February 12, 2021
By P.M. Devlin
This story was originally titled “The Streak: Two fishing buddies; a Bitterroot trout every month for 19 years.” It appeared in the Feb-Mar 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman.
My hands are numb. Parts of them at least. It’s cold, but it was worse yesterday. I can feel a migraine coming on. Maybe it’s from the light reflecting off the sea of snow laid out before me. It’s the last day of February. We have to catch a fish. The streak hangs in the balance. As a filmmaker I appreciate the drama, but didn’t wish for it. My camera is digging into my shoulder. It’s heavy. I step forward and nearly disappear into a snowdrift. I’m up to my armpits in fluff. It’s almost funny how hard this slog through the snow is becoming. I hope we catch one. Another snowdrift, not as deep. My legs are angry with me.”
Friends and Family
Rick Branzell is the sort of man who takes some getting used to. His voice projects out over the Bitterroot Valley like Foghorn Leghorn, but it turns out he has a heart of gold. Once he decides you are part of his camp, he would move mountains for you.
Kris McLean is the Buddha of the Bitterroot River. I do not know what cottonwood tree he was sitting under at the exact moment he reached enlightenment, but if you asked him, he would probably look at you with his calm eyes and say: “It is not a tree which you seek.”
McLean is a lawyer, and a damned good one it seems. Branzell spent 32 years as a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and before that, was an actual cowboy, spending his days working cattle, breaking horses, and patrolling the backcountry for grizzly bears.
As opposites have a way of attracting under the governing laws of physics, Branzell and McLean have been friends for more than 30 years. And for 19 of those winters, springs, summers, and falls, they have together caught a trout on a fly, from the main stem of the Bitterroot River in Montana, every single calendar month.
This pursuit, which started out mostly by accident, has come to be known as The Streak, and we made a film about it. Knowing where to start is daunting. They kept meticulous journals of these exploits. The journals started out as an unvarnished way to record and preserve these fishing trips with no real thought of their eventual higher calling as a “body of work.”
Says Jason Lindstrom, Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks fisheries biologist for the Bitterroot drainage: “The coolest thing about their data set to me is how long they have been collecting it. It’s impressive to me that they stuck with it for so long. To have more than a decade of annual catch data is neat in its own right. I’m envious from that standpoint. We don’t have annual data for most of our sample sections on the Bitterroot because of how labor-intensive it is for us to get accurate estimate data.”
The journals also serve a more human purpose, and thumbing through them I was confronted with more than a few poignant moments. After all, besides the fishing, and the goings-on of the river, life was still happening for these men and their families. And the records provide countless vignettes: “Bryce Branzell got home from his tour in Afghanistan,” Rick Branzell wrote in 2010. “He fished several days with me. Was so nice having him home safe and sound. By the way, he boated a gob of fish on those trips.” This is a father thanking the universe that his only son made it home in one piece from a war zone. It is heavy stuff, and life, as we all know, is full of that. The Bitterroot River acts as good medicine for Branzell and McLean over and over again.
In a summation of the 2006 year of fishing and keeping The Streak alive, Branzell wrote: “Young boys have grown up, gone off to college and their own lives. Fish have been caught on nymphs, drys, and streamers. The weather has been hot, cold, dry, wet, miserable, and great. The only thing that has stayed the same is the bond between friends. What a gift. It’s all been worth it.”
This streak was never about conquering the river, or proving how hardy they are, or staking their eminence over the trout that live there. It has been, simply, an excuse to spend time together, and celebrate the joy of floating down a river throwing flies into moving water.
And what remarkable moving water it is. If I could meticulously design a perfect trout stream—every rock and every bend, even paint the background—it would still pale in comparison to the Bitterroot River. It is a tributary of the Clark Fork River, then the mighty Columbia, and eventually, the Pacific Ocean. It is a river with deep secrets, and it seems to bestow on anglers no more or less than is deserved. The great Norman Maclean (no relation to the Bitterroot McLeans, but there is a certain serendipity that is difficult to ignore) once wrote, “You can love completely without complete understanding.” And for many devotees, it is this way with the river.
