May llth — The first scramble for ice-out; a day at Ramshorn Lake
"NEVER DOUBT the courage of the French. We're the ones
who discovered that snails were edible."
Bernie Samuelson looks at the escargot, watches me eat one,
and stares again at the serving plate. At Chico Hot Springs
they serve the best escargot in Montana, which is like serving
the best prime rib in Paris; but I've had escargot all over
the country and this is good. Bernie has to be as hungry as
I am—simple meat-and-potatoes boy or not— and he will try one
sooner or later.
He puts one in his mouth, chews carefully, and says, "Not bad."
"I wonder if Rufus would like snails?"
After what that goat did for us, I would gladly buy Rufus
a plate full of escargot.
BERNIE SAMUELSON and his pack goat, Rufus, are legendary among
high-mountain lake specialists. For most of the summer he travels
the state searching not just for fishing lakes but for fishing
lakes at ice-out. When he goes high enough—up over 10,000 feet
in the Beartooths—he can find ice remnants in late July.
There's something about legendary outdoor characters. They
don't get their reputations by doing things the normal way.
Simple fanaticism isn't quite enough. They do things that
sane men marvel at but have no wish to emulate. They like
to tell stories about the times they almost died—and if
those stories aren't exaggerated too much, you're in the
company of a legend.
Legends get nicknames. Jeremiah "Liver-Eating" Johnson? The
man didn't get the nickname for table manners. Bernie Samuelson
doesn't need a nickname because he has a goat. That's enough
to tell him apart from all the other Bernie Samuelsons in the
After today I call my buddy, "Bernie 'the-goat's-the-smart-one'
BERNIE HITS more high-mountain lakes at or just after ice-out
than any other person alive because he doesn't wait for the
"sure thing," the "window of opportunity," or even the "long
shot." I can't prove it for certain, but I'd bet that he has
trekked up to some high lake after a few warm days in January
just on the chance of a miracle thaw.
We drive to the end of the Buffalo Horn Road, already sliding
through snow patches, and Bernie says, as we stand at the trail
to Ramshorn, "There's a firry-fifty chance the ice will be
I let my two dogs out, Chester the Wonder-Mutt and Zeb the
Rottweiler, and Bernie unlatches the trailer and leads Rufus
out. Zeb looks at Rufus and doesn't know whether to mug him
or mount him. The dog sticks his nose in the goat's face and
Rufus licks his snout—they're friends for life.
We load up Rufus, settle into our backpacks, and start up the
trail on a quick day trip to see if the ice is off. As soon as
we start to climb we hit snow. Within a mile we stop and put
on our snowshoes and the sprint to the top becomes a slog. I
huff, my snowshoeing legs getting their first workout in years,
and the dogs wallow in drifts. Rufus high-steps easily and
Bernie smiles like a fool in paradise. I can't figure it out
but soon I'm grinning, too, even though every muscle in my body
is starting to break down.
"We just need a rim of open water around the edge," Bernie
says. "A few feet."
Hours later we reach Ramshorn and it's frozen solid. A cautious
man would drive a semitrailer across it without a second thought.
Bernie jumps up and down on it just to be sure and the ice doesn't
We build a small fire for a quick meal and sit there on a tarp,
looking at the lake. Neither of us regrets the trip in. Anyone
who can't understand this may be a fly fisherman, but they're
not a high-mountain lake fly fisherman.
IT STARTS SNOWING and it is already nearly dark when we start
down the mountain. The drifts seem deeper, harder to clamber
over with the snowshoes, and impossible to break through. In
the gloom of dusk and blowing snow only Rufus knows where the
trail is; and with little tinkling bells he leads us out.
Chester, longer legged, keeps up, but Zeb bogs down in every
deep drift. He watches me with a mixed look of fear and love—as
if I'd ever think of leaving him—and I struggle back to pull him
through. After the fourth time I fall flat in the snow. With a
flashlight in his mouth, Bernie helps me rig a shoulder harness
on Zeb, and we tie a rope from Zeb up to Rufus. The goat walks
steadily until the rope tightens and then, as if he knows why he
is doing it, he slowly edges ahead until Zeb pops free from the
latest snow drift.
WE SIT in the restaurant at Chico, eating an appetizer of snails
and drinking beer. A friend, Ron Ruddig, sees us and comes over.
"How was Ramshorn?" he asks.
"Ron," Bernie replies, "We nearly died up there. We got hit with
the worst spring blizzard I've seen in thirty years out here,
the temperature dropped forty degrees, the wind howled, and
it got dark hours before it should have."
"It's the word-for-word truth," I affirm.
"Rufus saved us," Bernie says.
Ron just nods, "Uh, huh."
"But I think that the ice might break up on Rarnshorn next week,"
And, a week later, I go back up there with him. The lake is
still frozen solid. ~ GL
Credits: This article is an excerpt from the late
Gary LaFontaine's Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes,