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Ronan's report

Sunday October 30th 2011

"Brace! Brace! Brace!"

Thankfully I wasn't, in any way, airborne at the time.

Happily, I was standing in a drift boat in the middle of The Yellowstone River, Montana USA, fly rod in hand. The drift boat in question was about to slide through some heavy riffle with some rather aggressive-looking rocks in view and Ike was admonishing me to brace against the leaning post thoughtfully provided for just this eventuality.

We sailed through relatively smoothly; a gentle dip to the left, a few bobs, and we're on our way. I even managed to get a cast in to that nice pocket behind one of the rocks mid-bob. I think Ike was nearly impressed.

Actually, "on our way" is an interesting concept in drift boating. This kind of fishing is definitely about the drive and not the destination. But it's not like you think.

Drifting implies a lazy passage: moving at the whim of the current; passively accepting what comes your way; taking in the view. Not in this boat.

What we're about is trying to get a fly into all the trouty looking spots we can whilst moving smoothly downstream. No anchoring above or below likely spots, sussing out the current, trying a few experimental casts, maybe adjusting the leader, changing a fly. Just enough time to get one, or two if you're lucky, casts in before the next trouty lie comes past.

This takes a bit of concentration. Some of you might even use the word multi-tasking, allegedly a difficult thing for the male of the species. Consider this: A 6wt fly rod, a floating line, 10ft leader, a weighted size 4 Woolly Bugger, and a big chunk of soft weight on the leader to make sure it gets down in the fast current. Not the easiest set-up to cast even when you are planted solidly on terra firma, with both you and the target stationary. All you have to do is plant the fly in the right spot first time, keep track of the fly, twitch it where necessary, watch the line and feel for takes, and retrieve. Easy? OK. In which case by the time you're ready to pick up the fly for the next cast, you'll have already spotted the next likely spot, sussed out the current speed, depth, what kind of mend you'll need, what kind of retrieve, and be able to make the cast, first time. Eh? Still concentrating on the first cast?

Drifting and fishing with the current is a fine study in relativity. The river and the boat are stationary, the bank moves! This scrambles the brain. Years of bank or anchored fishing condition you to expect line to drag downstream from you. Doesn't happen! The line stays more or less with you, subtly swinging to-and-fro, up-and-down as it's manipulated by the relativity of adjacent currents. Quite mesmerising, and not conducive to multi-tasking! After my first 15 minutes in the boat I had no idea how far we'd drifted, no clue as to what kind of country we'd floated past. My world reduced to a strip of current 10 yards wide and 15 yards long.

Angling is often defined, for me, in terms of pace and rhythm. Get the two in synch and it can seem ridiculously easy. Get them out of whack and suddenly you're sweating, mumbling profanities under your breath, and picking flies out of your head, back, bushes, cows or anything else daft enough to get in your way.

Pick up the rod, shake out the line, pick up into a high back-cast and lay it back down in that seam over there.

And mend the line upstream 10ft, and mend again, and again.

And strip in the line, stay in touch with the woolly bugger. Strip again.

Look downstream, and notice the wee slack next to that boulder.

And strip out the extra 10ft of line you need to reach it; quickly pick up the line and shoot into the back cast. Forward cast to the edge of the boulder.

And mend line, and strip, strip.

Look downstream, for the next spot: a steady glide next to the bank.

And pick up line and shoot it out there, reaching left to put line upstream; stay in touch with the fly as it drifts through. Short twitches to move the fly.

And look downstream again. Another 30ft riffle. Pick it up and put it down again, straight across the stream. Fast strips back in.

Bang! Damn! Missed it...

Look downstream...

...and on and on. A continuous loop of lines and casts and retrieves and slacks and riffles and rocks. In and out. Down and down, a continuous stream of consciousness: a never-ending sentence punctuated by the dashes, commas, and brackets of fish-takes and fish-swirls, the exclamation marks of fish leaping, landed and lost.

Lunch suspends the loop. Horizons widen and rush away from the boat. Mountains and clouds stand up and are counted. Birds and crickets chirp away at the tension in your shoulders. A sandwich and a drink. The bank-side finally stops and the river starts flowing again.

I stretch my legs and wander along the bank. A nice long riffle. Perfect rainbow water. Might as well have a cast or two while I'm here. Woolly Bugger duly launched and swinging heavily around in the fast flow. Incredible that fish might hold in this current.

Whack! Like being pulled off a cliff by a falling anvil. I'll put my shoulder joints back in after I've returned the prettiest, fittest rainbow I've ever seen.

Back into the boat, falling into the rhythm once again. Refreshed and more relaxed now, you are at last aware of how hard Ike is working here. It's a relentless obstacle course, weaving between boulders and currents, constantly repositioning the boat to give you the best shot at the next fish-holding feature without having to miss the one after that.

There's an ongoing battle to maintain a fishable pace. In a particularly fishy spot your guide will be hitting a stroke-rate that Steve Redgrave would be proud of, just to give you an extra cast.

Look at a drift boat guide's hands. Gnarly. If ever a guide earns his/her crust, it's in a drift boat. Aside from the sheer physicality of the effort they have to reserve enough energy to maintain a civil conversation, motivate and coach the client; and keep their eye on the river, its flies, and its fish.

If it was me on the oars all the client would get would be a few oaths and perhaps a constant high-pitched whining, and they'd have to be grateful that the boat made it through to the pull-out in one piece.

Now that would be an emergency landing.


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