McLean reflects: “It’s spectacularly beautiful for one thing. I mean, when you’re floating down the Bitterroot, you cannot ask for more spectacular surroundings. Our children all grew up here, life has happened in the Bitterroot Valley for us, that’s why it’s such a special place.”
“It’s our home river. We’ve been through lots of trials and tribulations, and this river has been kind of healing water for me,” adds Branzell.
Flanked by the Bitterroot Mountains to the west and the Sapphire Mountains to the east, the river has an intimate, pastoral quality that is impressive. From a drift boat, billion-dollar views of the valley abound. Lower gradient than most of the waterways in Montana, it winds its way through stands of cottonwoods and ponderosa pines. There are world-class hatches of stoneflies: Skwalas, Salmonflies, Golden Stones, as well as Yellow and Lime Sallies. There are all the drakes and mayflies you could hope for, and caddis too.
There are plenty of westslope cutthroat trout, rainbows, and brown trout, many reaching trophy size. But that isn’t what makes this place so special, and I will leave it at that. To tinker too heavily at the clumsy business of quantification would be sacrilege. The Bitterroot River demands a certain reverence, a reverence that McLean and Rick Branzell exude. They have influenced an entire generation of anglers with this river ethos, mostly friends of their children. Many of these fly fishers, myself included, went on to become fishing guides in the nearby city of Missoula, and the cumulative tree branch effect of this is undoubtedly bigger than anyone could know.
As you can imagine, keeping The Streak alive has not been easy. The duo has battled water conditions, weather, scheduling conflicts, drought, forest fires, and the limitations of their own health. Branzell’s scrupulousness and McLean’s demure nature have guided them through every obstacle imaginable.
The Bitterroot River is statistically one the most dangerous rivers in Montana. The Bitterroot cuts a veiny path downstream through a floodplain of cottonwoods, and they often end up in it. The river flows north, and on the morning of July 3, 1806, this caused a difference in opinion between Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, causing the Corps of Discovery Expedition to eventually break into two parties.
During runoff, the river swells to sometimes 20 times its normal flows due to snowmelt. Old channels can close quickly due to logjams and the malleable nature of the river bottom. New ones can open up and form a new path for the river. During the month of May, when runoff is often the most intense, river conditions can change by the minute.
Bryce McLean—yes, McLean and Branzell have sons with the same first names—recalls: “I’ve seen the bank give out, a 60-foot cottonwood fall over, and watched Rick calmly row around it.” In fact, there are many choice moments that Bryce McLean has observed, as he is the de facto family biographer. He has carried a camera along on trips for more than a decade, and his archival collection is a masterpiece in its own right. Without his historical footage, the full realization of The Streak would not have been possible.
The weather surrounding the Bitterroot can be as mercurial as its flows. Blitzing windstorms rip through the valley and can fell timber as well as blow your boat places you’d rather it didn’t. Without sounding too much like a peewee coach, rowers must keep their heads on a swivel. Mountain weather comes and goes as it pleases, and in one spring day, it is not uncommon to experience the average temperatures and conditions of three seasons.
To keep catching fish like this for 19 continuous years, there have been many months with a narrow window of opportunity. That is to say, if you miss it, tough luck. Prior engagements have been put on hold and relationships have been tested, in the name of eternizing. These two friends have always found a way. Notable close calls and flirtations with the end of this streak have occurred.
Breaking the Ice
It is pretty quiet on the boat until the first fish has been landed. In fact, the first half of the day can be pretty quiet between these two, but this is not always related to checking the fish box. It is mostly because their routine has become such a well-oiled machine that there is little to say until the fishing actually starts. There are no extraneous moments, from their meeting to the point of shoving off from land. Bryce McLean remarks: “When you combine the two guys, it’s like this dance where somebody is always on beat.”
In most ways, trout have it pretty good in the West. But some summers, with increasing frequency in recent years, are hot. These years often see partial river closures during portions of July or August in order to protect fish from the stress of being caught in warm water. These warm, low-water, drought years can be tough on the trout as well as trout anglers. Hot summers also create ideal conditions for wildfires. During “smoke season” the entire valley can be blanketed in smoke for days or weeks. The dry-fly fishing can actually be pretty decent if water temps are stable, as the smoke acts as simulated cloud cover, but it is not the most idyllic way to experience the river.
