by Gary LaFontaine
Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes
May 11th - The first scramble for ice-out; a day at Ramshorn Lake.
published by Greycliff Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 1273, Helena, MT 59624-1273
Phone: (406) 443-1888
"NEVER DOUBT the courage of the French. We're the ones who
discovered that snails are edible."
Bernie Samuelson looks at the escargot, watches me eat one, and
stares again at the serving plate. At Chico Hot Springs they serve
the best escargot in Montana, which is like serving the best prime rib
in Paris; but I've had escargot all over the country and this is good.
Bernie has to be as hungry as I am - simple meat-and-potatoes boy
or not - and he will try one sooner or later.
He puts one in his mouth, chews carefully, and says, "Not bad."
"I wonder if Rufus would like snails?"
After what that goat did for us, I would gladly buy Rufus a plate full of
BERNIE SAMUELSON and his pack goat, Rufus, are legendary among
high-mountain lake specialists. For most of the summer he travels the
state searching not just for fishing lake but for fishing lakes at ice-out.
When he goes high enough - up over 10,000 feet in the Beartooths - he
can find ice remnants in late July.
There's something about legendary outdoor characters. They don't get
their reputations by doing things the normal way. Simple fanaticism isn't
quite enough. They do things that same men marvel at but have no wish
to emulate. They like to tell stories about the times they almost died - and if
those stories aren't exaggerated too much, you're in the company of a legend.
Legends get nicknames. Jeremiah "Liver-Eating" Johnson? The man didn't
get the nickname for table manners. Bernie Samuelson doesn't need a
nickname because he has a goat. That's enough to tell him apart from all
the other Bernie Samuelsons in the world.
After today I call my buddy, "Bernie 'the-goat's-the-smart-one' Samuelson."
BERNIE HITS more high-mountain lakes at or just after ice-out than any
other person alive because he doesn't wait for the "sure thing," the "window
of opportunity," or even the "long shot." I can't prove it for certain, but I'd
bet that he has trekked up to some high lake after a few warm days in January
just on the chance of a miracle thaw.
We drive to the end of the Buffalo Horn Road, already sliding through snow
patches, and Bernie says, as we stand at the trail to Ramshorn, "There's a
fifty-fifty chance the ice will be breaking up."
I let my two dogs out, Chester the Wonder-Mutt and Zeb the Rottweiler,
and Bernie unlatches the trailer and leads Rufus out. Zeb looks at Rufus
and doesn't know whether to mug him or mount him. The dog sticks his
nose in the goat's face and Rufus licks his snout - they're friends for life.
We load up Rufus, settle into our backpacks, and start up the trail on a
quick day trip to see if the ice is off. As soon as we start to climb we hit
snow. Within a mile we stop and put on our snowshoes and the sprint
to the top becomes a slog. I huff, my snowshoeing legs getting their
first workout in years, and the dogs wallow in drifts. Rufus high-steps
easily and Bernie smiles like a fool in paradise. I can't figure it out but
soon I'm grinning too, even though every muscle in my body is starting
to break down.
We just need a rim of open water around the edge," Bernie says. "A few feet."
Hours later we reach Ramshorn and it's frozen solid. A cautious man would
drive a semitrailer across it without a second thought. Bernie jumps up and
down on it just to be sure and the ice doesn't even quiver.
We build a small fire for a quick meal and sit there on a tarp, looking at the
lake. Neither of us regrets the trip in. Anyone who can't understand this may
be a fly fisherman, but they're not a high-mountain lake fisherman.
IT STARTS SNOWING and it is already nearly dark when we start down the
mountain. The drifts seem deeper, harder to clamber over with the snowshoes,
and impossible to break through. In the gloom of dusk and blowing snow
only Rufus knows where the trail is; and with little tinkling bells he leads us out.
Chester, longer legged, keeps up, but Zeb bogs down in every deep drift. He
watches me with a mixed look of fear and love - as if I'd ever think of leaving him -
and I struggle back to pull him through. After the fourth time I fall flat in the snow.
With a flashlight in his mouth, Bernie helps me rig a shoulder harness on Zeb, and we
tie a rope from Zeb up to Rufus. The goat walks steadily until the rope tightens
and then, as if he knows why he is doing it, he slowly edges ahead until Zeb pops
free from the latest snow drift.
WE SIT in the restaurant at Chico, eating an appetizer of snails and drinking
beer. A friend, Ron Rudding, sees us and comes over. "How was Ramshorn?" he
"Ron," Bernie replies, "We nearly died up there. We got hit with the worst
spring blizzard I've seen in thirty years out here, the temperature dropped
forty degrees, the wind howled, and it got dark hours before it should have."
"It's the word-for-word truth," I affirm.
"Rufus saved us," Bernie says.
Ron just nods, "Uh, huh."
"But I think that the ice might break up on Ramshorn next week," Bernie
And, a week later, I go back up there with him. The lake is still frozen
solid. ~ Gary LaFontaine