Below the Sapphires

          At the moment there is a significant burst of hail occurring in our neighborhood. Looking through the rear window at the immense Montana landscape, I see life like forms in the clouds above; blowing patches of grey, clay like white squalls of hail and flurries underneath which have molded their way tightly into gentle swales, the green fabric of the Bitterroot Mountains. The sun works its way through small pockets of blue. A large raven torments a circling raptor above some Ponderosas below the backyard as it all unfolds. Easter is right around the bend and there are a few daffodils blooming in town. It’s spring break for the Missoula public school students. Our three are on holiday in Missoula, a fine spot. Today’s weather is typical in Montana for this time of year and it’s not uncommon for floaters to find themselves rowing through gusty snow bursts right through June. As a matter of fact, I fondly well recall waking up to a snow covered tent at the Corn Creek access the day following a June cross country mountain bike race in Salmon, Idaho a few year’s back when I was still allowed to do such things. Ah, the wondrous past, how I miss it so. Racing for me was time in the mountains, nothing more. Want to learn how to ride more proficiently in the back country, do a few mountain bike races. I’m simply not interested in “the slicks” on pavement. The same mountain concept applied to the ski randonee circuit… Fitness in the sticks recreating with like minded individuals. I’m pretty sure that concept is Greek to some people who are not able to grasp such things. Racing for some has to be about RACING! Testosterone, whooping it up against one’s opponents. One immediately recognizes the types. At any rate, given that Molly at the moment is in Spokane with Todd and Erin for a brief sojourn, I may as well type something up over some Genmai Cha regarding yesterday’s fishing trip with Todd and his friend Justin.todd & Justin rock creek 3-31-15           Todd’s bud was not able to head out until after two o’clock, so I had a little time to sort through things. Each early spring most fishermen go through this mundane task, usually bringing back memories of a past episode of one sort or another. I literally went through the entire vest, throwing away old flies with rusted and dull hooks, some with hackle too shot for one more cast. Flies with no further utility, color faded and worn feathers. “How many fish had you caught?” I thought to myself as I tossed a Hare’s Ear into an old metal garbage can with a Pintail painted on its exterior. The pattern’s always been effective Montana. The sheepswool patch which holds the flies to the vest was falling apart as well, having been too long in service. Its side safety pins are bent and won’t properly clasp together. Todd and I had fished one day prior not too long ago so we at least knew where to find the rods and reels. They’d made it through another winter. I even managed to spend a moment in the truck bed removing the winter driving season’s sandbags and a large bag of salt, each of which had helped to maintain things on the snowy hard pack roads in the region. This too took a little time, though. Mostly dog hair and old straw, worn tarps and other things to clean up under the carpeted topper. The business I bought the topper from year’s ago got the windows wrong following a replacement effort on my behalf. I wanted ones that lift open, rather than slide. The one they ordered had the opposite. One day I’d left the rear topper door open. When I opened the garage door shortly thereafter, the topper door rolled up with the garage door causing a loud explosion, small glass particles finding their way to the remotest reaches within the garage. The shop had another guy’s order there, however, the driver’s side having the window type I was after. It had carpet lining its interior though (a more expensive option) and was the wrong color. I said fine and after they painted it, I had it installed over the bed. I reckon the carpet keeps things a bit more insulated back there during the winter which is noticeable when sleeping in the area sometimes during fishing excursions this time of year. Of course, it was not too long later I had to take it back for a second coat of paint, their brief job peeling away revealing the original buyer’s tan underneath. This past ski season, there had not been a distant ski excursion, so actually cleaning the interior had been pretty simple. I’ve decided to keep the snow tires on for a while longer. Every year it seems when the tires come off, a large dump ensues.
