As moonless night and black water sweep over our heads and beneath our feet the Big Hole whispers stories in our ears of glowing crook-jawed monsters devouring mice, small birds, and wayward beaver babies up past their bedtimes–Night Stalkers on the Prowl! Shadow Beasts of the Forgotten River! The Creature Time Forgot!
My mind, now well papered with black and white sci-fi movie posters bragging ridiculous creatures and double features also has me tasting buttered popcorn with a hint of swamp slime and river foam– I can feel the “good n plenty” stuck between my teeth and I can see the scaly back of the elusive monster break the surface just ahead, its wake a fine edged dagger trailing steadily behind.
“Keep those safety glasses on, its gonna get real weird out here,” Wade says as he adjusts his own pair of shatterproof shooting lenses.
‘I have no doubt’, I think, as I roll the hook of a large articulated streamer back and forth between my thumb and forefinger. It seems alive in my hand as its joints and wet feathers twist in animation begging to be tossed overboard to set about the task its creator assigned it. Standing at attention on the bow I squint into the night as we ferry through a section of small pour-overs and eddies to reach the nearly imperceptible craggy left bank. The sinking line coiled between my feet slithers a bit around my wet toes. I have never fished a new moon before and though reports vary, our hopes are high for some heavy action. A twitch of nerves jolts up and down my spine that I haven’t felt in years. The shadows along the bank morph into wolves- into bears and then into something I can’t quite name but recognize somehow as beautiful and dangerous. A series of howls initiate somewhere downstream and ricochet against the valley walls reaching our ears in a distorted warble. I think I hear a growl and the sound of claws along the bank.
The sneak factor seems in our favor and Wade and I agree that the dominant nocturnal Salmo trutta known to occupy this stretch of river must also be thinking the same as they set out to hunt on this moonless night. Another cinematic title flashes through my mind—When Predator Becomes Prey! I grin with amusement but catch myself as a horrible thought bobs to the surface. Am I setting us up for a major B-movie flop? I push the idea as far away as possible as Wade tells me to begin casting into the inky black current in front of me.
Silver screen courage abounds yet, one section after another pass beneath our boat without accomplishment nor capture. Between casts we gaze up at the sparkling heavens for inspiration, occasionally catching the streak of a falling star or the orbit of an unknown satellite.
Wade navigates by the sound of the riffles and slack water painted around us in fuzzy whites and swirling black oils, occasionally I watch him take a bearing against the silhouette of the canyon wall running jagged up and down against the roughly stitched edge of the Milky Way. We travel in silence, straining our eyes and ears for signs of motion. I take my turn at the oars in the quiet, slow sections that require minimal navigational awareness.
Occasionally we drop anchor in an eddy and climb out to stretch and wander and doubt and thrash our rods back and forth in the dark. Each of us disappears up or downstream to stumble over the slippery river rock or negotiate the tangled willows and tic-filled cottonwoods in search of what might be holding close to the bank.
Midnight comes and goes as do miles of unanswered casts and frenzied retrieves which occasionally snag, eliciting a jolt of lightning across the brain, a thuggish strip set accompanied by heart palpitations, and the realization that your backing is thinning and nothing but stone is on the end of the line—
A spark against a boulder on the bank as the hook finds familiar mineral, then rolls into the eddy–a hurried blind cast resulting in another meatball to be swiftly retrieved and untangled before we lose any more opportunities in this stretch.
“Gotta keep checking for meatballs,” he says, “the trick is to…” I lose his words as they are swallowed up by the fast water slapping urgently at the raft bottom.
Beneath a bridge we drop anchor and reassess. The stars are painted over with concrete and iron beams. It’s darker than it has been and I lose the edges of the raft against the water. I track my hands by the dull glint of starlight reflected from my fingernails. My mind swims and for a moment I feel like I am traveling through outer space.
An unseen can is opened with a sharp metallic pop and another is pressed to my chest but before I can get a hand on it, it drops into my lap then slips between my legs and bounces into a rubbery fold somewhere beyond my reach. I mumble a grunt of dismay as I slump into an unfamiliar posture. It must be one o’clock and I think of the quilt covered bed that my wife and baby girl are sleeping in beside the Wise River, that generous stretch of beauty only miles away feeling both farther and further away with every splash of our oars.
“Hey! You awake?”
–I am back in the raft, startled wide awake, beer in hand, river water dripping from the brim of my hat and off the tip of my nose.
Wade is laughing, stretched out over the side of the boat splashing water across his own face with both hands.
“Maybe they smell us?” he speculates, dragging his fingertips back and forth through the water, “Maybe they smell you, Southern boy.”
Coming from a fifth generation Montanan this strikes me as a real possibility and I lift my arm in order to confirm or deny. Unsure, I lower my arm and say nothing, glad for the dark yet suddenly self-conscious and wishing I had an elk hide to wrap myself with or a bison carcass to roll around in.
Out of the black I catch a stray reflection off the plastic safety lenses slipping down Wade’s nose as he leans toward me, his hands offering an open box filled with paired glowing eyes.
“I think It’s time we switch to the mice. Doctors’ orders.”
He places the opened bi-fold in my palms and his hands retreat from the dim starlight my eyes have gathered. The anchor splashes to the surface and the oars creak softly as the brass locks begin to swivel back and forth in their weathered fittings. As we pull into the current I tie a knot I am positive of without switching on my headlamp. Something feels different. The presence of a third in our craft? What ghost or spirit has hitched a ride?
We swap oar duty one last time as we enter the final stretch of river before the takeout. Nothing beyond keeping the raft pointed downstream is required of me. I listen to the line being cast through the air as I concentrate on making steady and quiet draws of the oars through the water.
The next few moments are blurry, exaggerated, full of special effects, and entirely true.
Cue trumpets, drum roll, and glorious electric guitar riff.
A scream and a splash, a hollered string of expletives and hallelujahs, the boat comes round off the bow, pivoting on what seems to be an anchored line…
Flashbulbs pop along the bank and the Hollywood sign dangling from the canyon wall is suddenly illuminated by a shower of fireworks and dazzling sparklers, limousines race to the takeout to pick us up and rush us away to the awards show-our waders transform into tuxedos and they feel like a second skin.
We pause only for high fives, and autographs and handfuls of buttered popcorn.