by Michael Carter

There have always been three things we fear in the canyon cut by time and the ripples of the Gallatin River, and we have learned to survive each one.

The black bear: stand tall and stretch out your arms; yell; discharge your pepper spray; shoot to kill; fight back.

The grizzly: discharge your pepper spray; shoot to kill; lay flat on your stomach, place your hands behind your neck, and play dead. Pray.

The Caddisman: avoid eye contact; shoot to kill.

While I prepare to fish the canyon, I rehearse these rules in my head.

I strap cans of pepper spray to my wading belt. I place my Ruger into its chest holster. Finally, I pick my flies—golden stones, hoppers, lightning bugs, and Copper Johns. Most importantly, I load my fly box with Elk Hair Caddis flies, sizes twelve, fourteen, and sixteen.

I walk to the back acreage and make my way through the rye fields. My rod is in one hand, the other hangs low to brush the rye stalks. Their smooth silkiness makes me forget what Father Time has inscribed on my hands, and my face.

The wind gusts, tearing free fluff from the cottonwoods. It blows pollen from the evergreens. My eyes water.

As I near the trees, I see warning signs of what we fear. First, scat. It might be black bear dung, but perhaps another animal.

Next, where the field transforms to the vegetation near the river, gouges mark a pine tree. They are deep and wide enough to match grizzly claws. I pause and notice a bush stripped of most of its berries. Some remain. Perhaps the bear is satiated.

The temperature cools as I move through the bushes and descend off the cutbank ledge. Cobblestones embedded in a muddy mat welcome me. I step onto a glistening rock, wobble, but my felt soles secure my footing. Black leeches and mottled sculpins dart from the vibrations to deeper water.

I don’t notice any hatches; only a single spruce moth flutters over the water. A hundred scenarios race through my mind, passed down like heirlooms and learned from a lifetime on the water. I might need a nymph rig, but I decide hopper-dropper.

My fly box open, I reach for a hopper. I change my mind. Upriver appears something I’ve seen only a few times before. Another sign. A cloud makes its way toward me, a ball of insects swarming, some of them dabbing the water. Trout explode in a frenzy below the ball, swallowing whole the pale insects that contact the surface.

They look like caddis. I tie on a size twelve Elk Hair Caddis, lay out my line, ten o’clock, two o’clock, and release my cast. My leader uncurls, and my fly lands in a crease. It floats naturally. I mend my line.

The cloud nears. The trout are still boiling below it, following under the surface as it moves downriver. I cast toward it, mend, nothing. I have only one more shot before it passes. The boil is right in front of me. I cast into it. Fish rise and splash around my fly, but there are no takers.

It passes without a strike. This is why they call it fishing, not catching.

My opportunity to hook one from the boil is gone, but there are still fish in the river. I sniff the crisp mountain air. I smile and think, the worst day fishing beats the best day working.

Movement at the corner of my vision breaks me from the solace of the moment. Peering through the undercarriage of the berry bushes, I make out two legs striding just beyond the river’s edge.

“Who’s there?” My words echo back to me off the canyon wall.

A manlike figure approaches the water’s edge, near where I entered. He comes from behind while I face the river. I can feel his stare.

He gets closer, a stone toss away. His skin flutters.

I freeze. He comes within feet, his surface crawling with life. He’s light tan, same as my elk-hair fly, but taking its hue from the thousands of caddis that coat his body.

He’s standing behind me now, slightly elevated on the cutbank while I remain on the cobblestone below. The buzz of his living skin intensifies. Should I run?

Arms reach around me, and in front of my face I see hands. Insects flicker and undulate upon whatever being is underneath. As the arms constrict, I duck to the side.

The water splashes in front of me. He thrashes in the current like he’s in pain. The trout rise again, their spotted heads and fins breaking the surface, framing the contours of a body. With their small, sawlike teeth—designed to crush the armor of beetles and hoppers—they tear into him. Red ribbons trickle down the river, stark against the cream of the floating caddis carcasses.

I pull out my Ruger and aim between where eyes might be. But then I hear something. A cry, a plea? The voice sounds familiar.

I toss my gun to the side. I lean toward the water.

A fleshy arm spotted with ruby pockmarks emerges with an open, welcoming palm.

We clasp hands. The remaining, clinging caddis crawl from his arm to mine. I feel the power of the river flow into my veins, and through me.

With all my strength, I pull. But his hand goes limp and slips away, disappearing under the foamy crests of the river.

The big sky becomes small as I’m engulfed in a blizzard of tan.

My skin tingles from the settling of countless tiny feet, and the tips of tented wings.

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