Two Claves ~ A September Journey

Part I – The Urge for Going

I suppose I don’t get around that much.  Oh, I do get around some, though mostly when I go places I choose destinations fairly devoid of people.  And where I live there are more deer than people.  The internet, connector of the flyfishing world nowadays, was late coming to our neighborhood.  For a long time, the outer world chatted and watched fly-tying demos online while folks up our way were still passing around dog-eared copies of Louis L’Amour for entertainment. 

I avoid crowds because crazy people (a lot of crazy people inhabit crowds) are attracted to me.  There can be two thousand people at an event and, sure enough, a crazy person will single me out, walk up and start talking, spilling their life story.  My wife hates it because I’ll stand there and patiently engage (I do make a lot of friends that way.) 

So.  Isolation.  Twenty-five years of spey fishing and I’d never attended a Spey Clave.  Then, in the fall of 2023, I ended up attending two in the same month.  Figuring there was sure to be crowds at these events, I had some trepidation going in.  Yet, Doris and I were itching to go on a road trip.  Matt, of Big Sky Anglers (BSA) in West Yellowstone, had invited me to speak/demonstrate at their annual Trout Spey event.  I hadn’t been to Montana in years.  We wanted to attend a wedding in Bend, Oregon, a couple days after the Big Sky Anglers event, and Zack had invited us to stay with him and his family on our way over to the Yellowstone country.  So, itinerary set, we decided to make a big loop – Missoula to West Yellowstone to Bend, then north to Spokane and on up 395 to home.  That would give me a few days home to prepare for the Clearwater Spey event put on by the venerable Poppy, of the Red Shed fly shop in Peck, Idaho, with help from Fly Project US and House of Fly.  More on that.

Part II – Zack’s

So, on a fine September day we were packed and hit the road.  First stop, Zack’s. 

Heading east up the pass, the Coeur d’Alene sparkled in rose autumn light.  The Clark Fork beckoned and promised.  We were traveling in a country of rivers.  It smelled like trout. 

Zack, Kelly and Cora live on the side of a mountain near Missoula.  From their house you can see, in the distance, a beautiful riffle section on a mercury stretch of river.  Their family includes a Lab, a kitty, and a flock of free-range red chickens – Rhode Island Reds or New Hampshires.  The animals are all friendly and are bonded into a pack.  We hung out and Zack made us all a delicious supper of venison fajitas and we sampled whiskey and talked late into the night.  The kitty slept with me and Doris.  In the morning Zack cooked us a tasty breakfast and then Doris and I went for a walk.  The two dogs, kitty, and the entire flock of chickens went with us in tight formation, gathered around our legs, perfectly behaved all the way out and back.  You could tell these critters were loved and well cared for.  And it was hard to say goodbye to their kind and thoughtful keepers.   Zack hooked us up with some cool Swing the Fly hoodies and T-shirts, and properly attired to represent, we scratched gravel for West Yellowstone.      

Part III – The Casting Pond

The road bent southeast under a long sky.  The high plateaus were flecked with the neat ranchettes of more recent arrivals to Montana, many with drift boats or rafts parked in the driveway.  Peak season and numerous small fishing rafts dotted the Madison River following the highway to our right.  I forced myself to resist the magnetic effect of the Madison’s riffle sections custom-made for a 3# spey.  We needed to check in with our host, Matt, from Big Sky Anglers, who would meet us at the newly reborn Bob Jacklin Casting Pond, directly behind the rustically handsome Union Pacific Dining Hall, in downtown West Yellowstone.

An afternoon at the casting pond marked the first phase of BSA’s two-day Trout Spey event.  When we arrived, we found the guys from the shop already set up beside the pond with a rack full of light spey outfits ready to cast and available to anybody wanting to cast them, along with cooler chests full of soda and beer for anybody wanting a drink.  Maybe sixty people at the casting pond, the scene was relaxed and fun – people enjoying casting the 2, 3, and 4 weights, hanging out, chatting, meeting friends. A group of young guides gathered at the pond drinking beer and listening to the Grateful Dead.  That made me smile.    

