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
 “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
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.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Nature's pendmanship

A strange sidebar from my first summer of backpacks and flying ants is the story of the messenger grayling...

At one 8,500-foot stillwater, I found what could have been a message written on the flanks of a small grayling, via letters suggested in its characteristic black pocks. It was something like: "...WAN AW X N...". Compelled to return the suffocating fish to water, it was quickly a memory bathed in a splash.

Not the fish, but this one might be trying to tell me something, too.
Had my oxygen-choked brain pulled one over? Double rainbow all the way across the sky? Shake it off, buddy. Catch another and move on...

Grayling might be my favorite summertime fish. Their well-meaning spirits have always played well with me. Top it off with aurora-blasted dorsals and subtle-lilac cheeks, and I've found a fish worth catching. I first got lucky, hooking one on a randomly placed gray Parachute Adams, about a decade ago. I honestly thought I'd landed a flying fish.

Later this past summer from an office chair while researching the upcoming weekend's adventure, I scrolled into a second apparent message. A meandering stream in the foothills seemed to be written in some sharp cursive.

Does that say arms?
It's all silly, I know, trying to find meaning amidst the chaos. Maybe I should focus on fishing and leave the ethereal to the philosophers.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Herring illegally stocked in Montana?

My wife, dog and I were basically alongside Jeremy Wade on River Monsters this past Saturday, hiking across the grassy hillside, casting into the defunct abyss. Chasing rumors, again.
The substrate was the proverbial "pea-sized" (suitable for spawning) gravel where it wasn't muck, there was a small fish ladder on the earthen dam, and a handful of 10-inch trout (I won't even mention the scores of three-inchers) kissing the surface. Maybe that indicates it's a wild fish nursery, which means the parents have to come up sometime...
A cup of wine drew us back to camp after giving what we felt was an appropriate effort.

I don't know the truth about this place, and I wonder if anyone does. I'm starting to suspect that some old-timer has dumped a bucket of red herring into the fly-fishing gossipshere.
Every once in a while a fishery proves more than a rumor, and other times it's my own inability, poor choices, and quick temper that make it seem merely rumor. Timing is almost always a factor - daily or seasonally, and the fussy nature of trout can't be discounted.
Excuses, though. We'll continue on, until the next whisper blows through...

Friday, September 25, 2015

Seasonal-affect fishing

That first awe-filled gaze around the shoreline of an alpine lake is always gratifying, so when that reward ebbs, you know it's time for a break. The high lakes have all blended together in my eyes; their beauty's effect has paused.
Beauty blindness has triggered a revolution in fishing environs, for now.
This thought triggers a private reflection. 

"Yeah, but the highs are lower and days are shorter, and I need to pack the mountain trips in while I can." 
"Yeah, but the macks are migrating and the browns are moving, and the lakes all look the same." 

...woe is me, an angler's dilemma...
Then I remembered: There's a small impoundment on a small creek at about 6,100 feet. In June it's a small-brown fishery, but for some reason, come October, it's big-brown town. Does that qualify as a mountain lake? It does this weekend. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fairy Shrimp

I'm pretty good with bugs as they relate to fly fishing. For some reason, learning the aquatic entomology was one of my first priorities (should've probably focused on reading water and downstream hook sets). But recently at a high-elevation lake I was stumped by the creatures before me, so I thought I'd share the find.

(sorry for the low video quality - that's partially Blogger's doing)

They are kind of scud-like, but propel themselves differently. The have lateral filaments similar to some burrowing mayflies, but are not mayfly nymphs. This is why god gave us entomology professors. Professor Malcolm Butler from North Dakota State University had no problem identifying them as fairy shrimp.

It seems that they are so slow and meaty, trout often eat them up to the point of complete extermination. Therefore it's likely that if you see fairy shrimp, you won't see trout. That held true where I found them. And for some reason, they often occupy seasonal pools - indeed, I found them in a cutoff oxbow from a lake's outlet stream.

Trout apparently do coexist with them in some places like Montana's Blackfeet Reservation lakes, however, so do further investigate if you find fairy shrimp. If there are fish, they'll probably be fat.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Now accepting intangibles: Why I'm okay losing money to get published

The first 90 years or so, they go by pretty fast. Then one day, you wake up and you realize that you're not 81 anymore. And then you begin to count the minutes, rather than the days and you realize that pretty soon you'll be gone and that all you have, see, is the experiences. That's all there is Johnny. The experiences.
                                                                                            -Grandpa Gustafson, Grumpier Old Men

Writing for magazines can seem more a of money pit than a gold mine. You want me to spend hundreds of dollars in gas, more in lodging, many days of vacation, and hours researching, writing and processing photos, all in exchange for a few hundred dollars? .... Actually, yes, please. The monetary compensation is only part of the package.

