Cutthroats and Outlaws - A Fish Story
“Sam Ballard,” Ron said with emphasis. “His name sounds like an outlaw from the wild west.” Ron was talking to me while he measured a piece of lumber and marked it to be cut. The circular saw whirred to life and the blade screamed as it cut through the two-by-four lumber, kicking up a cloud of sweet smelling sawdust. The cut end fell on the floor with a thud. “I never thought of it but you’re right. It does sound like an outlaw’s name! And he looks like an outlaw,” I offered as I got down on one knee preparing to handle my end of the freshly sized stud.
“The Outlaw Sam Ballard,” Ron said, as if he were reciting the title of a TV western. Ron walked around the sawhorses, and with his long legs took a stride over his sleeping dog. “Look out, Josh,” he said to his canine friend with good intention. Josh was an enormous Pyrenees and he was common on the job site. Where Ron was, so was Josh. With Josh in repose just mere feet away, Ron handed me one end of the board he had just cut. I grabbed it and lined it up on a penciled mark, then secured it with a trio of sixteen-penny nails. Ron, being the taller of the two of us, aligned the top of the stud and deftly nailed it into place. Ron had huge powerful hands, and oddly crooked fingers that he used skillfully as a carpenter. He was also a excellent draftsman; his hands served him well. “Sam said Hal is sending us to do a job near Seeley Lake to fix some kind of house fire damage,” I told Ron. “Sam will be the foreman while we are up there.”
“So you’ll be stuck in the mountains with an outlaw?”
“Yeah, they’ll find my body and all my money will be gone. The buzzards will be pickin’ my bones.”
“Or you could become his partner in crime,” Ron suggested as he dropped the end of his measuring tape for me to hold. “Ninety-two and five-eighths,” Ron read aloud from the marks on his tape. It had never occurred to me how much Sam looked like an old west outlaw until Ron started talking about his gunslinger name. Sam’s face was defined with sharp corners and angular features. He had dark brown hair and sported a thick mustache that grew down around the sides of his mouth. He often had a five o’clock shadow by 9:00 AM. It was easy to picture Sam in a dusty black Panama hat, a long riding coat, and a six shooter on each hip. Instead of a house he probably lived in a Hell’s Canyon hideout. “The murderin’ outlaw… Sam Ballard,” Ron reflected, not ready to let the notion go. He had a quiet, easy humor that rolled steadily along like a wide river. Just then Sam came up the work ladder with Hal, the contractor we were working for, right behind him. “Did I hear my name?” Sam enquired.
“Don’t shoot me, Sam! Take the money!” Ron quipped.
“Huh?” Sam looked at Ron then at me for clarity.
“Ron thinks ‘Sam Ballard’ sounds like an outlaw name.”
“Oh, brother!” Sam sighed as he rolled his eyes and shook his head back and forth in mock disbelief. Sam took a deep draw on his cigarette. Smoke rose into his eyes and he squinted from the irritation. Yep, he looked like an outlaw. Hal took over: “We got a ‘burn job’ to do up near Seeley Lake. I need you and Sam to go up there and work on it. The house had a chimney fire get loose in the attic and the roof is completely destroyed. It’s going to take a few weeks. We need to get on it and stay with it because if fall comes early the weather might really mess things up.” Hal said all this while looking up somewhere in the sky. Ron and I looked up in that direction, mocking Hal’s habit of sky gazing when he spoke to us. Sam was looking at the ground and concentrating on his cigarette. The information didn’t concern Ron so he gave Josh a quick neck rub and went back to work, putting the latest measurement on another board. I was listening with interest to Hal. “My camper is parked up there so you guys can stay there if you want. It’s a long drive up and back, so staying there will save you guys some time and gas money.” Gas was cheap enough in those days, we didn’t really care about that, even on the short wages we were making in residential construction. Hal didn’t care that much how long it took us to get to work and back. His motive was to grease the skids for us to work long hours so we could beat the Montana fall weather, should it come on early at the higher altitude in the Seeley Swan Valley. For a contractor this made good sense, and Hal was a sensible contractor. Hal had some funny personality quirks, but he was a decent, honest man who lived by his principals and was guided by his morals. He was a World War II vet, an electrician, a carpenter – these were all worthy experiences that contributed to his good character. He treated all his workers with respect, and in return, his workers respected him. “Monday you and Sam can drive up with me and we’ll get started on the job. When you go back up on Tuesday you guys are welcome to stay in the camper. You can stay all week if you want to.” Sam cocked his head to the side so he could look up at Hal. Sam made a barely perceptible smirk, in good nature, to indicate he fully understood Hal’s ulterior motives. Now I couldn’t get the outlaw image out of my mind. Sam looked like a character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. “I think you guys should take your fishing gear up with you. Clearwater Lake is real close to the job site. I’ve been fishing there this summer and it’s been pretty good.” Hal didn’t know if we were fishermen; he must have assumed everyone was. “That sounds good!” I said, not picking up on Hal’s work-more-drive-less strategy. All I heard was fishing. “What gear do we need?”
