fill the flybox.
Large countertops were filled with trays of flies. As if that was not enough, several plastic chests were also full.
As I looked I saw familiar names and new names. Stimulators, Royal Wulffs, Purple Haxe, Twisted Sisters, Prince Nymphs, One Man Parties, Sofa Pillows, Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Muddler Minnows, Bitch Creek Nymphs, Wooly Buggers, Lime Trudes, Bloody Marys, Orange Juice, and the light Spruce Streamer which I painted for the 2007 Ennis Fly Fishing Festival.
In one of the front trays were size fourteen and sixteen Renegades, a dry fly that was one of my favorites on the Smith River in the mid fifties. The Renegade has white hackle in the back and brown in the front with a fat peacock body.
Many years ago in the rock and roll fifties my alarm went off at four a.m. while I was dreaming of heaven bound rainbows, secret flies, and the scent of river willows. It was the opening day of fishing season.
All my fishing gear and lunch was carefully placed near the front door as if it was a spirit offering that the Blackfeet had placed there. My mother had left me a simple breakfast in the fridge, which I quickly ate.
As I looked out the window, the eastern sky glowed and its pink fire lit up the Little Belt Mountains, putting magic in the air seen through the eyes of a wild rainbow.
In the west, lights of a house sparkled in the fiery dawn. As I watched the house lights disappeared and two headlights lit up like buzzing fireflies. The lights became larger and larger. Soon I could hear the sound of an old Chevy motor purring in the Montana morning.
The car stopped in front of our house and I heard a car door open as the morning pink dust settled. A black silhouette appeared in front of the campfire-like headlights and I heard a gentle woman’s voice say, “Bern, are you ready? It’s gonna be a great opening day.”
It was Audrey, my fishing pal. I grabbed my gear and threw it in the trunk and off we went into morning haze.
The old Chevy hummed down the road, leaving a long shadow in the morning light. We were headed to the Songster Ranch on the Smith River. Audrey and her husband Ed had ranched there many years not long after the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Audrey was seventy five and had a great passion for fishing. I was ten and had the same passion. We made great fishing pals.
As we shot across the Smith River flatlands we left a trail of earth red dust and great fishing stories blowing in the wind.
The red hills became steeper and Ponderosa pines began to appear in the landscape. Once in awhile I could see the distant sparkle of a river through the trees.
As we came over a rocky hill a sign said Songster Ranch. We made a left turn and followed a curvy road down a gentle mountain of aspens. As we reached the bottom a valley opened up and we could see the old rand house, barn, rusty tractors, and a few cabins.
A silvery ribbon twisted its way through the valley floor. I could already hear the water and see the trout rising. The scent of willows was strong and I trembled like a bird dog.
As we stopped Audrey suggested we have a snack before fishing. I would not waste the time as I eyed the sparkley water. I grabbed my rod and ran down to the river as fast as my black and white sneakers could take me.
Along the river the grass was tall and had a pungent smell. I quickly tied on a Renegade and waded out into the cool riffly water. Mayflies and caddis flies danced across the river, trout and whitefish were feeding all over the place.
I false cast several times working my line out, then threw my line up and across. The Renegade danced on the silver water and slowly floated downstream.
It disappeared in a splash as a twelve inch rainbow inhaled it. The rainbow leaped high in the valley landscape and made a sizzling run upstream, putting a good bend in my green Southbend fiberglass rod.
In a few minutes I beached the rainbow and held it up in midmorning light. It had leopard like spots and a bright crimson stripe and cheeks. I heard a voice behind me say, “Nice rainbow, Bern.”
I turned around and there was Audrey with a gentle smile with her rod in her hand. We admired the first rainbow and I stuck it in my wicker creel. Audrey said I should pick some grass, wet it, and put it in with the river gift trout.
I reached in my flybox and pulled out a size twelve Renegade and put it in Audrey’s wrinkled hand. “Try one of these.”
By noon we had reached the lower ranch where the huge cliffs rose. It was the setting of a lifetime.
We sat on the river bank and had egg salad sandwiches for lunch and drank a cool drink. Audrey told me a story about a baby swallow that had fallen out of its cliff dwelling into the deep curvy hole. It swam in the deep current until a huge brown trout grabbed it like a small mayfly.
After that story I was back in the river casting my green colored line far across the pool. I caught several trout and whitefish. Audrey watched and finished her lunch.
By late afternoon we thought it would be good to count our trout so we would not go over limit of fifteen. I had released many small ones so I had my limit. Audrey counted hers and she had seventeen, two fish over limit.
Audrey did not want to get caught by the game warden and did not want to waste two trout. So she put the two trout down her waders.
We slowly walked back to the ranch, tired and happy. We loaded the Chevy and drove back up the aspen mountain to see the red flatlands as the sun set. The Chevy’s headlights sparkled and the Little Belt Mountains turned black.
Over the years we made a lot of road dust and cast a lot of flies. Later my parents moved away from Montana and I finished high school in Idaho.
I studied art in college and specialized in sculpture at graduate school in Washington. During the wild time in sixties I grew a beard and let my hair grow shoulder length.
One summer I jumped in my pickup with a sleeping bag and fly rod. I was going back home to Montana to fish.
I fished the Big Hole, Madison, Bitterroot, and thought I would try the Smith River. As I drove into my old home town the memory of Audrey was still on my mind.
I drove past my old house and up the street to Audrey’s. I rang the door bell and there was Audrey, looking puzzled. She asked, “Who are you?”
“I’m Bern from down the street, your old fishing friend.”
She gasped and gave me a huge hug, long hair and all. “My heavens,” she said, “I thought you were one of those bad long haired hippies that’s causing trouble.”
She invited me in for dinner and we talked old times and fishing. I hugged her good bye and off I went in the morning dust.
Dan had filled up a box with a dozen nymphs and I said, “Hey, Dan, throw in a couple of Renegades for old times. It was one of my favorite flies years ago.”
Lexi and I also bought some tippet material and split shot. I told Dan we were floating from Lyons bridge to Palisades, and the fishing should be good. We said our good byes to Dan and Nancy and off we went with rainbows dancing in our heads.
We unloaded the boat at Lyons and put on our waders. Plato, our fishing dog, sniffed the bushes. I strung two nine foot fly rods and tied on a large sculpin pattern.
I took the oars and we floated the silver highway. Lexi laid the sculpin behind the first rock and was into a sixteen inch brown instantly. The fishing was good and we took turns rowing and photographed a large brown.
Later in the morning the streamer fishing turned off so we fished with nymphs, catching trout off and on. My nymph snagged an underwater branch and parted the tippet.
Lexi moved the boat to the river edge and dropped the anchor. I picked up my fly box and looked down each row. The Renegade jumped out at me, so I plucked it from the box. I tied on two feet of 5x tippet and added the size fourteen Renegade.
Lexi put the boat back in the main current and down the blue neon we went. I cast the Renegade to several spots and no fish. Lexi spotted a deep green hole near the bank and rowed toward it to get in casting range.
I sent the line shooting across the water and the Renegade landed above the pool. The fly floated high in the water and a twelve inch rainbow came shooting out of the river, throwing water diamonds in the air.
The fish made several sky leaps and slowly tired. Lexi netted it and we saw it was a leopard spotted rainbow with a bright crimson side and cheeks. I held it up in the sky and admired it for a second.
I pulled the watery Renegade out of the fish’s jaw with ease. As I released the wild rainbow back into the Madison, an old woman’s face emerged out of sparkling water with a Mona Lisa smile and said, “Nice rainbow, Bern.” That was the last time I saw Audrey.
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Copyright © Bern Sundell 2007. All Rights Reserved.