Monday, August 8, 2011


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

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 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


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 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.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Get it while you can.

Since "spring" has largely skipped over the western United States altogether this year, it seems only fitting that it's still snowing...and the rivers are still in really, really good shape. Like well-below-average flows, great-clarity, continued-good-hatches kind of shape. The fishing has been good--even outstanding at times--and we've been out there to see a whole bunch of it lately. And since the snowpack in the mountains is still growing, as opposed to shrinking, all indications point to a GIANT run-off when it finally breaks loose. So you better get it while there's some gettin' to be got, cause it's gonna be a beeeg one.

With my spring work wrapped up successfully (meaning everybody caught trout and no one drowned) by the middle of April, Dad came out and spent the better part of two weeks fishing around Missoula. I had he and one of his good buddies in the boat for four days of what is now being described as pretty standard "Spring 2011" fishing: snow and sun, calm and wind, terrible fishing and excellent fishing...usually within the same hour or so. The hatches were off, except for when they were on, and then the fish would turn on, and then they'd turn off. Then it would snow some more.

But that's why they make Gore-Tex, and over the course of ten days we managed to catch 'em on the Root, Clark Fork, Rock Creek and the Big Hole. Overall I'd say fishing was pretty damn good given the conditions and the season we're having, with the skwala fishing on the lower Big Hole our last two days of Dad's trip taking the cake--hands down--in terms of quality of fishing. Brown trout. Holy effing brown trout.

Yesterday one of my buddies convinced me, once again, to do just what I didn't want to do once more this spring: sit in the sideways snow, pushing the boat downstream, not catching very many trout. Awesome, thanks Brett. You know what they say, "A bad day of fishing beats a..." errp, sorry, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.

But now it's May 1st, the sun is actually poking through a bit in Missoula and with a few days off in town under my belt, most of my worldly responsibilities are taken care of (it's amazing how easily I hemorrhage money after a working/fishing trip). At times like this, I find myself bored and twitchy as hell if I don't go fishing, so it only seems fitting that it's time to head back in to the hills to find some trout that might rise before Noah and his furry crewmates come boatin' through downtown.

When it comes to cheesy, irrelevant sangs from the Farmer's Almanac that you may have heard your grandparents offhandedly mutter in years past, my money's on "April showers bring May flowers." And 100-year flooding? I'll believe it when I see it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fightin' It.

Skwala season is no longer any sort of secret in western Montana. Not even close. Guides know about it, college kids with pontoon boats know about it, clients know about it. And that's for good reason. The fishing can be downright outstanding--on big dry flies--while most of the western U.S. fishing scene is just starting to defrost from winter hibernation. That is, unless you hit any one of a number of unfavorable, but completely possible weather/water scenarios that can thoroughly bugger your trip at this time of year. One day the river is clear and dropping, three to five different species of bugs are popping, and the fish are on the chow. The next day the river blows out, it snows sideways and you're watching the bobber while counting the seconds until your guide will let you have another pull off the flask of Dewar's...or better yet take you back to the hotel.

Such was the case this past weekend. A spring warm-up/rain-on-snow event tripled the size of all the Missoula-area rivers just before I was to start a week-long run of work. Perfect. Day One's guests were somewhat local, and given the fishing report (what fishing??) during the crest of the initial tsumani-like wave, they canceled. That's fine. Better to try and get them back later in the season during more favorable conditions than lose them outright to shitty fishing and bad weather. Just like a powder day can make an average skier look like a superhero, while ice will make a strong rider look like a drunken peg-legged monkey, fishing the Bitterroot during an initial push of water like we just experienced can make even the most seasoned western Montana guide look less knowledgeable than the old dude slinging Zebco outfits from behind the Walmart sporting goods counter.

The next group of guests was in from Jersey for the weekend, so it was going to take more than a little bad weather and an apocalyptic fishing report for them to cancel. So off to the Missouri we went, along with every other freestone guide in Montana that was booked that weekend and scrambling to find a trout to catch. Fishing on the Mo was, well, early spring on the Mo. They ate pink stuff--preferably with a hot bead on it-- under the bobber, and occasionally a big olive streamer trolled off the bank on a sink tip. We didn't catch a lot of fish by Missouri standards, but we caught some really nice ones, and it sure beat the hell out of catching jack shit, which I can almost assure you would have been the outcome if we had fished the Root on Saturday. In classic Montana spring style, the Mother threw just about every single weather type you can imagine at us, often in the course of half an hour. You often hear it in Montana, and everywhere else for that matter, that "if you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes." Well, this past weekend, if you didn't like the weather, you just turned and looked the other direction.

