BY JOHN N. MACLEAN
This profile is adapted from an introduction for George Croonenberghs at a Montana meeting of a the Anglers' Club of Chicago and from a eulogy given at his funeral a few weeks later. "I am grateful that my dad heard the introduction," wrote his daughter Sandy, "and I know that he was moved and appreciative." His funeral was held in Missoula in October of 2005, during one of the most beautiful Indian summers in anyone's memory.
George Croonenberghs was a giant of a man, a Montana railroad engineer and a master fly fisherman who grew up in Missoula, Montana, in the early 20th century when the town amounted to two railroad lines, a Forest Service headquarters, and a lot of lumberjacks. George chose the railroad. Missoula also had three great trout streams that joined near the town and then flowed on as the Clark Fork past a plain where Indians still pitched tipis for the summer.
The national spotlight had not yet touched Missoula. George, though, was a lifelong friend of Norman Maclean, another Missoula native, who immortalized George in his novella A River Runs Through It. George and the sturdy flies he tied run like a current through the "little blue book," as Norman often called his novella. The book forever linked George's name to the rhythms of a casting fly rod and the river of the book's title, the Big Blackfoot.
George and the Maclean boys, Norman and Paul, grew up together in Missoula and at Seeley Lake, whose waters flow into the Big Blackfoot and where in the early 1920s their families built cabins side by side. George, the youngest of three Croonenberghs boys, came from a family of giants. You have to cast your mind way back to recreate the impression that the Croonenberghs boys made in those days, when anyone even six feet tall was considered a wonder. George's brothers, Al and Boyd, were six feet seven inches and six feet three inches tall.
George didn't start out at six feet four inches tall, of course. In fact, he was the little kid, the youngest of all the boys. Being the kid, George got left behind when the older guys went off to fish the Blackfoot. Fortune smiled, though, and Norman's father, the Rev. John Norman Maclean, befriended George and taught him to tie flies. The Reverend and the boy would sit on the screened porch of the Maclean cabin and work at a tying vise until it got too windy, and then move inside, where they had to negotiate space with Mrs. Maclean.
"I used to go to see the Reverend, but you had to be careful," George once said. "You had to apply to Mrs. Maclean to see if it was okay. Sometimes she'd say, 'No, the Reverend is taking his nap,' or she'd say, 'No, he's studying, you'll have to come back another time.'"
It's easy to picture the old man instructing the boy: the Reverend, a pipe in his teeth, was an exacting but companionable teacher; George, big for his age and physically adept, was an adoring pupil. But watching George's huge form hunched over a fly tying vise in later life, you had to wonder how someone with those enormous hands could perform tasks of such demanding delicacy, working on a hook no longer than a thumb nail. George was careful, even cautious, in all things, and a gifted craftsman to boot; but part of the answer to that question has to be that he began tying flies early enough to absorb the essential movements into his being. At the age of 87 he could still tie flies that brought joy to the hearts of fishermen and false hopes to brains of fish.
The Reverend took George fishing when George was too young to use a rod, but not too young to carry the Reverend's fish basket. The Reverend Maclean was a stylish caster, wearing a glove, using lots of wrist, and beating time with his rod to a four-count rhythm, a method that today is considered quaint. Back then it was the norm, however, and today has a classic look when properly performed.
Naturally enough, the other boys took advantage of George, getting him to tie flies for them while making sure he didn't pass them by in other ways. Once George was old enough to fish on his own, Norman's brother Paul, the central figure in A River Runs Through It, would hide in the bushes and throw rocks into George's fishing holes, trying to fool him into thinking the splashes were fish, and not incidentally spoiling George's chances for a better catch than his. George, the soul of kindness, always said Paul was his best friend.
George soon became skilled enough to tie saleable flies, but making a name in a crowded field proved difficult. He solved the problem one day when he caught a magnificent basketful of fish on a secret stretch of river. In those days, Bob Ward's sporting goods on Broadway would display a fine catch on ice in a glass case on the sidewalk. They put George's fish on exhibition with a note, craftily written by George: "Caught on the Croonenberghs Grasshopper on the Blackfoot River above Clearwater bridge." For weeks afterward the Croonenberghs Grasshopper, which is a big cork thing that works only once in a while, was a sellout, and fishermen lined up basket to basket at the Clearwater bridge, which even back then was fished-out water. George wasn't lying - the fish were caught above the Clearwater bridge - miles and miles above it.
Becoming master of the Blackfoot was no small task. For George, it was never enough simply to catch a basketful of fish; he had to figure out why the fish were where they were in the first place. On a hot afternoon as the fish napped, George would wade into holes and chart the bottoms with his feet, and when the fish revived he had them marked. He always fished swiftly, never lingering over a hole or spending much time landing a fish. He fished the hot spots, hauled in the fish - or lost them - and moved on. If a fish broke off, George would instantly cast into the next likely spot; the river was too full of fish to engage in elegies to lost trout. With his height and strength, George was about the only one in the early days who could cast clear across the Blackfoot without getting his feet wet, which few men can do even today with graphite rods and weighted lines.
