Sunday, April 15, 2012

I Can't Make This Stuff Up

After having lost sleep over the past couple of weeks thinking about the gigantic Rainbow I lost in Western Montana I finally made plans to head back to the scene of the crime and see if I could make amends. 

I left Bozeman a few minutes after 6:00am and headed West.  By 10:00am I was on the water at the spot of the source of my sleepless nights.  The water was considerably lower and clear and I could actually see three big fish that I began fishing to.  It wasn't long before I hooked up one of the big boys.  It promptly headed for the only cover in sight and got off.  I figured this was a pretty good sign as last time I was here it took me quite a while to hook up my first fish.  I continued to work to the fish I could see and saw both of the other fish at least investigate my offerings.  One thing I've learned fishing streamers is that sometimes it is impossible to tell if they've refused to eat or sucked in the streamer and spit it out faster than I'm able to detect what's happening.  Either way I'm having a great time as I know that I've got another 50 yards of water to work in this area. 

As I'm minding my own business enjoying a beautiful day I hear a vehicle and see a guy on a 4 wheeler riding up on the opposite bank to where I'm fishing.  The opposite bank is a good 4' above the stream and he is riding close enough to the edge to spook every fish in the area.  Real cool, thanks.  So said 4 wheeler captain shuts down his toy and gets off and proceeds to tell me, "You should be fishing dry flies."  I reply that I'd love to but there are no fish rising.  He then starts ranting how there are only 9 fish for the next half mile of water and that it is "weak" to be fishing nymphs to them.  I yell over him that I'm fishing streamers, to which he responds, "That's even worse man, that's weak".  I tell him he's entitled to his opinion.

He takes his hat off and I say, "You're Huey Lewis" and introduce myself.  He acknowledges he is said 80s pop star and continues in his soliloquy about how "if you guys cared about this you wouldn't be fishing here....there are only 9 fish're going to kill these fish...."  I finally have to explain to him that he never stops talking and if he doesn't want to have a conversation I'll just keep fishing.  This gets him to stop talking for a moment as I explain to him that I've cut my teeth on much smaller streams where I've caught the same fish a dozen times or more so that while yes, many anglers catch and release methods do result in killing fish I'm not one of those. 

For anyone reading who doesn't understand the dynamics of this situation, I'll provide the 10,000ft view.  Basically this fishery exists as a viable, productive fishery primarily because property owners along it's banks, like Huey Lewis, invested their own money to improve the habitat.  Once word got out that this resource was a good fishery the general public began wanting to access it, ultimately leading to a drawn out, expensive legal battle over whether this waterway was a ditch or a stream and therefore whether the landowners had exclusive rights to it or the public had the right to recreate on it as long as they stayed below the high water mark. 

Ultimately the Montana Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the waterway was, in fact, a natural waterway and therefore protected by Montana's stream access laws, providing for the public to recreate on it as long as they stay below the high water mark.  Obviously, as someone who is enjoying fishing it, I'm thrilled with this ruling.  However, there are unintended consequences to this ruling.  The first of which is that many of the property owners are no longer willing to invest in the maintenance of the stream.  If this trend continues and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks doesn't step in to fund some stream restoration/maintenance measures it would seem likely that the stream will revert back to it's previous condition.  If this happens then the fishing will suffer dramatically and the public will have access to a fishery that is no longer worth fishing. 

The other unintended consequence of this ruling is that as it was touted as a win for the "real Montanans" FWP has been unwilling to regulate the fishery as a catch and release, fly fishing only,..., or enact  any seasonal closures to protect critical spawning habitat.  It is my opinion that they have been unwilling to do this lest FWP likewise be labeled as catering to an elitist mentality of excluding "real Montanans" who like to fish bait, or lures with treble hooks, and kill big fish to put them in the freezer, etc. 

Additionally, the rhetoric surrounding this issue has revolved around a narrative of rich, out of state, elitist, hobby land owners trying to change Montana laws to keep the serfs out of their kingdom. 