Cold nights and "drier" weather put the Root back on the drop over the weekend, so Monday found us back on this side of the Divide. The river's still high, and the ways in which we caught fish showed it. But I like fishing the Root at high's a game, and when you get on 'em it can kick ass. I wouldn't say our fishing the past two days kicked ass, but it was acceptable, we caught some nice ones, and we even got a few to eat the big dry, which I wasn't really expecting this soon after the wave. The rest of the week looks to be just as cold and snowy as the past several days, so one can only hope that the river will continue to drop and by the time the next warm up comes along (what's warm this year? Like 50), it'll be on like Konkey Dong. Or so we can hope.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Heartbeat of 'Merica.

Two weeks ago, Butte, Montana hosted its annual St. Patrick's Day Parade/Drunken Rampage up on the Hill. Although I hear it's a good time, I've never gone..and in all honesty I don't think I ever will. Getting the crap kicked out of me by some wasted Buttant, spending a night in Silver Bow county jail and/or watching my own green beer vomit trickle downhill towards the Berkley Pit are not high on my list of things to accomplish at this point in my early thirties.

But last week Butte, America, which was at one time the wealthiest city in the United States, sold me a truck. More accurately, I bought a brand-spanking new, 2011 Chevy Silverado from some weathered, middle-aged biker lady who sells those sorts of things for a living down at the bottom of the Hill. Call it hokey, or blame the lingering East-coasty romance that still overwhelms me in random instances, even after living in Big Sky country for several years, but during these times, in this state, with the economy doing what it's doing (or not doing), it just felt good to buy a full-size, American-made pick up from Jane Doe in Butte, Montana. I'd like to think she went home and told her husband she sold a rig today, and maybe they went out to dinner up on the Hill to celebrate. More likely, she muttered "sucker" under her breath as I walked out of the dealership and went to the bar that night. And that's OK. I've been known to do the same thing after rough days with certain clients.

Regardless, I'm thrilled with the new whip. So it would seem are los huespedes (the guests) so far. I opted for the extended cab with the 6 1/2 foot bed, as opposed to the "more common with fishing guides" crew cab, mostly because I want to sleep back there during impromptu overnights. And since it seems like most days my two clients fit the "tall skinny guy and the short fat guy" bill, we just park Shorty in the back and there's been no complaints about the size of the back seat. She tows like a Clydesdale, but the ride is unquestionably smoother. I even got six months of OnStar. Lucky me. Now I won't get lost heading to the boat ramp.

The only thing that's left now is to name it. Well, that and a topper, bedliner, nerf bars, seat covers, floor mats and real tires...but those will come later. For now a name is needed. Thanks to my friend Dana, the top contender right now is "Chuck Norris." The white ninja, baby.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The mark of the Beast

For the past several weeks, everything's been hunky-freaking-dory. Skwalas started. Drakes are on the way. Fishing's been good (hence the infrequency of my posts). I even bought a new truck. As I approach a five day run of work, it would seem like things are hard pressed to be looking any brighter. Then this:
Flow on the Bitterroot at Bell Crossing? 666 cfs and climbing. By climbing I mean the reverse of skydiving. Is that line vertical?? 666. Beelzebub's unforgiving fist has fallen on the Missoula fishery in the form of poorly-timed rainfall, and my clients the next several days are the unsuspecting victims. Sorry boys. You just don't fuck with the Devil.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

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Monday, March 7, 2011

OK, now it's fishing season...

Now I remember what this is all about. It never takes long.

A couple weeks ago, back before the rafts were inflated and cleared of snow and you could still legally fish with "last year's" license, a freak warm February afternoon tempted me, my buddy and just about every other fly angler in western Montana out to the Bitterroot. It was my first day on the water this year, and for a short wade fishing mission, it served its purpose perfectly. Walking around on gravel bars, letting the dogs stretch it out and looking at trout water is good for the soul after the winter we've had. I even got the skunk off, albeit in the same way I usually kick off each season: by snagging a trout in the ass with a worm. I also caught one on an egg-- even classier.

