Fly-Fishing Confidential
Credit: Illustration by Kevin Davis

It's 8 a.m. and the authors Jim Harrison and Peter Matthiessen are standing on the sidewalk in front of my rig. At 75 and 86, respectively, they have more than 60 published books and several major literary awards between them. Harrison's novella 'Legends of the Fall' remains, despite its brief 80 pages, a monumental story in every sense of the word. Matthiessen's book 'The Snow Leopard' is a treatise on spirituality cloaked in a damn good Himalayan adventure story. At this point, both of these men seem to me a rare, possibly vanishing breed of writer – there is an easy authenticity regarding the natural world to be found in both of their styles, one that can stem only from lives lived out of doors. Friends since meeting at Stony Brook University in the mid-1960s during Harrison's brief teaching tenure there, the men have fished together in Montana for decades. Today, I'm filling in for their regular guide, who is busy butchering a pig. Harrison and Matthiessen both walk with canes. I hope neither of them decides to cash in his chips while I'm rowing them down the river.

As I'm getting the boat ready to launch, Harrison recounts an incident from a few years ago. He'd been at this same spot and seen a girl swimming in the river. She'd gotten out and wriggled back into her shorts. "She was wearing white panties," he says, his voice sounding like a drift boat being dragged over a mid-river gravel bar. "She was all wet, and she knew I was looking at her, and she took her time. She must have known I was an American Poet. I could have used a bib."

Peter is shaking his head and smiling.

I help them into the boat and stow their canes. It is clear and warm. We float east of Livingston, where the land starts to flatten out. There are large ranches here, few houses, great swaths of dead brown grass. Train tracks run parallel to the river, and sometimes a whistle shatters the stillness. Peter is as soft-spoken as Harrison is ribald and loud. Both of the men handle the fly rods well. They talk about fishing trips past, and it is clear that they like each other a great deal.

We catch a few trout and lose a few more. At one point, Peter, trying to avoid an errant cast from Jim, gets his line tangled. As I'm fixing it, Jim says, "Peter, stop being so goddamn high-maintenance; you're going to have to leave the tip if you keep this up."

A while later, a large brown trout moves for Harrison's fly, and he isn't paying attention and does nothing to set the hook. "Oh, damn," he says, fumbling for his American Spirit cigarettes. "That's how it always goes. I was watching the U.S. Open last night. I was thinking about Serena's big ass right there. I fucked that up." This gets a laugh from Peter, and I relax.

I've seen it over and over, the way fly-fishing brings everyone down to the same basic level. In the boat, these two aging but still brilliant literary minds rag on each other about missed fish and bad casts, talk about women, and bitch about being broke, just like my friends and I do.

Harrison asks me if I'm married. I'm not, but I tell him about my most recent girlfriend, a wildly beautiful musician and rock climber who had, just a few days ago, out of the blue, loaded up her van and left to go play her ukulele and work on a marijuana farm in Northern California. It's kind of ridiculous, I realize, but she really was fantastic, and it stings. In Montana, we say, "You don't get a girlfriend; you just get your turn."

Harrison laughs when I tell him this. "Most fishing guides I know are alcoholics and behind in their child support payments," he says, "so I guess you're doing okay."

If I could picture a more perfect Montana, it would be exactly the same as it is now, just with the occasional busload of females from Austin, Texas. Summers are one thing: Tourists abound, strange, interesting women blowing through from parts unknown. Winter, though, the same faces, the girls who already know you for what you are – another commitment-phobic fishing guide with a Peter Pan syndrome. I tell myself that with her gone, I'll get more writing done, I'll be able to focus. In truth I'll probably just be out running around, chasing girls, writing even less. I look at Matthiessen – who won the National Book Award for the third time at age 81 – and consider the possibility that there might come a time in every writer's life where the worldly concerns fall away and the work becomes the realest part of his existence. Probably this is wishful thinking. Either way, I can't decide if this is something to dread or look forward to.

In all fairness, I guess the women here have a saying, too: "The odds may be good, but the goods are odd."