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Seasonable Angler: Fishing Lessons on the Firehole

Tailgate wisdom: Choosing actions based upon the natural realities of partnership, interdependence, and impermanence.

Seasonable Angler: Fishing Lessons on the Firehole

(Rob Benigno art)

The Firehole River flows in the center of the Yellowstone geothermal zone, and as such is surrounded by the planet’s largest concentration of active geysers and hot springs. It is also an area of snowcapped mountains, waterfalls, wilderness, wildlife, and waterways that support an entire ecosystem that happily includes wild trout in abundance. The Madison River Valley is breathtakingly beautiful. Free-roaming herds of American bison wander among the trees and rest in the wildflower-covered meadows. Mountains rise in the middle distance, and geysers send their eerie plumes of hydrothermal steam into the bright blue skies. And then there are the rivers and creeks that sustain wild trout and other wildlife in a manner that seems nothing short of magical or perhaps even divine.

The morning was just cool enough to be pleasant and clear enough to make our drive from Paradise Valley to Yellowstone National Park simply spectacular. My buddy Josh Howery was exhausted from the three prior days of rowing us down the Big Hole, Upper Madison, and Missouri rivers, so he slept in the back of the SUV while his partner and my friend Sue Kerver sipped coffee and shared meaningful conversation up front.

Sue is the one who coined the phrase, “tailgate wisdom” for the meaningful conversations we share about life. Our choices act to paint the portrait that becomes our life’s story. It’s important to edit often and well. Once it’s “gone to press,” there is no turning back of pages or personal history. Iacta alea est … the die is cast.

Just before getting onto the trail to the river I saw a sign that displayed various images of grizzly bears, including illustrations of a bear charging a human, with the animated figure of a human “backing away slowly,” “playing dead,” or “discharging bear spray,” depending on the behavior of the bear. The sign also included the following warning: “Caution: You are in bear country. Visitors have been injured and killed by bears. There is no guarantee of your safety.” We read the sign and walked onward, heads up, bear spray on our wader belts, and happy to be alive—in bear country.

In past years, we would have been too late in the season to fish the Firehole, as the water temperatures would be too warm and the fish would have moved away from that natural geothermal warmth. But now unnatural atmospheric conditions have caused the climate to turn upside down and the unseasonably high, cold water worked to our benefit. The influx of cold water held the trout in the area longer than might have been normal.

Fish were rising all along the Firehole, and pale-colored mayflies and fluffy white moths filled the air all around us. A few lightly colored caddisflies were coming off as well. Sue and Josh took the far side of the river, and I fished the near side. Beside me was a geothermal vent that was spewing a steady stream of mineral-rich, superheated water which then trickled down the encrusted embankment and into the river.

The currents were tricky in a few places, so we stood on the bank for a moment considering the best approach to the problems at hand. Josh and I chatted about the necessity of longer casts and a bit more slack in our lines than we might otherwise prefer. And that’s when he said, “This looks like a place for a ‘God save the Queen!’ hook-set,” and he demonstrated by quickly raising his rod hand up as if the rod were a sword and just as quickly thrusting his line hand down as if marching in a comical Benny Hill style and simultaneously shouting out, “God save the Queen!” I laughed and decided then and there that I had to land a fish with full pomp and circumstance, just for the sheer joy of it.

Sue was having a bit of a tough run of luck, but Josh was catching and releasing a few fish while I had a couple trout smack at the fly without connecting. I lost another because I failed to take that opportunity to declare myself a loyal subject to my one and only queen—Mother Nature. But there was a cheeky fish that kept rising in a crease in the current, and I decided that she was going to be the one true object of my affections until I managed to land her.

After a few nice drifts without result I finally enticed a splashy rise and take and that was when it all came together. While loudly proclaiming, “God Save the Queen!” I found myself hooked into a beautiful Firehole trout! Josh was across the river watching and we were both laughing at my antics as the fish jumped and twirled in the air and finally landed on the soft grass next to the river. Yes, I was working without a net, like an acrobatic clown. Wetting my hands, I cradled her briefly just below the water’s cooling surface, and I thanked her as I watched her swimming home.

