By Reid Bryant
First published American Angler Magazine
A few months back, my good friend Breuer rowed me and my wife Kim down the mighty Missouri River. We’d put in a late night, and set out from Missoula early in the morning, but by the time we busted out of the fog at the head of the Blackfoot Valley, our hangovers and our spirits were much lifted. In Lincoln we stopped for a second breakfast, the earlier one having been nothing short of medicinal, and Bloody Mary’s were had by all. We were in Craig before noon with a shuttle arranged and the rods rigged, and the boat floating high under a blazing April sky. Breuer hauled the anchor and puffed us out into the chop below the dam, and by the end of the first drop we were two decent rainbows in and well aware that it was becoming a hell of a day.
It’s a rare and beautiful thing to slow down enough to see perfection settling all around you, but we managed it that day. We shouted above the roar of the river and teased each other over the fish that came unstuck, and complimented the ones we landed with a degree of solemnity, or, in Breuer’s case, some inspired profanity. Kim looked fine up there in the bow of the skiff with her bare brown feet on the gunwale and a beer between her legs. We hadn’t been out on the water just the three of us in too many years, and it was good to find our places again. Breuer didn’t even get pissed when I left two successive nymph rigs stuck in his anchor rope, and that was saying something. We got sunburned and laughed and looked out over the rolling, high desert hills, and smiled till the parched wind threatened to split our lips.
Well past lunchtime we stopped for lunch, and dropped anchor at the point of an island so Kim could get out and pee. I stood and stretched and yawned, and Breuer lumbered over the rail and wandered off into the scrub, presumably not to sneak a peak at Kim’s best side. He came back all excited with a sun-bleached boat bag in his hands, and he set it down in the sand and kind of pulled it up close, and asked me furtively “you see any other boats pull up here?”
I shook my head no. The little strip of Montana that we occupied just then could not have been more than a quarter acre, and it was ours and ours alone.
“I found this bag over in the trees. Must be one of the local guides left it. Maybe let’s sit here for a while and just wait… maybe he’ll come back for it.”
Kim came out of the bushes and reached around in the cooler for another beer, and flopped down on the scrub grass beside us. She pointed at the bag. “What’s that?”
By way of answer, Breuer unzipped the bag, and pulled the mouth of it wide apart, and it became a lot like Christmas morning. He pulled out treasures one by one, and arranged them neatly on the ground before us. There was a newish Headhunters hat, tippet in every color and size, and forceps and fly float and shot. There was a Hatch reel with a couple of spools, and a wallet of unwrapped leaders, and a fancy Gerber boat knife in a Kevlar sheath. And oh my Lord there were flies, boxes and boxes of flies, for every situation imaginable. There was a huge compartment box of big buggy dries: Chernobyls and Bugmeisters and Madame X’s. There were boxes of smaller dries, mostly caddis and mayflies, and other boxes of terrestrials. There were nymphs down to teeny-tineys, lined up in waterproof boxes, untouched and perfect and orderly. And in one box there were enough soft-hackle wets to make Sylvester Nemes himself remove his tattered deerstalker in tearful reverie. We looked at all that booty arranged there on the sand, and each of us got a little nervous and excited, and I even saw Kim look back upstream to check if any boats, piloted by panicky-looking oarsmen, were heaving into view. For my part, I’d already started a mental inventory of what I’d make a play for, and the leverage I’d employ: “Hey Breuer, remember that time back in Vermont when you wrapped my new truck around the rear end of that whitetail buck? I’ll never mention it again if I can keep all the nymph boxes…”
“Anything else in there?” I reached over and unzipped the various and sundry compartments that littered the front and sides of the bag. Breuer pulled it out of my reach and onto his lap, where he conducted a more thorough search. Three bottles of DEET bug spray in melty ziplocs, a limp granola bar, and a crusty bandana… that was it. Kim grabbed the bag, and Breuer reached for the reel, took it out of its case, and pulled some line, testing the drag. “I’ve been saving for a new reel…” He sighed, pulled more line, and sighed again.
“What’s this?” Kim reached into an overlooked pocket and held out for us a plastic envelope, run through with a big silver safety pin. “Looks like a license.”
Breuer grabbed it, and pulled from it a small sheaf of folded paper.
“Yeah, it’s licenses. Guy’s name is Seth, guides for one of the outfits on this side of the pass. Looks like he fished steelhead on the Clearwater just like me this Spring. Huh… guy’s got good taste anyway…”
And in that moment, the thing became personal, and we knew it was over. None of us said it, but we knew, sitting there, looking over the inventory of that guy’s life, we knew we couldn’t take all that loot. It was too much like stealing from ourselves.
“There’s gotta be a hundred bucks just in Skwalas in there” said Breuer, carefully stacking the boxes back into the bag. “And an easy few dozen Double Bunnies in that Cliff box…” He picked up the reel one more time, and cranked it. “Any beers left, Kim?”
“How you going to get it back to him?” Kim asked, pulling a can for each of us from the cooler. “There’s no number anywhere on those licenses.” I could tell she was testing him a little, just to see if he’d let this hiccup pull him back pover into the darkness.
“Shit,” Breuer said, zipping the bag. “It’s pretty small circles around here. I’ll have him located by the end of the weekend. I’d better, anyway.” He stuffed the three bottles of DEET back into the front pocket. “Careless sonofabitch is probably getting the everliving shit bit out of him by the bugs.” He secured the last zipper, took a long pull of beer, and crushed the can. “Let’s split.” He tossed the bag into the boat and followed it in, and barely got us situated before hauling the anchor. “Hey Kim, throw those nymphs into the diamond chop off the point of the island, and let’s see if your Yankee ass can’t stick another feee-yush!” He whooped loud for emphasis over the roar of the river, and we were off on our way once again.
Back in Craig, we were tired but happy, and the truck was waiting there, and we got our cocktails in to-go cups and drank them on the tailgate. The sun had taken its shallower slant, and the river was sparkling hard now, and the wind was all but gone. The echo of the day was still loud in our ears, and the sun on our faces felt warm and good. It would frost up high that night.
Breuer had asked at Headhunters, and had gotten a number for Seth, and a plan to get the bag back to him. I was ashamed to feel a little wistful at our honesty, and a little covetous still of the wealth of good taste and possibility that we’d entertained as our own for a spell that day. But I knew too, just as I knew the day would end just as lovely as it could, that the bag wasn’t ours from the get go, and no “finder’s keeper’s” rationalization was going to change that. So we sipped our drinks and sat there under a great Big Sky, and enjoyed the descent of the day, and a friendship that was years old, and the realization that, in the simplest of ways, we knew what was good in the world.