| For those of you mature enough to conjure up a vision of the luscious Julie
London wearing what looked like a second skin for a dress, husking out her sultry version
of "Cry Me A River" - then just dream on a while. The rest of you use your
imagination, because stand on me, she was a hellava broad.
So, here comes the fishing
conundrum. What do Julie London, theatrical costumiers Berman and Nathan and the Madison
River all have in common? Well it's obvious, isn't it? The answer's a wedding. Still don't
get it? ... Okay, let's take a step back.
I have to admit that I've always been what you might call a serial beginner. In my
private and professional life, I'd stumbled blindly into enough of life's side alleys to
merit the order of the "white cane". And now I was standing at another of life's
crucial cross-roads - my long standing partner Kim and I decided we trusted each other
enough to tie the gordian knot. For my sins it was my third time in the starting gate, and
in all senses, this time it just had to be different. But you have to tread warily
in a minefield of expectations when your partner's embarking on her maiden voyage.
So to cut a long story short. After being batted around like the ball in a game of
telephone ping-pong between the Mayor's office in Virginia City and Judge Joe Wilkins in
Ennis County, my future bride and I found ourselves stepping from a Jumbo in Denver
Colorado, en route for the "Big Sky" country.
I'd cracked it. We were getting married in deepest Montana - as far as you could get
from those emotionally grinding circumstances where the bride and groom's day is
shanghaied from their grasp into being everyone else's day but their own. Does that sound
like a cynical ploy to get my own way? Well, maybe - but only a little. My bride-to-be is
mad for animals - especially horses (she's got one of her own). So, what better way to
begin our new beginning than by indulging ourselves in our passions?
Thirty odd hours after closing the shutters on our cabbage-patch garden in Wandsworth,
we were ensconced in a spacious, well appointed log cabin with views from our windows that
were nothing less than heroic. No wonder rural American's express such religious fervour
for their land, for this was truly God's own country. Behind us to the east, and within
what seemed to be touching distance, was the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. Below us to
the west, and running on and on into infinity, the incomparable vistas of the Madison
Valley. And somewhere tantalisingly out of sight within it's folds, the (hopefully)
trout-filled waters of the Madison River. Pinch me, someone - I think I've died and gone
On the morning of the second day, I watched my betrothed sitting confidently astride
her quarter horse, disappearing into a dense canopy of Pine Forest cloaking the lower
slopes of the Yellowstones. By midday, her riding party will have emerged above the
tree-line to look down on the Valley from some unmentionably dizzy height. My own day had
been planned for adventure of equal magnitude. I intended taking a float ride down the
mighty waters of the Madison, without the aid of a paddle - that unwanted hindrance I was
going to leave to my guide.
I first clapped eyes on Gary Evans through the windscreen of my hired 4X4 whilst
rattling across a railway sleepered bridge to his fishing camp. Gary was a giant of a man
in his early thirties, fashioned in perfect harmony to the epic proportions of his native
land. Courteous, soft spoken, and a master of laconic communication - Gary Evans was about
to "make my day".
Introductions and formalities over, we stowed our gear aboard some kind of specially
designed Dory and pushed out into the waters. He at the rear with huge oars controlling
and directing our descent - me, self-consciously perched on the slightly elevated fishing
seat, the wondrous river opening up before me.
How best to describe the pleasures I derived from that day? Well let's start with the
fact that I was just a passionate novice of four years experience, weaned on a diet of put
and take lakes, interspersed with a few mildly successful days on a southern chalk stream
- yet through countless books and T.V. documentaries, I'd fished the world in my mind. But
I'm here to tell you that that longed for day on the Madison was to be an experience
beyond even my wildest imaginings.
Not for me the land-locked frustrations of a few meagre feet of drag-free drift; the
maddening incompetence that lands my fly short of some far fish-filled patch of water
where my eyes are riveted. Gary was going to place me four-square amongst the muck and
bullets of a battle zone, cruising the blacktop of the trout's own highway - and he knew
all the lay-bys where the finned traffic parked up nose to tail.
We eased out of Gary's backwater into the confluence with the main river, and no sooner
had we begun our journey down fish freeway than Gary was pointing to an outcrop of
boulders about thirty metres down stream. "Comin" up to your right, K.D."
