I was too excited to sleep so we hit the water early.
The day before I met the mother of the third generation to grow up on this magic stretch of the Madison River in Montana.
Her childhood memories of camping with the neighbor kids on the river’s edge feasting on the first catch of the open trout season reminded me of my own outdoor adventures and freedom as a child.
Her stories of picnics in Pickle Jar Meadow, sunrise at Frank’s Hole, and the beaver trapper who homesteaded this area filled my mind during the morning fish upstream.
As usual, the catch was smaller wild rainbows and browns in the three to six-inch range who fight like crocodiles.
Past due for a Montana Monster Fish I decided to experiment with a crazy long tippet rolling it out quietly on the water, delivering the tiny fly far beyond the end of the bright yellow fly line and thick leader.
The fly line spooks them but the tiny fly landing a few seconds later can trick the distracted fish.
The leader and lengthy tippet were much longer than the 7.5-foot rod I was using, but sometimes it works in pressured, end of summer waters.
It’s also a rig that rules out using a net to land a fish, especially waist-deep in big water currents. Ass far as I know, but I’m always open to learning if a full-timer is available.
This time I knew the name of Frank’s hole when I stripped and jigged a beetle across the confluence of the cabin side stream and the roaring Madison.
Frank and Joe could catch fish no matter the location or conditions and sounded a lot like my Dad and his best friend Jim.
Frank’s hole was just off the front yard and deck of the cabin he built in the 70’s. It’s a stunning view and the fishing hole name is a proper tribute to the man and his family legends.
I was daydreaming about that when the Madison Monster hit stripping line and skipping my heart as he torpedoed out of the water.
Muscle memory kicked in popping my rod tip up and line pressure tight yet responsive. I’d give him plenty of space to wear himself out and come in gently.
Steering him out of the weeds meant I had to stay in the middle of the strong, deep current where an experienced monster can throw a hook easily.
He fought like a machine and I reeled in line during his brief rests, but still had too much line out given how long he’d been on. Eyeing a possible path to shore I decided to try to sweep him across the current to land.
This strategy is my least favorite because it takes the fish out of water increasing the stress and potential for injury. It’s even rougher on the fish than lifting it out of the water to get a photo because fish thrash about in panic on land.
It’s hard to catch and release when you’ve maimed a fish in the catching process. For me, it’s too cruel just to have bragging rights or photos of the landing.
The river dance is normally more than enough for me, but I was past due for a monster catch and hooked deep in this fantastic challenge.
Fate twisted in favor of the fish when I turned toward shore tripping over a submerged boulder and crossing the tight line into my pole with a definitive SNAP.
Monster Fish 1. Cindy 0.
To add insult to injury my defeated slouch rolled me into the strong current filling my waders with ice cold water.
On the way down I snatched my phone from the open bib pocket, holding it triumphantly in the air while body surfing down the river.
I heard Rocky’s distant, sharp bark and shrill yelps just as I was pulling myself out of the water. Adrenaline slammed into my legs propelling me past cabins across Pickle Jar Meadow through the shoulder high thorny brambles over several downed logs and into the side stream calling for Rocky and getting no answer.
No yelps. No barks.
I spotted him slammed into a log jam scrambling to find purchase on the slippery logs.
Our eyes locked and he arched to leap toward me just as I held my hand up signaling STOP. WAIT.
I’d never catch him if he jumped into the fast current even though I was running like a mama bear through the river.
Years of training, our combined stubborn will, and plenty of help from Frank, Joe, my Dad, and all the guardian angels in this stretch held Rocky frozen in that perilous perch until I lunged the last few yards and bear hugged his chest.
We might be going down but we were going down together.
There was no easy way out of this mess. Direct access to the shore was totally blocked by decades of downed trees.
The current was too strong and water too deep for Rocky to wade. I’d have to carry him upstream through the current around the log jam to shore.
He’s 50 pounds and I’m not 29 anymore, but adrenaline, the force of will, and the power of love is an amazing combination.
We groaned at the same time and I laughed pulling ourselves up the steep bank and out of the water.
Rocky squirreled beneath the brush but it took me forever to work myself through the tangle of thorns I had torn past in seconds earlier.
Exhausted, winded, and grateful I crouched at the top of the slope with my hands on my knees when I saw something that caught my breath, “Are you kidding me? ”
I hadn’t noticed it in Pickle Jar Meadow but the day before Chris told me about the years she and her kids would collect and place rocks carefully creating their family labyrinth.
She had texted me before I hit the river to let me know she left a gift for me in the labyrinth center.
I had no idea I’d be in a state of absolute grace when I got there. No idea the first steps on level ground would land Rocky and me in front of this sacred space.
Sloshing in my freezing, waterlogged waders around that labyrinth immersed in the gift of the miracles of this day I was mindful of little more than grace.
Snuggled in a warm, soft blanket back at the cabin devouring homemade rosemary pear preserves, I am gratefully mindful that life doesn’t get any better than this.