Heaven on Earth – book reiew

The days are getting longer and I’m thinking of spring. Spring, of course, leads to other things, especially flyfishing. Those fishing days last October now seem like ancient history and the fly rods down in the basement are sending telepathic messages that they want to be brought back out into the light of day and to flex their fibers over moving water.

Of course, I’ve been getting other messages, as well, especially after spending some pleasurable evenings reading a new book, Heaven on Earth – Stories of Fly Fishing, Fun & Faith, by Andrew Marshall Wayment.

Andy Wayment is a lawyer in Idaho Falls, Idaho, but after reading his book, along with following his blog at http://theuplandequation.blogspot.com, it’s obvious that the outdoors, including flyfishing and upland bird hunting, are at the center of his passions. Of course, he and his wife, Kristin, have six children, so family is also important and will keep his nose to the law firm’s grindstone for years to come.

Still, the outdoors, and reading and writing about the outdoors, is an integral part of life for the author, and that integration of family, religious faith, profession, and the outdoors is totally seamless, and that integration is the true theme to his book.

Wayment grew up fishing, though he didn’t learn flyfishing until he got married, when his father-in-law got him hooked on the sport. He then passed that new passion back to his own father. With these family connections it’s only natural that many of the fishing outings he describes have family connections.

In one of those family outings his brother-in-law, Paul, came back to camp with a huge rainbow trout and a great story, one that made Andy jealous for years, until the truth came out on another outing. Andy writes, “With the truth came the realization that, although Paul was no master angler, he was a master fish-story teller and a master of deceit.”

I started laughing when I read that, thinking, Isn’t that redundant?

A significant part of the book tells of his years at law school at the University of Idaho. He quickly decided that rather than getting involved with the intense competition of the law school environment, he needed to get away from it, so he rented a house in the countryside and where he had ready access to hunting and fishing after school. The buzz among his classmates was that he was going to wash out in his first year.

Instead of flunking out, he excelled and graduated near the head of his class and on the school’s law review. He credits his academic success to hard work, prayer, and “finding reprieve from the pressure in the outdoors.”

He relates that now, as a practicing attorney, he normally wears a suit and tie at work, though he notes that if you look closely, you’ll see the tie probably has pheasants, and his belt buckle has a trout on it. He explains, “As an attorney, I sometimes feel like I am out of my element, like a fish out of water, or like an immigrant. I wear these emblems so that I never forget who I am, where I come from, how I got this far, and most importantly, where I can turn for peace. You can take me out of the wild, but you cannot take the spirit of nature or its creator out of me. It is an integral part of me.”

His stories aren’t always serious, especially when he tells of hauling a horse trailer to a mountain lake, to both indulge his love of fishing along with a daughter’s love of horses. It’s an outing where Murphy’s Law reigns supreme.

Still, he leaves the reader with the feeling that he is a man at peace with who he is and with his relationship with a loving creator. In short, his is the story of a lucky man, a person you’d probably like to know.

The book is available from the author online at www.heavenonearthbook.com.

Fishing, not catching, is sometimes what it’s all about.

That’s what’s left of a pontoon boat on that rock. The Yellowstone can be unforgiving.

“Watch where the guides are going,” I thought, as I drove along on Interstate 90.

I was on my way to Red Lodge where I was going to help cover the annual convention of the Montana Tavern Association for their house organ, “Montana Tavern Times.” It’s a fun convention to cover and I’ve gotten to know a lot of neat people. Still, I was already looking forward to taking a couple hours on the return trip to stop and do some fishing, because I knew ahead of time that my batteries would need re-charging, and a couple hours of flyfishing would be the perfect way to do it.

So, when a couple SUVs towing drift boats passed me east of Livingston, I couldn’t help be curious about where they might be exiting off the freeway. As it turned out, they took the exit I had already been kind of planning to take. I figured that was a confirmation of my hunch.

The Yellowstone River in mid-September is a different river than it was for most of the summer of 2011. The big river was a muddy, roaring torrent most of the summer before the spring runoff period finally exhausted itself. Even in mid-August, when I made a trip to the upper Yellowstone to report on the Reel Recovery program (See August 24 edition), the river was still relatively high and just beginning to clear.

Now, the river is finally running clear and in the autumn sunshine it sparkles with blues and greens when you get distant glimpses of the water from the highway.

It’s a clear, sunny midday when I drive into the fishing access site I planned on earlier in the week. It’s still cool after a chilly night, but it’s warming quickly as I put on my waders and string up my flyrod.

As I walk downstream with the plan to work my way back up a series of riffles, multitudes of grasshoppers are buzzing around the shoreline willows and grasses, confirming my thought that I should try a hopper pattern. I’d even tied up some lavender hoppers, based on what I’d learned on the last trip.

I hoped to be on the river at the right place, the right time, and with the right fly this time. Tell that to the fish, however.

As I worked up the riffles, I cast my fake grasshopper toward the shallow edges and to the deeper water farther out. I caught a glimpse of one fish following the hopper’s drift down the current, but it decided that it wasn’t edible after all and disappeared.

After that refusal, I considered options. There were a few tricos in the air, though there didn’t seem to be enough to bring fish to the surface. There was an occasional mayfly or caddis, but again nothing that seemed to be attracting attention.

