Eye on the Fly

East Gallatin, Fly Fishing

Eye on the Fly

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Mike England

The stream was small and serpentine, with overhanging branches and deep, undercut banks. Close to town, it slipped unceremoniously through back yards and under roadways. Hidden in plain sight, like Edgar Allen Poe’s purloined letter—and Quinn and I, English majors at Montana State, cared about two things: literature and trout. We inched the truck alongside a narrow bridge and clambered down the bank.

Leap-frogging our way upstream, we took a few small fish—hard-fighting rainbows and browns that leapt clear of the surface. Then Quinn disappeared into the brush and left me at the edge of a dark pool, recirculating on itself like a whirlpool in slow motion. Entranced, I felt myself being pulled in. The swirling current held a sense of mystery—what was down there, lurking in the deep? I tied on a yellow Humpy and sent it to the far bank.

Out of the depths rose a beast of a fish, its golden maw closing around my fly. I set the hook and held on. All around the pool that trout tore, leaping twice and twirling like an alligator. Finally it lay flat on the water and I wrapped my hand around its cold, satiny flesh. A solid 18 inches, plump as a pigskin. I let out a squeal of delight, admired my prize, then slipped it back into the current.

The Humpy has been my favorite fly ever since, though I seldom catch fish on one. I like how they look—simple, substantial—and how they float high on the water. They’re easy to see. I’ve always had a hard time remembering fly names, but I know a Humpy when I see one. 

And I still believe in them. I could go a hundred days without catching a fish on one, and it wouldn’t shake my confidence. Because it’s not always about catching fish. It’s about dreaming of fish. And Humpys trigger my dreams—of that murky hole beneath the willows, that produced an unexpected gift, a fish wildly disproportionate to its environment, like a child singer with a haunting, soulful voice—that came out of there?

Those dreams happen all over southwest Montana, every year. From the Yellowstone to the Beaverhead; from umbrella-sized pockets to big, fast runs; from a roiling pool below an alpine waterfall to the austere expanse of a lake—no matter where you find yourself, a lunker lies in wait. And all you have to do is toss out a fly, and wait for Fortuna to smile upon you.

And smile she will. You might catch five fish, all small. An occasional mid-sizer. But you know the big one is out there, somewhere, and it’s only a matter of time before the stars align, before everything comes together—weather, fly, presentation, luck—and finally, the fish you’ve been waiting for, the one that will live in your memory for the rest of your life, will take the bait.

So you cast your fly, and you wait. You wait for that one great fish. Not the fish of a lifetime, necessarily, but the fish of the moment. Because that’s what fishing is all about: moments in time, frozen forever, when your life is reduced to the here and now: just you and the river, flowing toward a shared destiny, where a blunt proboscis breaks the surface and takes your favorite fly.

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