“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” That’s how Norman Maclean began “A River Runs Through It,” his revered 1976 autobiographical novella about his life in Missoula, Montana, as the son of a Presbyterian minister and devout angler in the years before World War II.
On a Sunday morning in June, on the Big Blackfoot River, it was not hard to see how the Macleans came by their faith. Although the family’s home stream runs just outside of Missoula, a town of some 71,000, it remains remarkably unspoiled, tucked away from the surrounding hallmarks of civilization like a secret world.
For most of its 75-mile length, from its source along the Continental Divide to its confluence with the Clark Fork River just east of town, the Big Blackfoot is lined with Ponderosa pine forest. No traffic-choked roads run along it. No bars or restaurants abut it. You’ll find none of the gaudy riverfront mansions that have given rise to the term “two by four by 10” in towns throughout the modern American West. (That’s two people, four weeks a year, and 10,000 square feet.) There are bigger rivers and rivers that hold larger fish, but few offer anglers a more appealing mix of boulder-dotted rapids, shallow rocky-bottomed flats, and swirling deep green pools, and almost none are prettier.
On this day, at the County Line boat put-in, Montana’s Big Sky was living up to its name; sunlight glinted off the river, and the only sound to speak of was the emerald-tinted water burbling along. My guide for the day was John Herzer, a 25-year Missoula resident and the owner, with his wife, Terri, of Blackfoot River Outfitters, one of the area’s top fly-fishing operations. He slid our inflatable raft into the water, handed me the rod he’d rigged with one of his favorite flies, a Noble Chernobyl grasshopper pattern, and we launched.
On my first cast, I got a strike but set the hook too slowly and missed the fish. But just a few casts later, I watched my fly alight and begin drifting downstream. In a moment, a fish rose from the depths, raced to the ‘hopper and took it. When I brought it to the net, I saw it was a gorgeous, copper-colored Westslope cutthroat trout, one of just a few species native to the Big Blackfoot.
After I released my catch, Herzer and I paused for a moment to appreciate our good fortune. In less than five minutes, we had landed a fish of almost startling beauty in a setting no less lovely. I am not a religious person, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel something holy.
Catholics have the Vatican, Muslims have Mecca. But to the fly-fishing faithful, there is no more sacred destination than the Big Blackfoot River. Once known mainly to local fishermen only, the Blackfoot gained widespread attention in 1992, when Robert Redford’s film adaptation of Maclean’s book, starring a young Brad Pitt, touched off a craze for the sport and made a trip to the river an essential pilgrimage for veteran and neophyte anglers from around the world.
I was among the inspired. As a boy in upstate New York, I had fished with spinning tackle on local ponds and lakes, but when I saw the movie, fly-fishing struck me as something richer and more complex than conventional fishing, as much an art form as a sport. It had an ineffable appeal, too, something existential, Emersonian.
Reading Maclean’s book only sunk the hook deeper. It wasn’t just the fishing. If there is a smarter, more affecting meditation on the themes of fathers and sons, brothers, the pleasures of the natural world, love, loss and the haunting power of water, I have yet to come across it. As it has for many others, “A River Runs Through It” became for me a kind of central text, equal parts fishing primer, literary masterwork and spiritual guide.
I went on to become an editor, writer and avid reader, and it remains one of my most beloved books. I also took up fly-fishing with an almost obsessive passion, wetting a line everywhere from Wyoming and Idaho to the Bahamas and Belize. And yet, almost 25 years later, I had not traveled to the Big Blackfoot. It was time to see what had caused all the fuss.
“A River Runs Through It” centers on Maclean’s relationship with his younger brother, Paul. Norman is the archetypal older sibling, married, hardworking and responsible. Paul is the golden child, handsome, athletic and charming, but with a weakness for whiskey and high-stakes poker games. Paul is also a superior, almost superhuman, fisherman.
Much of the book plumbs Norman’s love for Paul (and envy of him) as an angler and otherwise. But the story is also a tragedy involving Paul’s untimely death — he was fatally beaten over unpaid gambling debts — and the regret Norman feels that he could not help save him. The book is told in hindsight, when Maclean is a much older man, a point of view that lends everything a deep nostalgic ache.
Maclean structured the work around four fishing scenes, three of which are set on the Big Blackfoot. Over two days, Herzer and I fished all three of those spots: the canyon above Clearwater Bridge, a beach downstream from that, and the mouth of Belmont Creek.
