In my mind, a side channel is a scar on the body of a river. Not a blemish,
but a reminder of a time when things got a little out of hand, a new course
was briefly attempted, and a little piece of something was left behind.
Scars tell a tale. We remember the tales behind our own scars, for they
were the times that marked us. And I remember the tales behind the side
channels of the rivers I have known.
Rock Creek. I will call it that, because there are famous Rock
Creeks, and this stream deserves to be famous. A Forest Service
road runs alongside, and at one place where the river disappears in
the trees for a moment, there is an opening in the far bank. Even if you
could see it from the road, you would probably dismiss it, a gap in the
grass only six feet wide.
The first time I fished it, I knew it would be wonderful, for the main river
had been wide and uninviting to that point. I wanted a more intimate place,
where the water could not hide the fish I knew lived there. And the first pool,
with its little rock shelf and log, showed me a nice cutthroat. The second showed
me a beautiful brown, twenty inches, who was too smart that day but finally
took weeks later. The third, the tenth, the thirtieth, all held beautiful fish, usually
one per pool, most far too large for the six-foot width of stream they called home.
The channel went from narrow riffle to broad flat pool, rising fish to skulking
dwellers of cutbanks. Browns to brooks to rainbows to cutts.
There were deer, and once a bear. Herons near dark, a snake, and not a
human footprint but ours. Ever.
Near the top, where the river once again could be heard, was a deep pool
beside a logjam. That first day I came up from below, in the hot August sun,
with a hopper, and cast it upon the waters. And a fish as long as my leg
came up, took the fly and a piece of me, and was never seen again.
The Gallatin, southwest Montana. Greg and I drove up the canyon into the
clouds, looking for an escape from college and life. The Sheep Pool, as we
called it, had always been a favorite of mine, although Greg was never
impressed. I had always found reckless trout rising to simple dry flies in
the summer, and a few hardy fish taking nymphs in the winter. And it's not
really a pool, but rather a stretch, two big islands, with the main channel
alternating sides, the lower side channel a bare trickle in the summer,
devoid of life.
As we approached, the bugs started to show. Salmonflies, as long as your
little finger, like birds over the water. We grinned and drove faster, rock music
loud in the speakers. Miraculously, even though the hatch was obvious to
anyone on the highway, no one was there, perhaps because of the wind and
rain. We strung our rods and hit the water, thirty feet from the truck.
Greg and I grew closer that day. We had been friends, but the day brought
together. Perhaps it was the hatch, suicidal bugs and voracious trout, dry flies
in June. Perhaps it was the mink that came up the bank behind us, and
stopped to beg for food. In fifty trips I had never before seen it. Perhaps
it was the otter that came down the channel for a meal, and put down the
fish for all of two minutes. Perhaps it was the lightning, when I cowered
under a spruce on the island as Greg, laughing, fought a big rainbow while
the rain poured down. But I would like to think it was that side channel, ten
feet wide and ten feet from the highway, where two mad college guys with
fly rods found the mother lode of trout one afternoon, that brought us closer.
Bonnie's Rock. About four feet wide, it defines a stretch of river some
four hundred yards long. And there are more rocks, and an island, and
some more obvious landmarks. But it will always be Bonnie's Rock.
I caught a 19-inch brown once, on the first cast, right beside the place I
parked. I thought it would be the omen of a glorious day of fishing. On that
day I caught only that one fish in four hours.
The island is big. I found a buffalo skull on it once, at least a hundred
years old, and finally the whole skeleton. A pheasant rocketed off over
my head another day as I was casting to a riser. He put me down faster
than the fish. The outside of the island, for the most part, is just river.
But the inside is Bonnie's Rock.
There is a rock at the head of the island, without a name. One day during
a BWO hatch, I saw a fish rise there, in amongst the overhanging branches
behind the rock. I couldn't cast, so I carefully waded up, and with 18 inches
of tippet below the end of my rod, lowered the hare's ear to the fish. She took,
and I missed. She turned and took another fly, a natural. I dapped, she took,
I missed, but ticked her with the point. She shook her head twice, and took
another fly. I dapped, she came over, look at my fly, and gulped it. I caught her.
A healthy adult brown, the hardest of the trout to catch, at 9 feet from my toes
on a bluebird day.
There are two rocks together down the side channel, again without names.
The very first time I fished the channel, I drifted a fly past them, and caught a
20-inch brown. At the time, this was an event, and I was sorry I was alone.
I cast again, and caught an identical fish in the same spot. I wasn't alone.
The BWO hatch again, or perhaps a different year. A nice riser against the
bank. "I can't see my fly," she said. "Keep casting, he's right up against the
bank. I will tell you if he takes." The next cast caught the wind, and fell six
feet above the riser. And the fly disappeared into a huge mouth. "SET!"
I screamed. She did. Another nice brown.
I took John there in a snowstorm. He caught the biggest trout of his life
(at the time) at Bonnie's Rock. The one he lost left him in awe.
Greg and I fished the caddis hatch there. The old man sat in his wheelchair,
oxygen beside him, drowning worms above the rock. We had talked to him,
then and before, and were used to fishing around him. Fish after fish fell to
our soft-hackles and emergers, while his worms went untouched. "I never
seen anyone catch fish like you boys are doin,'" he told us.
Then one day, as I fished the rock, Bonnie came down and stood there
"Caught me my dinner yet?" she asked.
"No," I replied, "But I can keep one for you if you want."
She stood there for a few minutes, watching me cast, indicator doing nothing
but floating. I got the feeling she had something she wanted to say, but waited
and fished while she watched. She looked down at her boots and sighed.
"Well, " she said," I gotta cook for myself now." I waited, not knowing what she
meant. "Yeah, Doc died this morning. It's just me now."
What could I say?
I fished Bonnie's Rock for three more hours. When it was too dark to see
any more, it finally came. And I knocked on the door of her house, and when
she opened it, said, "There's nothing I can do about Doc, and I'm sorry for
that. But here's your dinner." ~ Dennis Garrison