We were seven and five and fishing a Hong Kong reservoir with our parents. Dad had parked our Ford Esquire station wagon at the top of a short slope leading down to the water where Simon, alone in his shorts and tee shirt, was trying to coax one more minnow onto his junior fishing outfit. I’d already done the older brother bit and had heeded our parents’ summons to come to the car and eat our sandwiches; but Simon, doing the younger brother bit, pretended not to hear, intent on the bobbing of his red and white float, and the silver fish that its movements betrayed beneath it.
Mum, Dad and I were mesmerised by the float’s teasing movements, all wishing it would go under completely so Simon could strike and land his fish. We all fished then for black bass and perch in the New Territory reservoirs where we were privileged and always the only guests – my parents had left Britain to teach at English schools on a contract. Simon’s float continued to nudge this way and that, but it was another motion on the water that caught our eyes; sliding its way across the surface, about four rod lengths from Simon’s float, slithered a green Bamboo snake, probably the most deadly variety in the colony.
“Simon, come and get your sandwich please,” said my Mother, firmly, but with that little edge of panic that voices can suggest beneath the words they carry. She wanted to avoid spooking her younger son and the snake, and the two were now on collision course, Simon blissfully unaware and absorbed by his bobbing float. “Listen to your mother,” said Dad, a little more firmly and. When he said “mother” instead of “mum”, you knew it was serious.The float went under. Simon struck with his rod. Its tip bent for one moment, to show that the fish had been hooked, and then it straightened. The fish had escaped. Simon dropped his rod at the water’s edge, turned around, a sulk taking shape on his face, and headed up the slope towards lunch. Mum, Dad and I watched in relief. When Simon was halfway towards us, Dad ran down with a handful of stones and pelted the snake, which turned, wobbled, and in a motion that suggested a limp, headed away across the dam.Simon was unphased when we told him about the snake. He hadn’t seen it. Ergo, it did not exist. Simon had the concentration of a limpet. When he was concentrating on fishing, only fishing existed. This did not change throughout his unnaturally short life.
I think of my late brother often, but most especially when I fish. He was a beautiful fly fisherman with an elegant trademark side cast and the happy knack of taking fish when others were not. In my mind’s eye I can see him at a Scottish lough, he and his beloved Spaniel in total concentration, as a floating line snakes steadily across the water. The hills, trees and sky around all seem to have paused in that moment, awaiting his strike.
I was fishing the Bitterroot river in Montana with Wade Fellin, whose boyish charm and elegance in all things fishing conjured thoughts of Simon’s stubborn concentration to the surface of my holidaying mind. Wade is the son of Craig Fellin, the owner of Big Hole Lodge (www.flyfishinglodge.com) where I stayed for a week of comfort and hot water after camping in Wyoming’s Wind River range. Wade has Simon’s hunger for the chase and the same cast iron concentration, the same determination to pit the wisdom of his world against the instincts of the fish beneath, and to win. But not to triumph. To watch Wade net and the release a client’s fish is to witness someone who not just respects his quarry, he reveres it. I caught one specimen on a dry fly that must have been a hybrid between a cutthroat and a rainbow and it had the beauty of both mixed on one shimmering palette. Wade took about 40 photos of it before watching it slip away into the deep.
I’ve never been a good dry fly fisherman and learned a lot from my guides that week; they tied a small (#14) bushy dry fly like an Adams to the end of my line, and then attached another three feet of tippet with a much smaller match-the-hatch Blue Olive Dun or similar to that. The bigger fly did attract fish, but it served the key purpose of a bite indicator for my ageing eyes. At first Wade would have to say “STRIKE” in crisp parade ground language to get me to hook a fish, because he could see my flies, and I couldn’t. But towards the end of that week, I was quietly congratulating myself that I could now hook star spangled brownies on #22 black gnats on my own.
I learned a lot in a week at the Big Hole lodge, an incredibly intimate and small lodge for up to eight anglers. It sits on the Wise river but guests tend to take day trips out on the Big Hole, Bitterroot and Beaverhead on alternate days, to float or to walk and wade as they wish. The scenery is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but without the Indians, betrayed and slaughtered as Craig will recount if you have time. He has a firm grasp of local history and no little shame about what happened to the land’s first inhabitants at the hand of “civilising” armies and legislation.
I learned that fishing supports hundreds of thousands of livelihoods in places like Montana, but that doesn’t mean that it has lost its humanity or become Disneyfish. Craig and Wade have crafted what is undoubtedly a money-making enterprise but I never thought once about how much it cost, only about what it had brought me: genuine friendships and interest, a real concern to share local knowledge and help me catch fish, and an overwhelming love of the waters. My hosts saw nothing strange about being summer fishing guides or winter ski guides or whatever it took to work in the outdoors; they fear what big money and big dreams might do to Big Sky country. It was the same wherever I fished in America. Guiding is a respected profession driven by a love of the outdoors.
I fished with Craig, Wade, Rob and Stephanie, and they all taught me so much with a desire to share, not to preach. When Stephanie said: “Come on, let’s go fishing,” she wasn’t trying to get the day started so she could get it over with. She genuinely wanted to get out on her boat and help me catch fish, and I did, as I did with all of the guides.
Secondly, I learned that love of the fish and the habitat is not enough to guarantee that places like Montana will last as outdoor paradises. There are forces at work in America who do not place value on the outdoor industry, which embraces skiing, hunting, hiking as well as fishing. There are those who would like to turn such places into a patchwork of small industries, creating jobs that depend on order books and currency movements rather than the weather and nature. The outdoors camp fights hard to maintain water quality, access and farm offtake. “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting about,” says Wade. They do battle in boardrooms and council offices and local legislatures and interest group gatherings.
There are powerful forces too who think that climate change is a figment of a febrile liberal imagination. Some of these people fish and hunt too. They maintain that climate change backers have fallen prey to short term panic and hysteria, and put their faith in man’s adaptability. The same phoney logic says you can give up cigarettes anytime. These people miss the point that what we do today affects the world we live in tomorrow.
Thirdly I saw and enjoyed what happens when huge chunks of nature get entrusted to the people in the form of National Parks and protected areas. I am familiar with these from my time in Africa, but there they cater to a small but wealthy elite. Places like Yellowstone or Glacier National Park cater for everyone and when the vision statement says the land has been entrusted “to the nation,” that is precisely what it means, and huge numbers enjoy it. There are lessons to be learned here in the unfashionable notion that posterity is a constituency we need to factor in to our plans. Our consumption patterns tend to appease our appetite for instant gratification, not our need for the next generation’s water or air.
And I remembered how and why Simon could lose himself so totally in a moment’s fishing. He was far more skilled than I have ever been at winding down and forgetting work and worry. I learned, in Wyoming and Montana, to slip away on the moment and unshackle the chains of worry and fear that shake and rattle ever louder as you get older.
When we were young I was the model student and he the rebel. When we got older he turned into the successful self-made man with big house, lovely wife and kids and I morphed into a mess, a drunk who left home. I wish he were alive today so he could see how I drank my way to chaos but fished my way to sanity.
And I learned that Montana and places so rich in nature are not so much demarcations of land on a map as a state of mind. A River Runs Through It, Redford’s Film of Norman Maclean’s novella, was set and filmed in Montana. In it, the wayward brother played by Brad Pitt is offered a new start in life “back East” with his older brother and fiancée, away from his rivers and his demons. Pitt, in his fishing gear at the water’s edge, replies, rod in hand, “Oh I’ll never leave Montana Little Brother.”
And the accompanying smile is as wide as the Blackfoot river he fishes on.
In my mind I will never leave Montana either. I know that my little brother would understand.