I tried another hopper pattern, one that had more hopper-like colors than lavender. I tried other dry flies. When those didn’t work I tried some nymphs.

As is often the case when fish aren’t cooperating, my mind wandered. I thought of my last evening of fishing over the Labor Day weekend when my last fish of the evening was a beautiful westslope cutthroat trout, a fish I figured made the weekend’s fishing a success. On this water I’d enjoy catching a Yellowstone cutthroat trout.

A rock in the middle of the river had an unusual decoration: the green cover of what had been a pontoon from a pontoon boat. It’s a vivid reminder that the Yellowstone River may look relatively placid in September, but we can’t forget that it can be an unforgiving foe at times, and I’m curious about the story of survival from the person who got shipwrecked.

 Finally, under what is now a hot, blazing sun, I realize it’s time to quit fishing and get back on the road.

I felt disappointed the fish weren’t biting, but then I realized I had accomplished exactly what I’d set out to do. I’d spent a couple hours flyfishing and felt refreshed.

Reel Recovery – Helping men fight cancer

Signing the vest and adding strength upon strength

“This is a sacred moment,” Stan Golub, the executive director of Reel Recovery, said, as a group of men wrote their name on a flyfishing vest before starting a day of flyfishing along the Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone National Park.

Reel Recovery was founded in 2003 by a group of avid fly anglers inspired by their fishing buddy’s ongoing battle with brain cancer. It’s a national non-profit organization that conducts free flyfishing retreats for men recovering from life-threatening cancer. Combining flyfishing instruction with directed “courageous conversations,” the organization offers the men a time to share stories, learn new skills, form friendships and gain renewed hope as they confront the challenges of recovery.

One of the organization’s traditions is that they wear vests previously worn and signed by previous participants. “This is our legacy here,” Golub, said, “think of this as a river of strength. And remember that someone, a few years from now, will be wearing this vest and sharing your strength.”

Golub, who lives in Needham, Massachusetts, was one of the founders of the organization and is the organization’s only employee. The core of the program is a network of volunteers who organize retreats, facilitate discussions, and, of course, take participants fishing. This past week at a retreat held at Dome Mountain Ranch, a number of area fishing guides, and this reporter, took days off from guiding to become “fishing buddies” for participants.

I was a buddy for Josh, a computer programmer from Missoula, who is recovering from throat cancer. Last year he went through surgery and radiation for his cancer, losing several months of work as he coped with his illness. Josh, as it turns out, is an experienced angler, so didn’t need any instruction and when we went to a private pond on the ranch, did well, latching onto seven nice trout.

That afternoon, I was a buddy for Jim, a retired rocket scientist (really) from Hamilton, as we floated with Randy Kittelson, a Presbyterian minister and flyfishing fanatic from Denver. Randy was at the retreat as a facilitator, with a unique perspective, in that he first came to the program as a volunteer, and then as a participant after he came down with prostate cancer—his second serious bout with cancer. Unfortunately, Jim, a beginning angler, didn’t catch any fish though we didn’t feel bad about it. It seems that if you didn’t have the right fly, the fish weren’t hitting. The hot fly, it turns out, was a lavender-bodied grasshopper imitation.

Why trout would prefer a lavender hopper makes no sense. Surely they’ve never seen a real bug like that, but sometimes that’s how it works.

Reel Recovery, which initially received some money from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, held its first retreat in June 2003 in Loveland, Colorado, and did their second retreat in October of that year.  In 2004, they held six retreats. In 2011, they’ll be holding 19 retreats in 14 states. Retreats are free for participants, and Reel Recovery gets funding from a number of foundations, corporations, Trout Unlimited chapters and fishing clubs, as well as local fundraisers.

Though participating in a Reel Recovery retreat is generally a one-time event, many past participants come back as volunteers, often acting as facilitators and starting retreats in states that previously hadn’t had retreats.

Of course, some people also get hooked on flyfishing and one facilitator remarked that he’d heard from the wife of a participant that her husband came home, went to a flyshop and bought one of everything. She was ecstatic. “He finally has a reason to get out of the house.”

“We encourage the men to stay in contact,” Golub said. “We hear that many of the guys get together regularly and they’ve become the best of friends.”

Participants go out, Golub concludes, “To have fun, get a break from their routine and to get a new perspective on dealing with cancer. Certainly, they get to know other people whom they can relate to in a special way.”

Finally, Reel Recovery’s motto: Be well; fish on.

For more information, they’re online at www.reelrecovery.org.

Evening flyfishing – a special time

Evening shadows lengthen and the river bottoms come to life at the end of the day. An owl flies into a cottonwood tree to get a good lock at the anglers walking into its domain. At the end of a warm and sunny day, it’s time to put on a good helping of bug spray and go out in search of some of those fish that ignore anglers during the day.

Now that it’s mid-August, tactics that worked a few weeks ago probably aren’t as effective anymore. Pale Morning Dun mayfly hatches aren’t as prolific as they were a month ago and trout aren’t looking up at the water’s surface for their next bit of food with any reliability.

