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Brian J. Cantwell: A fly-fishing high on Montana's pristine Gallatin River [The Seattle Times :: BC-OTD-CANTWELL-COLUMN:SE]

BIG SKY, Mont. - There had to be a little magic in play that rainy September day on the Gallatin River when I first felt the fly line arc behind me just right and then sail back as if in slow motion. Sailing, sailing - out over the river to deposit my fly precisely at the top of a riffle where we'd seen a trout jump moments earlier.

It was my first time fly-fishing, and I was learning from a pro named Rick Fancher, with Gallatin River Guides.

I'm no athlete. I've never hit a baseball out of the park or thrown a winning touchdown. But while those things might bring crowds to their feet, this felt like a little bit of poetry being read quietly in the woods.

I had totally expected to be a klutz at this.

Once I caught on to the arm motion, the softly buzzing "whoo, whoo" of the rhythmically swirling fly line was a soothing complement to the constant "krishhh" of the wild river that swirled around my wader-clad ankles. By day's end, the ending line of "A River Runs Through It," Norman Maclean's autobiographical paean to Montana and fly-fishing, started to take on new meaning to me.

"I am haunted by waters," Maclean wrote.

There's just some quiet bliss out there.

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That story was set on the Blackfoot River, but this stretch of the Gallatin is where director Robert Redford filmed Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt in the 1992 movie made from Maclean's novella, which he wrote at age 70.

"This is a nice river, it's all freestone - meaning there are no dams, everything is natural in it, nothing is stocked," said Fancher, a retired high-school football coach, as we rode in his big black pickup along winding, two-lane Highway 191.

The road snakes prettily along the shores of the Gallatin between rocky and forested ridges south of Bozeman, Montana, to Yellowstone National Park.

The river is home to rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout, as well as Montana whitefish and Arctic grayling.

Storm Castle Peak - a forested mountain that tops out in a gray pyramid of stone - loomed to the north as we turned off 191 and crossed an old bridge to the first of three fishing spots we'd try that day.

This was a stretch of river where the movie was filmed. (If you look hard enough you can find the rock Pitt fished from.) "I have the movie poster on the wall of my cabin," Fancher confided as he popped open the canopy of his pickup and pulled rods from a rack.

All gear was provided on this outing, so I could fly into Bozeman, rent a car and show up at the guide-service office at Big Sky with nothing more than an easily packed waterproof jacket, some fleece layers and a hat.

At the office, I had donned their chest-high waterproof waders that fit over my feet to slip inside sport boots suited to clambering across slippery rocks. They were a lot like the waders Redford wore as he filmed the movie; I've seen the pictures.

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Our first effort was fishing with nymphs. The nymph is one of the stages of insects such as mayflies or caddis flies. They live under the water's surface, making them like the Cheeto of the trout world, easily snacked on.

Fancher opened his booklike fly box, with multiple pages of flies, and fitted our lines with nymphs and orange "strike indicators," floats that bob or twitch to help you know when a fish has mistaken your nymph for the real thing.

First I learned the tension cast. Fancher taught me to hold the rod high, point my knuckles where I wanted the nymph to go and watch the tip of my rod as I cast.

"Try to get that little hammer with your wrist," to propel the bait to the middle of the river, he advised. His years as a teacher showed in his patience.

As the lessons sank in, the view of cobbled river bank and soaring, fir-clad hills competed for my attention. And I could feel the cold water through my waders. The Gallatin originates from Gallatin Lake in Wyoming, at 9,950 feet up in Yellowstone Park. It doesn't warm much as it flows into Montana.

The names and designs of the lures and fishing flies offered their own fascination. The first we tried was a big wiggly nymph called a Pat's Rubber Legs. A website called Charlie's Fly Box offers this apt description: "The Super Floss legs flex and pulse in the current adding life to the fly, and the chenille color can be varied to match any shade of stonefly."

Throughout the day, Fancher picked out new nymphs and flies and rebaited my line so we could get the most fishing out of the day rather than spend much of it with the rookie trying to master tiny knots in microfilament leaders.

He also politely untangled the line when the rookie fouled up a cast.

As we headed for a lunch break, he recounted some of the other baits we tried: the prince nymph, the flashback pheasant tail, a zebra midge and a silver lightning bug.

"We went through quite a few bugs," he said.

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On the edge of Swan Creek, as we munched sandwiches from the Hungry Moose Deli in Big Sky, Fancher told me he has guided anglers from all over the world, including India, Australia, Japan and China.

