Saturday, October 31, 2009

Friday, October 30, 2009

Doublin' Down

Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of living in western Montana is the diversity and relatively easy access of recreation around here. Within 15 minutes of Missoula you can access quality fishing, hunting, skiing, climbing, hiking, biking...jeez, hang-gliding, if you're in to that sort of thing. If you're willing to drive an hour or two, the possibilities are seemingly endless.

Which is reassuring when you venture out to do one thing, and it pretty much sucks. Duck hunting this morning was, let's say, less than mind-blowing. I think I saw a couple of a distance...headed the other direction. After a couple of hours in the blind, scanning the sky for birds that weren't coming, I began to question why I slogged all this shit down the hill to sit in the mud and watch starlings. Sleeping in sounded good right about then.

It was pretty warm out and I had seen rise forms from a couple of trout in the slough I was hunting, so I started thinking about fishing. Weird. An inquiring text to Jamie and my back-up plan was created. You can even bring your shotgun on float trips this time of year. It's awesome.

Late-fall cloud cover and baetis on the lower Bitterroot is usually a good, albeit frustrating, time. As was the case today. Fish were eating midges and BWOs most of the day until the W blew the bugs off the water about 4. Tough fish, but catchable, and we caught some on little dries, including some nice ones. As usual, I whiffed a few.

Also caught a couple of fish on a sculpin pattern fished under a sink tip. Jamie had a nice fish follow the fly and try to eat it several times on his first cast of the day...after that we were both psyched for a great streamer bite and maybe a big brown fish or two. Nope.

The wind picked up about the time Jamie decided that he was going to be really late for his lady friend's soccer game, so we hit the sticks and got off the water about a quarter of 5. A fun day of multi-sport recreation, the final event being beer drinking at the house later that night.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Hang Around Until You Catch One"

That's what the motel sign says. Good marketing and sound advice to steelhead anglers on the Salmon River this time of year. And from the looks of things, between the hunters and fishermen, business is hopping right now...we can barely find a place to park in front of the gas station in North Fork. Jamie and I have hauled a boat, 5 fly rods and a dog over Lost Trail Pass for a few days of swinging; judging from the number of Montana plates in the parking lot, this seems to be the cool thing to do this weekend.

Licenses, propane, whiskey. Bases covered, we set up camp and get down to fishing. There's a great run out back of the campground, so we figured why not get the lines wet right away? Jamie hasn't cast a two-handed rod very much, but he did well the last time I saw him cast (2 or 3 years ago), and he picked it up quickly this time around as well. After watching clients struggle with single-handed casting all season, and recalling my own frustration with learning to spey cast, watching him naturally fire out 70 footers shortly after picking the rod up was pretty entertaining. It also pissed me off a little bit...

We had great steelheading weather most of the weekend; it rained a fair amount Friday night, which motivated us to go in to Salmon for dinner and drinks at the Shady Nook in lieu of sitting around the fire in the rain. Fried chicken night, good call. And an upstream wind kicked our asses a little bit on Saturday afternoon, relegating these right-top-hand-only casters to the left bank so we wouldn't pelt our faces with string leeches. But overall the weather was good, the water was green, and the whole weekend had that late-fall, achingly fishy feel to it.

And the steelhead were grabby. We got blanked in a couple of runs Friday evening, but connected with half a dozen fish Saturday, landing two hatchery hens. Nymphing out of the boat covered the water between swinging runs, and we hooked fish both on the swing and under the bobber. When the gal doing fish counts for Idaho Fish and Game stopped by the take-out, we proudly told her that we had caught a couple of fish. She smirked and said, "Yeah, it's been pretty good." I think we were bringing the average down.

A short note about dinner Saturday night. Campfire. Clear skies. New York strips on the grill, caesar salad, and red wine. Cookies. That is all.

Sunday we floated the same stretch as the day before. On Saturday we had been able to avoid much of the traffic...I think we only saw one or two other boats the whole day. Sunday we had a little more company, including the seemingly ever-present guy that insists on pulling plugs through the end of your swing. Whatever, the sun is shining and the fish are biting.

