Fishing and the Names of Mountains

Deek Komplec and Danny Fars were hunting cutthroat trout in the lake they had known as Congress Lake since they were boys. They weren’t skinny, fleet-footed boys chasing the biggest fish anymore. Neither of them were paunchy in their age, but bones rumbled and creaked when they moved, and when they stood from a chair or rock, they had to wait until their knees got used to being unbent again.

Congress Lake, which is not its official USG name, is a wild, alpine lake with a rocky shore and shelf that drops into blue, empty depths. From the air, or from the peak of Mansfield Mountain that looms over it, the colors and shades of water, shore, rock and fir trees suggest the vague shape of an eye, hence the US Forest Service designation of it as Teal Blue Eye Lake. Danny had seen it from the top of the mountain and from the tops of a few others. He and his boy, Michael, had climbed Mansfield Mountain the year Danny sent him off to college.

“Well, that proves it,” the boy said up there in the emptiness with the distant Bitter Root, Tobacco Root, and Madison ranges just gray shapes in the distance. “It’s an eye.”

“Doesn’t need a name,” Danny had said to the boy. “But, yeah, it looks like an eye.”

Deek, more a flatlander who had left the Last Lost River Country after high school, had only seen the lake as lines on a map or from the up close and personal perspective of its shore. Maps are just lines and from the shore Deek saw water, rock, and downfall timber slowly rotting in the water. It had been like that since they were kids lying to each other about fish they caught or elk they shot at.

Deek had never hiked these mountains with his girls. They were not hikers nor horsewomen, and had only seen the front of mountain ranges from the highway.

He could never think of this water as anything but “Congress Lake.” This was what their fathers, his brothers, he and Danny had called it, with mild ironic contempt, since an act of Congress renamed the mountain frowning down on it after the Senator. Both their dads were gone now, and Danny and Deek were old men and grandfathers with creaking elbows and crackling knees. Calling the lake “Congress” brought to Deek’s mind an earlier time of a campfire and the smell an open whiskey bottle and of frying fish and bacon and a freshet of wind scented with pine sap, fir resin, water mint. Their dads argued politics and gossiped cattle, horses, and good ole boys they knew. He and his brothers and Danny sat with arms folded around their knees taking in their fathers’ words. Though the older men disagreed about Mike Mansfield, they agreed that changing the name of Sistle Peak to Mansfield Mountain was Congressional hubris beyond forgiveness. It had been Sistle Peak since a prospector by the name of Billy Sistle staked a claim on a low ridge that footed it. Nobody remembers what the Indians called it.

And so, Danny’s dad, somewhat under the influence of a couple tipples of the whiskey bottle reasoned “Hell, that means Teal Eye Lake hasn’t got a name no more.” So, the two men named it “Congress” Lake, and christened the naming with another tipple of the whiskey bottle. And though they may have regretted the renaming in more sober moments, the deed had been done. And Danny, Deek and his brothers would forever call it Congress Lake. Though, as has been noted, Danny did concede it did look like an eye. Still he would tell anyone, “Doesn’t need a name to be what it is.”

As often as not, the lake water twisted and riffled with chill winds dropping off the mountain. But there were often moments of still when the edges of the lake lay calm and lucid. They could see trout rising, dimpling or flashing the surface in the sun-glitter riffle to take a mosquito or water gnat of some kind. They weren’t rising much, but it was enough to raise blood pressure a bit. Deek was casting, inexpertly but earnestly into the wind-riffle, cursing the wind for drifting his lure and stunting his cast. His arm and hand ached with the work of it. Danny watched the water until the breeze let up, and they could see, under the nearly flat, clear water, the wavery shadows of trout lying under deadfall logs or in the shadow of rocks or coasting along the shallows. This was good hunting water.

“There’s a nice one,” Danny said, “There off that log there, coming your way.”