         “Do you have a license?” I texted Justin. “Do I need one?” came the reply. “Just go to the sporting goods store and buy one prior to coming up.” “Ok.” “By the way, get a half dozen Adams flies, No. 14s and 6 Skwalas too if you don’t mind,” I probably went too far. “I’ll just come up first and we can go together.” “Never mind, just grab a license.” Justin and Todd are high school buddies who have played soccer together over the years. Justin’s parents are immigrants from Malaysia, not far north of Kuala Lumpur. Immigration remains what makes America great. It will remain a central aspect to the country’s competitive future. Justin was new to fishing, mentioning to Todd having been maybe one time prior. I was looking forward to helping Justin learn to fish; maybe fly fish, but we decided to bring along a spin rod too just in case. “Should we take the dog?” I for some reason asked. Normally this would have never even been a question. I’ve always fished with my dogs. This goes against the grain for some fishermen who say they ruin the holes, splashing through as soon as the party gets to the river; or, they’re hard on the fish if they manage to retrieve one when being reeled in (this of course is discouraged); they get into the line during the backcast (with lousy casters) or sometimes get tangled up when one is trying to tie on tippet or a new fly. On and on the reasons are laid out as to why not to fish with man’s best friend. Rubbish to me, though I can understand some of the issues and each are reasons to a large degree to not fish with other persons. The greater issue at the moment is that our lab is getting to the point where old age is setting in – senility. On a recent after work hike into Missoula’s Crazy Canyon, I let her off the leash and she ran at one point straight up a steep section for no apparent reason. I’d heard no noise and seen nothing. “Maybe a squirrel or something,” I thought to myself waiting for her to return as she’s always done. Finally, however, when called, no dog. Up I went. Two swales over I noticed a small black figure against the brown grass and trees, looking obviously disoriented. I have a pretty loud whistle and driving voice. When I used both, the dog looked over almost directly at me, then continued wandering aimlessly trying figure out where her master had gone? This occurred numerous times as I frustratingly approached, sidehilling my way across through the upper talus and Douglass firs. Last grouse season, she wandered off from the camp in the early night as we set up, lost for what seemed like hours while we hunted for her in the dark with flashlights. It’s a sad affair to have to put one’s dog on a lead in the camp, but that’s where things generally are at the moment. We concluded to leave her home this trip, focusing on the fishing education.
          The moment we got in the truck to head east to Rock Creek, it started raining. With the warmer temperatures we’ve been having over the last few weeks, the rivers are already up in the area. Therefore, I decided to take a risk on the smaller stream which also is surrounded by steep terrain which probably was still holding most of its winter moisture. Of course, I had checked the flow levels and a few fishing reports as well. The rain was discouraging though as I realized that it would be cold, windy and probably miserable; most likely shutting down any topwater action. We did prepare with rain gear, however, including gloves, caps and an extra set of dry cloths to remain in the vehicle for post fishing. We drove through the University of Montana area heading out of town and it seemed pretty quiet, a few students out and about on the main drag. As we get older, driving in the rain, even in the daylight, becomes a nuisance which, as the wipers shifted to and fro, I reflected on while listening to Todd’s music coming out of a little pod like blue tooth device he brought along. “I’m going to buy you a new CD player, dad,” Todd said as we drove by a new technical education school building being constructed on campus. “Why? I never drive the vehicle anymore, always commuting to the office on my bike. It’s basically your sister’s vehicle,” I replied. This winter I had even numerous times walked down the hill to the office during days that were not able to be ridden. I’m not one of those individuals who keeps count of his commuter days, but it is my principal get to the office method. I believe the kids thought I was whacked walking down the hill on snow days, though. As much as Missoula holds itself out as a community of such individuals, I have to argue otherwise as there are very few others who ride up and down Hillview, 23rd or Gharrett on a regular basis. Granted it’s only one section of town, but probably a pretty good sampling none-the-less. “I know, dad, but I still feel bad and want to get you another one,” he continued, insisting. At some point he had jammed a CD in the multi-player that came with the vehicle when I bought ten years ago used with 68,000 miles. Today, still a fine vehicle, it has 201,000 and the last thing I’m concerned about is getting a new CD player. Somehow, the conversation spilled into how it now costs $1.29 to buy individual songs through the various few outlets that sell individual songs and how he (correctly) feels it’s a rip off and we’re better off going back to CDs. Granted, as he mentioned, the high individual song cost is an incentive to get one to purchase an entire album. I sympathized somewhat with this thinking, but since the tape deck still works, I’m pretty well covered with the old Bob Dylan Biograph cassette tapes (from childhood West Virginia fishing days) and a few audio books as well. I thought for a moment of subjecting them to Piggot-Smith’s greatly altered rendition of Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons which was in the deck at the moment. We usually listen to Gierach reading his work, Trout Bum, when traveling on fishing trips, but I switch things around occasionally as well. The story read by Piggot-Smith on the tape is completely different than the original Turgenev work, different characters and a different theme. Fathers and sons are there, jealousy, envy, love and other themes, but no Bazarov and perhaps no Turgenev. The story on the cassette covers, among other matters, a trial following a servant’s having murdered the boys’ father. It completely threw me when I first listened to it, but it’s a decent tale as well. One never know’s what he’s going to get buying things on the internet. “Forget the CD player. Save your money,” I concluded as we drove through the rain.
