Good Medicine
Life at the confluence of fly fishing and family.

Gray’s Sporting Journal
March/April 2015

A pair of headlights rose out of the St. Mary River valley and cut across the prairie, bearing down on me at an intersection. The truck’s glaring advantage over my rental car added to the unease I was already feeling—a suburban paleface semi-lost, at night, on Montana’s Blackfeet Indian reservation. I signaled right, and the headlights followed me down West Duck Lake Road. Running bumper to bumper, we fishtailed north in rutted clay slickened by melting September snow. At the first fork I pulled over to check the map, and the truck slid to a stop alongside, passenger window dropping.

Over the past five days I had traveled from Augusta, Georgia, to a conference in Great Falls, then west to Denton for a day of bird hunting, then north along the Front Range through Choteau, past East Glacier and Browning, finally converging with the truck by pure coincidence. Just before he outflanked me, with high beams still burning my retinas, sibling intuition told me it was my brother.

“Follow me!” David hollered from inside the darkened cab, slinging gumbo on my hood as he spun his wheels up the two-track. I had been to his cabin once before in the daytime. But my only other reference was a meticulously crafted cardboard scale model of the dwelling he showed me right after he’d bought his one-acre lot on Duck Lake, an improbable Caucasian inholding isolated in the long evening shadows of Glacier National Park.

Years later, the Stonehouse is a successful rental property, one half a revenue stream whose other branch springs from a well of original music that, for the past 15 summers, has flowed from the lower lobby of historic Many Glacier Hotel, a few miles down the valley. The back porch of the Stonehouse overlooks an 1,850-acre glacial lake to the east. A single, near-bulletproof front window is aimed at the Continental Divide. The walls are 16 inches thick and rocked with Montana fieldstone, cleverly positioned so that howling winter winds envelop the structure in an insulating snowdrift.

For years, David’s cabin had been only excited talk and occasional JPEGs in my inbox.  Now he had weekly renters upstairs, personal quarters downstairs, and for the first time ever, a boat at the dock. Consequently, he had been fishing the lake every day all summer, deciphering the bite like a fly fishing Enigma machine.

“I thought you had a show tonight,” I said, unpacking rods and shotguns on the basement sofa.

“Six people showed up,” he said, grabbing a beer from the fridge. He slid up to the one table in his dimly lit downstairs living quarters and flicked on a desk light.

“Anyway, I needed to tie some flies.”

We slept in, but by 10 o’clock we were headed down the aspen grove toward Big Red, his 18-foot V-hull with a rickety front seat and a dyspeptic 50-horse Mercury. A half dozen fly rods, each rigged with a different setup, lay already stacked in the boat. As we motored into battle, the hulls from a bird feeder–sized bag of sunflower seeds flew from his lips like mortar fire.

On the first cast, David hooked an 18-inch rainbow. Seconds later I connected while simply stretching my fly line, setting the pace for four days of doubled-up fishing under windless blue skies.

We had no real reason to haul anchor from that first shoreline. But nothing encourages a restless rod like a new used boat, and we were soon running to the east end of the lake for shoreline cruisers, then back to the north shore to toss hoppers at gulpers, then toward a cove with a lunchy-looking point. After eating, my brother and I stepped ashore to fish along the edge of some wind-gnarled aspens that bordered a place far wilder than the piney woods of our suburban Southern youth. Last summer, about a half mile from where we stood, a woman was mauled by a grizzly while walking her dogs. One pup got eaten; the other turned up a bloody mess near David’s cabin. When he drove around the lakeshore to inspect the site, he found the woman’s fingernail marks trailing off the dirt roadbed.

As we climbed up the shoulder of a shortgrass bench, the Great Plains flowed eastward like ruffled satin.

On the boat ride home, with cold wind pulling tears from the corners of my eyes, I untucked my hands from fleece pockets and noticed, with pleasure, that they were already windburned and cracked, smelling of trout. Over the next four days, our routine would become an exercise in angling overindulgence: eat breakfast, motor out, fish like hell, eat lunch, fish like more hell, motor in, nap, drive into the park, play a show, tie flies until midnight.

Except on Sunday morning we decided to hunt grouse. As we climbed up the shoulder of a shortgrass bench, the Great Plains flowed eastward like ruffled satin. To the west and south stood the park’s rugged Garden Wall, divider of continents, arbiter of oceans. To the north lay Chief Mountain, spiritual home of the Blackfeet Nation. Shaped like a stovepipe hat, Chief punctures the cobalt sky with a symbolism that belongs literally and spiritually to the Blackfeet, yet is also purely American. It is Big Sky calendar material, a place of Paleolithic visions and scattered bones; an edifice of imposing structure and complex beliefs.

Scanning along the diminishing line of peaks, I could see the Canadian border a few miles north. Northern Plains Indians once attributed magical properties to the 49th parallel for its mysterious power to cut off pursuit by the U.S. Cavalry. They called it the Medicine Line.
Standing on the edge of the prairie and looking west toward the Rockies, I heard myself say: “This is freedom.”

The final day of a great fishing trip always arrives with a vague sense of mortality, and on the last afternoon we motor out slowly as Big Red’s outboard gains consciousness under a crisp blue sky.

At our first stop, the anchor hasn’t even caught bottom before David is hunched over the gunnel in predatory mode, stripping a traveling sedge pattern across the surface. “C’mo-o-o-o-o-o-n,” he says, watching the fly skitter. “You know I gotta have it.” Magically—like good Medicine—a trout smashes his fly and runs for the backing. Over the last few days the gorging rainbows have grown noticeably fatter. Shadows are lengthening. The spiral smudge of Andromeda is high in the night sky. And it is increasingly difficult to keep an 18-inch rainbow out of the weedbeds.

Just before sunset we break for open water, cut the engine, and drift loch-style with the wind, dredging several more trout from deep water as the sun eclipses behind the Garden Wall. Twenty-five years ago, when I lived full time on the other side of the Continental Divide, my brother and I used to boot up the west face of that glacial arête every summer, climbing until one more step would’ve sent us hurtling a thousand feet down the other side. We’d take a cautious peek over, then turn around and ski down. I’m convinced I could still do it, if I only had time.

Now my days are measured in keystrokes rather than vertical feet, but in the end I suppose all anyone can do is seize whatever return on his investment time and circumstance have allowed. Several years ago, when the roof finally went on the Stonehouse, David and his Blackfeet carpenter stood in the front yard with the spine of the continent at their backs, admiring the handsomely emerging structure. Without humor, his Indian laborer said, “This is where I’m going to live when we take our land back.”

But for now we motor reluctantly homeward as alpenglow ignites the east end of the lake. In dimming light, standing on his dock made from salvaged wood and cattle gate, David hurls cast after cast at a trout pushing water among the rushes. He casts and teases without effect until it is too dark to see.

I’ve been gone too long, I think.

And he’s been away from his family on the other side of the divide most of the summer, plowing through 85 shows with five more to go. Yet there is something unspoken about the moment, telling me that either of us could do nothing but fish this lake every day for the rest of our lives, and probably be okay with that.

We gather up two armloads of gear, bounce off the half-sunken dock, and in one trip trudge through the aspens toward the Stonehouse. The renters have gone, so we make ourselves at home upstairs under an elk rack hanging above the woodstove. A home-made hickory bow and broken arrow rest across the brow tines. We catch a moment of rest, stare out the big window at the silhouette of a continent blinking toward nightfall, then crack open a beer and broil one grouse and one trout apiece for dinner. ✦