RALPH BARTHOLDT: Big rivers, long empty roads time to unlock something new

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Once years ago, I drove the long stretch of narrow asphalt up the St. Joe River from St. Maries in spring, weeks before my source at the tackle shop in town said the water was fishable.

I passed a rip-roaring Marble Creek, saw it edge over banks. It was the sheeny green color of a cutthroat trout, and I trundled on, past nobody.

There wasn’t a vehicle on the forest highway.

The sun stabbed through trees and slipped down rocky ledges along the river near Hoyt Flats. Grass was lush. Still no traffic, but the occasional bird shadow winged over the road.

A couple pickups were parked at the Avery Trading Post. Mud spackled their fenders.

High up in meadows you could see balsamroot, yellow as butter.

Somewhere beyond Packsaddle I met a person on the shoulder bearing downstream with a fly rod, an excited look of his face and a Turck’s tarantula bobbing on the end of a line that poked a couple inches from the rod tip.

I recognized him as a kid who sacked groceries at a store in St. Maries, and I knew I was getting close to something.

This was years ago, when I drove a Volkswagen, and I have since graduated to a Subaru Forester with a rust dent on the hood, but it has four-wheel drive all around.

I went on, and a spurt of rain fell from a cloud burst before sun shone brightly again.

The trees seemed to make a tunnel in places. I saw movement at an abandoned campsite just off the highway before a bridge, miles from anywhere, and it wasn’t just flashes of light skittering off the quickly moving river.

I pulled in, and got out of the car. It was loud. The river boiled. An old Ford was parked in the trees.

Right near the water’s edge, out just far enough from a wall of fir and cedar to complete furtive casts with a 9-foot rod, were two men wearing ditch boots. One at a time, as I watched, they pulled fish from the river.

The cutthroat trout they caught weren’t big, and it didn’t matter to me or to them, because the fish bent a rod like a witching stick and then flipped and jumped, coming out of the roar, shaking sunlight as if on a leash.

I watched them for a while.

The men occasionally yelled at each other in an effort to outspeak the pounding and cymbal-like bang of the water, and they did not know I was behind them in the mottled shadows watching as they pulled trout from soft spots along the bank.

In the fishing story, “The Intruder,” Robert Traver remembers traveling to a secret fishing destination only to learn that someone has beaten him to the remote honey hole. Someone, a lot like himself, wanted to be away from the crowd, tackling his thoughts with a few hours of fishing.

I had driven almost 60 miles up the Joe that spring day to talk with anglers, or anyone who was out and about, and hadn’t even passed a logging truck.

These men along the bank in a glade of trees, the only people for miles, fished a spot they called their own and it was productive and it made them richer.

Feeling like the intruder, I drove back down stream.

I remember that day, usually in early spring, while I scrounge in the garage for fly boxes, vests and tubes of three- and four-piece rods. Or when I hear someone say, the rivers are blown. And it’s sunny like it was then, but there’s that whiff of mountain perfume in the air, and maybe water.

Everyone has a memory like that of their favorite river. A memory they didn’t know they collected until years later when it started recurring.

What’s its significance?

Back at the tackle shop, I asked the proprietor what he knew of those guys, way out there, catching trout in a river that seemed much too high, with a current that seemed too strong to fish.

“Oh, them,” he said, saying their names, mentioning the grocery store clerk, too.

They are always the first ones to catch fish.

When the water’s high and no one’s around, he said. They liked the conditions, and the odds.

Maybe the memory just says it’s time to prepare, get stuff together and retrace tracks, follow an empty road to one’s own fishing destination, but there’s more to it than that.

It says too, that odds don’t mean anything when you know what to do, and each spring provides the chance — and the time and the place — to unlock something new.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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