“Well you could fly fish I guess, but just throw some spinners out there and you‘ll catch something.” Hal was now scanning another section of Montana big sky. “Sam, I’ll pick you up first. Then we’ll swing buy and pick Charlie up on our way out of town - about six-thirty.”
“Sounds good to me,” Sam said. I’m sure Sam meant it when he said that it sounded good to him. He was a hard worker with a young family to support. During the time I worked with Sam I learned that had had grown up around Dillon, Montana. Dillon is about halfway between Butte and nowhere. His work ethic was the product of a hard scrabble life and he worked like he needed the money. He had a college education from Western Montana College in Dillon. Yes, there is a college in Dillon. Sam probably had a degree in bank robbin’ and cattle rustlin’. “Me too, I’ll be ready,” I said with genuine enthusiasm, because I had forgotten all about work once I’d heard the word fishing. I was a sucker for fishing. So much so I’d flunked my first term of college because a friend called early on finals day as asked “Want to go fishing?” My brain was all of a sudden like “What the hell is a final?” That’s all it took to derail my college career.
Monday morning we were up early and on our way to the job site. Sitting three abreast in Hal’s pickup, Sam and I were a captive audience for Hal’s non-stop narrative. He filled us in on a variety of subjects, like some of the details of the job we were heading to, the success of his cataract surgery (“I can see like a hawk now!”), how Jimmy Carter was going to “bring religion back to the White House when he’s elected,” how you don’t need studded tires in Montana, where to go deer hunting in the Blackfoot River drainage, and the most interesting subject of the day, trout fishing at Clearwater Lake. While he drove, Hal was leaning over the steering wheel and peering up the road looking as if his “hawk vision” was really more akin to Mr. Magoo. My thoughts went back and forth between we’re gonna die! to fishing at Clearwater Lake. I tried to direct the conversation to the latter and got Hal talking about it. “Clearwater is a great little spot up here near the job site. It’s easy to get to but not too many people go there. You can’t see it from the road so people drive right on by. Today we might knock off early and I’ll show you guys where it is before we come home. I have my raft in the camper, maybe we can get out on the lake.” Knock off early? Get out on the Lake? That sounded terrific to me! It was going to be hard to concentrate on any amount of work that day, knowing that we might go to Hal’s fishing spot on Clearwater Lake. We got to the job around eight o’clock. It was a beautiful late August morning in western Montana. The big sky was blue, the sun was bright, and the morning air was already warm. On arrival, it was easy to see that the house we were going to work on was a wreck. The chimney fire had indeed spread throughout the entire attic of the house. What the fire didn’t burn down the fire department tore up. The whole roof structure was going to have to be removed and replaced. We were going to be on this site for awhile. After walking around the building and having Hal explain the work to be done, the three of us got down to the business at hand: dismantling the charred remains of roof trusses and plywood. It was dirty work handling the burnt wood. When the old roof was totally removed, we went to work inside the structure. In every room there was busted up sheetrock and soggy insulation. After clearing that debris, we removed the wet carpeting. It was messy work and Sam and I were black with soot. Hal managed to keep his blue work shirt and khaki Oshkosh pants practically spotless by standing back and giving us play-by-play instructions. We took a lunch break around noon. Hal talked about fishing and again said we might cut out early to check out the lake. After work resumed, I kept checking my watch and wondering if time had frozen in place? What did Hal mean by early? I was having the hardest time thinking about anything but fishing. I was anxious to see this Clearwater Lake Hal had bragged about. Even though Hal had said we might “knock off early”, the afternoon dragged on and on. Around four-forty-five I was so antsy to quit work I could have just about wriggled out of my skin. I could barely restrain myself from yelling out “OH COMON! LET’S GO TO THE LAKE, ALREADY!” However, I bit my tongue and kept working. About ten after five Hal finally came to his senses and said, “What do you guys think? Should we knock off early? We can stop by Clearwater on the way home so you’ll know where it is. It’s hard to find if you don’t know it’s there.” “Are you kidding me? Early? Let’s get the hell outta here and let’s go to the damn lake,” I almost blurted out loud.