He trained himself to think like a fish in everything from reading water to tying flies. He would test his flies by dropping them into an aquarium suspended on a couple of chairs placed a few feet apart in his back yard. Then he would crawl underneath to observe the flies from a trout's distorted perspective. He tied his flies specifically for the Big Blackfoot, and they were as sturdy as the fish they caught. But at least one of them, the Yellow Quill, has attracted fish from New Zealand to Alaska to the rivers of the East Coast.
When I was a boy, my father turned me over to George for instruction. George was happy enough to spend most of the day pulling me along the banks of streams, hammering home a lesson about making the first cast in a hole count the most - fish don't get big by giving second chances - and plucking Gray Quills out of spruce trees where I had snagged them. When I finally graduated to the Blackfoot, George and Norman would sit together on the bank and comment on my abilities, or lack of them. George was firm but kindly, until you let the big one get away. "You muffed him, John, you muffed him," he would say. Then he'd turn his back and walk on to the next hole, leaving you feeling as empty as your fish basket.
Toward evening, George often disappeared from view. Off on his own, he could move more swiftly over the slippery rocks, throw line clear across the river, and make perfect first casts into holes whose secret ways he knew by heart. Then toward dark he came back to us, as my father and I stood small and wet and tired on the riverbank.
He emerged from the gloaming as a giant shadow, his hair heavy and dark, his face aglow with the joy of being master of the river. He had the grace of an ambling bear. He swung rather than scrambled across the rocks. He stood poised on a big rock until he had figured out a series of steps, and then he dropped from one rock to another, with dancing twists and turns. Often when he stood before us at last and held out his fish basket, a forked tail stuck out one side and the snout of a giant Rainbow out the other.
"If you want to know a secret, I'll tell you one," George once told me. "When I'm sitting beside a stream, trying to see what's driving the fish up, I try to get the flies between me and the sun. Not so much to see their color. That's important, but more important than color is radiance. How do they light up? Radiance is what makes the difference."
During his teaching career at the University of Chicago, my father stayed in touch with those back home by writing a Christmas letter - not a single, mass-produced letter, but a handwritten one to each person. George was no great correspondent, but he once sent in reply a box of flies with a note that said in its entirety, "Substitute for words." My father returned to Seeley Lake each summer with my mother Jessie, my sister Jean, and me, and we mixed in like family with the Croonenberghs clan including George, his wife Jeanne, and daughter Sandy. Eventually we kids grew up and went our separate ways, but the Croonenberghs-Maclean tie continued. After my father's retirement from teaching, and my mother's too early death, my father went to Seeley Lake earlier in the year and stayed later, sometimes into the snows of November. The Croonenberghs house in Missoula was a welcome rest stop on those trips. When he came west in late spring, he and Jeanne Croonenberghs would hike up Mount Jumbo, which overlooks Missoula, where Jeanne would reintroduce him to wildflowers whose names he had forgotten over the winter in Chicago. In the fall, the cold could become unbearable at the cabin, which isn't insulated and had only a fireplace (and later a stove) for heat. My dad slept on a thin mattress with newspapers stuffed underneath, in the hope of insulation, and only after years of suffering allowed himself an electric blanket. When even he could no longer stand the cold, he would head back to Missoula and thaw out at the Croonenberghs place. He kept this up into his eighties.
My father had, before his death, designated Jeanne and George the moral custodians of his memory - and they took on that role when Robert Redford made a movie of A River Runs Through It. By then, George was ready to pass along the lore of a lifetime, and he did so as flyfishing consultant for the movie. He and Jeanne loved being part of the film company and spent much time on location, mostly in Paradise Valley near the Yellowstone River. The cast and crew, from Redford on down to the prop girls, loved them right back.
As George grew older, he discovered that a rubber boat was an easier way to cover river miles than walking the banks. As he grew older still, it bothered him that he no longer was master of the river. But he took satisfaction in helping others learn to fish, in spinning tales of the old days, and in simply spending a day on the river - he fished other water, too, but the Big Blackfoot was always THE river.
The Croonenberghs eventually gave up their cabin at the lake, making the Maclean cabin the oldest regional structure continuously occupied by the same family. They were able to enjoy Seeley Lake, though, thanks to their daughter Sandy, who with her husband Heinz bought an all-season home there; being "at the lake" in a warm house was a source of joy to George and Jeanne to the end of their days. Now those who were young together and grew old together and are gone, belong to Seeley Lake forever.