The Brownie.

This is a fish story. A story about fishing. Most fishing stories have embellishments and mine is probably no exception.

I love sport fishing. I love running deep rigs for ling cod and rockfish on the ocean. I love hunting sneaky-ass bass with crank bait on farm ponds in Iowa. But what I love most is fly fishing on a river for trout.

For me, fly fishing is the most zen-like pursuit I know. Time seems to evaporate and I feel very calm and happy when I’m fly fishing. And to tell you the truth, given how involved and complicated the actual act of fly fishing is, I don’t know why I feel this way. The gear is antiquated, the river is moving dangerously fast, you stand in the boat and the boat is often bouncing all over the place while you’re trying to cast. It’s hard to focus on all that’s going on. Plus there’s usually at least one other person in the boat trying to find his “zen” place, too. It’s controlled chaos at it’s best.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not very good at fly fishing. I have poor casting technique, sketchy rod handling skills and I’m just as likely to gig my fishing partner with a hook as I am a fish.

One more thing, fly fishing is an expensive pursuit. A mid-level fly rod and reel outfit will set you back five bills. Smart anglers hire professional guides who bring the right gear for you to use and know where the fish are. The guide also provides the boat, lunch and expertise so that your day is joyful. Joyfulness is expensive. And worth it. Trust me.

I went fly fishing this week on the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, Montana, with my mentor and friend, Joe Phelps. It’s been ten years since I last fished with Joe and, seeing as I hooked him three times (thankfully with a barbless hook), I can understand if he had concerns about climbing into the boat with me. Our guide, Max, works out of Anglers West, one of the top outfitters in Paradise Valley. Max, who is all of 23, works Paradise Valley in our summer months and guides in Chile in their summer months (December though March).

The predominant trout species in the Yellowstone is the Cutthroat, so called because they have beautiful crimson-colored “cut” marks next to the gills. The river is also home to Rainbows — also beautiful — and Montana Whitefish (less beautiful, but fighters), but the most elusive and rare trout on the Yellowstone is the Brown trout.

Trout are wily, picky and arrogant fish. They want to play with you. Tease you. Refuse you. Then fight you when they strike. Trout are badass. Brown trout are the badass-est trout on the river. And the hardest to catch.

When I fished the Yellowstone ten years ago, everyone in our party nailed all three of these beautiful trout — Cuttys, ‘Bows and Brownies — except me. I did not land a Brownie, and it’s been bugging me ever since. In fact, I’ve fished other rivers and streams that are home to Brown trout and, again, failed to land one. Heck, my son, Daniel, when he was 11, waved a Brownie he’d caught on Bishop Creek right in my face.

I made mention of this to Joe and Max, as we were beginning our day. Both looked at me with that “oh, okay, that’s nice” look that folks do when they’re really thinking about something else.

As soon as we were headed downriver in the boat, the fish started to hit. One Rainbow  after another. Then I got a Whitefish. Then more ‘Bows. Then lunch. Time flies, remember? No Brownies.

The weather was perfect, albeit a little windy. My technique was, um, lacking. Max, ever the professional, was very patient and took advantage of me telling him to just bark commands at me, rather than make gentle suggestions.

“Closer to the bank!”


“Mend! Mend! Mend! ”

“Small mend!”

NO! Don’t Mega-Mend!”

“Mend downriver!”


I didn’t mind the curt instructions. I was in “The Zone.” I was just happy to be alive and in this place and at this time. Man, it was fly fishing heaven. But still no Brownies.

Then it happened. It was a bump, a refusal, then a hard strike. Different than a ‘Bow. I saw the Brownie almost immediately, the unusual light brown, almost golden, color slapping in the water and pulling on my line. This Brownie was big (relatively speaking for a trout) and was in the fight of his life. I had to land this fish.

Many times a trout will strike and you think you’ve got him. Then he spits out the fly, flips you an imaginary bird and swims away laughing at you. Other times, you’ll get him right up to the boat and ready for the net. Then you lose focus for just a second or two, lower your rod or release line tension… and he’s gone. Guides call that “Catch and early release.” Some guides, I’m sure, roll their eyes at the noob when this happens.

Not this time.

I did everything right… for a change. I held my rod up straight and behind my shoulder. I stripped the line, rather than reel it in like a traditional spin casting rig, which causes you to lower the rod, slacken the line, and get the bird from a fish’s tail as he swims away. I got the Brownie next to the boat and Max got him in the net.

At the same time, Joe was landing another Rainbow, so we had a busy boat. This happened three times that day — me and Joe landing fish at the same time — making Max work to keep the boat heading downriver, keep us from tangling rods and lines, net and release two fish, then listen to his clients spew verbal high-fives until the next fish hit.

Joe and I lost count of the total number of fish caught that day, or who caught the most, or the biggest (it was me). It didn’t matter. It was a perfect day.

I got my Brownie.

BrownieMy Brownie. Finally. Notice the color difference? JP is green with envy.

JP working the river and the result — a beautiful Rainbow (but no Brownies for him that day).

FlyagraThis product is called “Fly-Agra.” It’s designed to add flotation to your fly to, uh, help keep it up longer. The label actually says “Not for human consumption.”

Young DublinersThe Young Dubliners were playing at Pine Creek Lodge in Paradise Valley on an outdoor stage surrounded by streams, mountains and dancing fans. Great show!

We rode through Yellowstone along the northeast route and over the famous Beartooth Pass (10,947 feet). On the way down, I noticed the rear tire wearing through a thousand miles sooner than planned. We limped into Red Lodge, Montana, to Bonedaddy’s Custom Cycles and got a new rear shoe for Orca. Of course, I had sent a set of tires ahead to our final Chapter Two stop in Iowa and have service scheduled for next week. “Wanna make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”

Devils TowerDevil’s Tower in Wyoming. Remember this place from the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind?” Did you just make the audio sound and hand gesture of “bee, boo, bah, beep” from the film? Yes, you did.

RushmoreMt. Rushmore in South Dakota. I just expected it to be, you know, bigger.

Adventure awaits! (My new sign off, courtesy of Dee)


4 thoughts on “The Brownie.

  1. Adventure awaits…soon to be a major motion picture at a theatre near u….if not, it should be! Congratulations on Brownie…I just have one question…

    Did you cook it? Or throw it back in the water?? Hard to imagine you doing either after all that! NG

  2. Fair question. I always “catch & release” freshwater fish. On the Yellowstone, it’s mandatory. We treat the fish very gently, rarely touching them or pulling them from the net. For the photo, Joe and I rinsed our hands in the river to minimize slime transfer from the fish (I’m sure there’s a more scientific term), then we gently placed the fish back in the river to revive them and make sure they were ready to swim. Then, and only then, did they also flip us the “bird” as they swam away, wiser about the free lunch. Seawater fish? Pole to plate, baby!

  3. You have some of the most entertaining blogs. I am thrilled to hold on to the antenna of the Orca (you have an antenna, right?) I have done the cross-country drive back and forth, and my biggest regret definitely is not making more stops. The USA is incredible and beautiful, and next time it, the ride will be done at a smarter pace. Loving living this through you guys! Thanks for sharing!

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