“That’s a good idea,” Sam said. “Do you want us to pick up our tools now?” Sam was more reserved and mature I was. He had continued to focus on work all day and didn’t show any angst about getting off to go fishing. I knew he liked fishing, but he kept it in check, especially in front of the boss. “Yeah, pick ‘em up. I’ll grab the raft and put it in the truck.” As Sam passed by to grab the power saw he leaned in close and said in a soft voice “Shit! I thought he was never going to quit! I’ve been dying to see this damn lake he’s been talking off about.” Ah ha! Sam had been wearing his poker face all day. That’s a good trait for an outlaw. The lake was only about a five mile drive up a gravel forest service road from a turnoff not far from the job site. Hal parked the truck and we unloaded the gear and the raft. I was kind of shocked at the raft when I actually saw it. Sure, it was un-inflated, but still it looked as though it could be stuffed in my lunch box! Three of us were going to get in this thing? “I’ve got this little two man raft but I think it’s big enough for the three of us. We’ll blow it up here and carry it over to the lake with our gear inside.” Was Hal out of his mind? The raft was a teeny weenie oval of yellow reinforced rubber that I thought was small for one person, but three? It didn’t matter; there was fishing to be done and I wouldn’t let the inadequacy of Hal’s petite raft deter me. If Hal said the raft was big enough for three, then by golly it was big enough for three. From where Hal parked one would never know there was a lake nearby. There was no parking area or sign. Hal just knew by superior fisherman’s instinct where to stop the truck. After inflating the raft with Hal’s hand pump, Sam and I carried it with our gear inside over a small hill for about a quarter mile with Hal leading the way. The little raft seemed to gain weight as we walked. After about 10 minutes the splendid little lake came into view through the trees. It was a gem. One-hundred-twenty acres of azure blue mountain water. It was like a Montana sapphire transformed into a wonderful secluded lake. The sky was perfectly reflected on the surface, and the billowy white clouds looked like they were floating upside down in a sparkling mirror. It was back dropped by the glacier worn and stony slopped Swan Mountains. “Oh, Wow!” Sam and I drew the words out in musical unison.
“This is the place,” Hal said matter-of-factly. “We might as well get out there and catch some fish.”
Hal was a big man. I don’t mean fat, but a tall man; about six foot two with a middle age spread. I topped out around six feet and but I was rail thin in those days. Sam was a couple of inches shorter than me and wiry. The two of us together didn’t account for much more than Hal’s weight, so Hal sat at one end of the raft and Sam and I at the other. Hal took his seat atop the raft’s bow gunwale, while Sam and I sat next to each other in the same manner on the stern (if it were possible for the symmetrical raft to have a bow and stern). Each of us compressed the inflated hull of the raft enough to let water come in and get our butts thoroughly soaked. “Never had three of us in the raft before.” Hal confessed. “There’s been two of us a few times but never three. If we don’t make any sudden moves I think we’ll be alright.” Sam took a quick survey of the situation as we pushed off from shore.
“I think three’s a crowd.” Sam quipped nervously.
“There’s a high degree of probability we are going to drown, but first I’m gonna catch some trout!” I said as a joke to make Sam feel better.
“Oh, we’ll be fine.” Hal said in all seriousness, totally over looking my humor and thinking I was the nervous one. “These rafts are underrated.” he reported just as a gush of water came in around each side of his ass-depression in the inflated hull. “You could easily get four people in here.”
“Count me out on that cruise,” Sam was quick to counter. “That’s the kind of disaster you read about in the newspaper.” Hal paddled us out to where we were about equidistant from each shoreline at the south end of the lake. We were going to be spin fishing so we all got out our appropriate lures for the task. We fished for about two hours, and despite a couple of close calls where we almost ended up in the drink, we each caught a pair of fifteen to sixteen inch west slope cutthroat trout. They were my first cutthroat trout, and bigger than I thought we would get from this small lake. We had a good outing that afternoon. A couple of very big trout for each of us, a beautiful August afternoon, and as a bonus, nobody drowned. We headed home; Hal talked all the way back to Missoula. I dreamed about a return trip to Clearwater Lake.
The next morning Sam rode along with me back to the job site. We were prepared to spend the night up there so we had all the necessary gear to stay over. We also had our fishing gear. Both of us talked incessantly about that lake. “Man, those were big trout,” I said, or Sam said, or we both said at some point, and we said it multiple times. Concentrating on work was impossible. Both of us were talking about fishing Clearwater again, and we planned to do it that afternoon right after work. Sam had the bug as bad as I did now. Hal was not around, and it was a challenge for Sam to be the responsible job foreman he was entrusted to be. After lunch the bug was hitting us hard. About one-thirty I asked Sam “what time do you want to knock off?”
