Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ants, ants, Buggers, ants, twirl and repeat

Last year, our first dedicated to the high country, we struggled. We found fishless lakes, were stymied by savvy cutthroat, and were left feeling a bit disenchanted.

Whey duh f*^k are the trout?
But such struggles are often the prerequisites of fishing glory. This summer has been better, and maybe we're figuring some stuff out. Or it's just been a better summer in the high country.

Our season started in late May, when we happened onto a spot we came to know as the aquarium. This was not a lake I had any expectations for, but we caught several 16- to 18-inch cutthroat trout, under a  dense canopy of pine trees, that were eager to run down a big pink scud. Stir in a few nice-sized grayling and it was easy to note that this felt a bit like a harbinger.

I see that smile...
Among the things we've figured out, or at least become confident of:

  • Ants. Ants. Ants. Ants. Ants. Ants. Bloom's Parachute Flying Ant. Ants. Hoppers. Beetles. Ants. Rubber-legged ants. Scuds. Ants.
  • Get flarping wacky. Use that old chewed-up, lead-wrap-showing hackle-dangling Bugger. Strip a foam hopper on sinking line. Jig flies. (More on these techniques coming in the January-February issue of American Angler.)
  • If at first you don't succeed... hike around the lake. Wait. These fish and fisheries are as moody as they come. Multi-mile scrambles on top of Jeep-trail journeys rarely allow for much time, but do your best. 
  • Use ants on the end of your leader or tippet, which should be connected to your fly line. Tie them on and cast them. Ants. Just so we're clear. 
  • The adventure is worth the effort. The post-hike beer-endorphin cocktail is also nice.

It wasn't all lifestyles of the fishy and fjellvant, though. This past weekend I hit six lakes in one afternoon, while waking and going to bed in my own bed. It felt a bit like Double Dare's obstacle course where I got to a lake and whacked a button and then ran on to the next. At those six lakes, I caught an entire fish. It turns out that these lakes, from 8,200 feet to 9,200 feet in the Pioneer Mountains, are still actively used for irrigation and get terribly de-watered by the end of summer.

Yeah but it was a good fish. 
As the season winds down and we prepare for a trip to the Adirondacks, I feel content with our efforts and success. And we still have hope for a 4-pound 7,500-foot-high cutt and maybe a 17-inch brookie before the trick-or-treaters' knock, signaling the forming ice...

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Last Free River

Some friends in Livingston are making a beautiful film about a special place: the Yellowstone River. 

From their website: "Government agencies were scheduled to begin construction of a $60,000,000 dollar dam on the Yellowstone River, the last major free flowing river in the lower 48 United States. The funds for the dam were originally meant to help an endangered species, the Pallid sturgeon. However, leading scientists believe that the dam may cause the extinction of this ancient species who has lived on earth since the time of the dinosaurs.
"Hearing of the proposal, a seasoned river runner set out to learn more about the project and float down the entire free flowing Yellowstone River for the last time. It is almost too late but with your help we still have a chance to save the Yellowstone and an endangered species."

Below are some clips: 





Visit http://www.thelastfreeriver.com/ to support this great project!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Montana Mountain Range Quiz

I imagine that growing up in New England, you learn the geography of the states. But here in Montana, things move a little slower...  And we learn the mountain ranges. Or try to.

I've been told that Montana's mountains are harder to identify by appearance (than other states' mountains) as they are packed together and layered on top of each other. For example, scanning the horizon from Twin Bridges, you might be seeing the Tobacco Roots, Gravellies, Snowcrests, Rubies, Tendoys, Beaverheads, Highlands and/or Pioneers. It's hard to know where one ends and another begins, or which range that is back over there. From Belgrade, we can see the Bridgers, Absarokas, Gallatins, Madisons, Tobacco Roots and Big Belts.

There is an app called Peak Finder that helps identify specific peaks, but you have to be pretty close for it to work well.

So how well do you know Montana's ranges? Quiz yourself based on the map below (link to answers is below). I'm still studying...



Click here for answers.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Bison

We gone-done it. We bought a 25-year-old recreational vehicle that hemorrhaged water, has a hole in the driver's door, occasionally responds to the steering wheel, has a turning radius the size of a roundabout, and it's pocked with hail damage. And dammit, we're psyched. 

The Bison has a big ol' diesel engine, off-road tires, ground clearance and four-wheel drive. Its cooks, warms, cools, chills food, handles poo, showers us, provides drinking water, and rests us. It's bear safe, lightning safe, energy independent (soon) and the stereo jay-ums. And now that its problems have been remedied, it's where you'll find us.


We had a chance to try it out this past weekend and it was everything we'd hoped. A beautiful omen, in the form of a big-eyed, kype-jawed golden trout, gave us reassurance that we're moving in the right direction. 

Kudos to my wife Elizabeth for landing this incredible golden trout. 

Rambling soon, through public lands near you...

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Ice-out Part II: Damn

If you've read much on fishing mountain lakes, particularly by Gary Lafontaine, you probably understand the opportunity that fishing a lake at ice out can be. So we tried to hit a big-cutthroat lake in the Tobacco Roots at that time this past weekend, but only found a lot of white.
I made my best guess for this 8,900-foot lake based on lower elevation lakes and the warm spring. So close...

Damn.
Maybe 2 percent of the lake was ice free, and it was feasible that a fish could cruise by in those shallows sections. I dragged a Bugger off the edge for maybe 15 casts, but we were behind schedule and success didn't seem eminent, nor did a vast break-up of ice that afternoon.

