"Is that a rock?" asked Big Al from the front of the boat. I squinted over Al's shoulder into the tiny cone of light projecting from his cell phone, which, embarrassingly enough, was our only source of illumination as we felt our way downriver to a takeout already lost in the early night. A vague white smear arose from the edge of black water and, before I could reply, the boat bottom answered definitively as we glanced off the rock and swirled back into the dark current. LG spit a staccato burst of epithets from the rower's seat. It was his drift boat, and though we hadn't yet incurred any significant damage to his baby, it's a generally discomforting feeling to be navigating moving water stone-blind.
Told the story of three fishermen caught on a river after dark, most would assign the trio a combination of stupidity and inexperience. While all three of us suffer occasional bouts of the former, we've logged many thousands of river days collectively. This time, however, we'd fallen victim to the perfectly understandable desire to wring the most out of a season's final day on the water. The lesson here is that when the sun drops out of the sky at the beginning of happy hour, you'd best carpe your diem, lest the tables turn and it's the noctis seizing your sorry ass, instead.
For those who find peace and adventure in trout water, the onset of winter brings more than a metaphorical death. It brings the end of a fishing season that always seems to pass at a sadly tender age, with the same trout that just weeks ago savaged your fly now throttled down to refrigerated lethargy.
It also triggers a rabid desire for closure, a proper send-off that for me has evolved into a quest for one last big fish. Feeling the girth of a winter-ready trout as it slides through my hands back into water dark with cold is the best way I've found to put a trout season to bed, and the memory of that last fish vanishing becomes a lifeline months later when the winter blues lock down hard.
Two chief dynamics of late-autumn fishing give it most-favored season status among a certain subset of fly fishermen. The first is a matter of piscine biology. As water temperatures drop, the already highly-developed predatory instincts of big trout become sharpened by the need to pack as much energy (read: small fish) into their bodies as possible. Like the anglers who pursue them, big trout need a little help through the long winters. The second is a matter of cross-species timing. Late fall marks the peak of waterfowl migration and, for fly fishermen who also hunt ducks, it means keeping one eye on the water and one on the air. In Montana, we call this dual-purpose outing the cast-and-blast, which may not be as sexy a title as ménage à trois, but given the choice, I suspect a fair percentage of sportsmen would choose a big brown trout/greenhead mallard pairing over the Olsen twins.
In any event, neither a cast-and-blast nor any type of year-ender looked possible for me last fall, thanks to a work schedule loaded with crazy travel. But the understanding of a gracious wife and the availability of two of the best kind of fishing buddies (great fishermen and even better company) prevailed. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving we found ourselves rolling on I-90 to a section of a local river obscure enough to warrant a vow of anonymity from my fishing partners.
Out on the highway, the interior of LG's truck vibrated with a DJ mix of "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Run Like Hell." One might question the wisdom of blending Glen Campbell and Pink Floyd, but the result was startlingly satisfying. LG is a Missoula fishing guide and budding fly-fishing film producer. He's as fishy a guy as I know and possesses the sort of oversized personality and sense of humor that make every day on the water with him a balls-to-the-wall affair. When the sample of an Iron Maiden song rose from the mix, LG casually mentioned that Iron Maiden played in Santiago while he was imprisoned there a couple years ago. He can't talk about it much, as the case is still pending, but the bottom line is he went down for his right to guide in Chile. It's always a pleasure to share a boat with a man of conviction.
Big Al is probably the closest thing Missoula has to a man-about-town. He runs the taproom of a popular brew house and has so bewitched the general public that he's been voted best bartender several years running despite demonstrating no ability as a mixologist. He's also a great friend and a top-shelf fisherman predisposed to chasing big trout.
Our mission was clear. Late-fall trout fishing means casting big junk—streamer patterns designed to trigger a fierce predatory reaction—tight to the undercut banks favored by huge trout. What this style of fishing lacks in quantity of strikes is usually more than compensated for by the size of the fish involved. And from a technical standpoint, streamer fishing challenges even the most accomplished anglers.
I say this because, though I'd rate myself a solid third in that boat in terms of fishing ability, I'm no piker either. And so it was with no small amount of surprise that I observed Big Al slumped over in pain moments after I heard, as I powered a cast toward a succulent bank, a sound not unlike that of a hammer striking a two-by-four. It seems Al's melon got in the way of my cast and the big split-shot weight attached to the line just inches above the fly squared him dead center in the back of the head.