“We need to get in at least most of a full day.” Sam said disappointingly.
“Yeah, I guess so. I’ll quit anytime you do. You’re the boss.” It was utterly difficult for me not to bolt right then and there, make my escape, and grab my rod and reel. Sam’s resolve was breaking down as well. After about another fifteen minutes, Sam cut a board wrong three times in a row. “Shit!” Sam exclaimed. He put the saw down and lit a cigarette. Took a long drag and said “F—k it! Let’s go fishin’!”
“YES!” We packed up our tools and grabbed Hal’s raft from the camper. By two o’clock we were heading down the road in my VW microbus, each of us with shit eating grins like a pair of Cheshire cats. We were on a mission as if Clearwater Lake were going to dry up and go all dust bowl before we could get there. When we got to the trail head we repeated the procedure we had performed the day before – blowing up the raft – loading our gear – hiking over the hill – and casting off from shore. With just the two of us, the raft was relatively roomy compared to the cramped conditions the day before. Our hind ends were still getting wet, owing to the fact we were supposed to be sitting in the raft, not on the inflated “hull” of it. However, sitting in the raft was a bit too intimate for Sam and me. We didn’t know each other that well. The little craft was a great deal more stable in Hal’s absence. We were already having a blast as we paddled out into deeper water. We quickly attached spinning lures to our lines, casted out and reeled in. Wham! On my very first cast I hooked a fish equal to anything we had caught the day before. She put up a good fight, but I soon brought her aboard and held her both hands. I looked at her from all sides and showed her to Sam. What a gorgeous fish. She was healthy, fat, and radiantly iridescent. She had spectacular freckling on her sides, and nice, perfect fins. I put her on a stringer and went back to fishing. A few casts later another strike! This time a seventeen incher. Just like the previous trout, this one looked like the apex of nature’s handiwork. I probably didn’t cast a half dozen times when I hooked another one. This was absolutely amazing and I was totally stoked. I had never been into fish like this in my life. But, what was even weirder than catching fish after fish, Sam hadn’t had one strike. Not even a missed strike. Sam had nothing on the score board. “Jeeze! What are you doing right?” Sam exclaimed while I hauled in another lunker.
“I don’t know. I’m just casting out and reeling in.”
“When you’re on the fish you’re on the fish. Who the hell did I piss off?” We fished on for about an hour. Sam’s frustration was becoming evident, and I was starting to try to conceal my exuberance. I mentally played with the fantasy of Sam being an outlaw. Should I be nervous? I am alone in the middle of the woods floating in a two man raft with the notorious Sam Ballard, who is getting surlier with every fish I catch. He might just pull out his Colt Navy, shoot me dead, and steal my stringer of fish. I’ll have to keep an eye on him. They say Billy the Kid shot a man for snoring. No telling how far Sam Ballard would go. I have to do something to win his favor.
“Can we spin the boat around?” I asked. “The sun is really in my eyes.”
“Oh you bet!” Sam was eager to cast into the same spot from where I had just been catching fish, so he spun the little raft about quickly. It was to no avail. As soon as I cast into Sam’s previously barren water, strike! Another fish on for me! It was unreal and weird. I could do no wrong, and Sam could do nothing at all. As his frustration grew, my guilt increased. But it wasn’t my fault. I simply could not fail; it had to be dumb luck. Actually, it was absurd luck. I wasn’t doing anything to keep Sam from catching fish. It was the fish themselves that had conspired against Sam’s fortune. “I don’t get it, man. You should be catching fish. I’m feeling kind of bad here.”
