Monday, August 8, 2011

Chunderfest

Donny hucks one in to the Middle Fork of the Salmon above Marble Rapid. video

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Happy Birfday, 'merica.

I like fireworks. I love the smell of a smoking BBQ. But on this particular Fourth of July weekend what I am most enamored with is sunshine.

Summer has finally arrived in western Montana. It sure wasn't here by Memorial Day, but it's here now. Despite bright sun and heat for the past week and a half, the freestone rivers are slooowly starting to drop, and every day there is more dark rock visible on the slopes of the high peaks. We still have a lot of snow to work through, but at least some of the upper drainage, super sneaky options are beginning to come in to play.
Everyone is hustling to find fishable water right now, and with Mother Mo cranking right along at 22,000+ cfs, even the Big Slide isn't such a great option anymore. We fished it one day and it was fine--with some big fish on the bite--but even most of the spots that fished well at 18,500 are now gone. So we looked elsewhere, and were lucky enough to have great weather and make it happen everywhere we fished. My past five days of work consisted of a lot of windshield time, plenty of heavy water boating and a few new callouses in places on my hands that don't otherwise toughen except for this time of year. But at least I was able to show my guests some of the more interesting rivers on the western half of the Big Sky, ditch the 12-foot
bobber/double BB/worm/scud slop rig, and catch some big old freestone trout on big old freestone bugs. A few even ate salmonflies. It's my favorite time of the year in this game...it just took us a lot longer to get there this season. Big water, big bugs, big fish.

From here on out, things should hopefully start to happen in short order. When the top ends come in to shape, the middle and lower (I'm not talking to you, lower Clark Fork. Sit back down in the corner and think about your choices) ends are soon to follow, and the bugs are certainly there. Trips are no longer canceling. And the sun is shining. I think we may finally be able to say we survived the spring of 2011. Game on.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

When things get weird.


Unless you live on a tailwater--even then, only if it's the right one--things are pretty rough in the western fishing biz these days. High water is kicking our collective asses. Missoula guides are just now beginning to even consider touching the far upper ends of drainages like Rock Creek and the Bitterroot, with minor concerns like closed boat ramps and bridges with too little clearance to sneak a raft under taking priority over any thought of whether a trout might get caught or not. The good news is there's still plenty more snow to come, with each sunny day leaving us wondering whether the freestoners will take another jump...or finally start coming down.
Most of us that are lucky enough to still be working following the industry-wide wave of cancellations in the past month are getting pretty tired of driving to the Mo and back, and our comrades who live over there, as friendly and accommodating as they may be, are getting pretty tired of constantly seeing us on their turf. Things got a little heated in front of Izaak's one night last week between a young Missoula guide and a local Missouri guide, and I think everyone around--including those involved--just wanted to go home and be left to their own program. It just reminds me once again how lucky we all are for the most part to be able to spread out and even have our own programs much of the season.

Such is not the case right now. They bumped the now-Almighty Mo another 3,000 cfs in the last 36 hours, making an already big river an absolutely giant one. Yet the series of reservoirs on the Missouri continue to steadily fill, and soon they won't be able to hold back the water any longer. What comes in is what comes out. At 21,500 cfs currently coming out of Holter, Great Falls is nearly underwater already, and there's talk of 26,000. We're all pretty confident she'll still fish just fine at 20,000+, so long as you don't sink, but nobody knows for sure. Even California Island is pretty much underwater, and all the island seams that were producing trout have moved 30 feet one way or another, or simply been swallowed up in a spiral of massive whirlpools and upwellings. Fishy spots (or places to stop) were already few and far between at 18,500. To make things that much peachier, the trout that are still in catchable places are getting absolutely pounded on by the hoards of fishing guides trying to scratch out a living in these conditions. Increasingly selective trout in floodwater conditions, in short. It's not ideal.



On a whirlwind three hour tour of Missoula this morning, I visited three fly shops, two sporting goods stores, and one arts and craft shop in search of materials with which to tie new, different and heavy San Juan worms. As if not weird (desperate) enough, I ran in to one particular friend and fellow guide at every location, both of us looking for the same thing...even though we didn't know what that was. Except for the craft shop; I outsmarted him on that one, and ended up finding some sweet purple kid's necklace cord that will look sick with an orange sparkly pom pom superglued to it...

But there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how faint it may appear right now. Despite a week of warm weather, both Little Prickly Pear Creek and the Dearborn River, the two main tributaries of the Mo, are dropping steadily. I can see bare ground up on Snowbowl, the local ski hill. That's different. Don't ask me about the bigger mountains. And, one of the outfitters I work for and another guide are floating the upper Creek today, which has finally fallen below 3,500 cfs. That's our cut-off flow at which point we can start (relatively) safely working, and we're optimistic it will stay on the drop. The bugs are there if the weather and water cooperate: I've seen and/or heard of salmonflies, green drakes and goldens on several rivers in the western part of the state already...we just need the water clarity. As for the rest of Big Sky country, by and large the answer is still a resounding "no," and will probably stay that way for a while.


