JACKSON, Wyo. -- At day's end in a crowded campground south of this town we hung our waders from the ladder on the back of the camper. This was at dark or near-dark and the Snake River carried itself in broad sweeps from the Tetons through Jackson and along the edges of the campground before riffling and pooling its cold, clear water downstream.
In a fifth-wheel trailer alongside us were a husband and wife from California. On the other side, a dozen Harley-Davidsons leaned on kickstands next to small nylon tents. No one else in the campground fished, and we seemed the subject of some curiosity each night when amid the cooling mountain air we returned with sunburned faces, no dinner yet, truck rumbling, camper swaying, a drift boat trailing.
I had purchased the 16-foot boat and trailer online sight unseen for $4,500 from a man in Teton, Idaho, picking it up when I arrived here.
"How much experience do you have rowing a drift boat?" asked Mike Janssen.
"For accuracy purposes, let's say zero."
Mike is a fishing guide from Jackson, recommended by a friend. On my first drift down a daylong stretch of the Snake, he came along in his boat, demonstrating how to cross currents and in particular the importance of anticipating problems in the form of rocks and sweepers and river braids long before encountering them.
"Never get caught sideways," he said.
The Snake was the first stop on a self-organized tour of select Wyoming and Montana rivers. Others I had circled on a by-now-crumpled and well-scribbled map were the Madison, the Yellowstone and the Bighorn, all in Montana, as well as Rock Creek in the western part of that state.
Jackson was chosen because in the last few weeks of August the Snake's cutthroat trout tip up their noses, rising to Chernobyl Ants and other big dry flies. It's then that anglers from both coasts and many states in between descend on this upscale mountain town, some in the evening staying at fancy hotels, sipping Chardonnay, while others huddle in tents, pulling on cheap longnecks extracted from beat-up coolers.
Each dreams of long lines tightening against good fish, almost literally in the shadows of the incomparable landscapes of Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
Riding with me to Jackson, my two boys slept in winks, either scrunched in our pickup or, affixed to it, in our early 1990s vintage truck camper, suggestive as it is of the death grip the tanked economy has on the Average Joe's RV aspirations.
"Dad, do you think it's possible that disaster will rain down on us with this drift-boat idea of yours?" Cole, the younger boy, asked. "A lot of your big deals don't work out."
This was at night, in Wyoming, and endless stretches of blacktop lay before us.
Pulsing through the truck's speaker's, crooning mournfully, Ian Tyson seemed lost in the notion of a West as big and wild as you can dream it.
"Shouldn't be a problem," I said.
We were riding a tailwind, and I was really pouring the coals to the truck's throaty V8, the progeny of one of history's great geniuses, Rudolf Diesel.
Cole said, "And you base this 'shouldn't be a problem' on what?"
"Positive thinking," I said. "Read your Dale Carnegie."
The trip so far counted South Dakota -- all pheasants, ducks and bikers hurrying home from Sturgis -- among places in its wake.
Now antelope lazed in the Wyoming sage, pickups on dirt roads trailed dust into the distance, and 18-wheelers made up for time lost in sissy states to the east, where -- quaintly enough -- speeds are limited.
Also in Wyoming, on the first day I followed Mike downriver, the Snake gave up its cutthroats generously.
"Good cast," I said.
Cole was in the bow of my boat, looping his fly line gracefully, his 6-weight rod providing just enough backbone to carry a big Chernobyl to a sweet spot near shore.
Downstream, drifting in Mike's boat on the opposite shore, Trevor, the older boy, peppered current seams and other prospective trout haunts.
Also drifting with us, fishing from their boat, were friends Tyler and Sloane Bergien of Jackson. Originally from Detroit Lakes, Minn., Tyler was smitten long ago by the West's mountains and streams, trout and elk, and moved here to be closer to them.
Still dear to Tyler's Midwestern heart, however, are the salutary benefits of Grain Belt Premium, a resupply of which I had bootlegged to Wyoming for him, stacking cases of the tall clear bottles in the shower of our camper.