These assignments provide the perfect excuse to become acquainted with the rivers on my "someday" list, today. Some "help" is usually offered, along with the chance to make some new friends.
An autumn day on the Bitterroot with Joe Cummings of Classic Journey Outfitter.
The "help" comes via opportunities to spend time on the water with guides and outfitters I'd not otherwise book. For example, I got to fish with former NFL linebacker and current Missoula-based outfitter Joe Cummings on the Bitterroot a few years ago. We spent a day catching cutts and browns, Joe telling stories of football and fishing. Joe's a great guy running a fantastic operation - book your next Bitterroot trip with him, seriously. And this April, I had the chance to meet and fish with the Kootenai River's Tim Linehan. He's a nice man who will have you into fish before you realize you're fishing, amidst warm conversation and encouragement. In three days of fishing, Tim provided two all-time fishing days for me. It's hard to put a price tag on that. (Incidentally, treat yourself to a day of fishing on the Kootenai River. If you're feeling especially indulgent, book a day with Linehan Outfitting Company.)
Good fishing begins and ends with a smile.
And especially if I have the opportunity to advocate for my causes like public land and stream access, there's inherent payment in that.

To be fair, I do have the advantage of having a regular 40-hour job. But that's what it takes - I work hard to be able to accept small paychecks.

Not everyone is on board with this way of thinking, regarding freelancing. Some colleagues argue that we should demand top dollar so as to keep the market value for articles and photos at a livable monetary wage (which they really are not, in many cases). They contend that we should not accept such small paychecks for that amount of work and expense. I understand, but mine is not to drive market price. Mine is only to live my life as I see fit. I cannot be responsible for yours.

Because no matter the circumstances, I want to be writing, I want to be getting published, I want to be fishing, I want to be traveling and I want to be making these kinds of friends. That's all there is, Johnny.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The nuances of Montana's Stream Access Law

(Originally published in the Montana Sporting Journal, Winter 2014)
Hike, fish and be happy.

Enter a Montana river from a public place and stay within its high-water marks – it's the foundation of Montana's stream access law. That access is one of the biggest reasons Montana is world-renowned for trout fishing.

The law is far from cut and dried, however - it's definitions and descriptions are often vague and open to interpretation. If you fish often enough, you'll encounter a protective landowner. But if you understand the law – and its intricacies – you'll be able to stand your ground and hopefully continue that day's trouting.

The Ruby River's Seyler Lane bridge.
The most important thing is that you always follow the rules and stay within the fine lines called high-water marks. To be fair, there isn't an angler who's never stepped out of bounds due to fishing zeal or difficult conditions, myself included (which is not to excuse it, rather it's to be forthright about it). But river users should try to minimize that, not only because it's the law, and not only so you can defend yourself in good faith, but because careless anglers give us all bad names and add fuel to the perennial fire that tries to burn Montana's stream access down. 

First off, the definition of "high-water mark" should be understood. Fish, Wildlife and Park's Stream Access in Montana brochure describes it as "the line that water impresses on land by covering it for sufficient time to cause different characteristics below the line, such as deprivation of the soil of substantially all its terrestrial vegetation..." and I wouldn't dare deviate from that. And it's "ordinary" high-water mark meaning normal-flow mark, not "annual", meaning run-off mark. And it's not within 10 feet, nor two feet (both of which I've heard anglers say), it's within it.

But there are caveats about which many anglers and landowners seem oblivious.

The easily recognizable signs posted on Ted Turner's land. Fair enough. 
One oft-overlooked aspect is that notice denying entry to private land must be posted. From the brochure: "...a member of the public has the privilege to enter or remain on private land by the explicit permission of the landowner or his agent or by the failure of the landowner to post notice denying entry onto the land. The landowner may revoke the permission by personal communication." I warn against taking advantage of this, but those are the law-maker's words.

That notice must consist of "written notice or by ... painting a post, structure or natural object with at least 50 square inches of fluorescent orange paint. In the case of a metal fencepost, the entire post must be painted. This notice must be placed at each outer gate and all normal points of access to the property and wherever a stream crosses an outer boundary line."

