Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Montana

Even when the water is high and fast—and the fishing suffers—we’ve still got it pretty easy.

  • By: John Gierach
  • Photography by: Bob White
mountain_lake_fmt.jpg

by John Gierach

sporting life

 

Montana

Even when the water is high and fast—and the fishing suffers—we’ve still got it pretty easy.

 

WE WERE DRIVING OVER A DIRT-ROAD PASS THROUGH Wyoming’s Salt River mountains: two muddy wheel ruts running next to the stream we’d fished that afternoon, which this high up the drainage was narrow enough to straddle. It was near sunset on a clear September evening, and as we started down the back side of the pass the valley ahead of us was a bowl of purple shade trimmed in gold. Doug reached over and turned on the GPS unit in the pickup. A meandering red line stretching to a digital horizon appeared on the screen and a female voice said, “Street name unknown.”

It was well past dark by the time we found rooms at the only motel in a three-block-long, partially boarded-up town out on the state highway. Dinner was microwaved frozen pizza at a bar filled with roughnecks and cowhands where the country western music was loud enough to rattle the windows and the betting on a game of 8-ball seemed way too serious. The town cop was sitting in his cruiser across the street, waiting to break up a fight or pick off drunk drivers at closing time. Meanwhile, he was relaxing with a cup of coffee and a cigar, enjoying the peace and quiet while it lasted.

If I’d had my way, we’d have been camped on that last stream so we could fish one more day, but then the drawback to a four-person road trip is the increased likelihood that some will have to be home before others. As it was, we’d raced down from Montana that morning and spent a few hours on a lovely piece of cutthroat trout water that deserved at least two full days. The plan was to put on another 50 or 60 miles yet that evening, find a place to stay the night and then make it home to northern Colorado with a few hours to spare. It was the kind of rush job that makes you wonder if the quickie can play any positive role in a contemplative sport.

As it turned out, everyone landed a few pretty Snake River cutthroats and we were back on the road only an hour and a half later than we’d planned. I was the one who held things up. By the time I got back, everyone was out of their waders with their gear packed and milling around the pickup impatiently. I said I’d lost track of the time, which they understood to mean that I hadn’t really lost track of the time, but knew they wouldn’t leave without me.

This had been a high runoff year in the West and we weren’t the only fishermen who were running around late in the season trying to be everywhere at once before winter locked it all up again. In my home drainage on Colorado’s northern east slope, the spring snowpack was measured at 343% of normal—the highest ever recorded. In other parts of the Rockies it was more like 250%: maybe not biblical proportions, but enough to extend runoff far into what should have been dryfly season. Even in mid-August, trout that would normally be sipping mayflies were acting more like catfish: holding deep in brown water and feeding by scent and feel. In many streams, fishing anything short of a gob of worms and a sinker had begun to seem like an exercise in style.

Runoff is normally a good time to travel to other parts of the West, but this year the entire continental mountain range was more or less in the same boat. An August trip to Idaho was cancelled outright when the guide said he had no idea when, or even if the river would come into shape. A July trip to Montana was tentatively postponed until September because, as our contact said, “There are only two rivers in the state that are fishable and everyone in Montana with a fly rod is already there.”

It brings a man low to live in good trout country and not be able to find a place to fish near home. Some tailwaters held out for a while after the freestone streams got high and muddy, but as the reservoirs filled to capacity with runoff, dams were opened to flush the excess water. One small tailwater that fishes well at 100 cubic feet per second was cranked up well above 1,000, and a few of us drove up there—without fishing tackle—just to look at it.

Some local guides had their clients dredging nymphs and split-shot along the swollen banks of streams where they’d normally be casting size 14 caddis imitations. A few beginners thought this was just what fly-fishing is like while others knew the score, but were happy enough to be fishing in beautiful surroundings. But there weren’t many of either, and there were outfitters who watched the better part of a year’s worth of bookings wash downstream with the high water. It was the last thing they needed in the middle of what some journalists were calling the Great Recession.

One day in July I ducked under a locked Forest Service gate and hiked a mile up the closed road to a trailhead on the edge of a nearby wilderness area. Once there I strapped on the snowshoes I’d carried in and headed up to a lake at 10,500 feet. I quickly lost the trail under 15-foot snowdrifts, but I didn’t think I’d need it. I knew I had to work my way up and west into a large cirque and then, at a point I assumed I’d recognize, cut north, drop into a willow-choked creek bottom, ford the stream and continue on through a stand of krummholz to the small lake.

