A few years ago, I got a call for a fishing job on the highline of Montana. The highline is the northernmost row of counties along the Canadian border. Talk about desolate. It wasn’t exactly the end of the earth, but you sure could see it from there. It turned out to be one of the all-time strange fishing jobs I’ve done in years.

First of all, I didn’t recognize the customer’s name. It wasn’t on any of our computerized lists, so I didn’t know if we had an account set up, or if we would ever get paid. I wasn’t too worried about that though, because I am a field hand and paper shuffling has never been my thing. I gave the info to one of the secretaries and headed off to round up the tools. Next, I asked for directions to the rig. Most modern operators use a system of latitude and longitude to locate their wells anywhere on the planet. I usually just put it into my GPS and I’m off. He didn’t know, so I started writing down directions. After about 6 hours of paved road, the route got interesting.

Montana Highway
Highways in the highline of Montana are, of course, marked. Unfortunately, the roads leading to some of columnist Wayne Nash’s fishing jobs are less so. Source: Roger Peterson / U.S. Forest Service

The northeastern part of Montana is a pretty featureless rolling plain without much to navigate by. His directions weren’t too precise, either. “Go north a few miles, and then turn west.” How far? “Oh, it’s a pretty good piece, ya can’t miss it. … If ya cross a stream ford, turn around.” The rig was between Glasgow and Chinook, Mont., a distance of about 140 miles. That narrows it down some.

By the time I got off the pavement and headed north, it was dark, which really helped the navigation. After an hour or so, I was starting to wonder if I was still on planet earth. I hadn’t seen a house, car, truck or anything for miles. Suddenly the screen on my GPS went out. It wasn’t telling me much before, but it was telling me less now. A few miles later, I figured out why. I was in Canada! The border in that part of the world is not very well marked and there sure ain’t no fence.

I quickly turned around and headed back south. Thinking about it, I sure hoped I didn’t meet Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or a customs agent or somebody, because I had a few items in my truck that are frowned on by our northern neighbors. For instance, every oil company and rig anywhere has rules about carrying firearms, but nobody ever asks. It’s common sense to carry in the high plains. It’s a don’t ask, don’t tell deal, but the Canadian border dudes have a fit about it.

I made it back across where I figured the border might be. I could tell because the GPS came back on. Apparently, it was not programmed for Canada and just went off at the border. A few miles later, I found a trail I had missed earlier, headed west. It didn’t look much like a rig road but it was the only way west for miles. I went west for “a pretty good piece,” just like my directions said, and crossed a stream ford! It wasn’t too deep, but at least I did have an idea that I was on the right road and had passed the rig. So much for “ya can’t miss it.”

Heading back east, I kept looking for some sign of the rig. It was after midnight by then. Eventually, I saw a dim glow of light down a side canyon to the south. As I topped the rise over into the canyon, there was the rig. Sure enough, I didn’t miss it!

The fishing job looked pretty straightforward at first. They had set 7-inch casing and gone in the hole with a bit on plain drill pipe to drill out the shoe. Fifteen feet out of the shoe, the bottom joint twisted off, leaving the bit and 29 feet of pipe in the hole. The top was inside the casing, so I wasn’t too worried about picking it up. I made up my overshot, jars and the whole BHA and started into the hole. Then the first “minor complication” struck. I hit something where it wasn’t supposed to be and couldn’t get any deeper.

I worked and rotated the pipe for an hour or more while I talked to the driller about what it could be. Eventually, I found out that area was right in the middle of the 90-degree curve. They had trouble with the casing there and worked on it a while, a few days ago. Now they tell me. I was running out of ideas, so I had them make a pot of coffee while I walked around the location to think about it. Lo and behold, in a junk box beside the rig, I found three 6-inch carbide string reamers, completely worn out. AH HA! A clue. I asked the crew, and they explained that they thought the casing had collapsed and they went in with the reamers to “open it up.” By the look of the reamers, they did a lot more than open it up. They had milled up a good section of the casing. No wonder I couldn’t get down!

I went back on the floor to work the pipe a little more while I told them that there was a good chance we were going to lose this well if I couldn’t get down. Nobody was happy, and I was about to give up when my tools dropped through into the hole below. We went right on to bottom and found the top of the fish right where it was supposed to be. I engaged my overshot without too much drama and started out of the hole. When we got back up to the bad spot, I had to work the fish quite a while to get it out, but we came through and on out of the hole, without the fish. I was very disappointed. I don’t like to leave things in the ground. It damages my delicate self-esteem.

They asked, “What now?” I reloaded the overshot and went back in the hole for what I thought would be a do-or-die run. We went right through the bad spot without as much as a bobble on the weight indicator, which surprised everyone. The big surprise was when I got to bottom. I was able to go 29 feet deeper that I had before. Where was the fish? We circulated the hole and talked about things for a while until we decided the only thing to do was come out and see what the tools looked like. I had gotten rough enough on bottom, so I knew I would have some forensic marks to look at, even though I was pretty well out of ideas. We got out of the hole without the fish! I looked at my tools and I could tell I had been in formation, rather than on steel. The fish was gone!

The only explanation we could come up with was, when I was working the fish through the tight spot in the casing, I had pushed it outside, into a poorly cemented area. This held the casing up, and aligned it with the top section, and I somehow lost it, outside. The fish was not on the bank, but it wasn’t in the well bore either. I laid down my tools and went to sleep in the truck while the crew ran another bit in the hole. It went right to bottom and they continued drilling. Success! I guess this just shows, fishin’ is like a box of chocolates … ya never know what yer gonna get. And before you guys that know me say I’m shovelin’ Democrat campaign promises, I’ve got witnesses on this one! .

For more Wayne Nash columns, visit www.thedriller.com/wayne