Some other details:
·         The law does not address lakes.
·         A no-trespassing sign at a public-road bridge is notice of private property, but does not mean anglers cannot access that stream there (despite the potential intent of whomever posted it within the road easement).
·         River users may portage around man-made obstructions (like fences, irrigation equipment or junked appliances/vehicles) in the least intrusive manner possible but does not address natural barriers, leaving such instances open to interpretation.
·         Not every public-road bridge is always fair game for access. The Seyler Lane bridge on the Ruby River goes back and forth, pending the direction of the judicial winds.

Conflicts often occur on seldom waded drainages where ranchers aren't used to seeing strangers. These places can be desirable fishing holes since they get little pressure.

I've had on-stream conflicts from Darlington Ditch to the Ruby River to the upper Madison to Mitchell Slough. I've seen guns brandished, and sheriffs called. I've also had many congenial conversations with hospitable locals who care more about how the fishing is than why you think you have the right to be there.

Mitchell Slough: We caught fish, but also caught an earful. 
If challenged, it's important to remain respectful and cool, even if you're confronted with a firearm. Calmly explain that you entered legally, and that you have remained within the high-water marks the entire time (and be sure to have done so). Inquire about what evidence they have (some claim to have trail cams at bridges, etc.), and explain the law. Some anglers carry a copy of the law verbatim as defense. Always try to deescalate, and don't argue too long.

Don't be surprised to find neighborly nepotism favoring the landowner if a sheriff's department is called. In such a case, I recommend that you concede but consider writing letters to the appropriate parties. The Public Lands Water Access Foundation out of Billings takes on these cases, and county commissioners sometimes take an interest.

So go find a map's blue line and confidently enter it from a legal place. Search for likely holding water, lay down a gentle cast, mend well, set, and fish without fear.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Highland halftime: Schooled by the crags

So we've found ourselves peering down on brown-trout country from ascending trails searching for fishy lakes. We want the scoop: Big cutts? Goldens? Grayling? Nothing? These fisheries are hopelessly ephemeral, pending the previous winter, self-sustainability, stocking histories and sassy attitudes. There's only one way to know for sure ...

Looking back through our first half-summer of alpine trouting, it's been a bit of an uphill battle (rim-shot, please). We've surrendered many goods to the forest, fought through daily thunderstorms and muddy trails, found fishless lakes, stubborn cutthroat, extreme heat, thundershowers in zero-percent chances, all with a complete to-do list at home. No injuries, but by the grace of Gary go we ... Those who say mountain trout are easy have outted themselves as inexperienced.

Pre -midges.
On the other hand, we've charged through the thin air of the Gallatins, Madisons and Absarokas to cirques and endorphins and the divine welcome of radiating halos. To lakes we learned were secret, genius cutthroat and amateurish grayling, on long hikes with views, through anxiety, with friends.

Someday, I'll share which lakes I've found worth the effort, which lakes we've been lied to about and all the adventures. In the mean time, here's to the pain. And to big, beautiful, hungry cutthroat.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Up is hard

There's no strategy for hiking. You just put left before right along a path. It's mindless, cathartic, and healthy, and usually takes you somewhere good. But as was noted on our first mountain-lake trip of the year on Sunday, "up is hard".

We did about 12 miles round trip with about 1,500 feet in elevation gain, which I believe is my biggest distance-day ever, with or without elevation gains. The trip was part of a years-long high-country fly-fishing project just getting underway, which will require many more uphills.

One "up" down, and I'm feeling empowered...

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

PR 022, and others

Somewhere on the public-private jigsaw puzzle of northeastern Montana, an unnamed swimming-pool-sized mud puddle sloshes in the prairie breeze. It is a remnant of a drained reservoir, I'm told, whose tributary stream still flows across the adjacent mud flat. It seems vacant, until you near its edge and see the wakes shoot toward the center. The wakes veeeee off the backs of carp that grow up to 10 pounds. 

This rectangular oasis sits among a sparse number of arid reservoirs that provide this desolation with some recreation. Most are 10ish-acre impoundments stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, and/or rainbow trout, and some have wild bullhead and carp. Each one provides the potential for big fish in small ponds.

It's the epitome of exploratory fishing, lacks bearded and buff-masked flotillas, and holds a piscatorial newness and beauty that's more obvious than you might guess. And my ill-behaved mutt can raise hell as he sees fit. Yes please.
Clean feet are for waders. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

One week in the Kootenai

The Kootenai River is out of the way. That might be the main reason it remains full of native rainbows, cutts and bulls. Please enjoy a quick visual recap. Thanks to Linehan Outfitting Company for hosting us at their cabins, and getting us into many dandies.