Red’s Run

“Robbin, why don’t you take this spot?” said Red Monical that early September evening, fifty-five years ago.

To my 20 year-old novice Yellowstone angler’s eyes, it looked like any other run along the river. I couldn’t read the river. Still can’t, but, given Red’s standing as Dan Bailey’s fly shop partner and reputation as an expert angler, his suggestion’s worked for me.

My friend Marvin and I were tag-a-longs with Red and Bailey’s guide Chester Marion for that evening’s fishing. Marvin and I -friends since the first grade- had made our way via separate paths to Montana that end of summer to fish with our neighbors and fly-fishing mentors Joe and Mary Brooks. I had worked at the Sun Valley Sports Center that summer and had hopscotched to Livingston via a friend’s lift, an airplane, and a bus. Marvin had flown from Virginia to Belgrade, where Joe and Mary had picked him up. We had about a week before we were due back to Virginia to start our third year in college. Our buddies back home could celebrate summer’s-end surfing at Virginia Beach all they wanted; we knew where Paradise was — and this was it.

Marvin and I shared a room at the Island Resort, where Joe and Mary rented a cabin. We had no transportation of our own; we just tagged along with them — fishing where they fished, third wheels at dinners at Dan Bailey’s and at Yellowstone ranches. You name it, we were in tow.

One day, it was Armstrong’s, another day, Nelson’s. And one day, Joe guided us individually on the Yellowstone. A couple of other days, he arranged with Dan Bailey for us to ride along with fly shop guides on their outings to different streams and rivers.

This evening, it was Red and Chester on the Yellowstone.

I stumbled awkwardly across the broad, white-cobbled bar and began my fishing. It was not elegant — just casting my fly forty feet and swinging it, moving slowly downstream. 

Joe dropped us off at Bailey’s at the end of the workday, where Red and Chester were ready to go. Chester drove. We headed up East River Road, then turned off onto a ranch road, passing through a locked gate to which they had a key, crossing dry pasture to gallery cottonwoods along the bank of the river.

We rigged up at the car. Chester and Marvin headed upstream while Red walked me through the trees to the edge of the rock and cobble bar. The Yellowstone was low and smelled of dried mud and algae — the smell of a river waiting for fall rains.

Red had a run picked out for me.

“Start there,” he pointed, “and work your way down. You’ll recognize the end of the run when you get there. What fly do you have on? A Wooly Worm? That’ll work. Good luck!” And with that, he turned and was gone upstream. I wouldn’t see him again until the end of our evening’s fishing.

I stumbled awkwardly across the broad, white-cobbled bar and began my fishing. It was not elegant — just casting my fly forty feet and swinging it, moving slowly downstream. Methodical, pedestrian, presaging, in unskilled ways, Pacific Northwest steelheading that would come years later.

Almost immediately, I had a nice fish. Then I caught another. And then another. “Man, this is easy,” I thought, “not like dealing with those prissy butts on Silver Creek or Nelson’s. You just fling it out there and wait for them to hook themselves.” After about thirty minutes, I reached the end of the run.

“Well,” I thought to my selfish self, “why don’t I just go do this again? I don’t see anybody coming down to follow me.” So, off I went, stumbling back to the head of the run, doing my best imitation of a scamper in my waders.

Cast, hook, land, repeat. This time through, my fish included the largest cutthroat I have ever caught and a brown close enough in size to being a “Wall Fish” that I briefly thought of keeping it for possible glory.

I had returned to the head of the run to go for a three-fer when Red hailed me from the tree line.

“Hey, Robbin. It’s getting dark; time to head back.” I reeled in and found Chester and Marvin arriving on the scene.

“How did you do, Marvin?” Red asked.

“Pretty well,” Marvin answered. “I caught sixteen whitefish.”

“What?” Chester and Red said, almost in unison. “No trout? Uh, what were you using?”

A number 18 Quill Gordon,” Marvin answered.

Jaws dropped. Trying to put a congratulatory face on such an outing, Red politely offered, “Gee, I’ve never known anyone to accomplish that before.”

If it had been just me, trout snob that I am, I would have chided, “Marvin! What in the world were you doing? This is the Yellowstone River, for crying out loud!” But I bit my tongue, taking the cue from the adults in this room.

“How about you, Robbin?” asked Red, changing the subject.

“I’ve never had such trout fishing,” I replied. “It was great, just fish after fish and a couple of really nice ones!” Followed by detailed bragging, including how I cycled back through the stretch a second time.

Chester gave Red a sideways glance.

As we put away our gear, Red confided quietly to me. “I’m glad you liked that bit of water — his sentiments unmistakably genuine. It’s always been good to me. It’s probably my favorite on the river.”

Only then did it dawn on me what a hole-hog I had been. It wasn’t all about us, I abruptly realized — this was also supposed to be Red and Chester’s fishing evening. I had never thought about moving on to let somebody, most probably it would have been Red, follow me through.

We headed back to the Island Resort, Marvin and I chatting quietly in the backseat. I can’t recall if it occurred to us to ask our hosts how they had done.

Mary and Joe came out to greet us and to thank Red and Chester, prompting us, by example, to do the same.

“How did they do?” asked Joe.

“They did great!” responded Red. “It was quite a night.”

Joe and Mary beamed and thanked our guides for the evening again as I shuffled my feet, avoiding immediate eye contact, closely examining the landscape surrounding my sneakers.

We all exchanged “Good nights,” and Marvin and I headed off to our room — me with some things to think about.

I caught some nice fish that evening long ago. More importantly, I came away with a lifetime lesson — one even more crucial in these days of exploding angler and guide populations and diminishing natural resources.

From the kindnesses and quiet examples of unselfish anglers are made not only lifetime memories but also, with any luck, the next generation of well-mannered anglers astream.