A funny thing happened on the river…

“Have you been catching any fish?”

That’s usually a question I don’t mind answering. I may not be the greatest fisherman since St. Peter, but over the seasons I catch my share of fish and consider myself fairly competent. After all, I can tie flies, build rods, identify many aquatic insects, and occasionally I even get paid to share some angling expertise with an otherwise unsuspecting public.

Also, in recent years I’ve been participating in the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fishing log program. During the year I record a few things about each Montana fishing outing and at the end of the year the statistical wizards in Helena enter the data into their computer system and generate angling statistics they share with the world. But that’s the rub: to make it work, I have to do my part by keeping track of each fishing outing.

So, by looking back at my fishing log I am frequently reminded that fishing isn’t always about catching fish. Sometimes it’s about learning humility.

Back in mid-March I took my first spring trip to running water, enjoying some sunshine but getting blown around by strong winds roaring down the Madison River’s Beartrap Canyon. It was still a nice day to be outside and I don’t expect to catch anything the first time out anyway—or so I tell myself when I don’t catch anything. Nevertheless, that first trip started a pattern, or so it seemed.

The next few trips were to my favorite trout stream, the Big Hole River, and learned that past angling success doesn’t mean anything, and that if you go fishing in early April, you’d better plan on nasty weather. On one of those days, storm clouds hung over the mountain ranges west of the river, though bright sunshine warmed me as Flicka, my faithful Labrador retriever, and I shared a sandwich while I put on waders and assembled my rod.

The sun was still shining when I stepped into the river’s icy waters and began casting flies into the river’s current. I had a couple bumps by fish hitting my fly—and just as quickly refusing it. At least I know there are fish out there, I told myself.

Then those storm clouds roared down the mountainside. At first there was a little drizzle in the air. That quickly changed to graupel, icy snow pellets that bounced off my jacket before being swallowed up by the river. In minutes that changed to wet, heavy snow that soaked my clothing and chilled my hands. Flicka and I beat a retreat back to the truck where I turned the heater on high until feeling returned. The storm then let up a bit so I found some gloves and returned to the stream for a few minutes before I finally concluded I wasn’t having fun and drove back home through the snowstorm.

Bad fishing luck continued, pretty much in lock step with continuing cold weather and icy waters, now beginning to get murky with the beginning of what will likely be a long runoff period.

Still, that’s no reason to quit fishing. On my last outing I returned to the Madison River. While the peaks on the Tobacco Root Mountains seem to have more snow than in mid-March the lowlands are turning green and many fields are freshly planted with this year’s planned crops. Unexpectedly, the winds along the river were relatively calm.

The fish continued to ignore my offerings. I tried several spots, all to no avail. I was ready to call it another unsuccessful outing when I noticed little mayflies flying all around, plus some rises on the water. I cast my line and was gratified by the take of a fish. That fish got off, though it stayed on long enough to qualify as a ‘long distance release.’ A few minutes later another fish struck and stayed on long enough for me to land it and send it back to the river.

I’d finally caught a couple fish. I declared victory and went home.

Glad to be in Montana on a Spring day

Spring keeps happening by fits and starts. A few days ago I decided I needed to go fishing. It had been a busy week and I needed to get away from computers and telephones. If there was a hitch in my plans for the day, it might have been the fact that it was bone-chilling cold that morning across the region.

My destination for the day was Clark Canyon Dam, the reservoir south of Dillon. I keep hearing stories about the red-hot fishing on the lake about the time the ice is going out. As I drove south from Butte my biggest concern was that I waited too long and the ice was out and the magic time had passed.

Those worries were for nothing. After a couple nights of temps in the teens, there was likely more ice on the lake than a week earlier. There were spots of accessible open water along the shoreline, but in those spots there were already lots of people already fishing there. Probably from some people’s perspective things were still un-crowded, but not from mine. Rather than shoehorn myself into a spot I decided to head to the Big Hole River.

Taking a hike upstream from a Fishing Access Site on the lower river, accompanied by Flicka, my black Lab, who really appreciated a hike along the river, I got to a stretch of water that has been a long-time favorite.