That doesn’t mean fishing isn’t good. It’s just time to switch gears and go fishing when the fish are feeding, which is about the time that everybody else gets off the river.

Our son, Kevin, and his family, have been camping and fishing with us the last few weekends, so Kevin took a walk with me through the mosquito haven that is the lower Big Hole River in search of fishing action.

Unlike the daytime hours, when the river is filled with float anglers and recreational floaters, the evening more often is a time for the solitary angler willing to brave mosquitoes and falling temperatures in hopes of finding trout on the feed.

There are never guarantees, of course. Still, when Kevin and I walked through the tall grasses and brush, we were filled with anticipation. We were heading for a spot that has rewarded us many times in the past, a bend in the river where we can wade the shallows and cast toward deeper water along the opposite bank.

Aquatic entomologists sometimes talk about an ‘evening drift,’ a time when mayfly nymphs let go of their rocky shelters on the stream bottom and go for a little trip. Fish, of course, take advantage of this chance for an evening snack, though sometimes those bits of aquatic food have a little sting, often in the form of a soft-hackled wet fly, part of the legacy of Syl Nemes, whose death I noted a month ago.

This evening, the action is slow in starting. In fact, I begin to wonder whether there will be any action. It somehow seems that when I’ve had hot action it was when the water is lower than it is this season of high water flows. I finally have a strike from a fish that grabs the fly and goes for a short run before shaking the hook.

I walk a little farther downstream and change flies and this one; a soft-hackled pheasant tail nymph seems to have some magic to it. I catch an energetic brown trout that puts up a good fight before I’m able to bring it in for the release. Then I get a substantially bigger brown that goes on one long run after another before tiring. A third fish follows that one.

By then it’s almost dark. The air temperature has dropped and I’m feeling chilled from wet-wading in the cool water, so it’s actually a relief to walk back through the trees and warm up a bit while we slap mosquitoes. We’ve done better on other occasions but we had enough action to make us happy.

We weren’t the only anglers on the river that evening. Earlier we’d passed a bait fisherman excited about a three-pound brown trout he’d caught a little earlier. He was gone when we came back but we heard the next day he’d caught several more browns, including a deep-bellied, nine-pound brown trout that I suspect might stop at a taxidermy shop along its way to a trophy wall.

Late evening and night fishing isn’t for everyone, though on a visit to Michigan a couple years ago I learned that there it’s almost a religion during early summer brown drake and ‘Hex’ hatches. Here in Montana it’s almost a given that you’ll have the river to yourself.

Just don’t forget the bug dope.

Mountain Creeks and Brook Trout

Charley casting to brookies with Flicka supervising

Our southwestern Montana rivers are finally dropping. They’re still high by normal late July standards, but there finally seems to be a light at the end of the runoff tunnel.

Right now, conditions are about prime for floaters on the Big Hole River and if our last weekend on the river is an example, people are taking full advantage of water conditions more typical of late June than late July.

Still, I’d bet that we’re still a good week or so away from good wade-fishing, and if you do find a good spot to walk along the edges of the river, you’ll be facing a long parade of drift boats and rubber rafts coming your way.

An alternative might be to explore some of those many squiggly blue lines on topographical maps, those high country creeks that have been pouring all that water down to our rivers the last couple months. That reservoir of melting snow is finally diminishing and the creeks are dropping.

Our friend, Charley Storms of Evansville, Indiana, joined us this past weekend for camping and fishing. He and a cousin from Philadelphia had spent the week at an area fishing lodge, enjoying good float fishing, but when I suggested exploring some creeks, he was ready for new adventures.

The first creek we tried didn’t pan out, though the drive up the valley was worth the trip from the standpoint of wildflowers. The mountain meadows were a riot of color from a profusion of wildflowers. The creek, however, was still too high for flyfishing.

We moved to another creek and had some action, catching a couple fish plus getting a few more rises. Still, the lower part of the stream had more water than desirable, so we drove farther up the valley.

At higher elevations, conditions were about perfect. There was plenty of water, but it was easy wading up and down the creek. The biggest challenge was finding runs that weren’t choked with willows. By walking around, however, it was no problem to find runs and pools where there was casting room.

Creek fishing is flyfishing simplified. You don’t need fancy equipment or hundreds of different flies to match the hatches. In high country creeks, the growing season is short so fish can’t afford to pass up too many tidbits of food passing by. A small, bushy fly, perhaps one already chewed up on some other trip, is just about perfect.

For better or worse, most high country creeks are overrun with small brook trout. I think of them as the knapweed of trout. They’re not native to the West and they outcompete our native cutthroat. Ironically, on many eastern waters where brook trout are native, rainbow trout, originally imported from West Coast rivers, are the evil alien invaders. On the bright side, brook trout are abundant and if you’re hungry for a fish dinner, go ahead and fill your creel, and if you don’t have a creel a plastic grocery bag or forked willow stick will work almost as well.

I have a friend in Idaho, Chris Hunt, who is a writer and a staffer for Trout Unlimited. He has a website titled, www.eatmorebrooktrout.com, and a slogan, “Save the west; eat a brook trout.” If you need an endorsement for guilt-free fish munching, go no further.

