A First Time on the River!

My fishing partner patiently waiting for me to catch a fish…or find something for her to eat.

The air temperature was 50˚, though the wind blowing down the Madison River’s Beartrap Canyon felt much colder as I stepped into the river’s icy waters.

There was nothing I could do about the wind. It certainly wasn’t a surprise. The only surprises about wind along the Madison River are days when it isn’t blowing.

Wind or no wind, it seemed important to take advantage of a relatively warm day and go fishing. My last fishing outing was back in October, a few days before the pheasant season began, which now seems ages ago. Flicka, my Labrador retriever, agreed. She watched me gather clothing and gear and started barking in excitement. We do daily retrieving sessions and take frequent long walks but that’s hardly a substitute for a real outing, if I interpreted her barks and body language correctly.

There was another reason for a fishing outing. When Santa Claus stopped at our house at Christmas he dropped off a new fly rod along with other goodies and that rod has been talking to me lately, suggesting it was time to head for a river and give it a good baptism.

That baptism turned out to be more literal than figurative. As I stepped into the water something distracted me and I accidentally dropped that new rod into the river. I dropped a rod in the Big Hole River a couple years ago and was horrified to see the current sweep it away. This time there was no problem. The water was crystal clear and calm at the edge of the river. I just picked it up and shook it off. No harm done.

I wish I could tell tales of splashy rises and scrappy fish putting a good bend on the new rod but that story will wait for another outing. The fish simply weren’t biting. According to other anglers, there was some action happening before the wind came up but the fun came to a rapid halt when the wind began to blow.

Catching fish is better than not catching fish but we’ll make up for it as the weather warms up and fish get more active. The new rod works, my waders didn’t leak and I still remember how to use a fly rod. I’ve had worse outings.

Flicka enjoyed the outing, keeping company with me in the icy river, checking shoreline brush patches for interesting scents and, finally, sitting on the bank and patiently watching for some reason to get excited.

When we walked back to the truck for a snack and a chance to warm my feet Flicka had a chance to romp with another angler’s English setter, and then another setter that came running across the parking lot to join the two dogs. Two setters and a pointing Lab, I mused, what hunting stories they might be able to tell each other if they had the gift of speech.

Perhaps it’s for the best that we humans can’t always interpret a dog’s stories. If Flicka started telling about how I stumble around in the fields, looking in the wrong directions when birds get up, and missing easy shots, there would be no end to the hush money she’d be able to extort.

Fortunately, dogs are of a higher character than most humans and until they learn to write or talk, our secrets are safe.

This interim period between hunting and flyfishing has seemed like a long drag, especially with unrelenting news from Congress and the legislature (Montana and several other states as well) that makes a person wonder if there is hope for the future.

That’s why it often seems essential to get outside and stand in a river and concentrate on a task that on its merits seems a waste of time.

John Voelker, the late Michigan jurist and writer, probably better known by his penname of Robert Traver, probably said it best. “I fish…not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant—and not nearly so much fun.”

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.