With all of that as background, it isn't difficult to see why Huey Lewis might come on a little strong when meeting someone fishing his property.  That being said, I wasn't offended by his condescending attitude towards me fishing streamers to his 9 fish.  Not to mention, I've literally caught tens of thousands (that statement contains zero hyperbole) of fish on dry flies and nymphs but only a few hundred on streamers, so tying and fishing streamers is an evolution in my own personal fly fishing career. 

By the end of our conversation I had decided that after he scared my fish I wasn't going to have much luck fishing this section.  I'd imagine this was in fact his number one goal in riding up the way he did, but I suppose it doesn't really matter either way.  We ended our conversation on a first name basis and he actually offered to give me a ride back to my vehicle when I told him I was going to head elsewhere.  I declined the offer and instead asked him if I could get on the high bank he was on to get a better look at the water.  After some hand wringing he responded, "Jeremy, I don't know you that well yet so I'd rather not let you do that".  If I had to guess why this was the case it's because there are way more than 9 fish in that area and he didn't want me to see that.  I know there are more than 9 fish because I hooked more than 9 fish in that area less than two weeks ago.

Anyway, to the fun stuff.  Huey Lewis had suggested I try a channel of the Bitterroot as Skawla stoneflies might be coming off.  If that didn't work he suggested I try the slough higher up as he had heard it was good, but never fished there.  He actually gave me his e mail address and asked if I'd let him know how it fished. 

The Bitterroot channel was crap and I only gave it an hour or so.  I decided that even if Skawlas were coming off (which in that area at that time they most certainly were not) I didn't drive 250 miles to fish that hatch.  I went that far to find some big Browns and perhaps a big Rainbow.  I headed to the spot Huey recommended.  When I got in I thought perhaps he had deliberately misled me as the water was very skinny and full of thick, silt/mud.  I worked my way upstream and found some water that looked promising and caught my first fish.  It was only a 14" fish so I was a little disappointed as my first experience on the slough involved catching nothing under 18".  I worked my way upstream through another area of thick mud and turned a corner to see that the character of the stream was completely different. 

From this point onward this section was clearly being maintained by the landowner as there had been cobble brought in, structure established, and trees planted.  Immediately I caught what was one of the most beautiful Rainbows I've ever seen.  It was only 15" and I decided not to snap a picture but in hindsight I really should have.  The colors were vibrant neon and it was truly amazing.  As I fished my way through this section it was apparent that the management by the property owner had succeeded in creating a healthier, more diverse fishery.  I caught fish ranging from 12-18 before catching my first good fish of the day.  This fish measured 22" and interestingly was missing a good chunk of it's tail.

The most interesting thing I noted about this section of stream was that in addition to investing heavily in stream restoration the property owner also did something very cool making it easier on anglers navigating upstream.  At the areas where he had barbed wire fences crossing the stream he installed PVC pipe over the bottom strand so that your waders/shirt/jacket don't get caught on barbs as you climb under it.  If I knew how to reach this landowner I'd say thanks, both for improving the stream and being generous in making access to it easier on anglers. 

Fishing through this section I caught another 22" fish and several 17-19" fish as well.  All the big fish were Browns with 3 Rainbows mixed in.  As I fished my way back downstream on my way out I was getting nothing.  Then I got back to this spot.
This was the spot where I caught my first smallish fish of the day.  I casted upstream, let the flies sink and then slowly stripped my two streamer rig through.  At the end of the retrieve I slowly lifted up and hooked a nice fish.  After a good battle this 23.75" Brown was brought to hand, having eaten the smaller streamer. 

Day one was in the books and had gone down entirely different than I'd ever have guessed.  I never got a shot at that big Rainbow that got away, ended up having an hour long conversation with an 80s icon, wasted another hour on the Bitterroot, fished a completely different section of water than I had ever contemplated and still caught 3 fish 22" or better.  All in all a good day.

