GLENDIVE - I can see the headline now: "Newspaper reporter killed in freak folfing accident on paddlefishing trip." Or perhaps something more punchy: "Disc-aster at Makoshika." However you phrase it, I haven't even wet a line yet, and this fishing trip has already veered sharply toward catastrophe.
I slowly turn my head and look down. Thirty feet below, in the dusty fairway of Hole 14 at the picturesque Makoshika State Park Disc Golf Course near Glendive, my friend Cliff Karlin is watching me with worried eyes as I cling to a sheer cliff face of crumbling dirt and snap-dry sagebrush.
When I started climbing, it didn't look this steep, and the folf disc that I had errantly hurled up here didn't look nearly so high.
Now, I'm plain stuck. No way am I going back down, lest or unless I fall, but the top of the cliff is easily another 60 feet above me, and the hand- and footholds that looked so plentiful as I assessed the situation from below have become few and far between.
I try to lift my foot to a waist-high notch in the dirt, only to have it crumble into dust.
Did I mention I'm wearing sandals?
Suddenly, about 10 feet above me, Cliff's old friend Bill Hummer appears on a wisp of a ledge. "You went up the hard way," he grins, mocking my idiocy. He starts hurling dirt-clods at the folf disc, showering me with pellets of dry earth for about 10 minutes before he knocks the disc loose, sending it to the ground.
Then, he's gone, and I'm still stuck.
"If you can get up to where Bill was, you can make it down pretty easily," offers Cliff from below. He's certainly right, but for now I'm preoccupied by the question of whether it'd be less horrifying to abrade the skin off my anterior or my posterior once I inevitably lose hold and begin the agonizing slide to earth.
Darwin Awards, here I come.
Cliff disappears, and soon reappears on the ledge above me. Over the course of what feels like an hour, he calmly coaches me up to his position.
"Jo-Jo, that might have been the stupidest thing I've ever seen you do," he shares once I'm safe back down on the fairway.
Ah, but we haven't started fishing yet, Cliff.
Every year for close to two decades, Tim Datta of Potomac has brought a group of friends out here to a remote ranch in the far eastern reaches of Montana to engage in the pursuit of paddlefish. For him, the trip is the continuation of a family tradition that dates to his childhood, growing up in Wibaux.
Around 1990, Cliff and Tim became friends. Cliff has been coming on this trip for years now. This spring, Cliff invited me to come along.
I had never really contemplated fishing for paddlefish, though I'd certainly heard of these gargantuan holdovers from before the age of dinosaurs. Shaped like sharks whose noses have been crushed under an asphalt roller, paddlefish grow to 100 pounds or more on a diet of zooplankton, which they filter into their cavernous mouths and capture in their filigreed gills.
Because they don't eat like most fish, they can't be caught like most fish. Indeed, the gear and methods of catching paddlefish could hardly be farther from the elegant daintiness of fly-fishing for trout.
"Paddlefishing is all about big rods, big lines, and big hooks," advised Cliff before our trip.
Specifically, it's about a broomhandle-stiff, 10-foot rod and a spinning reel loaded with 50-pound test monofilament; a pair of fist-sized treble hooks tied inline about a foot apart; and a four-ounce bell sinker attached to the end of the line.
The technique: Cast as far as possible into the current; let the sinker settle to the bottom; then begin whipping the rod back in a series of sweeping jerks, reeling up the slack in between.
"You'll know you've got one when the line pulls back even harder," advised Cliff.
It's a primal method of fishing for the most primordial creature that plies the waters of Montana.
Our group of 12 met up on Sunday night in Glendive, and headed out to Makoshika for that ill-fated round of folf.
Needless to say, I made a strong first impression.
"Dude," observed Matt Galiher, a lanky, scruffy-bearded guy from Sula whom I had met only minutes before we set out on the folf course, "that was some extreme folfing you did out there."
We spent the night at Tim's dad's house, then headed north early the next morning. Pavement gave way to gravel, which gave way to the ranch's rutted tracks. After about an hour on the road, we rumbled into the shade of a cottonwood grove on the banks of the mighty, muddy Yellowstone River.
"Home, sweet home, boys," grins Tim as he tumbles out of his truck. "Looks just like it did last year."
Soon enough, we've set up camp and set a row of spinning rods along the bank, baited for catfish. With everything situated and cold beers fetched from the coolers, time slows down to the river's lazy pace. Due to state regulations, we can't start snagging for paddlefish until Tuesday morning, so we occupy ourselves otherwise. A few guys set up a game of pinochle under a canopy. Lance Gleason, a Missoula fishing guide and video producer, pulls out a cheap plastic kite, strings it to a baitcasting rod, and sets it aflight.