All I know is that it's good to be working, and the trout have to rise again eventually.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Saturated...

Yes, there is some fishing to be had around western Montana right now, and I'm not just talking about lakes--or watching your gumball bounce off other drift boats while you tumble down Mother Mo. With the water system completely saturated from Yaak to Sydney and plenty more snow still hunkered tight in the mountains, we're talking tributaries of tributaries, preferably draining from lower elevations and with a heavy spring influence. In other words, you need to know where to look.


No, I won't point you in the right direction. Neither will anyone else who knows. And I sure as shit won't guide you there. I'll already catch enough flack for talking about it, even in such a vague, condescending tone. Fishermen and their "secrets." So for now, all I can offer you is a picture of some giant freestone browns that have no idea that their fellow, generally smaller brethren are clenching their teeth around stout willow stems right now in an attempt to not be swept out to sea.


After a week of high water cancellations, I'm headed back to the ol' Mighty this weekend for some good ol' fashioned bobber chasin'. Who knows, we may even see a trout rise this time. It's gotta happen at some point. We'll see you there.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

You already missed it.



They say you have to live here--or just be really freakin' lucky--to hit the salmonfly hatch just right. There are salmonflies in Missoula's rivers (lots of them), but right now they're underneath about 20,000 cfs of what hydrologists would refer to as "heavy suspended sediment load." In other words, our water is high, cold and shit brown.

The infamous tailwater complex of the Henry's Fork in Idaho is a different story altogether. Dams suck, except when they don't. The Fork is widely known to receive one of the earliest salmonfly hatches in the country, so with strong reports coming in of stonefly shucks turning up on bridges and willows, two days of bright sun in the forecast and nothing else to do, we headed south.

We were graciously hosted (read: guided) by my buddy from Idaho Falls who just happens to sell some very nice fiberglass drift boats down there for a living. So, if you're in the market for a sweet rowing boat, go buy one from him. No, not that company. The ones that don't suck, fall apart, or weigh 600 lbs. There ya go.

For the day and a half of nice weather we go out of the deal, the fishing was solid. Not off the hook, but hey, when you just drove five hours to escape dreary Missoula weather and a run off of Biblical proportions, seeing any trout eat a #4 salmonfly dry is just plain awesome.

Then the weather turned to shit, we bailed and the river blew out. As my buddy says, "we timed it perfectly." Sound fun? Better luck next year...you already missed it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hey Noah! Row over here and help a brother out...

Boom. Flood stage:
Good thing we still have 178% of average snowpack in the upper Clark Fork drainage (yes, that's 10% MORE than last week...). Now, before you run for the hills, bear in mind that at 10 feet gauge height, the Clark Fork is just barely inundating the lowest lying of yards and backwaters. It's not until the gauge hits 12.0 feet that we break out the sandbags and people start seeing water in their basement. And they don't predict that will happen until, well, Thursday. Good luck, lowlanders. I'm tying flies on the roof until July.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Time Off.

Well...this isn't that cool. I'm standing on the bank of a city park pond--and by "city park pond," I mean to express every sense of an entry fee-laden, no-dogs-allowed-enforced, blacktop paved, padlock-and-chained picnic-tabled and locked-every-evening at sunset by an impenetrable wrought steel gate kind of pond--my back no more than 20 yards from the howling growl of Seattle-bound tractor trailers and yellow Hummers from Kalispell ripping westward on I-90. A well-traveled gravel fishermen/dog-walker/high-school debauchery path lines the perimeter, dotted with cigarette butts, styrofoam worm cups, discarded Durexes and the like. This is decidedly not what alien visitors--and potential future "residents"-- expect when they drool over two-page spreads in the Big Sky Journal of Under Armor-clad fly fishermen wetting a line in any one of Montana's world famous trout streams that await them out their front door as soon as they drop 2.7 million on that "contemporary Western villa with ski-in-ski-out access to both Big Sky and Moonlight Basin." This is not the Montana of Howard and Maclean fame. Nope, as soon as you fall off that achingly romantic puffy white cloud that carried you here from wherever you are from, you realize that this sad, impoverished little local pocket of trashed recreation space--as is the case with many "heartland" areas of this country--this is Montana.

I'm here because it's run off, and the pond's waters are the only clear ones to be found for miles. Not only is it run-off--that timeless and essential high elevation snow melt that scours our rivers and feeds them cold blood all summer long--but it's a BIG run-off, and it's only started. Thanks to la Nina, much of the inner-mountain West received a solid whomping of snow this winter, and it's only in recent days that any of us in Montana, Idaho or Wyoming have come to believe that we will ever actually see the sun again. Instead of diminishing snowpacks with gentle warm-ups in April, we saw below-average temperatures and accumulating snow in to May. Let me tell you, we were all tired of fishing in sideways frozen shit this spring. The fishing was good and we got 'em, but it's safe to say that everyone--including the trout and bugs--could have benefited from a little more sustained sunshine before May 10th of this year.