"In summer it's a little like full-contact fly-fishing on this river, it gets so busy," he said. So my fall outing had the advantage of elbow room, though I was also risking getting snowed on; the base of the nearby Big Sky ski resort is at 7,500 feet elevation. Cold weather can come early.

"This time of year fishing is a little tougher," Fancher said, because the water is colder and fish take longer to wake up in the morning. "And these fish have been caught a lot over the summer."

Most guides here encourage catch-and-release fishing. If you fish for supper, the daily limit of trout on the Gallatin is five.

So far, I had been skunked. So, when the autumn rain started getting more serious and Fancher offered me the loan of an old, brown wide-brimmed hat that looked a lot like the one Brad Pitt wore in the movie, who was I to argue?

At our second fishing spot, near Greek Creek Campground, I learned to fish with dry flies, using pickup and lay-down and roll casting, with that rhythmic, whirling fly line.

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Here, fish were rising to snap at real insects among the raindrops dimpling the river. Using dry flies, which float on the water, it's easier to know when a fish has taken your bait. First, the fly disappears. Plus the fish usually splashes at the surface. I hooked my first trout - but only long enough to see it leap from the water before it spit out the fly.

"That was a nice fish!" Fancher called. "It looked like it might have been 15 inches."

Three more fish splashed at my flies but only nibbled, even with me wearing the Brad Pitt Lucky Hat.

Nevertheless, I could feel myself bonding with the Gallatin.

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As we cruised in the pickup to find our final fishing hole of the day we spied the carcass of a dead elk with its ribs sticking out, sprawled alongside the river. Doing its own, final kind of bonding.

We stopped off the highway and followed a path through woods, passing a spot where Fancher once stumbled across a mama moose and her calf, to the surprise of all concerned.

This last spot was more private, well away from the road and hidden by trees. The river had more riffles.

The lucky hat kicked in as I reeled in and released two nice 12-inch rainbow trout, using flies with names such as "purple parachute Adams." (Fancher said he saw something similar flying above the water.)

A third fish took my fly and I reeled it into the shallows near my feet before it got off the hook and swam away. "We call that 'quick release'!" Fancher quipped.

He was happy. He lives in a land of fishy rivers and never likes to have a client end the day without a catch - or three.

His secret to choosing the right fly to woo fish?

"Some guys will give you a full dissertation on the whole life cycle of the bug." He shrugged. "I just look at what's there on the river and pick something that looks like it."

Norman Maclean was an old man when he wrote his story about fishing in Montana. I was 60 when I first tried fly-fishing. The perspective of a long life had something to do with Maclean's lyrical view of it all.

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it," he wrote.

Somehow, spending a rainy day wading in a cold Montana river is a good place to ponder life.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

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If you go

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Where

The Gallatin River runs from Yellowstone National Park northwest through Custer Gallatin National Forest, past Big Sky, Montana, and joins the Jefferson and Madison rivers to form the Missouri River about 30 miles northwest of Bozeman. Explorer Meriwether Lewis named the river after a U.S. Treasury Secretary of his day.

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Outings and rates

Guided trips are not cheap, but for a first-timer wanting a quick fly-fishing tutorial, or an experienced angler looking for the best fishing holes, guides can help make a memorable outing.

I used Gallatin River Guides (montanaflyfishing.com), based at Big Sky. For first-timers, a full day "Walk and Wade" trip gives you time to learn the basics. Peak-season rates: $410 for one angler or $490 for two, on the Gallatin River. Half-day rate: $290 for one or $330 for two. Includes all gear, including waders, boots, rods, reels and flies. (Not all guides provide gear.) Montana fishing license is extra.

Other available destinations include the Madison or Yellowstone rivers in Yellowstone National Park, and more.

For a directory of more Montana fly-fishing guides: flyfishingguidedirectory.com/montana.html.

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When to go

Summer is nice but can be crowded on popular rivers. Try shoulder months, such as April or early May, or September-October, if you want to avoid the "flip-flops, suntan crowd," suggests Patrick Straub, co-owner of Gallatin River Guides.

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Getting there

I flew direct from Seattle to Bozeman on Alaska Airlines (about 1 hour, 45 minutes) and rented a camper van. Custer Gallatin National Forest offers several campgrounds along the Gallatin River: bit.ly/gallatin-camping.

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Other lodging and activities

Big Sky Resort has ample lodging as well as summer activities ranging from whitewater rafting to skeet shooting: bigskyresort.com.

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Other Montana rivers

Learn about other Montana river fishing at bit.ly/MONTANArivers.

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More information

Montana Office of Tourism: visitmt.com

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