You know when you are gathered around a campfire, and it seems like the smoke is picking on you? No matter what, when you switch seats to escape, it follows you. Sometimes it’s like that. In July of 2017 the Lolo Peak Fire burned nearly 54,000 acres in this valley. The smoke was bad. Just driving through the valley toward the river felt like a post-apocalyptic film. There were Army National Guard Humvees blocking access to side roads and lots of folks were on edge. But The Streak continued.
There was a rotator cuff injury that rendered one of their four arms relatively useless. There have been flus, various surgeries, and stiff joints. And then Branzell got cancer. I am sure, in trademark fashion, he shouldered the news and soldiered on from the beginning. It also scared the shit out of both of them. During treatment, Branzell was too weakened to row, but still he fished—against his doctor’s advice.
There’s a picture from February of that year of him holding a fish, and if you look closely you can see he is 30 or so pounds lighter than normal, and his skin is off color due to radiation treatments. It is sort of like sunburn, only nothing like sunburn. “Through that entire ordeal, I fished in November, with Kris. I fished in December with Kris, through the chemo and radiation,” recalls Branzell. “He’s just one of those guys where he wants to do all the rowing, and let everybody else fish, but for a couple months there . . . he just couldn’t do it,” adds McLean. “So it was my pleasure and honor to row him down the river when he couldn’t do it himself.”
I began filming The Streak in September 2018. It’s a free lunch sort of a month, where it’s typically not difficult to secure a trout from the Bitterroot. So that is what happened, and onward to October and November. The fishing is normally productive in the fall, although the weather can be a bit shifty.
In December, schedules didn’t align until Christmas Eve morning, and the weather that day was poetic. The air was thick and still. Big, wet snow fell slowly and silently most of the day. Trout don’t like to move around much during the cold months, but it didn’t take too long for McLean to coerce and boat a respectable fish.
January, as I reflect, was unseasonably warm, and the shelf ice that so often grows along the banks of the river was absent. Tyson McLean happened to be with us on that day, and everyone enjoyed a snort of bourbon whiskey.
February started out similarly, but there were some travel plans, and by the time everyone was in the same place, winter showed up like an unwelcome and uninvited house guest. “All of a sudden, the Western version of the ‘Polar Vortex’ set in with a vengeance,” said Branzell.
There was shelf ice and plenty of it. And then it started to snow. And it wouldn’t stop. The earth kept spinning and the calendar kept turning. Then, late in the month, with two days left and no fish yet caught, we went to scout the fishing access site, and discover whether or not we could even get a boat into the water. The short answer was no. Our price for this piece of intelligence was three hours of digging two of three trucks out of tailgate-deep snow. A few expletives flew amongst the snow, and tow straps were involved, but we eventually got ourselves out of the snowfield and into warm living rooms to lick our wounds.
Later that afternoon, I received a voicemail from Branzell that began: “We figured out a harebrained idea for tomorrow . . .” And so the next day, the last day in the month of February 2019, with zero fish tallied, we all rendezvoused at the access point, and Branzell and McLean dragged kayaks and their gear to the edge of the river and paddled. I walked through the snow, waist-deep at times.
“It is quiet out here. My head has stopped throbbing, mostly. Nothing is happening. There’s a certain romance if this is how The Streak ends. I mean, it has got to end at some point, right? McLean is just across from me on the far side of the river, and Branzell is upriver from me on an ice shelf. McLean is chipping ice out of the guides of his fly rod. Branzell roll-casts again. The air feels just a little bit warmer than it has for weeks. Sitting cross-legged, I’m in a bit of a trance. Suddenly, I hear a noise from Branzell, and I snap out of it. I press record and swing the camera toward him, hoping to slide his silhouette into some semblance of focus. There is a commotion of hands and fly line, but I can’t quite make out what is happening. I squint and press against the viewfinder to make sense of it all.”
*P.M. Devlin is the founder and operator of the Montana Fishing Film Festival based in Missoula. He is also an award-winning filmmaker. His documentary Landsick is the story of touring musician and fishing guide Chuck Ragan. It was part of the 2018 Fly Fishing Film Tour. Devlin’s new film The Streak is the story of Kris McLean and Rick Branzell. It is available for download at pmdfilm.com.