How it is on the river

Ralph Bartholdt

This man wore a wide-brimmed hat like someone who might sell Cuban cigars, or at least be smoking one.

But he didn’t deal in tobacco or appear to use it.

He stood in a turnout above the river, a spot he jockeyed his older model Datsun into a few seconds before I had the chance to occupy the space. An oncoming string of RVs on the river road that I hadn’t expected at midweek, and pickup trucks towing trailers, prevented me from turning.

He may have been a little gleeful to be the first to motor into the turnout. It accessed one of my favored fishing holes. And now he stood in the sunlight hurriedly piecing together a fly rod, running line through its eyes and tying on a leader.

I walked over.

“Can you stick that tag line through there?” he asked. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be.”

He was 80 years old. Looked it anyhow, which softened my demeanor.

“You fish this spot a lot?” I asked.

We were in a turnout that wasn’t immediately noticed by most anglers who sought out the big, paved parking spots or ones distinguished by landmarks, beautiful bubbling runs or road signs. This spot was partially hidden by elderberry and chokecherry bushes and the river wasn’t visible from the cab of a passing vehicle.

“Ever since the road was put in,” he said.

Which was before my time.

I pulled the tag end through the loop and he quickly placed the formed knot in his mouth to wet it, before pulling it tight with gnarled hands and the kind of thumb nails that doubled as screwdrivers. Then he tied on a big black ant.

“It’s the only fly I use,” he said.

I inquired, but he assured me that he didn’t need any help getting down to the river.

“I usually slide down on my butt,” he said.

I hadn’t seen him on these waters before and pried to check his familiarity. If you’re at a place often enough you become intimate with cars and faces, and who camps where, and at what time.

“I come back here a lot,” he said. “But anymore, it’s usually in my sleep.”

He chuckled. He wore a big shirt, shorts and river shoes and the back seat of his Datsun was sparsely occupied with fishing gear: some line spools, a second rod case and a few fly boxes. We spoke briefly about the river, the season and knots.

He showed me his knot tying technique, a shortcut, and how he used a quick loop knot on the fly.

“Lets it wiggle,” he said.

Pressing a pair of owl-like, wraparound sunglasses against his face, he said goodbye and slipped over the bank.

He had a fish on when I drove away realizing I had learned a lot in a few brief moments, from a complete stranger.

I didn’t see him on the river again after that chance meeting in June. I would have noticed his small, beat-up car with the Washington plates, straw plantation hat and the short, meticulous casts that distinguish some anglers from afar.

I would like to say that’s how it is on the river — you meet people whose company you enjoy — but mostly it’s not.

Mostly anglers stay away from each other as they grouse about overcrowding or being corked by a guy in the kind of boat you seldom saw on the river years back.

“Drift boats on the Joe?!” a barber in Sandpoint once exclaimed when I told him back then about a relatively new phenomenon.

“Getting more common,” I said, and he looked out the window waywardly snipping his shears in the air.

More anglers from all over are acquainting themselves with Panhandle waters and midweek, once the best time for the therapy that angling can bring because the river was mostly isolated, can be just as busy as weekends.

It’s easy to let the therapy sessions morph into a race for the next best hole, but it’s also worth remembering that fly fishing isn’t a full contact sport. And sometimes there are advantages to relaxing, getting to know someone new who shares a hobby with you.

I think a lot about the guy in the plantation hat. His ice blue eyes and freckles on his hands.

I wonder too at the things he could have taught given time, if I met him again on a bank, or knee deep.

Rivers are the perfect stage for picking stuff up and letting stuff go, for remembering and forgetting, and then recreating another version next season. They are also a place for embracing new things.

It’s part of the flow.

That’s how it is on the river.

Ralph Bartholdt is a writer for the Coeur d'Alene Press who covers outdoors. He can be reached at

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