(adjusting his oars to slow the Dory's descent) "Make your cast, I'll keep you runnin
level". I flicked one of his home made Hoppers onto the fast moving waters, and good
as his word, I watched mesmerised as my fly and I performed a synchronous, twenty metre
drift - only for it to disappear disappointingly into turbulence about five metres shy of
the boulders. Gary's cry of "Hit him, K.D.!" was a shade too late in waking me
up. I felt a split second's worth of powerfully wriggling weight on the end of the line -
and it was gone.
But I'd touched him. And what was so wonderful was the knowledge that all these wild
fighting fish were now within my reach. In the ensuing hours, Gary put me over more
productive lies than I imagined existed in the world. And therein lies the narcotic of a
perennial beginner. It's impossible to exaggerate the depths of your excitement at
each new discovery.
I guess after a couple of hours fighting the currents even a guy like Gary needed a
rest. He'd beached us on long gravel island in scenery straight out of a John Ford
western. I was surrounded by the cliffs of a high sided canyon towering to an immense
western sky, with the snow melt waters of the upper Madison tumbling either side of me on
their seven hundred mile journey to the sea. What was that film called? "Where The
River Bends"? "Winchester 73"? Whichever, surely this had to be the
place where Jimmy Stuart's character was finally laid to his noble rest.
Gary was halfway though pointing out my option before I dragged myself back from my
youth. On one side of the bar, I could fish into a multitude of broad shallow pockets
shaded by the cliffs from the sun's fierce glare. From the other, into the deeper, boulder
cluttered waters of an altogether more turbulent and challenging run. I'd only ever fished
into the wafting weed beds and gravel hollows of a placid, manicured chalk stream. And now
I was being offered this!
After a cool beer and sandwich followed by five minutes of talking tactics my panic
subsided to a manageable level and I was picking out into the riffles under Gary's
instructions, armed with a brook rod and one of his killer Prince nymphs. Now don't laugh,
but this was the first time I'd actually fished standing in the water and my legs
were jellied with stage fright. I took courage from Del-boy. "He who dares, Rodders -
he who dares".
Well I just couldn't believe the size and the beauty of that golden brown trout I came
to hold in my shaking hands. She'd been charmed by my Prince on the third or fourth cast
into seemingly nothing more than a few inches of barren, gin-clear water. Where she came
from, nobody knows. And after a heart-stopping aerial fight, and an all too brief but
magical introduction - I released her to return to her heaven knows where. Now do you see
what I mean about being a perennial beginner? Everything's magical.
Photo by William Walker
And so my own maiden voyage down the Madison went on; fishing experiences piled one on
top another until the strain of trying to digest all their lessons had caused me a state
of near mental melt down.
I'd taken cutthroats and browns off the top in white waters and nymphed them from all
kinds of pockets and pools - and all this in surroundings which were nothing short of
spectacular. In all, I netted well over a dozen so-called "trophy" size trout,
and felt the fleeting handshake of at least a dozen and a half more - not to mention the
obliging white-fish that filled the spaces between. Now I didn't know it at the time, but
this was to be my defining day on the Madison. On subsequent (unguided) trips to her
waters, the natives never proved that friendly again. But then how do you improve on
One of Gary's men had brought his 4X4 and trailer to a rendezvous point close to
highway. And whilst helping Gary unload our paraphernalia onto the shingle beach, I was
suddenly hit with this weird sensation. For the first time in my life, I was physically
and emotionally, utterly fished out.
So, lulled by the comfort of the 4X4's cab, I fell into a stupor for most of the
journey back to the camp. And it was only on that uneven surface of sleepered bridge I'd
passed over a long fishing lifetime ago, that the casual enquiry finally jolted me back to
"So what's on the menu for you tomorrow, K.D.?" I can't say I'd exactly
forgotten, but the sudden adrenaline rush triggered by the thought brought reality
crashing back centre stage. "Believe it or not, Gazza. I'm taking my bride to the
altar". Actually, I'd gone one better - I'd arranged for the altar to be brought to
my bride. Which brings us to Julie London and the theatrical costumier.
