Lonesome, On'ry & Mean

Lonesome, On'ry & Mean

Swink, Bradley
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We’re barreling down Interstate 191 in a third-hand Chevy Suburban; the mountains, like shuffled cards, pass by indiscriminately. There’s no fire of which to speak, nor are we being chased; this is Montana, by God, and we’re going fishing.

Greg Bricker, the 31-year old wheelman and soon-to-be-oarsman, is a hotshot fly fishing guide working out of Rod & Pam King’s Bozeman Angler. In the most competitive fly fishing town in the world, Greg may very well be the next big thing. In only his fourth season on the sticks, the innate maturity and confident swagger he exudes on the water has impressed clients far and wide.

Said a repeat client from Texas of his outwardly confident guide, “Greg got me into so many fish that it should be eeeeelegal, just plain old eeeeelegal. I’ll go out with him anytime, anywhere.” Being a passionate fly fisherman and longtime friend of said guide, I was likewise eager to break the laws of trout-catching reason on my first trip to Montana.

Greg’s swift ascension to the much-envied profession of fly fishing guide, however, wasn’t without a personal stumble or two. With troubles piling up in his native Pennsylvania, like many wayfaring types placated by the run Greg sought the big skies and magnificent rivers of Montana as a place to refocus. Sleeping on a friend’s couch in Big Sky until the money was right to rent an apartment, Greg thought it best to focus his energy on his passion of fly-fishing. Now six years later, with a tireless work ethic and unrivaled commitment to the industry, he realizes the fortune in calling the world’s best trout waters his office. “There are days when I feel I shouldn’t be where I am. Hell, I’ve only been guiding for a few years and I’m already spending 200+ days on the river. In becoming a fishing guide I realized a huge life goal—now I want to become the best.”

Sadly, however, with the exception of John Colter, running and single-mindedly pursuing one’s goal rarely come without a price. Greg’s four-year-old daughter, Casey, is back home in Pennsylvania with her mother. Greg met his daughter’s mother, who coincidentally is also a native Pennsylvanian, in Bozeman. The novella that was their relationship, unfortunately for Casey, is a short and cheerless read.

Simply, the young couple met, fell terribly in love terribly soon, Casey’s mom became pregnant and then both hauled ass for home. The future father was pulled east with a mind full of plans and a heart bedazzled with love and the expectant Mother, well, “she had other plans,” according to Greg. Not soon after Casey was born, mother and father were at odds and the genius fly fisherman was suddenly out and single motherhood (hear me roar) was in.

Despite the 2000 miles of mountains, hills, river, and highway that separate Greg and his daughter, his slightly selfish nature does allow for a restful night or two. “It’s tough being away from Casey—in fact, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do—but I still have to live,” explained Greg. “And when it really starts to hurt, I go fishing.” When asked whether a move back to Pennsylvania to be nearer his daughter (and some of the world’s finest spring creek fishing) is eminent, Greg explained, “maybe someday I’ll move back, but I just can’t say when.”

With the Suburban packed tall with boots and waders, rods and reels, beer and buffalo steaks, Greg and I were off to fish the Madison between the Lakes. Greg’s boss, Travis Morris, manager of The Bozeman Angler, was out in front in a newish Dodge racecar scouting for cops and elk. A 1991 Chevrolet Suburban, at even reasonable speeds, isn’t the most nimble of automobiles, and the majestic elk, likewise, may have a tough time dodging a few-ton hunk of baby blue Detroit wonderment.

With the beautiful Gallatin River framing our drive on the left, an elk and occasional mule deer dancing about on the right, Greg and I passed the time getting caught up on each other’s busy lives. With Johnny Cash providing the entertainment, Greg’s seemingly endless and equally impressive collection of tough-guy stories peppered conversations about Pennsylvania, books, our families, the truly amazing Corral Burger and, of course, fly-fishing. But with our purpose finally illuminated in the star and moonlight (Kelly Gallop’s ultra-cool Slide Inn), it was time to “gear up to get down,” which is Bricker-speak for it’s time to fish.

