Deftly, admiral, cast your fly Into the slow deep hover, Till the wise old trout mistake and die; Salt are the deeps that cover The glittering fleets you led, White is your head.
—W. H. Auden
The waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River were bright and clear right down to its rocky bed, and how undeftly did I cast my first fly—a gray caddis—on them. At times the waters roiled over large and small rocks (this was also white-water rafting territory), and at times the waters grew dark and heaving in pools tucked between rocky ledges along the riverbank.
“I’ve seen a big one in there,” my guide said, pointing to one such pool, and I felt a thrill. It was the end of summer and I had come to the edge of Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana—in search of what? To see if any trout were foolish enough to be taken in by a beginner? Unlike Auden’s admiral, my military rank had risen no higher than PFC. Would the “wise old trout” of his poem fall for a lowly draftee?
The weather was very hot—in the low nineties—and the sun was harsh on a bare arm that was trying, and failing, to cast gracefully, so I was glad whenever the guide rowed us to the side of the river to let parties of white-water rafters,...