Fishin’ My Life Away: Great Teaching is the Study of the Student


There would be no teachers out there. It was a potentially bewildering, map-free realm, and instructions at the fly shop were on the order of:

Get on the frontage road. Before Divide, you take the gravel turnoff, you’ll see a yellow sign, and then run down the dry wash for a mile or so, and then you’ll see the railroad tracks marked “no trespassing.” That’s the general area. Cross over and go up the banks in either direction, you’ll see it.

I was almost out the door of the shop when Tim called out with a smile, “Oh, and fish deep, unless they are shallow.”

I set out on the Old 91. It had been over-used years ago, but lying relatively fallow since the 15 went in. So it wasn’t quite natural world, wasn’t quite industrial, either. But the guides and fly shop proprietors all said there were fish up here on the Big Hole, 4000 trout per quarter mile. 5000. They swore. And they had a ton of instructions on how to find’em.

I was happy but tense to have the teaching done and to set out on my own. It had been a long hard year. I love my life, but wanna be a headmaster? There is front line strife in this field: fear masked as pain or anger, teen loss and death unthinkable, ego, crazy complexity and the relentless attack of digital data streaming into our spirits delivering …what? So there was no denying the allure of wide-open space.

In nature (and scholarship), I always start out a little anxious of the unknown, wrestling with my patience, digressing some, veering back, until I’m “in it.” Tim had spent the whole day before teaching me on the Beaverhead, preparing me, floating for 10 sunny hours. I had tried him by stopping incessantly to key out an astonishing list of big birds: bald eagle, sandhill crane (chowing down a fish), great blue heron (majestic, slow motion spirit bird), harrier hawk, osprey, red wing blackbird (a personal favorite). Tim had been patient and observant with my deviations, always returning to the main lessons, always mending the line so to speak, which is what I needed. Patient and observant. Great teaching is the study of the student.

And, then, the releasing of the student — today he was minding the shop.

Now all the discovery was on me, dropping all the known realities and arrivals that teachers and guides supply and replacing them with unknowns, on rivers and roads and mountains in all directions. The 91 stretched and curved out before me. I wasn’t sure what to notice and just let my mind go. There was baggage, for sure. An ancient, rusted, combine harvester sat on an amber hilltop like a mastodon, reminding me of a night terror I had when I was seven. A yellow-headed blackbird hopped out of a brush like an email — didn’t know that species existed. I unspooled more miles.

And more. Some antelopes danced on amber rangeland rolling up towards the hills. Before long everything that moved was dancing. The burdens and pain of the past season were maybe going on recess. The car radio was a sage, and I turned it up:

Those windshield wipers slappin’ outta tempo

Keepin’ perfect rhythm with the song on the radio

I gotta keep rollin’

Ooh, I’m driving my life away …

The prairie once was infinity, but it is everywhere quadded off with barbed wire that must have looked like big cages to the osprey wheeling overhead. Soon I saw two more wheeling, bigger than the ones we see down south along the coast, always an amazing siting for me, and I thought, “How far from good fishing water could I be?”

In a minute more, the sign “Wash Bottom Gulch, 6 miles” appeared. I figured I was getting warm, and then I was entering into a new farm valley, and the snowcapped Rocky Mountains came into view. I had the Google maps “navvi” program on, not sure why. Things were quickly getting hillier and I soon reached a semi-washed out road in a rolling, farmed valley (aka, gulch) with a tiny, bubbling creek running into it, not fishable, not really anywhere, and here is what Google said: “You have arrived at your destination.” True dat, I thought.

So I pulled over and beheld the rocky crags in the distance, and the rough sagebrush all around. Arrived.

There was a turnoff right there, and the brook wound down, off the map, along a sloping ridge, running down to what I guessed had to be low ground and the river, and I followed it. There were newly cut and peeled wooden poles stretching telephone wires that ran all the way down the gulch, the first time I’d seen a situation where “land lines” were more practical than cellphone towers. My cellphone declaimed, “No service.”