Worth a try? 
Fortunately, we weren't too worried about catching. Hiking uphill over and through snow (for at least the last couple miles) and likely being the first people there since fall had made it a memorable feat. We gained a better sense for mountain ice-outs, and had gotten our fish-fix the prior weekend.

Shamefully gratuitous.

Maybe next week...

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Montana mountain-lake ice-out schedules

May 14, 2010 at Hebgen Lake.
Of the insights gained from doing research on mountain-lake fisheries, the ice-out and ice-up times are among the most valuable. No angler wants to to hike miles uphill, possibly through snow, to an iced-over lake. The risk makes hitting a mountain lake at the lustful ice-out days a task that many won't try.

Ice-out depends on a number of factors; it's not quite as simple as ice peeling off uniformly as you go up. The factors include recent weather, the prior winter's weather and snowpack, exposure to the sun, the amount of water flowing through via inlets and outlets, and of course the lake's elevation. For example, note in the list below how Hebgen Lake at about 6,500 feet actually tends to ice-out two or three weeks before nearby Cliff and Wade Lakes, which are at about 6,250 feet. My guess is that this is due to the fact that Hebgen has a good push of water flowing through via the Madison River, while Cliff and Wade have small insignificant tributaries and outflows (both get adequate sunlight and would have had similar weather).

One way to get a rough idea if the mountain lake you have in mind might have iced-out is to drive to a lake like Hebgen Lake or Hyalite Reservoir. It will at least give you an idea about other lakes at that elevation, and you can estimate uphill from there. Very approximately, ice out ascends about 5,000 feet every couple of weeks.

May 20, 2008 at Hyalite Reservoir.
Expect earlier ice-outs and later ice-ups as climate change continues, but the following is what I have learned.

From earliest to latest: 
  • Hebgen Lake (about 6,500 feet): End of April-Early May
  • Cliff and Wade Lakes (about 6,250 feet): Mid-May*
  • Hyalite Reservoir (about 6,700 feet): Mid-late May
  • Yellowstone Lake (about 7,800 feet): May 20-ish.
  • Pioneer Mountains at 7,500 feet: June 1
  • Pioneer Mountains at 8,000 feet: June 10
  • Bell Lake (about 8,750 feet, Tobacco Roots): Mid-June
  • Pioneer Mountains at 8,500: June 20
  • Gneiss Lake (9,554 feet, Tobacco Roots): July 1
  • Pioneer Mountains at 9,000 feet: July 1
  • Twin Lakes (about 8,200 feet, North Meadow Creek in the Tobacco Roots): Early-mid July, though this might be an anomaly
  • Pioneer Mountains at 9,200 feet: July 10
Of course this schedule is about as predictable as the annual salmonfly hatches, but it's something. Hike with slightly more confidence!

*Heard a report this year of Wade Lake being ice-free on May 3.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Socializing with skwalas at Stevensville

We've had some pretty pleasant days on the Bitterroot River during skwala season, the best coming with an outfitter who was helping me write an article for Northwest Fly Fishing magazine. That Tuesday in late March of 2013 was a total romp, complete with long, sparkling westslopes and dry flies.

A male specimen, as Bitterroot legend John Foust explained to Liz while waiting at the takeout. 
But I, like many, look forward to seeing the crowd of trailers at the put-in about as much as I look forward to watching the Yankees trounce the Twins. I'll be over it as soon as we catch a trout, but until then, I'll need to stew a bit.

This year, we decided to avoid the rush, but somehow at 10am on Saturday April 2nd, 2016 under sunny skies and a 70-degree forecast, we were the first boat at Darby Bridge. Second, it turned out - one boat was below our view in the water and had already shuttled their trailer. As we wadered up, a third arrived. But we quickly learned that it isn't the sheer numbers that cause the grief.

Our trip was planned around visiting an old friend who is renting an cabin on gorgeous Kootenai Creek, a Bitterroot tributary in Stevensville. She grew up an outdoorswoman in Butte, but is just now getting adept with flies. And she gets it.

Of course the three boats launched roughly simultaneously, so we hustled to try to get separated. But as soon as we stopped to let a boat get ahead, that boat would stop behind us. And as soon as we decided to row down to get ahead, a boat would push off in front of us. Three boats on a seven-mile stretch, all within two bends (later deemed the "two-girl-one-guy-green-raft-with-a-dog-who-chases-waterfowl float" or the 372 float). Eventually we stopped for a long lunch and lost them, but other boats had showed up by then. The Bitterroot's "social" anglers.

Fly-shop advice was to use low-profile, skinny skwala patterns, or something the trout hadn't already seen. We thought we'd do the latter by fishing Brindle 'Chutes, a local pattern that matches March browns. But there was nary a March brown on our stretch, so we thought "terrestrial X skwala hybrid", and fished a Turk's Tarantula. We didn't catch tons, but we caught some good ones, all on dries.

Bitterroot bass. 
I usually chuckle when my buddies rant about the "jack-offs" who've beaten us to the river, or the "clowns" who dare share our five-mile stretch of river. But Saturday, I was ranting. Bunch of oblivious, clingy, communal-fishing rubes. It does not take a village ...

But all of this said, we'll be back to visit Mary and the Bitterroot socialites soon.

The Outcast PAC 1300 - a perfect boat for the Bitterroot. 


