Vodka on the rocks 

Drinking and fishing with a twist

I caught a 20-inch cutthroat and I'm on my eleventh P-ber!" spouts the celebratory Midwestern transplant sidled up to the bar with a Pabst Blue Ribbon, further evidence that the millenniums-old marriage between fishing and drinking (and bragging) is flourishing in the Treasure State.

The only flaw in the kid's braggadocio is that in Montana—or so Norman Maclean said—drinking beer doesn't count as drinking.

I want to tell him, "Knock back another tall boy, Bro-Bra, it's kind of like catching a whitefish," but I sip my vodka and bite my tongue, aware that there's no social sin more unforgivable than opining on someone's drinking preferences. Judge not, lest ye be judged, right?

Besides, I know a fellow ne'er-do-well when I see one, another enemy of progress who knows that, like fishing, drinking offers the chance to be truly alone and exultant, two rarities in this over-documented world. The fishing-drinking marriage proves that not all relationships of convenience are destined for failure.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

One of my longtime fishing clients, who is fond of polishing off at least one bottle of expensive wine at shore-lunch, asserts that the union is a fluid one due to a kind of functional dysfunctionality, or dysfunctional functionality, whichever you prefer. That is: If the fishing's great, let's hoist a glass in celebration, but if the fishing's poor, we'd better knock off early and put an end to our piscatorial misery with a stiff one.

To clarify: Drinking and rowing don't mix. There's too much that can go wrong while soberly navigating rivers, which don't intend to kill us but have the utter power to do so at any moment. Along with most oarsmen I know, I don't row buzzed.

And I don't often pair drinking and fishing. To drink, obviously, is to seek intoxication, and watching a large brown trout emerge from a deadfall to inhale a stonefly with an audible sucking sound gives me plenty.

After a day of untangling tippets and dodging flailed flies during the post-lunch "chardonnay hour," however, I am usually ready for—dare I say deserving of—a belt, as my grandmother called her martinis.

I recall one abominable Smith River overnight trip several Junes ago during which the river tripled in volume due to rain, the rain turned to gear-demolishing snow, and both clients and guides began to booze with the fervor of sailors on a sinking ship.

Three days and $2,300 worth of consumed gin and vodka might sound like a fish story, but there was plenty of puke in the tents as proof.

We fish and drink to withdraw from the burdensome everyday, to exempt ourselves momentarily from what legendary fisherman and imbiber Jim Harrison called "the gray egg" of reality.

But if fishing is an addiction, it's doubtless easier on the body than drinking, not to mention more memorable.

Almost 17 years ago, during my first summer in Montana—gluttonous for trout, cold water, and the evening rise—I fished at least part of 52 straight days, and I'm certain that I recall more of this fly-flicking binge (a large brook trout I caught one night in the Crazies, for instance, whose back was the color of the storm-charged sky) than I do of even my most recent bender.

Fishing rewards attention to bugs, to weather, to creatures other than us—to the present moment, not the busied mind, which so often resembles a silted-in riverbed in need of a flushing runoff. What is the brain that it requires the occasional cleansing? It is apparent that we don't really know.

I'm not much on hypotheticals, but the other evening after a day of floating between snow squalls and spring sunlight on the Bitterroot, my friend began to ask the kinds of questions one conjures up only after a long soul-bolstering day on the water.

If you could only do one or the other, fish or hunt, which would you quit? If you could only fish one river in Montana for the rest of your life, which would it be? Etcetera. He'd been drinking river beer for most of the afternoon, Hamm's, which I reminded him didn't count.

"Oh, I've got a good one," he said. "If you had to give up one or the other, fishing or drinking, which would you choose?"

I poured some chilled vodka into a chilled double-walled glass and pondered his question for a while. I was loathe to consider it but the answer was quite clear. If I had to pledge allegiance to one or the other obsession, I'd choose fishing: wading through moving water with a fly rod in hand, thoroughly emulsified by the current tightening like a belt around my waist, by the sound of water coursing over cobbles. I'd take the river: straight, no chaser.

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