The fish Charley and I caught weren’t trophies, unless you consider an 8-inch fish a trophy. Despite their diminutive size, these brookies are mature fish and one of them was even full of eggs developing for fall spawning.

The final reward for a fun-filled day of fishing, however, was back in camp. I spritzed the fish with olive oil, sprinkled them with salt and pepper and put them on the charcoal grill. In a few minutes the fish were perfectly done and we ate them as appetizers while venison steaks took their turn on the grill for our dinner’s main course.

I’m looking forward to fishing the Big Hole and other waters during what’s left of summer, but I’ll reserve more time for some of those headwaters creeks.

Syl Nemes, Mr. Soft-Hackle, remembered.

Syl Nemes in 1998 on the Madison River

About a dozen years ago, I served as program chairman for the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited and had the privilege of contacting people in the flyfishing world and talking them into sharing their expertise in flyfishing, just for the fun of it. No money, just fun.

A highlight was the evening Syl (short for Sylvester) Nemes did a presentation on his lifelong passion, soft-hackled flies. Al Troth of Dillon, another flyfishing legend, came to Butte for the evening and Al and Syl exchanged a number of viewpoints, some of which were rather pointed. Judging by the grins of people enjoying the exchanges between these two legendary characters of the sport, I knew that booking Syl Nemes was a home run.

The next day I met Syl and his wife, Hazel, for breakfast and the opportunity for an interview, and out of this conversation came an invitation to go fishing with Syl on the Madison River a couple weeks later. Subsequently I occasionally ran into Syl at fishing shows where he did flytying demonstrations or promoted new books.

It came as a shock when I belatedly learned that Syl Nemes died at his home in Bozeman on February 3, 2011, at age 88.

Syl grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where a barber introduced him to the basics of flyfishing and flytying. He enlisted in the Army at the beginning of WWII and in England met Hazel, his future English war bride, who waited anxiously as Syl went to Normandy, just four days after D Day, to direct Air Corps fighters in the push to Germany. He returned to England after nine months and married Hazel, bringing her to the U.S. after the war, where Syl went to Kent State University on the G.I. Bill.

Syl worked as a copywriter for major advertising agencies a number of years and also freelanced as a photojournalist, though when possible he arranged vacations and weekends around flyfishing, always using soft-hackled flies.

In 1975 he published his first book, “The Soft-Hackled Fly,” which re-introduced the all but forgotten English-style wet fly to American anglers.

In 1984, Syl and Hazel moved to Bozeman and, in retirement, built a life around flyfishing, designing new variations of soft-hackled flies, and writing more books and magazine articles promoting variations on soft-hackled flies. Syl became known worldwide for his work; there is even a flyfishing club in Japan that is named after him. In 2008, the Madison-Gallatin Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Bozeman honored Syl with their “Legends of the Headwaters” award.

In the brief time that I got to spend with Syl I learned to appreciate him as a humble and gentle man, and for his love of learning new wrinkles of entomology and fly design, including his 1998 book, “Spinners,” highlighting a then mostly-overlooked part of the mayfly life cycle, as well as demonstrating formidable skills in macro photography.

Syl could be a bit stubborn about his flies, however. On the day we fished together, he commented, “A fly company sent me a whole bag of bead heads and synthetic stuff for me to try out and design some new flies. They’re still sitting in the garage. I don’t want anything to do with that stuff.” Syl believed in the traditions of soft-hackled flies, and natural materials, such as silk and partridge feathers.

In an interview with the Bozeman Chronicle, Hazel commented, “Syl didn’t like to fish too much with people he didn’t know,” so memories of that afternoon on the Madison River seem all the more precious.

Hazel told me that in Syl’s last couple years he had mostly lost interest in fishing, possibly due to subtle changes in his health, though just last October a friend took him out for what turned out to be Syl’s last day of fishing, on a favorite stream, DePuy Spring Creek.

I have autographed copies of several of Syl’s books, including that first 1975 edition of “The Soft-Hackled Fly,” now a collector’s item, as well as some flies that he tied. They are treasured reminders of a memorable friend.

Trico Time in Montana

My Lab Flicka sitting on a rock in the middle of the river keeping an eye on the action

It’s mid-morning and the pool of water below the riffle looks calm. It looks calm but looks can be deceiving. The surface of the water is calm but the mayhem is about to start.

While I don’t see any fish rising I tie on a small dry fly and cast it out on the water. There’s a dimple on the water’s surface and I tighten the line; a nice fish is on the other end and it’s not at all happy about that little hook in the corner of its jaw. After a short but splashy fight I draw the fish up close so I can unhook it and send it back to the water.

For the last couple weeks I’ve been spending time on the Big Hole River following the trico hatch, that late summer blizzard of tiny mayflies that get the trout in a brief feeding frenzy just about every morning.

The trico, short for Ttrichorythodes, is tiny but prolific. As is the case with most aquatic insects, that last stage of life as an adult flying insect is brief. The bug emerges from the water in the early morning hours and in the next few hours will change from a dun to a spinner, breed in mid-air in a swarm of many thousands of bugs and then return to the water to lay eggs and die. At that point its mission in life is complete. It became an adult flying insect and procreated.

