Pope of the Madison

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Fly fishing characters enliven our trips but can of course also prove curious as well as downright difficult also on occasion according to their traits. Streamside Guide, Peter Cammann shares a story of one such character and his experience with the Pope of the Madison.

by Peter Cammann

I think that the people you meet out on the water can be and usually are as interesting, varied, and remarkable as the species of fish you encounter. Take the bowfin for example. It looks like it was put together with the spare parts from several other species. I've rarely heard of anyone single them out for capture, although I have seen quite a few taken through the ice, during winter. I have never run across one during the warmer weather. In my limited experience with them, bowfin appear to be accidents of evolution that I only catch by accident.

As such, I haven't really had the opportunity to spend much time studying their behavior. In fact, most of the time, I'm in a rush to get the damned things off my line and back into the water. A friend of mine caught a fairly large one through the ice a few years back and his cries of surprised disbelief brought the rest of our fishing party over to the hole he had been working in a hurry. I personally felt that had I been holding the rod that held the line that was tied onto the hook that had snagged the bowfin, I might have had the sudden urge to drop them all and run to the deepest forest on the highest mountain and wait until it seemed safe to venture forth again. If there are indeed monsters, the bowfin may well be a small relative, or perhaps even a newly hatched creature from the underworld.

Still, the bowfin is a fish and I go out to the water each time with every intention of catching fish. When I luck into something strange though, it's actually a plus as far as the experience goes. Diversity is a blessing. Coming across the unexpected makes the time on the water all the richer.

This is why, like the bowfin, running across someone like Doug Pope, or "Pope" as he prefers to be called is one of the things that can make a fishing trip all the more bizarre and therefore, memorable. The joy that comes from encountering him in his native element is found purely in observing and interacting with his behavior. The guy really should be under psychiatric observation, but he takes people on fishing trips instead.

I met him a year and a half ago, in West Yellowstone, Montana. Pope works as a fly fishing guide there during the summer months and we hired him and his drift boat, for a day of trout fishing. The morning we showed up where Pope works, Blue Ribbon Flies, the owner, Craig Mathews asked us if we knew who our guide was for the day. When we told him that it was Pope, he got a funny look on his face.

"Is that okay with you guys?" he asked.

We allowed as we knew what we were getting into. Well, Mike did at least. He'd hired Pope a couple years earlier and figured that he was perfect for our twisted needs. Pope's manner of speech was a dazzling mix of stream-of-consciousness chatter and detailed questions and answers. At times, he appeared to be having a conversation with himself, until you realized that he was bouncing ideas around his head, trying to decipher the clues on the water so as to best plan our attack on a given stretch of the river.

While floating a beautiful piece of the Madison River, Pope acted as a coach, calling out encouragement to both of us as we flailed away with our fly rods. He was a democrat (with a small "d") in the way that he steered the boat so that both Mike and I got equal access to the easier shore for us to cast to. This still meant that each of us spent half the day casting backwards, so as to allow the other to throw his fly on the forward cast.

His coaching techniques however, were a bit unnerving at times. In fact, I've received more encouragement from a traffic cop handing me a speeding ticket. As I missed a particularly good strike (by the proverbial mile, I might add), Pope reached out to where I was standing in the boat, put his hand on my shoulder and offered a sympathetic smile.

"You okay? You think you want to keep going today?"

It's comforting to have a guide/coach so in tune with the trauma associated with being a mediocre fly angler.

When we were in Montana, Mike and I fished with fly gear about 90% of the time. I used ultra light spinning equipment in the gorge at Taylor Fork for about 45 minutes, on the Gallatin River for about the same period of time, and on Fan Creek for an hour or so. Essentially, it was a tool we employed a few times so that we could prove to ourselves that there were indeed fish in places where we were having trouble getting strikes using our fly rods. At least that's the story I tell my more fanatical fly fishing friends anyway.

I had purposely left the spinning rod back at the cabin that morning, but I was curious about the habits of Pope's other clients. Despite Mike's mocked look of horror, I plunged ahead with the obvious query.

"Hey, Pope!" I called back to him. "How many of your clients use ultra light gear when they fish with you."

"Oh don't worry," he replied nonchalantly, "Those people won't bother you out here."

I might as well have tried to engage a rabid New York Yankees fan in debate over the relative merits of the Boston Red Sox's decision to offload Manny Ramirez to the LA Dodgers last season. Clearly this was a subject best let go.

Pope could be philosophical, cryptic, and even caustic - sometimes all in a single phrase. On another failed attempt to hook a trout, I quietly cursed the fish while marveling at how clever it had been to elude me.

"Poor Peter," Pope clucked as he rowed the boat through the next rapid. "He thinks the fish are smarter than him".

The three of us drifted unhurriedly down the Madison; Pope offering up equal portions of advice and abuse at each bend and it wasn't until very late in the afternoon that we arrived at the Palisades, which was where we pulled the boat out of the water and Pope dragged it up onto the trailer.

Mike and I repaired the cooler to seek out the relief that cool malted beverages afford. I looked over and saw that Pope was sitting on a bench, busily untangling something. I grabbed a beer, walked over and set it down next to him. He grinned and continued with his work. I reached over to the fleece on my fly vest and removed a couple of flies he'd lent me, one of which had helped me catch a respectable sized brown trout a couple of hours earlier. I stretched out my hand to him, offering him back his flies.

With one swift motion, Pope snatched up the flies between his thumb and forefinger, stuck them into his mouth, and resumed untangling the line in his other hand. I looked carefully at his lips. The flies were nowhere to be seen.

I walked back to where Mike was standing and dropped my empty beer can into the cooler.

"You get those flies to him?" Mike asked.

"Yup," I replied, "He ate them."

Copyright 2009 by Peter Cammann

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