The Middle Fork of the Flathead: cartwheels, but no mustard
This is Part 6 in a 6 part series of Weekly Drivel®, which you’ve all been anticipating, if for no other reason than it finally means an end to the series. Last week in Part 5 I left you hanging; wondering what it was really going to be like fishing with Trout TV’s own Hilary Hutcheson. Wait no more.
The Rangers horked down a hearty breakfast comprised of raw meat and black coffee, did some one-armed pushups and put on our game faces: it was time to meet up with our guides at Glacier Anglers for the long anticipated day on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. We were pumped.
We pulled into the parking lot at Glacier Outdoor Center, rolled out of the Ranger carriers and stormed into the shop. “Uh…may I help you?” inquired a pleasant young employee who was clearly taken aback by our assertive entrance. “Where is Hilary?” I demanded. The employee’s reply was unexpected, “I’m sorry, there’s nobody here by that name. Are you sure you have the right place?”
OK, it wasn’t quite like that.
We entered the shop and looked casually around. A few people milled about and we were greeted by a pleasant young person. “Top of morning,” I said, “We’re fishing with Hilary today. Might she be present?”
“Oh, right. She’s expecting you,” said the pleasant young employee. Almost instantaneously a short woman, sporting a camo Patagonia cap atop a mane of long black hair, materialized and blurted out a greeting that might have been better understood had I drank a couple more cups of coffee. The first thing you notice about Hilary is her energy—we half expected to see her perform a cartwheel right there in the shop (she didn’t, but would later). The next thing you notice about her is her height—at least that’s what I noticed. It’s not often I encounter adults upon whom I can look down. They say that TV adds 10 pounds to a person, and while I would never suggest that to be the case with Hilary, she does look much taller on Trout TV.
The introduction felt more like greeting an old friend than meeting a new one. Hilary quickly introduced the other two guides for the day,
Darrell and his other brother Darrell brothers Jake and Tate. Both were considerably younger than Hilary, and considerably taller. Based on initial impressions they seemed like good dudes—typical young bucks living the life of a fly fishing guide in Montana; sleeping in tents pitched atop pallets (to stay drier) and eating canned beans, fishing on their days off. Soft-spoken but confident, these are the types of guys you want as guides: they have hungry eyes; probably because they haven’t eaten a good meal in a couple days, but also because they live to hunt for fish. Hilary, on the other hand, lives comfortably with two Hutchlings and her husband, Shane, in an actual house. With heat and indoor plumbing. I wouldn’t suggest that she’s a ‘hobby guide’ like my buddy Joe Willauer, but guiding isn’t her main source of livelihood. I wondered for a half second if maybe I might trade up for one of the Brothers. I quickly dismissed the idea—I had to see this through. After all, the auction I’d won was for a float trip with Hilary.
We piled into the Glacier Anglers shop rigs and headed upriver toward our launch site at Moccasin Creek. The rafts were launched (no hard boats as we would be fishing the whitewater section of the Middle Fork) and Hilary and the Brothers rigged up rods. As the hired hands prepared to get underway the Rangers stood awkwardly by, doing nothing and feeling rather worthless. When you consider yourself a fairly avid fisherman, it’s always a little odd to be coddled.
The Rangers were divided into teams of 2 and given their boat assignments. Marck had offered the highest bribe and would be spending the day in Hilary’s boat with me. As she selected flies to start the day our guide offered a narrative on what we would expect. The first part of the day would involve mostly slow and flat water, followed later in the day by a series of pools separated by whitewater. The river was low so the whitewater wouldn’t be huge, but we could expect some bumps and fast water. Hilary assured us that she hadn’t dumped a boat in several weeks as she strapped down all loose gear. We set off downstream, eagerly anticipating the first fish and thinking about what Hilary had said about dumping her boat. I was prepared to swim and had everything of value tucked safely into my waterproof pack. Personal Flotation Device. Check. Buckled and secured. Check.
The conversation came easily as Hilary explained a bit about the Middle Fork and surrounding area. She began her career at Glacier Anglers running whitewater rafts as a teenager (when Brothers Jake and Tate were still in diapers). Eventually she began working as a fly fishing guide which she has done on and off since she was 17. So she knows the water and knows how to put clients on fish. It was a beautiful and sunny start the day. The catching began slowly but we did get the skunk off the boat early enough that neither Marck nor I worried incessantly. While we did toss dries and pulled a streamer or two, nymphing produced first and most often as we landed several cutthroats that were feisty if not terribly large.
Each fish was met with great enthusiasm by the
oarsman girl rowing person on the oars. You see, Hilary loves fish and fishing. She clearly loves guiding, too, and her enthusiasm can be infectious. It should be noted that Marck is a fairly stoic fellow when he’s fishing—all business. And so it came as a great surprise that Hilary was able to charm Marck into actually kissing a whitefish.
