In the Stern of a Drift Boat

by Willem Lange

EAST HARDWICK – If all goes well (and when does it ever not?), you’ll be reading this as I’m cruising down the upper Missouri River in the stern of a drift boat, facing downstream, with a guide just behind me; one of my oldest, dearest friends in the other end of the boat; acres of big brown and rainbow trout surrounding us; yellow sand banks and cottonwoods both sides of us; and the sweating ghosts of long-ago explorers splashing and (I presume) cursing as they row, pole, and haul their keelboats toward the mountains to the west that they still must cross somehow to reach the Pacific Ocean.

My friend Baird and I have twice had to postpone this once-regular trip, first for Covid (I didn’t dare, as a “compromised” person, fly) and again last year as global warming heated the river almost to toxicity for trout. But we’re giving it a try this year, as late in the season as possible.

The main reason is less the fish than the company. It’s what happens as you age. The fish and game become less important, and hobnobbing with your ever-diminishing group of old pals more important. I used to mark the habits of, for example, a particular whitetail buck and vow to do all I could to meet him during deer season. Now I see him in a friend’s game camera and find myself wishing him survival into another year. Here on the river, the electric charge of a large trout taking a tiny fly (good thing there’s a guide; I can’t even see some of the flies) is about as big a thrill as I’ve ever had. And watching a big one make my line hiss at it tries to get rid of me is another. But we cut the play short nowadays to avoid stressing the fish unduly. The brave new world is upon us, and we have to begin to adapt to its demands even here in this idyllic setting.

Part of those demands is increased aquatic vegetation, the fisherman’s bête noire. Rising temperatures simply mean more seaweed, especially late in the season. The normal response is, “Aargh!” But then you consider that, instead of picking greens from your line in rural Montana, you could be swatting at fruit flies in Vermont, and a few extra vegetables seem pretty trivial.

The birds, too, make this place special. From little guys I don’t recognize, zooming across the river like tiny bullets, to bank swallows and tree swallows swooping for flies, to mergansers protectively herding their kids, and cackling kingfishers, they fill the air. Above them are vultures loving the breeze, and away up high, maybe a hawk or an eagle. Finally, flocks of brown pelicans, some of the most beautiful aviators imaginable. They seem to be able to hover on a breath of air no bigger than that of a desk fan, and land as delicately as if they were in a slow-motion movie. When the fishing is slow, or my acquisitive instinct is quiet, I can sit, fly rod idle in my hands, and watch them for long minutes. We approach, are there, and soon disappear downstream; they are there after we leave, all of them, till they head south for the winter.

I don’t mean to make the experience sound like the Garden of Eden. Sometimes a cold wind eats persistently at your legs, in spite of the long johns and finds its way inside your layers of fleece. At others, a day-long rain seeps eventually into the lap of your rain pants or takes advantage of the fact that you can’t fly-fish with your arms pointing down, and runs up inside your sleeves.

The drift boats are masterpieces of evolution. At my spot in the stern (for some reason, the other two voters in the crew won’t cede me the bow seat). The seat swivels; I can sit comfortably against its firm back, or stand, braced against a thigh-high contoured fence in front. The guide has oars he can just let go of, if he needs to, and between his knees, the anchor line. A quick jerk, the line pays out from the bow, and we’re set for as long as we want to be.

On our way up to Lewis & Clark County, we’ll stop at a package store and pick up the essentials for our pre-prandial hour: crackers and cheese, sausage, maybe a bit of mustard (though I can score some of that in little packets at suppertime in a local beanery), and about a quart of whiskey. Two old guys and maybe some company for five nights; ought to be plenty. The guide drops us off after a long, enervating day on the river and rumbles off in a cloud of dust. We carefully hang up our rods, change out of our wet shoes and socks, and take a shower if we’re sweaty. Then the long-remembered ritual of quiet evening conversation and reminiscences with an old, old friend.