Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The jewel of the western prairie

My old friend wanderlust recently brought me to the Chinooks and shrubs of northeastern Montana, and the American Prairie Reserve. What it lacked in sippin' trout, it made up for in wondrous openness for this old fisherman.

Dawn on a prairie reservoir.
It's a largely undisturbed landscape of scrub, grasslands, and unadulterated prairie (save for a few generations-old ranches) rich with beautiful emptiness, nicknamed America's Serengeti. The reserve was created and is operated by its namesake forward-thinking conservation non-profit organization, and is working to preserve a large-scale prairie complex. The actual property is a patch-work of public (BLM and state) and private (APR) lands bordering the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge south of Malta, Mont., and is open to the public.

In a way, it's a wilderness all its own. Not in the government-designation sense - more of Merriam Webster's version. A wilderness you can drive through, with power lines and occasional ranch houses, and where you have every square inch and similar biodiversity to what you have when you're miles deep into Yellowstone.

I went all the way to the prairie and all I got was this grousy photo. 
We had our own spot in the world about 45 miles down the notorious "gumbo" roads from the nearest amenities, accompanied by the nighthawks, swallows, doves, partridge, grouse, burrowing owls and prairie dogs. And a few miles away, buffalo. One of the APR's primary goals is to bring bison back to the prairie, which they've been doing for years. It's one of the few places in the world you can see pure-strain bison (APR's are from the Elk Island National Park in Alberta) - that is, not at least part bovine.

The dog had the time of his life. He pounced through the marshy shoreline of the nearby reservoir until he limped, fulfilled his dream of riding in the back of a pickup, and lived a life of freedom he's proven he can't handle in a settled area. I feel like a monster for bringing him home.

That night as I watched the dirty water run down the shower drain, I got to believing in what APR is doing. That drab, desolate prairie is something to save.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Undamming the blog

As we brainstormed how we could make enough money to get by (a few years down the road living in a camper), it dawned on me - there will not be enough opportunity in the fly-fishing-writing world. I need to expand into the total outdoors/lifestyle-writing realm (though it might be a pipe dream regardless).

The surge of relief momentarily startled me.

I realized how much I'd pigeon-holed myself. As the fly-fishing columnist for a Montana magazine, I felt that I should keep my blog strictly fishing related for credibility's sake, and I ended up forcing ideas, opportunities, and fishiness. It's time for TroutBugs to grow.

The ideas have started to gush again.

While it will largely remain fishing oriented, TroutBugs will also feature general Montana outdoors lifestyle content, like posts about music festivals, outdoor-wedding-venue hunting, interactions with the little people of the Pryor Mountains, Western craft beer, journeys into Wyoming, and more. Chasing hatches and exploring tributaries will always be my jam, but to limit myself is silly.

See ya at the put-in.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Wedding Recon, Southwest Montana Style

Is it just me, or does it seem like there has been a lot of wedding planning going on lately? Maybe it just stands out because Liz and I have been doing lots of wedding planning lately. We're still on the first step: choosing a location.

Finding the right venue can be overwhelming in an area with so many naturally elegant options. Naturally, we want our wedding to be outside and have something of that Montana sais quoi. We've looked at several locations over the past weeks, including:
And more. Lots of touring, and lots of learning about the area, and lots of fun (and slight drudgery, in brief moments).

We basically have it narrowed down to two; one being a lodge that would work for the favored float-in, float-out option. We took to the boat to see if the wedding party could feasibly arrive via the river (incidentally, when you get to float the Yellowstone River as part of your wedding planning, you can feel pretty good about your life choices).

Decent option :)
The dry-fly bite wasn't quite as strong as I'd hoped (maybe due to the storms), but in spots it was great. In the end we both caught a few fish - some on dries, nymphs and streamers.

And we determined it'd likely work fine to float-in.

As original as we're trying to be, it's hard to find a never-been-done venue in an area so full of outdoorsy folks. We'll just have to make up for it with original nuptials and subsequent union. It's about to get real matrimonial up in here...

The grass is green and the girls are pretty. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

White Sulphur Soul Revival

Even fishing can become routine and mundane. Even "adventurous" lives gets stale.