With the Madison River a short roll cast away, its river-song beckoning and tempting, Greg is strung up and into his first fish, a 17-inch brown trout, in minutes. Watching Greg fish for a few minutes before fishing myself, I could understand what Norman Maclean meant when he said of his brother, Paul, “in my absence my brother has become an artist.” Cast after elegant cast, Greg’s command of his fly rod, line, and fly is enviably masterful, one of the most simple and natural acts I’ve ever witnessed. “Hey Swinkie,” yelled Greg, knee-deep in the Madison, “you didn’t come all the way to Montana to watch me fish did you?”

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I responded. Hardheartedly taunting Travis and me with another impressive handful of yellowish-gold wild brown trout, Greg’s tough-talking brash side was approaching its zenith.

Greg’s tough guy act, by the way, isn’t much of an act. A born rabble-rouser, Greg has been in more fights then he’d like to own up to (being a father and all). And while it may be natural to underestimate a five-foot-eight-ish, Copenhagen-worshipping fly-fishing guide, like many, he seems to become bigger and tougher as he becomes more friendly with Tennessee whiskey.

“I’ve shared way too many evenings with Jack Daniels. That sonuvabitch has gotten me into plenty of trouble plus a night in jail. Hell, I think Jack was with me the night I got stabbed in the arm. Believe me, I don’t want to be the Waylon Jennings of the fly fishing industry, but trouble just seems to find me,” Greg confessed between gulps of beer. Okay Waylon, I believe you.

Despite initial plans to rise early and fish the Madison beyond Hebgen Lake, a late night Moose-Drool-influenced decision to float Quake Lake seemed prudent. Quake Lake, formed after the devastating earthquake of 1959, was stunning in its vastness and powerfully disarming at the same time. Ghostly foundations lacking walls and roofs resembled tombstones in long-forgotten country cemeteries on the land that surrounded the lake. Collections of crooked and mangled trees sharply pierced the lake’s surface like lost arrows searching out a skyward end. The lodgepole-laden hills hugging the lake, conversely, were achingly beautiful. Unfortunately for the three frozen fly fishing cowboys in the McKenzie driftboat, the fishing was more aching than beautiful.

Even with of our best efforts and a thousand or so casts, the float of Quake produced nary a strike let alone the boating of a trout. Greg, wanting to show his friend from Pennsylvania a slightly more inspirational day of Montana fly fishing, promised to wipe this day off the books with a trip to the Yellowstone. Livingston here we come.

The Yellowstone River, unlike the fruitless Quake Lake, lived up to every preconceived notion and thought I’d ever had. I had not, however, expected my old fishing partner to grow into the guide that was rowing the boat. While Greg has always been a truly brilliant fisherman, perhaps the best I’ve ever seen, time was simply not on his side. And yet in spite of being new to the trade, it was clear that William Gregory Bricker was put here to be a Montana fly fishing guide. With a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the topography and lore of Montana, the Hobart College graduate infused fishing instructions (shorten your cast, you’re casting too goddamn far, strike, strike, STRIKE, for Christ’s sake!) with wonderful bits of local wisdom that would be tough to glean from any guidebook or history class.

After taking out at Point of Rocks, the short drive up to Chico Hot Springs was typically awe-inspiring by Montana standards. With an intensely swollen moon washing over the snow-covered precipices of Emigrant Peak, I thought about the first and last trout I’d ever caught and realized both were hooked when fishing with Greg. And while I’ve landed a few thousand or so trout in between the first on the Youghiogheny and the last on the Yellowstone, those two were perhaps the most meaningful.

Not soon after returning home, Greg recounted his latest Waylon story as if he was discussing a day on Armstrong’s spring creek or having the oil changed in his truck. After a few Yaegermeister-and-Red-Bull cocktails, so the story goes, the hell-raising, gadabout fishing guide walked across town to the house of a chap that had just called his live-in girlfriend for a date. Incensed, nearly drunk, and twitching with adrenaline, after a few stiff knocks on the door, Greg hollered, “You better never call our f___ing number again. I don’t care if you’re on fire, don’t call that number. Now get out here!” Smartly, the potential suitor chose to take on those straightforward instructions with the door closed. Who says Waylon’s dead?
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