We met Matt from Big Sky Anglers, who had generously invited us, strangers, to stay at a condo he owns in West Yellowstone. Approaching middle age, he is affable, easy-going and confident, a multi-faceted fish bum, a businessman, a gardener, a writer of haiku. I kenned him to be a natural-born fishing kid, nothing of the cliched Fly Shop Guy about him or, for that matter, any of the other guys we met from Big Sky Anglers.  This was all a refreshing turn from what I’d experienced at the Big Fishing Show. Matt left us to make friends at the pond, and we met Dave, Ryan, Roy and Greg, and others who I’d never met but had read my books and articles.  We all hung out shooting the shit, trading stories.

Spey Bear by Mimi Matsuda –

Unfortunately, men far outnumber women at angling events, though any women present seem to find each other.  Doris introduced me to Mimi, down from Bozeman, a former Ranger Naturalist in The Park and an amazing artist.  Mimi created the Spey Bear painting that was the 2023 logo for the BSA event. She is a long-time friend of Matt and some of her paintings hang in Matt’s condo.

Part IV – The Condo

Life at the condo was relaxed and companiable.  Matt from BSA and his buddies Nick and Drew were staying there, and also Skip, a purveyor of the finest of flyfishing goods.  Some of the younger guides were in and out.  Matt kept the coffee pot going.  With no external media running in the background, we sat around the table in the kitchen drinking coffee with whiskey chasers.  Skip proved an accomplished storyteller, with a lot of stories to tell.  He and I being the eldest of the group, the younger guys held back, mostly listening, while Skip and I carried on.  We kept at it until everybody started to nod and left for bed.  Then just Skip and I and the whiskey raved long into the night, raising the ghosts of people, events, and fish long past. 

Part V – The Madison Clave

A short distance from West Yellowstone you turn onto a dirt road that leads to a clearing in the woods beside the Madison River, just large enough to circle the wagons.  There were a handful of vendor pop-ups.  Spey stuff.  Some clothes.  Maybe 150 people. The vibe was that of a family barbeque. If you wanted to dial in your trout spey rod, the vendors had lines you could try out, and also complete outfits set up. 

Rows of camp chairs lined the embankment while Simon, standing in the river, gave the first presentation of the day, a practiced, concise demonstration of spey basics.  Tough act to follow.  I was to be next, giving a talk on meeting insect hatches swinging wee soft-hackle flies.

Luck would have it, the day before leaving on our trip the dentist had removed four of my upper front teeth, leaving my tongue uncontrollable and a wide gap my upper lip collapsed into – the replacement teeth a month away.  I looked like a jack-o-lantern.  I sounded like Elmer Fudd with a pronounced lisp on top of that.  My time came and I stood on the bank of the Madison, rod in hand, ready to launch.  Scanning the audience, I saw Doris sitting beside a fetching young guide girl sporting colorful tat-work covering both arms.  They were chatting and laughing.  I’d never done the program and had no notes, so had to wing it. 

I began: “Hewwo.  My name ith Thteven.  I’m heah to twalk abouth fithing de thmall weffwy…”  Once I get wound up I’m a talking machine.  I got through it by taking questions and starting a conversation with the audience, and everybody got to participate.

Lunchtime, between demonstrations, BSA served a catered lunch to all in attendance.  Considering it was only $25 to attend the two-day catered event, I mentioned to Matt that I didn’t see how he could make money from it.  He told me, “It’s not about making money.  It’s really about making community.”   

Next up was the duo, Matt from Big Sky Anglers, and Nick from Headwaters Sales, who combined to present a smart, nuanced narrative and casting demonstration covering any conceivable presentation situation one might encounter.  Right shoulder, left shoulder, over, under, sideways down and all around, Matt and Nick demonstrated what a useful and versatile tool a light two-hander is on the sized rivers most of us fish, most of the time.   Their casting presentations smooth and light as breathing. 

It became obvious why Big Sky Anglers is the home of Trout Spey in Yellowstone country.  Matt was right.  Surely they were making community beside the Madison, and I couldn’t imagine anybody not having a good time that day.