With that feeling, Liz and I went to the Red Ants Pants Music Festival this past weekend to wake up my soul in an equally sleepy town. The dusty prairie was my dawn and the thump of the music was my wake-up call.

It wasn't too raucous for the thousand-person agraria of White Sulphur Springs, Montana.

Jason Isbell, Red Ants Pants Music Festival
Polite awakening with Jason Isbell. 
As the fantastic green and purple sky dimmed, we brainstormed how we could make this lifestyle permanent. Work hard and save money, and maybe in 10 to 15 years we can sell our assets and become full-time gypsies, hosting campgrounds, playing irregular musical gigs, contributing articles to whomever is paying. And have that off-the-grid cabin in the woods of which I've dreamt since I was a teenager.

Or at least jump from campsite to campsite every 14 days, fishing and following music without the stress of a routine life.

Our shadows stretched into the evening.
Some personal favorite weekend acts were Baskery, James McMurtry (new for me), Matt Andersen and some local band (Hooligans?) that filled in for the mysteriously absent Holly Williams. Also there was Josh Ritter, Ian Tyson, Jason Isbell, Charley Pride, Brandi Carlile and a moving tribute to local doctor and musician Ben Bullington by a high-school band (video of that perfomance not yet available). And the cross-cut competition was surprisingly captivating - go Moonsnails!

James McMurtry, Red Ants Pants
No more buffalo.
Doesn't mean I didn't fish a little.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Tying the (fisherman's) knot

Fly anglers, myself included, tend to let the sport infiltrate their thoughts, conversations, travel, employment, relationships, and ultimately, the majority of their lives. Therefore as silly as it was, I really wanted a fishy social-media engagement announcement/photo.

So Liz and I headed to the Lower Madison, but got distracted with potential riverside wedding venues and didn't land anything noteworthy. Giving it one more week, we headed to Wyoming's upper Upper Green River which was full and fast. Fishing was initially frustrating.

But soon, Liz's rod bent and bobbed.

"Nice, Juers!" I hollered, seeing the robust rainbow flail. "This is our fish!"

Fighting the pressure and the fish, she brought the feisty, freezing-water rainbow to hand, where a toast was in order. Silly as it is, this photo is kind of a big deal to me.

No prizes for guessing the wedding theme.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Catching upstate

We traveled to where it all began for Liz. And we made a point to try to find the exact hole where she landed her first-ever fish - likely a trout - from Fall Creek in Ithaca, New York.

Whether this was it or not, she wasn't positive. But it was close enough, and in the couple hours we ended up with to fish, she caught that fish again. A special moment on a wonderful trip across the northern U.S.

The rest of the trip involved floods, mudslides, a broke-down car that's still in Pennsylvania, little league baseball, a wedding, friends new and old, family, and lots of driving. Great trip, but good to be home. We're ready for summer in Montana, and all that it entails.

Ithaca Falls. Probably should've fish here...

Giant Lake Erie midge - like the ones that helped the Indians beat the Yankees in the 2007 ALDS. Go midges!
The Mankato Brewery. We approved. 
A stonely out of the catfish water in Mankato. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Montana Sporting Journal changing hands

It should shock no one that the sporting publishing realm is not a gold mine. Especially in a tough economy when advertising is often a luxury, magazines that depend upon it suffer.

With that in mind, it is with remorse that I learned that the Montana Sporting Journal has printed its final issue as we know it. Jay Hanson, editor, publisher and owner, made the announcement a few months ago.

It initially appeared it would fade into publishing abyss, but as happens often with magazines, it was acquired by a party who had a new vision for it. Schnee's Boots, Shoes and Hunting Gear out of Bozeman has taken the reins and will reportedly revamp it as a free "maga-log". It appears that its new format will lean heavily toward hunting, and scale back on fishing content. For that reason, I'm out.

I took pride in writing for the Montana Sporting Journal, and was honored to have the opportunity to be a regular contributor. I am gladdened that it will live on and wish Schnee's and the magazine the best in continuing the tradition of providing the best of Montana's fishing and hunting. I hope to be on the pages again when there's a need, and will help out however I can.

It is my understanding that subscribers will retain their subscriptions plus one issue to compensate for the downtime. E-mail with inquiries.

