My first improbable response to the tremendous blow I had just taken to the back of my head was that somebody had hit me with a hard-thrown baseball. I say improbable because it didn't seem likely that anyone would be hiding in the willows along the Missouri River rifling baseballs in the direction of the two or three lonely boats plying the waters for trout on an afternoon during Easter week. As I moaned, doubled over from my standing position in the boat with my hands holding the point of impact on the back of my head, I slowly accepted the fact that this was self-inflicted.
I had been at the oars and had pulled the boat into a bit of an eddy to wait while Erwin fussed with his equipment. Unable to resist a chance for a few free casts, I had cranked up my fly rod and started slinging a big green woolly bugger toward a little slice in the current. It was that lead-weighted fly that had connected with the back of my skull, entirely due to my own sloppy cast.
Erwin had already responded in mild alarm, putting aside his gear and trying to look between my fingers to see if the offending imitation was now embedded in my flesh or bone.
"I don't see your bugger back there. At least we won't have to do any field surgery," he reported.
Releasing my hold on the back of my head, I stood up and exhaled deeply.
"Sheesh! I had forgotten how much that can hurt," I said.
Most fly fishers who make the trek across the Divide to try their luck with Missouri River trout don't do so with the intention of slinging heavy streamer flies on those waters that are sometimes described as a gigantic spring creek. Erwin and I had started out with no intention of doing it, either.
On the way to my rendezvous with Erwin, I had stopped by Homer's house to pick up his drift boat. The Missouri is Homer's home river, but he was unable to pry himself away from work for the day, so he had offered up his boat as a small consolation. Once the boat was secure, he provided me with the current thinking on what flies Erwin and I should use.
"You'll probably want a green-winged olive, size 16 or 18. Ten feet of leader ought to do it," he advised.
So, after Erwin and I met up, unloaded the boat and shuttled the rigs, I started rummaging around for a green-winged olive. Though a standard in most fly boxes, the closest thing I could find was a tiny parachute Adams. I had just managed to thread the gossamer tippet through the impossibly small eye of the fly when Erwin noticed what I was doing.
He gently pointed out that my fly was neither small enough, nor olive enough.
"Wait a minute, you can't use that. This is what you need," he said, and handed me a fly so small I could barely make it out in the palm of my hand.
Then he waited patiently while I tried and tried again to thread that leader through the even-tinier-than-before eye of the hook. Just as he was about to offer his services to do it for me, I managed to poke it through.
"When you cast these things on a gray day like this, you can't really see them on the water, can you?" I asked.
"No, with old eyes like ours, probably not. The thing is, you sort of estimate where it is out there. Spot a little bit of foam or a bug or something floating in the general area where your fly should be and keep your eye on that. And don't look away or you'll never find that spot again," he replied.
And for a while it was satisfactory to do just that. It was great to be on the water again after months away from it. The air was full of waterfowl. The constant alarmed honking of Canada geese, notifying us and each other of their displeasure at our presence, soon became as much a part of the scenery as the sky and the relentless push of that old river toward the distant Gulf of Mexico.
But there were almost no rising fish, and not a single swirl of interest for my first shift as the guy who got to fish.
When my turn came to row, Erwin did the same thing and got the same results.
That's when we decided that we might as well fall back on something we knew we could count on. So we tied on those big ugly buggers that as far as I know do a miserable job of imitating anything in nature.
That was especially true of my first selection, a big yellow fly with two shiny gold eyes bugging out at its head. It wasn't long before the first sign of piscatorial interest. The trouble with that, though, was that the sign of interest involved a fat brown trout taking a swipe at that fly that separated it from the end of my line. It was my only yellow bugger.
There were other colors available, however, and we spent the rest of the day filling the air with flying lead. I'm not going to lie about it. We caught some fish, all browns and all fat and full of fight. And there were some more that got away, including a fish that Erwin immediately claimed was "as long as your arm."
Well, I had seen its submarine-like silhouette, and I looked at my arms, and then at Erwin's, and I had to correct him.
"It might have been as long as your arm, Erwin, but it most certainly was not as long as mine," I said.
It has been more than 10 years since Erwin and I spent an April day on the Missouri, and by the end of the float, we were wondering aloud why it had taken us so long to get back.
It was wonderful to feel the pull of the current on the boat and the flex of the oars. A bald eagle stared down from a tawny cliff. Pairs of mergansers splattered along the shallows at our approach. An osprey soared overhead.
And with the exception of the lump and a little bit of dried blood on the back of my head, we came away with nothing but another fine day for remembering.
That's what it's all about.
Greg Tollefson is a Missoula free-lance writer whose column appears each week in Outdoors. He can be reached at email@example.com