On the dry rock-strewn benches above the river you can trace the course of the irrigation ditches by the line of cottonwood and willow trees that grow along their course. The trees are the only green thing on the benches with their sparse short grass being their only cover. Below the benches along the river, is a lush green riparian corridor of grass, shrubs and trees and on a hot, dry Montana summer day it's a vibrant, cool oasis in the midst of a seemingly endless treeless plain.
We drive down a dusty two-track trail that passes as a road; going slowly to avoid the bone jarring rocks that form the driving surface. We switchback down from the semi-arid bench, cross an irrigated field, its emerald green grass sharply contrasting against the dry benches above. We pull into the shade of a large cottonwood tree that has its roots firmly planted in the moist soil along the river. As the sound of the motor fades away the sound of running water, screened from our view by a curtain of tall grass and a wall of red osier dogwood and seep willows, reaches our ears. Stepping out of the car the water cooled air and the smell of the organic richness created by the unseen river washes over us, creating a benevolent sensory overload. It comes to mind that the cottonwood and all the other vibrant vegetation would not exist here except for the flowing river. As we fill our lungs with the invigorating elixir an audible sigh escapes from our lips.
Moments later, wader clad and fly rods in hand, we push through the wall of grass and shrubs and step into the river. We knew it was there, it's an old friend that we have come to know well over many years.
We have been here in the spring when the grass was just turning green and the trees and shrubs were bare stalks reaching upward toward the sun. Beneath the trees patches of winter's snow still lingered. Then the water was high and cold, the trout lethargic beneath this cold blanket, holding along the bottom and in the quiet water behind the rocks. Short casts with heavy nymphs bounced along the bottom might bring a response but we rarely fished during those visits; we were just paying a visit to an old friend. We would return later when conditions were more favorable; merely being there was satisfaction in itself.
Summer, with its promise of rising fish and pleasant weather, is our favorite time here. There are colorful rainbow trout, strong and lusty lurking behind the rocks where the currents are strong. Once they feel the metal of the hook they take to the air falling back with an audible splash, then surge away downstream spending their energy against the pull of the rod and the strength of the current. The barbless hook slides easily out of the corner of their jaw while they lie in soft folds of the net; then revived they surge away.
There are brown trout here and cutthroats too, and while I enjoy them all the tawny golden colored brown trout is my particular favorite. When the shadows grow long at the end of a summer's day I seek out one of the long flats with a vigorous riffle at its head and a long deep pool below. Here, when the caddis dance or the mayfly spinners fall to the surface in the afterglow of a long summer twilight the brown trout make their appearance. A small dimple, almost too small to notice, often marks the presence of a respectable trout. A careful approach, a delicate cast, and the fly disappears. I lift the rod and the water boils as the fish rushes away toward the deep water or some unseen underwater refuge among the roots of a streamside tree. The results of these contests are never certain and more than one muscular brownie shouldered its way into the submerged sanctuary of tree roots or sunken logs. Reel in, quickly repair the busted leader and in the failing light attempt to poke the leader through the eye of another tiny fly; just enough time for a few more casts before it's time to climb the bench back to civilization.
Fall along the river was always a beautiful but melancholy time, a mixture of sweet memories and the bitter realization that another delightful season is coming to a close. The river is lower, the cottonwoods a blaze of yellow and the dogwoods a bright red, their leaves floating like tiny sailboats down the riffles, slowly sinking in the pools paving the bottom with shades of red and yellow. The browns are brilliant in their pre-spawning colors; males with prominent hooked jaws and females buttery fat with developing roe. Rainbows, fat from a summer of plenty, are still eager for an easy meal before the long cold days of winter, and in the deeper pools laid-back cutthroats rise from the depths slowly, oh so slowly, to inspect our flies. Often we would strike too soon and they would simply drift away out of sight in the depths.
The rancher that owned the property told us that I could build a cabin next to the river, and as tempting as it was I declined his more than generous offer. He was perplexed but I explained that I could possess this place but I could never own it. Some places are only to be visited, we are guests not residents. Later he gave me a written permission slip that indicated that I had unlimited access as long as he, or his descendants owned the property. I treasure that yellowing piece of paper that is carefully folded up inside a plastic sleeve in the jockey box of my vehicle. I have never had occasion to use it.
We are always reluctant to leave during those golden fall days. The first storms of winter would soon sweep down from the north pushing away the last of the colorful leaves from the trees and covering it all with a clean cold blanket of white. Beneath the water of the river life will go on but at a slower pace as all of nature awaits the coming of another spring. Unlike the trout we cannot stay and turn reluctantly up the hill, across the bench – going home.