This was an experiment. I’d never been up there in deep snow before and I wasn’t sure that the lake was thawed or if the stream would be low enough to cross, even at the usual shallow spot. But it worked out OK. I missed the ford by a few hundred yards—the snowcover made everything look different—but once I spotted the creek I knew where I was and easily backtracked. I waded across the creek with exaggerated care, using a stick for balance and carrying the snowshoes under my free arm. The water was ice cold and I understood that if I went in I’d be hypothermic in seconds and several miles through deep snow from the truck.

The lake was open except for a 100-foot stretch of the south shore where a snow bank hung a 12-foot-high cornice out over the water. There were still a few miniature icebergs in the water, as well as the spreading rings from a handful of feeding trout. When I’d left the house that morning it was sunny and around 80 degrees. Up there it was lightly overcast, breezy and in the low 60s. Before stringing up my rod, I put on the wool sweater and fleece vest I’d carried in the pack.

I discovered this lake sometime in the 1970s. Of course it was known to some, including whoever originally stocked non-native brook trout in it, but it’s well out of sight of the trail that leads to the larger lake above it and it’s off-channel, so you could miss it even if you were fishing up the creek. It’s really just a permanent four- or five-acre pothole fed by snowmelt and spring seeps, but it’s rich in midges, scuds and small caddis and supports a population of feral brook trout. And to this day it doesn’t appear on any map I’ve seen.

I fished a small Hare’s Ear and Partridge soft hackle that afternoon and landed eight or nine trout, the largest between 12 and 14 inches. The brookies here have always been unusually gorgeous, possibly because they breed so early in the season at this altitude that they just stay in spawning colors all year long. In this drab, wintry landscape, they were so brilliant they seemed to be lit from the inside.

On the hike out I convinced myself that I was the first to fish the lake that year. After all, the ice couldn’t have been off for long and the only tracks I saw were the ones I made coming in. Of course there are plenty of fishermen around who know these mountains well—a whole generation of them more intrepid than I am—and their tracks could have been erased by sun and wind in a matter of days. But the story I’m sticking to is that I was the first.

Less than a week later I was back up there with a friend I’ll call Tom, who by then was living in my spare bedroom. The fish weren’t quite as eager that day, but we caught a few and Tom saw, but didn’t hook, a trout he guessed at 16 inches. As a lifelong Michigan fisherman, he has a soft spot for brook trout and said he’d never seen anything prettier than this little lake nestled among stunted Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir under snow-capped, 12,000-foot peaks.

Tom was one of the more than 15 million Americans out of work that year, all with depressingly similar stories. He’d been without a job for several years in a state with an official unemployment rate of 16%. (When I asked what he did all that time, he said, a little cryptically I thought, “I fished every day in season, but not always all day.”)

Finally he got a job in Colorado and relocated, arriving with a U-Haul trailer towed by a preposterously ratty old car with a Michigan plate on the back and an expired New Mexico plate in front. He was all but broke by then and I lent him money for rent and car repairs (which he paid back out of his first paycheck), although he managed to scrape together $56 on his own to buy a season non-resident fishing license. So at least he had his priorities straight.

But by the time we hiked up to the lake, Tom had been laid off from the new job (last hired, first fired) and had lost his house in Michigan to foreclosure. When he had to leave the room he was renting because that house was also foreclosed on it was largely a formality, since he could no longer afford rent anyway. That’s when I told him to move in with me. He agreed only because it was either that or sleep in his car. Through it all he continued to look for steady work, did whatever odd jobs he could pick up and went fishing whenever he had a day off or even just a few free hours. He was like a kid in a candy store with a whole state full of new trout streams to explore. When I mentioned that it was a shame about the high runoff he simply said, “Well, shit happens.”

All of which is to say, those of us whose worst problem that summer was finding good places to fish didn’t feel we had much room to complain.

 

The four of us finally made it to Montana in September and ended up staying at a modest lodge that looked, from a distance, like a sprawling motel of 1950s vintage. It had a large dining room with picture windows aimed west across the valley toward the Pioneer Mountains. The sunsets were spectacularly orange as the last rays filtered through the smoke from nearby wildfires and flocks of sandhill cranes glided by on their prehistoric errands.

We went to the Big Hole, where our guide, Graham, said the fishing had been slow, but the river was clear and lovely with pods of lazily rising trout here and there in long slicks and the tails of riffles. The trout did seem reticent: ignoring some flies and mouthing others as if they’d woken up with hangovers and were halfheartedly picking at breakfast.