The next day I decided I'd head back down towards H.L.'s place but fish upstream of his property.  As I was gearing up another angler pulled up and we talked for a bit.  He showed me some pictures of fish up to 26" he had caught in the slough.  He warned me that the water upstream, while good, gets fished the most.  This reality became apparent by the footprints, worms, flies and other signs of heavy traffic in this area.  Fishing started out slow, but the first fish was a nice 18" Rainbow. 
Fishing remained slow as I got to a point where an electric fence crosses the stream.  I gave it a quick touch with my arm to see if it was shock.  Ok, I'll just get my shoulder under it and push up and make my way under.  At this point I get a huge jolt in my shoulder.  Not being an expert on electric fences I didn't realize that touching it for a half second won't cause a shock.  After several minutes of trying to figure out how in the world I'm going to get over or under this thing I hatch a plan that will involve me trying to go over the fence while using the cork on my rod as an insulator to push the top wire down.  If this plan were to fail I would be receiving a shock in  the most sensitive portions of my anatomy.  Luckily I made it over without another incident and the fishing started getting better.  Clearly that fence becomes an effective barrier for anglers heading further upstream.  Within a half hour I caught the biggest fish of the day, this 23.5" Brown.
In continuing my way upstream I caught many more fish ranging from 12-22".  The 22" Brown pictured below was probably the most memorable as it raced downstream 50' or so before rocketing out of the water 2'.  I like how the dorsal fin in the pic makes it look kind of like a shark.

The rest of the day was uneventful with some more reasonable fish caught, I did nearly get stuck in mud up to my thighs and didn't shock myself getting back over the electric fence. 

I could have spent another half day fishing the slough but decided that as that would have involved me fishing water I had already fished in the past 48 hours it would be best to try something else.  Something else, as is often the case, ended up not being any fun. 

So after having heard the other side of the debate on the management of this waterway what do I think?  All I can say is that I hope that some compromise can be achieved among those who value this resource in order to preserve the quality experience it still offers.  Either way, as long as it's legal to do so and the fishing remains good I'll be climbing over and under barbed wire and electric fences to enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

If This Is It....Yeah it's it

As spring has sprung in the Rockies it seemed appropriate for my wife and I to take the dogs and go on a weekend road trip to see some new country.  We found a nice little cabin for rent in Western Montana and loaded up the dogs and our stuff and headed West on Saturday. 

While Saturday reached 70F along the way, Sunday ended up being cold, windy, and overcast with bouts of snow, sleet, and rain.  Nothing too uncomfortable to fish in, but nothing like the 70F of the previous day.  This spring has seen abnormally high temperatures all over Montana, which coupled with some rain of late has resulted in most rivers and streams being off color and near record highs for this time of year. 

I was hoping to fish the Bitterroot River as I'd never even seen it before, let alone fished it.  I gave it a shot, breaking out my newly arrived Sage One 5 wt rod.  The results were poor but I did get a chance to see my first Skawla stoneflies.  Unfortunately, the trout had a tougher time seeing them with the river rising rapidly and visibility diminished to 10" or so. 
My enthusiasm for fishing an ice cold, muddy river waned as I watched an armada of half of Missoula begin floating by.  While I must have seen 8 rafts float by with anglers trying to find a willing fish I didn't see a fish caught.  Personally, I was the proud conqueror of one small Whitefish.  Now that I wasn't going to get skunked I decided I'd leave my waders on but drive up stream and see if I could find some more interesting water, perhaps a side channel or something.

I found another crossing a few miles away that actually had a side channel that looked interesting.  I stopped to ask a fellow angler who had just fished it how it went.  He informed me it was every bit as crappy as the rest of the river.  He did however give me some information for which I am extremely grateful.  He said that on a day like that, with the water so cold and stained, the only option around was a slough nearby.  Upon the mention of the name I said is that "the one" and he said it was.  Much has been written about a certain slough in the area over the past several years as certain well to do land owners, including Huey Lewis, have litigated over the issue of whether the recreational use of it should be public or not.  The gracious angler gave me directions to find it and said, "There are some real pigs in there."  That was all I needed to go give it a shot.

The directions lead me right where I needed to go and I noticed a couple of cars parked on the upstream side of the bridge.  Interestingly, there is a sign posted by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks identifying that in order to access and fish the water you must enter the water, somehow manage to get yourself under two fences running across the stream, one of which with barbed wire on the bottom course, and then stay in the water the entire time.  I performed a modified limbo to get under the barbed fence, figuring my jacket was about to get a new hole in it.  Luckily I made it, although the fences alone undoubtedly keep many would be anglers from attempting to access the water as it is physically challenging. 