Jamie got the stink off his spey-casting career in fine form that day, hooking a solid 7-8 lb hatchery hen on the hang-down late in the morning. That's a solid fish on the Salmon, and Jamie was rightfully pumped.

The day was a success at that point, and we wanted to hit the road back to Missoula reasonably early that afternoon. But don't think that I didn't want a fish of my own, and the afternoon held promise. We pulled in to a run where the afternoon before I had hooked and lost two fish, bringing one all the way to the bank before the hook popped. As I swung through the sweet spot this time around, the line again went tight...a very slow, soft grab. A couple clicks off the reel, and I came tight on her. Fish on! After giving me the treatment, I was able to get the upper hand and bring her in to the shallows, snap a couple of pics, and let her go.

More than satisfied, we pushed the boat out, Jamie hitched a ride back up to the truck, and we headed back to break camp. Highly motivated on steelhead and Budweiser, camp came down in near-record time. One last stop at the North Fork store for gas and some air in Jamie's ailing front left tire, and we headed back over the pass.

The drive home went easily, especially since I didn't have to maybe I should call it my ride home. We made a stop at the Broken Arrow in Gibbonsville, which is the greatest little hole-in-the-wall-Mexican-restaurant-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-that's-never-open...and, thank God, it was open. Full bellies, high spirits, and one damn fine trip. When can we go back?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Filthy Egg-Suckers

The weekend warrior is on the hunt again. Real-world obligations have (mostly) been taken care of for the week, and all that's standing between me and some serious swing-time on the Salmon are a few pints at the Kettlehouse tonight. I've been itching to get back down to Idaho since, well, leaving Idaho. Egg-sucking string leeches were manufactured this week during bouts with procrastination.

Jamie and I are leaving at dawn tomorrow and hope to be on the water by mid-morning. This will be Jamie's first steelhead trip to Idaho. I hope he knows what he's in for. It should also be interesting/hilarious because he doesn't have a spey rod and plans on slinging some 10' 7wt around all weekend. He'll probably outfish me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Havre has it...

Nima and I made the 4+ hour trek northeast to Havre this past weekend to visit our friends Brett, Lisa, Lady and Nash up on the Hi-Line. Brett and Lisa are both teachers up there, and Lady and Nash are their English setters; Lady's the old veteran, Nash the 1 1/2 year old bird-stud in training. These are some of my favorite people/dogs, and it was great to have the chance to observe them in their natural environment.

There is nothing like spending time up in this part of Montana in the fall...the sprawling open country, the small ranching towns, and the abundance of game seem reminiscent of a past era. The place is a hunter's paradise. What people do in Havre the other eight months of the year, however, when you can't shoot stuff, is a mystery to me.

Northeastern Montana had some cold, wet weather this past spring/early summer, and supposedly bird numbers are down because of those storms. Brett as well as some other friends have found tougher than usual hunting in the area so far this season, and FWP reports say upland birds of all species are below average this year in that part of the state. Nonetheless, this is flippin' birdy country, and we found roosters in all the spots we hunted over the weekend...maybe not as many as last year, but they were there, and they were in the right places. Rudy was just as wily as ever, and we probably missed or didn't have shots on more birds than we killed. Pretty par for the course for me...

Brett is a high school biology teacher in town, and he benefits from connections with students' parents and faculty who are landowners in the area. Nothing like private access. He is also a passionate bird hunter, and the guy does his homework (let's just say that every flushed bird is entered in his GPS). We were able to hunt a variety of public and private land over the course of two and a half days, and saw plenty of pheasants, Huns, antelope, whitetails, and mule deer. Even ran in to a rattlesnake one morning that caused us to change our minds regarding a hunt in a particular creek bottom. Usually they would be in their dens by this time of year, but it's been so warm recently that it's obviously still good advice to mind your step.