The insects feed the fish in all its life forms but it’s that final stage, the spinner fall, which triggers the feeding frenzy, though there was a time when fly anglers occasionally looked at the trico hatch as the “white curse” because they really hadn’t come to an understanding of this tiny bug and how to fish for trout during the trico season.

The sheer numbers of flying insects in the air is more than most of us can imagine. Swarms of tricos fly over the river in a visible cloud. Gusts of wind will scatter the swarms and it’s almost like a snowstorm.

On this particular morning at 10:30 the mating swarms hadn’t shown up yet but the fish were waiting and eager to nibble on anything small and dry. While I unhooked that first fish I could see some tricos in the air and at the same time I could see the rings on the water’s surface where fish were sipping in the little bits of protein. As they got into it there were rises all over the pool, with splashy rises becoming common as the trout got caught up in the moment.

On that last weekend in August I fished the same pool on two successive mornings and on the first morning I caught mostly rainbow trout. The second morning I caught mostly brown trout. Of course it’s hard to fish the trico spinner fall without catching whitefish. Whitefish really seem to love sipping in those tricos and sometimes it’ll seem as if there are nothing but whitefish in the river. On an earlier weekend I fished another stretch of the Big Hole and whitefish, along with a few yearling grayling, furnished almost all of the action.

On some waters trout are notoriously selective about taking flies that are a close match to the real thing. That means flies that seem almost microscopic, especially for those of us well advanced into the bifocal generation. Personally, I find tying flies on #24 hooks more trouble than it’s worth, and trying to thread the end of my tippet into the eye of the hook almost impossible.

On the Big Hole, at least, I can usually get away with using larger flies, if you call a fly on a #18 hook large. On this particular morning I started with a standard #18 Adams. After several fish the fly looked pretty tattered but as long as it floated it caught fish.

Elk and upland birds are taking over the spotlight right now, but don’t forget the trout. There’s a lot of fun going on.

Life Among the Ants

Nature is full of drama—scenes of love and life played out daily in nature, such as sharp-tailed grouse doing a mating dance in springtime, or in autumn, mountain sheep rams banging heads together to sort out issues of dominance and submission.

Some scenes are best viewed with a macro lens.

Our son, Kevin, and his family, have been with us the last couple weeks, and Kevin and I have been fishing and floating on the Big Hole River. On our last outing, we pulled into shore at midday and we found a log in the shade of a cottonwood tree for a lunch break.

After finishing my sandwich I glanced down at my feet and saw one of those dramas playing out. A few flakes of bread crust dropped to the ground while we were eating and ants were gathering to make sure this precious windfall of food wouldn’t go to waste. In fact, it was the sight of a large flake of crust moving on the ground that first caught my eye. Large is a subjective description of course. In this case, a flake ¼” by 1/8” was large, considering the size of the ants which were a diminutive 1/16” long.

A group of ants, possibly around a dozen, were working on this shred of bread crust. There was plenty of help on the team to move the bounty, though they had to move the crust over an obstacle course of twigs, shreds of leaves and other debris. One ant showed off super strength. This one had a tiny flake of crust and the ant scurried across a little patch of bare ground, like a kindergartner carrying a sheet of Styrofoam across a playground.

Ants are one of our most widespread creatures and are native to every continent except Antarctica, and a few large islands, such as Greenland. Over 12,000 ant species have been classified, though entomologists estimate there are at least 22,000 species.

Ants communicate with each other by pheromones, chemical signals ants transmit, which other ants are able to pick up with their antennae. That is how all those ants knew to come scurrying to team up to salvage my breadcrumbs.

While the ants working at my feet were tiny and inoffensive, there are other ants capable of being far more than uninvited guests at a picnic. One afternoon while we were camping I was cooking dinner on the charcoal grill. While turning burgers, it suddenly felt like my legs were on fire. A swarm of fire ants were on my legs and actively attacking. Naturally, I jumped back and brushed the ants off my legs, though the toxins associated with their bites continued to irritate for hours.

If we look closely, we often see ants crawling along riverbanks, or on streamside rocks. Naturally, some of those ants fall in the water where fish often scarf them up when they get the opportunity. There are many flies designed to resemble ants and it’s a good idea to keep a few ant patterns in the fly box. Personally, I don’t often remember to use them until I conclude nothing else is working. Still, they have saved fishing days often enough to keep them in mind, especially if I’m fishing along a rocky shoreline, or downstream from an irrigation diversion structure.

Rarely, we may see swarms of flying ants along the river. Once, when fishing the Yellowstone River, I wasn’t catching anything while Kevin was constantly into fish. I asked him what kind of fly he was using, and he said he’d seen a swarm of flying ants while walking to the water and was using an ant pattern. A couple summers ago, while camping on the Big Hole I saw swarms of flying ants just about the time dinner was ready. If I’d been thinking, I would have told my wife to put dinner on hold while I checked for a feeding frenzy.

That, of course, might have led to another kind of drama. Guess I’ll just imagine what might have been and not push my luck.

The white spot in the above photo is that bread crust. If you look closely you may be able to see a couple ants.