It’s fun to tell stories about fishing outings when you can’t keep the fish off your hook, but this wasn’t one of them. I had just picked up a fishing magazine with an advertisement on the back cover suggesting that what we say isn’t always what we mean. For example, if someone says, “I don’t care about the fish. It’s all about being out on the water,” chances are what he really means is, “I’ve already caught seven fish and you’ve only caught two.” In my case, being out on the water was all I had.
While frequent interruptions from hungry fish would have been pleasant, it was a glorious day to be out. The frigid weather of the morning changed to pleasantly warm sunshine by early afternoon.

Canada geese were flying overhead or could be heard in backwaters as they go about the routine of setting up spring housekeeping. Mallard ducks were paired up in some old oxbows, and to prove that the season had really changed, the call of sandhill cranes echoed through the river bottoms.

The riparian areas were still dry, in need of spring rains to get some greenery going. In good water years, there is also flooding to give the thirsty ground a good drink, though that’s not likely to happen this year. Still, green grass is poking through the fallen leaves and desiccated grasses of last year.

While waiting for some fish action, I reflected on my good fortune to be living in Montana, where standing in the river is a right guaranteed by both statute and court rulings.

I had just read, in the online version of the Wall Street Journal, of controversies in Colorado, concerning landowners who would like to cut off floating access on waters flowing through their property. In Colorado, the courts have long ruled that fishermen can’t wade into rivers flowing through private land without risking being hauled into court for criminal trespass.

While that’s settled law, a current issue is whether landowners can bar access to floaters. Some property owners who have developed dude ranch operations would like to be able to advertise private fishing on what they consider their water—without the annoyance of rafters disturbing the peace and quiet.

Currently, some landowners are threatening to sue floaters, while in the legislature one representative introduced a bill to guarantee the right to float, though it got bogged down in the state senate. Currently, people on both sides of the issue are circulating initiatives to bring the question to the voters this November.

Yes, nothing like warm sunshine, and a comparison to Colorado, for example, to make me fully appreciate a spring afternoon on the Big Hole River of Montana.

Note: the photo above is Clark Canyon Reservoir on April 10

Fishing on the Ides of March

Flyfishing, if judged by photos on magazine covers, is about the search for big fish. If you examine it a little closer, those fish may be the end object of the search, but to get to that point it’s more about the search for the tiny. Bugs that is.

Western trout streams become a magnet for travelers in early summer for one of the biggest bugs around, the salmon fly, that big stonefly that occasionally makes big trout lose all sense of caution while they seek out this juicy chunk of protein.

Those hatches are fun while they last, but after just a few days it’s all over. For a regular diet, trout don’t often get those t-bone and prime rib dinners. It’s more often about getting lots and lots of hors d’oeuvres. In late summer, tricos are that delicate little munchie. In early spring, when it’s still too early for the first mayfly hatches, midges sometimes get the trout into a feeding frame of mind.

The trick is to be on the river when it happens, as well as having the right flies, plus the luck to have some trout pick out your feeble imitation from the thousands of the genuine article that fill the air and water’s surface.

The lower Madison River is one of those trout streams where midges are a mainstay of the trout diet, though there’s still that trick of being there when the action happens.
Joining me in that search last week was Joe DeGraw, a graduate student at the University of Wyoming. He was in Butte during spring break. Something about dating a Butte girl, meeting parents, and other complicated issues leading to a request, several weeks earlier, “Would you consider taking him fishing?”

The early morning was frosty, but there was a forecast for a warm afternoon. Almost amazingly, there were only gentle breezes coming down the Beartrap Canyon, and when we took a closer look at the river, we could see bunches of midges along the edge of the current. What we didn’t see was signs of fish feeding on them.

But, we’d come to fish and that’s what we did, though it wasn’t exactly fast action. After trying a couple different spots, Joe had picked up a couple rainbows with a pheasant tail nymph. That was a couple more fish than I had seen.

In mid-afternoon I suggested we try yet another spot, one where I’d had midge action in other years. It turned out to be a good hunch. There’s a stretch of water with several submerged rocks in a line that give fish a break from the currents and forms feeding lanes. On taking a closer look, fish were rising, picking off those tiny insects from the water’s surface.