Yesterday was different. The boat helped. For better or worse, after spending just eight short years in Montana, I find it hard to consider a wade trip a "real" fishing day anymore, particularly on any big western river. It's just so much easier to efficiently cover the big water when you're floating, not to mention the camaraderie and storage space a boat provides. Four rods, three dudes, two dogs, three boat bags, miscellaneous other shit and a growler of Single Hop ale take up a lot of space. One upside of the early season is you don't need a cooler to keep your beer and $5 foot-longs cold, though four hours of bouncing around on the floor of a self-bailing raft with the aforementioned dudes and dogs can do a number on Subway bread.

The trout played an important role as well, mostly because they were biting. In nicer weather-- provided the company's good and the beer's cold--even the slowest day of fishing can be a lot of fun. Early season, when the forecast high of 40 or 45 may only hang around for an hour or two before the sun dips behind the Bitterroots and things start to refreeze (like your fingers), a slow day of watching the bobber not bob can seem downright your time would've been better spent staying home and tying flies while you wait for the fishing season to honestly start.

Though far from red hot, the fishing yesterday was decent; some might even say good, considering that just last week we were skiing 3'+ of fresh powder and as I write this anywhere above 4,000 feet or so in elevation is still very much clenched in winter's icy jaws. Sure, we fished some bobbers, but at least they went down every once in a while--only to return to the surface with a scrappy trout attached to the end of the line. I also moved several nice fish swimming an articulated sculpin around on a sink tip, though the farmer in me only landed one.

It just felt like the river was waking up. The water looked more green than gray, and every once in a while a fish would randomly rise, even if it was just a whitey eating a midge. We poked our noses back in to a spring-fed slough where we found half a dozen nice fish holding in near-still water, its glassy surface occasionally dimpled as trout lazily rose to slurp something invisible out of the film.

Then Brett tied on a dry fly--a real, honest to goodness size-10 skwala of his own design--and in one of my favorite spots on one of the Root's most popular floats, this happened:

So it's here. With forecast highs in the low to mid 50s much of the coming week, it looks like this just may be the start of it. We didn't see any adult skwalas yesterday, but we also didn't look very hard, and they aren't exactly known for being the most social stoneflies in the world. Even during the peak of the hatch you may only see half a dozen on the water over the course of a day. That trout sure acted like he had at least seen a couple.

But who knows? As I write this it's snowing outside the living room window, and another nasty cold snap like we've become so accustomed to this winter could easily put things on hold for another week or two. But it sure seems like all signs point to the Root giving up some of the first solid dry fly fishing of the season in the next week or so. Rest assured I'm not the only one who feels this way, and you better believe the river is going to see some pressure this week as every trigger-happy fishing guide in the county heads out to test their new skwala pattern and get a few licks in before clients show up.

I knew I should've tied more flies and wrapped up any remaining winter chores earlier, because from here on out, I'm going fishing every chance I get.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Wow for Wednesday.

Lookout for La Niña from Evan Phillippe on Vimeo.

An interesting phenomenon around here at these little Mom & Pop ski areas that we frequent in western Montana is the Powder Wednesday. When you're in the business of selling people rides up a snow-covered mountain, I'm not sure why you would ever close your lifts down mid-week, particularly during an epic winter like the one that's currently kicking us in the mouth. But they do. Whether it's to save money, give the employees the day off, or simply let the snow have a chance to recover (deepen?), closing your doors on Tuesday--when inadvertently timed with an approaching storm cycle that rolls in Monday afternoon--can lead to sickeningly epic shit Wednesday morning. Freshies? Try "waisties."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dr. Faceshot. Paging Dr. Faceshot.

I certainly don't want to give the impression, what with my fawning over mid-February sunny afternoons on the river and all, that winter is over. Not by a long shot. Short-lived warm spells and superstitious woodchucks (eh hem, "groundhogs" in PA) aside, winter weather is still very much a threat--or a pleasure, depending on how you look at it--that western Montana will risk encountering well in to April. Hell, it's been known to snow in June and July in these parts. Since moving west nearly a dozen years ago, I've often wondered: does a freak snowstorm in July qualify as the last snowfall of the past winter, or the first snowfall of the coming one?