At last I crunched into a gravel turnaround at the end of the road, and noticed the railroad bridge beyond it, crossing the river. It looked like an okay setup. Some signage detailed the history of phosphate mining right there, in the steep hillsides. If you can find this spot I’ll give you a dollar. I gathered my gear and scrambled down the riprap railroad embankment, finding some rough boulders that were not too slippery to stand on and make casts.

The river was shallow and wide here, clean and slightly bronze in color, maybe from the thundershowers a day ago. It was sunny and clear, and the river made a shrill rushing sound, like rain. Up above in the distance, clouds cast patches that moved gently across the ochre hills. A boat with two fishers bobbed by, and they said no fish were around. I did not do the usual thing and ask them “What are you all using?” but I don’t think they noticed.

Rigged, I slapped down a few casts along the bank until I lost a bug in a rock, then loaded up to try a hole I thought I saw a ways further downstream from the bridge. When I got down there, the area was fenced off with barbed wire. Looking across to the other shore, that whole bank looked better, more fishable, but the railroad bridge was marked with a big sign, “No trespassing,” and I felt a little like a foreigner.

After a while, I started making my way back up to the truck. It was gravelly and hot getting out of the sage hills and ranches down there, and soon I got out of that little valley and back on something like the Old 91. The sky was deep blue and clear. I twisted the radio volume up a bit again and this time it was an old Strauss waltz. For an instant, an image of a fancy dress ball in Vienna or someplace imperial flashed in my mind clearly. I was thinking about trying some red worms, too, and now I was grinning at this wild miracle, human consciousness in the twenty-first century. It was the unity of incongruity — it was the wonder and synchronicity, purring down the road in the Dodge Ram “4 x 4” Big Horn pickup, sunlight pouring in, everything a part of a whole. I opened all four windows so I could be more outside, and I wanted to pull over almost every mile and photograph something, but the hard thing was that there wasn’t anything that wasn’t amazing. It was the school of wonder. I soon rolled into the Divide put-in of the Big Hole River, and I had the clearest sense of what to do, what flies to use — double bugs — and just how much lead — two shot.

It seemed cramped up against the bank there, my casting was a little soft, and I thought whoever lived in the house across the river would know right away I was just a traveller, so I was glad there was no one out on the porch. I was trying roll casts and side casts. I knew the locals could have put it out there easy, and mended more naturally on the drifts, too, but after a while I was slapping it down pretty straight and calm, my mind was soaked in nonlinear, summer thought or no thought at all, and I stayed for an hour or so until the shallow rocks had stolen a couple nice nymphs and by then the wind was up too much, anyway.

I got back to the shop in Dillon in the afternoon, noticed the cracked spruce door as the hinge creaked, noticed a sign inside the door that I must have passed right by every day all week: “Deadline for mountain lion hunting permit is August 11.” The fishing shirts looked good and colorful, I ran my thumb along a pocket flap, and thought I could wear one of these to work. But maybe I should earn it first, before outfitting myself more.

“How’d ya do?” Tim asked from the counter. He was tall and making crow’s feet grinning from his eyes, and he bounced from side to side as he talked. Standing there, I could perfectly imagine disgorging a hook from a trout lip and feeling his fleshy, wet skin slip through my hands and back into the water, though I hadn’t.

“Well, I think I can say the trout back there are still running wild and free as ever, and maybe a little bit more amused. But Tim, where you sent me outside of Divide, it looked like the best spots were across the tracks, but the sign said, ‘No Trespassing, private property’, so I didn’t cross over.

“Of course it said ‘No trespassing,’ The railroad just puts that sign there so they don’t have any liability. That’s where everyone goes for the fish.”

I started walking toward the door and looked back and said, “Hey, I have to learn everything the hard way. I pity my teachers.” It was the end of the trip.

But really I was thinking: Some of the best students are almost untrainable, and thank God for that.

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, new book is Fearless Teaching, “a rare book about education that is both beautiful and critically imperative,” is available at

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