“Salmon respond well to the occasional jerk of the pole.”
So said my neighbor, a lifetime slayer of lake fish I’ll call Buck. His observation was followed by the requisite exchange of lewd references to the jerking of poles. Then he got philosophical. “Fishing is just a jerk at one end of a pole waiting for a jerk at the other end.”
This fishing trip, our first together, had begun like many a Montana friendship: an invitation tossed casually over a fence, sincere but not hopeful. The offer is accepted, not in a “yeah, that sounds fun” sort of way, but in a “when?” sort of way. And “for what?”
For kokanee salmon, a delectable species of small, oily, landlocked sockeye that live in mountain lakes and migrate up rivers to spawn.
Next thing I knew it was 5 a.m. and I was in the backseat of a pickup bouncing toward Polson, listening to unfamiliar talk radio. My neighbor’s son, whom I’ll call Bull, rode shotgun. It was on that ride that I learned my neighbor not only knows how to cuss, but when he’s going fishing, swear words are apparently the only words he knows. I learned a few new ones myself. Buck had hardly started. He was just warming up his vocal cords after a long week at the office.
I first became acquainted with Buck through complementary interests. He catches fish at a rate that far exceeds what he can consume—or, at least, what his wife will let him cook. So he started giving me fish. I, in turn, gave him a place to take those fish, which gave him an excuse to keep the fish he caught. Lake fish are in no danger of being overfished. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Thanks to Buck, I’ve had the opportunity to become a skilled smoker of fish, testing my skills on whitefish, mackinaw trout and kokanees. (Buck withholds only walleye.)
We were off to a lake in northern Montana that was supposed to be something of a secret stash. Perhaps on some days it still is, but on this day, which happened to be the summer solstice, it was neither secret nor stash.
We arrived soon after the day’s first rays of sunshine hit the blue lake, which sparkled peacefully. Mist hung from the nearby peaks and a few cotton-ball clouds hung in the valley above the lake. As we gazed upon the beautiful scene, the cursing began for real.
It started when Buck saw all the pickups in the boat-launch parking area. Milliseconds later, observing that the boats those trucks had towed were clustered awkwardly close to shore, Buck may have invented cusses even he hadn’t heard before.
He had “slaughtered them” on multiple occasions in that very spot, he informed us. The rest of what he said isn’t fit to print, but suffice to say that every one of those fishermen in every one of those boats was an absolute son of a buck.
On the water, Buck’s mood lightened like sunrise on the plains. He was finally fishing—which, if you believe his bumper stickers, is the only thing worth doing. The cursing took on a bantering, recreational tone. Sport cursing. For the first time, Bull joined in, muttering about Oregon assholes. At first I thought he was talking about the hippies in the neighboring dinghy. Turns out he was referring to the tangles of line that spontaneously appeared in my reel after nearly every cast.
“Sheeeeiiiit,” said Buck. “There’s a lot more assholes than jerks here today.”
The frequency of assholes may have had something to do with the weather. Wind had begun gusting across the water, which shivered into whitecaps. Dark clouds brought rain, frozen rain and snow. It was as if the solstice had taken a look around and gone back into its den. Neighboring boats began the comically quick trip to the ramp and left.
Profanity took on a new function, as if swearing might keep us warm. We swore like the sailors we were, with feeling. We swore at the sky, the cold, the water, and most of all the wind, evilest of elements.
Buck shook his head. “I was murdering them here last week.”
Buck had indeed murdered them there, and given me a sack of foot-long silver fish to prove it. I gutted them, split them lengthwise—“butterflied” them—and brined them overnight in sugar, dill and soy sauce. The next day I cold-smoked them with alder chips. I’d had the foresight to bring some on this trip. I’d also brought crackers.
As I prepared hors d’oeuvres in the gathering storm, Bull laid low in the boat, cap over his face, trying to escape the drenching wind. “I smell fish,” he said.
I handed around smoked fish on crackers and we transferred the snacks to our mouths with numb, clumsy fingers. The profanity turned positive as the smoked kokanee began reminding us with every bite what we love about this place. There was grizzly bear drool in that fish, and wolverine bones, pine needles, elk blood, hail and whatever else the springs and the forest and the north wind deliver. The gathered news of earth, water and sky.
These are the inputs that inform some of the finest flavors the northern Rockies have to offer, from deer to huckleberries to morels to the smoky kokanees that brought our spirits back to life on that storm-tossed little boat. Sometimes, when jerking the pole isn't working, and swearing doesn’t help, you need a bite of Montana to remind you why you live here.