The next issue (Schnee's first) is scheduled to drop in early September, and is slated to be focused solely on big-game hunting. Meanwhile, I'll be on the river ...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

All downhill?

Could Montana's big runoff have peaked already?

The flows on the Missouri River at Craig have been dropped to about 6,000 cfs which is right in line with an average year, Al at Great Divide Outfitters on the Big Hole is calling the "guess-the-peak-flow" contest done, and other anglers and reports seem to be suggesting that runoff has peaked (not all).

But we had a huge snowpack, and while runoff did get torrential for a spell, it doesn't seem likely to me that it's over. Temps have been mild, and current snowpack numbers are still way above average for the date.

You can see below that runoff usually peaks around mid June on Montana's major freestone rivers (median flows are the bronze triangles, actual flows are last year's). But you can also see below that, that we still have a lot of snow in the mountains.

I am predicting another major surge, or high-water until August. I'm a fool to disagree with outfitters... And even if runoff returns, don't stay home. 

Big Hole River at Maiden Rock, May -July;
current flow is 5,600 and dropping

Blackfoot River above Nevada Creek, May-July
current flow is 1,740 and dropping

Gallatin River at Gateway, May-July;
current flow is 3,890 and steady

Yellowstone River near Livingston, May-July;
current flow is 18,200 and slowly dropping

Oh, and apparently salmonflies are on Rock Creek.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Don't let the cocoa make you locoa

Spin fishers don't fear the runoff. Nor do the winds, the sun or the rain. We can be like they are.

Most times and places where the water's brown, I'll concede that fly fishing suffers. But not always, and not everywhere. Particularly in canyons when the water's not completely opaque, fishing the soft edges can be fruitful. We did just that over the weekend over about 10 round-trip miles, with some success. Pink Worms shine in this climate, as do Clousers and crayfish. Spin fishers seem to be ahead of the curve on this one...

Angling the Kitchen Sink Rapid, as captured by Liz.
In gin or in cinnamon, fish the fishy stuff. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Midges be zippin'

If you've not had the pleasure of experiencing a stillwater midge (or chironomid, as they say) hatch, do. These hatches can be as intense as any Mother's Day caddis hatch. Around here, they occur on most big reservoirs and many smaller mountain lakes. Hebgen, Harrison, and Dailey lakes, to name a few around here.

We fished Hebgen Lake for Memorial Day weekend and found these hatches each of the three days. Especially this time of year, the bugs tend to be about a size 14, and fish notice. Heads everywhere. A low hum from buzzing wings (seriously - it's almost spooky). Gulpers here and there. Bugs coated the water, but that doesn't mean the fishing's easy.
We coaxed a few on midge pupae and San Juan Worms under indicators, but the dry-fly bite was tough. You really had to set your fly apart from the zillions of originals - we didn't figure out how. It's fun regardless, just to witness the spectacle of such an event. And the trout you do catch are usually nice sized.

Liz was disappointed to catch this football. She was really hoping for a trout. 
Hebgen's a great place regardless, but we usually go because it's a nice opportunity to visit friends at the Firehole Ranch, who spend all summer and parts of spring and fall away from home. We camp near the ranch, and if we don't end up fishing with them, we'll catch up over the traditional evening wood-burn. A great way to exercise our freedom, on the day we honor those who died defending it.

Here's to a good-water summer with lots of footballs, pigs, toads, hogs and dinosaurs. And trout.

Click for larger view. (toned to highlight the bugs)
Gratuitous Boges. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Third Saturday in May

Montana's general fishing opener is this Saturday. This generally only applies to the small streams and tributaries, as most of the big mainstems are open year round. This gives anglers options at a time when many fisheries are blown out. Where you goin?

Small streams, big trout.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Clear, open water

With our local running water brown and rain dumping, I'm heading for Hebgen Lake tomorrow. Think I'll find open water?

I like ice. Out.  May 14, 2010. 

Go fish Hebgen Lake.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Stonefly Saturday

Big Hole River golden stones, from 2009.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dancing through the Canyon

Watching the USGS streamflow graph gain and lose for a couple weeks raised our eyebrows. When the 10-day forecast revealed borderline weather, Liz and I looked at each other for reassurance. But with the local press bombarding us with news of a mine potentially infiltrating Montana's Smith River drainage, we figured we better go while we had the permit, even if spring's unpredictability was in perfect form.

