Last weekend I had the privilege of revisiting my old stomping grounds in southwestern Montana. I nominated three military vets in my Healing Waters Project for a nationally sponsored fishing trip to Ruby Springs Lodge near Alder, Mont.
Alder is a tiny town. There’s the gas station/grocery store, Chic’s Bar/Motel, a small campground and about a half dozen homes. Driving along at 50 mph, you’d see Alder coming up in front of you and then, after about 15 seconds, you could look back at it through your rear view mirror.
Alder itself, however, was not the attraction. The attraction was the gorgeous Ruby River valley within which Alder is comfortably nestled. The Ruby River, about the size of our local Goose Creek, flows north through a glacial valley with the spectacular Madison and Gravelly Mountain ranges rising dramatically to the sky from both sides of the 3-mile wide valley bottom. The lodge is only about two miles from town and sits right on the river bank, among the alfalfa and other well- nourished hay fields. From a fishing perspective, the lodge’s location puts guest within an hour’s drive of such famed fisheries as the Madison, Big Hole, Jefferson and Beaverhead rivers. It is a very upscale operation with six separate guest cabins, a meeting house with a giant fireplace and a separate dining facility. The food, prepared by a gourmet chef with culinary training in France, is some of the best I’ve sampled in the world.
We were there for two days and three nights. Our plan was to have the vets fish one of the nearby rivers for two days, while I would engage in some Project Leader meetings at the lodge. There were about a dozen vets there from different Healing Waters Projects in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.
The first day “my vets” floated the Big Hole River.. They all caught about 20 trout each, ranging from 12 to 20 inches in length. They almost exclusively used large red aquatic worm patterns, weighted with a heavy gold bead to sink the flies in the rivers running high with spring snowmelt.
The second day was a smorgasbord of differing activities for my “boys.” One went back to the Big Hole for a float trip, while one other spent the day gopher-shooting with the lodge owner and a couple of vets from Great Falls. The really neat thing was what happened with my third participant.
All three asked me to join them in their cabin after the first night so that I could teach them some fishing knots and various techniques for maintaining the correct taper to their leaders under varying fishing conditions. We stayed up until nearly midnight playing around with our equipment and talking about fly fishing.
While all three were obviously having a great time on the trip, this third vet seemed particularly enamored with the whole situation. He said the valley was one of the most beautiful places he’d ever visited, and that he wished we never had to leave.
He’s a Viet Nam era vet and he’s had many struggles in his life. He said that learning to fly fish, and being in the valley, was bringing him a sense of peace that he hadn’t felt in a very long time. He was paying special attention to my knot and equipment lessons because he wanted to fish the Ruby by himself near the cabins the next day after his float trip and dinner.
The next morning at breakfast I discovered that my “peaceful” vet wasn’t feeling well and had stayed in his cabin. I went to check on him and discovered that he’d picked up a bug and couldn’t keep any food down. He was going to cancel his float trip for the day. I told him to just lie down, and I’d check on him again after lunch. If he felt better then, I would take him out and help him catch some fish on the Ruby as it runs through the many acres of the Lodge’s property.
Sure enough, at 1 p.m. he was moving around and wanted to go fishing. I’d never fished the Ruby, but my years of experience guiding in the area told me to set him up with a worm fly as an “attractor” pattern with a #12 black Copper John nymph as a “trailing” fly. The water was high and off-color, so I knew we probably wouldn’t see any hatches or rising trout.
What a day we had! For a beginning fly fisherman, walking along the stream bank and having to cast from a stationary position, into moving current, and having to dodge the willow trees on all sides is a much more demanding situation than casting from a guided drift boat floating down the middle of a river. My vet made rapid strides in developing his skills in reading the water and making different casts for different situations. After a few hours, I began to spend less time helping him and more time sitting in the grass watching him catch fish on his own. My attention often wondered to the sandhill cranes occasionally flying by, or the young Bull Moose who seemed more curious than annoyed with our activities.
That evening the neatest thing happened. We all sat down for dinner, and I noticed that the vet I’d spent the day with was again a no-show. I assumed he’d gotten sick again, and I planned to check on him right after dinner. After about twenty minutes, one of the vets from Montana hollered that he saw my vet through the dining hall window; I was happy to know he’d be joining us. Then I heard somebody yell “He’s got a fish on, and he hooked it all by himself!” “There’s nobody with him; how’s he know what to use and where to cast?” All twenty people at the dinner tabled literally jumped up and ran to the windows to watch!
“My vet” ended up fishing out there alone until dark; he never did come in for dinner! How tremendously gratifying that was for me. A few weeks ago he didn’t really know a nymph from a dry fly, or leader tippet from a leader butt section. While we sat down to eat, he’d strapped on his waders, tied a new tippet to his leader, tied on a couple of flies I’d given him, and walked out on his own to catch a few more fish before bedtime. To think that I had a hand in bringing that gift of the sport I love to one of our military vets gave me a feeling of peace similar to the one he’d described to me. Very peaceful it was indeed.
GORDON ROSE works as a commercial fly tier and operates Sheridan WYO Healing Waters, part of a national nonprofit organization which teaches disabled military veterans fly fishing, fly tying and fly rod-building as part of their therapy.