“Don’t you know those are bad for you?” I asked as our guide pulled his jacket around his face, trying to block the wind from his lighter.
“A short, happy life” he replied and blew smoke from the cigarette.
I rolled my eyes and stripped my line in, running my fly in a figure eight pattern at the boat just in case some creature from the depths had been fooled by my barbless rendition of a walleye. The motor picked up and I sat down, I could tell it was going to rain but that didn’t keep me from staying barefoot. My line kept getting caught on my shoes, and it felt good to be barefoot anyway.
We ran the little boat to the next bay, and to be honest, it looked the same as the last one. Everything looked the same. I was out of my element, away from the streams and rivers of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
I was picking up on what to look for though. Muskie wanted structure, something to lurk in I thought. I imagined them, their big bodies hidden in the weeds, rolling their eyes at my fly when it swam by. I wondered how many had seen any of our flies over the past few days and laughed at us and decided it just wasn’t right.
Olivia stood in the bow of the boat, barefoot also and casting nearly her whole fly line out. She set the hook on a hammer handle sized pike that was bold enough to eat. She’s done this before, you could tell. She felt every nibble and spotted fish following her fly in the dark water. I tried to imitate her stripping pattern and wondered how the muskie got so big if they never ate.
I hadn’t done this before, and you could tell. I have been a trout fishermen for nearly thirteen years. The gold Dr. Slick trout forceps on my jacket gave me away. I’ve been casting five or six weight rods with the occasional eight weight or Spey rod thrown in for most of my time in the west. A few years in the shop had me well versed in knots and the technical aspects of fly fishing and rigging. Somehow, I only trout set on one pike, which I got a pass on since I was a rookie muskie fisherman.
Time flew by on Lac Seul. In the fast hours on the water, I managed to get a good deal of thinking in. I didn’t even realize I was thinking until I would strip in and suddenly feel a tug on my line, snapping me out of whatever moment I was in.
On the runs between bays, I’d watch the water part on either side of the boat, creating a v-shape around us. I took my hair out of my bun or braids, knowing damn well it would be more tangled and harder to deal with later than if I just left it. I wanted to feel my hair be blown around. I wanted to feel free. The wind knotted my hair and exonerated me from all the worry and anxiety that’s been building up in me for a while.
One night I fished off the docks with Olivia and Alyssa, nearly throwing my six weight out of my hand after a week of casting bigger rods. The moonshine bottle had long since dried up, it’s smooth honey finish became a multi-purpose tool. A reprieve from a head cold, liquid courage, something to ease the pain of the muskie and men that we couldn’t land. We sat on the docks and let out our hearts, pouring ourselves and our lives out into the world. Our words mixed with the cool air and slipped quietly into the dark water lapping at our feet, being absorbed into the lake.
It’s easy to feel lonely in the world. Even surrounded by your family, friends, dogs or wilderness, you can still feel like there is something missing. I was reminded that I am not alone while looking into the deep dark water below my feet, hoping for a muskie to show it’s big ugly face. I was reminded that I am not alone by eating truffles and listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing about summertime on a dock with Olivia. I was reminded I am not alone while seeing a brass band play covers in some bar in Kenora and dancing along with Alyssa on my birthday over a few beers and plates of poutine.
Fingers swollen in weird places, sore hands and sunburned feet I boarded my flight to Bozeman. I sat in my seat and as the plane took off, I couldn’t help but cry. Thank god I had a row in the back of the plane to myself. I thought I was crying out of heartbreak. The heartbreak of not catching a muskie, of losing a huge pike, of realizing that the people I met on this trip were more important than any fish and that they lived at least a thousand miles away.
As the landscape under my wings changed back to familiar mountains, I realized I was crying out of joy. I was so happy to have been on that lake and in the woods for that long. I was so happy to have pursued and caught new fish. I was happy to have listened to the Hip and eat all dressed chips all week without judgment. I was so happy to have met people who instantly became so important to me.
You realize you are not alone when you need to realize it the most. Sometimes, when you need it the most happens to be other people need it to. It can be a group effort. I returned to Livingston after making pit stops at Dave’s Sushi and the Murray. I stared at the mountains above me and breathed a few breaths of relief. I finally knew for sure that I was not alone. I finally felt at peace.
Muskies are highly sought after and notoriously hard to catch, especially on the fly. They are big apex predators with sharp teeth and an arrogance about them. They must know humans are their only real threat, otherwise, they wouldn’t flash themselves at us, or spit out our flies in our faces. Muskie mock us when we are trying our hardest. Basically, muskies are assholes.
Somehow, these complete assholes of a fish brought some people together who needed to be together. Somehow, these big nasty fish read my mind and knew what I needed to hear, what I needed to see, what I needed to say. They ran me around the lake knowing in the back of their stupid brains that I needed to feel the wind carry away all my stress. They knew if they hid in the weeds in the dark water that I would stare into the abyss for days hoping to get a glimpse of them. They knew all that casting and all that staring would level me out. Muskies are a hell of fish.
Here’s to long, happy lives, and the fish of 10,000 casts.