Over fifty years ago a friend who was stationed in Montana while serving in the Air Force invited us out to go back-packing and trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains. Ron introduced me to fly fishing on that trip and Montana has been a preferred destination ever since. During the 1980’s he worked for US Fish and Wildlife and I went out once or twice a summer to camp and fish with him. We fished most of the storied waters in SW Montana but I became particularly infatuated with the Boulder River and Rock Creek.

Calling Rock a “creek” is an obvious misnomer. Its current discharge is four times that of the lower Kinni; when you look at it for the first time the word that pops into your brain is “river.” When I fish out west I prefer tent camping but this year for a couple of reasons we rented a cabin right on the river a few miles above its confluence with the Clark Fork of the Snake. As much as I like roughing it, I am moved to admit that the cabin experience was pretty comfortable. Breakfast and dinners indoors, lunch and happy hour on the front porch, a comfortable bed for a refreshing night’s rest, good friends to fish with and quick access to miles of one of Montana’s premier trout streams totaled up to a fine week’s experience.

Fishing, as we like to say, is always good. Catching, on the other hand, is frequently a different experience. Only two or three fish were caught in the first couple of days. I saw one trout rise on Sunday and another rise on Monday and not another the rest of the week. John at Rock Creek Mercantile said fishing has been tough this season due to a late spring and higher than normal water for late July. He recommended fishing nymphs in the morning and dry flies as late as you can in the evenings. We followed his advice. But we also fished afternoons. We fished nymphs, dries, streamers and wet flies, all without success.

On Wednesday morning, July 26, we drove downstream to fish some braided water that we hoped would be promising. After gearing up we spread out on the near bank keeping ourselves within sight of each other. After spending an hour or so fruitlessly fishing various dries upstream I reached one of our fishing partners who reported having the same success as I did. There were a couple of braids coming into this stretch from the opposite bank and it was abundantly clear that the water was too deep and fast to cross at that point. I cut through the underbrush to get above him thinking I might find safer water to attempt a crossing. So I was upstream and around a bend from him when I found a spot between a couple of riffles that looked wadeable. I started across and at about the half-way point realized that a) the water was deeper than it looked and b) the gradient was a whole lot steeper than I figured. On local streams I’ve waded knee deep, thigh deep and waist deep for decades, never having a problem with gradient, only that unseen rock that trips me up and causes me to curse. We have gradient; Rock Creek has Gradient.

Half way across in thigh deep water is an impossible place to turn around. When you’re in that deep you have no choice but to move forward. So I tried to keep going, trying to do my Tai Chi step by planting the downstream foot, shifting my weight to it and then pulling the upstream foot forward while angling downstream to mitigate the force of the water. Finally the rocks underneath my downstream foot gave way, I attempted an awkward pirouette and I went down, waders filling with water and my feet pointing downstream. I actually laughed, thinking to myself, “So this is what getting dunked is like? Huh.” I had visions of steering myself into calmer waters so I could crawl out. 

Then I saw the log jam. In milliseconds I thought about the time my dog, Rickie, swam across this same river and got swept into a log jam, went under it and popped up on the other side. In the same milliseconds I thought about hanging on to that first log, a futile attempt since my waders were full and the force of the water was too powerful. I hit that log, went under it, surfaced ever so briefly, and then went under another pile of brush and logs before coming up for air. There was no time to be afraid. My eyes were open the whole time; I could see bubbles and parts of the log jam. I also swallowed some water. In those milliseconds under water I was thinking about how the hell I was going to avoid drowning. I wound up standing on a rock or a log, chest deep and wedged between a couple of logs, gasping for air. After several minutes I freed myself from the logs and after pulling myself upright on one of them, and with the help of the other angler, I was able to crawl across the log jam to the bank.

I lost my rod and reel, my hat and glasses, a couple of boxes of flies, some accessories and my wedding ring, a family heirloom since it was my grandfather’s and had my grandmother’s initials, A S, engraved inside. I don’t remember what we ate for supper that night, I was still tasting river water. John at Rock Creek Mercantile told us that in the prior couple of weeks three people had drowned: one on the Blackfoot, one on the Clark Fork, one on Rock Creek and his body was found several miles downstream. They say that only the good die young.

I’m old. I’m still alive.

Here is a link to an article on safe wading from the Orvis Learning Center. https://howtoflyfish.orvis.com/how-to-articles/trout-fishing-articles/tips-for-safe-wading

Michael Alwin


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