"Can't get it out here!" he lamented.
Alongside us as we drifted, on steep hills and in deep canyons, spruce grew thickly, concealing elk and bears but revealing ospreys and eagles, also pine siskins, mountain bluebirds and other songbirds.
In autumn, hunters' pack horses wind along switchbacks climbing into these higher elevations, amid riverbanks afire with the colorful leaves of aspens and cottonwoods.
"There!" Cole said, reefing back on his rod as if he had been shocked.
A cutthroat had inhaled Cole's fly, and, believing I could better help net the fish if I stowed the oars, I dropped the boat's anchor, pulling us quickly to a stop against the Snake's swift currents.
The trout angled immediately for the faster waters of midriver, untethering itself from Cole's line in a single head toss.
"Generally, you don't anchor when a fish is hooked, at least not right away," Mike would say later. "If you do, the angler has to fight the current and the fish. If you keep drifting along, perhaps rowing slightly to hold the boat back, the current becomes less of a factor."
Since before Lewis and Clark, road trips have been important to the American psyche, suggesting as they do the possibility of a traveler's reinvention -- usually, in this country, varying by type of landscape visited.
Out west, beneath big blue skies and through the rose-colored glass of a vacationer's windshield, the rancher's life appeals, also the fisherman's, the guide's, the campground host's, the ski instructor's, the shopkeeper's, the university professor's, the retiree's and, as the boys and I saw near Big Timber, Mont., about a week after leaving Jackson, especially that of a young boy tossing rocks into the Yellowstone River, one after another, carefree.
My wife, Jan, had cashed in some frequent flier miles and had flown out to join us. She likes to fish and can cast a nice line but never has quite understood why her sons so often throw down their rods and join in fistfights over "whose water is whose."
"These are big rivers," she will say, adding -- including me now, "You're all nuts."
Not far from Yellowstone Park, along the Madison River, and a couple hundred miles from Jackson, the four of us pulled into West Fork Cabin Camp, managed in summer and during fall hunting seasons by our friends Chuck and Barbara Fields.
Like a lot of people nowadays in this country, the Fieldses are overqualified for their work. He likes to fish; she, too -- and she's capable with a river-raft's oars. Also, they both love waking up in this big country.
So they do the work they do to keep them here.
The Madison, meanwhile, fished OK, but not great. The good news was I still hadn't wrecked the boat, not after piloting it on the Snake, nor here, on the Madison.
What's more, the buyer's remorse I feared might set in once I actually had possession of the craft for a while seemed not to materialize.
Making the purchase, I had sought the freedom the boat could afford me to come and go on a river as I please -- not just out west but nearer to home, on waterways for smallmouth bass and muskie -- and not be dependent on a guide's or friend's availability or schedule.
Also there is this about boats in general: Sometimes a craft's clean lines take hold of you and won't let go. Scimitar-like canoes do this for me, also useful flats skiffs, sleek bass boats and, not least among many, wooden dories of the kind once used by North Atlantic cod fishermen.
Modeled, initially, after those dories, and first tested more than a century ago on Oregon's wildest rivers, including the McKenzie and the Rogue, drift boats have since gained wider, flat bottoms, and today are made mostly of fiberglass, rather than the original cedar.
And everywhere there are such craft, a history thrives of the men who have tried to perfect them, and a history, also, of the anglers who, caught in white water, have slammed them wide-eyed into protruding rocks or against river-swept deadfalls -- sweepers, they're called -- and been drowned, washed away forever.
The boys and I waded Rock Creek with Jan, where she outfished us, before putting her on a plane home and pointing our outfit east, en route floating the Yellowstone between Livingston and Big Timber, Mont., a fruitful river.
Now it's early, 5:30 a.m. or so, and the alarm rings on this, our last day on the Bighorn River at Fort Smith, Mont.