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Lower Madison: Downstream of the big riffle

(originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Northwest Fly Fishing magazine)

Just downstream of one of the most famous stretches of fly-fishing water in the world lies a secret stretch of trout-filled opportunity, yearning to be fished... Okay, it's far from a secret, but it's more akin to the Corn Palace than Las Vegas in terms of worldwide popularity. This is not what most anglers think of when they hear of the Madison River. The stretch most often associated with the Madison is known as the Upper Madison, from Hebgen Dam (or nearby Quake Lake) to Ennis Lake - the famed 50-mile riffle (usually ranked #1 or #2 in statewide fishing pressure). But downstream of that is a 40-mile section that avoids headlines and keeps local anglers fishing year round.
   The Lower Madison starts at Ennis Dam below Ennis Lake and runs downstream of Three Forks where it joins the Jefferson River to give birth to the Missouri. It spans about 100 feet across, averages about three feet deep and usually stabilizes around 1,300 cubic feet per second. It ranked #11 among fisheries in statewide fishing pressure the last time the survey was published (2007).
   It is a special place pocked with fishy buckets, fierce hatches and nostalgic reflections - many anglers and rowers have honed their techniques on these waves. With its own beauty, the Lower Madison continually produces fish – sometimes large – and is as reliable a year-round fishery as you'll find.
   Certain holes are good for at least a half-dozen cookie-cutter 12-inch rainbows nearly every outing, and with a little experience, every trip can yield a 16-inch trout. Those who commit to streamers can catch their 20-plus-inch trophy here, and those who commit to the dry can likely have at least minimal success, every day of the year. And if the stars align, anglers might catch a half-dozen 20-inch trophies on dries (hey, it's possible). 
   Bozemanites often note how lucky they are to live 45 minutes from such a place, but it's not without complication. Wind, warm water, weeds, rattlesnakes, and overuse plague this section, at least seasonally.
   Wind is the ultimate nemesis of the lower Madison angler. It's almost always breezy, usually gusty, and sometimes tornadic. A north wind offers the most protection, but a south wind can absolutely rip (you'll want to make a note of that). Other directions will likely be very windy, too. 
   It rarely runs gin clear, and the springtime Ennis Lake “turnover” is one of the rare times the Lower might be too muddy to fish.
   These hurdles, however, are of minor consequence when fishing the Lower Madison.
   The Lower Madison can be divided into three sections: Bear Trap Canyon (the uppermost 10 miles); Warm Springs to Black's Ford (the middle 7 miles); and Black's Ford to the mouth (the lower 24 miles).
Click here to purchase a Madison River fishing map.

Bear Trap Canyon

Bear Trap Canyon is a 6,347-acre chunk of the BLM-managed Lee Metcalf Wilderness that surrounds the uppermost 10 miles of the Lower Madison. It fishes well almost anytime the water's not too warm, which occurs each summer after a hand full of 90-degree days.
   The water directly below the dam to the powerhouse is one of the most stable trouteries in the area. It's almost always decent, usually great, and sometimes, completely bananas. From the dam to the powerhouse, the flow is significantly smaller as much of the river is diverted through a pipe to get to the powerhouse. This smaller flow sometimes simplifies the fishing. During runoff when flows above the powerhouse hits 2,000 cfs, the water gets green and the temperature often hovers around the magical 59-degree mark. This pushes the prime trout to the sides where they get stacked in the soft edges, creating one of the best times to fish anywhere, ever. One early June day, I witnessed a friend land roughly 30 trout in about 45 minutes from one hole (including an arctic grayling, but more on that later). This is the only time you'll see more stringers and fillet knives than fly anglers, which is a shame because the fly angling is fantastic.
   Winter is arguably the best time to hike the canyon, both for fishing and acreage per capita. The entire Lower Madison is in an area known as a little "banana belt", that does not get the snow or extreme cold of the land in a 30-mile radius. Little pink stuff under indicators will usually yield fish, and it's not uncommon to find trout rising to midges winter-round. Crayfish, Foxy Red Clousers, Shrimp Cocktails and Hare's Ears are my go-to flies for the canyon in winter.
   Ask around for holes like Clay's hole, rainbow bend, the rock garden, the first big bend, and the stretch up from Warm Springs, which is accessed via an under-utilized trail that provides access to the opposite bank from the main trail. There are places, at times, that an angler could cross the river, but those places are few and only exist in lower flows. To avoid such perils, hike up from Warm Springs.
   Access to all but the top and bottom requires a hike along the Bear Trap Canyon National Recreation Trail (roads get you to the top and bottom). Its 1,500-foot canyon walls make it very scenic, and it's arguably the fishiest bit.
   Most anglers hike upstream from the trailhead at the end of Bear Trap Road, off of Norris Road/Highway 84. Access is unlimited here, and it does get a fair bit of foot-traffic from both anglers and others. The rock gardens along the initial straightaway are most heavily fished spots - getting around the corner earns elbow room and often better fishing. The trail continues all the way to just below the power house about 8 miles upstream, and angler density thins as you go (through-hiking from top to bottom was closed after 9/11 to protect the power source from potential intruders).
   A campsite is located about three miles from the trailhead near Bear Trap Creek, and dispersed camping is allowed throughout the wilderness section provided you're not within 200 feet of a water source, which can be tricky.
   Bear Trap Canyon is rarely floated as there are a couple significant rapids mid-canyon. Should you make that questionable decision, a word of caution: Bear Trap's Kitchen Sink rapid (Class IV-V, about 3.5 miles down from the launch) is a wicked thrasher known to sink boats and beat up floaters, and it's not the only rapid in this area. Hard-sided boats are not the way to attempt these hazards. If you insist, the launch is located at the powerhouse, accessed via the road to Ennis Dam from McAllister. Hug your family, get right with god and wear a helmet. 
Below the dam, on a Foxy Red Clouser. 
   Many snakes, including the rare rattler, slither these parts during summer. Being that this is the most-often hiked section, keep an eye on the trail and your dogs on leashes.
   As previously mentioned, arctic grayling are sometimes caught here, especially near the dam (browns and rainbows being the dominant catch). A small remnant population from recent stockings (Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks stocked grayling in the Lower Madison from 2001 to 2006 at Headwaters State Park) has persevered, barely. Prior to completion of the original Ennis Dam (AKA Madison Dam) in 1901 and the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, grayling thrived here. Old hands tell stories of schools of forlorn grayling pressed up against the dam, hoping to migrate upstream. Cutbows and chubs are also extremely rare catches in Bear Trap Canyon (and rumors of catfish).
   A 2012 fireworks-caused wildfire took out much of the hillside greenery and subjected the river to mudslides for a spell, but no noticeable impact remains.
   If you're going to fish the Lower Madison on foot, Bear Trap Canyon is often the best bet.
Click here to purchase a Bear Trap Canyon fishing map.