Now that I was in I decided I'd rig up a brand new sink tip line and only fish streamers for the day.  I figured if there were in fact pigs to be had I'd try to get deep and offer them a reasonable meal.  As I was fishing my way downstream I wasn't having any luck.  The slough is effectively a spring creek with lots of mud, which I was constantly stirring up as I was unable to lawful walk the banks.  Surely this wasn't helping my cause.  Of course, large spring creek fish are notoriously difficult to catch on a fly anyway so my goal was really just to get a fish. 

I switched to a pattern I recently tied up and had been working pretty well for nice Browns on a different fishery lately.  I didn't have high hopes but what I was fishing wasn't working so what the heck.  As I pumped it on the swing I finally felt a nice fish eat it.  The fish fought harder than any fish I've caught in a good while so I was excited to say the least.  I landed it and it ended up being a 19" Brown.

With a fish under my belt I was happy that I wasn't going to receive a complete ass kicking on what was clearly a challenging and potentially rewarding new piece of water.  I worked my way further downstream with zero success and decided I should probably start fishing back up.  As my fingers were frozen from the heavy winds and occasionally snow/sleet I was figuring I'd fish my way back towards my van, probably catch nothing, and head back to the cabin and lick my wounds of a tough first day in the Bitteroot Valley.  All the while trying not to sweat the sniper rifles fixed on me waiting to take my head off if I touched foot on the banks. 

As that fish ate as the fly rose through the water column I decided I needed to add another smaller fly behind the relatively large streamer I was fishing and raise my rod while swinging the flies, especially at the conclusion of the swing.  Within 10 minutes of this adjustment this heavy, 21" Brown was brought to the net after a tremendous fight that allowed me to get a feel for what my new rod was capable of as it was doubled over for several minutes fighting the fish.

By now my head is fully in the game and I could care less that my hands are completely numb.  I kept at it and and end up foul hooking another 20"+ fish that really pushed the rod to it's limits.  I move upstream just a bit and cast to the far bank.  As the flies start their swing a huge fish hammers one of them.  A Rainbow that was probably 7 lbs and 23-26" long flies out of the water.  The red stripe on this fish looked like it could have been 2.5" tall.  Needless to say I was thrilled and when it came unbuttoned I was crestfallen.  That could have been one of the largest Rainbows I've ever hooked and it hurt to lose it. 

At this point I know that fish isn't going to eat again and it wouldn't seem likely that there is going to be another particularly large fish in this immediate area.  That being said, losing a fish like that causes one to reflexively cast back into the area, even though common sense suggests that it is likely to be futile.  Within several minutes I hook up on a huge Brown that comes flying nearly 2' out of the water.  This fish is big but looks smaller than the Rainbow, at least in it's girth.  It gives me another jump and we fight it out for several minutes before it makes it to the net.  The picture doesn't really do the fish justice but if you look at the size of the tail verses my large arbor 5 wt. reel you get the idea that it was a very nice fish.  It measured 24" and probably weighed over 5lbs. 

I kept working this area hard and landed several 18-19" fish.  After releasing one of the fish, my line was wrapped around my rod and as I was wading back to the spot I wanted to cast from I was flicking the line off the rod.  A fish I never saw exploded on the larger streamer as it hit the water 10' from me.  It was hooked up and I tried to untangle my mess but it snapped both flies off.  In retrospect I'm lucky it did break off quickly as it could have easily broke my brand new rod...the first day I ever fished it no less. 

The last fish of the day was another 21" Brown. 

