by Joe A. Evancho
It was twenty-eight years ago this past February. McGuire and I were sitting in the last booth along the wall just outside the back room at Mack’s Inn, a longtime watering spot in eastern Idaho not too far from Yellowstone.
We were sipping a bit of the stuff that warms the innards, while outside more inches were being added to the snow piled road-sign high along the lonely highway. Sub-arctic temperatures held things pretty much in their icy grip. It had been a long winter, with no January thaw and no hint of a letup.
A few citizens sat on their stools at the long, solid mahogany bar, feet resting comfortably on the big brass rail, sipping beer and joined in quiet conversation. Now and then, a gravelly old-boy laugh would rise above the drone of their conversations.
Mack’s Inn had opened in 1882 and not much had changed in the old, high-country saloon in the last hundred or so years. Not much, that is, except, for the addition of a huge moose head which owner Mack Jorgenson had hung on the wall in the mid-seventies. Along with the moose head, an ancient menagerie of nearly-mummified forest critters peered down on the patrons from their perches along the walls. Staring with unblinking eyes were squirrels, deer, elk, raccoons, rabbits, pheasants, grouse, the inevitable jackalope and a very large bison head. They were fusty enough to have been there since the place opened.
McGuire and I were making plans for the most important day of the year—the opening of trout season. As we talked, McGuire kept studying the moose head hanging over the door to the back room. “I know that fella from somewhere,” he would mumble. Staring bemusedly at the huge head, he would refill his glass, puff deeply on his pipe and rejoin our conversation.
Despite these interruptions, by closing time, McGuire and I had firmed up plans for the Memorial Day weekend, but he still hadn’t figured out where he and the moose had crossed paths. The next morning he headed back home to Ketchum. McGuire was then and is now that rarest of creatures, a never-married bachelor. His mistress was fly fishing and he knew instinctively that no woman would put up with the whore that owned him.
Good luck and good investing instincts provided him with the wherewithal to lustfully pursue the thing he loved most. And the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River was his perennial choice for opening day in Idaho. There was no mention of the moose in any of our phone conversations as March roared in on the wings of an Arctic blast and sent Island Park temperatures below zero for a week, then began slackening its grip. By the first week of May, the air was still nippy, but spring was definitely in the offing.
The week before the opener, McGuire called to say he’d be up on Friday and that he had a surprise for me. I had a hunch it had something to do with the moose, but knew better than to ask. McGuire liked to surround events in mystery and the moose was the perfect vehicle. The week before the opener was cold and murky with evening temperatures down in the twenties, but the outlook for Saturday was good: sunny with temperatures in the forties.
Friday afternoon, the black and white Blazer rolled up our muddy driveway. McGuire stepped out. He was wearing his L.L. Bean travel chinos with pockets down to the cuffs, his soft-leather day hikers, an Orvis official opening day shirt, a three-hundred-dollar waxed cotton field coat, all topped with his olive drab Clancy hat. The Blazer was jammed with enough rods, reels, waders, fly boxes, vests and assorted gear to make an outfitter blush. Among other things, McGuire was pathological about owning every new piece of fly fishing equipment that came on the market and some before they got there.
A bit later, we were sitting in front of the fire in the family room, sipping Southern Comfort manhattans with McGuire about to reveal his big news. But not before building the suspense by stirring the fire with the iron poker, digging into the wood box for another log and ceremoniously placing it onto the grate.
By now, even my wife was interested and she stepped into the family room as our guest filled, tamped and lit his pipe. He blew a smoke ring the size of a bowling ball as the firelight played across his face, then cocking his head toward us, announced, “The head of that Alces alces Americana hanging in Mack’s Inn is a world-class trophy.” The smoke ring drifted slowly across the opening of the hearth, became caught in the draft and dissolved. “It’s all that’s left of the only moose ever taken on a fly rod.”