"Float the Lower?"

Anglers looking to float should head to the Warm Springs to Black's Ford Fishing Access Site section, which is the middle 7-mile stretch. Fishing remains excellent here, with almost all of this stretch being public land. There are many roadside BLM pay campsites throughout this stretch, with full campgrounds at Trapper Springs and Red Cliff.
   This is where you'll find the "buckets" (visible boulder-sized craters in the riverbed), and knowing how to fish them is crucial. Get your flies to the bottom as soon as possible, by whatever means necessary; nymphing is usually preferred. Some buckets are simply gaps in the weeds. While they can be fruitful, these buckets are much more difficult to fish, as they're abrupt and small - getting your flies down into them is infinitely frustrating.
   Floating this section is notoriously simple. It's where most Bozeman-area neophyte rowers head to get behind the sticks. It's a slow, flat float and nearly impossible to get into any danger. There are boat ramps at Warm Springs Creek Day Use Area (the take-out for the Bear Trap Canyon Float), California Corner (hand-launch only), Canaday Bridge (an 1800s-era toll ford), Damselfly Fishing Access Site (at the mouth of Cherry Creek), and Black's Ford Fishing Access Site. The first three are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and the last two are Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks sites. All have adequate parking, decent ramps, and rustic bathrooms.
   Spey anglers often enjoy this section's long runs, though some swing fishers prefer the downstream section. A marabou spider or small streamer works well.
   I've found this to be the hatchiest section, with some of the most intense emergences in the area. For example, a little-known brown drake hatch happens every late June. It can be extremely isolated, and doesn't always garner every trout's attention, but is a grandiose spectacle in and of itself. Other hatches include tremendous baetis and Mother's Day caddis blooms, pale morning duns, callibaetis, midges, salmonflies, golden stones, skwalas, summer caddis and other myriad bugs. Hopper fishing is possible here, though not often good. Also fish crayfish, scuds, sowbugs, worms, eggs, and streamers.
   Wade fishing is possible here, too. Roads border both sides of this section, and most of it is public. Some of my favorite wading spots are the bank just downstream from Warm Springs (especially when bugs are out), the big east-bank scree field along the road, and the highway turn-out upstream of Canaday Bridge.
   My biggest Lower Madison River trout came in this stretch - a bruiser of almost 21 inches. Just out of the gates at Warms Springs in the middle of the river, fishing a heavy white streamer on a sinking line in the weed buckets, I was taken for a long, rewarding ride. Bigger fish are regularly recorded.
Buh-lee dat.
   One rare nonnative forage-source might explain why the fish are a bit pudgier here: Idaho russet potatoes. Bear with me... In the spring of 2008, we noticed potatoes collecting in the river buckets between California Corner and Canaday (you're in good company with your skepticism). And no matter the hatch, the fish would. not. rise. They were fat and happy. We surmised that the highway-closing wreck from a couple of weeks prior must have been a local farm truck that tipped on the 35 mile-per-hour curve. The fishing eventually returned to normal, and we never did try to match that hatch.
   The other kind of tubers also occupy this stretch from June into September - party floaters. This is also usually when the water warms and weeds grow, so most anglers leave the river to the inebriates this time of year. If you choose to share the river, you might consider sticking to mornings - it doesn't take many 90-degree days to jump the water temps to over 70 degrees.
Cutthroat return?


The Lower Lower

The bit from Black's Ford Fishing Access Site to the mouth of the Madison River offers the proverbial road less travelled. This is the typical "fewer but bigger" arena, with the truly huge being rare. The average fish might be around 15 inches down here, but the fish numbers drop off quickly after Grey Cliff Fishing Access Site. Between Black's Ford and Grey Cliff, certain buckets usually hold great trout numbers.
The grey cliffs.
  Four fishing access sites populate this 24-mile trek: Grey Cliff, Cobblestone, and Milwaukee and a new site about 2.25 miles down from Black's Ford at the bottom end of Grey Cliff's property. The new site offers a parking lot and wade access to the upper extremity of the Grey Cliff Fishing Access Site - anglers may now hike the entire Grey Cliff property - about 4.5 river miles. Wade fishing is limited more or less to the access sites as it's isolated and private, so floating is the most popular way to see this water.
   From Black's Ford to Grey Cliff's boat ramps is about four miles, and from Grey Cliff to Milwaukee Fishing Access Site at Interstate 90 is about 16.  Since there is no boat ramp at Cobblestone, most anglers pick one of those two floats to avoid a 20-mile burden.
   Most anglers toss streamers here, in hopes of catching the monster, but nymphing worms and crayfish is also productive.
   Floating is still pretty easy here, although there are some decisions about which channels to take, and dragging is common at average flows.
   Once you get near Cobblestone, the river becomes braided and spread out. By all means explore the side channels, but not for too long lest you get behind schedule. You might want to peruse a satellite view before launching, though the routes tend to be pretty obvious once you arrive on site. If the flows are high, it can actually be a quick trip. We did the 16-mile float in about seven hours one May day (at 4,350 cfs), with plenty of stopping.
   Many snakes live in this section, but most are bull or garter, some upwards of four feet.
   While the action here is almost always slower, this length offers a quiet, enjoyable escape with the hope of a 25-incher. 


