Back to Stories

Brown Trout Belly Rub

Heeding The Wisdom Of An Angling Zen Master, MoJo's Flyfishing Columnist Has A Rare Piscatorial Encounter

Brown trout, a fine art photograph by Pat Clayton (
Brown trout, a fine art photograph by Pat Clayton (
It might surprise most fly fishers that it's almost easier to catch a big fish with your bare hands than it is with a fly. 

I learned this while fly fishing with my good friends and mentors Craig Mathews and Yvon Chouinard on the Granger Ranch in the Madison Valley of southwest Montana.  To the uninitiated, the Madison Valley cradles the Madison River, part of the famous triumvirate of streams that come together at Three Forks, Montana to form the Missouri River.

Feeding the Madison are a number of tributaries, smaller streams and spring creeks, that deliver cold water that wild trout depend on. These bodies of water provide essential spawning and rearing habitat for fish. You might think of them as crucial veins that keep the main arteries healthy.  My destination was O'Dell Creek, which emerges from the ground cold and has been a site of major restoration that had involved my Dad. 

This foray happened during finals week at school, and I decided I needed a breather from all the anxiety that I’d built up from studying. After losing it a couple of times, I decided to call Jeff Laszlo, owner of Granger Ranches, to ask if I could come down “to relieve some stress”…aka do a little fishing.  He was happy to let me come down and for Yvon and Craig to join us.  After hanging up, I set all my gear out by the back door, ready to leave.  The next morning I loaded the car and took my leave for the Madison Valley. 

During the drive, about halfway through near Ennis, I about crashed my car.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little red figure, and when I came to a stop the figure became clear.  It was a fox pup—not one, but seven or eight!  

A fox photograph by the late Alex Diekmann, who inspired his son to also carry a camera.
A fox photograph by the late Alex Diekmann, who inspired his son to also carry a camera.
I put my camera together and started taking pictures. It's a habit I learned from my Dad who carried a camera everywhere with his conservation work. Trips that you might expect would take half a day getting to and from a place could easily double, with him stopping to capture moments of changing light. His portfolio has become a reminder to me on why it's important to slow down. Sometimes, our own eyes help others make discoveries.

As I took my first photo of the fox family a young woman stopped to join me, and then someone else, and so on until there were at least a dozen photographers. After taking my fair share of pictures, I continued on.

When I finally got to O'Dell, Jeff, Yvon, and Craig were waiting for me. I quickly hopped on the back of Jeff’s 4Runner.  He drove us to one of his favorite stretches. Like always, whenever I’m on the Granger Ranch, I am left speechless by its magnitude and beauty.  All I hear is the creek running, the breeze moving the grass, and the birds singing their tunes.

You know the quote “with age comes wisdom?”  Well, as difficult as it is for teenagers my age to admit,  it really is true.  Yvon, on his first couple of casts, caught a beautiful 20-inch brown, then followed up with more.   

I was truly amazed with his talent.  When Yvon is out on the water it is like seeing a young boy fly fishing for the first time. This day, as usual, he had a great smile on his face and hopped from hole to hole. It was a tremendous sight.

"We threw everything at it, from streamers to a mouse, and it wouldn’t budge.  That’s when Craig said to me, like a Jedi educating his pupil,  'Try using your hands.'”

After fishing for a couple of hours we decided to have some lunch,  which was provided by Craig’s wife, Jackie. Afterward, we decided to split up and fish different areas of the water.  Craig and I went up stream, while Yvon went downstream. 

As Craig and I were fishing a narrowing reach of the creek, no more than four-feet wide, we stumbled upon a true monster.  It was at least an eight-pound brown; I had exaggerated expectations but its size was shocking. 

We threw everything at it, from streamers to a mouse, and it wouldn’t budge.  That’s when Craig said to me, like a Jedi educating his pupil,  “Try using your hands.”  

I thought he was bullshitting me. Was the elder sending me out on a snipe hunt?

But he persisted and finally I said, “What the hell.” 

Craig told me what to do and watched me make the stalk. Slowly, I crept to the other side of the creek where I could see the fish, with its dorsal fin protruding.

I bent over and reached my hands in, expecting to be humiliated.  As soon as my fingers were in the water it swam away.  

But no sooner had it fled, than it returned to the same spot, this time underneath the bank in the roots of the overhanging vegetation.  

Craig signaled me to continue. I repeated the process of putting my hands in the water. This time the brown didn’t swim away.  I began inching my hand towards the fish until eventually my right hand was underneath its stomach.  Gentle contact, Homo sapien to Salmo trutta.

The girth of this behemoth was unbelievable. I couldn’t even get my whole hand around it.  I began massaging the fish's stomach to relax it. Craig watched. We looked briefly into each other's eyes and he nodded encouraging me to continue.

After a minute or so my hand slid down around its  tail, and ever so gently I pulled it out from underneath the bank, then extended my other hand in the water and held its stomach.  I brought it to the surface.

It would be a photo op for the scrapbook.  But the fish had granted me permission only to hold him or her. Suddenly, the brown broke the surface, reminding me our encounter was happening on his terms, and used its tremendous strength to wriggle out of my hands.  I watched it dart along the shadows of the bank and then it was gone.

It was a humbling, unforgettable lesson offered me by a Zen master with an extraordinary knowledge of the things that happen along a stream when you pay attention. It wasn’t the brown trout who had become a fish out of water; it was me.

Liam Diekmann
About Liam Diekmann

Liam Diekmann is Mountain Journal's flyfishing columnist who explores the connection between Millennials and nature—and how they can make a difference in conservation.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.
Defending Nature

Defend Truth &
Wild Places


Related Stories

March 20, 2019

Naturalist Says Outdoor Recreation Can Have Huge Impacts On Wildlife
Mountain bikers and hikers with dogs can bring huge spatial intrusions into wildlife habitat

March 13, 2019

The Perils Of Going Along To Get Along
What does it say about us when we have leaders who don't have the courage to act?

March 6, 2019

Can Greater Yellowstone’s Wildlife Survive Industrial Strength Recreation?
A contrast between two different organizations—one devoted to tackling real issues shaping our region, the other running away from hard discussions...