          It was not long before I noticed car loads of coal making their way west from eastern Montana seams. I thought of the neighbor’s “No Montana Coal Exports” sign in his front yard. “The papers say that’s now probably headed to India rather than China,” I for some reason blurted out. “There are many reasons for this, but you probably don’t want to hear all about it. China’s economy has slowed somewhat and is therefore becoming less reliant at the moment on commodity imports…” I started, but then dropped it. The neighbor has a point and I’m somewhat conflicted about exporting our unfinished natural resources. Many fishermen feel this way, given what has happened to some of the nation’s streams following disastrous mountaintop removal techniques or accidental spills. The export issue is an acute one at the moment given present domestic production levels in the commodity space, particularly in eastern Montana where jobs have begun to be impacted by declining prices. So many fine arguments on both sides of this one. Correcting the nation’s trade accounts being one of merit. The thought of trade did, for some reason, have me thinking at that moment of Lee Kuan Yew’s recent death (Singapore’s elder statesman and recently “Minister Mentor.” Straits Times obituary link). Mr. Lee was a bright fellow who, though to a degree authoritarian, loved the city-state. On a whim, a decade ago, hard to believe ten years already, I hopped a plane from Seattle (thru Narita) to the island, having lined up meetings with executives at numerous publicly traded regional firms, Singapore being a largely English speaking hub for such endeavors. In the latter ’90s, things had become clear to me of a trend developing; that of Asian states beginning to detach somewhat from reliance upon trade with the west and emphasizing trade more so among themselves. Pretty nifty being in Missoula fishing, hunting, skiing and mountain biking whilst all the while following the world’s various markets and characters therein. “At one point I immensely enjoyed the latter, though now significantly less so,” I reconfirmed silently to myself as we turned up lower Rock Creek, noting almost no traffic given that it was early afternoon on a weekday. I continued recollecting matters. Countries with immense populaces in South East Asia were seeing the economic liberalization light finally. The trip to the region was an illuminating jaunt. Prior to going over, though already having a basic foundation through my prior studies and enjoyment of reading relative to such matters, I’d decided to read up on bits of the the region’s and specifically Singapore’s history. This including Yew’s From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, Hahn’s Raffles of Singapore: A Biography, Boulger’s Life of Sir Stamford Raffles and others. The short stories of Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad had always appealed to me. In keeping it short (this is supposed to be a brief fishing story), I will say of the jaunt to Singapore that the first thing I noted was the great cultural diversity immediately recognizable on the island. Malay, Chinese, Indian and Thai (to name a few), all seemingly pulling together. As for some reason has been customary for me, I gleaned information on the region’s underpinnings from the cabbies (a standard mode of transport on the island). I gleaned some information over a few beers at The Yard and Raffles as well, discussing the World Cup qualifiers, going on at the time, with a fellow from England, also enjoying a laugh about Compo of the Summer Wine sitcom. I took in numerous strolls through the public gardens, down Orchard Rd, and along the waterfront. Container ships were a constant, rolling in and out of the world’s busiest seaport which feeds the Malacca Strait. At last the ships’ cargo managed a brief reprieve below large red and orange cranes in what seemed like an endless rainbow of container stacks along the Keppel yards. I visited the St. Joseph’s Institution, which housed the Art Museum. The island’s cultural divergence was well represented in its cuisine – Burmese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Thai fare all well represented in various parts of the city-state. On the excursion I did manage a brief jaunt up the Chao Phraya on a Thai Long Tail boat in the Land of a Thousand Smiles, but that’s a tale for another day.
