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By Mary Kay Gehring

I felt the tug on my line about the same time my cousin Jim tapped my arm and pointed up. Sitting on a branch just ahead of our boat was a bald eagle, probably thinking I was stealing its fish. Just a couple hours earlier we had watched a great blue heron pull a trout out of Cliff Lake, and settle on a log to enjoy the catch, when a bald eagle swooped in, and after a bit of a tussle, flew off with the trout in its talons. The boat was pretty small and that eagle looked pretty big, so I ignored the tug and left the line slack. The fish got away, we got away, and the eagle had to work a little harder for the next trout. 

I grew up on the East Coast, although my parents were from Montana. My mother had her hands full with four kids, and cooking was one of the things she did not approach with love. Every recipe was a variation of put it in the oven at 350 for an hour, or boil it on the stove until the flavor was gone. Most of our food came from a can or a package. My Dad did have a  garden and I remember pulling carrots and delighting in eating them barely rinsed off. Discovering I could eat peas raw was a revelation. But most of the garden goods got the boil on the stove treatment. 

We moved to Oregon the summer of 1969, driving across the country stopping at every rest area my little sister spied. We finally got to Montana and stopped at every relative's house, which numbered up there with the rest areas. And they all cooked variations of the recipes my mother did. Until our last stop.

Aunt Kitty and Uncle Chet had a cabin above Cliff and Wade Lakes. No electricity or running water, and the outhouse had the best view around. It looked toward Quake Lake, eight miles to the southeast. A 7.5 earthquake had struck ten years earlier and the resulting landslide dammed the Madison River, forming the new lake. This is a geologically active area and the quake caused 290 springs in Yellowstone to unexpectedly erupt as geysers. 

Cliff and Wade Lakes are spring fed, crystal clear, and are part of the Hidden Chain of Lakes, a closed system with no outlet on a geological fault. The area is perhaps the largest nearly intact temperate ecosystem in the world. The human population is low and the harsh winters make the back country access difficult. Bear, elk, moose, and wolves roam freely along with smaller mammals and a plethora of birds. Record breaking brown and rainbow trout have been caught in the lakes, by both humans and birds. 

Our last stop in Montana was at Kitty and Chet's cabin. Our first morning there I heard Chet get up before the sun and head down to the lake. Soon I could smell the smoke as Kitty got the fire going in the wood stove. This was exotic stuff to a kid from the east.

Pretty soon Chet came back with what he called "a passel of trout". Kitty dredged them in flour and fried them up in bacon grease and served them with hot cakes for breakfast. I'd never heard of fish for breakfast, much less fish that you didn't have to chew for five minutes because it spent the last hour in the oven. One bite, and I was in heaven. Fifty-one years later it's still one of the best meals I've ever had.

Many years later, Kitty and Chet gone, I met my cousin Jim up at the cabin for a few days. I got it in my head I wanted to learn to fly fish. He agreed to teach me. So I stopped at the store near Quake Lake and got a fishing license. Jim was a music professor and I’d played in some bands, so he took a musical approach to teaching me to cast. One, two, three, four. I learned pretty quickly. We did that on land, using his hat as my target, and then hit the lake in his boat. 

The next day after the bald eagle incident, I finally landed some trout. Dredged them in flour and cooked them in bacon grease on Aunt Kitty's wood stove. A few more cabins have been built on the ridge above the lakes, but the view from the outhouse is still outstanding.

Tags: fishing. lake memories. lake nostalgia. trout fishing.

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