“The canyon above the old Clearwater Bridge is where the Blackfoot roars loudest,” Maclean wrote. It is here that he first limns the almost heavenly beauty of fly-fishing and Paul’s nearly godlike gift for it. Watching Paul cast “a four-and-a-half-ounce magic totem pole,” the water droplets left in the wake of his line “made momentary loops of gossamer,” Maclean wrote. “The canyon was glorified by rhythms and colors.”
I had a rapturous experience in the canyon myself. The old bridge has an early-20th-century feel to it that seems to bring one back to Maclean’s time, and the surrounding water and wilderness are idyllic. After a period of neglect during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Big Blackfoot has been thoughtfully managed by a consortium of public and private interests. It isn’t what it was when Maclean fished it (there were more fish then, and the area was less populated and more remote), and probably never will be again, but at a time when many rivers have been badly degraded, it is relatively pristine, nowhere more so than in the canyon. It is a heartening, even inspiring, success story.
Just above the bridge, Herzer suggested I fish a fly called a Sparkle Minnow (generally speaking, anglers try to pick flies that match what the fish are eating on that particular piece of water at that particular time). Within minutes, I landed a stout, 18-inch brown trout with signature black and red markings.
In the book, Maclean makes a point of noting that his father was unusual among Presbyterian ministers in his use of the word “beautiful.” It’s partly a crack about Presbyterian ministers but also a detail that gives the word special weight. That morning, we went on to land about a dozen fish altogether. Every one of them was, by any definition, beautiful.
Around 1 o’clock, Herzer and I anchored on a shady bank under a high canyon wall where he laid out a spread of Italian roast beef sandwiches and potato chips and a pile of fresh, local cherries gathered from a friend’s backyard. Our only company was a bald eagle tracing circles above us.
You can’t talk about “A River Runs Through It” without talking about the sunburn scene, one of the most indelible moments in the book and certainly the funniest. Maclean’s brother-in-law, Neal, a dandy (and worse, a bait fisherman) visits Missoula from Los Angeles. But instead of fishing with Norman and Paul, as intended, he mostly gets drunk and enlists the services of a local prostitute known as Old Rawhide. On one outing, Norman and Paul wind up ditching Neal and Old Rawhide, only to come upon them later, passed out on a sand bar, unclothed and sunburned, their naked posteriors facing skyward.
On my trip, the area in question produced an altogether more welcome sight: a beautiful, gray-green bull trout with salmon-colored spots, measuring some 21 inches. (Because “bullies” are a protected species, anglers are prohibited from targeting them, but it’s acceptable to catch them if you do so while fishing for other species. The Big Blackfoot is primarily a catch-and-release river, in any case.)
The alpha fish of the Big Blackfoot, bull trout are brawny, aggressive and almost prehistoric-looking. They seem to connect you, as fishing often does, to something primal. It was also the first bull trout I’d ever caught. To an angler, landing a new species is a special thrill, like traveling to an exotic new country or tasting a delicious new food.
Today, the “nude beach” is a pretty, laid-back hangout where families and others swim and take in the sun. Clothing-optional types sometimes still avail themselves of the spot, and Herzer, a friendly and highly knowledgeable guide with a touch of a prankster’s streak, has been known to tell anglers to fish the opposite bank as they approach the area, only to spin his boat at just the right moment. The ensuing sight, he told me, “is usually not what they expect to see.” As we drifted past, we waved and smiled at the handful of people lounging on shore and splashing in the river. The scene called to mind “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” if Seurat replaced the urban sophistication of Paris with Montana’s laid-back charm.
That night, back in Missoula, I had a Montanan pizza (Italian sausage, pepperoni, bacon and Canadian bacon) and a Yard Sale Amber Ale at the Tamarack Brewing Co., a local craft brewery. On their ill-fated outing, Neal and Old Rawhide stole eight bottles of beer Norman and Paul had stashed in the river to keep cold while they fished. “It was either Kessler beer made in Helena or Highlander beer made in Missoula,” Maclean wrote. “What a wonderful world it was once when all the beer was not made in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, or St. Louis.” Local breweries have since made a serious comeback, of course, and Missoula has several good ones. The Yard Sale may not have been a Kessler or Highlander, but it was fresh and delicious, and, with apologies to the Macleans, I’m guessing better.