"Tick, tock," he sing-songs. "Tick, tock."
"Rod No. 1! Rod No. 1 is going like crazy!" shouts Lance, his voice now echoing in the darkness.
Tim lurches out of his camp chair and rushes to the rod, which is jerking up and down in its holder, a small bell jingling at its tip. People scramble along the riverbank, searching in the dark for a net. Shortly, with netting assistance from Guy Chambers of Missoula, Tim lands an eight-pound channel catfish, which he tosses into a kiddie-pool that's now swirling with more than a dozen catfish.
It's 4:30 a.m. Ever since it got dark, the catfishing has been just fast enough - and the anticipation of paddlefishing palpable enough - to keep most of us awake, albeit bleary-eyed.
"This is what it's all about, boys," says Lance as he settles back into his chair by the roaring campfire. "Sitting around, talking life, watching poles."
Things quiet down again, and I notice that the eastern horizon is now a shade lighter than the rest of the sky. I close my eyes.
"That's the thing at this point," blurts Dave Buzzanco, a mostly quiet Potomac resident who has spent much of the trip so far hiking up and down the river. "I could go to sleep and then get up and paddlefish when it's hot, but I might as well stay up, get my paddle, and then sleep."
He's right. I open my eyes. I haven't stayed up all night since I was in my mid-20s. Tonight's the night.
At 6 a.m., I hear a deep thunk far out in the river. Dave has quietly made his way to a large boulder upstream, and has begun casting for paddlefish at the precise moment of legal snagging hours.
A few casts in, he shouts out: "Got one!" His stout rod pulses up and down as he makes his way off the rock toward a muddy bank. After about 10 minutes, with all of us crowding around, the 38-pound fish appears out of the murk at the riverside.
"My first paddle ever," beams Dave as his friends snap photos.
Cliff takes his place at the rock. He casts once. "Oh yeah!" he shouts. "Third pull, baby!"
In a matter of minutes, he has wrestled a 33-pound fish to the shore and tagged it. With the state's one-fish-per-person limit, his paddlefishing season is over in a single cast.
Bill steps out on the boulder, casts three times, and hauls in a 45-pounder.
"You're up, Jo-Jo," says Cliff.
I grab my rod and head out onto the boulder. I cast into the current, let it settle, and commence whipping the rod and reeling slack. Cast, wait, jerk, reel, jerk, reel; repeat.
After about five minutes of this, my lower back feels like it's twisted into a pretzel. Ten minutes in, I'm wondering if I could simply spin my torso freely on my pelvis. This is not a sport for desk-bound 40-somethings, I'm learning.
I reel up the line, pivot into my backcast - and feel the thwack of the lead weight on the back of my leg. It stays there.
I've snagged myself.
I sheepishly glance back toward camp. The other guys have wandered off toward the fire. I quietly pluck the massive hook from my pant leg, where it has raked a half-inch gouge - but miraculously missed my skin. I thank God for pants.
"What are you doin' standing there, Jo-Jo?" Cliff shouts.
"Stretching my back," I lie.
"Get that line in the water," he says.
I cast again. And again. And several times again.
Suddenly, my line goes taut. For a second, I think I've snagged the bottom of the river - but then a surging tug tells me I've got a fish.
"Huh," I say, frankly surprised. "I've got one."
It's an epic battle, by the standards of this small-stream trout fisherman. Meaning, in about 10 minutes, I've beached my 22-pound prize.
After a few photos are snapped, I tag the fish, quietly marveling at its utter oddness: its tiny, black eyes; the star-patterned pores along its surprisingly hard snout; its astonishing set of gill plates and gaping maw.
"Pretty cool, huh?" says Cliff, standing at my side.
Pretty cool indeed. Flopping into my sleeping bag a few minutes later, I tally the trip: Ten hours in the backseat of a pickup truck, $100 in gas, another $150 in gear and food, a near-death folfing accident, a night without sleep, and a near-disastrous run-in with a massive treble hook.
All for 20 minutes of fishing, a 10-minute battle, and a few pounds of meat.
By the inexplicable math of a devoted outdoorsman, that's a perfectly positive balance. Hopefully I can come back next year.
In the meantime, I think I should practice my folfing.
Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at email@example.com or 523-5358.