Nick Lyons wrote a story for Fly Fisherman magazine about a West Yellowstone fishing guide from hell who smoked, cursed constantly and tried to bad vibe Nick into fishing streamers when Nick wanted to fish dry flies. It was a fun piece. I remember laughing out loud when I read it.
I have a story too. One morning at the Yellowstone Angler I arrived at 7:30 the way I always did. I found my customer there already, waiting for me. He was an intimidating guy close to 400 pounds who did not look fat. He did look agitated and angry. "This better f^ing be worth it," he said.
Whoah. Did I have coffee yet? I tried to lure my client over to the fly bins to make my fly selections for the day, but he wouldn't budge. "I've got all the flies I need" he said. His words came came at me like projectiles hurled over a massive, protruding lower lip. He was part of a party of six from a fishing club in Northeast New Jersey. All six of them were scheduled for a day at O'Hair's Spring Creek. It was August and past prime time. There would not be much of a Pale Morning Dun hatch.
It was a good thing we were starting early, I thought. I had a territory I wanted to stake out before the other club members arrived. At O'Hair's (aka Armstrong Spring Creek) there is an oxbow still water pool 70 or 100 yards down from the main source spring, where the bulk of the creek appears out of an embankment. You can spend a whole day at that oxbow if you have to. A weedy island separates two channels with a large expanse of almost stagnant frog water behind that. The West side of the weed island is a long and always productive nymph run. You are right above a wooden bridge there too where you get access to some large, highly visible but impossible to catch brown trout. Fishing for those bruisers is seldom successful but it's fun to do. Entertainment is part of the guiding package. I was an old hand at this. I knew what to do.
We were starting so early there were no risers yet. I started him off at the edges of the still water oxbow. He had some remarkably beautiful small #10 Woolly Buggers in his box. They were tied with an olive grizzly saddle wound over a translucent green vinyl-tubing body. I asked about the flies in his box. "I got those from some Pennsylvania son-of-a-bitch," he said. "There was an article about him in Fly Tyer Magazine. They called him a professional tier in the magazine so I called him. He told me he was too busy! Too busy for me? I told him I'll sue you you son-of-a-bitch! Who does he think he is?" "He sent me my flies," he added, with narrow eyes, a bobbing chin and a threatening, crooked lipped grin. I tied his small Woolly Bugger on with 5x tippet. "5x!" he exclaimed. "5x is like rope where I come from," he said. "I hope you know what you're doing."
After fifteen minutes of drifting the vinyl Woolly Bugger in the seam between still water and current my guy hooked and landed a for real 20" inch brown trout. Fishing on the creeks is often good. There are lots of fish up to 17" inches but real 18" inch and bigger fish are hard to find. 20" inches is special. I was starting to feel better. My guy suddenly didn't seem so angry.
But then I looked down stream. In the next riffle below the wooden bridge I could see a guide I knew. It was Paul Rice. My guy started to get twitchy-tight again. Paul had one of the other guys from the New Jersey fishing club. "I hate that son-of-a-bitch," my guy said. "Look at him. Look at him. He's some kind of f*ing doctor. He thinks he's better than me. I'd like to kill that son-of-a-bitch."
Paul and his doctor client wanted to move in behind us, to fish on the West side of the bridge. I decided to move up 70 yards or so, to the big source pool where the creek suddenly materializes out of no where. The source pool at O'Hair's is deep big fish holding water with a strong current and an immaculately clean gravel bottom. But it's tough to fish because thick, tall densely packed willow trees usurp all the good back cast locations. It's too big for spring creek rods to roll cast to. If you try to wade too close to the holding water the fish there all spook and scatter, so you have to approach from below and make a long cast. We broke for lunch and took our time. My guy ate his sandwiches and half of mine. I got a long lecture about all the horses rear ends he had to put up with in his fishing club. For reasons my guy seemed unable to imagine nobody there liked him. He could not understand why.
