I had never been to Rock Creek without my Missoula-based brother-in-law, and—aside from the Spokane River near my house—I had never fished alone. However, with any activity or place that regularly cycles through your daydream escapisms, at some point, you decide to just go.
Listening to the rolling hum of the creek while being swallowed up by the Sapphire Mountains delivers at least a couple moments of Zen. Fishing there in the fall, as the yellowing aspens and cottonwoods quake around you in a prophetic October breeze, is the closest I’ve ever been to feeling metaphysically transcendent. I craved that feeling, and so I drove four hours east with no plan and nothing more than my rod, reel, and a sleeping bag.
Though I had fished the water a few times, as I took the exit just pass Clinton, I thought it best to pull into the Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile for flies and a few last words of wisdom. It was a chilly and somewhat breezy morning, a day for sleeping in and watching the weather report. My car was the only one in the parking lot, and I was the only customer in the store.
“Can I help you?” The old woman from behind the counter asked. I stopped short of the flies, and stared with widening eyes at the bear spray canisters.
Holding up a bottle, I responded, “Um, I’m fishing alone. Will I need this stuff?”
“Well, you might run into a bear, but I’d be more afraid of running into a moose.”
“What should I do if I run into a moose?”
“If you’re fishing alone, talk louder to yourself.”
Armed with her advice, I decided the $40 bear spray would be best left for someone else.
Rock Creek has more than 30 miles of skinny road cutting through the Sapphires, and although I had planned to drive deep into the valley to fish a section I had never been to, I found myself pulling into the big dirt parking lot off Valley of the Moon Road just 2 miles past the Mercantile. The lower section of Rock Creek, and especially Valley of the Moon, hosts quite a few fishermen over the season. It’s easy to get to, and the trout see so many more offerings they become pickier about what they’ll bite. Normally I wouldn’t stop there, but I doubted I’d see a moose or bear in a place that was normally busy.
Cutting down the well-worn path, I reached a plot of secluded bank. Cast after cast scuttled across the water. A quick shot under the false bank across from me; a gentle lay down upstream while mending line above a deep pool. A rainbow, a brown, even a brookie would make this day a success. I walked the banks and waded into the middle of the creek, hoping that a different angle might lead me to success. Hours went by.
Deciding it was a better tactic to change my fly than my location, and being too lazy to stumble across the smooth submerged rocks of the river to do so, I set to work snipping the streamer and trading it for a purple haze patterned fly. It was in this vulnerable position that the sound of sticks cracking came from the thicket upstream.
I surveyed the dry creek bed that led into the tangle but saw nothing. Turning my attention back to securing a knot around the new bug, the slow breaking of brush was again audible. “Hello?” I said. No answer. Knowing the water was too deep to get to the other side of the creek, but that I didn’t want to come face to face with a moose or bear, I did what I had been instructed to do. I began singing loudly to myself.
“Now I’m free, free falllllliinnnn’… Now I’m freeee! Freee falllin’!”
Out of the bushes popped an older gentleman, perplexed by a man up to his waist with hands full of gear, singing Tom Petty in a cracking and nervous voice, staring right back at him.
I nodded at him. “Thought you were a moose.”
He waved an obligatory hand toward me, but shook his head side to side as he ambled down the creek toward fish un-spooked by my karaoke. That day, I never did land a fish, but I did gain another tale in a storied place. Sometimes, that’s just as good—especially when you are unbothered by the black bears and moose.
Steve Hitchcock has been amassing stories for years in his time working for the SuperSonics, serving as a teacher, and going on a variety of outdoor boondoggles. He is the winner of this year’s Get Lit! and OTO Outdoor Writing Contest.