The Big Blackfoot River

The dry fly drifted along the quiet current. A splashy rise interrupted the drift, and the sound that’s music to most anglers’ ears—the screech of a reel as a good fish tears out line—sang out. The trout, most likely a westslope cutthroat trout, made several more runs before it slipped the hook. I couldn’t help laughing as I checked to make sure the trout didn’t break off the fly. It hadn’t, so I blew on the fly to help it dry and then resumed casting.

While catching fish was my immediate goal, another sound, a low-pitched roar, started to assert a different priority.

I was fishing the Blackfoot River, the river of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It.” A number of times my wife and I have driven through the beautiful Blackfoot valley and we keep thinking that we really should spend a little time there and do some fishing and camping on the river. We finally looked at the calendar and decided that if we were going to do it, this weekend was the time.
We set up camp at a Fishing Access Site on the river’s banks, just inside the Missoula County line, and in the evening I caught several cutthroat trout as the sun dipped below the western mountains.

The next day we drove to a fishing access site upstream from our campground, where I launched my pontoon boat for a float trip back to camp. As it happened, I caught my best fish of the day, a 16-inch or so cutthroat trout, in a quiet pool just out from the launch site. While the fishing for the rest of the float wasn’t as exciting, it was still a pleasant float through a scenic area.

After getting back to camp, we did some touring, taking a trip to the top of the mountains and the old ghost town of Garnet, where we marveled at the hardy miners and their families who somehow followed the colors of gold dust all the way to the mountain tops and established a community up there, with some 1000 people living there with just 13 saloons to keep them happy, during the camp’s heyday. Garnet is now managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is doing important work to keep the ghost town’s buildings stable and preventing their further decay into the mountainside.

Leaving the mountains, we checked out another takeout site on the Blackfoot, where the Clearwater River flows into the Blackfoot. My wife encouraged me to float that section the next day.

It’s just about the prettiest float you’d imagine, following the river through one scenic spot after another, and fishing likely looking spots.

But then there’s that stretch of water where there’s this roaring sound coming from downstream.

As I approached the end of the run I could see what was coming. The canyon narrows and squeezes the river from about 50 yards wide to about 10 yards wide, with the water plunging through a series of boulder-studded rapids. I pulled the boat over to the side to take a look at where I should go and it looked like straight down the middle was the route to follow. Reminding myself that a bunch of teenagers with inner tubes had gone ahead of me an hour earlier I headed into the current.

It’s a wild ride through the rapids, without much time to plan on a route through the whitewater. All those floats I’ve taken down the Big Hole were gently placid compared to this canyon. I could only guess at what these rapids are like during high water, though the sight of a green canoe, bent inside out and wrapped around one of those big boulders, was a pretty good hint at the power of the river early in the season.

It’s good to know that these little pontoon boats are stable and maneuverable in fast water, though I couldn’t help thinking as I approached the takeout site that at my advancing age it’s a shame to have wasted all that adrenalin on boating.

Flyfishing in Mid-summer

It’s high summer—that brief period of the year with dependably warm days, lots of sunshine and, for the most part, cool nights so we can get our homes cooled off before the heat of the next day.

It’s the time of the year when my garden finally does some serious growing, with tomatoes and chile pepper plants responding to warm temperatures after surviving through our normally cold June weather. Now it’s a race to actually produce some fruit before the frosts of September.

It’s a wonderful time for fishing on area streams and rivers. These last couple weekends have seen hordes of people enjoying mid-summer floating and fishing on the Big Hole, though I suspect the numbers of floaters will be declining as river levels keep dropping. This past weekend my pontoon boat was hitting bottom going through riffles and next time I will likely be dragging the boat.

As for catching fish, as pleasant as it is to sleep in on some of these cool mornings and to enjoy a leisurely morning, my advice to fellow anglers is to get with the program and get out on the river before the sun gets too high in the sky.

On my last few outings on the Big Hole, it seemed like the most productive time to be on the water was from around 9:30 to 11 a.m. There are lots of Pale Morning Dun mayflies getting fish appetites going. These mayflies, PMDs for short, are at the heart of mid-summer fishing action. Whether still in the nymph stage of life, or an emerging adult, or finally, an egg-laying insect in its last stage of life, these aquatic insects feed a lot of trout and keep fly tiers and flyshops happy and busy.

Of course, being on the water at the right time and with the right fly doesn’t mean you’ll catch fish. Trout are frustrating that way. They don’t always understand that they are supposed to agree with our thoughts of which are the right flies. All I can say is that if fish seem to be feeding but are refusing your flies, put on something different, probably a smaller imitation. It might also be time to tie on a fresh tippet, and possibly a lighter one, at the end of your leader.

You might occasionally try a different tactic. The long, drag-free float of a dry fly is the ideal we’re supposed to achieve. On my last outing, I was working a run and getting some long floats, but not getting many rises. On one of those drifts I let the fly reach the end of a drift and just as the fly was about to drag across the current I gave the rod a jerk, pulling the fly underwater. Just then, a brown trout hit the fly. That trout’s feeding station was evidently at the bottom of the run where it was picking off insects sinking beneath the water’s surface. It was the best trout of the morning.