Darlington Ditch


Darlington (or Darlinton) Ditch is an interesting fishery that serves as a microcosm of Montana flyfishing. Throughout its lifetime, it has been the subject of habitat enhancement, fish stocking, invasive species, access issues, and tremendous trout fishing.
   Darlington is a ditch/tributary of the lower Madison. It is fueled with water via a headgate in summer, but has year-round flow via groundwater, making it unclear whether it is a natural spring creek or manmade ditch (similar to the Bitteroot's Mitchell Slough). The Gallatin Conservation District ruled that it was a ditch by law and not subject to the stream access law, which means it's off limits to anglers. That said, it is legal and accepted for anglers to fish the public stretch within Cobblestone Fishing Access Site boundaries - a rare exception to that law. Fishing Darlington is illegal off the Cobblestone property.
   It is rumored to hold big brown trout, and has proven to hold small brook trout.
   Over the years, multiple fish-habitat enhancement projects have changed the look of Darlington. For years, a perfect sine wave of Trout Unlimited-constructed S-curves meandered through Cobblestone, but the fish didn't take very well. So in 2014, the ditch was again manipulated to make more natural bends and fishy features. It now feels fishier to me, but time will tell if the historically excellent fishing returns. 
   The New Zealand Mud Snail has also penetrated Darlington, but thanks to removal efforts Montana FWP, the signs have been taken down. Regardless, check, clean and dry. Whirling disease has also been found in the Madison River, and who knows what transmittable affliction has yet to be identified.
---------------
The Lower Madison is a staple fishery for nearly all Bozeman-area anglers that any area would be proud of. While it may not always be less busy or more fishy than upriver, it's an under-the-radar option that offers separate but equal beauty and excellent fishing.

Hook: Tiemco #2457 or Dai Riki #135 size 16
Head: 3/32-inch beadhead
Thread: Pink or fluorescent orange 6/0
Tail: Fluorescent pink Darlon (I substitute Angora goat hair)
Body: Pink thread with optional wrapped clear tubing
Wingcase: Rainey's Wing Ribbon (or scud back or tinsel or flash)
Thorax: Shrimp Pink UV Ice Dub

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Big, dark rocks: Backcountry bearanoia

I spent some time hiking and fishing in grizzly-bear backcountry this past summer and experienced all the magic of co-exisiting with these grandiose creatures, short of an encounter.
Heart jumping at every snapping twig, blood draining when you might've glanced one, every big dark rock, one hand on the pepper spray, the awe of being mid-food-chain, knowing the odds are low but real, the camaraderie of hiking partners, of hoping to avoid them while hoping to see one, that one could be 10 feet or 10 miles away, of being miles from from your car, which is miles from health care.

And I didn't even see a black bear, all summer long.
Don't be afraid to venture into griz country, at least for a few days. It's completely exhilarating, despite the nerves.


The only wild grizzly I've seen in person. From a car in Yellowstone National Park's Hayden Valley.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

High-energy trout: Off-season at the spring creeks


(originally published in the Montana Sporting Journal)