Any way you want to look at it, forecasts in mid-February that look like this (from the NOAA site):

This Afternoon: Snow. High near 35. West southwest wind around 10 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. Total daytime snow accumulation of 3 to 7 inches possible.

Tonight: Snow. Low around 23. West northwest wind 6 to 15 mph becoming southeast. Winds could gust as high as 23 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 7 to 11 inches possible.

Wednesday: Snow showers. Temperature rising to near 26 by noon, then falling to around 20 during the remainder of the day. Calm wind becoming south around 5 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%. New snow accumulation of 3 to 7 inches possible.

....can mean only one thing: White Room Wednesday. Bring your snorkel or risk suffocation, kiddies. Game on.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ready, Set, Go!

Like an old friend dropping by unexpectedly, the odd--yet not that unusual--mid February warm up is a welcome surprise every year in western Montana. You can't predict when it'll come, and if you don't act fast you'll miss it. Rest assured, it is still absolutely, positively winter. After three days of above 40 degree temps and mostly sunny skies, things are cooling right back off this evening and the mountains are expecting 8-10" tomorrow. Good thing the skis are still leaning in the corner of the kitchen, the pool of water collected at the tails having only recently dried from the last blower pow day.

We thought about resisting the lemming-like urge to hurl ourselves in to the nearest open piece of water come Sunday's sunny, 50-degree afternoon, but it was futile. Come 2 p.m., we were driving down the Root, poking in to fishing accesses only to find three, four, six SUVs and pick-ups sporting similar TU license plates and industry-related "cool" stickers on the back windows. Dirt bag fishing bums, every last one of us. Or at least we want to be. Anarchists unite.

Here is where I could ramble on about just how nice it was to be out, to soak up the sunshine, to run the dogs. And it was nice. We found a few decent winter runs to ourselves, kicked the gravel and talked about bugs. I even caught a few trout under the bobber, though the only cuttbow worthy of even a half-hearted point-and-shoot photo was snagged in the ass with a pink worm, and I figured that was already sufficient soul robbing of the critter for one day.

What caught me off guard, though it shouldn't, was how many damn people were out fishing that afternoon. It's safe to assume anyone who owns a fly rod has the shack nasties by mid-February, so it only makes sense that the Root, which usually warms up the fastest and starts fishing the earliest, would see some of it's first true pressure of the season on a weekend like this. But Jesus, you'd think it were first week of April and the skwalas were peaking. As we walked back to the truck, there had to be four or five boats pulling out at the bridge. Several looked to be brand spanking new: Christmas presents or splurges from last fall that had been just dying to make it out of the garage on a maiden voyage. My old roommate had floated from here down. Two other friends were taking out here. Wade fishermen were scattered throughout all the visible, likely-looking runs. I wouldn't have been surprised if a guide had rolled up with clients, sporting his shiny new 2011 tags.

Poor trout. Suckers have a reputation for being smart (well, then there's cutties...), but against these odds many of them don't stand a chance. All of a sudden, after what really only amounts to two or three months of relative peace and quiet, every potential food source once again becomes suspiciously threatening. Stonefly nymphs bite back and scar lips. Other fish's eggs swim upstream through the current before miraculously launching from the water--only to reappear again moments later. And you'd be smart to question any big, squirmy-looking creature wiggling across the surface of the water before taking a bite...especially if it's pink or chartreuse.

Yep, let the games begin. As an outfitter I work for often says, in the spring it's not so much about fly pattern as it is boat position. Get up early, get out fast, keep moving. I have friends and colleagues who love this type of float fishing. I tend to prefer a mellower pace and will opt for lower fish counts or slower overall action in favor of fewer boats and less molested trout. Maybe it's just me, but I didn't come to Montana to get in line. So as winter breaks free and spring fishing actually starts to show signs of heating up (as opposed to this mid-winter tease), I'll take every chance I get to wander around a bit and find some good fishing outside of the daily Bitterroot skwala junk show. You'd be wise to do the same--just don't follow me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Please take action now to protect Montana stream access from HB 309!!

Rep. Jeff Wellborn (R-Dillon) is sponsoring a dangerous and frighteningly stupid bill in the Montana House that will severely weaken public access on many of Montana's most famous and productive trout streams. The bill is essentially a manipulative re-wording of the current Montana stream access law, and would redefine miles and miles of what are now public waterways as private "irrigation ditches" that would provide no legal public access.

