Skip to content Skip to footer

“F**%^$CK YES!!!!” had no sooner left my mouth in a scream at the same time as I sank to my knees with my arms outstretched above my head in a remote creek of Montana. The cutthroat trout of a lifetime had just been scooped in the net. It took a number of minutes to actually land this monster and many more minutes to get to the riverbank where I’d make that fateful cast, so let’s rewind the story a bit.


Mary Parker, Paige, Caleb, and I had been road tripping through Idaho for five days, working our way east from Boise. Base camping out of St Anthony for the previous couple of days, we decided to shift locations and check out a spot across state lines in Montana. A quick change of scenery, paired with rumors of big trout and other sought-after species, made it an easy sell to the group. We loaded up our trusty land yacht, a white Suburban, with gear and headed north before the sun hit the horizon. Spirits were high, all of us giddy with excitement on what the day could possibly bring.

After many highway miles and quite a bumpy, dusty stretch of road, we arrived at our dropped pin only to find we weren’t the only anglers with big trout aspirations. Five cars greeted us in the pull out. There may or may not have been a few choice words and phrases muttered at the sight of those vehicles, so with spirits slightly diminished – but not extinguished – our crew cautiously pulled on our socks and gravel guards which at this point in the trip had been become quite pungent – close to a mixture of wet dog and foot odor. Next, we laced up our wading boots and rigged rods. With everyone ready, it was ‘go time.’

Murphy interrupts the plans

In my infinite wisdom and Google Earth sleuthing, I had devised a plan to take a berm of sorts out through a “field” to easily and quickly access the river. It’d allow us to work upriver and back to the car, avoiding the other anglers who had beaten us. Unfortunately, Murphy decided to make an appearance. Murphy of Murphy’s Law. For those not in the know, Murphy’s Law in its simplest form is… “if anything can go wrong, it will.” What appeared to be a “field” on Google Earth, quickly became a quagmire – full of boot-swallowing mud and hoards of hungry mosquitos. ABORT ABORT. We backtracked and got outta that hell hole as soon as possible.

With my plans in shambles and my ego a bit bruised, we headed the way we had seen some fellow anglers strike out. “Just great!” I thought to myself, “Can’t wait to be the second person to fish through runs all day.” Spirit points -5.

Down a winding trek

The four of us started the winding trek out and around the long, deep bends of the creek, full of anglers of course. In a bit of frustration, I decided to lead our party further and further downstream to avoid the crowds and hopefully secure some untouched water. Eventually, after a long slough in wet boots and with the warm summer sun on our backs, I deemed our death march over. We cut in and found the creek. Frigid and clear, the water revived all of us within seconds.

Finally, it was time to lock in and start fishing. Stealthily, I strode to a small bend with a deep run up against a cut bank. Prime habitat. I pulled out some line and threw a cast up and let it drift through the bend. I was fishing a dry-dropper-setup and within a couple of seconds, my top fly shot below the water line, SET, fight on. After a brief fight, I netted my first grayling. One of the species we had come here to target. Spirit points +10.

After a quick photo and some admiration, the fish was released back unharmed. Over the next couple of hours everyone was on the board. Grayling had been caught by everyone and Caleb had landed the first decent cutthroat trout of the day. With an epic backdrop and a gorgeous creek, the photography side of my brain had kept me behind the lens most of the day. My 6 wt connected with that early grayling but that was the only time I had a fly rod in my hand – part of the eternal struggle of a photographer who also enjoys wetting a line. 

Time to get serious

Eventually, just around midday, I was pleased with the content and handed over the camera to my wife, Mary Parker. I told her that I was going to sneak up to a little point ahead that had a deep run with cut banks on either side before making a right into a slight bend. It looked absolutely perfect. 

I snuck my way up through the willows to a small strip of grass where I kneeled down. I stripped out a bit of line and cast up to the start of the run and let it drift back down taking up line as my flies neared me. Nothing. Undeterred, I cast again and let it float through again. About three quarters of my way through the run my top fly shot below the surface.

SET. HOOKED. FISH! It felt big, but with the water a bit off color and deep and I couldn’t make it out. But I knew from the way it was pulling that it was no dink or grayling. Mary Parker was shooting photos; I could hear the shutter clicking off. I looked back over my shoulder. Caleb was rounding the bend and after my piercing yell to “Grab the net!” he quickened his pace, making his way alongside me. 

