Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Montana Fishing

I once arrived at the Big Hole River, near Melrose, Mont., simultaneously with the salmon fly hatch. My eyeballs popped when the big multi-winged bug flapped like a loaded Huey helicopter across State Highway 43, between the sleepy communities of Dewey and Wise River, to drop its load of eggs on the water.
I swerved, missed the bug AND avoided the barrow pit. Well, heck, a salmon fly saved contributes thousands of eggs to next year's hatch. Who'd a thunk it. Salmon flies in mid-June. Talk about serendipity!
That sighting occurred last week on Wednesday afternoon, after I'd already set personal records for catching large brown trout on the Madison River between Quake Lake and Ennis and small browns, rainbows and brookies on the Firehole River, Nez Perce Creek and the Madison River in Yellowstone National Park.
Actually, some of the fish on the Firehole and Nez Perce weren't big enough to be called ``small.'' More like ``teensy.'' But a few were 10-12 inchers. Anyway, I relinquished the fly rod early in the park, after hooking a couple of dozen fish, and concentrated on scenery, buffalo, elk and fellow tourists.
In the late afternoon, I headed back to the Madison River, a few miles below Quake Lake. But, heck, let me start at the beginning, because this six-day trip to some of the Blue Ribbon trout streams of the Western World, included a moment or two of despair as well as those drawn-out surges of elation.
Sadie the Dalmatian and I left Walla Walla for Craig in the dark that Sunday morning, at least I did. I didn't realize I'd left the collar at home until I paused the a nature break along the Clearwater River near Lewiston. What? No collar.
``See, Sadie,'' I said. ``That's what you get, darn it, for being so impatient.''
She had, you see, bolted from the house and jumped in the truck with the first load of gear I carried out. And she wouldn't get out. So, I left here there until I loaded up, took my final shower for the week and brushed my teeth. Then, with my arms loaded with last-second stuff (coffee cup, jacket, rain gear, extra boots, etc.), I left the collar hanging on the hook by the door.
And it was Sadie's fault. I worried about no collar with her name and address and her license and shot tags on it, just in case, from Lewiston to Lincoln, Mont. And I almost bought a new one when I bought a fishing license (non-resident, $67 for the year). But they only had camouflage colored ones, and she would still be without the tags, so I didn't.
Which turned out to be a good thing.
After I crossed the railroad tracks, passed a row of rigs with empty boat trailers and pulled into the nearly full, dozen-site primitive campground by the Missouri River at about 3:29 p.m., I fed Sadie the Dalmatian, pitched the tent under an alder tree and put a can of Bush's beans on to heat.
Then I rummaged through the permanent junk box in the truck, the one with the 50-foot cord, flashlight, flare, water jugs and other junk. And, by golly, I'd left Sadie's skijoring harness in it, with all of the tags.
Talk about serendipity.
So, I harnessed her up, and we watched the gophers. Must've been 50 or so gamboling on the grass and standing with feet poised chest high to whistle and survey the territory. After realizing their quickness at diving into their holes, Sadie made a tour of holes and resigned herself to watching them from a distance.
Three steps from the picnic table, the Mighty Mo rushed past a bit high and a bit dark. And, of course, wind riffled across the currents.
With beans and a cup of hot chocolate steaming on the table and a bagel in my left hand, I rustled about the foot box with my left hand. Looking for my spoon and fork.
Don't tell me?
With some slightly audible muttering, I searched every box and gear container I had. No eating utensils. I looked at the Swiss Army Knife on the table, with which I had opened the beans. And I looked across the row of boat trailers to the town, with a bar, a restaurant and a couple of fly-fishing gear shops.
I could borrow a spoon and fork. But I didn't cotton to the idea, really. I studied the tree's limbs. I could whittle a flat utensil easy enough. Then I found a nice, clean board in the grass. I less than a minute I had a rough spatula that worked fine.
By then the beans and the hot chocolate had cooled to perfection, too.
Ready to fish at last, I rigged up the 5-weight fly rod with a floating line and tied in a new 6-pound test 4X tippet. I tied on a tiny dry fly and changed into waders. I left the gtent doors open enough so that nosy gophers could get in without chewing through the door and drove two miles down the river to a hole I'd fished before.
I won't dwell on this high-water Missouri River fishing experience, except to say that the current nearly carried Sadie away at the first hole. And I worked the hole for a mere 30 minutes before I took the shivering Sadie back to the truck and dried her with a towel. I drove upstream to another hole. It was easier you fish, but no fish were rising. And the guys drifting by in boats fished with nymphs. So, I tried nymphs.
I fished, with Sadie looking like she'd been yelled at, until 8:32 p.m. without a single strike and limped back to camp. I followed Sadie into the tent, to keep her off my sleeping bag, and she found three fresh brown gopher nuggets on her sleeping bag. She looked at me as if her home and hearth had been soiled. And as if I had caused it.
She scowled and pushed the oblong tidbit around with her nose, until I picked them up and tossed them outside.
Then a storm blew in that night that threatened to bowl the tent with us in it into the Missouri. With the rumble of thunder, lightning flashed so close that the hair on my arms moved.