First, I must make clear I've never been a fan of fancy dress - especially if it
happens I'm the only one wearing it. So the act of unzipping that costumier's plastic
travelling bag left me filled with a numbing dread. How did I ever talk myself into
thinking I could get away with it!? Well I can say is, sometimes you amaze yourself when
you've got no other option but try.
The first time I took my vows was to the accompaniment of Gregorian chants in a Russian
Orthodox Church. The second, in the pallidly homogenous surrounds of a Kensington registry
office. But now I was being blessed in the vastness of one of nature's own Cathedrals,
beneath a blue vaulted sky underpinned by towering Pines and the snow-tipped peaks of the
Rocky Mountains - the good Judge Joe Wilkins, presiding.
Kim looked stunning in her full-length Scarlet O'Hara wedding dress. And unbelievably,
I'd grown into the skin of my Rhet Butler frock coat and ruffed shirt with a minimum of
self-consciousness. I was told later, that even a few of the hardened ranch hands gathered
in curiosity at the edge of our small congregation couldn't help but be touched by our
"Cry me a river", Julie sang. "I cried a river over you" - and on
the steps in front of our log cabin altar, against a backdrop that no stain glass window
on earth could compare to - that's was just what Kim and I did. And believe me, they
weren't poor Julie's bitter tears.
It turned out the Judge was something of a fishing man. This little gem unearthed in
the wine-mellowed afterglow of our steak and lobster nuptials. I asked him where his
favourite spot might be. "Try fishin" with the buffaloes in Yellowstone" he
said. "You just can't beat it". Kim's ears pricked at the mention of the
animals, and I knew a new fishing day had been born. Good on yer Joe. Actually, the
Buffaloes turned out to be Bison but we'll get to that later.
Yellowstone Park had that previous year been
ravaged by a record number of forest fires. Hundreds of thousands of acres reduced to ash
and charcoaled stumps. Yet, already the green shoots of new beginnings were making
themselves evident. But my overwhelming impression, was all these vast areas of
devastation were but a mere spit in the ocean of Yellowstone's overwhelming size. Buffalo
Ford on the Yellowstone River: We'd parked the 4X4 in a scenic lay-by, and as Kim and I
scrambled down a steep embankment towards the river, yet again I was stopped in my tracks
by the sheer scale of the panorama. Half of Wiltshire would have fit into that vast grass
plain stretching out before us alone. And then there was the sound; the sonorous,
deep-lunged snorting of a herd of wading Bison, nostril-deep in the Yellowstone's waters.
How the hell do you tickle a trout out of that lot, Joe? And I didn't, although I passed a
memorable half hour trying.
The truth was this was supposed be a honeymoon for two, and you can't turn your bride
into fishing widow when she's less than twenty fours fresh from the altar. So, we
picnicked with buffaloes instead, and spent album time taking photos of each other against
the patchwork of shaggy, summer- moulting monsters. And I never did manage a fish from our
trip to Yellowstone Park, but I was more than content just to admire where they lived.
That was pretty much the pattern for the rest of the trip. Stolen, opportunistic
moments inside all the wonderful sight seeing. I snuck one from the Snake River on our day
trip into Ohio, and another couple from a visit to Fire Creek. I even managed a half-day
solo trip to fish my first mountain stream. It was my last opportunity to use the Sage
brook rod I'd bought from an outfitters in Billings. I have to say I'd fallen heavily for
all that lightweight American fly tackle. But on this occasion, although it didn't help me
catch a fish, the new accessories did help add a touch of the Rambo's to the adventure.
So, in the words of that immortal travelogue commentator. "And so we bid farewell
to the wonderful land of Montana". But before we go. Thanks to you, Gary Evans, for a
seminal fishing experience. And to you too Judge Joe Wilkins, for lending that
Sunday-go-to-Meeting dignity of yours to our proceedings. And thanks to my Bride most all
- for giving me the gift of my (final) new beginning.
But before I go I'd also like to thank Bruno, my recently departed fishing mentor, whom
I met whilst stumbling out of one of life's dark alleys. For without his introduction to
the fly - none of the foregoing would have come to pass.
Arkadi de Rakoff © 2002