This bill would impact and potentially eliminate public access on portions and entire channels of the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Bitterroot, Clark Fork, Ruby, Jefferson, Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers along with many, many more. Why a representative from one of these communities would ever want to negatively impact the significant economic benefits tourism and recreation dollars bring to Beaverhead County and countless other communities in Montana escapes me. Much of the appeal of Montana fly fishing--the reason thousands of anglers travel here and spend millions of dollars each year on gas, lodging, food, equipment, guided trips, park fees, licenses, and tell their friends to come to Montana as well--is our incredible public stream access. Take away the access, and those folks will take their fishing trips and their money elsewhere.

If you ever want to fish here again:

Then click here to learn more about HB 309 and find out how to contact your local legislators. Tell them to say "NO" to HB 309 to protect everyone's right to enjoy the tremendous public resources--and preserve what has become a way of life--in this remarkable state.

Montana Trout Unlimited Action Alert Against House Bill 309

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Powder Tuesday

Down in Colorado and Utah, these kinds of things are more commonplace. Up at Snowbowl, bluebird blower powder days are a coveted rarity. More often than not, a Snowbowl powder day involves socked-in or even whiteout conditions, the best turns limited to riding in the trees because out in the bowls it's nearly impossible to tell where the ground ends and the sky begins. Not yesterday.

The weather rolled in just after the Super Bowl. It then proceeded to puke at a rate of about 1-2" an hour through Monday evening. From those that were up there, it sounded like the skiing Monday afternoon was ridiculous, tracks-are-covered-next-pass-through kind of conditions. The rest of town, including saps like me, watched it snow through the window while maniacally checking NOAA reports that warned of impending "snow, heavy at times, accumulations totaling 10-16." We ended up with 2 feet.

Things cleared up overnight, and by dawn Tuesday much of Missoula had arranged--or neglected to arrange--at least the morning off. It always amazes me how many people can make a powder day happen in a town like this. I wonder how many jobs were lost yesterday, in a city where part time gigs are about as easy to come by as supermodel girlfriends and million dollar bills. If you're lucky to work in a cool enough place like a ski shop, it's understood that business simply is not conducted on mornings after the mountain gets 6" or more. Period. Though I didn't have to work yesterday, my boss did. I saw him in the lift line at about 10:30, beard freshly crusted in snow.

It was mayhem up there for sure, but well worth every bit of it. We were in line 45 minutes before the chair started loading, and still probably ended up 50 chairs back by the time we hopped on. As is tradition at Snowbowl, the bugle marked the loading of the first chair by sounding the cavalry charge and the chaos ensued. Whoops and hollers and gloved hands pointing off chairs to far off lines. Envious, almost pissed-off mutterings when someone is spotted getting there first.

I don't think I crossed another track for much of my first three runs, and the stashes stuck around until well in to the afternoon without a single hike. That's saying a lot for the Bowl, what with the staggering population of ridiculously good skiers up there who obviously have no worldly obligations, coupled with the geography's unfortunate resemblance to an upside-down laboratory beaker. Long story short, shit gets tracked out fast at the Bowl. It is a rare day to have sunshine and soft snow on the same afternoon. To top things off, I somehow managed to stay up top and run laps of fresh snow on the LaVelle chair while hundreds of poor bastards sat trapped on a busted Grizzly chair. Only at Snowbowl would the main chair break in the middle of an epic powder day, and after a half-hour wait only then proceed to run on auxiliary power for the rest of the afternoon.

Regardless of the mechanical (heh-hehm, management) issues, smiles and high fives were widespread in the bar. The Snowbowl bar is a good time on any given evening, but yesterday afternoon the stoke was on radioactive. I'm not sure the pizza and Bloody Mary's tasted any better than they do on a normal gray, icy Snowbowl day, but that's OK. They're already amazing. God this place sucks.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Super Spectacle

I watched the Super Bowl last night, one because I love football and two because that's what good 'mericans do on that blessed Sunday in February. It's the last real football game until August, pitting what are arguably the two strongest teams in the foremost league in the world against one another in a game that receives unparalleled herald internationally. You're almost guaranteed some good food and good times with friends, all while witnessing some gladiator-like brutality and athleticism right alongside some well-received hilarity and strategically-placed boob shots, what with the current trend (and our accompanying fixation on) commercials and what not.