Instead, we enjoyed a ski season our grandkids will hear about, and we dealt with difficult fishing conditions much of the spring. Now that the warmth has arrived, our 150%+ of average snowpack needs to melt, and it's going to come down in what the National Weather Service has already described as a "spectacular" run-off. As a former journalism professor of mine said, "when the NWS dips in to the adjective grab-bag, you know it's going be a doozy."



So now we wait it out. June is only a week away, and with plenty more snow to come, it's a safe bet that most of us Missoula guides will end up spending much of the next month on the Mo, harassing all our buddies over there who just wish we had our own tailwater to fish during run-off. At 15,000+ cfs it's a worm and split shot game, and unlike much of the rest of the year on the Missouri when you don't lose too many flies, I tend to relinquish lots of dirt snakes to the flooded willows and backyard bird feeders that create excuses for trout "holding lies" at these flows. I already tied 10 dozen worms this winter, but thanks to higher-than-average water this spring they're mostly gone, which means I need another 50 dozen before the end of the month. 50 dozen worms...or cross-eyed, carpal-tunnel-induced insanity; whichever comes first. Then there's all the other flies I fish that need to be tied as well. But worms come first.

***

Ever the effective procrastinator, I've found one of the ways to put off said worm production during run off is to check out the under-explored and unheralded warm water fishing in this part of the state. There's pike in the Clark Fork drainage (thanks a lot, asshole), and plenty of perch and walleye if you know where to look, but I'm looking for bass: 'merica's fish. Like many people, I grew up with more and better bass fishing closer to home than any trout opportunity, and I still love catching a bass on a fly (eh-ehm, or a buzzbait...) as much--if not more because I do it less often now--as any salmonid.

Granted, this is trout country, and Montana is not known for it's bass fishing for good reason. We've got a short growing season, there's not a lot of warm, still water around and frankly, most people could care less about catching a bass around here. At least in your elitist, well-equipped trout nerd circles with which I tend to run. But the bucketmouths are out there, and over the years I've been shown--and occasionally found--some pretty fun, beautiful places to have good bass fitchin' in the Big Sky state.

This State Department of Parks and Recreation puddle is not one of those places. But it's only 15 minutes from the house, it sits in the sun all day and I've seen honest-to-God five pound hens on their beds during Mays past. In Montana, that's a big bass. High water season on the rivers tends to be the only time I have to fish for them anymore, which just happens to coincide with the spring largemouth spawn. I haven't yet wrestled with the ethical contention and personal decisions that I've subconsciously made over the years that for whatever reason have left me feeling that it's acceptable to fish for spawning bass but not trout, but that's how I feel. And to this day, I still think there is very little in freshwater fishing that is more appealing than watching a big, fired-up hen largemouth flare her pec fins and puff her gills as she attacks whatever you drop in the middle of her bed. Even if I don't catch 'em, I just like seeing 'em. It scratches an itch.

But it's too early. Even here, this water has only been receiving sunlight and warmth for a few days, and the water's just too cold. I don't see a single fish cruising in the shallows, much less a bed. Next week. I just hope the sun stays out.

The Hitchin' Post


Unless you're just a miserable person, it's hard to hate on a good wedding. Here in Montana--if you run with the appropriate regional dirt bag riverfolk like I do--we're lucky enough to usually enjoy full-blown summer nuptial throw downs at regular intervals throughout the sunny months each year. Weddings of this sort are often drawn out, debaucherous events more closely resembling a multi-day music festival, creating a sort of exodus of friends traveling from near and far with camping gear, labs and drift boats in tow (because you know any good fishing guide is going to make damned sure he's getting married in close proximity to a fishable river...otherwise many of his friends wouldn't come). Chacos, sunglasses and a full keg cup are not only acceptable, but expected, at the ceremony.

This past weekend two of my very good friends were married by my roommate (he even wore a tie) on the banks of the lower Clark Fork west of Missoula. Given the weather we've had this spring/early "summer," it's safe to say everyone's primary concern was that Mother Nature would take a big dump on the party. Usually sunshine by early May in western Montana is a pretty safe bet. Except I think it snowed yesterday. The bride-to-be, who is normally a very happy, easy-going little bundle of energy, suddenly seemed very quiet and more than a little stressed. Precautions were made (like getting a big freaking tent that no doubt cost them an arm and a leg), but the bottom line was rain all weekend could be a major spoiler.

But when you're living right, which Karl and Steph obviously are, the Sun Gods cooperate and you and your family and friends end up throwing one hell of a celebration. Someone said they "might have felt a drop" of rain just after the ceremony, but for the most part we enjoyed partly sunny skies and warm temperatures for the 36-48 hour period surrounding the party. By the time everything was packed up and most folks had gone home Sunday afternoon, it was pissing rain again in Missoula. Sometimes life just doesn't get any better.


Congratulations, Karl and Steph. I adore you guys and hope your love and adventures together continue for a long, long time.