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A Decade On The Madison

Updated: Jun 11


Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers,” popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice was “the magic number of greatness” to achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. As I reflect on reaching my 10th season as an oarsman and guide on the Upper Madison, this somewhat arbitrary benchmark has arrived and I’m humbled to join the ranks of veteran guides on the Upper Madison. 


My experience pales in comparison, though, to the legends of this place and my mentors who were here long before me as guiding became a viable career option and are still rowing today. They left behind 10,000 hours, years ago. These include an eclectic group of local legends like Joey D, Shores, Delekta, the France brothers, Treloar, RB, Mike Green, Jim Allison, Lum, Carey, Jim Morrison, Mikey P, Kessler, B-Dog, Jumpin' Joe, Chris Connor, the list goes on. The collective stories from their time on the Upper Madison boggles the mind. I’m completely rapt by their tales from the good ole days. And there are others even before them. Back during the times of shore lunches and anchor-less drift boats. The real pioneers. Dick McGuire, Bud Lilly, Pat Barnes on and on.


To watch a veteran professional guide smoothly maneuver 16 feet of fiberglass effortlessly down a 55 mile liquid treadmill is poetry in motion. The river is a canvas for each stroke. A fluid puzzle that changes with every day’s flow regime and weather. Timing, rhythm, speed, anticipation, and a little personal style are all part of a constant and continual calculus purposely designed to position anglers for the present and the future. This art form is what separates two boats who may be fishing the same flies with the same technique and angler ability. 


In my 10th season on this river, I think I’m beginning to understand what Gladwell meant. When I'm in the rower's seat I feel as if my boat and I act as one. Everyday, an oar stroke is made every second that the anchor is up. Sometimes two different strokes in the same breath, one made by the left and one made by the right in order to move the boat just so this way or that. Calloused hands of local guides affirm this dexterous proficiency. Yet anglers, focused on the water and their flies, don't often see what goes on behind the scenes.


But it’s more than just time in a rower’s seat. The nuance of familiarity of place mixed with time and experience creates a special relationship with a river. The intimacy those thousands of hours of experience foster, is special and difficult to describe. Not quite anthropomorphic, but something similar. It’s a bond that makes me feel at home on the Upper Madison in a way that I don’t feel on other rivers. 


With each passing season, the mental map of a river allows the hands to move oars almost subconsciously while focusing on directing angler traffic. Occasionally, this intimate understanding of a river breaks through the subconscious. For example, on a recent float, I made three strokes of the oars to move the boat 10 feet to the right to avoid a submerged boulder I wasn’t looking at but knew was coming in 20 seconds. I heard the sound of water rushing over the boulder and the bow of the boat smoothly passed in an arc within inches of the disguised and cushioned rock. The efficiency of precision was intentional. I instantly snapped out of my focus, and took a moment to think about what just happened. I flashed back to the first time I ever hit that rock, permanently painting it into my mental map and onto the chines of my boat. I wondered how many rocks were left out there to hit for the first time. 


Rowing and positioning a drift boat through complex currents is therapeutic to my OCD mind. Unsatisfied with aimlessly floating down the middle of other slower less complicated rivers, the Upper Madison requires constant and acute attention for success. Observation of currents, weather, bugs, fish behavior, and of course people and bullshitting demands a level of concentration which leaves little room for other thoughts. With each stroke, like a mix of chess and skiing, you make your move committed to your line with the future in mind. There are no do overs. The Upper Madison is no country for lazy rowers. Oftentimes, success or failure in fishing from a drift boat comes down to a matter of inches in boat positioning.


And so, it’s as if I enter a flow state where everything else on the mind at the start of the day is temporarily and subconsciously suspended. That feeling, and the strong desire to learn every wrinkle of a river, is an addiction. I feel fortunate to have discovered a career in sync with passion. Not necessarily exclusively of a sport, but of a place. This riffle is where I belong. Maybe someday I’ll have as many stories as my mentors.

4 comments

4 Comments


Congratulations on 10 years on the river. Your writing skills are unmatched by anything I've read in my 72 years. When your email gets here, I know not to open it until I have the time to read every word. However, I open and say I'll read a line or two and finish it later. That never happens! I sit and finish it regardless of what I have going on. Although it's been a couple years since I fished with you, I know your guiding skills are better than any other's I've fished with. I had a great time, enjoyed our conversation, learned so much, and although secondary for me, the fishing was pretty darn good also. I look forward…

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Those are kind words and I appreciate them very much, Tony. Let’s fish together again!

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As usual, very well-written and accurate! Congrats on 10 years - and glad I have been able to be a part, however small, in riding with you! Rob

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Thanks Rob! The Rob family tree in my fishing business is extensive. So thankful for you!

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