So watch I did. And having absolutely no vested interest in the outcome (thanks for NOT stepping up against A-Rod and the Pack when the time came, Vick...), I was able to absorb the game for what it was: a strong football game played between two teams who gave their hearts for the whole 60 minutes in the name of a championship. In the end, it came down to turnovers--as it often does--and a final necessary drive that Big Ben just didn't have in him. Much kudos to Aaron Rodgers: homeboy is good, and he deserves every bit of the Brett Farve-replacement fame that is about to come his way. But that's where the solid, respectable aspect of the evening stopped, for me at least, and the embarrassingly dim, spectacle-based circus began.

Now, it's nothing new that the Super Bowl is a hot bed for marketing, capitalism and the outright exploitation of Americans and the people who entertain them in the name of the almighty dollar. Plenty of people swear year after year that they "only watch the game for the commercials." And that's fine, because usually the commercials are, for the most part, hilarious, entertaining and well written.

But for some reason this year I was much more acutely aware of how dumb they must think we've all become. In lieu of intelligent, unavoidably hilarious commercials--even from the heavyweights like Budweiser and Coke--we were given spot after spot of animated sensationalism, adolescent violence and desperate reconnoitering of Eminem's supposed "talent" from rap star to Detroit mayor (although the cinematography in that ad, right up until Eminem appeared, was solid). The crowning slap in the face for me was the Groupon commercial mocking the plight of the Tibetan people for the promotion of an American-based It was shameless, disrespectful, anything BUT funny and represented yet another nail in the coffin for U.S. international relations. No wonder the whole world thinks we're a bunch of imperialist dicks.

Without a doubt the evening's highlight for me was the Volkswagen Darth Vader commercial. Who can argue with the Imperial March and the endearing nature of a fully-costumed six-year-old channeling the motherfucking Force? Damn you, VW with your likable marketing schemes and what not. Makes me wanna go buy a Jetta and a six-year old in a Darth Vader costume. I digress, but that one-minute spot represented not only the highlight of the first half, but the entire game. Then came halftime...

What once could have almost been considered a real hip hop group (before Fergie) has now clearly decomposed in to the musical anti-Christ. I've never been a huge Black-Eyed Peas fan, but after watching that talentless degradation of what were already terrible club hits, I'm positive I never will be. What was with the light-up Tron-themed space suits? Really? I never saw the movie, mostly because I'm positive it sucked, but I'm also pretty certain that it barely made any money, other people thought it sucked too and we sure as hell didn't need to theme the halftime show around it. Why would any self-respecting musical act sign on to a carnival like this anyway? Oh wait. It's the Black-Eyed Peas and they need a pay check. No doubt The Situation and his minions will be macking bitches to the "Super Bowl Medley" for the next 364 days.

I especially like how we can no longer count on the audience--or the band--to pay attention for an entire song, so we've adopted this frantic, stage-morphing flow of artists rappelling from the rafters and popping up out of the floor as myriad artists course through a medley of 30-second mini versions of super hits. Even Slash doesn't get a full song, and after Fergie strutted over to vomit all over Axel's part, one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time is now forever ruined in my memory.

Nor can we count on the audience to be an audience anymore: instead of letting several thousand actual "fans" rush the stage to make this Disney/Fox Productions Cockfight look like a real "concert" as they've done in Super Bowls past, now they simply pay a few hundred professional dancers to further blow our minds as they spring around the field making fun, choreographed geometric shapes out of their illuminated hazmat suits. So does the same dude hold the remote control for the light-up suits on everyone? Man, next year we should hold a contest for some lucky 'merican to win a chance to light up Fergie's boobs on stage.

I'm still not quite sure what the producers of the Super Bowl commercials and half-time show were going for, but I know who they were after. Broadly targeting the overfed and over-sensationalized masses has clearly proven profitable, and these days they're unashamedly stepping up the assault on Joe Six-Pack and his old lady. The current trend in marketing and entertainment is impossible to ignore, and is frighteningly reminiscent of our own demise that was so hilariously predicted in the movie Idiocracy.

Most frightening to me, however, is the fact that as much as I hate to admit it, I think they're right on target. Ohhhhh, shiny, pretty, 'merica. Shiny pretty.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Food Series runs on New

A short edit I worked on last fall regarding "food deserts" that recently appeared on

Monday, January 31, 2011

Feelin' it. And yet, not feelin' it.

