The Yellowstone River hurtles out of Yellowstone National Park and cascades down a series of steep boulder studded runs and rapids before spilling out onto a gradual plain where it's currents slow and wind through a virtual pastureland paradise in the shadow of the Absaroka Range.
The place, in fact, is called Paradise Valley and if you are a fly fisherman and die and go to heaven you will spend eternity in a place such as this. Cutthroat trout reign supreme here with a sprinkling of rainbows. The big river's currents are strong and tumble relentlessly northward before crossing Interstate 90 near Livingston, Mont., and then turn east on a mission to the Missouri.
It was in the late 1970s that I found myself here for the first time, casting the dry fly and letting the willing cutthroat delude me into thinking I was better than I was.
I had visions of becoming a professional fly fisherman. I had sold several fly fishing articles to a variety of magazines including the then relatively new Fly Fisherman, tied my own flies, made my own bamboo and graphite rods and paid my dues on river and stream. The only thing remaining was to make the break from newspapering to fishing.
And Paradise Valley is a place made for such dreaming.
My little hairwing royal coachman was riding the riffles and occasionally a cutthroat would explode on it, making the day even brighter and adding fuel to the fire of my budding professionalism.
I was a little put out when I heard a car approaching streamside and then I saw it rising out of the bluish-gray sagebrush flat following a faint trail ending at the edge of the river right where I was standing. It was a Volkswagen and tied to its top was a little plastic inflatable raft.
"What kind of idiot would float-fish this river in that little boat," I thought, stepping aside as the car drew to a stop.
A girl popped out of the driver's side and she began untying the little craft. She was young, blonde and if I was describing a fly I'd have to say well-tied. I could tell because she was wearing a tiny bikini, a very tiny red bikini.
"Sorry if I disturbed your fishing," she said tossing the little boat into the river and stepping lightly on a rock to tie the lead to a willow branch.
She hopped into the boat, somewhat clumsily I thought, and began unscrewing the cap on a sunscreen bottle.
"I come here a lot to get some sun," she said merrily. "I'm a student. What do you do?"
"I'm a professional fly fisherman," I lied.
"Trout bum, huh?" she answered, reclining in the boat and beginning the alluring ritual of oiling her body.
"I saw a big trout here yesterday," she continued. "It was as long as my arm and it was right over there."
She refrained from her ablutions long enough to extend a slender arm and point to a shoreline pocket not more than 30 feet upstream.
Intrigued, I peered through my Roland Martin polarized sunglasses and studied the spot. It was just the kind of holding area any but a professional fly fisherman would miss. And there was something there, weaving back and forth in the reduced current.
By god, it was a trout!
A big one. Certainly as long as her arm and a whole lot thicker. I could see the forest green of its broad back, the black spots and the pink flush along its flanks.
It was a huge rainbow and I do mean HUGE.
My predatory instincts took over and I fell to the ground, hiding.
I began stripping coils of line from the reel. This was the biggest trout I had ever seen.
My heart was pounding as my mind computed the problem of raising that fish. This was a test from the fly fishing gods; no, it was a reckoning. Catch this fish and my future would be secured.
The irony of the situation, however, had not escaped me.
Here I was lying on my back at the side of the river, the biggest trout I had ever seen finning just over the bank and a beautiful young girl in a bikini was sunbathing in a rubber boat tied to a bush right beside me.
It brought to mind another situation a couple years before.
I was a long day's horseback ride from the trailhead and was camped at a high-altitude lake full of golden trout in the Beartooth Wilderness Area. I stumbled out of my tent not exactly at the crack of noon but a lot later than I wanted.
And there on a rock sat a brunette.
But that's another story.
I had a real problem on my hands now. This trout was far bigger than any of the plywood cutouts hanging on the wall at Dan Bailey's Fly Shop back at Livingston. Those were mere four pounders. This was a leviathan.
"You'll never catch a trout that you can see," an old fly fisherman once told me.
No, that single glimpse would have to do. But how could I cast lying down?
That was the only answer. A pro fly fisherman has to do a lot of that. I'd simply cast while lying on my back.
From now on the term backcasting would hold a whole new significance for me.
I waved the rod back and forth, feeding out line and then let it go lifting my casting arm high and arching my back with the effort.
"I've never seen anyone cast like that," she laughed.
"Well, I'm a professional fly fisherman. There's probably a lot of new things I could show you," I said. "Could you tell if my fly landed anywhere near that fish?"
She smiled and said the cast was pretty good. Close, in fact.
"I think you should, perhaps, shorten your leader," she said. "Maybe even change flies. A stonefly nymph might work."
That's all I needed. Fly fishing advice from a three-quarters, no, make that seven-eighths, naked blond bombshell soaking up sun in a plastic boat. Yet, somewhere deep in my subconsciousness I admired her. She obviously knew something about fly fishing.
But a big trout like that, lying in shallow, clear water wouldn't be nymphing. No, it would have to be a terrestrial.
It's that kind of thinking that separates a professional fly fisherman from a girl in a rubber boat.
Maybe a grasshopper imitation. No. Too big.
Off came the size 12 royal coachman and on went a size 16 black ant, two small puffs of fur and a single wrap of black hen hackle.
Another well-executed back cast.
"He's got it," she yelled sitting up in the small boat.
I felt the pressure on the rod tip and knew she was right.
I scrambled to my feet as gracefully as chest waders would allow, feeling the line slip through my hands as the big trout ran for the middle of the river.
The rod tip was bucking and bowing as the huge rainbow ran and I let the line slip between my fingers. Then I noticed the remaining coils wrapped around the sagebrush at my feet. I lunged down, tearing at the tangled line but the trout came up tight and… ping.
He was gone.
The sun, as if on cue, suddenly disappeared under a cloud. I stood there staring into the deep currents, dark thoughts coursing through my mind. I knew the girl was out of the water and tying the boat on top of the little car, but my eyes couldn't leave that stream.
"ITT's gonna rain," she said. "I'm outta here."
I felt the first rain drops then and heard a rumble of thunder as the storm worked up its fury.
The sound of the car faded as I continued to stare into the darkening waters.
And then something I had read years ago came back to me.
"And so she walked out of my life forever."
Fitting, but it wasn't about the girl.
It was all about the fish and my future as a professional fly fisherman.