Fishing by Thumb

After two weeks of fishing across the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana and Wyoming, I was desperate for a taste of civilization. The food I brought for the journey had dwindled and I’d been living on a diet of couscous and alpine trout for several days. Mosquito bitten, malnourished and exhausted, I longed for margaritas and a mountain of nachos in Cooke City. I was relying on my thumb to get me there. 

Hours passed. Depending upon the kindness of strangers began to seem naïve. I pulled the canvas rod tube from my pack and pieced together my three-weight. When the next car came, I displayed the rod, my right thumb saluting the sky. The taillights flashed red and a battered pickup with North Carolina plates and dozens of fishy bumper stickers rolled to a stop. Inside were high school kids in straight-billed hats and high-performance flannel. 

“We saw your fly rod,” the driver said with an accent somewhere between Andy Griffith and Jerry Clower. “We’re on a road trip to fish Yellowstone!”

I hopped in the bed of the truck and as the highway flew past they asked about fishing “them big western rivers,” specifically, “just how picky are those trout?”. When they asked where I was headed, the driver looked back apologetically and said he could only take me another mile up the road. 

ABOVE “On the rarely fished Upper Animas River in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, an angler can easily lose themselves among the towering peaks and turquoise waters. Upon arriving, Nick Pavlovich and I got out for an evening session landing this gorgeous brookie before a storm trapped us in the valley for an additional day.” Photo: Kyle Zempel

I couldn’t help but laugh. It had taken five hours of hitchhiking to travel three miles. I strung up my rod again, hopeful another carload of starry-eyed anglers was on the way. When a red Datsun pickup blaring electronic dance music thumped past, I figured I was out of luck. Then it came back. The driver’s name was Miles and he was on a road trip from Connecticut to Seattle, where he was starting his first year of graduate school. The car smelled like marijuana and cat dander and all of Miles’ belongings were crammed into the backseat. His dilated pupils and quick speech made me think he was in the throes of a speedball cocktail, but he seemed genuinely happy for company and I was grateful for the lift. 

Sometimes you find kindness where you least expect it. Miles was no exception. He drove me all the way back to the trailhead, going out of his way and refusing to stop when I told him to let me out at the forest service road. “Don’t worry about it, man. Pay it forward,” he said as he risked flat tires and damaging the underside of his car to reach the trailhead. I gave him a trout-chewed fly as a token of gratitude and he pointed the truck toward Cooke City.

That was my first time hitching and flyfishing, but it wouldn’t be the last. Hitching became a sport unto itself, and I learned that the characters you meet along the way are integral to the game. Two months later, between Livingston and Gardiner, a thickly mustachioed man who introduced himself as Red Fox gave me a ride. He was a sled-dog trainer who spent his summers in Paradise Valley and winters in Alaska. Red lived on a small creek that fed into the Yellowstone, and without my asking, gave me permission to fish. I’d bring him the black Cavendish pipe tobacco he enjoyed, and he let me spend long summer days fishing the creek. 

Hitchhiking exposes the character of a place. It can make you jaded or astonished by the humanity in the world.

ABOVE “While sitting in the back seat of Chuck Ragan’s truck during a predawn morning drive for striped bass, I was thinking about how much time Chuck has spent looking through a windshield. As a touring musician for more than 20 years, a full-time guide and countless early morning missions to the river, how many thousands of hours? How many nights with little or no sleep getting to the next show or fishing hole? Take a swig off the coffee, put your seatbelt on and log some miles.” Photo: Jason Shields

Still, hitchhiking terrifies some people. I’ve known folks who don’t blink at white-knuckle rapids, but refuse to stick their thumb out. Of course, there is a small chance of being chopped to bits and scattered among the sagebrush, but, in reality, most drivers are just as nervous as you are. Like a blind date, it’s the unknown that makes it exciting for both parties. One nervous rancher who picked me up brushed back his jacket, exposing the pistol on his hip. He got me where I was going, but it was a quiet ride. 

Encounters like these made for good stories and fed my love of “fish’n hitch’n.” Over time, hitching became a matter of both principle and pride. I fancied myself a trout pirate, too boisterous and adventuresome for a shuttle. There was the three-day float on the Yellowstone that took 12 hours and four different vehicles—including a ride on the wheel well of a tractor—to complete. There was the rainstorm where I couldn’t get a ride and walked 20 miles only to find a flat tire on my truck when I reached the lot. There were hippies, cowboys, old ladies and kids. My partners and I kept a deck of cards under the front seat of the truck to determine who was hitching—low card hitched. You felt like a winner whether you won or lost. 

Thumbing back from a mountain lake, an amateur archeologist gave me a ride into town. He said he made his own whiskey and invited me to his home on the bank of the Gallatin for a taste. As he siphoned a glass of whiskey from a charred oak barrel, I noticed the unearthed objects that filled his home—obsidian arrowheads, antique medicine bottles, antlers, stacks of old coins, small fish fossils. He gave me a copy of A.B. Guthrie’s Big Sky, saying it was required reading for anyone who loves Montana. We spent the rest of the evening sipping homemade whiskey and discussing everything from Jim Harrison’s poetry to Wallace Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It all started with an outstretched thumb and a type of generosity particular to Montana.  

above “Our first night at Snow Lake, WA was an ass-kicker. An early September storm swept over our camp as we fell asleep to the sound of the inlet creek flash flooding. We awoke enshrouded in fog, but decided to hoof it several miles to the Enchantment area of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness despite the poor visibility. We spent the day watching the mountains disappear and reappear with the shifting fog as we did our best to fool the little alpine trout that live in the dozens of interconnected lakes embedded in granite above the 6,000-foot mark.” Photo: Elias Carlson

Hitchhiking exposes the character of a place. It can make you jaded or astonished by the humanity in the world. There were constant offerings of beer, smokes and parcels of fishing wisdom. A rock climber said he wasn’t much of a fisherman, but had seen lakes pocked with the ripples of rising trout while climbing in the Spanish Peaks between Big Sky and Bozeman. He pointed them out on a map, and I tried it on a whim. After a long hike, I had one of the most memorable days of my life, catching cutthroat under the amphitheater-like peaks of a towering cirque. 

I still hitchhike from time to time, although not as much as I used to. It’s mostly because I now live in Kingston, Ontario, which boasts the highest concentration of maximum-security prisons in Canada. The contrast to Montana proves a point—if you want to know a place, stick out your thumb and see what happens. Most fishing trips end at the boat ramp or the trailhead, but with hitchhiking, the adventure is only beginning. Just like with fishing, you deal with whatever the universe hands you. You might score a beer, a ride or a tip from a local. You also might end up walking all the way home. Just remember to keep your fly rod visible—a person with a fly rod can’t be all that bad.

This article was originally published in Volume Nine, Issue Four of The Flyfish Journal.


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