The old man who swept his stoop each day
is sweeping still, the hardest-working motherfucker
in Motherfuckerville. –C.D.
Chris Dombrowski lives a life of duality—one of fly lines wrapped with words. His manipulation of words into sentences and stanzas matches his ability to drop a cast into a Dixie cup. “Ragged Anthem,” his most recent collection of poems, adds bulk to a body of work that can only be described as prolific. Critics compare his writing to that of his formidable fishing buddies, Jim Harrison (dubbed the Mozart of the prairie) and David James Duncan, author of renowned works such as “The River Why” and “The Brothers K.” And he’s about to take me fishing.
I sit in the gas station parking lot watching folks walk out with smokes, lottery tickets and six packs of PBR, I’m surprised to see a shit-beaten SUV pull up alongside me, windows down. Two questionable characters whoop at me to hop in—Chris and his childhood friend, Alex Lafkas.
Chris fell in love with fly fishing as a teenager in East Lansing, Michigan and soon started tying commercially for Gates Au Sable Lodge. His writing passion emerged in high school when, he says, Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” saved him from the life of a jock. Captivated by rivers and poems, Dombrowski started scribbling his own creations in spiral notebooks: “The cool thing with fishing and writing, you have like zero fear when you start out. You don’t know any better, right? You don’t know the flies or the right language to use—but oftentimes you find success because you’re willing to take risk. You’re not confined to a certain set of rules.” Both pursuits prompted his move west to guide and study poetry at the University of Montana.
I climb into the early 2000s Toyota Sequoia. The inside is disheveled: a half-burnt piece of sage rests on the dash, a peeling Orvis sticker clings to the driver’s seat, and blue glitter glue is smeared on the inside of the door, (the work of one of his kids, I assume). The aura of the distinguished writer continues to retreat into the shadows.
We drive south along the Bitterroot River. I sit quietly in the back seat and absorb the conversation up front. Chris ponders his experience with angling, writing and a life spent in both. Dombrowski casually mentions that he turned down three free tarpon and bonefish trips during a recent harsh winter. Alex is floored. Chris, without hesitation, explains: “I think the fishing metaphor writing is a little played out, man. How many days did you guide last year?”
“Like, 130,” Alex responds.
“Out of those 130 days, what was the percentage where you were like, ‘I’m going to grind it out, make it an awesome day, but I’m grinding?’”
“Like September, October, damn near every day, actually.”
“How many of those days were like, ‘Man! This is an incredible fishing day, I’m really pumped?’”
“Shit, like two percent.”
“How many were like ‘this is transcendental’?”
“Like one or two days.”
“Exactly! So if you translate that into writing, it’s the same thing. I’m not going to pound tarpon or bonefish or trout during the off season for that reason. Sure, it would be better for my brain—but I’m not going to risk the fact that I’m not at the desk, ya know? I want to grind, but I also don’t want to miss that one day that’s transcendental.
“I always tell my students this: touch the work every day. Stay with it. During the guide season, I produce zero content, but I take notes almost daily.” As Chris says this, he rummages into the depths of his center console and pulls out a napkin covered with illegible scribbles.
Be it writing or guiding, the work comes first. Dombrowski spends his cold Montana winters in a small writing shack just a short walk from his front door; his summers are dedicated to pursuing trout with paying clientele.
We pull into the Woodside Fishing Access. Alex needs a smoke. I need to piss. Chris wants to check water clarity. He doesn’t start rowing for money until June—but still wants to be in touch with the river—being a poet, naturalist and an angler requires attention to detail.
As he stares into the mass of brown snowmelt boiling between banks, he briefly reflects on his life fishing with Lafkas: “Me and Alex, man, we fished hard in East Lansing and were urban anglers before urban angling was even considered a thing. Shit, I mean, I would blindfold Alex when he was 14 and take him to my secret bluegill spots.”
Alex drags on his American Spirit and laughs. Chris snatches a mayfly hovering just above his head and smiles. “March Brown. Good sign!”
The hyper-awareness that makes him a successful guide transitions into his writing. The stanzas of “Ragged Anthem” are raw, observant and mingle urbane environmentalist with profane modernist. Poems such as “Bull Elk in October River” capture the essence of a fall hunt:
The elk was a boulder the Blackfoot flowed around,
spooked granite with tines and steaming nostrils,
musk water wept away.
His description of the outside world does not simply bask in pastoral language, but mingles with life in the technological age as demonstrated in “I Text Jeffery:”
500 snow geese
300 yards from shore.
He texts back.
The day ends over drinks. Chris has a glass of wine I can’t pronounce. The bar’s running a special on Pabst for a buck, so I splurge. Alex orders a pizza. We tell more stories ranging from asshole clients, to fly lines, to musky fishing. It feels familiar. As we shake hands and drift our separate directions, I can’t help but think of the poetry professors I studied with in college. They were wildly intelligent, well spoken, and pretentious as hell. Chris is a gifted writer and fisherman, but he doesn’t have a pretentious bone in his body.
He calls me a few days later while I’m driving north to guide on the Missouri. Suddenly he stops the conversation, his voice crawling to a whisper, “Hey, man, gotta go. I’m walking into yoga. Can you heaaar my voice getting caaaaalmer?” He chuckles and hangs up the phone. I can’t help but laugh.
My client overhears the conversation, asks me, “Who was that?”
“Chris Dombrowski,” I say. “Maybe the coolest, hardest-working guy I’ve ever met.”
Chris’ book is still sitting on my dash, so I pass it over and turn up the radio. He reads for the entire two-hour drive, letting me skip the small talk. It’s another gift I have to thank Chris for, next time I see him.