When we started in again after lunch we did our best with the shiny vinyl Woolly Bugger but this time without much luck. This was mid-August. It was bright sunny and hot and there simply was no mayfly hatch. I switched his fly from the Woolly Bugger to a giant foam hopper. One of my patterns. We fished a still water pocket opening between weeds at creek-left as you looked up current at the source pool. Boom. Almost right away he had a giant rise. I knew instantly this was a big fish.
I was instantly worried too. We hooked this fish in a weed pocket with no where to go. How would we ever land this fish? Fortunately for us both that big fish panicked and ran straight for the deeper water, barreling through dense heavy weeds to get there. "Give him line give him line," I yelled. "And hold your rod tip high!"
Somehow my client got about ten pounds of weeds off the leader before the big fish bull-dogged down to the deep fast water at the head of the source pool. I was glad I had that hopper attached with 5x instead of the 7x he wanted. We snapped a few photos and released the fish, after plucking a good four or five small flies from its mouth and head. The rest of the day was pretty slow. Hot August days are a tough time on the creeks. We only caught about six fish the whole day, but one was a brown at 20" inches and the other was a 23" rainbow. Days like that your remember.
That was my last season guiding. I graduated with Tau Beta Pi honors in Computer Science and immediately started writing code at a local Bozeman outfit that made software for state governments that sold powerball tickets. My guiding days were over. I did get a call from the shop the following year. The big guy from Jersey came back and specifically asked for me. So maybe I was f*ing worth it. A few years later I was skiing at Bridger Bowl with Paul Rice and John Greene, who both had worked with me as guides at the Yellowstone Angler. We broke for lunch and started telling fishing guide stories.
Paul told the story of two guys from California who made the long six mile hike with him up to Grebe Lake in the Park. Just as they arrived at the lake Paul noticed a large boar grizzly bear. Paul said "I'm sorry but we have to leave. Now!" Paul's clients tried to resist. "That bear is on the other side of the lake," they complained. Paul said "Fine. I'll refund your money. You can stay as long as you want but I'm leaving."
At that point Paul's clients realized he was serious and reluctantly agreed to leave. But just as they started to walk the bear came galloping up from behind and followed them from 100 feet back, for six miles all the way out to the parking lot. Paul laughed and said they needed all the toilet paper in Montana by the time they got to his truck.
All three of us laughed and pounded our fists on the small round ski hut table we were sitting at. John told his story. He had two guys from back East somewhere. One of them was close to 400 pounds. It was early October and the river was cold. There was ice at the edges of the river. They had a Mayor's Landing to Highway 89 bridge float planned. That's not a long float so you have to get out and fish the riffle corners to make a day of it. At the first stop the 400 pounder announced he wasn't getting out of the boat, but not to worry. He'd just wait. So John went down stream a bit, with the other client, and started working a riffle run. But no sooner did they make the first cast when John's empty boat went drifting by. The 400 pounder got out of the boat to pee and John and had not let enough anchor rope out. John panicked. He stripped down to his skivvies and ran downstream along the bank, jumping and dodging through branches and over logs. The Yellowstone is a big river. He saw his boat way over on the other side, stuck sideways on a log jam.
John jumped in and swam the river, half naked with ice crackling under his feet as he stepped in. The boat was pinned up on its side and about to start digging water with the gunwale closest to the current. John is strong and athletic. He's a hell of skier. I cannot keep up with him. Or with Paul either for that matter. But John is not a big guy. Wrestling a 16' foot fiberglass drift boat pinned on its side in fast water was about all he could handle. The whole boat smashed his foot and broke a toe. But he did get it righted. One of his oars was gone but did have a spare break down oar. He was soaking wet with a smashed and bleeding foot. John was all scraped up and shivering as he rowed back to the South side of the river. He was blue from head to toe and shaking so violently he could not utter a single word.
Just as he got back to the other side his customers showed up. The 400 pound guy said "Should I stick with the Woolly Bugger or should I use a Grass Hopper now?" We belly-laughed and thigh-slapped so hard we almost knocked the table over. I'll never know for sure. I have a hunch John's 400 pound guy from New Jersey was the same in both stories. Mine and John's.