If you can handle the steady gnawing of 40-mph Paradise Valley wind in January, you'll be fine. Just bundle up and know that there are warming huts. The fishing should be good.
   Paradise Valley's famed spring creeks (Depuy, Armstrong aka O'Hair's and Nelson) are on most angler's to-fish list, but so much dogma is associated with them that it can be hard to convince yourself to challenge them. Protocol, etiquette, snobby fish, the rod fee... But still, it sounds like fun, right?
 One way to get around most of that is to visit them in the winter. Few anglers and $40-per-rod fee alleviate some of the issues. As for the snobby fish? Crash that tea party with streamers.
   You won't get dirty looks like you might at some high-society fisheries like Harriman State Park in Idaho. While the Paradise Valley spring creeks are classy, they're also have a working-class feel.
   Anglers usually need nothing more than a well-proportioned black Woolly Bugger. JJ Special, Home Invader, or Clouser – any streamer in moderate size and good presentation should move fish throughout winter.
   And you can play the dry-fly game. My friends have a tradition of “fishing off the hangover” on January 1st at Depuy Spring Creek, and someone is usually able to net a fish hooked on the surface.
   Of course eggs usually work, but if you'd pay $40 to fish eggs, you should probably just put that money towards an auger and an ice house.
   It almost certainly will be wind-chilly. Constant 50-mile-per-hour winds happen, and a steady 20-mph breeze is standard. Sometimes the creeks are protected from that, but usually not.
   The rates are low from October 15 until April 15. Crowds are strongest on the shoulders – there's not much pressure in January. Depuy offers a winter pass for $400 that allows (more or-less) unlimited visits if you're genuinely interested, but you'd have to live nearby.
   The three Paradise Valley creeks are similar but distinct. All are open year round, all have high numbers of browns, rainbows and cutthroat, and all have had some degree of riparian enhancement. All are working cattle ranches and all are owned or run by typical Montana-warm ranch families. To sign in and settle up, they welcome strangers into their homes - the O'Hairs are often in the midst of a family breakfast, and are always gracious hosts.
   According to Fish Wildlife and Parks, Depuy is about 1.5 miles, Armstrong is about 3, and the fishable part of Nelson's is about 0.75 mile. All get fish over 20 inches, but Nelson's typically has the biggest in my experience. Armstrong and Depuy is literally the same river – Armstrong is the upper section, Depuy the lower. Obviously, the fishing is similar on both with Depuy getting slightly more of nature's influence being further from the spring.
   Spawning fish will run all the way up Armstrong, and nothing impedes them at Nelson's. The runs occur on a slightly different schedule than most Montana rivers since water temps are constant.
   Depuy has a little fly shop that runs odd winter hours, and Nelson's recently opened a fly shop and has ponds for an additional fee (seasonally).
   As we go about our tradition of fishing New Year's Day, I am reminded of past outings.
   One March day, a friend and I signed in to Armstrong's when a grass fire erupted near the barns. We went to help load buckets with water, but they wouldn't have it. We'd paid our money, they could handle the flames. God bless 'em.
   Another time, I inadvertently fished some out-of-bounds water at Nelson's (if you're reading this Mr. Nelson, lots of literary license here). It was our first time there, early in the morning, and I was plumb dumb. In my defense, the hatchery ponds kind of look like a creek, are unmarked and are the first things you see upon wadering up. Hundreds of trout, literally writhing amongst each other. I thought we'd cracked the code – just have to get there early. I threw in my CDC bubble-back baetis emerger and several trout immediately charged at it, almost as if they expected a pellet. I hooked a fat, 18-inch, blackish rainbow, and was proud to find the challenging spring creeks second-nature to this apparent old pro. I even have a grip-n-grin to prove it. As we gained lucidity that morning, we shifted our efforts slightly south to the actual creek with a brief look and slight nod. I will take that story with me to my grave...wait...
   No matter which creek you fish or what day you choose, bring nymphs, dries, and definitely streamers. Knee-deep in winter, there might be no better warm-up than a day full of energetic trout.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Cherry Creek Effect: Cutthroat comeback in the Lower Madison

Photo by Liz Juers
Have you noticed a change in your Lower Madison River catch?

For as long as I've fished the Lower Madison - about 10 years - it's been a rainbow and brown trout fishery. Nary a whitefish, much less a brookie or cutthroat. It's never been a place to catch native fish, save for the extremely rare arctic grayling or Utah chub.

But now you can actually expect to catch Westslope cutthroat in the Lower Madison (below Ennis Dam), thanks to the reintroduction project on Cherry Creek, a major tributary. While the Cherry Creek project has had its issues, it now appears to be thriving, so much so that the reintroduced trout are apparently overflowing into the Madison River about eight miles downstream of the stocking site. Reports of pure (in appearance anyhow) cutthroat trout began last spring, and in the past month, have become commonplace from Bear Trap Creek to Greycliff. Anglers have reported as much as 20 percent of their catch being cutthroats or cutt-bows.

"Typically resident populations of westslope cutthroat trout above fish barriers have a very slow rate of emigration, maybe 2 percent a year," said Dave Moser, Fisheries Biologist from Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. But empirically at least, they seem to be pouring in a little faster than that. Three of three queried anglers agreed that the cutthroat tallies have been way up.

"I’ve noticed that when westslopes are introduced to historically fishless habitats they initially exceed carrying capacity of the stream – over time these populations will self regulate and less fish may out-migrate," Moser added. "Cherry Creek holds enough fish (>25,000 fish) that, if out-migration is greater than 2 percent it would be quite noticable. Cutthroat in general are more catchable than browns, rainbow trout, and brooks. Also, since these fish are entering new habitat this may enhance their catchability."

Anglers are psyched about the new possibility.


The "Lower" has traditionally been, and still is, a rainbow-dominant fishery.
"It is an awesome development and good to see a project on private lands benefiting the general public," said angler and friend Ben Pierce. 

Beyond the opportunity to again catch a native trout in the Madison River, the influx of cutts should be relatively innocuous to the fishery. 

"These excess or migratory fish would likely have little impact on the current fishery," Moser said. "There is some overlap with spawning of rainbows but they hybridize – so no net loss of biomass there. Smaller westslope would likely be prey items for browns. Competitively, browns and rainbows would have the advantage. Also given the populations sizes compared to outmigration from Cherry Creek – it is really a drop in the bucket."

Related story: Do native fish pay? (page 30)
Related: Reintroduction goes awry
Related: Climate change and native trout

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Open year round?


The upper Madison River's new 2016 regulations have seen some press, but there are other major under-the-radar changes coming to Montana's fishing regulations in 2016. The biggest of which is that, as of March 1, small streams in the Central District will remain open year round! According to Montana FWP Fisheries Management Bureau Chief Joel Tohtz: "It is likely a favorite small stream may now be open year round. Some seasonal closures (the new exceptions) will remain, but many more small streams will be open than closed in the past."

Granted many small streams will be frozen over and others will remain closed, but this is pretty fantastic news, in theory. Hopefully it won't be detrimental to spawning rainbows and cutthroat as they often get busy at this time, but most anglers are already cognizant of walking on redds and pulling fish off of them. 

"One point we do want to emphasize is that, although we are excited to offer anglers every opportunity we can, the responsibility for ethical conservation of these resources remains," Tohtz said via e-mail. "Everyone (not just FWP) has an important role in all of that. Care and common sense still go a long way in Montana."

