TROUT! BEER! BEARS ! A LIKE-MINDED TRIBE! Tudor Caradoc-Davies visits Montana and finds a home away from home.
“The full title of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s 2006 Borat movie is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. In it, Borat, the clueless and incredibly inappropriate ‘Kazakh’ that Cohen plays, blunders around the USA, learning about the natives as he goes.
Whether you’re a Kazakh or a South African, the US provides a cultural lodestone for the rest of the world. We grow up with American films and series; our first rehearsed foreign accent is American and we know more about US politics than we do any other country (often including our own). For many of us, whether we choose it or not, it’s our second country. It’s that familiar. While I’d like to think I am not the South African equivalent of Borat, I thought about the film a lot on a recent trip to the USA. Because, as familiar as US culture is to me, I’m usually there for quick trips to fishing trade shows where the experience is one of hotels, convention centres and airports. To be there as a fly fishing tourist, was to see it through fresh eyes as a familiar yet foreign country.
This trip was not remarkable in terms of fish caught, so this is not a story of piscatorial derring-do. What follows is just a series of observations, some fly fishing related, some not, of several weeks spent travelling through Montana around late September/early October 2019.
INTO THE WILD
There’s a certain big swinging dickheadness (it’s a thing, trust me) about being an African. We grow up knowing that there are leopards in the nearby mountains and the full gamut of tooth and tail, fur and fear in national parks within a few hours drive. When people go on about how everything in Australia wants to kill you, we laugh, as all they have are snakes, spiders, crocs and sharks. We have all that, plus myriad large, ferocious beasties that will take you out if you wander off into the bush in the wrong area.
The thing is, for the vast majority of us who did not grow up on farms shooting things as kids, it’s all bluster, like a civilian president wearing an Air Force jacket. Faced with a charging elephant, a lion, buffalo, hippo or a rhino, we’d soil our pants just like anyone else. Yet, we like to laugh at visiting Americans, Japanese and other foreign tourists who do dumb things, like get out of their cars in the Kruger National Park (our Yellowstone) to take a close-up shot of a hyena’s face. So while it may seem as though we are a little more familiar with sizeable wildlife, in truth we’re neither Allan Quatermain nor Davey Crockett. We just know when to be scared, which is why walking in the mountains around Ennis Montana and in Yellowstone National Park, was a sphincter-clenching exercise at times.
The seeds for our unease had been planted weeks before we departed South Africa, when my wife and I got a useful tip-laden email from Bozeman-based fly fishing writer Sarah Davenport (née Grigg). One line in particular stood out:
“CARRY BEAR SPRAY at all times. I know you’re hardy Saffas accustomed to the biggest, baddest carnivores on the planet, but just carry it. The bear spray works on bison and other animals that can be testy.”
Testy? It turned out this was no ruse, no American in-joke. People walk in the woods. They encounter bears. Usually the bears win. Sometimes, having bear spray helps. And no, one does not apply it to one’s armpits, but in the general direction of the charging bear.
As we hiked through heavy snow to a tributary of the Madison River near Ennis, called Jack Creek, the warnings of Sarah and our hotel manager were ringing in our ears. Two bow hunters had been attacked just weeks earlier. They were fortunate to survive and, perhaps wanting a biopic to be made of their ordeal, they had checked out of the hospital in their gowns, walked into the nearest outfitter (the town is entirely made out of fly fishing and outdoor shops), got some new gear and returned to the woods. For instant legend status, just add whiskey.
In contrast, we walked through the crunchy snow, shouting “Yo Bear!” so often that it felt like the whitest rap battle the world has ever seen was about to commence. It’s a weird feeling – shouting in the wild – when all your life you have been taught to stay quiet in nature. But, given the choice between a DiCaprio-style mauling a la The Revenant, or sleeping peacefully that night with all our limbs intact, we turned up the volume. As for Jack Creek? I caught one tiny rainbow.”
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