While we enjoy these warm and sunny midsummer days, the earlier sunsets are a warning that the season is progressing. While floating the Big Hole I spotted a family of Canada geese. There were a dozen juvenile goslings, now about three fourths grown and developing adult plumage, and escorted by a parent goose. After watching me wading the shallows and fishing, the adult goose decided to give the kids a flying lesson. One by one, the juvenile geese started flapping and taking to the air. A few crash-landed on the runway, but got back up and successfully took to the air on a second try.

In short, while these late July days are hot and sunny, these summer days are numbered and the next season is coming. Whether we’re ready or not, five weeks from today is the first day of September, along with new and renewed opportunities in the outdoors.

Still, let’s not rush the season. For now we’ll concentrate on putting on sunscreen and bug spray and trying to catch fish on little dry flies and celebrating being out there.

Mother”s Day Caddis – Still Waiting

Mother’s Day is observed the second Sunday in May. That much we know. Mother’s Day came right on schedule on May 9, this year, and we duly observed the protocols for the day.

What we’re waiting for now is the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch, that explosion of insect life that seems to get the flyfishing season going in earnest.

There are many kinds of caddisflies, and trout depend on them for a big chunk of their diet. The late Gary LaFontaine, in his landmark book, “Caddisflies,” cited scientific studies that estimate that caddisflies account for 44.7 percent of aquatic foods eaten by trout, significantly more than mayflies and stoneflies, though mayfly and stonefly imitations usually take up more space in a flyshop’s cases.

Caddisflies are of the scientific order of Trichoptera, and, according to LaFontaine, there are more than 1200 species in 142 genera and 18 families known in North America, and over 7,000 species known world-wide, and about now I’m wishing I remembered more from those high school biology classes.

The scientific name for the Mother’s Day Caddis is Brachycentrus, and a common name for them is Grannom. The caddis hatch happens on most western rivers. The trick is being around when it happens, as well as having fishable water.

The Mother’s Day Hatch, when it finally happens, can be impressive. The hatch on the Yellowstone River is famed for profuse hatches, when large rafts of insects float along the river’s currents, and an angler trying to get in on the action may find caddisflies crawling all over his/her face and into ears. On the Big Hole River, where I do most of my fishing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any hatches that dense, though when there are clouds of insects buzzing around trees and bushes it’s still impressive, especially when they crawl inside your glasses.

On the other hand, by the time these masses of bugs appear on the water’s surface, as well as buzzing around trees and bushes, the trout may have already filled their bellies with emerging caddis trying to make their way from the stream’s rocky bottom to the surface. In fact, a good strategy, during the hatch, can be to use an emerger-type fly such the sparkle pupa patterns developed by LaFontaine, or a green-bodied soft-hackle fly.

As for fishable water, in most years that’s the real trick. All too often, the Hatch happens when spring runoff is really getting going, and while there are lots of caddisflies buzzing around, the trout are hunkered down, and not spending a lot of time looking up at adult insects on the water’s surface. I know I’ve had my best caddis action in years when runoff was more on the tame side.

There can be a fine line for optimal caddis hatch conditions. I specifically remember one spring on the Big Hole the water was running on the high side, though it wasn’t blown out. Shoreline willows were partially submerged, and trout were hanging right in the willows, in position to pick off caddis bugs dropping on the water. I had a banner day, even though the wading often seemed adventurous.

There are many caddisfly imitations available, whether you roll your own or buy them at a flyshop. Caddisfly imitations generally fall into several categories, depending on whether you’re trying to imitate a cased larva on the bottom of the stream, the pupa swimming through the water column, or the adult winged insect.

As mentioned earlier, green-bodied soft-hackle wet flies or LaFontaine sparkle pupa are good pupa imitations. The Elk Hair Caddis, developed by long-time Dillon guide Al Troth, is certainly one of the standards. I’ve also had a lot of success with a Renegade, a simple fly that possibly suggests a pair of mating caddis to a hungry trout. A small Humpy is also effective, especially when there are both caddisflies and mayflies buzzing around. If you don’t mind tangled flies and tippets, this may also be a good time for a dry fly with a wet fly dropper.

Best of all, once caddisflies show up, fish will be looking at caddisflies until fall.

Big Hole River Recreation Rules

“I’m not a politician; I’m a biologist.” That’s Mike Bias’s reaction to a recent flap concerning recreation management rules on the Big Hole River. Bias is the Executive Director of the Big Hole River Foundation, an organization founded by the late George Grant. The goals of the foundation are, as stated on the Foundation’s website, “To conserve, enhance and protect the free-flowing character of the Big Hole River, its unique culture, fish and wildlife.”

Bias probably didn’t expect the publicity that resulted after he visited a board meeting of the George Grant Chapter of Trout Unlimited. This followed a Foundation board meeting, in which members discussed fundraising and perceived difficulties in getting donations from out-of-state people who feel that recreation management rules that restrict guided and non-resident floating on the river on a rotating basis were unfair.

The rules were adopted by the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission five years ago, following recommendations of a citizen’s advisory committee. Those rules are coming up for review this year, and the foundation board felt this would be a good time to do some preliminary work on whether those rules might be amended. In a series of bullet points for his presentation Bias said that, “The Big Hole River Foundation thinks the nonresident restriction clause is not biologically warranted to protect the fisheries…”

Josh Vincent, president of the George Grant Chapter of TU said board members present discussed the issue, commenting, “The board was unanimous that the rules should stay intact. We think that the rules have worked well.”

