Swedish version


By Arkadi de Rakoff

Photo by Arkadi de Rakoff

  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 to heaven.

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".

Photo by Arkadi de Rakoff

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 Arkadi de Rakoff
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 perfection?

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 my senses.

"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 ceremony.

"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.

Photo by Arkadi de Rokoff

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.

Photo by Arkadi de Rakoff

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




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