Mapping Out a Passion

By Gloria Goñi

My partner Chris comes from a long line of proud Montanans. His father was one of the family’s only members to leave small-town-Montana, for a career in the Air Force. Moving from Germany, to Hawaii, to California and beyond, Chris struggled with the concept of home and family. But, despite those many moves, regular trips to visit family in the Greater Yellowstone Area added consistency to his childhood. 

Don Williams, legendary Paradise Valley guide and also Chris’s grandfather, gifted bits of Montana during those summer visits. When they floated the Yellowstone River, Don understood which eddies and riffles held the cutthroats and browns. When they explored the mountains, Don knew where to find grazing elk and bighorn sheep. These glimpses into his grandfather’s lifestyle sparked Chris’s curiosity. “They were everyday things to him, but they were so unimaginable to me,” Chris said. “I knew I was only experiencing these things because he had dedicated so much time on the water and in the mountains.” 

As Chris grew older, his nomadic upbringing transitioned into seasonal work across the west. Soon enough, he migrated to Montana hoping to reconnect with his familial roots and, perhaps, discover his life’s purpose. Shortly after his return, Don fell ill with cancer. “I never got to float the river again with my grandpa after moving to Montana,” Chris said, “but we bonded over our past adventures.” During their visits, he shared stories of raft guiding and dog sledding, while Don reminisced about his career as a fishing and hunting outfitter, chasing game across the globe. 

According to those who knew him, Don wouldn’t have been the guide and global traveler he was without Betty (Barghultz) Williams.“She didn’t get as much of the spotlight,” Chris recalled of his grandmother. “She prepared the client's lunches, tied the flies, and took care of the kids and home – she worked so hard.” Betty believed a tasty shore lunch had the ability to turn around a slow day of fishing; her renowned salads and sandwiches were a staple of Don’s outfitting. “My grandpa became a Montana guiding legend, but much of that success was because of her.” 

Don’s condition worsened. Then, during the summer of 2011, Don Williams passed away after a life packed full of adventure. Despite their time together, Chris wished to have known his grandfather better – he wished for one last float, or one last walk in the woods. What was it about hunting and fishing that gave Don so much life? “I have so many questions for him,” Chris often said.

Although Don was no longer there to share his insight directly, he left Chris priceless possessions: a near-new drift boat, a lifetime of fishing and hunting gear, and stacks on stacks of painstakingly annotated stream and river maps from all across Montana. Chris was arguably set up better than anyone to rediscover hunting and fishing spots his grandfather frequented.

"he left Chris priceless possessions: a near-new drift boat, a lifetime of fishing and hunting gear, and stacks on stacks of painstakingly annotated stream and river maps from all across Montana"

Equipped with his grandfather’s hand-me-down gear, Chris followed those maps to remote honey holes which would have taken him decades to discover on his own. As he learned new knots, fishing techniques, hunter’s safety and field dressing methods, things started to click. “It is a special feeling to know you are in the same mountains and on the same rivers your family has been on for generations,” Chris said. “That is something I always think about: my grandpa and uncles and dad hunted these mountains long before I was born.”

In 2019, Chris harvested his first elk with Don’s sheep gun. “I felt like he was there with me,” Chris recalled. He often expresses gratitude to his grandpa for that six-point bull; and I do too. If it weren’t for Don Williams, I wonder if Chris and I would have connected over our mutual passion for hunting and fishing. 

Our first dates were spent floating the Yellowstone, our first joint purchase was a new shooting block, and our first argument was about the validity of egg patterns. More than anything, our shared curiosity, eagerness and ability to have fun anywhere and everywhere, made us a compatible match. These days, we often watch VCR tapes of Don helicopter-fishing in New Zealand, sort through old film slides featuring trophy rainbows in Russia, or read the letters he exchanged with outfitters from the southern tip of Argentina. We’ve spent countless hours deciphering Don’s maps and organizing flies from every fly shop in the Rockies. Between all of the travel inspiration and trout treasure maps, Don has supplied us with infinite date-night ideas.

After a recent and somewhat grueling weekend of shed hunting, Chris said to me, “It isn’t often you really share a moment with someone– you know, when the two of you are both just right there in that place.” I hadn’t ever thought much about that, about sharing time and being so present. How often do I truly share a moment with someone without interference from wandering thoughts or worries? When you are fishing and hunting, you can’t help but be in the moment. 

The time Chris and I have shared camping along river banks, following Don’s maps to alpine streams, untying each other’s wind knots, occasionally netting a fish, sipping warm miso soup on mountain tops, and sitting together in the forest with our bows has been the most precious time of my life. 

The pursuit of trout or game is so much more than just that. Don knew this. His friends and family quote one of his favorite taglines: “The fish are a bonus." This spring, Chris prepares for his first guiding season on the Yellowstone River. “I hope to eventually achieve that wisdom Don had. I never want to think I know it all, I want to keep learning,” he told me. “I hope I am never satisfied with my skills when it comes to these passions that make me feel so alive.” 

"With fly fishing you never stop learning and it is the same with guiding; you are always learning new methods or better ways to teach," Don once said. Don was more than an outfitter or a guide, he was a teacher and a steward who never took wild places for granted. He wasn’t there just to capture trophies, he was there to truly connect and inspire a love for the natural world in his clients. 

"From Don, Chris didn’t simply inherit a boat or gun or the hundreds of maps that occupy our closet, he inherited a passion. And now it's time for Chris to inspire that love in his own clients."

Just the other evening, Chris, the dogs and I boarded Don’s drift boat for a spontaneous float. We shared a grand day on the river and when we got home the four of us curled up on the couch for dinner. We laughed over the day's events: the fish that got away, his sloppy mending and my mediocre rowing. We quoted Don’s favorite tagline and then Chris added his own amendment: “Fishing isn’t about fish, it's about family.” 

From Don, Chris didn’t simply inherit a boat or gun or the hundreds of maps that occupy our closet, he inherited a passion. And now it's time for Chris to inspire that love in his own clients.


 

With a Bachelor of Science in biology-mathematics and professional experience in photojournalism, Gloria Goñi works as a guide, writer, and photographer. Despite her Spanish roots and insatiable travel-bug, Gloria recently settled in rural Montana with her trusty Aussiedoodle, Berto. Together they fish, hunt and photograph their adventures one river and mountain at a time. Find her work in The FlyFish Journal, Modern Huntsman, Flylords among others.

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