My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
Fishing—The All Seasons Pastime

This essay was written in 1995 and published in the May-June 1995 issue of The Montana Journal. Fishing is as enduring a pastime for Mildred as it is for many others.

Fishing, like eating, never goes out of style. Applied in appropriate doses, it can smooth a lot of troubles and cure a lot of ills.

Long ago at our cabin in the woods, my auntie would say, "You kids catch me some grasshoppers. We're going fishing." It was a fun thing to do. Entertainment was in short supply at our homestead cabin, so small matter that she cut only one willow pole and had but one ten-cent snelled hook. We all shared in the day's pleasure.

Auntie was only in her early twenties. with a husband who worked away from home, she was housebound with we small kids for a week or ten days at a time, ten miles from town by horse and buggy and no near neighbors. She carried the baby, I carried his blanket, and we trudged the half-mile down the bumpy horse and buggy road to LaValle Creek. We mashed down the tall grass and parked the baby in the shade, and we small fry waded and played in the "crick" while Auntie took care of the business at hand. LaValle Creek was full of little pan fish eager for the taste of our hoppers, so when she had enough little "brookies" on her forked stick, we would eat our bread and butter lunch, then pick wild gooseberries to take home in the five pound lard pail. What a day—what a memory—and oh, how good those fried fish and gooseberry sauce tasted with our usual bread and butter and potatoes for supper!

After moving to Evaro Canyon, we spent the long hot summer months in little O'Keefe Creek. Fish hooks were too expensive (at ten cents apiece) for kids to leave snagged on hidden logs or rocks, so we kids spent barefoot days gathering old pails and laying them in the water. Several times a day we would sneak up behind and tip them up quickly, and often we would have a fish. When we had enough fish in the old tub that was ventilated with nail holes, we could have a fish fry.

But those carefree days couldn't last. I had to grow up and advance to more serious fishing. As a young bride at Arlee, I was lured to the gurgling waters of Finley Creek, a couple of stone throws away, just to while away time I didn't know what to do with. A widowed lady rancher, Mrs. Ellen Jones, owned extensive property along the creek, and I was warned that she was strongly opposed to anyone fishing on her land. Just inside the fence on the Jones Ranch was a dandy fishing hole. And yes, I gave way to temptation. I could see a beautiful trout in that hole, and he was just daring me to catch him. The stream was pleasantly shaded by willows and fishing soon became a contest with the fish on the winning side. I forgot everything but that darned trout, and he refused everything that I had to offer. Then, I almost jumped in the creek! The subdued voice at my back was full of hidden laughter. I was the poor fish who was caught.

"Are y' catchin' any fish?" And there she stood, a tall austere lady with an amused grin on her wrinkled face. Ellen Jones wore long black dresses and an apron, even after flapper days had ushered in short skirts. She didn't chase me out. She studied me silently for a moment then turned away. She probably saw me for what I was—a half lonely kid who just needed something to do.

I am also reminded of my father-in-law who was almost a non-stop fisherman.

"Want to go whitefishin'?" he queried. Well, of course if there was fishing, I wanted to go. This proved to be a new experience. We tied long bamboo poles to the side of the old Model T and drove to Ravalli to the railroad bridge and the deep swirling waters of the Jocko. This was the biggest fishing hole I'd ever seen! The fish were hungry, and I'd never caught so many in one day. They were determined to land head down so we let them stay there, tails waving above the snow until we had enough. Then there was a ten-mile ride home in the open Ford with hands and feet already nearly frozen. By the time we got those fish all scaled and cleaned, I was cured of fishing—for a while. And I have never become addicted to ice fishing.

Eventually I made it into the South Fork of the Flathead, now called The Bob Marshall Wilderness. By then I had graduated to reel and fly fishing. The water of Young's Creek was so clear that I could see every rock, every stick, and every fish. I had never caught nor ever seen so many trout. When the men were all busy, I would try to steal time away from the cook tent. After the hunters had gotten their game, they liked to put in a day or two fishing. I fried fish, smoked fish, lived and breathed and smelled like fish. Six, eight, or ten men can put away a lot of the finny critters. But the fun times were when I had the camp to myself. Then I could forget time, lean my pole against a tree, wade the shallow places and turn over rocks, and hunt for rock worms and hellgrammites and just do a lot of nothing.

I was loitering along the creek bank one Indian summer day absorbed in the blue sky and the bubbling stream when I saw the whitefish procession. I watched in fascination while they passed in front of me in pairs and formed a huge wheel at my feet, shuffling and gyrating in the gravel bed of the shallow water. Then to my astonishment they sorted themselves out and returned to the deep hole just as they had come—in pairs!

I gathered my pole and my wits and made my way back to camp. I didn't want nor need any more fish. I had seventeen dandy cutthroats in a big kettle in the icy water of Otter Creek just outside my cook tent door to feed my incoming party the next day. I sat down on the chopping block in the yard, marveling at the wonders of nature. After all, how many people have had the privilege of watching a school of whitefish spawning? I made my supper of bacon and eggs and crawled into bed reliving the experience. Next morning I found the lid was off my kettle and some hungry critter had pilfered my fish—all seventeen of them—while I slept the night away.

I had a busy day of cooking and of preparing lunches with no time for fishing that day. Oh well, bacon can make a mighty tasty meal with the moon coming over the mountain so far from civilization on a chilly October night. Hopefully, there would be other days for fishing before the first snows came to send the fish scurrying downstream to deep water before the winter freeze.