I first met Sloan in front of the old railroad depot in Lewistown, Mont., where the tracks are overgrown and the Boy Scouts have a wishing well in which they hold hostage a lovely nine-pound rainbow trout. The trout no longer spooks at sudden shadows, just lazily swims around, swims around, growing insolent and indecently fat. He was wearing a shapeless brown felt hat—Sloan, not the trout—and a gray suit coat and a green striped shirt and tie that nearly matched and a pair of khaki pants. Many washings had bleached the khaki until it was translucent, like an underexposed negative. I know now that Sloan dresses as he does—half vintage Hart Schaffner & Marx, half Army-Navy surplus—because he has made up his mind that the call to fish will never catch him with his trousers down.
Sloan is 65 or 70, limby and nimble as a mountain goat. The itch to see the horizon has been on him since he was very young. He believes most Westerners have it, a fundamental vestige of the frontier that throbs in their veins, but that they hide it in the folds of the new conservatism. He has been a boomer all his life, Sloan. Moving around. Riding boxcars. Tending bar. Bootlegging whiskey. Dealing out playing cards in smoky hideaways. Once, in a desperate time, he scratched for gold in a place where the gold had long since gone.
Now he sells Irish Sweepstakes tickets in Sacramento, Calif. and, when the fever is on him and he feels he must return again to the palaces at Reno and Las Vegas or come home to Lewistown for the trout season or a round of deer hunting, he turns the sweepstakes book over to the new woman in his life, "a precious young thing, fair and sweet as a rose."
Standing over the wishing well that first day in Lewistown, the first day of a far-flung and loosely charted course across the country, was an unsung spincaster from the East with a pocketful of brand-new flies with strange inspirational names like "Ginger Quill" and "Sandy Mite." Sloan came loping down Main Street from the direction of a large pile of blackened wood, the gutted remains of an old flour mill. I could see his big lobey ears and long chin flickering in the dimpled wake of that lovely un-frightened rainbow trout.
Sloan had left Lewistown in 1922, but had come back almost every year since to resume negotiations with the fish. Big Spring Creek, his primary stamping ground, runs through and under Lewistown, a tributary of the Judith River that in turn bleeds down from a confluence with the Missouri River farther north. The creek pumps 62,000 gallons a minute of "the finest drinking water in the world," a designation favored by Lewistown pamphleteers and sign makers, into the pipes and bellies of the town. The water is clear and ice cold and 99.8% pure. It is enough water to sustain a city of 500,000 and therefore is a surfeit for Lewistown's dwindling 9,500. Lewistown's spiritual sustenance as well as its life's fluid is in that ruffling silver stream. And there are those, like Sloan, who will swear to its preeminence as a fishing hole. Only the day before, Sloan said, he personally extracted 19 rainbows, all of legal length and eating size.
"I thought the limit was 10," I said.
"Well, it was a cold day. Thirty-five degrees. On a crazy day crazy people catch crazy fish. I am well aware that I am nine trout in the public debt, but I have a sister in Great Falls who broils fish in butter with chives and garlic salt. I will bring her a package this weekend."
Not many syllables after that I was able to talk Sloan into assisting me in the search for truth and trout. He piled into my rented car and directed me to a spot not far below the State Fish Hatchery.
A perfect place: brawling water, good dark holes, a deep, stone-lined run a man could make a cast in without being cramped. Sloan told me to keep my store-bought flies dry. He hauled out a couple of home-tied enchantresses he called "Brown Bombers," and nimbly tied them on my line and his. First in, he laid on delicately to a piece of water that looked too open and shallow to me. Almost immediately there was a wink on the surface and a mottled glistening cylinder of flesh rose mightily to the fly. Line and muscles tightened, Sloan leaning into it instinctively, and the battle joined—short, sweet and one-sided. The trout, a four-pound brookie, was broad on its side in short order.
"Trout fishing," said Sloan, "is 75% finding them." He put the catch in the slatted coffin he carries on his hip. "I do not fish for trout where they ain't no trout."