When traveling country roads in Montana, we need to be aware that we who drive motor vehicles do not always have the right of way. We should also keep in mind that in mid to late June, ranchers are moving livestock to summer pasture in the mountains.
Those two facts of life under the Big Sky coincided last week when I turned off the interstate to drive up the canyon in my search for salmonflies and the trout that eat them.
I wasn’t surprised. I could tell from a mile away that ranchers were moving cattle and that they had already gone through beautiful downtown Divide. I was hoping that the bovines would already be off the road and on their way to mountain meadows, but that wasn’t the case.
The cattle were halfway between Divide and the Divide bridge, moving at their own speed, or as much speed and direction that cowboys and cow dogs chaperoning the trip could get out of them.
I’m telling the story not because I’m upset about ranchers moving cattle on the highway. Over the years I’ve often been stuck behind similar herds of cattle making seasonal migrations, as well as noting when it has already happened. When you find yourself behind a bunch of cows on the highway you go slowly and patiently. Generally, you’ll be able to work your way through the critters and continue the trip at a more normal speed. Somehow, the old Roger Miller song about “You can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd” comes to mind.
While I was creeping along behind the cows, the lead in a long parade of cars, a guy on a motorcycle drove up and in front of me and came to a stop with a loud “Vroom, vroom,” of the cycle engine.
The biker suddenly found himself face-to-face, so to speak, with a mounted cowboy in a confrontation, with the cowboy effectively demonstrating assertive communication skills, explaining that scaring his cows was not a good idea and that doing it again would have consequences, probably involving a lasso.
The confrontation concluded peacefully, and the subdued biker and cars eventually found a path through the herd without further incident.
That bit of business concluded, I got to the river for the real purpose of the trip.
I’d made a similar trip a few days earlier, only to find the hatch hadn’t started that far up the river yet. This time I got it about right, as many shoreline willows had nymph shucks clinging to the branches, indicating where a salmonfly emerged from its exoskeleton to become a winged insect, along with the occasional salmonfly flying over the river.
I’d like to tell how the big trout had lost all sense of caution because of the giant stonefly migration, but that wasn’t the case. They’d been watching a continual parade of drift boats and rubber rafts floating overhead and seeing probably thousands of stonefly imitations on the water.
It can get frustrating, seeing fish come up and take a look at the fly and then turn it down. But that’s how it works. In my morning session, I did have a hookup, but the fish managed to slip the hook.
In mid-afternoon, just after a thunderstorm had rolled through, a rainbow trout took my fly and immediately started showing off its acrobatic ability and speed. I eventually landed the fish, took its picture and sent it back to grow some more.
By the time you read this, the hatch is likely about over, but that’s okay. While salmonflies were the main attraction, there was a profusion of bugs along the water, with several kinds of mayflies, along with caddisflies and smaller types of stoneflies.
Salmonflies bring the crowds, but I think the summer’s best fishing is after the salmonfly hatch, when the crowds have thinned, and with spring runoff about done, trout will be looking up at the all-you-can-eat buffet floating by.
Just remember, if ranchers are still moving livestock, you might want to wash your car when you get home.