I got a note from Yvon Chouinard who doesn’t use email and is notorious for brief messages. This one arrived on the back of a card with the word Patagonia on the front, via snail mail. The note read, “Come fishing. I’ll be in Montana 7/20 -8/12.” I really appreciated the invitation and it sounded like I could come about any time around the end of July. But still, I had a pretty full schedule and Montana is very big place.
Wild Idea had a harvest scheduled in Montana for the first week in August so I arranged to travel with a mutual friend, Jim Weaver, to the base of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the wake of our harvest semi and crew. I scribbled a note on a post card and sent it back to Yvon, “Jim Weaver and I will be in Montana during the week of 7/25. See you there.”
I meet Jim in Billings. He threw his fishing rod and sleeping bag in the back of my Toyota and we kept moving northwest. It was country that Jim and I had traveled many times before, but we hadn’t seen each other for a year or so and our catch-up conversations got the best of us. Colton, Wild Idea’s sourcing manager and the guy who had put the harvest deal together, was running ahead of us in his pickup and kept texting us, “Where are you guys?”
For a longtime we didn’t really know where we were, but it turned out that we’d missed a couple of turns and regained consciousness up near Fort Benton, seventy miles east of our destination of Choteau. But that didn’t bother us. We told Colton to find a place to eat in Choteau and we’d be there ASAP.
The semi and harvest crew were set up and ready the night before the harvest was scheduled to begin. The Bechtold family runs the ranch and they put us up in very old, classic, mountain cabins in the shadow of the Bob Marshall. The buffalo grazed on the shoulders of the mountains and cold-water streams ran gin-clear through the ranch. Our hosts were a charming, handsome young couple with four bright and active children that gathered around our somewhat rough harvest crew and soaked up what was happening like puppies licking up gravy. They marveled at the way the crew went about their work. Nothing about the shooting, skinning, gutting, trimming, sanitizing, and cooling of the buffalo escaped their curious eyes. They touched everything they could, hides and horns. Hooves and entrails. They watched the butcher’s knives flash a million miles an hour over the sharpening steels. They watched the work of the meat inspector and asked a million quests. Why this? Why that? How’s that work? Sometimes in the world concerned with conservation, sustainability, and social justice it is hard to be optimistic about the future. But when children are gathered around, watching and asking questions, there is hope.
Jim and I stayed there by the Bob Marshall for three nights. We shared meals with the harvest crew and with the Bechtolds and talked of our passions for sustainability and good food. I got to catch a nice cutthroat trout on a dry fly from a calm pool that was so clear I could see him thinking as the fly floated over him, once, twice, three times, boom! And the pool churned wild as a blender.
The next day we were heading south and still had no idea where Yvon was or what he was doing. I called his office in Ventura. “Where’s Yvon?” I asked his assistant.
“Isn’t he with you guys? He left Jackson yesterday.”
“Where was he going?”
“The Bighorn River. He’s got a place for you to sleep if you got bags. Dinner tonight at the Bighorn Inn.”
When I relayed the information to Jim he shrugged. “Five-six hours, no sweat.”
We traveled through Lewis and Clarke country, through the upper Missouri basin, past the Jefferson, Madison, Gallatin, and along the Yellowstone. We veered south toward Fort Smith, in the middle of the Crow Indian Reservation, and drove along what could be the best trout river in the world. I had an inkling of what Yvon was up to because he had once mentioned that it was a shame the politics of the Bighorn River had come down in such a way that the Crow Indians realized almost no benefit from the famous, revenue generating river that wound through their reservation. He told me that the Crow people did almost no fishing and that he wanted to teach a few Crow kids how to fish so they could get good jobs in the industry and perhaps start a tiny, Indian fishing revolution. I was telling Jim what I thought Yvon had in mind as Montana slid past on both sides of the Toyota. He smiled but didn’t say a word.
We found the house that Yvon had arranged and that evening, after a memorable meal, we sat around the living room table with two other conspirators - Craig Mathews and Mark Harbaugh - and rigged up a dozen tenkara fly rods. The plan was to meet Anne Marie Emery, the executive director of the Bighorn River Alliance, on the next morning. Yvon was tying knots in monofilament line. “She’s going to have some Crow kids rounded up. Meet ’em right there on the river at eight o’clock.” He laughed. “Our goal is to get each kid to catch a fish.”
By nine o’clock the next morning we were all waist deep in the Bighorn with a dozen Crow kids staring at the water where their lines disappeared, trying hard to feel the fly floating along in the current.
They moved the rod tip the way Yvon had taught them, waiting for the tug on the line that they had never felt.
The girls struck first, with one natural fisherwoman catching three nice rainbows in full view of her jealous father who watched from the shore. Five minutes later, he was wading in, wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots, and waving a borrowed rod. He wanted to know what this fly-fishing was all about.
Later in the day I stood thigh deep in the river, standing behind the old master, watching him twitch the tip of his tenkara rod as he moved down stream at a patient pace that made him appear to be part of the river. The air was cooling and the kids had all caught their fish. A few stood on shore behind us, watching: A little loop cast, let the fly drift, a twitch, drift, twitch, drift, twitch. Another step down stream and loop the line out again.
I recalled what Yvon had said first thing that morning. “If we can just get them to catch a darned fish. Feel life on the end of that line.” He laughed like a kid himself. “Something they never imagined. Bang. Whole new world.”