Speaking of speed goats, after pheasant hunting Saturday morning, we put the sneak on a group of antelope that had several big bucks milling around in it. I didn't have an antelope tag for that unit (they sold out in a matter of hours this summer), but Brett did. We belly-crawled up to the crest of a rise where Brett was able to make a 300 yard shot with his 7mm Mag., dropping this 15 1/2 x 16 1/2 buck in his tracks. We spent the rest of the afternoon getting him cleaned up and considering which part of him to eat first.

Needless to say, breakfast Sunday morning was pan-friend antelope tenderloin. We did a cast-and-blast on a local river that I've been asked to withhold the name of, and had good pheasant hunting...and poor to very poor fishing. Good thing we're keeping it a secret! A handful of trout were farmed on dry flies (mostly on my part, of course), and we saw some massive brown trout push out of a couple of shallow tail-outs. 'Tis the season for those big boys to be fired-up and aggressive, but the quality of the streamer fishing that day didn't show it. It was still a great day: I'll always sign up for new water with good friends.

With a long drive home ahead of me Sunday night, we got off the water reasonably early and hit the road. Another weekend well-spent in good company and great country. I look forward to making it up that direction again in November for some deer hunting and so I can take another crack at some of the roosters I missed.

Photographs by Brett Shelagowski

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Backyard Bruin

I've been staying with my friends recently who have a great place way up the Rattlesnake in Missoula. They have a big yard that backs up to forest, and there are usually lots of whitetails, turkeys, and assorted vermin (skunks, 'coons, etc.) hanging around. This afternoon as I was leaving the house, we spotted this critter eating apples out of the neighbor's tree. With the weather we've been having recently (cold), I'm surprised this guy isn't hibernating yet! It is still October...things are supposed to warm up later this week and conditions look pretty fishy for the weekend...

But, I think I'm headed north to the Hi-Line to hunt birds with my buddy Brett and his great English setters. Bird numbers apparently aren't all that good up that way this year, but I'll never know for myself if I don't go. Besides, if I don't give the steelheading a rest for the week, I may end up strapped to a table in the Orofino insane asylum.

Brett, Lady, and Nash with a Montana sharptail.

Missoula Monument to Honor Rev. Maclean, Architect Gibson

"The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana."
-Norman Maclean

A monument has been erected in front of the First Presbyterian Church, 235 S. Fifth St. W., in Missoula to honor the Reverend John Norman Maclean and architect A. J. Gibson. Via The Missoulian, Oct. 8, 2009.

The Reverend John Norman Maclean

Monday, October 12, 2009

2 Out of 246,321 Ain't Bad.

I just returned from three days in Idaho where the Clearwater River and I elected to continue our love/hate relationship. I love that river...and it hates me. True, it is one of the more notorious rivers in the PNW when it comes to finding steelhead willing to take a swung fly. Finnicky. Tempermental. Call it what you will, but Clearwater steelhead love to kick ass and take names, especially when it comes to us fly-pole-swingin' hippies from over the pass. What haunts me about the Clearwater is that those fish will take a swung fly (I've seen 'em do it), and a lot of them are BIG. It's just that they choose to eat said flies with maddeningly unpredictable infrequency. With cool fall weather in place, low, clear water conditions, and fish counts over Lower Granite Dam through the roof, conditions this past weekend seemed ideal for hanging in to one of those big B-runs...

And yet, after two full days of flogging the water with everything from skaters and little traditionals on dry lines to egg-sucking string leeches on heavy tips, Karl and I had yet to have a confirmed encounter with a Clearwater steelhead. Hadn't even talked to any other fly fishermen who had touched a fish either. By the morning of day three, we were hungry and pulled out all the stops.

We launched the spam-can at Ahsahka at dawn and immediately pushed downstream to nymph the outlet pipe of Dworshak Hatchery. Classy, I know, but when you're itching to connect with some Clearwater steel of any sort there are few better bets than dead-drifting egg patterns through the outlet of the largest steelhead hatchery in the country. It's worked before. This trip, however, it was not to be.