“You’re feeling bad? I don’t know what the hell’s going on. This is crazy. I’ve never seen anyone catch fish like you are catching. I’m fishing from the same damn raft in the same damn water. I should catch something!” Sam was laughing a little about it a little, but it was laughter that mocked his own bad luck. His disappointment was obvious. Based on our performance the day before, he had anticipated catching something by now. He wasn’t a complainer. He could sense I was feeling sorry for him and he didn’t like that; he was a self-made man and that made him uncomfortable with sympathy. Trying a new tactic to slow my own luck I would change lures. Sam would immediately ask if he could use the lure I had just taken off. “Oh, yeah. Go for it!” I would tell him. But it wouldn’t help. I would catch fish on any lure I put on, and for Sam my previously hot spinner was dead on arrival. It was heartbreaking. It seems strange to say, but I was wishing I wasn’t catching so many fish, but only because Sam wasn’t catching anything. If Sam had been having the same kind of day I was it would have been the best day ever in the annals of fishing. Instead, Sam’s bad luck was turning into a huge thrill-kill. Why couldn’t Sam just catch one stinking fish! “Come on Sam!” I silently rooted. In another attempt to slow down my own fish catching frenzy, I decided to switch to my worst ever lure: a brown Worden’s Rooster Tail. I had never caught anything on that lure. If there ever was a bad luck spinner this was it. So I hooked it on the swivel, cast out haphazardly, and beyond all odds and belief: strike! This couldn’t be. This just - could - not - be! It was impossible. I couldn’t do anything to stop catching fish while poor Sam couldn’t catch a fish to save his life. He couldn’t catch fish in the water I was catching fish in. He couldn’t catch fish in the water I hadn’t even fished. He couldn’t catch fish with his best lures. He couldn’t catch fish with my successful lures. He couldn’t catch fish! I had ten trout on my stringer in the first forty minutes. From that point on I released everything, and some of those were hard to part with. The legal limit was ten trout or ten pounds, so looking back I may have been inadvertently over the ten pound weight limit. I only had a total of ten, but the smallest trout on the stringer were fifteen inches and the biggest was an impressive eighteen inch leviathan. That’s as large as this sub-type is ever going to get. I didn’t have a concept for how much weight might be on my stringer, and I didn’t even think of it at the time. In all my previous experience a twelve inch trout was a remarkable catch. It simply did not occur to me that I might ever - in my life - exceed the weight limit with ten trout! The afternoon was wearing on. I had a lot of fish to clean and refrigerate. I didn’t want to do that with the primitive facilities at the job site, so I was ready to get in the van and head back to Missoula. But Sam was determined to catch a trout. His eyes were growing beady and his jaw was clinched. With that resolute expression he looked like one mean hombre. “What does it take to catch one goddamn fish?” Sam asked. The sun was getting tired and had squatted behind a stand of tall larch. The trees cast a long gloomy shadow on the water, and we were in the middle of it. The air in the shadow had a chill. Sam deftly dropped his lure in a sunny patch right next to the shadow. In my own frustration I said firmly “Shit, Sam. Catch a damn fish!” And he did! He got a strike and a damn good one. His rod tip bent hard. In his surprise, Sam pulled back on his rod and almost fell backward from his perch and into the now dark and shadowy water. He quickly regained his balance and started to pump his rod up and reel in as he dipped it back down in the direction of this fighting cutthroat. Soon we could see the beautiful green-gray trout as Sam coaxed it closer to the boat. Trying a new strategy for escape, she flipped over on her side and came all the way out of the water. In that maneuver we could see the blood-red slash on her jaw, the identifying mark that said her name - cutthroat. I leaned over the side of the raft with the net and swept the stunningly beautiful lady into the webbing. I held the net out to Sam so he could retrieve his prize. He reached in and pulled out a very nice sixteen inch west slope cutthroat trout. “Finally!” Sam said in an exhale.
“Finally!” I echoed approvingly. Sam lifted his trout by the jaw to eye level. He looked at it critically on one side then the other. Still looking at his trophy he nodded his head up and down in an affirmative gesture. He looked at me and concluded “I’m done” with relief in his voice. “Let’s get the hell outta here.”
“Woooo!” I hooted loud and long.
And the mountains hooted back “Woooo! Woooo Woooo”
It never made any sense how I could catch so many trout, while Sam might as well have been a ghost. Since then, I’ve never had a day come close to that kind of non-stop catching success. Sam and I spent about three weeks replacing the roof and making other repairs to the fire damaged house. During that stint we went back to Clearwater Lake two or three more times. Between the two of us we never again caught a single trout from that lake. Not one. We could see them mocking us as we rafted over in our undersized craft, but they would have nothing to do with us. Our fascination with Clearwater Lake soon waned. I don’t know about Sam, but I never went back. A friend in Montana tells me the cutthroat are all but gone from Clearwater Lake. They’ve been pushed out by competition from illegally planted eastern brook trout. Too bad, I say. I liked the cutthroat. On our last, long drive home from that job site, I was giving Sam some good natured ribbing about his outlaw name. Sam said that notion wasn’t too far off. He told me his family talked about an old relative; a great uncle or something like that, named Sam Ballard. He had been hanged for horse rustling around 1900. I wasn’t surprised.
Saturday, April 20, 2013