Holy Water

  • By: Jim Hall


Driving south from Alder, Dan and I anticipated another pleasant day fishing a small, brushy tributary to the Ruby River in Southwest Montana. The sky was clear, the air warm but not hot; we were well-fed, well-rested and not the least worried about others beating us to the water, because this water was too inauspicious to interest most fly fishermen—another reason we liked it so well. And, when we arrived, indeed, there was not another fisherman in sight, but the stream, though not high, was turbid, visibility down to a few inches. “How the heck can that be?”

Driving farther along the narrow two-track that paralleled the stream, we soon came to our answer: buffalo, hundreds of them—in the stream, around the stream, some were even in the road. “Just when you think you’ve figured all the angles,” Dan said, “you get buffaloes.”

At first it seemed a faintly romantic, slightly cool. Here we were, out from Maine, stymied by a herd of buffalo. Then Dan noticed the ear tags, and the romance faded, and we were fishermen again and the buffaloes were nothing but obstacles between us and our stream—big, furry obstacles with horns. I’d fished around them in Yellowstone the year before and had gotten nothing worse than ugly looks, which is about the only sort of look you can get from a buffalo; so it’s hard to know exactly what that meant.

Determined to fish that stream, we drove slowly onward, and several big, ugly bison begrudgingly relinquished the road to our big, ugly SUV. When we were well above the herd, we parked, rigged up, and headed to the stream, singing, shouting, and howling like coyotes. The whole massive herd, strung out over half a mile, stopped in its tracks. “All right!” we said. But the moment we started fishing, the herd resumed ambling in our direction. They were relentless and too many. We did not want them between us and our vehicle, and once they got above us, our fishing would be ruined anyway. Already it was hard to concentrate on the fishing, while keeping one eye on the slowly advancing herd. Soon we admitted defeat, and conceded the stream to the bison.

At the Fly Shop in Twin Bridges, a guide pried the stream name from us, raised his eyebrows and pronounced it “Holy Water.”

“You oughta tell that to the buffalo,” we said. “Or to their owner.” The owner was a former Angler of the Year and now runs a string of restaurants specializing in bison. Though the buffalo were actually on a piece of his land (and stream), the water and land above and below the buffalo was a Wildlife Management Area. Yet we found the five or so downstream miles of trout water running within the WMA were usually rendered unfishable by the mud and silt from wading bison. And the narrow, already hazardous, road leading upstream was usually obstructed by buffalo, large and reluctant to move. Not to mention that cattle graze the upstream section within the Wildlife Management Area on a rest-rotation system.

The private-public distinction in Montana is meaningful to fly fishermen, but, for a nominal fee, ranchers graze their cattle pretty much where they please—national forest or wildlife management area—anywhere there’s grass, and, of course, water. It is a long-running source of tension between ranchers and, well, everybody else—fishermen, conservationists, hikers, you name it—if they aren’t raising beef, they oppose the current grazing policy in the West, and they, we, are losing: grazing fees on public lands are going down.

Perhaps that’s as it should be. After all, long before rock stars, dot.com billionaires and fly fishermen laid their claim to the American West, the ranchers were already there, fighting Indians, building fences, irrigating arid land, making hay and raising cattle, and now buffalo. Generations of ranchers working the same land, lonesome cowboys riding up into the high country rounding up strays—hot, dusty, dirty work— it’s what made America great. You start messing with cowboys, and you are tampering with the most precious fabric of our nation, the very essence of America. I know, because I grew up idolizing those men and that way of life on screen and sometimes stage. I saw Gene Autry in person. I have Lash Larue’s autograph. Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers were my heroes. And later Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, and Randolph Scott. Sadly, slowly it all changes: we change; the West changes; the East changes, and at some point the romances of our youth no longer sustain us.

There was another inconspicuous tributary of the Ruby that Dan and I fished that trip, a serpentine trickle that percolates through a lush meadow on the edge of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. It’s a short hike in, but worth it, not only for the fish, but for the beauty and solitude. I’d fished it the past two seasons, camped nearby, and experienced fishing that ranged from perfectly satisfactory to very good, and I never saw another fisherman. It’s the type of situation increasingly uncommon even in Montana.

This year the stream was lower than the years before—a situation increasingly common in Montana—and a breeze made casting difficult. The challenge was to avoid the lush, streamside vegetation and land your fly in the water. Dan, who was spending too much time untangling line, soon grew impatient and anxious to seek, not greener pastures, but wider streams. Fine with me, because he was staying just the week; I was there for a month and could return on my own. Ten days later I did just that, though I wish now I hadn’t.

Eight pickups with horse trailers were parked near the trailhead. The cowboys were lolling in the shade of their trailers; horses were grazing nearby as were quite a few cattle, black and red angus, I believe. I parked away from the crowd, quickly grabbed my flyrod and satchel, crossed the stream and hiked towards the meadow. Cattle were strung out along the creek in the steep section and on the hillsides. Some of the calves—perhaps unaccustomed to men on foot—were more skittish than some mule deer I’d encountered. But it wasn’t until I arrived at the meadow that I felt the full impact of the cattle.

The stream was a stagnant quagmire, a steaming porridge of weeds and cow manure; its banks were denuded and defiled. Forget hiding in the grass—it was gone— much less creeping stealthily along the banks stalking trout. There was no portion of the riparian terrain that had not been trampled, chewed or shat upon by cattle. Too heartsick even to take a picture, I made a token cast and headed back the way I came.

Again the steep section, a small canyon, brought me, the cattle and creek close together. There wasn’t much room to move, and a half dozen startled calves trotted out ahead of me. Soon the number grew to include a few adult cows too. I was accidentally but unavoidably herding them. My mini-stampede continued all the way back to my vehicle, my arrival heralded by a dozen or so critters. The cowboys said nothing, but did not look pleased. Apparently running weight off their little dogies was not the way to endear myself to cattlemen, and for that I felt awful, because these were the heroes of my youth.

The nine-year old in me still wanted to mosey over and make cowboy-talk, but the adult was enraged at how these good and decent people, these heroes, and their cattle had had turned a lovely trout stream into a watering trough, like trashing a work of art.

But who cared about an insignificant little stream in the middle of nowhere? What good was it other than for watering cattle? What were a few measly trout compared to tons of beef? And who was I, an Easterner, to take umbrage at how they raised cattle and cared for the land? I was nobody, but I took umbrage anyway.

Of course, I wisely kept it to myself. I said nothing; I did nothing. What was I going to do, start a fight with eight cowboys? Lecture them on land use in the West?

No, what I was going to do, first, was try and find a pair shoes that didn’t smell like cow shit. Then I was going to saddle up my rented SUV and drive it straight to the Alder Steak House, where I’d order myself a cold Corona in a frosted glass with a slice of lime to wash down a nice, thick, slab of beef—medium rare—which, for the sake of my righteous indignation, I could only hope had come from Kansas.

J.H. Hall is the author of True Stories of Maine Flyfishermen and Cover Girl and Other Stories of Fly Fishermen in Maine. His work also appears in Love Story of the Trout, published by Fly Rod & Reel Books.