Throughout the day, Hilary would sporadically blurt out, in an almost Tourrette-like manner, random proclamations of unbridled joy: “This is the best day ever!”
and “You guys are the best anglers I’ve ever had in my boat!” It’s hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind of energy when you’re a guest in Hilary’s boat. Even when the fishing got slow, and it did (because it always does), she offered hope with every new piece of water. A good guide keeps it positive and blends instruction with good humor. Hilary is a worthy opponent when it comes to verbal jousting and we traded more than a few good-natured jabs. We also made time for some meaningful, adult-like conversation about conservation issues on her home waters. When I asked Hilary about some of the biggest challenges facing the area she pointed to the train that was passing by above the south bank of the river.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad follows the Middle Fork Flathead and several trains rolled past us during the day. As soon as the loud drone of the train subsided Hilary explained that some of westbound trains are tankers carrying oil from North Dakota and Eastern Montana: antiquated tankers that are vulnerable to punctures and ruptures. Hilary is the first to admit that we need oil but that we also need railroads to address the very threats that they present. Until all the tankers carrying crude oil are updated the Middle Fork is one derailment away from disaster. While they might seem strange bedfellows, trains and rivers seem to go hand in hand because trains follow the relatively easy path through rugged country carved by flowing water. Speaking of rugged country, the Middle Fork is a crown jewel that forms the souther boundary to Glacier National Park. This beautiful, clear, and cold-running river is, in fact, designated a National Wild & Scenic River and thereby protected by law. It’s healthy now and I hope it stays that way. The Fall 2014 issue of the Fly Fish Journal featured an article by Hilary titled, “The Wrong Track: Oil Trains are a Threat to Rivers”. It’s a great read, and a great magazine overall. I recommend you pick up a copy of it HERE.
As people who love rivers and fish are prone to be, Hilary is passionate about her home water and is involved in efforts to make sure those waters remain pristine. Through Trout TV she is directly involved with American Rivers. An American Rivers episode was shot in July (2015) on the Middle Fork to bring awareness to the Flathead River system, its Wild & Scenic designation and the potential threats to this resource. The episode will be aired next Spring (2016) and all online proceeds from the episode will be donated to American Rivers. As an ambassador of American Rivers, Hilary considers herself a “boots on the ground go-between” linking the national organization to her local river.
In addition to the beauty of the Middle Fork Flathead, another thing that stood out to me was the solitude. We saw a couple recreational rafts filled with tourists but no other boats carrying anglers. It was as though we had the entire river all to ourselves, except of course for the other two boats in our flotilla.
We broke for lunch, and as the hired help set up for the midday meal, Marck and I had a chance to compare notes with the other Rangers. Under the guidance of Brother Jake, Goose and Nash had been keeping busy by catching a bunch of fish. Jimmy and Morris were fishing with Brother Tate and were also catching a lot of fish, including a trophy whitefish that had their young guide giddy with delight (although I don’t believe the fish was kissed). We may not have been catching quite as many fish, but we were having more fun, which is saying a lot because I think everyone was having a grand old time thus far.
As we waited for lunch to be served, Goose grabbed his rod and plied the nearby waters, hoping to land just one more fish. He may have lost his footing in the shallow water and I may have made a snarky comment about his resulting wet shorts. The ensuing single digit salute was something I’ve come to expect from him on nearly every trip.
Lunch was served and it was quite good despite lacking a key ingredient. Seriously—when you travel several hundred miles and pay good money to fish with professional guides—is it too much to expect mustard for the sandwiches? Mustard isn’t something one should even have to ask for—it should just be standard sandwich equipment. I made a note of the infraction, adding it to my penalty list that included earlier comments by Hilary about my advanced age and failing eyesight.
After consuming our sans-mustard sandwiches we resumed our downstream trek. Clouds had begun to blow in on a w#nd that ranged from annoying to downright ridiculous at times. Long, slow pools were separated by steep narrow chutes with names such as Tunnel Rapid (aptly named because it was like a w#nd tunnel as we approached), Bonecrusher, Washboard
(named for my ads), Screaming Right Hand Turn and others, including Could Be Trouble.
With the w#nd blowing upstream, at a much quicker pace than the current that carried us downstream, rowing became an arduous task and setting up the raft for the proper line through the fast water involved a great deal of physical effort. From the back of the boat I
asked if perhaps Hilary wanted some help on the oars cheered Hilary on. We made it through each set of rapids without so much as a single dumping of the boat.
As we neared our termination point at West Glacier Hilary erupted, “I don’t want this day to end!” A gullible fool might have been lured into believing her; a naysayer likely would have thought she was merely bucking for a good tip. But after you’ve spent a day with Hilary you realize she means it: she has a seemingly insatiable thirst for fun. In the end our boat may not have won the Most Fish competition, but I think it’s safe to say that our boat had the most fun. Over the course of 10 river miles, and 9 or so hours (according to the ginormous white watch on Hilary’s left wrist), it was as though we had become the three best friends that anyone could have.
Hilarious. A hoot to fish with. Genuinely a nice person. I might even be inclined to fish with Hilary again some day. As long as she promises not to forget one key ingredient.
To hear more you might consider listening to The Open Fly Podcast, on which Hilary was a recent guest. The conversation is lively, as one might expect.