Nevertheless, word got around, and several past board members of the Big Hole River Foundation sent an opinion piece to local newspapers blasting the Foundation for raising the issue, suggesting that George Grant would be turning in his grave.

In a phone interview last week, Bias expressed dismay over the situation. “It wasn’t my intent to stir up a controversy—though I’m reminded of the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We’re not in this to fight over a rule review.” He adds that the Foundation is doing some important work, such as initiating a fish-tagging study on the Big Hole, in cooperation with FWP, or a recent education project, educating area school children on aquatic biology and watershed issues. “We’re a small foundation. We can’t afford to get involved in controversy.” He also pointed out that the current recreation restrictions on float outfitting and non-resident float fishing are separate rules, and that the foundation was looking only at the non-resident float fishing issue, not float outfitting.

Bias added that, following the initial uproar, the foundation sent some 300 letters to their members to get a broader assessment of how they feel about the recreation management rules. He pointed out that the foundation membership is about half Montana residents (with a strong Butte-area representation) and half non-residents. He welcomes public feedback, “Our board meetings are always open to anyone.”

As mentioned above, the Big Hole and Beaverhead River recreation plans are up for review by the FWP commission, and, according to Charlie Sperry of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, there will be open house meetings in Butte on Tuesday, March 2, and in Dillon, on Tuesday, March 9.

Where do I stand? First, some disclosure. I was a member of the citizen advisory committee of five years ago that came up with recommendations to the FWP Commission. We did some solid work and I was pleased that the Commission adopted most recommendations. I am not a member of the Big Hole River Foundation, though we have given them some modest financial support by attending their fall fundraising dinners and getting some bargains in their silent auction.

In the West, whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’. Still, I hate to see the good guys fighting with other good guys.

I believe that current rules should stay in place. The rules work well in spreading out the pressure on the river. As for non-residents who feel discriminated against, I’d remind them they can go to any fishing access site, any day, put on waders — and go fish.

Winter Dreams: Montana’s Smith River

This is the time of the year to plan—or think of planning, at least. A catalog from a California flyshop that does trip bookings came a couple weeks ago and that got me drooling over the prospects of taking a trip to Argentina or Chile, or the Kamkatcha Peninsula, or the Bahamas. The list goes on and the possibilities are endless, when it comes right down to it. All I need is an oil well or two to pay for it.

Then in today’s mail was a Fly Rod & Reel magazine with an article by Greg Thomas, an Ennis resident and freelance writer, and current managing editor of the magazine. The article touts Montana’s Smith River as the “West’s best float trip.”

Of course, there are a lot of Montanans who don’t need to read a magazine article to be convinced that the Smith River, if not the west’s best trip, has to rank way up there.

The scenery on the river is spectacular, with sheer limestone cliffs hundreds of feet high along the canyon’s sides. Abundant wildlife can be found in the river corridor, and as the critters are somewhat accustomed to floaters they’re often approachable. Fishing can be great, though there are never any guarantees. Above all, the Smith river trip is a great experience, in that the only way to experience the river is to float it, as the main part of the river is accessible only by water, and access is by drawing a permit.

I’ve done the trip just once, when I was invited to join the party of a friend in Helena who had drawn one of the permits. Of course, doing that one trip doesn’t make me an expert on the Smith River. Nevertheless, what makes the trip so unique is that taking the trip is such a commitment. It takes about four to five days to do the trip and when you get in your boat at the Camp Baker put-in, near White Sulphur Springs, it’s with the knowledge that if you’ve forgotten something, you’d better be able to do without it, because there is no turning back. That’s something that some people who weren’t prepared for late spring snowstorms have learned through bitter experience. Lounging around a campfire on a warm summer evening is pleasant. Spending nights shivering, huddled in a soggy tent might be unforgettable, too—especially if that turns out to be that way the whole trip.

There are, of course, some anachronisms associated with the trip. While some of the river corridor goes though National Forest lands, most of the trip is through ranching country, along with some vacation home and resort developments. There is even a nine-hole golf course along the river at one point. Also, some of that wildlife you hoped to see might include black bears and raccoons raiding your food supply.

In any event, if you’re interested in applying for one of those cherished float permits, the application is available on-line at http://fwp.mt.gov/recreation, and your completed application must be submitted to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) by February 16, 2010. You can also get permit applications from FWP offices. The application can be submitted on-line or by mail. The whole process is managed by the Parks division of FWP.

Something that’s new this year is that pets are no longer allowed on the Smith River trip. This change has been in the works for years, as certain aspects of taking dogs on the trip, such as pet waste and harassment of wildlife, have long been controversial.

While most of the trips on the Smith River are do-it-yourself projects, a small number of outfitters are licensed to do float trips down the Smith, and I have it on good authority that, after a long hard day of catching fish, with a guide doing all the rowing, it’s not all bad to come into a camp that’s all set up, with tents pitched, dinner started, wine properly chilled, and hors d’ouvres on the table to help tide you over until dinner.

This is where that family oil well comes in handy.