The next morning Skip and I were the first ones up to make coffee.  The guys from BSA had planned to take me fishing, and I hated to bow out, but we had only enough time to drive across the fattest part of Idaho and on to our niece’s wedding in Bend.  Everybody came down to the kitchen and we drank coffee.  We all promised to fish next year, then shook hands and said goodbye.

Part VI – The Henry’s Fork Fly Shop Guy

I’m probably the last person in the world who still smokes tobacco, but I don’t smoke in closed places.  Doris and I can’t drive a hundred miles without one of us having to pee, which gives me a chance to enjoy a smoke.  Somewhere along the Henry’s Fork we found a quick-stop gas station with a fly shop parked next door.  After visiting the quick-stop we decided to stroll through the fly shop.  The young man behind the counter was sitting on a stool busy scrolling his phone when we walked in.  He was neatly attired in the latest pro-gear après-flyfishing synthetics and flat-brimmed trucker hat sporting the shop’s logo – me, wearing a soiled Irish flat cap, saggy old-man chinos, a moth-holed gray wool cardigan (the kind popular in the early 20th century) over my favorite T-shirt, black, bearing an R. Crumb drawing of the great Robert Johnson posed with his guitar, smoking a cigarette, on the front.  The header reads: Hell Hound On My Trail.  As we entered, the fly shop guy lifted his eyes from the phone, looked at me and frowned, then switched his attention back to the phone without a word.  The shop was well-appointed with the usual fare, yet a quick inspection of the racks revealed no two-handers.  Not one.  Doris, an expert, swiftly inventoried the women’s clothing racks.  I made a passing survey of the fly bins on my way to the counter, where I troubled the shop keeper with a couple questions regarding the local season.  Answering drew him irritated from his engagement with the phone; his responses painfully emitted, impatiently burped out as sparingly as possible.  Fly Shop Guy.  Guess he didn’t know who Robert Johnson was.  Or maybe he was just having a bad morning.  Maybe his girlfriend was breaking up with him, texting over the phone. I’d of probably bought something but didn’t want to bother him any more.  We left the store.  I stood out front in the chill morning, rolled a cig and smoked it. 

It became obvious why Big Sky Anglers is the home of Trout Spey in Yellowstone country.  Matt was right.  Surely they were making community beside the Madison, and I couldn’t imagine anybody not having a good time that day.

Part VII – The Wedding

The wedding took place in a park, by a trout pond with a brook running through it, on the outskirts of Bend.  I watched a few decent cutthroat rise to midges while the groom’s best friend performed the ceremony on the lawn.  Everybody cried, but I couldn’t stop watching those rising trout.  The park had once been a prominent homestead, and the fine clapboarded house now converted to an event hall.  The wedding supper was catered by a fine Mexican restaurant.  After supper there was a DJ and everybody danced.  There were a lot of pretty girls in attendance, the younger ones flagrant, the older ones elegant, dressed in their best.  I think I danced with all of them.  (“Hewwo.  I’m Uncle Thteve.  Wanna danth?”)

Part VIII – Home Again

It was good to be home again.  Doris (a cheap date) had a lot of fun but was glad to be back to her garden and her kitties.  I had a few days to get my kit ready for the trip down to the Red Shed / Clearwater Clave with my friend Bruce.  Most of my time home was spent tying steelhead flies.

Part IX – The Black Moose

Bruce and I both live beside the Columbia River, only several miles apart, almost neighbors, except we live in separate countries.  Bruce is a guide and casting instructor, a long-rod, greased-line, Upper Columbia chieftain, and he loves the Clearwater.  He is an annual attendee of the Red Shed Spey Clave, which he stretches into four or five days, parked in Poppy’s yard, sleeping in his rig, fishing the river daily.  The border opens at 9:00 and Bruce arrived to pick me up soon after.  He’s ready for business, wearing a flat cap and faded, threadbare Swing the Fly hoodie with a picture of a giant housefly swinging on a kid’s swingset on the back.  I threw my stuff into his rig, we said goodbye to Doris (she’d supplied us with a bag of goodies for the trip), and we were off.

It’s a four-hour drive from the border down to the Clearwater.  The country changes as you go south from the Kootenays and down along the eastern edge of the Columbia Plateau toward the Snake River country.

