The Magazine

Semper Fly

With wounded warriors in quiet waters

Jun 20, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 38 • By MATT LABASH
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They are given choice fly-tying materials hand-selected for them by the local legendary fly tier, Willy Self, a grizzled Marine veteran who mans the counter at one of the nation’s great fly shops, Bozeman’s Montana Troutfitters, which doubles as WQW’s staging area for fishing outings. Famous for flies like his Wiggle Damsel and his Fruit Roll-up, Willy tells new recruits not to pick squirrel fur off the asphalt to make road-kill flies or you’ll end up with carpet beetles eating through your stock. They listen. As Willy convincingly tells it, “I do three things in my life​—​I fly fish, I row a boat, and I tie bugs. If it’s anything else, I’m not interested.”

Southwest Montana is fly fishing’s Mecca, and the passion ran deep here long before A River Runs Through It sparked a fly-fishing boom and yuppification. (Many locations around Bozeman doubled for the Big Blackfoot River/Missoula of the Norman Maclean novella when it was made into a film in 1992. Now some old-timers moan about “Bozeangeles.”)

Here, even the lowliest gas station carries fishing guidebooks. My room at a nondescript chain hotel contains a framed hatch chart of the nearby Gallatin River. When I walk into the C’Mon Inn lobby in my waders to ask driving directions, the fishing-bum hotel clerk, unable to help himself, has to know, “Where you fishing?” Then he draws me a map to his favorite spot, promising to behead me if I publish it or stay past the weekend when he’s due for his return engagement.

I arrive a day before the wounded warriors to spend an afternoon of solitude on the majestic freestoner, the Gallatin. The river runs out of the Gallatin Range in Yellowstone Park, tumbles through a boulder-strewn alpine canyon, then pushes briskly through the Gallatin Valley or what local Indians used to call “The Valley of the Flowers.” There’re no flowers now, however, as frigid Montana still hasn’t gotten word that spring is two months old. The mountain snowfall, finally about to melt, will soon blow out the rivers, turning them into unfishable milk.

At Troutfitters, Willy Self gives urgent instructions while showing me a map: “Park here and hit the trail. You’ll want to fish. Don’t. I want you to walk. When you’re absolutely tired of walking, walk some more. Then I want you to start fishing.” I do as I’m told, and pull three fat brown trout on the rubber-legged stone fly that Willy prescribed. I might have had time to catch a few more if the colonel hadn’t ordered me to attend a one-on-one briefing. 

If anybody rivals Willy in believing in the sacrosanctity of fishing, it is this retired Marine fighter pilot. The 68-year-old Hastings is basically the Great Santini, Big Sky edition. He snaps out commands in a bark-ish rasp. Ever the organized officer, he hands me my own thick three-ring binder full of contact numbers, hour-by-hour schedules for the coming week, and aerial maps of the “F/X’s”​—​what he calls the “fishing experience.” Then he warns, “The plan always changes when I have contact with the enemy.”

Hastings is a man of surprises. Retiring after three decades in the Marine Corps, he decided to study classical piano, getting his master’s degree from Mannes at the age of 56, among the oldest graduates in the conservatory’s history. He still wakes up around 5 a.m. to play for several hours, though he adds, “Being a good Marine, I don’t play the piano, I assault it.” 

But Hastings is also uniquely qualified to run this wounded warriors operation. An A-4 pilot, he flew 168 missions in Vietnam under the call sign “Sinus,” an unfortunate nickname he earned for his legendary sinus blockages. “I was renowned for passing out at 30,000 feet,” he says, still wincing at the label. “Sometimes for seconds, sometimes minutes. One time I woke up at 6,000 feet. It was kind of dangerous. I was hoping for anything else​—​Tiger, Shark, Evil One. So what do I get tagged with? Sinus.”

In all his sorties, he never lost a plane. Though he did lose other things, he makes clear, pointing to a photo in the memorabilia room of his basement of two swaggering fighter jocks standing beside each other in G-suits. One of them is a much younger Hastings. The other, he says, “was killed​—​he was my best friend.” 

Hastings didn’t have much say in becoming a fly fisher-man. Not only is he a native Montanan, but his dad was the state entomologist and a deadly dry-fly assassin. “He tied his own flies, he knew his bugs backwards and forwards,” says Hastings. “I can categorically assert that my father was the best fly fisherman in Montana. Even when there was no hatch, he would coax fish to rise from the depths.”

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