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Cowboy Up!

Feb 14, 2022 | Mike Lawson Mike_Madison_with_Ernest_Schwiebert_(left).jpg

In May of 1974 I was fishing the salmonfly hatch on the lower Henry’s Fork when Jim Danskin and his wife Lois stopped where I was parked. He offered me a job as a fishing guide. Jim had a shop in West Yellowstone and knew me from the times I hung out in his shop as well as every other shop in town. At the time I was teaching school. After Sheralee and I started our family we started a commercial fly tying business. Prior to that I worked my summers for the forest service which required me to live up on the mountains away from my family. After visiting with Jim it sounded like it could be a good thing and get me out of the fly tying dungeon a few days a week.


I applied for and received my guide licenses. My Idaho license was and still is #222. My Montana guide license was #292 which I let lapse two years ago. Jim told me that most of my trips would be in Idaho on the Henry’s Fork and I could meet my clients at Pond’s Lodge. That sounded good because I didn’t have a drift boat. My boat was a 14’ John Boat which was perfect for floating the Ranch but a little under gunned for Box Canyon, the Madison and other similar waters.

In early July Jim called and said he needed me for three days. I loaded my boat into the back of my pickup and drove to West Yellowstone. Jim explained that we would be guiding guests of the Creative Sports Fly Fishing School offered by Andy Puyans and Dave Inks. I knew them from my fly tying business as I purchased most of my fly tying materials from them but I had never met either one of them.

Jim introduced me to my two clients. A big tall guy who was a student of the school and Fanny Krieger, the wife of Mel Krieger who was the casting instructor at the school. They had an odd number which left an open spot in one of the boats which Fanny put dibs on. She was a very pretty, cordial, and pleasant lady with a wonderful French accent. I don’t remember much about the guy.

Jim pulled me aside and explained that we would be fishing the Madison River and I was to drop my two clients off at the Henry’s Lake Lodge which was on the way back. I tried to look calm but I was completely horrified. The only time I had seen the Madison River was when my dad took us all up to see the damage from the earthquake in 1959. I didn’t even know where it was or how to get there. I got Jim aside and explained my problem. He said not to worry, all I needed to do was follow a guide named Sel, a crusty old disbarred lawyer from Missouri. We picked out a few flies, loaded up and off we went.


I was surprised how close the Madison was and wondered why I had never checked it out. The water looked pretty intimidating for my old john boat. There were three other guides from Danksin’s shop in addition to the old lawyer including Bill Mason and Jim Vermillion. In those days we ran our own shuttles. We put in at the West Fork for our float to McAtee Bridge. I walked over to the old lawyer and told him what Jim had said. He put his finger on my chest and told me to stay away from him. He didn’t want to see me all day. He said he heard I was a fly tier from Idaho and he didn’t want it to reflect badly on him. I put my boat in and followed the caravan of guides. The Madison River was beautiful as we drove downstream to the takeout. I saw a couple of bridges that looked a little intimidating but I figured I could handle the rest of the river. I wish I would have paid more attention to the travel distance after it turned away from the highway.

We parked our vehicles and hitched a ride back up to the put-in. I steered clear of the old lawyer. I was excited when I saw Pat Barnes at the take-out. Sheralee and I had been tying flies for him for several years and I considered him a good friend. He gave me a ride back up to the put-in. I grilled him with questions the entire trip. He felt like I could handle the job with my john boat as long I was an experienced rower. He told me to be careful with the Wolf Creek Bridge and a couple of other spots. I was really appreciative that Pat had given me a small dose of confidence.

Pat explained that we were a few miles above the sweet spot of the salmonfly hatch. I rigged my two clients with big rubberleg nymphs and shoved off. One reason that I felt somewhat comfortable with my john boat was because most of the river was reasonably shallow which would allow me to walk the boat and fish the good runs. We started catching fish right off and it looked like the beginning of an epic day. I decided then and there that I really liked the Madison.


It wasn’t long before I noticed that none of the guide boats were in sight. Little did I know that we were on a 17 mile float which essentially required oars up for the entire float in order to make the take-out in 8 hours. I tried to speed things up but we kept catching fish. We started moving along until we hit the section with adult salmonflies. They were everywhere. I rigged Fanny up with clipped deer hair pattern that floated like a cork. My other sport refused to use my stuff preferring instead to use his own patterns that he had learned to tie in Andy Puyans’ fly tying class.

Fanny caught fish like crazy. The other guy couldn’t catch anything because his flies wouldn’t float and he refused to use any of mine. It went on like that for a couple of hours until the tall man started getting grumpy. He’d had enough fishing and was focused on the cocktail hour at Henry’s Lake Lodge. He started asking me how far it was to the take-out. I had no idea.

I tried to wing it and explained it wasn’t too far. After we had floated “too far” he started getting very agitated. Fanny seemed perfectly contented. I would be too if I was catching a nice trout on a dry fly every few minutes. This went on for another hour or so. The sun was getting low. I decided I better come clean.


I pulled the boat over and explained the situation. I explained that I had no idea where the take-out was and it was possible that we had floated past it. I had never floated that far in my life. I also didn’t have any idea where the highway was. I told them that if it got dark I would walk out to the highway to get help. The big guy had fire in his eye when I explained that to him. I figured I better not turn my back on him.

Finally it started getting too dark but Fanny was still catching fish. I can’t share what the guy was saying. It was time to throw in the towel. I started to pull the boat in when I saw some lights a few hundred yards downstream. We had made it. On the way back to West Yellowstone I dropped them at Henry’s Lake Lodge and drove back up to Danskin’s house. He had offered me to bunk out on his porch so I didn’t need to make the 70 mile drive every day. When I showed up, as expected, they were worried about me.


After a bite to eat I sat down with Jim to discuss the situation. He didn’t say a word. Finally I took out my guide licenses and handed them to him. It was over. I explained that it was the shortest guide career on record. I quit. He took the licenses but didn’t say much.

In the morning he banged on the door and told me it was time to get up. He said Lois had breakfast ready and then it was time to head for his shop. I looked at him and asked him if he remembered what I had said the night before. He said, “Of course I remember.” Then he explained that he didn’t have any other guides to take my trip. He said, “If you want to be a quitter, wait until after these next two trips. Cowboy Up!” I was madder than hell as I drove in to West Yellowstone.

When we got in the shop Jim pulled me aside to tell me that the man I had taken the prior day demanded that he fire me. Then Jim explained that Fanny couldn’t stop raving about the trip. She said she had been with a number of guides in the past but I was the best. That small compliment was very much appreciated because, like the previous day, I had to go back to the Madison.

We floated the same stretch. The two guys were very pleasant, entertaining, and both were experienced with the fly rod. This time I knew what to use and where. We had a fabulous day. I looked forward to the next day. A couple of days later, before I headed back to St. Anthony, Jim asked me if I still wanted to throw in the towel and give him my guide licenses. I told him how much I appreciated him telling me to “cowboy up.”


Not long before Jim passed away we held the 30th anniversary of Henry’s Fork Anglers. We invited Jim and Lois as our special guests. Jim never approached the fame that other fly fishing pioneers enjoyed in West Yellowstone like Don Martinez, Bud Lilly and Pat Barnes. He wasn’t interested in that. He quietly went about his business teaching his guides the importance of proficiency, dedication and professionalism. Other Henry’s Fork Anglers guides who got their start with Jim Danksin included Jim Vermillion, Jim Campbell and Bob Kelly. Bob Lamm, who still guides for us, started working for Jim Danskin the year after I left. Jim was a tremendous influence for us. I sometimes wonder where I’d be today if Danskin wouldn’t have told me, “Cowboy Up!”