Leaving Spokane, the road tracks south following Hangman Creek, where the U.S. Army had lured the warring Eastern Washington tribes to a peace talk, and when the chiefs arrived under white flags they were led into a large tent, where the talk was promised to happen.  Once inside the tent they were seized and cuffed at gunpoint.  Then led outside and immediately hung.  They’d brought their wives and children with them to demonstrate trust and goodwill.  The families were forced to watch the hanging.  Deceitful revenge, retribution for the invading Army’s prior defeat at the Battle of Steptoe Butte.

From Steptoe Butte, the forest gives way to rolling wheat country, the yellow fields harvested and now stubble to the horizon.  Tight flocks of blackbirds rose from the shorn earth.  A broke-back implement shed adorned with a Trump 2020 campaign poster.  The Divide barely discernable far to the east.  Not much out there for a moose to eat, save the errant seed spilled from the harvest the blackbirds were scrounging.  A moose might be the last thing in the world you’d expect to see out there on that endless expanse of barren farmland.  But there it was, not far from the road, a dark giant of a bull moose, high-shouldered and with immense racks.  Like something stepped from the Ice Age.  As if it had walked through a gateway in a dream and emerged, transported to that void stubble field.  It wasn’t licking up any spilled grain, just shuffling along.  Wandering.  A stranger in a strange land. 

Part X – The Pasture

Arriving in Peck, on the Clearwater, Bruce and I checked in with Poppy, owner of the Red Shed and founder of the long-running spey event on the Clearwater, taking place annually on September 30th.  The Red Shed really is a shed.  Though a good-sized shed – large enough to house as fine a selection of fly-tying materials as you could want.  The shop is decidedly Spey.  A framed set of authentic, ancient Spey flies hangs on the wall above the opening to Poppy’s packed office space.  A confirmed greased-liner, Poppy likes traditional flies.  There are vintage Hardy reels for sale in the shop.  Out front stands a rack of quality, used, two-handers offered at reasonable prices.  It is an authentically rustic and soulful place built of wood, toil, and love from the moss up.  It was raining when we got there, and while in the shop talking to Poppy, busy at the counter with customers, Bruce and I noticed the occasional drip of a roof leak at the rear of the shop.  We brought it to Poppy’s attention.  He didn’t walk over to inspect, just casually glanced up from the counter, asked, “Anythin gittin wet?”  We checked and water wasn’t getting on anything, except the floor. We said it wasn’t getting anything wet but the floor, and Poppy said, “Well, don’t worry about it then.”

In his 80s, Poppy stays busy, in the shop or in the workshop he built onto the back of his house, where he makes fine cane rods.  He is a man of the country, a salty old long-haul trucker, life-educated, a reader, a gentle prankster possessed of a laconic wit.  He is grieving, having recently lost his lifetime sweetheart and right hand, Linda (“Mrs. Red Shed”).  He mentions her a lot.  “All those years I was on the road – you know, listening to shit-kicker music – I had plenty of chances, but I never cheated on her.  Never thought I’d outlive her,” he says.  “Gawd I don’t know how she put up with me so long.”  With the long white hair and beard of an old-time Highland warrior, Poppy is the undisputed chieftain of the Clearwater greased-line steelheaders, and looks the part.  Like everyone who camps on the grass next to his house, he is a lifelong fishing kid.

The Red Shed stands beside a narrow country road, Poppy’s house set back in, beyond a grassy yard known as The Pasture.  This isn’t where the one-day Clave event takes place – that’s a few miles away, in a park by the river.  But this is where the soul of the annual event resides.  Fewer than twenty campers, there are artists, poets, physicists, rod designer-builders, line designers, fly designers, guides, casting instructors – most, a combination of at least a couple of those vocations – all with one thing in common: a passionate (possibly compulsive) love of Spey.  They camp, some in tents, some in well-used pickup campers, and some, like Bruce, sleep in their cars.  There is no sign of ostentatious material wealth.  Though there is a considerable wealth of knowledge and experience concentrated on the meadow, there are no discernable egos.  This portion of the event isn’t advertised, admission to camp at The Pasture, I found out, is tacitly agreed upon.  Poppy or one of the regulars invites you.                