These are the slow-motion takes that are guaranteed to make a tightly wound fisherman miss the set. So to slow ourselves down we sank into the quiet luxury of fishing a beautiful river from the comfort of a drift boat with a competent young guide at the oars. It was a few hours into a perfect day with a deep blue sky filled with hawks, and grasshoppers clicking in the grass below the railroad bed. Graham was relaxed and talkative, having determined that the two clients in his boat weren’t the best fly casters he’d ever seen, but they didn’t seem to be fish hogs or a-holes.

In the end, some trout were caught and I even managed to break a rod on a big, heavy rainbow. He followed a streamer out from a grassy bank and as he got close to the boat I went into a fast scissor strip, sweeping the rod one way and the line hand the other to speed up the fly. This is the only way I know of to induce a strike from a following fish. By the time the trout took and turned, the rod was far back over my shoulder and when I set hard it snapped at the ferrule with a loud crack.

There was a perplexing split second as one hemisphere of my brain wondered what that noise was and why the rod had gone limp, while the other knew exactly what had happened. I once went for a period of more than 20 years of hard fishing and broke only one rod. I’ve now broken four in the past five years, but wondering why that might be is not a profitable way to direct your thinking.

The Beaverhead River was livelier. Even before the chill had left the air in the morning the craneflies would appear, fluttering and bouncing over the water like giant, gangly mosquitoes.

I have an indelible mental image from the first morning. We were anchored at a good run waiting for the early mist to clear when Jesse, our guide, pointed and said, “There’s a cranefly.” At that moment a chubby brown trout leaped from the water in a perfect parabolic arc, nailed the fly a foot above the river and seemed to hang there for the longest time before falling back with a splash.

Jesse had a cranefly pattern he liked—spent wings and an extended foam body on a size 12 hook—but the key was action. It wasn’t possible to accurately imitate the behavior of these bugs, but a halting, high-stick skitter would sometimes be close enough, and when it was the strikes were vicious.

Later in the day we’d drift hoppers-and-droppers along the banks, switching first one pattern and then the other until we lit on a combination that worked for a while. When it stopped working, we’d start all over again.

Still later, as evening came on, we’d switch to heavier rods and fish streamers, tucking them as far up under the overhanging willows as possible and stripping them out so fast we got rope burns on our fingers. You would think a slower retrieve would give the fish an easier shot at the fly, but in fact the sight of fleeing prey triggers strikes and it’s not humanly possible to strip a fly so fast that a trout that wants it can’t catch it. Or as a friend says of mine says of streamer fishing, “When in doubt, rip it out.”

Neither the Big Hole nor the Beaverhead was unusually crowded, but with the rivers finally low and clear there were lots of fishermen around, busily coming and going in bars and fly shops and rumbling up and down the back roads towing all manner of drift boats, including a homemade plywood number outside of Twin Bridges that looked like a coffin with oar locks.

It was the usual mix of Western river personnel. There were trout bums sleeping in vans and referring to the Beaverhead as “The Beav,” family men on vacation, working stiffs with more tools than tackle in the beds of their pickups, natty sports with pressed shirts and blocked felt hats and the odd bond trader with a trophy wife: one of those women who, like some house cats, make it by being decorative but don’t catch many mice.

One evening when we came in we told the lodge owner we wanted to fish till dark the next day and then buy the guides burgers and a few beers. (We’d already asked the guides about this and they were all for it.) But the owner said no, the guides worked for him and he insisted on having all his people back for supper. “His people.” The four of us glanced at each other, wondering if this was worth throwing a hissy fit over, and decided it wasn’t.

Back home in Colorado the season petered out gradually. Some rivers did finally come down, and as often happens in high-water years, the trout were well fed and rested and the fishing was glorious for the few weeks it lasted. Other streams, especially the small creeks up in the high country, never warmed up enough for the hatches to come off and were still in the last stages of runoff when the nights turned cold. For the first time in 35 years, there was no dryfly season at all on my favorite no-longer-quite-so-secret mountain stream.

Tom finally landed a job on the Gulf coast of Florida. He left here right ahead of the first big snowstorm and drove south into Texas before turning east, hoping to keep his bald tires on dry roads. I was worried about him, but he managed to get his old car through seven states without breaking down or having the police stop him to ask about the mismatched license plates. He called when he got there to say that he’d never fished salt water, but was eager to try it.

 

John Gierach has been writing Fly Rod & Reel’s Sporting Life column since 1992.

illustration by bob white / whitefishstudio.com