Here’s how you float the Yellowstone: With a good friend, it’s impossible to make a mistake. It’s also impossible not to. Every oar splash and drift through a seam is cause for good-natured accusation and graceful riposte (“You’re the shithead.” / “Hey, fuck you.”)
Waiting your turn at the put-in, sizing up the other fishermen. Judging. There is, you decide, at least one fundamental truth about fishing. You yourself are the standard by which other fishermen are measured. Turns out that everyone is either a clown in costume or a sunburned, squint-eyed guru. On a hot weekend morning, the boats are lined up anchor to bumper. Tired guides tying on flies. Nervous clients pacing back and forth, glancing at watches. Name brands everywhere. Which leads to another truth about fly-fishing: Like a magnet with paperclips, it collects pretension. Look at these people. Christ. Inevitably, you find yourself in one of two camps. Competing with or reacting against. That guy in jeans soaked to the crotch and a stringer of browns for the barby might be somebody you could drink a beer with . . . or a local to be ignored. The fat man in the Orvis waders and Armani polarized glasses, his pipe leaking slow trails of Prince Albert, is either a resource to be mined or an out-of-stater to be mocked.
With your boat in the water half an hour later, and with the world comfortably (if inappropriately) distilled down into yins and yangs, you see that three of those goddamned yangs are already spread out through your favorite riffle. You float past, lighting a cigarette. Cracking a morning beer. (“Hey, you just missed a fish.” / “Kiss my ass.”)
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, you’re in the wet jeans and barbeque camp. Inevitably, the displays of pretension have brought out your worst side. If you were in a bar, you’d get in a fight. And so, dragging up a foul-hooked whitefish and thumping its head on the gunnel of your Clacka, you announce quite loudly (for the benefit of the custom-built mahogany on the corner), “Man, these cutthroats are gooood eatin.” And later still, floating past another guided party, spread out chest deep in a hole best fished from the shore, you say to your buddy, “No, no, no, you got it all wrong. It’s catfish that like trout chunks.”
An hour into it, the rowing itself takes on immoderate importance. The mirror twist and turn, the pull and release. Touch, touch. It’s an art, and not many people think of it that way. It’s like playing pool. When you’re good, it looks easy. Positioning the cue ball so that every shot is straight in. It’s only the mediocre players who have to make banks and hard cuts. Make it look easy. Slide between boulders already scarred by somebody else’s fiberglass. It’s like writing. Present the best water to your fisherman the way Faulkner used to weave his sentences: One long, smooth ribbon.
At the end of the day, at the takeout, the fat-man with the pipe comes up with three beers in his hand. He opens them for you. He’s got fish scales glittering across the knees of his waders and blood dried around one thumbnail. At some point, he’s lost the pipe and has started smoking Lucky Strikes. He glances in at the pile of empties, the three small brown trout already cleaned for dinner. Notices your rod. Nods and says, “You know, I used to fish with one of those growin’ up back in Wisconsin. Gave it to my grandson when he said he was goin’ to school in Bozeman. Said he wanted to be someplace where he could fish. I told him hell he should go big, try for a school with a reputation. Then I went and gave him my old rod. He’s smarter than I ever was I’ll tell you that. Hell, I loved that rod.”
You reach up with your beer. You clink the rim of his bottle. You grin. That’s how you float the Yellowstone.