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Fish or no fish, a day on the creek is a fine day

Fish or no fish, a day on the creek is a fine day

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The last week of March was right around the corner. It was the second day of spring and the day before Easter. In town, brown lawns and brown hillsides waited on the edge of the season beneath a blue sky and a few puffy, non-threatening clouds. What better place to be than Slats' little patch of ground up Rock Creek with fly rod in hand?

It was my son Sander's idea. He was home for the weekend and had made the drive from Billings without his skis.

to wet a line?" he asked when I quizzed him about how he planned to spend his Saturday at home.

"Do you have anything to fish with?" I asked back.

"Always. My stuff is always in the trunk. You just never know," he said.

Of course, spring was not looming nearly so large when we made the turn off Interstate 90 and headed up Rock Creek toward Slats' place. The valley was filled to the gunnels with snow that reflected the bright sunlight and blue sky in a blinding glare. We put the truck in four-wheel-drive for the last 50 yards through crusted snow to a spot near where Slats' picnic table poked out of the white expanse, its boards melted clear.

We were sitting at the table struggling into our waders and fiddling with our rods and reels when Slats' truck pulled in from the road and eased up beside our truck. He climbed out of his rig and headed our way with a small cooler in one hand and a grocery bag in the other.

"What a fine day to come to the creek!" Slats beamed.

Meanwhile, our dog Coal, Slats' pup Furst, and the neighbor dog Sailor were all gallumphing around through the crusty snow, making a mess of what had only recently been a smooth expanse of white.

Sander may have been eager to get to the creek, but he didn't show it as he allowed us two old men to settle in at the picnic table, munch on peanuts and sausage and potato chips, and sip on beers. Being of age, he even deigned to have one himself while he listened to us speculate on what imitation we should try and which stretch of stream to start with.

We looked up at the west side of the long valley, and Slats described how last summer's stubborn fires had crept down those slopes all the way to the creek in some places. The fires had left random clumps of trees untouched in spots all the way up the ridge.

We strained our eyes and finally pulled out the binoculars to examine the eagle nest downstream aways. When we did, the white head of one of the residents was clearly evident, and before long, the other eagle settled gently into the nest.

When the time came, we all postholed our way through the snow toward the stretch of stream where we planned to try our luck, each in a different spot. We slid down ice sheets along the bank and slipped into the crystal clear, cold waters of good old Rock Creek and began another season of fly-fishing.

I was using a woolly bugger, one of my favorite approaches to trout fishing when dry flies are not in order. Some of my friends find my penchant for fishing with the road kills of the artificial fly world to be slightly distasteful. Slats might be one of those. And I suspect that Sander also turns his nose up a little when he sees me slinging lead. Neither of them stooped quite so low that Saturday.

But it was close to the contraptions they elected to use. They both employed a scheme that involves a weighted nymph with a little flash to it to bring the line down to bounce along the bottom, followed by a foot or two of leader and another hook with some skimpy red thread wrapped around it that has been dignified with the name San Juan worm. I always thought that particular fly was little more than a joke until I actually saw one of those near microscopic red worms on a kids' aquatic ecology outing a few years back.

The real shame in it is that those things catch fish.

And this was proven several times by Sander, with Slats providing some coaching and encouragement from the streamside after we all sort of fell together on the same stretch of water later in the afternoon.

"I told you it would work," Slats called with a laugh as he watched Sander haul in a fat brown trout.

The dogs splashed at his feet in excitement, hoping to participate in the fun, but being soundly discouraged.

"Get away, Coal," Sander shouted as Coal did his best to tangle himself in the line, leader and fish.

It was all great fun to watch.

And I must admit that I finally had to relent and tie on one of those San Juan worms myself. When a trout took it and my rod bent at the swirling bulk of the fish, Coal was almost immediately out there in the creek at the scene of the action.

"Coal, no, no!" I shouted.

He retreated to the bank to watch me release the fish.

When the sun slipped over the Sapphires and out of view, we clambered up the bank and back through the unfortunately crusted and inconvenient snow toward the picnic table, trucks and home.

Coal was asleep in the back of the truck before we had our gear packed. Furst was nestling into his bed behind the seat of Slats' truck, as well. And the three of us were well pleased with everything.

"It was another fine day on the creek," Slats said as he waved goodbye.

Fish or no fish, it never fails to be exactly that.

Greg Tollefson is a freelance Missoula writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at gtollefson@bresnan.net.

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