The upper Madison will be open year round from Yellowstone National Park to Ennis Lake, starting March 1, 2016. Currently, it closes from March 1 to the third Saturday in May. Some other harvest and allowed-bait rule changes will also occur with this update that won't apply to catch-and-release fly anglers.

Go fish (on March 1)!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The trout will rise again: Where to find risers in December

(#tbt; originally published in the November/December 2008 issue of the Montana Sporting Journal)
Damn fish. 
While hiking in the Bear Trap Canyon of the Madison River a few years ago, a buddy and I saw one sip a midge from the surface. Then it happened again. And again.

The damn part: It was in December. And, being neophytes, we didn’t bring our fly rods.
He vowed never to hike along a river sans fly rod ever again, and I make sure to always have a few Griffith’s Gnats and H&L Variants in my box.
But trout eat dry flies many places in December on Montana’s rivers. Try these places.

Poindexter Slough

Poindexter fishes well in December due to the fact that it is part spring creek, which keeps waters steady year round, and part tailwater (much of the flow in Poindexter is water from the Beaverhead River).
It’s midges here, as it is with most places you’ll find rising fish in December.
Keep in mind that while Poindexter remains open year round, it’s catch-and-release only from December 1 to the third Saturday in May.

Upper Clark Fork

It gets windy at the UCF. 
Based on my empirical research, I’d guess that Montana’s official midge convention takes place here every December. Even though the midges can be thick, the rising fish can be difficult to track down some days. But keep looking – you should be able to find some.
The Upper Clark Fork is an outstanding winter fishery in general. It’s a lot like a tailwater, as it comes from the water released from the Anaconda Settling Ponds.
Big fish can be caught here in the winter, but the biggest probably won’t take a dry. You’ll have to run streamers through the deeper holes for the piggies.





Depuy Spring Creek

This one is pure spring creek, so its temperature stays at about 54 degrees 365 days a year. This will probably be the only place you’ll find anything other than midges – you can find some baetis activity and trout looking up for them. And of course, you will find midges.
Paradise Valley’s other pay fisheries, Armstrong’s Spring Creek and Nelson’s Spring Creek, will probably have the same sort of bug activity (especially Armstrong’s, because it is actually a different section of the same creek). I just cannot specifically speak to their bug activity, as I’ve not fished either in December.

Lower Madison River

This is the place where I first learned that fish will rise in December. The best bet is probably directly below the dam and the first mile or so after that. But anywhere on the Lower, particularly in Bear Trap Canyon, holds the possibility for rising fish.
Some of these midges here can be thicker in the body and a shade of gray.

Bighorn River

This is a great place to fish in December, rising fish or not. It’s one of Montana’s best winter fisheries and the crowds of the summer are absent.
Most times in December, the Bighorn will be at its normal winter flows which means wading is very much a possibility.
This is one place where thicker tippet might be needed – there are lots of 18- to 22-inch fish in the Bighorn.









Yellowstone River at La Duke Spring

While the Yellowstone River is a freestone river and does freeze from bank to bank most winters, there is a section near Corwin Springs where La Duke Spring (a geothermal spring), among others, dumps in, which causes the river to remain warm enough to hatch midges. There are a lot of native cutthroats in this section, which adds to the notability of this spot. But as with anywhere on the Yellowstone, there are lots of whitefish.


You might also take a peek at the Yellowstone where Nelson’s and Depuy’s dump in. These spots are known to be decent for fishing at other times of the year, and are likely to have warmer water than the rest of the big river.

Other likely places:

Big Spring Creek around Lewistown, the Kootenai River, the Beaverhead River, the Missouri River below Holter Dam…Pretty much any tailwater or spring creek will be warm enough to hatch midges.
Don’t forget that many times when trout are rising, they are taking pupae in favor of adults. Be sure to have plenty of Griffiths Gnats, but also be sure to have a good selection of midge emergers in different colors.
Maybe the best part of finding rising fish in December is that there is a solid chance you’ll have a more-than-adequate section of water to yourself. Don your GoreTex and make sure your feet get plenty of blood flow, then double check your knots and be ready to set the hook.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Rainbow Whitefish

(Originally published in the Drake in 2014)

It was Idaho legend, like the Everglades' skunk ape or Loch Ness' monster. Since the 1980s, reports of an apparent rainbow trout fly fishing for trout had filtered through staffers and patrons at places like the Nature Conservancy Preserve on Silver Creek and Harriman State Park. Witnesses reported a seeing a “...biped oncorhynchus mykiss with a pungent odor and rambling vocalizations...”
To the chagrin of my cryptozoological side, this Rocky Mountain boogeyman turned out to be a male human from Boise who merely likes his elbow room, and will go to lengths to get it. Sometimes he wears sequins, face paint and a hot-pink construction helmet. Other times, it's metallic-silver fringed smock with matching headwear. Sometimes, it's as simple as his Whitefish Unlimited baseball hat, a tie-dyed t-shirt and painted waders.
It, is Ed Dunn, better known as Whitefish Ed.