So, we’d finally found the right place at the right time. The next challenge is to see if the trout could pick out our imitation bugs and decide it looked like lunch.
Even if the fish think the fly is the real thing, another angler challenge is to spot whether one of those splashy rises is from a trout coming up to the fake fly or to the real thing. It’s hard telling how many rises I missed, but several took one of half a dozen imitations that I threw at them to make the afternoon a success.

Angling success is, of course, highly subjective. Sometimes, just avoiding stumbling and drowning in icy March waters makes the day a success. If that’s the minimum criterion, then our day was a roaring success. We avoided icy stumbles, we picked up a little color from the bright spring sunshine to replace that winter pallor, and we each caught some active rainbow trout. All in all, we had a great day, certainly a better day than Julius Caesar had on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. The Ides of March on the Madison River was way better.

Now, whether Joe wins the hand of the Butte girl remains to be seen. On the other hand I have a return invitation to try the North Platte River in Wyoming.

Flyfishing in Liquid Ice

It’s hard to appreciate just how cold water can be until you spend a little time standing in it. Just ask Flicka, who was standing next to me in the river, shivering, how cold it was.

When that last weekend of February turned unseasonably warm I decided it was time to load up a flyrod and head to the Big Hole for some flyfishing. My last fishing outing was back in early October, after which chasing pheasants, ruffed grouse, ducks, and other critters seemed more important than fishing.

Now that we’re approaching the end of winter, flyfishing is again moving up on my list of priorities. I’ve put in some afternoons at the flytying bench, but there comes a time to get back to reality—even if that reality means standing in a river of liquid ice.

If an afternoon of fishing from a popular Fishing Access Site brings up summer memories of crowded parking lots and the hustle and bustle of people gearing up while waiting for their turn at the boat ramp, winter fishing can be eerily peaceful. The access site is deserted, except for my black Lab, Flicka, and me.

While we’ve had a mild, dry winter, you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the river right now. The river is low and crystal clear, but it’s flowing through a narrowed channel, flanked by great slabs of shelf ice, two and three feet thick and topped with a couple inches of snow.

It’s a long step down from the top of the ice into the water, and once in the water it feels a bit awkward wading in the river after that long layoff. As the cold radiates from the water, through waders and into feet and legs, it’s a powerful reminder to wade carefully. Taking a dunking in a trout stream may be a part of flyfishing. In August, it might even be refreshing. In February, an unscheduled fall could lead to all sorts of complications that I’d just as soon not experience. Flicka evidently agreed with that sentiment and headed back to shore, where sitting on a slab of ice was evidently warmer than standing in flowing water.

While my expectations are low when I go fishing this early, the sensation of a fish hitting my fly was a happy surprise. In the icy winter waters, fish are sluggish, so there’s not a lot of fight in the fish. Nevertheless, landing and releasing that 10-inch brown trout made the outing a success.

For the past half-dozen years, or so, I’ve been participating in the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Fishing Log program. It’s simple and easy to participate. After each fishing outing, you just make a quick entry in a little booklet telling when and were you fished, and what you caught. At the end of the year you send the log into FWP headquarters. I’m sure the people entering the log data into that big database program don’t give a darn as to what kind of success we had on any individual day. Still, I personally feel better about it all when I can report some positive result. It’s lots better than confessing to getting skunked.

If you’re interested in participating in the Fishing Log Program, just call FWP at 406-444-2449 and get yourself on the list.

As for winter flyfishing, it’s always a good idea to check the regulations before you cast that fishing pole. Some waters are closed to fishing during the winter. Others are open for catch & release fishing, and some waters are open for catch & fry. And, as I wrote last week, don’t forget to get your new fishing license before you go anywhere.

Another note on wading icy waters; a basic truth I’ve learned over the years is that waders leak. If not at first, the day will still come when you’ll have wet feet after a session in the water. Again, it’s no big deal in August, but a big deal in March. So, a big thanks to my wife for that new pair of waders under the Christmas tree last December.