Though I hate to speculate on how something like this could ever happen, this evening I found myself highly caffeinated and listening to throbbing ambient on full volume while I sat at the tying bench. To say I was overstimulated for the task at hand--to reproduce countless replications of relatively mundane fly patterns--with any sort of useful focus and productivity is an understatement. You try tying more than two in a row of any given pattern whilst a few hundred milligrams of caffeine course through your veins and your stereo keeps pumping tracks like this:

Burning Man
flashbacks aside, I did manage to produce a dozen fishable bugs. Though in place of one dozen uniformly-tied #10 brown Pat's rubberleg stonefly nymphs, it was more like 12 completely different, freakishly-weird variations on something like this:

What red glitter foam, purple rubber legs and twin chartreuse butts have to do with Skwala stoneflies escapes me at the moment, but rest assured, crazy shit like this usually wrecks 'em, and then we're pissed because I only tied one. I learned that from my buddy Kurt. Thanks for ruining me, bro.

Happy twisting, freaks.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Those fish are spawning and we will try to get them to take a fly as we roll it past their nose."

Missoulian outdoor columnist and host of the weekly Montana Outdoor Radio Show Mark Ward wrote this article about "fly fishing" for steelhead that ran in the Jan. 27 issue.

Come on, Mark. As a somewhat credible, somewhat locally-known outdoor "personality," try not to come off as a total JONG. It's obvious you don't know jack about fly fishing for steelhead-or fly fishing in general for that matter-but at least have the nerve to sack up and tell it like it is:

"Fly fishing" for steelhead does not involve 11 foot nymph rigs, six BB split shot and two "black and red nymph flies" tethered to 15lb Maxima. Nor does it involve dragging said rig across the faces of a few thousand exhausted fish attempting to spawn in gin clear water while they sit literally trapped at the base of a giant, non-negotiable concrete wall. If you had even the most basic appreciation of the history, culture and inherently existentialist nature of fly fishing for steelhead, then you would know it certainly does not involve yahoos like you and your buddy hooking 20 fish in a day. And I swear on the grave of Roderick-Haig Brown and everything that is holy in this sport: fly fishing for steelhead does not have a goddamn thing to do with "rubbing a little crawdad smelly jelly" on your fly. Fuck.

Hey, that looks like a good hole!

But you know what all of those things do have to do with? Snagging spawning steelhead off of their redds and bragging about it in the newspaper. I mean, the quote of your buddy's you used is priceless. Really? You're lucky the Missoula PETA freaks haven't found you yet!

Now, I'll grant you that the North and South Fork steelhead fisheries have become all-out meat markets, with fishermen from all walks of life throwing every conceivable piece of hardware directly on to the skulls of the biggest fish they will likely ever see. And that's fine. Though I'll never be caught dead setting foot in the North Fork with the intention of fishing for those rotting, doomed husks of what were once magnificent creatures, I have been known to occasionally nymph the muddy ditch we affectionately know as the South Fork and get some steelhead jizz on my waders. But at least I can't
see them, and I'm not afraid to admit what it is: glorified snagging with a fly pole.

So if it cranks your stoke to rip the hatchery brats off redds as they bump their faces against the foundation of Dworshak, fine. I couldn't give a damn how you choose to fish for steelhead. Just know that it's unethical, it's sleazy and it is without a doubt anything but fly fishing for steelhead. So please don't write about it like it is, and stay the hell out of the way of me and anyone else fly fishing for them in a respectable manner.

By the way, the technique you described is far easier to chunk on a spinning rod. The rig sinks down "in the zone" faster, and then you don't have to like, fly cast and stuff.

Next time Mark, try these. They work waaaaay better than those silly flies.

And lastly, a priceless second opinion on the matter:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can I?

Swiped straight from the annals of Chum comes this mother of all functional fishing inventions: whisky in can. That's right angling drunks (remember, only alcoholics go to meetings), it's 12 ounces of premium low-grade, Panamanian-produced whisky in a convenient, crushable and recyclable container. According to the Scottish Spirits Ltd. website, the green aluminum cylinders of goodness will be available worldwide soon, and each 12 oz. can will carry a suggested retail price of $5.00 USD. Where was a six pack (12 pack?) of these babies while we spent five frigid days on the Smith in a snowstorm two Junes ago?


