By Neil King Jr.
Being in Butte, I dropped by to see Glenn Brackett, famous fly-rod maker and devoted fisherman. He was in his shop on West Galena Street coiling a thin linen thread around a bamboo rod tip with a wheeled contraption from the century before last. Glenn has a sparkle and a lit-from-within face that radiates pleasure at what he’s doing, which most often involves fly fishing, or making rods for fly fishing, or talking about fly fishing.
His rods made of bamboo brought all the way from China are delicate but muscular instruments, sensitive but not easily broken. They are gorgeous things to hold in your hands and even more so when you swing them and feel their torque. They have an elemental force like that of a taut bow but more musical than that, like a well-strung violin. He tries not to make them too pretty, he said. He doesn’t want people to put them on a wall and dust them once a month but actually take them to rivers and get them dirty.
He talked about his love of the trout grass that grows tall and mighty in China and comes over the Pacific Ocean as bamboo. He had enough of that cane stacked taller than him in the back of the shop to last several lifetimes, he said. I looked at the cane and saw the lifetimes stacked in front of me. Then he showed me how he splits and planes and glues and turns that steely fiber into 75 different models. Some square, some pentagonal, some hexagonal, some octagonal. Some wispy for little streams and others beefy for broad rivers streaked with steelhead. And how people line up to buy them.
I could go on and on about the rods, and will one day, but what we’re really here to talk about now is when Glenn said, “Should we go fishing?” and we did, for a couple hours that proved yet again that no time on the water is ever like the other.
Glenn locked up his shop—it was three in the afternoon on a Wednesday, after all—as I pulled my truck around. When I came astride him and rolled the window down, he said, “Follow me. We’ll take the interstate for a bit and find a nice place to fish.”
We drove west out of Butte heading toward where the fires have been scorching forests all summer 800 miles away. The big flames were in Oregon but still they had turned the skies across the West a ghastly beige that blotted out the mountains and lent an apocalyptic edge to one’s mood.
The Ramsey exit said “No Services” when we bent back over the freeway and took a frontage road through brittle scrub grass that wasn’t the least suggestive of trout. When we crossed the railroad tracks and turned down a rutted dirt road, the sign that warned of hazardous materials also didn’t scream trout.
“This whole area was one huge Superfund site,” Glenn said as he climbed out of his beat-up red minivan with a Biden sticker on the back window. Fifty yards away across a scraggly meadow you could see an elbow of water streaming through willows: Silver Bow Creek, it is called. And past that, the ribbon of highway that connects Butte to Missoula. Between us and that road the mining companies had dumped tons of mining wastes over decades onto land and into streams.
“Until 15 years ago this was all a dead wasteland,” Glenn said. “Now it’s a pretty pristine cutthroat fishery.” When we crossed the tracks again on foot, Glenn cradled his bamboo rod in his arm as he bent over to pick up flakes of copper and other minerals that had fallen from passing trains.
Glenn grew up fishing in the 1940s within the shadow of San Francisco’s port derricks, so he is anything but a fishing snob. If there are fish there, and a Golden Arches or a Motel 6 right over there, he will wet a line to find the fish and ignore the rest. He doesn’t need elk sipping from the creek bank to feel at home.
His fishing attire was exactly this: A pair of old leather hiking boots. A pair of blue thick corduroy pants held up with wide suspenders. And over those, an old faded yellow Simms fishing shirt, untucked, with a few dark spots of an indeterminate substance. Into that shirt he slid a single fly box, and in his pocket he carried a tiny Swiss Army knife with folding scissors to clip the tag end of knots when tying tippet or affixing a fly. That was it, along with a blue bandana draped from the back of his cap to block the sun.
At 82, Glenn is limber in both body and mind, and a Buddhist, the two of those being connected. He may even do various stretching exercises before or after meditation. He doesn’t stand more than a few inches over five feet tall but nothing about him suggests that matters, aware as he is of the brevity of all things. He has spent nearly half his life in Montana, having once been co-owner of the renowned R.L. Winston Rod Company an hour to the south in the fishing mecca of Twin Bridges. To my question about the frequency of his fishing he said, “Pretty much every day.”
Which might explain my nervousness when I fumbled some in tying a huge grasshopper fly onto the end of my line. Did I lick the line before cinching the knot tight? Of course. Did I test it? Yes, with a firm tug. Was it unbreakably strong? Thought so.
When we got down to banks of the Silver Bow, Glenn wasn’t pleased. The water was high and turbid and choked with tufts of grass flowing by. I tossed my fly in a few times and let it float, but nothing rose to it. “Let’s head back upriver and see if the water isn’t better,” Glenn said.
So back toward Butte we went in search of better water. This time Glenn pulled over beside a bridge. A few warehouses and processing plants rose up in the near distance. A house opposite the bridge had a yard clotted with old cars and a dog that didn’t like us. It wasn’t exactly A River Runs Through It. But there where I least expected it the Silver Bow swept down under a railroad trestle into a pool that riffled, then boiled, then went smooth. The water was clear and beautiful.
I began working the pool as Glenn stood nearby. This time he left his bamboo rod in the car and his purpose now was to watch me catch a fish. “I go now to where I mainly just want to be on the water and to see the insects and the birds and the sky,” he said earlier, in his shop. “Catching fish is secondary.”
Ten, eleven, twelve times I must have cast into that pool, plopping it down precisely as a grasshopper would, having fallen from the sky. I worked the edges, then the riffles, and gave the fly a little life here and there with a twitch of the rod as I let him drift. Glenn praised the technique.
And then, wham, something large and hungry broke the water and hit the hopper and I had him. He sent a shiver of vitality up the line, a jolt of life and all the rest. And then he wasn’t there.
I cast again in anger and Glenn, from his perch atop a rock said, “Fly’s gone.” When I brought in the line Glenn held up the end of it and laughed. “Ah, the telltale squiggle,” he said, meaning the little curly Q left when your ill-tied knot gives way to a very large fish.
We drove further back toward Butte, passing car lots and motels and truck stops along the way, all catering to the passing whims and needs of homo sapiens making the most of their brevity. We pulled over to fish a few more pools. The Silver Bow each time we saw it offered an elegant rebuke to the human part of the landscape. Again, I tossed my fly and it floated and swirled. But I had had my moment, my blaze of excitement, my mortification over a lousy clinch knot in need of improvement. The trout had lost all respect.
Glenn picked up a brittle plastic bottle on the way back to the car, the third of the afternoon. The world already has quite enough people, he said. Too many, we both agreed. Far too many. You could hear them flying past on the interstate, a steady whirr of humans in motion.
“That’s why I chose not to have children,” Glenn said. “Didn’t want to make any more of us.”
–Neil King Jr. is the editor of Gotham Canoe and a writer who, when not at home in Washington DC, is very happy to be elsewhere.