The evening before, we had gotten off the river late, showered and ate outside, standing up, beneath a starry sky.
By now, the camper is equal parts self-serve cafeteria and fly shop turned upside down.
With the sun not yet up, I pour milk over cereal, and sit on the step leading to the bed that overhangs the truck cab.
Still asleep, the boys lie bent around various obstacles, too big now for the accommodations. I wonder briefly whether as the responsible party for this disarray I might somehow have run afoul of a child-rearing technicality and could be shuffled away in shackles by various authorities.
As quickly, and cheering me, I imagine the boys nonetheless launching the boat and fishing, resolute even in hard times!
Then, waking the two of them, I say, "Let's go."
We launch the boat in the morning's half-light, never more awake than when aswirl in a moving river.
Except for cold water, the Bighorn has little in common with the Snake River, the other bookend to our trip.
Along the Bighorn, there are no elk, but instead cows grazing. And irrigated croplands define the Bighorn's surroundings more than snow-capped peaks, such as the Tetons.
The day will be hot, but the morning isn't windy, the latter a prelude, usually, to good 'hopper fishing.
Still, we hope to catch rainbows or browns on grasshopper imitations.
We'll have to see how the day unfolds.
Which, ultimately, is the attraction. With no tickets to buy, no game to be played before our eyes in exchange for money, there are no guarantees.
Things will work out. Or they won't.
We'll catch fish. Or not.
The boat on this morning with its clean chines and flared sides seems ready for anything, and I with it.
Early on, Pheasant Tails and other bead-headed nymphs yield some trout, a few from the foamy seams of conjoining currents, others in riffles.
Then, with the sun directly overhead, Trevor pulls out a 7-weight rod and leans into some good 'hopper casts.
When trout gorge on these terrestrials, their slurps can resonate three or four boat lengths away.
The last fish of our little journey is a 21-inch rainbow that slurps Trevor's fly.
When it does, I don't set the anchor, but keep rowing.
Cole nets the trout, which is released.
Then it's Miles City, Glendive, Bismarck and Fargo, diesel humming, drift boat trailing.
River by river, a trip's snapshot
The Snake: Famous for its cutthroat trout, the Snake is many rivers in one. Parts are whitewater and the province only of experienced oarsman. Other portions are relatively placid. Best fishing usually is in the latter part of August, when cutthroat trout rise to take grasshopper imitations and other dry flies. The KOA campground) south of Jackson was OK.
The Madison: The section I fished on this trip is located between West Yellowstone and Ennis, Mont., near the small town of Cameron. Called "The World's Longest Riffle," the Madison doesn't disappoint. Wide, shallow and strewn with rocks and boulders, the Madison's measurable descent roils its waters. Nymphs were our saviors. West Fork Cabin Camp near Cameron is on the river, well managed and inexpensive for both cabins and RV sites.
Rock Creek: Located in western Montana, this has long been considered one of the state's premier wading streams. Wide and pretty, it can see a fair amount of wading traffic. But access is good -- albeit interspersed among many privately held properties. This river holds some big trout.
But the ones we hooked were 14 inches or less. Jim and Mary's RV Park near Missoula is immaculately maintained and well-shaded.
The Yellowstone: We launched our drift boat just east of Livingston and floated toward Big Timber. Fishing has been good this summer.
But rainstorms and a gusty, relentless wind challenged us. We found some success trailing nymph or emerger droppers behind 'hoppers. Streamers also are a Yellowstone favorite. This river at times proved a challenge for me to read, guiding a drift boat.
The Bighorn: Black caddis were the big thing a couple of weeks ago, grasshoppers, too, and the biggest fish we took on this river, a 21-inch rainbow, was fooled by a big foam 'hopper. Various bead-headed nymphs also produced. Accommodations are a little limited in Fort Smith, Mont. But Cottonwood Camp (cottonwood campbighorn.com) is an excellent campground. And the Bighorn Trout Shop in Fort Smith offers pleasant accommodations with good food for guests.