The highest high was forecast to be 51 degrees, the strongest gusts were predicted at 40 mph, and rain was projected three of our five days. And for the win, the prior week's warmth had set runoff in motion.

Just me and my woman for five cold, wet, wind-blown, isolated, glorious days on the Smith River.

The Smith River corridor is a 59-mile stretch of river bounded by towering cliffs and a boat ramp on each end. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks manages the float section with cooperation from the US Forest Service and private land owners (80 percent of the float is on private land). Permits are required and given out via a lottery each March. Nine parties are allowed to launch per day, and boat campsites are assigned for each night when you check-in at Camp Baker (the put-in). It is typically done in four or five days. Prime dates are much harder to draw a permit for, which is why some parties (including ours) apply for April when you're almost guaranteed a permit. Almost guaranteed questionable weather and flows, too.

So we embarked... After the flow spiked to about 560 cfs early Wednesday morning (our launch day, April 23), we were pleased to see fishy green water at Camp Baker. But about 25 feet downstream enters Sheep Creek, which was vomiting mud. Our first two days were pretty blown out, and our fish had to come at tributary mouths.

Day three graced us with a lighter hue. Quickly, a 20-plus-incher was brought boatside before popping off, and later another dandy came to net. A few fish later and we'd had a day of fishing that seemed unlikely. Baetis backed-up in the foam eddies (fish eating them in places), midges were about, and we made friends with a few skwalas.

"Panic Attack" with his new buddy. 
Mid-canyon, the Heaven on Earth Ranch offered an entertaining interlude. While Gary Anderson's grandson cut our firewood, the man himself carted us up to his beautiful saloon, showed us his massive bull elk mount, and poured us Deep Creek Specials while boasting of Chubby the black bear, who, prior to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' crackdown, would take an apple right from his mouth. The Ranch refilled our water, ice and spirit. Floaters can book a cabin which includes steak dinner, cocktails, golf at the par-3 course on the river, showers, and more, and it won't count against your river nights. When we're rich...

We found three public-land pictograph locations. The first are handprints downstream of the mouth of Tenderfoot Creek at about river mile 16.2 on river left. You have to catch them while floating - they are above the water. The next are animals, handprints, and finger swipes on the cliff directly upstream of Crowsfoot boat camp on river left (you'll need to pull over and hike). The final is Pictograph Cave, which requires a short, steep, rocky hike to an opening that can be seen from the river. The trail is river left just downstream of lower Parker Flat - be on the lookout for the cave on the cliff side. This location has the most diversity and offers views of the river from above.

It's a mystical experience to feel connected to these ancient people, and the pictographs are considered sacred. If you locate them, make a point to tread lightly as the walls can be fragile.

Pictograph Cave.

Crowsfoot pictographs.
Handprints downstream of Tenderfoot. 
The wildlife was surprisingly humdrum. A few beavers and muskats, mule deer, a mink, one white-tailed deer, a mouse, one bald eagle, a few turkey vultures, many mergansers and mallards, and tons of Canada geese. There were also more houses and cabins than I anticipated.

The Seamstress (so called for the "needles threaded" through scattered river rocks) rowed about 75 percent of the trip, while I (nicknamed Panic Attack for overly aggressive oar strokes) was forced to fish... By the takeout, we'd gotten comfortable in our positions: She behind the oars and I flippin' the rod. Beautiful thing.
The Seamstress totally rocking the house.
P.A. in full effect.
Despite cold, wet nights, windy days, muddy campsites and barely translucent water, we agreed we'd do it again. Even in April.

As the sensation of bobbing downstream fades, sweet sadness enters. We survived and we're warm and dry, but the jagged walls, honking geese, and intimacy of a remote float have long-since transitioned from present to past. Our parting gifts are memories of a rare opportunity to experience Montana backcountry, grow together, and indulge in some of the best of the outdoors. While it's still pristine.

Sunset Cliff.


Sunset Cliff boat camp.

Crowsfoot boat camp.
Eden Bridge/Smith River State Park. Done.
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