Fish were caught on the Firehole River that day, but that was hardly the point of it all. I had shared so many wonderful moments with Sue and Josh and each felt poignant—like the end of something and the beginning of something new. It felt vital and urgent that Sue and I got the chance to share every last thought that we’d been too busy all week to share. It was late in the evening as we drove through Paradise Valley toward Bozeman and the house and home of my friends Sue and Josh. And that’s when our conversation turned to things that run deeper than what fly to tie on or how many fish are caught. We spoke about life.

Sue spoke and I listened as she shared with me of feeling the pressure from society’s expectations to keep pursuing promotion to higher levels of management within her workplace. She told me that if she does so, she may have to leave Montana, or at the very least be required to travel more often and be gone from the people and place she loved for extended periods of time. I knew that my friend was symbolically “lowering the tailgate” as we sought to help each other find a bit of wisdom. So, I listened and remained quiet until she had shared it all and in her own time created the pause that told me she was listening too.

I never tell anyone what they should do. Who am I to do such a thing? If I contain any wisdom it is within my understanding that I understand few things for certain. But I do help people by guiding them toward the most meaningful questions, so that they can discover the answers that they already know. I have found that once we silence the outside voices, answers come to us naturally.

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So I asked, “Are you happy here and now?”

“I’m as happy as I’ve ever been in my life,” Sue replied.

Then I asked, “Are you doing the things you love to do … that feed your soul in the here and now?”

“Yes, but I’d love to have a bigger positive impact in more areas that I feel passionate about.”

“So,” I continued, “Is there any way you can expand your reach and positive influence, without changing your job position?”

She said, “Yes,” and shared a number of ways of doing so. I could tell that one of those paths in particular excited her. She asked, “So what do you think?”

I paused for a moment to choose my words as wisely as possible. I knew this was a moment that called for some vigilant tailgate wisdom. Then I said, “I think it’s a fishing lesson.” I saw her glance over toward me.

“You think it’s a fishing lesson?” she repeated.

I paused before saying, “You never leave fish to find fish.” She smiled. “After all, we had the entire Firehole River to fish today, but we invested all our time in one pretty little section where the fish never stopped rising—and we were happy. In angling and in life, we must guard against the compulsion to leave that which we love for reasons that have little to do with living an authentic, joyful, meaningful life.”

It’s important to know when to stay and when to go. It’s just as important to understand when change is a positive thing and when you need to change your perspectives, paradigms, and personal choices to create a healthier life for us and our world. As we learn from the past, live in the present, and consider our potential futures, they are not decided in stone until they become our present reality. There is time to respond before we are forced to react. There is time to choose to turn the wheel and go in a new and healthier direction.

As I look at my own physical, mental, and spiritual health, I have come to realize that what I put into my body and what I take out are choices that impact my mortal future. And it’s much the same with our relationships with each other and our planet. It’s the difference between blindly operating under the illusions of ownership, independence, and “forever after” and wisely choosing actions based upon the natural realities of partnership, interdependence, and impermanence. It’s a choice.

It really is a fishing lesson. We have been given a beautiful life on a beautiful planet. Why are we so anxious to change it? “You never leave fish to find fish.” If we don’t choose to turn the wheel, the end result will be the same no matter if it comes to us via the failures of human nature or via the actions of Mother Nature as she holds us accountable. Beyond my lovely dream of a balanced and peaceful world where humans come home as part of nature rather than apart from it, there is the certainty of a far less attractive reality. Sooner or later, every smoker stops smoking.


Steve Ramirez is a Texas master naturalist, poet, and Marine Corps veteran. He is the author of Casting Forward, Casting Onward, and Casting Seaward. The fourth book in the series, Casting Homeward, will be available from Lyons Press in September 2024.




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