          I was principally interested in the business aspects of the region. Singapore, like Hong Kong, one of the Four Tigers (South Korea and Taiwan) had greatly benefitted from open trade policies. Visiting with the firms turned out to be quite an education. One learns quickly the divergence between the western culture and eastern. Though free trade is evident, the acceptance of government majority control of many of the listed entities became a significant investment concern for me. What is the interest of the state? Is it the same as that of other shareholders? One can imagine where this leads (inefficiency, over investment in sectors, so forth…) and throughout the area is rampant. Government simply plays a greater role in the economics of firms in the area. I was somewhat remiss I did not schedule a little more time during the trip over to get to know Temasek better, which along with GIC, has significant significant stakes in local firms. Actually, prior to going over, I’d never heard of the sovereign wealth funds. I attended one of the AmCham’s (American Chamber of Commerce) after work social functions and joked with a young American (who was himself excited about breaking into Vietnam’s emerging market) that the way to understand whether or not to make a certain investment in the publicly traded companies was to first understand what the sovereign wealth funds were intending. This honestly somewhat soured me on the investment front as shareholders’ interests may not align with government interests as stated prior. One of the large Singapore listed Chinese shipping conglomerates (State Owned Enterprises – SOEs) I visited had an operating structure that was simply too opaque; a labyrinth of divisions coupled with majority government ownership, all neatly laid out in elaborate confusing charts during a slide presentation by the executives. Never a good sign. The bottom line though for me at the end of the day was that if a country’s citizens want to have their government play a significant role in the management and direction of their publicly traded businesses, well, then that’s the society’s decision. Eastern Group think, I reckoned, versus that of Western Individualism. I believe the west (following the simple dictates of nature) has this one correct and point to Japan as an example of too much government involvement in the country’s commerce in general being ultimately detrimental to society. Zaibatsus, Chaebols, SOEs and such behemoths, like sandcastles, eventually succumb to the nature. Conglomerates can for a period be kept alive by governments; however, eventually governments too diminish as well. The communist and formally communist states in SE Asia are wisely moving away from the SOE model, recognizing their failure and gradually moving in the direction of less government involvement economically, an optimistic trend. As their economies improve, this should mean more sales opportunities for Western firms. Ironically, it feels as though the west to some degree has begun a shift in the opposite direction maintaining inefficient conglomerates following the most recent financial debacle. Hopefully, through trade, countries will continue to gradually come together rather than fracture.todd & justin @ welcome ck wilderness           So, during the dead time while driving through the steady rain, this is what was on my mind; recollecting all of the obits that had been written in the financial press regarding Mr. Lee’s legacy. As we drove by the Merc, an old establishment in the Creek’s lower reaches, I blabbed with Todd and Justin that Molly had been enticed twenty some years ago by the proprietor, Doug Persico, into her first fly rod, a St Croix starter job with a Loomis reel which we still use. Doug, who succumbed to cancer, always joked that he never understood what Molly saw in her husband. Well, some of us reckoned he was joking, I thought he was onto something, myself. Doug had a pretty distinct personality, mostly a fine salesman who knew well how to read people, somewhat typical of fly shop owners. We, like many local outdoorsmen, became quite fond of Doug over the years, stopping in to ask about conditions prior to driving up the drainage and usually buying some flies. He always had on a pot of hot coffee for the riffraff. It’s been a long while since I’ve stopped in the place, a reflection mainly of my fishing the other rivers which don’t quite see the same level of fishing pressure Rock Creek seems to attract. Pressure was certainly not a problem for the three of us this day, though. It was plain miserable outside now, with the rain now pelting in strong gales of wind. The perfect day to learn to fly fish, I thought to myself. As we drove along the lower section, while pondering how far up the drainage to drive, I looked for the Big Horn Sheep along the lower jagged talus fields and pointed out to Justin, who indicated he’d never prior been to Rock Creek, where the sheep usually are found – principally in the local land owner’s fields or on his front lawn.todd rock creek 3-31-15
