August 23. 2016
August 23, 2016
FISH NOMADS . . . . Bill Modeen
There was a period before I became Stem Keeper of the Double R Ranch when I was part of a small community which in retrospect I call the “Fish Nomads.” In 2006 I had been prematurely retired from a law career by the daily back pain residual from Guillan-Barre paralysis. Not having a plan for “early retirement,” I got rid of my house, bought a 27 foot hitch trailer and fly fished my way through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Canada. I fished the rivers, lakes and creeks that I had always wanted to experience and those I encountered along the way.
In the course of that several year journey I ran into similar wanderers. They lived in trailers, campers and tents. They were devoted to the Dry Fly. They were generous about sharing their favorite locations to camp and fish. They would often camp on public land until game wardens and other law enforcement officers told them it was time to move on. We shared group dinners and bottles of booze around the campfire. We gave each her car shuttles. We designed flies together and exchanged productive patterns of our own device. Some of these Fish Nomads acted as mentors for younger Fish Nomads of young guys just out there fishing and camping for extended periods. It was a Brotherhood that reminded me of the 60s counterculture. There were few last names, at least initially . . . just Bill from Maine, Bob from Vermont, Oregon Doug or, simply, “Kershew.”
Most of the Fish Nomads I hung with are now gone. In the first quarter of 2013 the three Fish Nomads I knew the best all died unexpectedly. I had tremendous difficulty handling such a huge loss. To my knowledge the ranks of Fish Nomads have not been reinforced. Maybe it is or was a generational thing. We Baby Boomers had grown up under a philosophy of sacrificing present enjoyment for the benefit of the future, and when we aged we felt a great need to “catch up” with the passions we sublimated for so long. Maybe there still are a quantity of Fish Nomads. I wouldn’t know because I’ve set down roots on the Double R and no longer travel during the fishing season.
Bill Modeen (aka “Bill From Maine”) was the first Fish Nomad I ever met. Bill’s focus and approach to life remains the model of a Fish Nomad, at least from my perspective. I ran into Bill in May 2000 at the Point of Rocks campground where we had both chosen to spend the first week of trout season. Silver Creek was a rather intimidating venue for me but Bill gave me a few pointers and some of his glass bead flies. Together we developed a marabou streamer with which we enticed big Browns feeding on Long Nosed Dace at a bend above Point of Rocks.
We had a few community dinners together and I eventually pried his life story out of him. Bill lived most of his life in Bar Harbor, Maine. In his youth Bill travelled round the world by serving in the Merchant Marine and while on home leave fished and hunted all over his beloved Maine, a penchant which led to the demise of three marriages. Bill worked seasonally as a sport fishing charter boat captain, on a commercial fishing boat, and transporting machinery and supplies to Maine islands for his son’s construction business. Bill worked as a guide setting up the early fishing camps in nearby Labrador, and personally guided Lee and Joan Wulff on their quest to catch the world record Brook trout.
Bill then began to winter in his camper in Gila Bend, Arizona, outside of established BLM camp grounds which he couldn’t or wouldn’t afford on his meager Merchant Marine pension and Social Security benefits. Each April Bill would start the fishing season on the San Juan River, then trek up to the Green River after some desert hiking in Utah, eventually appearing on Silver creek for the season opener. There was a modest stretch of hard pan at Point of Rocks affectionately known to many of us as “Bill’s Spot,” left alone for Bill due to his gimpy leg which resulted from a gunshot while cleaning a friend’s shotgun that had a chambered round. The doctors told Bill that he would never walk again but he took off in his pickup for the Southwest and was able to walk again by sheer force of will. As years passed Bill and I formed a routine of leaving Silver Creek around the Fourth of July for Bitch Creek, the Henry’s Fork, the Missouri River and then the Thompson River in northwest Montana. Inexplicably, at least to me, Bill never sampled fall fishing out West, preferring to return to Maine for woodcock hunting and Brookie fishing at his fabled “camp” in the backwoods. Eventually, I got Bill to manage his fears of getting stuck in Silver Creek’s silt and we plied the waters of the Double R Ranch in float tubes. Bill described that fishing experience as “wicked,” apparently a common Maine adjective.
I personally saw Bill take younger anglers under his wing to teach them strategies for success on spring creeks and other venues. He had no tolerance for anglers who did not display traditional etiquette on the water. From Bill I learned how to fish the tail outs of pools on freestone streams like the Thompson River. At one point Bill gave me a list of generic places one could camp for free without being bothered. Bill impressed on me a focus on tying characteristics into flies which would operate as a “trigger” to the fish, and a disdain for accepted conventions of fly design. Bill often spoke with admiration and affection for Bud Purdy whom I had introduced to Bill over morning coffee at the Picabo Store.
In April of 2013 Bill was found slumped over and dead in his chair on the banks of the San Juan River with a book in his lap; reading was a passion of Bill’s right up there with fishing. It has taken me years to write about Bill, a great friend and the best fishing buddy a guy could have. Bill is sorely missed by me and the larger fly fishing community.
Doug Andres, Stream Keeper, Double R Ranch