“Damn nice,” Deek said. He had line on the water, and lifted it into a back cast, turning before he brought the line forward, trying to lay the small gnat somewhere in the vicinity of the heavy shape coming his way. But he sent too much line and sent it a bit too far south. It lay down heavily right over the beast. The shadow flicked contemptuously and tailed away under the breeze riffle and into the blue deep.

“You lined ‘er.” Danny said. He did not say it contemptuously, but he did say it. And the implication was that maybe Deek should have stuck to spinning tackle. When they were kids, Deek was a worm and spinning lure fisherman. Danny put up with it because friends tolerate even these larger sins.

Deek had bought his fly-casting gear after he read a Scientific American article on the physics of tossing a fly line. He wanted to see how it worked. He practiced the general principles by flipping null lures across his backyard for his cat to chase. But he had not had much opportunity in the thirty years since that article to actually wet a lure on good water. He had caught a few fish in that time, most of them small, young and rather dull-witted. He liked catching the fish, but his interest was mostly in the process.

“Never said I was a Master at it,” Deek said.

“One thing,” Danny said, “You heave line like you were slamming a loop down on the head of a calf. Fishing is more like heeling a steer.” It was an analogy both knew from childhood, though Deek had left it behind. Danny could still snake a rope, snapping over a head or slipping under a heel, as easy as casting a fly line. He had done both for work and recreation all his life.

“Here,” Danny, flicked his line back and forth a few times to let it out, watching the back cast and then settling it, the leader setting the tufted knot softly just off the wake of a log. Deek saw the fish then, heavier than the one he’d cast on. Rising with a flicking waver of her tail up from the shadow through the air-clear water, she came up, and there was a pause, then she flashed out of the water, fluking it to a foam. Danny’s rod arced, and he wanded it to move the fish away from the log. She ran then, off into the deep, but Danny held her firm, slowed her, turned her. Then she was directly under the bow of his rod, lying in the shallow water of the rock, flopping her heavy muscle, gaping in the drowning air. Danny eased himself into a squat over her, holding the rod arced and tense, one knee on a rock beside her. He slipped a wet hand under the gill to hold her and let the line slack to release the hook.

“Picture,” Deek said. He pulled his phone from his shirt pocket.

Danny turned, still holding the fish gapping in the shallow water, flopping her tail. He grinned up in the frame of the phone screen, his hat pushed back, the wrinkles on his bald noggin shining in the light. Deek snapped four shots. Then Danny let the fish go, turning her into deep water. He wet his hands and shook them. He knelt like that, one knee on a rock, looking out over the water, then up at the mountain. He stood up, pushing his hands on his knees and staggering just a bit. There had been a time, Deek thought, when neither of them used their hands to stand up. Nor did they stagger in doing something so youthful and easy as rising upright.

“So, you gonna climb ole Sistle anytime again soon?” Deek said. He was remembering the dig about lining the fish and casting as if he were throwing a rope rather than a fly line.

Danny looked at him, frowned, puzzled at first, then grinned. He looked back up at the mountain rising in cliffs and rubble and rock above the blue lake. “Well, childe,” he said, “Any day you are fit and able, we’ll give Ole Mike Mountain a try.”

Deek laughed.

“It’d give you perspective,” Danny said.

“It’d still be Congress Lake to me, even if I saw an eye.”

And they let the tiff end there, both conceding with their silence that times might be past when they’d take up that challenge; and above all conceding that being with a friend in the unchanging of pine, fir, and water mint scented here-and-now was greater than any competence to conquer water beast or rocky mountain. And in their silence, there was also the unspoken consent that a name—unlike the mountain, the lake or the air or water itself—was changeable, irrelevant and distracting.

I do not believe there is a Mansfield Mountain in Montana, though I understand Vermont has one. Still there was Montana Senator by the name of Mike Mansfield who served as Senate Majority Leader from 1961 to 1977. If any Senator should have a Montana mountain named after him, Mike should be one.

And so here it is.

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