         “High above this small creek is not too far from where you were grouse hunting last fall, Todd,” I mentioned glancing over towards my son, who was riding shotgun and looking the other direction towards the somewhat high main drainage itself. As we drove south, I pointed out many small feeder streams coming off high rock formations from both the east and west. There are Bull Trout in the tiny feeders, a remarkable fact which occurs during spawning. The creek’s name is quite apt, given the immense talus fields on both sides of the drainage. “How far up are we going, Garland,” Justin asked while handing me a water bottle. “I’m not sure yet. It looks a little off color and up, but not too bad. You’ll probably do well if you decide to use the spinners. We’ll keep driving for a bit.” Given the lousy elements, I decided to drive for numerous miles to an area where we’ve had some success during prior outings. We bounced along on the now dirt road, rattling through water filled pot holes as the vehicle rocked to and fro. Often in March the road is still not traversable, snow covered at a certain point as it climbs higher into Granite County, below the Sapphire Mountains.todd & justin @ micro burst
         “We’ll have to get you out on the raft shortly, Justin. Fly fishing from a raft is a bit of a simpler matter. Other than accidentally hooking the rower, or Todd casting from the rear seat, it’s not as tough learning to cast. Wind is occasionally a problem, from a raft or canoe, especially on a large body of water. If there’s wind, your rowing. You’ll have to learn how to use the sticks anyway. You can’t live in Montana and not know how to navigate the Blackfoot or Bitterroot,” I rambled as we drove past an area familiar to Todd. “Sounds good, Garland,” Justin managed, eyes somewhat obscured behind black imitation wayfarers. “Do you remember this place, Todd?” I asked as we drove by the Welcome Creek Wilderness hanging bridge. “Yep.” “Do you want to stop here for a moment?” I asked. There was a brief hesitation. I noted a couple of trucks in the parking area and a camper. “Maybe on the way out, given that there are actually people here,” I concluded, driving by and noting a discreet family walking in the Ponderosa beyond the small gorge across the creek. “That is where the photo of your mother was taken. The one where she is wearing the waders and cap with snow in the background, holding the whitefish in one hand and Doug’s rod in the other, smiling. “Probably around ’91, ” I remarked. “I know that photo. This is where that was taken?” “Yep, right here in the middle of February. As I mentioned when we passed the cabin we rented one year, we used to come up here quite often.” The area is gorgeous with deep pools of water holding among large boulders. It would be a hell of a tough section to navigate on the oars during the spring Salmonfly hatch, a favorite time for local fishermen and the guides as well, putting their global clientele on the larger fish which having been dormant feeding on nymphs and sculpins most of the winter finally break the surface, gorging sometimes in a frenzy on the large orange bugs during the special hatch; birds as well overhead, seemingly battling with the trout for their quarry. It’s a special time of year in Montana during the hatch.justin @ micro burst           Upon arriving at the Microburst, the rain was coming down in sheets. We decided to give it a whirl anyway. Justin was able to fit into Molly’s waders and boots, the first time they’d been used in many years. I was not sure where Justin got the fancy white lid, but given the rain it seemed appropriate. We put on rain gear, Todd wore a pair of my riding gloves. Given the cold weather, rain and wind, we opted for the spin outfit for the student. “You see those trees that look like toothpicks?” I remarked to Justin while winding our way upstream through the deadfall along the bank. “A microburst occurred here during the ’80s.” I said. “What’s a microburst?” Justin asked. “It’s from the wind and pressure,” Todd said, wiping his brow and protecting his rod from some brush as we walked. During a severe thunderstorm, descending wind finally found a release up the Little Hogback while simultaneously wreaking havoc on the countryside.