After I did my best contortionist impression to get back under the fences without filling my waders with water the local game warden stopped to check my license as I got out of my waders.  He provided some color on the local situation along with some additional useful fishing information.  It looks like I'm going to have to make the 3.5 hour drive back a few times over the next month or two as he informed me that while the big fish will rise to dries in the summer and fall, the slough becomes full of weeds and upon hooking a fish it promptly breaks off in the weeds.  Of course, I'll have to go try it for myself in the summer...but in the meantime I'm going to tie a bunch of streamers and plan my next trip to the Heart of Rock and Roll. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saving the Best for Last

Winter has arrived in full force in the Northern Rockies.  Correspondingly opportunities to spend time on the water have decreased accordingly.  Lately I've been able to get on the water one day a week it seems.  On Friday the mercury hit the mid 30s and I spent a couple of hours on one of my least favorite waters in the world.  Unfortunately it also happens to be one of the most convenient waters for me to fish as it is close to home.  Needless to say it was more of a reason to spend some time outside on a nice day than it was fishing. 

The forecast for Saturday was likewise conducive to wetting a line so I headed over to a quality winter fishery.  It's been an interesting year of fishing as we experienced  record high water that really made for relatively disappointing fishing this summer.  I did have a great run in the spring that resulted in a few big Browns, but the summer didn't produce any particularly memorable fish and the fall produced some 20" fish but nothing truly large.  The water I fished on Saturday does hold the potential for big fish.  I've hooked a few that were 4-5lbs or more and landed some fish in excess of 20" over the past year. 

Upon arrival the wind was blowing pretty good, which is all too common on this piece of water.  My hands,  along with my guides, were frozen and the fishing started off slow.  I worked some water that normally produces and didn't find any willing fish.  I headed upstream to another likely spot and got a respectable 15" Brown to get on the board.  From there I headed up to the make or break spot for the day.  There's a bucket that has been holding lots of fish for the past 6 weeks or so.  I've caught upwards of 20 fish a day in this spot at times so I figured if this didn't produce it was going to be a long, cold, frustrating day.  After several casts I hooked up a small fish that ended up being foul hooked.  I was a bit concerned that my honey hole was going to be relatively barren.  I made a few more casts and saw a slight pause in the indicator.  It was the subtle indication that most anglers, even relatively experienced anglers, would not set on.  Usually when these subtle pauses are set on there is nothing there as it is just an indication of the weight or fly bouncing on the bottom.  The flip side is that when the indication is actually that of a fish taking the fly it is often a larger fish.  I suppose that is because the bigger, dominant fish exert the least amount of energy possible when they are feeding opportunistically on food in the drift. 

I set the hook, with little expectation that it would be a fish, and felt a fish on.  The fact that the only fish I had hooked in the spot so far was foul hooked had me concerned that I had possibly foul hooked another fish.  There was no doubt that the fish was strong and heavy, but a 16" fish hooked in the tail can at times feel like a 20+" fish hooked in the mouth.  I got a glimpse of it and realized it was a very, very nice fish.  At this point however I still couldn't see if it had eaten one of my flies or if the hook was embedded somewhere on the fish's body.  I kept my cool and tried to get control of the fish and keep him out of the various weeds that could spell disaster if he dove into them.  I got another look and saw that he had eaten one of my flies and it was sitting right in the corner of his mouth.  At this point I start to get very concerned that I was not going to be able to land this fish.  If it were foul hooked and it got off or broke off it really wouldn't be that big of a deal for me.  Sure I'd like to see exactly how big it was, but ultimately landing a foul hooked fish isn't satisfying.  Now that I was sure it was fair hooked I'm contemplating how in the world I'm going to land the fish.  My indicator was set a good 10' or more from my bottom fly meaning that was as much line as I could reel in.  On top of that my net isn't all that large or deep. 

I worked the fish with all the finesse I could while still keeping it from getting wrapped up in the weeds and finally was able to lift it's head and reach with all I had with my net and scoop it up. 
24 Inch Brown

After landing it, then began the mad scramble to get my camera and measuring tape out with my numb, frozen fingers.  I worked as fast as I could in order to reduce the stress placed on the fish as much as possible.  The pictures correspondingly aren't as great as I would have liked but will work.  It measured 24" on the button. 

With 21 days left until the end of 2011 I caught my largest fish.  Anything is possible but I would suppose this will be the big fish of the year for me.  It wasn't in the fall like I had expected and it wasn't on one of the big rivers that I picked up the Spey rod to be able to fish, but it was big and it was fun.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Quality Browns

In between snow storms I was able to spend a couple of days on one of my favorite late fall/winter fisheries this week.  For reasons that I'm uncertain of, the Browns in this stream spawn considerably later than any other water I'm familiar with.  While other waters I fish have seen the completion of the spawn, the fish in this stream haven't even started in earnest. 