“Yeah, right,” I snorted, convinced he’d been sniffing head cement. But McGuire persisted. “Hear me out. When I was a kid, back in the 30’s and 40’s, my dad would take me to a lodge way up in British Columbia. He loved to fish those streams up there and so did I; he with a fly rod and me with an old metal casting rod and worms.”
McGuire worked his way over to the La-Z-Boy, sat down, raised the leg rest, leaned back and puffed his pipe load of tobacco back to life, then continued. “The main room of the lodge had a huge stone fireplace and above the mantle hung a very large moose head. The cook at the lodge was an old sourdough named Amos and he took a liking to me. One night Amos and I we’re sitting on the porch and he got to talking about the moose head.
“Did ya ever notice that number fourteen Adams stuck in the mountin’ board of that big feller? he asked. No, I told him. Well, says Amos, there’s a feller comed up here every year for a long time name of George Watson. He was a fly fisherman, like yore old man. Nice feller, but he’s passed now.
Well, one evenin’, ole George was fishin’ Cadaver Creek, tryin’ out some new fangled fly he’d heard about called an Adams. He was enjoyin’ hisself just fine when a very large bull moose happened along. Now, no matter how big a moose gets, it can walk through the woods without crackin’ a twig, so George had no idea the moose was behind him, just a munchin’ and watchin’.
On a long back cast, George snagged the number fourteen Adams he was usin’ right smack in the butt of that there ole moose. When he turned around an’ saw what he’d snagged, he headed for shore, pronto, leavin’ that there fly stuck right where it was.
Then the strangest dang thing happened: that there moose backed up to a big ole oak and started rubbing his butt up against it. He stood there snortin’ and rubbin’, snortin’ and rubbin’ until George, even taken as he was with all he was a seein’, gave in to his system callin’ fer a drink and dinner and headed back to the lodge. When he told the other fellers about the moose, they told him he better stop takin’ his flask with him to the creek.
McGuire’s pipe had gone out and his glass was empty. Dinner was ready, but my wife made him another drink. As McGuire relit his pipe, I threw another log on the fire and he continued with Amos’s story:
Well sir, the next mornin’ ole George heads over to Cadaver Creek for a look-see. He gets to the oak and there is bark and fur piled up all about, and the ground near the tree all torn up. Lyin’ next to the tree is the moose’s head. Everthin’ else had been rubbed away, And there, caught in the bark of the that there tree was that there number fourteen Adams.
Now ole George knew a trophy when he seen it so he hauled the moose head out of the woods, had it mounted and donated it to the lodge with that number fourteen Adams stuck right there in the mountin-board. The lodge owner gave it the place of honor over the fireplace. The only moose ever taken on a fly rod.
My wife laughed and went back into the kitchen. I groaned as McGuire sat there with that gloating grin on his face. He had gotten me again.
Saturday morning we were on the river and, as usual, the opener was fun. We hooked four or five nice rainbows apiece, returned home satisfied, spent Sunday talking about Saturday and by mid-afternoon, McGuire was on his way home.
A few days after McGuire left, I stopped in at Mack’s Inn and I took a close look at the moose. Near the base of the mounting board was a small hole. I took out the number fourteen Adams I had clipped inside my jacket. The hook fit perfectly into the hole and the Adams perched jauntily beneath the huge head.
The last time I stopped in at the old saloon before the fire, the Adams was still there. Mack’s Inn burnt down a few years later. Some say it was a disgruntled employee that had been fired for being drunk on the job who started the blaze. Others say it was caused by embers from the huge fireplace that hit the tinder-dry oak floor and she was gone before you knew it. Today, all that remains is the three-story brick chimney and the empty fireplace.
Joe A. Evancho (aka the Hack), first discovered Idaho and Mack’s Inn when he was stationed at Mountain Home AFB in 1951 when the author of FISHING IDAHO, An Angler’s Guide wasn’t even a glint in his to-be-father’s eye. That glint came nine years later. But what goes around comes around, and the Hack, who lives in Traverse City, Michigan, now has two sons, a daughter-in-law and three grandchildren living in Boise. He visits Idaho regularly to fish, and visit his family, in that order.