          With the wind blowing in our faces above the slightly off color water, I showed Justin how to tie on the spinner, operate the reel and cast the rod. “Cast in those pools, below that log, like this,” I demonstrated. One year when Todd was little, I recalled his having caught numerous Brown Trout on a spinner in this section. This day, standing in knee-deep water across from a steep section of talus not too far above Justin and me, I watched Todd struggle to cast a Beadhead Hare’s Ear nymph into the wind. “Keep the line short, Todd. No long distance casts today,” I’d reminded him prior to his wandering off. The three of us played leap, working our way up the creek. “I think I had a bump, Garland,” Justin yelled to me at one point through the rain. Honestly, it was quite a miserable affair given the elements, but I was pretty impressed with the boys sticking it out, never complaining. Finally, having found our way up to a nice shelf of deep water on a north bank, I noticed a couple of rises not too far above my position. About the same moment, Todd wandered up to me and said, “Dad, I know he’s just being polite, but I think we better wrap it up. He’s soaked and I’m sure freezing.” “Okay. I just saw a large fish rise against the bank above us. Here are the keys, don’t lose them. They’re the only set I brought. I’ll be down shortly,” I replied, looking at my now drenched Fedora on his head. “Dad, please don’t be long. Let’s say 6.30, okay?” That was fifteen minutes from the time he uttered it. “Son, I can’t even finish tying on this new tippet and fly in that brief period. How about at least a half an hour?” I pleaded.
          I had only noted Midges on the surface, and was not sure what the fish were feeding on. I had seen small heads poking through the surface like rising wine corks from the stream’s bed. One, further up, had been a pretty decent fish making a large commotion. I looked at my hands as I attempted to tie together two small pieces of nylon with a blood knot. Red and white, close to lifeless. Recollections of the banks at Orofino occurred, steelheading during Valintines. Why will fishermen endure such unnecessary agony? I actually got the knot tied on the first attempt; however, the number 18 Adams was another matter. I found myself finally taking off my glasses and putting them on a large grey rock on the bank above me. I then, after several continued attempts to thread the line through the eyelet, ran the eyelet through the pin on top of the clippers to make sure it was clear of unseen plastic obstructions. Finally, I ditched the fly and attempted with another similar one; after many stabs, I threaded the eyelet and managed to get my fingers to bend enough to tie it on. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “let’s see what happens.” I reached for my glasses, the lenses of which were now dotted with countless small water beads and fogged as well. One can’t clean a lens with wool and of course I’d forgotten my handkerchief. I attempted to clean the lenses with the small foamy fly drying patch tied to the vest. This was only marginally successful. Following a few false casts and realizing I’d probably only have one shot at the rising fish, I laid the Adams down not too far above where the fish had risen. As it quickly floated over, I noticed an ever so slight rise. I lethargically lifted the rod to no avail, drenched, frozen and too slow. After numerous other casts, I finally called it and headed back to the boys. I noted the piles of fresh moose droppings on the way back while wandering warily through the brush. It was at this point that I missed the dog.
         “Dad, was that elk sign on the trail,” Todd asked upon my entering the vehicle. “No, it was moose.” “Well, what about the track?” he persisted. “Honestly, the tracks were small enough that they did look like elk,” I yielded, watching the window fog up as I removed the orange cycling shell. “They’re both in the area,” I finished. “Did you connect?” He asked, smiling? “No, they got the best of me. Thanks though for waiting and warming up the vehicle. You ok back there, Justin?” “Yes, fine Garland. Thanks.” “Well, I’m sorry the elements did not cooperate. Next time we’ll build a fire on the bank,” I mentioned, knowing that was probably not allowed now-a-days. “Neil’s fires, can’t beat ’em,” Todd grinned, thinking of our ski patrol buddy’s fires. We started north, winding our way up and out of the drainage. “I unfortunately told my parents I’d have been home by now, but I’m sure it’s ok,” Justin continued, looking at his mobile. “Sorry there’s no cell service up here, an incentive to frequent these parts though,” I smiled, looking back while simultaneously attempting not to drive into the creek along a narrow section. The boys talked about their classmates and friends activities during spring break, one of whom had gone to Iceland and another Peru. “Did you see Ian’s text?” Todd asked Justin. “He sent me a photo and said it was ten degrees.” Why would one want to go to Iceland on spring break, I silently thought to myself? We used to go to Ixtapa, or somewhere in the south. To each their own, I reckoned. Pretty highfalutin friends these guys have, though. The economy must be clicking right along for some folks. “Do you want to stop at the bridge? There’s no one else here now.” “Nah, dad.” Todd replied. “Sure, Garland. Why not?” Justin countered. So, we stopped for a moment and took a few photos.

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