I was still kneeling on the bank above the run at this point and the fish was staying out in the middle of the run. Caleb suggested I move off the bank and out into the middle of the creek to a submerged gravel bar to help fight the fish. I dumped off the side and worked my way over to the gravel bar. Making sure my rod tip stayed up and my line stayed tight. As soon as I stepped foot on the gravel bar, I caught a glimpse of a BIG tail of a Cutthroat through the stained water. The size of which we had heard rumors of. Spirit points! +50.

Murphy reappers

That’s when my dear friend Murphy decided to make his second appearance of the day. As quickly as I had caught a glimpse of my prized fish, it took a drag-screaming, heart-pumping run upriver and under a cut bank that was choked with willow. Applying pressure to steer the fish away was ineffective, as my leader clearly indicated he had run up under the willows. My heart sank. Spirit points -50.

I tugged gently this way and that, with hopes of coaxing the fish out into safe waters. No dice. Spirit points -25.

The peanut gallery on the riverbank of course had plenty of suggestions. Try this, do that. Spirit points dropping quickly and frustration setting in, I heeded one of the suggestions. Skirt up river right to try to get up above the fish. I slowly took in line as I moved up the bank while my feet slowly sank into soft river muck. Knee deep, thigh knee, waist deep, belly button deep… I vaguely remember someone asking “Is this a fish worth swimming for?” I was a bit too preoccupied to really contemplate that question at the moment. Luckily, I didn’t have to.

One last try

I finally tiptoed my way (or maybe escaped out?) out of the muck and onto solid river bottom. Again, I applied some pressure this way and that way. No dice. Sh!t. Caleb suggested I try and stick my rod underwater, moving it around with hopes of it freeing things up. No dice. F%ck!! At this point, all remaining spirit points had been diminished and the thought of breaking it off crossed my mind. I hadn’t really felt the fish pull since it entered the willows. I guess it was time. I tried my damnedest. “One last try,” I muttered to myself. Again, I plunged my Sage R8 under water and pulled this way and that way. All the sudden the line popped off whatever it was wrapped on and magically the fish was still on. HOLY SH!T. Spirit level +50.

Cheers came from the peanut gallery above. To everyone’s astonishment, the fight was back on. I tippy toed back through the muck, applying pressure to keep him from running back up under the willows. Finally, I was back to the gravel bar. No sooner had I exhaled a breath of relief before the fish started bulldogging downstream towards Caleb and I. BLESS IT. During this downstream run, we were gifted our first full glimpse: a beautiful, large, colored-up Cutthroat. Spirit points +100.

Pressure builds

Heartbeat increases to well over 150. “Breathe, Ryan. Breathe,” I tell myself. We spin around and chase after it downstream. Finally in a good stretch of water – Gravel bottom. No willows. Clean banks. “THIS MIGHT HAPPEN” I thought to myself, “FOCUS.” For another five minutes, the fight lasts with him taking runs up the bank and with me working him back down. Still plenty of fight left. Still hugging the bottom, Caleb suggested I apply a bit more pressure to try to tire him out. Nervously, I slowly started increasing upward pressure. Please don’t snap, tippet. Please don’t snap. After a couple more nail biting minutes he started to tire, drifting up towards the surface. 

HOLY SH!T. Breathe…. After another minute, Caleb started easing up behind him and then stabbed down the net, scooping him with all the focus he had in him. At the sight of splashing in the net, I blacked out a bit – a blur for a number of seconds but soon back to reality with hands in the air. 

In the net

“F*%^&CK YESSS!!!!!” left my mouth as I dropped to my knees in the middle of the creek. I was in disbelief. I could not believe we got this fish in the net after all the chaos that had ensued. Caleb unhooked the fish, and I handed him my rod as both hands went to my head in disbelief as Caleb slowly walked the net over to me and I got my first full glimpse. UNREAL! Cutthroat of a lifetime. 22” on the tape. In a setting that is hard to put into words. Trip made. Heartbeat HIGH. Cares in the world ZERO. Spirit points +500.

Fist bumps and high fives. A few photos. Back to the water he went. “Thanks for a memory and a story of a lifetime, ole chap. You put up one helluva fight,” I thought as he slipped away in the depths of the cold steam. “Thank you,” was all I was able to say aloud since I was totally drained, but also totally filled with gratitude and awe.

Leave a comment