Monday, January 17, 2011

Run Off? Is that you?

Nope, it sure isn't. But if you cover one eye and quickly steal a glance at the hydrographs for Missoula-area rivers, you might think it were June. Inches of rain on top of snow the past couple of days have doubled the size of our rivers, and since all this rain is decidedly not rain above 6500 feet or so, we continue to sit in a pretty good spot this winter as far as water is concerned. Bring it on, La Niña.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Look, Same Fishy Taste!

If you're gonna be stoked about your blog, you better like the way it looks. As an extra motivation to getting BHWM fired up and kicking again, I mixed things up a bit. Not that I disliked the old look, it was just becoming a little stagnant.

This seems a lot more fishy to me—and a lot less dark and scary. Just look how stoked Big Timber and Baker are. If you want to leave me a comment and let me know your reaction to the new steez, feel free. Or don'tI won't reply anyway.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


It hits every year at this time. It's not like it creeps up on you. Those of us who choose to live in this part of the world have seen it coming for monthsthe warmer seasons inevitably surrendering to the sulking gray ceiling and scattered snowflakes of a long Missoula winter. The summer toys are put away, the rafts stacked half-inflated in the garage, quietly waiting it out like old dogs who know better than to go outside in the cold. The focus doesn't fade, but it changes.
Not that winter is bad—winter means watching the sun rise over decoy spreads bobbing in steaming side channels, football and, if we're lucky, lots and lots of face shots.

Freshly satiated off big game and upland bird seasons, late-season trouting and, again if we're lucky, a few swung steelhead, most junkies manage to keep the fire stoked well in to late December. A waxing ski year and a waning waterfowl season further lend a hand in keeping the shack nasties at bay.
Never is that more true than during a winter like the one we're having, what with La Niña frequently puking her frozen goodness in the high country and all. Two weeks ago, snowfall amounts at several Montana ski areas were ranked amongst some of the most famous snow meccas in the West, at least temporarily silencing the argument that our snow has a tendency to, well, suck. Early season has been deep, if not downright dangerousavalanches and tree wells have claimed the lives of multiple skiers and snowmobilers over the past few weeks as the snow continues to pile up.

But at some point, as if it's in fact too good to be true, things change again. In western Montana, that all too often means interrupting a perfectly good, crushing snow year with a week of warm weather and rain. This year, the unwanted warm-up and steady rainfall has the nerve to come just after the close of waterfowl season, effectively shutting folks like us indoors with little to do but hunker down and watch it pour while we wait for the snowpack to recover.

Having once again failed to plan ahead and figure a plane ride south of the Equator, I'm forced to break out my best coping mechanisms for this annual outbreak of S.A.D., or Seasonal Affective Disorder. An actual clinical term for cabin fever, S.A.D. always seems to hit me the hardest in mid-late January. With bowl season over, our beloved powder experiencing an old-fashioned flogging and every game animal in the woods breathing a collective sigh of relief, NetFlix downloads and used book sales take a decisive jump as Missoulians struggle to pass away the gray without sitting on a barstool
or gnawing their own arm off.

For me, this time of year forces me to start the always-daunting winter fly tying production. Up to this point I had all of the excuses I needed to avoid tying the dozens of these and tens of dozens of those that my clients will need to catch trout, trees and/or my various body parts come summer. But now, with the rain falling and the tying desk fully cleaned, organized and ready to be destroyed, it's time to start cranking.

As inevitable as each winter's S.A.D. outbreak, spring is not far off. It won't take many days of February sunshine to stir the skwala nymphs and the trout that are lying in wait to eat them. Once the circus starts, the rest of the season always seems to have a way of snowballing from one hatch to another, leaving little time to prepare for the next big event. If that weren't enough to get the fingers spinning, I know for a fact there are a few thousand B-run steelhead sitting in the main Clearwater, just begging all of us to come over the hill and hit them in the head with our miniature boat anchors and "flies" when the water starts to bump. The list of old stand-bys and new ideas needing to be twisted in to existence seems never-ending, and no matter how much I get done, I'll still run out of the most basic bugs by mid July, frantically running in to fly shops before my morning meet times to buy handfuls of Pat's rubberlegs.

There's no better time to get going. Then again, I could always watch another episode of West Wing...