The first day I was by myself and enjoyed a great day of streamer fishing for a couple dozen Browns between 14-20".  I did foul hook a fish that would have probably gone 5lbs, but after being drug 50 yards he came off.  The fish are at their physical peak right now and are heavy and powerful. 

20 Incher
Upon hearing how good the fishing was, my friend asked if I'd go back the next day as he'd managed to wrangle a hall pass.  It didn't take any arm twisting to get me to agree.  I figured we should fish a different section of the stream so we headed downstream.  For reasons I'm not quite sure of, this lower stretch can be quite good, but is not as consistent as the upper reaches.  It started off fine with some fish being caught like this one.

Unfortunately it went downhill from there and fish were hard to find.  We eventually abandoned the plan and headed upstream.  It was liking fishing a different stream as fish were big and plentiful.  The biggest fish was only about 19" but was especially thick.

19" Brute

Thursday, October 27, 2011

It's Coming

The picture sums it up, winter is rearing it's ugly head.  Monday, fall was in all it's glory with leaves of gold, orange, and red.  After two hard frosts since then most of the leaves are off the trees or brown.  Snow isn't falling yet but yesterday my guides were iced up for the first couple hours of fishing, even though I didn't get on the water until 11:00am. 

Fishing was good with several Browns in the 14-18" range landed and one Hog Johnson broken off.  I got a good look at it and it probably would have gone 4-5lbs....that one hurt.  The fish below were two of the better fish landed for the day.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bass Boatin'

On Wednesday I got an offer to join a friend of a friend on his bass boat for the last trip of the year to one of his favorite fishin holes.  I've never fished from a bass boat, let alone fly fished for native Cutthroats and non native Lake trout,  from one so I figured what the heck. 

The day started with meeting at 6:00am to try and be on the water by 9:30am.  I was warned to bring plenty of warm clothes as the wind chill is pretty intense zipping across a lake of 42F water at 30mph with ambient temps in the 30s.  I complied and piled on layer after layer, including snow pants and my winter parka as we headed out on the lake. 

My host had been given a tip by an old timer as to where we could find spawning Lake trout.  These fish get very large...30lbs would not be out of the question if we could find them.  Unfortunately the area he pointed us to was devoid of all life and all necessary elements to host much life.  No rocks, no weeds, no contour to the bottom of the lake, no fish.  We trolled around the area for a couple of hours, landing one random Cutthroat before neither of us could stand it any longer. 

My host took me to a cove that often has plenty of fish in shallow and clear water that provides for exciting sight fishing.  We found a few and were able to get some to play.  We worked our way around his usual loop and caught quite a few Cutts like this one in the 2.5-3lb range. 

We worked pretty hard to try and find fish and ended up landing perhaps 25 total between the two of us with a few better fish in the 4bl-4.5lb range like this one.

As we headed back to the marina the chop on the water got pretty intense and the corresponding spray resulting in me being bathed in 42F water.  It was much like I would imagine a Disney ride from hell.  All in all it was a good time and fun to experience something different. 

The juxtaposition of the sparkly bass boat on trout lake at over 8000ft is priceless. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fishing is Heating up as the Weather Cools Down

While I haven't yet got the big fall Brown trout that I'm looking for, I keep getting 20" fish from water that I've never got one that big from before.  Yesterday I took plenty of fish between 15-18" like these two.

All the fish were taken on streamers, these two were taken on the Mr. T starter set flies.  I've been tying articulated streamers lately and I'm pretty sure I saw Mr. T wear earrings that looked just like these flies in Rocky III.  As hackle feathers have become a fashion accessory of late in women's hair, perhaps I can make a killing bringing Mr. T earrings back in fashion....hmmm.

Had I just got lots of Browns and a handful of Rainbows in this range it would have been a great day.  However I was lucky enough to have finally corralled a legit 20 incher on this small fishery.  The pictures don't really show just how magnificent this fish was, but you get the idea.