In search of greener pastures, we moved downstream and swung flies through a historically productive run. Karl has caught several fish in this water, and made good swings through the no avail. There ain't no steelhead in this river.

To ease the unending monotony of not catching anything, I broke out the stove and cooked up some bacon and eggs on the bow of the boat for breakfast. Certainly a highlight of the weekend, so far!

Well-fed and full of foolish optimism, we moved on to Plan C and set the plug rods out. Utilizing Karl's expertise following several seasons of guiding fly and tackle anglers on this river, we pulled his favorite plugs through some of his favorite water. Nope. Ain't gonna happen.

After going through the motions of fruitlessly swinging flies through yet another beautiful, "historically productive run," all the while listening to bait chucking locals whoop and holler fighting yet another fish from the next run downstream, we'd had it.

Out came the side-drifting rods and cured eggs. We aren't purists, we're fishermen. And when all you've caught after the better part of three days fishing with more noble tactics is a sucker, a squawfish, a small jack salmon, and one trophy whitefish, all bets are off. We threaded the needle between two big jet-sleds full of Real-Tree clad enthusiasts and moved in to the next run. Drifting our tasty egg morsels in to the bucket, the rod tip registered an unmistakable tug and...wait for it...low and behold, a steelhead miraculously manifested itself on the end of my line. No shit. A short, but heated five minutes later and a 12-pound hatchery hen was on the beach. It felt pretty good just to grab one by the tail.

When you've found a biting steelhead, chances are that fish has friends. Rowing back upstream to make a second pass, we pushed in to the run and started another drift. About fifty yards below where we had caught the first fish, the rod tip once again responded; this time, there was no was a yank. Actually it was several yanks, and after a solid hookset and 100-yard run upstream, a big buck went airborne, cartwheeled over the river, and streaked downstream. This fish was pissed-off and had no interest in remaining in the county, much less the run we had hooked him in. Karl pushed the boat downstream after the big boy, and after a couple more heart-stopping jumps and having to manipulate the fish through a fast, boulder-strewn riffle, we slid him in to calm water and put the net under him. A solid, 18-pound hatchery buck swimming in the net is a welcome sight for two battle-weary anglers on the brink of mental instability.

We may have had to resort to less-than-ideal tactics, but putting two big steelhead in the boat back-to-back at the end of the trip sure made the four-hour drive home back over the pass a little easier to swallow. Next trip might have to be to the Salmon, where the steelhead have been known to actually eat flies...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

(Mostly) Silent Skies

Sunrise over the Missions

Pesca making a great retrieve on a not-so-great bird

Neglecting some minor responsibilities in favor of going duck hunting, Karl and I took a look up around Ninepipes this morning. Gorgeous morning: clear, cold, with fog coming off the potholes...birdy. Apparently the birds didn't agree, as there wasn't much happening. We did see several good flights of geese throughout the morning, but they had other plans that didn't include us! I did manage to double-up on a flight of five blue-wing teal that materialized out of thin air over the decoys (just about the time I was dozing off). Broke down out of boredom towards late morning and popped a scaup...maybe I'll feed it to my roommates. Good to get out again. I'm Clearwater-bound tomorrow morning!

Three little birds...

Karl and Pesca peering out from the frozen bush

Looking north over the decoys

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

And They Keep Coming...

8,210 steelhead passed through Lower Granite Dam yesterday, bringing the season total to 211,262 so far!! Keep 'em coming! Headed down to the Clearwater later this week for several days of to follow.

Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. The final "obstacle" for steelhead and salmon returning to the upper Snake, Clearwater, Salmon, and Grande Ronde rivers, among many others. Breach 'em all.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Near-Record Columbia River Steelhead Return

At the current pace, as of tomorrow over 200,000 steelhead will have passed through Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Idaho. More than 588,000 steelhead have already come over Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River, making this year the second-highest total return of adult steelhead to the Columbia system since record-keeping began in 1969. The highest recorded total occurred in 2001, when 630,200 steelhead entered the system. More to follow...but in the mean time, get out there and swing.