Photo via Facebook.com
 “The first experiment was on the Henry’s Fork,” Dunn said, comfortably nestled in his lair. “I scored a hot-pink soccer shirt for 50 cents from a thrift store... Thus the neon monster was born.”
He’s the antithesis to the ubiquitous “bro”, and stirs up a wide range of reactions. Some see a breath of fresh air, and others see a distraction worthy of an eye-roll, at best.
“By far the most predominant reaction I would hear from those who couldn’t get there jaw back in place was 'WTF is that?!'” Dunn said. “In the beginning and for about 15 years thereafter, 100 percent negative except for those that knew me all this time, but I think they still questioned my mind.”
Anne Marie Emery, Education Conservation Biologist for the Henry's Fork Foundation (HFF), has witnessed the spectacle for the past 8 years.
“Ed is a “!” in every sense and form,” Emery said via e-mail. “I remember the first conversation I had with Ed left me in an analogy-laced, bewildered, whirlwind... Ed sticks out like a flashy, overdone indicator on the Fork. You can see him from miles away dressed in bright neon colors, tie-dye patterns and tin foil. In a place of tradition such as the Fork, Ed sticks out...blindingly so.”
His initial modus operandi was to test the idea that bright colors scare fish. Once he noticed that not only does it not scare fish, but it does scare anglers, his rationale changed. No more getting low-holed, crowded, or even seeing other anglers.
“Even before dipping a tootsie in the water let alone making a cast, I instantly noticed that the hot-pink shirt scared the living snot out of fishermen. I was avoided like I had the plague...The more people who think I'm a dork on a ditch and that I scare off every fish in the river, the better. Ever since I started wearing this stuff, I have not had one tinkling match on any river or stream I've fished.”

Photo via Facebook.com
So does this self-proclaimed “pragmatic recessive hippie” actually fish, or is he just looking to stir up the river?
Says Emery: “I have yet to meet another angler who takes not just fishing, but the biology of it, as seriously as Ed.”
Added Dunn: “I take my fly fishing seriously. I take my fun seriously. I have serious fun when doing serious fishing.”
Sprinkle in his generous nature, and you've basically got fly fishing's answer to Wavy Gravy. Take the time he stepped in to help a group of HFF interns survey fish. In harsh summer sunlight with little shade, fish started perishing in plain view of anglers.
“Then Ed comes along and in all seriousness starts showing the crew the proper way to flush a fish through water to maximize oxygen delivery to their gills,” Emery said. “We spent the next while performing this technique on all the little fish, with Ed right there. It was at that point that I became aware of Ed’s genuine care of the resource.”
Or the time he combined the jobs of funking up his fishing fatigues while raising money for the HFF.
“He grabbed a pair of waders and puff paint and charged people 20 bucks to sign his waders that he then wore out on the river. Funds were raised, a dissolved-oxygen meter purchased, and HFF field capacity increased.”
For better or worse, Dunn's influence is spreading. He's put Greg Thomas in yellow sequins on Henry's Fork, and I've placed a red sequin inconspicuously on my waders.
In atypical fly-fishing fashion, Whitefish Ed's unique disposition can remind us that it's only fishing.
Said Emery: “He is boisterous, crass, loud, but painstakingly human.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

In recognition of back-roads trucks

Can you guess which member of our family has the best ground clearance, all-wheel drive, thick tires and a towing package? Boges the dog would be a good guess, but it's our "back-roads truck" lovingly known as "the Schplowa".

If you're going to the foothills of the Scapegoat Wilderness, a BRT will get you there.
Back-roads trucks are basic necessities for many sportsfolks, can be considered reliable fishing buddies, are usually well-used alternate/second vehicles and are often named, spoken to and otherwise beloved.

Mine is a 1998 Ford Explorer XLT (see above - yeah it's got rims). Key features:
  • It's been lifted a bit, which helps on the mountain Jeep trails
  • A V8 for pulling trailers over mountain passes
  • All-terrain tires for traction and rocky Jeep trails and eastern Montana's "gumbo" roads
  • All-wheel drive, which is huge on gumbo two-tracks and slick winter roads 
I dread the day I have to find another, but I'll be looking for another Explorer.

The BRT's Bitterroot office.
The back-roads truck is closely related to the fishing-guide rig (commonly a Toyota pickup with a topper and stickers) and the Western Mini-Van. These respected breeds are commonplace at bridge pull-offs, boat ramps, trailheads and campgrounds. It could be anything from a diesel work truck to a specialized cargo van, and while this trite homage awards them a little recognition, a good back-roads truck deserves high accolades and a place in the sportsman's driveway.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Fly rod juju

I have a soft spot for underdogs and am drawn to the random - a quirk that extends to fishing gear. Sometimes, the older and less practical the rod, the more I love it. This love is born of intrigue and kinship of spirit, not performance.

For example, a few years ago I broke a big-fish slump at the Redacted River fishing a Wright and McGill Sweetheart 7-8-weight that I literally pulled out of the garbage. I figured that if it'll cast, it deserves to, and I could use a 7-weight. That day we landed six fish over 20 inches including a thick 25-incher that remains the biggest to-hand brown I've seen.


I came upon another old Wright & McGill in an auction that was a no-brainer. It's a PF-7, which stands for panfish and 7-weight. It's fiberglass, 7-feet long, has square blanks, and is wrapped in rainbow colors. Perfectly random and glowing with juju. (Incidentally fly-rod manufacturers - wouldn't "Juju" would make a good model name?)

I brought it to a carp pond in eastern Montana in May and it controlled the multiple-pound fish with aplomb, including a 10-pounder. But being that it's not a very practical rod, I shelved it until this past Saturday when I fished with a friend I don't get to fish with very often. I thought it worthwhile to harken the PF-7.

Halfway through the day, I admitted that I regretted it. My friend chuckled, having questioned the decision from the start. It is quite heavy and does not cast big flies well, and it was a streamer day. But my love for the rod became want and determination, and a big one was soon thrashing on the line.

My lucky charm is in the lower right.
It's by no means a record-setter, but it was a great fish for the river. Courtesy the old, short, colorful, quadrangular, perfectly random PF-7.