At dawn rain soaked the grass and the tent. I put on two coats, made hot chocolate and toasted a bagel that I slathered with jelly using my whittled spoon. I ate, put on the waders went fishing.
I fished hard all day Monday, with a lunch break back at camp. I hooked on giant rainbow trout. When it broke water, it looked about a foot wide at the middle. It snapped off the stonefly in about five seconds.
So, I felt depressed. Yet, I fished all the way down to Holter Lake. I bought coffee at a marina, and the woman gave me a plastic spoon and fork.
After a fishless afternoon, I met two guys at camp from Joseph, Ore. One owned the fly shop in Joseph. He had caught six fish and his friend had caught 10. They would have caught more, but they lost the anchor to their drift boat, which made casting to the fish difficult. Andy they mainly used nymphs, too.
So, I fished in the cold and wind without a strike until noon Tuesday before packing it in. It was only 130 miles to Ennis and another 40 miles or so to Quake Lake.
The Madison, however, appeared high and the wind blew. I drove south on US Highway 287, stopped at Varney Bridge and McAtee Bridge and fished briefly. Eventually, I drove up to Hill Top Campground between Wade and Cliff Lakes. All 18 sites were empty, so I chose No. 5 pitched the tent and ate more beans. Sadie and I spent more than an hour hiking the nature trail before turning in.
At about 6,200 feet elevation, the temperature dropped to 28 degrees, and the wind whipped the tall Douglas fir trees hard. I worried one would fall on the tent.
By 5:30 a.m. the wind had stopped, leaving the sky blue. I donned two coats and a sweater and toasted two bagels. I drove the six miles of dirt road slow and crossed the river. It still looked high and rough. So, I dove 30 miles to Bud Lilly's fly shop in West Yellowstone.
A chalk board there listed several area rivers, including the Gallatin, Madison and Firehole. The Gallatin was too high, but the Madison was fishable (with big nymphs and wooly buggers) and the Firehole was productive (with small nymphs and dry flies).
A young man there commented (snide?) about my Yankee hat, and I asked how the Mariners had done the last few days.
``But you're wearing a Yankee hat,'' he insisted.
``You shouldn't judge a person by his hat,'' I said, which didn't strike him as funny as it did me and he told me the M's lost to Montreal but the Yankees beat his team, the Astros.
I told him thanks and wandered away, wondering how anyone could be an Astros fan. Anyway, spent the $20 to enter the park and the $10 for a 10-day fishing license. It took forever to get past Norris Junction because of the buffalo on and beside the road. I fastened Sadie's leash to a belt around my waist, and she followed along easily.
I stopped a a dozen pullouts along the Firehole, including in the 2-mile canyon byway, and along Nez Perce Creek. I fished a bead-head pheasant-tail nymph and caught a fish about every third or fourth cast, not biggies. But I didn't care. I fished the Madison River in the park at two spots and caught three small cutthroat trout.
Then I headed back to stream below Quake Lake and took campsite No. 1 at the empty Madison River Camp Ground (across Lyons Bridge).
The river had dropped some by the time I ate dinner (more beans, with dehydrated mashed potatoes) and drove on the dirt road upriver to a fishing access parking area. With a clear, cool evening, Sadie and I hiked ab out a mile upstream. I watched a man and a woman fish a riffle with nymphs. I had planned to use dry flies, but the man caught two 18- 20-inch browns in about 15 minutes. And he didn't look like much of a fisherman, with short, awkward casts and rod tip held almost straight up over his head. The woman made smooth, 50 foot casts. But she didn't hook any fish.
And I realized why. She threw out too much line, which caught in the current and caused the fly to drag unnaturally.
Ah, ha! I thought. I caught lots of fish on the small streams in the park by dead-drifting the bead-heads (flies with copper or brass beads at the top of insect imitation).
Another thing I noticed: guys in drift boats floated about 20 feet out and tossed their nymphs toward the bank. Or, they parked and fished the riffles that dropped off shoals at the ends of islands in the stream.
My watch said 7:17 p.m. (still on Walla Walla time), which left about two hour hours for fishing. I tied on a No. 6 bead-headed black leach, with a green head. It also had a white hackle and a white-tufted rear, not to mention several white rubber legs.
Why that fly? It looked simply irresistible, although I'd never seen any kind of bug that resembled it in real life. And it was. Irresistible, that is. I continued upstream and waded across a channel at a shoals. I worked out about 20 feet of line, held the rod straight up to avoid drag and drifted the fly into a seam at the edge of the shoals.
I felt no Whammo! But I saw the floating line go under and move against the current. I pulled line with my left hand and lifted the rod higher with my right.
Twang went line! At least in my mind. And the rod curved. A 19-inch brown surged out of the water, caught the current and pulled a few feet of line from the reel.
Wow! I pulled the fish into calm water. It rolled on its side. I slipped the barbless hook free and rolled the fish upright. It lay still, and I thought about a picture. As I reached the camera, the fish flashed away into the current.