Though they were certainly notable, I’d not dare put into print all of the afterhours conversations and stories heard at The Pasture.  Of course, there was whiskey sampling.  Topics varied.  A favorite revolved around the fact that Bruce cannot produce a bowel movement when outside British Colombia.  Serious business when you consider he’s down in the States for about five days.  Everybody in camp was concerned, this leading to quite a bit of discussion about what should be done, each camper stepping up to offer a solution to Bruce’s problem.  You can only imagine.  (Bruce actually tried some of the less dubious of the suggested remedies, but none worked and he was forced to have to pack it).

Part XI – Fishing

The group camped at Poppy’s aren’t principally there for the one-day Spey Clave.  They are there to hang out at Poppy’s and fish.  They start to come in a week before the actual Clave day, and some stay a week after.  The Clave is always the last Saturday in September, and that’s a good time to fish the Clearwater.  Like all Northwest steelhead rivers, the Clearwater is troubled, but in 2023 more fish showed than had been expected.  I got in a few sessions, Bruce and Duncan guiding, and got enough grabs to keep things swinging, and also managed a tanker B-run buck.  That one was a special fish, Fish Of The Year for me.      

Part XI – The Clearwater Clave

The morning of the Clave, the guys sleeping on The Pasture arose and went to the restaurant with Poppy for breakfast.  We sat at a long table, all together.  Poppy loves going out to eat, and the guys take him out, breakfast and supper.  His favorite is the Mexican place in Orofino.  “Been to the Mexican place four nights in a row and still haven’t paid!” Poppy announced.  (The guys won’t let him pay.) 

When we got to the event in the park by the river, things were already in full swing.  The colorful dealer popups were doing relaxed business.  The set-up was larger than the Trout Clave on the Madison.  This was a steelhead Clave and the attendees, in general, a hard-bitten bunch of hard-core steelheaders, though the vibe was just as relaxed and friendly as the Big Sky Anglers event. 

There were more lady anglers at this one, serious spey casters, most quite young, and that was good to see.  Whitney, from over on the Missouri, gave a great casting demo and talk about trout spey presentations.  Her casting was impeccable, her talk informative, engaging and humorous. 

Whitney Gould

The sky held lowering clouds all day, off and on a light spritz of showers, which I avoided by hanging out with various vendors in their pop-up shelters, shooting the shit, making new friends and meeting old friends.  My homie Reverend James was there.  Also my friend Tom, an amazing fly tyer and competent horse-shoer from the Methow Valley.  And my friend Dick, a fly tackle distributor who has been very generous to me over the years.  And my new friend Skip, from the BSA Madison clave, showed up.  This was nothing like the Big Outdoor Show; I experienced no marketing trauma, no sensory overload.

Again, it was like a family barbeque.  Local sponsors manned the barbeque pit, grilling up burgers to feed the entire crowd. 

Will attending a spey clave make you a better angler?  I think so.  If you have questions or need help with anything Spey, you will find help at a spey clave.  And it’s like Bruce says: “If you want to get good, hang out with the guys who are good.”   

Part XIII- After Breakfast

In the morning, Bruce and I and the campers on The Pasture went to breakfast with Poppy one last time.  After breakfast we loaded up, said goodbyes all around, and headed North for the border. 

Bruce knows I’m difficult to teach outright, so rather than hassle with me, finds more subtle ways to improve my game.  As we were leaving Poppy’s he threw a box on my lap containing a new Gaelforce Equalizer short-belly line.  (And, I later found out, it was an improvement over the Scandi I’d been using on my 14-foot 7-weight).   

Even though we were worn out and Bruce still hadn’t managed a BM, we traveled home still buoyant from the great time we’d had, talking non-stop, reviewing our trip, talking about fishing, talking about everything.

Approaching Steptoe we kept an eye out for the dark moose of the wheat stubble.  But it did not appear.

Unloading at my cabin, only a mile from the border, Bruce said: “Can’t hang around, I gotta go.  I feel it coming on.”  (Oh Canada!)

 -Steven Bird