After dinner I walked along the Clark Fork River and across a bridge to Maclean’s boyhood home, a modest Craftsman with a wide front porch and white picket fence. I have been accused of being as unsentimental as a Presbyterian minister myself, and I am here to report that I did not mist up (mostly). Neither did I ring the doorbell or take a picture. I didn’t do anything, really. What happened was I found myself pantomiming a casting stroke. It was entirely involuntary, but I think of it now as a tribute to Maclean.
The book’s climactic scene takes place near the Big Blackfoot’s confluence with Belmont Creek. At Paul’s suggestion, he and Norman spend the night at their parents’ home, so the two brothers and their father, who is retired now, can wake up and fish together the next day. The bite is on, and Norman is filled with joy. “So on this wonderful afternoon when all things came together it took me one cast, one fish ... to attain perfection. I did not miss another.”
Soon, Paul is hauling them in, too, and his artistry is such that Norman and their father stop to watch him. On the hunt for his 20th and final fish, Paul hooks a big rainbow trout, fights it brilliantly, and lands it.
“'That’s his limit,’ I said to my father,” Maclean wrote.
“'He is beautiful,’ my father said.”
Then, “This was the last fish we were ever to see Paul catch.”
The book’s final two paragraphs are a lyrical, almost mystical reflection that many anglers know by heart:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.”
Just above the mouth of Belmont Creek, I hooked a rainbow of my own whose eponymous colors flashed in the sunlight. Shortly before I had left for Montana, the Orlando, Florida, mass shooting had taken place. The day before my departure, Britain had voted to leave the European Union, threatening the global economy. A family member had recently received a serious medical diagnosis. But at that moment on the Big Blackfoot River, all that existed were the sun and the water and a fish on the other end of my line. “One great thing about fly fishing,” Maclean wrote, “is that after a while nothing exists of the world but thoughts about fly fishing.”
It pains the cynic in me to say so, but my trip was more magical than haunting. The river was as pretty and well-preserved as I could have dreamed for it to be. I caught fish, memorable ones, in the most storied spots from the book. I communed with one of my literary and fishing heroes.
I held the rainbow for a beat, then another, and released him.
Jon Gluck is managing editor at Vogue
If You Go
Blackfoot River Outfitters, 3055 N. Reserve St., Suite A-1, Missoula; 406-542-7411; blackfootriver.com; full-day guided fishing, including lunch and gear, $500.
Where To Stay
The Resort at Paws Up, 40060 Paws Up Rd., Greenough; 877-580-6343;pawsup.com; private cabins, lodges and luxury tents from $1,195 per night.
DoubleTree by Hilton — Edgewater, 100 Madison St., Missoula; 406-728-3100; doubletree3.hilton.com; from $179 per night.
Bitterroot Cabins, 406-363-2258; bitterrootcabins.com; cabins throughout the Bitterroot Valley from $160.
Where To Eat
The Pearl Café, 231 E. Front St., Missoula; 406-541-0231; pearlcafe.us.
MacKenzie River Pizza Co., 137 W. Front St., Missoula; 406-721-0077; mackenzieriverpizza.com.
Tamarack Brewing Co., 231 W. Front St., Missoula; 406-830-3113; tamarackbrewing.com.
Fort Missoula Museum, fortmissoulamuseum.org; Garnet Ghost Town, garnetghosttown.net; kayaking and canoeing at Alberton Gorge, montanariverguides.com; Norman Maclean’s former home, 302 S. Fifth St. W., Missoula.
Three Other Rivers That Beckon in the West
The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, Idaho
The Henry’s Fork is known as the graduate school of fly-fishing for good reason. Twisting 127 miles through Southeastern Idaho, the river can be technical, but the rewards — brown trout and rainbows sometimes measuring 20 inches or more — are worth it. Three Rivers Ranch (threeriversranch.com; 208-652-3750; from $1,249 per night, guided fishing and meals included), in Warm River, is an upscale-rustic lodge that is run by the great-granddaughter of 1920s Idaho homesteaders, set hard on Robinson Creek, a lovely small stream in its own right.
The Madison River, Montana
When people think of blue-ribbon trout fishing, they tend to picture gin-clear water winding past fields of sagebrush beneath snow-capped peaks. That’s the Madison. From its headwaters in Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Missouri River 183 miles later, there is no more storied angling destination. Firehole Ranch (fireholeranch.com; 406-646-7294; from $1,200 per night, guided fishing and meals included), offers deluxe Western cabins and convenient access to the equally sought-after West Yellowstone, Gallatin and Firehole rivers.