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.