I caught six more browns and two whitefish before dark, and I only lost one of the green-black-white-bronze flies with wiggly legs. So, I had two left, which meant I smiled all the way back to the pickup and the campsite. So, for some reason, did Sadie.
I awoke at 4:19 a.m. (Walla Walla time) on Friday and could see a clear sky. My watch said it was 39 degrees in the tent, which meant close to 30 outside. I read for a few minutes, and dozed, determined to stay in the sleeping bag until 6:30 or so, when the sun reached the tent But it was tough, with all those fish in the river.
No other cars parked at the access area when I pulled in at 7:59 a.m. and set off upstream to the place I’d started the previous evening. I fished until 11:36, when my rumbling stomach insisted on food. I lost count of the fish caught. Either six or seven or nine or 10. But two more were whitefish, and one of them weighed about three pounds. The rest were browns.
And one was about 22-inches long , in one of those perfect situations. A guide and two clients fished a shoal in the middle of the river, about 30 yards across from me. I walked down below where the guide worked with on of the men, who looked like an NFL defensive end.
The guide was explaining how to cast the line and where. The other guy fished the other side of the riffle. The tableau froze in my mind when the fish hit my fly and leaped out of the water. It splashed and swirled so loud that all three of the men stopped to watch. The fish jumped twice more, and I brought it to the shallows and slipped the hook free. I didn’t look at the guys across the channel, but worked out 15 feet of line, flipped it on the riffle and walked on downstream.
After a lunch of granola with dehydrated milk, I decided to try the Big Hole, which would take me 150 miles closer to home.
And when I spotted the salmon fly on the road Thursday afternoon, I knew it had been a good decision.
I drove through Dewey and Wise River to the campground near Fishtrap Creek, about 23 miles from Wisdom. A flotilla of drift boats and rafts dotted the river, usually in twos with one oin each side of the river, casting toward the bank.
At Fishtrap, three Recreational Vehicles and a pickup shell had sites, but I pitched the tent at a site (free) that I’d used three other times.
Alas, after I fed feed Sadie, pitched the tent and put the sleeping bags inside and thought about opening a can of beans, I didn’t have my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket.
Panic washed over me. I began ransacking gear bags and boxes. I’d carried that knife for 20 years, and felt close to it. Besides, without it how would I open a can of beans.
A ton of disheveled gear lay on the grass and picnic table when I guy dropped by to BS. He was interesting _ a writer and photographer for fishing magazines _ and a fount of information about the area and how to fish the river.
So, we talked until nearly dark when he wandered to his pickup to cook the five small brook trout he’d caught earlier that day. I nearly whined that I wouldn’t have my usual beans unless I found my knife, but I didn’t.
And I didn’t find the knife, which meant I ate dehydrated hash browns O’Brien, tuna fish from a package (rather than a can), a bagel and hot chocolate. I probably pleased Sadie by not eating beans again.
Friday dawned clear and calm. Knifeless, I toasted bagels again and pouted. Then I remembered the Leatherman tool in the truck’s utility box. I felt better. I could at least open a can of beans with it.
After breakfast, I drove about five minutes upstream, parked by the highway and walked a quarter mile across a field to the willow-fringed river. I looked for salmon flies on the branches. Seeing none, I tied on the same wiggle legged nymph I used the day before on the Madison. I dead drifted the fly into the first promising hole and caught two fish, both browns in the 16-inch range.
We walked downstream awhile, and I flipped the fly out about 15 feet as we walked, I stopped at another promising hole. After 10 minutes of no response, reeled in the line and a fish made a strike at the fly and missed. I flipped the line out again, and stripped the fly in fast.
The fish hit again and hooked itself, which confused my certainty about the efficacy of the dead drift. As we neared the end of that stretch, I saw dark clouds building to the west. And the wind built to game force.
I started across the field and the rain hit. A deluge. I shucked my vest and pulled on my rain coat. Rain hit us in horizontal blasts. We hurried, but in the 15 minutes to the truck, rain streamed down Sadie’s sides.
She climbed into the truck and I rubbed her with the towel. I drove back to camp to check on the tent. Good thing. I’d left the doors down half way for ventilation , and windblown rain puddled on the floor and the sleeping bags. I spent 15 minutes wiping up the puddles.
I sat in the truck and nodded off until the squall passed. I fished again that afternoon, using nymphs and caught several fish, including one rainbow trout. Then, after dinner, a huge caddis fly hatch swarmed up the river 20 feet from the tent. I fished for an hour with dry flies, but didn’t get a rise.
It rained hard Friday night. I didn’t wait for the sun on Saturday. Packed up all the gear by 6:37 a.m. and drove up to the East Bank Recreation Site, about 10 miles. I fished for about two hours and caught one brown. About 18 inches.
I changed clothes, washing after a fashion with handy wipes, and started home. I bought gas in Wisdom, stopped to fish the East Fork Bitterroot River near Darby, where a man in a fly shop said the salmon flay hatch had just started.
When I explained that I couldn’t tarry to fish that day, he assured me the dry-fly fishing would be excellent from July through September for rainbows, browns, cutthroat, Dolly Vardens, brookies and whitefish.
Talk about serendipity.

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