Monday, February 17, 2020

Cooney on ice

I’d forgotten how scary the sound of ice settling is, and how slippery a frozen lake is. That little ice shanty over there has to weigh more than me, right? It'd go down first? Phew... I grew up in Minnesota, but haven't fished "the hardwater" for probably 20 years. 

I recently took a road trip to Cooney Reservoir south of Columbus, Montana. Cooney is known as an excellent walleye fishery, and also has rainbow trout and good-sized yellow perch. What they don't tell you is that it's well within view of the Beartooth Front and is absolutely gorgeous. 


So I borrowed some gear, bought some worms and minnows, and scoured YouTube and online fishing reports. Excitement was high.  

But so was my alert level. My dogs wouldn't follow me onto the ice, and I made frequent trips to terra firma so I could breathe. I felt better upon hearing the hardwater continue to pop without me, and  before long, a couple of friendly retired actual ice fishermen showed up, giving me confidence that I wasn’t probably going to fall through. The ice, as measured through my hole, was indeed about 10 inches thick. 

Fishing was "slow." I read a book, admired the mountains and took in the moment. 

Later, a polite 82-year-old struck up a conversation about the fishing. His best morning on Cooney involved catching four 10-pound walleyes, and his biggest ever was about 13 pounds - a testament to Cooney's potential. But he hadn't had a single bite in the past two winters. (I moved on after the conversation devolved into why I wasn't afraid of eternity in hell...)

It seems no one is catching fish on Cooney this winter and no one knows why. I also didn't get a single bite, but I got a sense for Cooney Reservoir. And a reminder of the experience of ice fishing. 

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Below the bridge

I parked next to a bridge over a spring creek yesterday where I had spotted fish in the past, but I didn't see any. Until I did - it must have been 20 inches and was definitely fat. It was sipping near a cutbank almost directly under the bridge. So I literally sprinted back to my car, wadered up, strung up the rod with a medium purple hopper, and jostled down the opposite bank (the knee-deep shit-storm from the muck was okay because I'd skillfully entered the creek downstream of the fish). I got into position then took a minute to slow down. I didn't want to go home mad at myself...

No time for good photos!
...I tossed a decent cast in the realm of the fish...

Slurp. But instead of a 20-incher, it was a 10-inch brown trout. So I trudged off in defeat, taking one last look over the bridge on my way back to the car. Grandpa was still there! I assumed the two fish wouldn't coexist, but the splishing apparently didn't bother the elder trout. So I ran back down and tried again... Then went home in defeat.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

To decide in September

It's the time of year when the trout have to decide if they want hoppers or streamers. I had to decide if I wanted to wet wade or wear waders. My body then had to decide if it wanted to acclimate or go hyperthermic. Ben had to decide if he wanted to approach a trout with a baetis nymph or a hopper. We collectively had to decide if we wanted to stay despite the big ones having moved on. Then we had to decide which beer. Meanwhile elk bugled, leaves turned, the sun fell and we drove home.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Quit job, gone fishing

After 12 years, I’d had it. I gave my notice and I'm now unemployed. At least for the time being I’m back to being my happy ditzy self.
First thing we did was pack up for Wyoming. We spent time on the Hoback, Granite Creek, the East Fork and the upper Green River, among other places. But I think we each caught two fish after four solid days of fishing.

Wild and Scenic Granite Creek.
So we stopped at the fly shop to mine some intel. A tan-lined guide explained that it wasn’t us - fishing had been tough lately - and graciously offered a couple of bumpy two-tracks where there should be small, hungry trout. He also explained that the trout in a favorite local lake, that holds some huge ones, were not chasing streamers this year because the state didn't stock it with the fingerlings that typically serve as prey for the predators. But an Australian gentleman camped at the boat ramp said the risers were chasing something out there - could’ve been those longhorn sedges. Or damselflies. But I digress.
I got some revenge on the way home, at Grand Teton National Park. We parked on a turnout on a gravel road north of Moose so I could hike down to some braids. The water was low and I had to hike a ways to find the first spot to fish. But it was a good spot - eight to 10 lengthy cutthroats cruising a random, short lakey stretch. I wasn't confident, but as I was keeping an eye on one particular trout, another sneaked up and slurped my "Thunder Thighs" hopper.

Fine-spotted, but spotless. 

After getting organized back at home, I thought I'd go check out a lake in the Tobacco Roots I hadn't yet been to. I'd heard from some friends that they like it better than Lake Louise, which is quite a recommendation.

Alas, about 15 minutes into my hike I was confronted with a decision – go back to the trailhead for my rod or forgo fishing. I opted to keep hiking, being that I didn’t have much time and one of my dogs tries to bite every cast anyway. But when I got to this beautiful steep-walled tarn, I decided to find a stick with some taper, tied a leader of 3x to 4x to 5x, put on a hopper and threw it up into the wind that delivered my fly to the water about 10 feet off the shore. Unbelievably, I had four eats and actually landed one 10-inch neon-pink cutthroat. There seemed to be anabatic winds pushing ants, beetles and grasshoppers onto the water, and the fish were stupid.

Koda, no. Good boy.
The following day I fished an old favorite - the kind of place there are so many hoppers dashing from stem to stem you can confuse it for a spooked moose. But I only caught one small cutthroat, so I headed over to the Plan B River and quickly landed what was likely my last hopper-caught trout of 2019. But it was a pissed-off 18-inch brown, which was a day-maker. I sped home to spend the rest of the afternoon with my lovely wife, whose kindness and grace allows me these adventures (in other words, if she calls me off the river, I come a-runnin).

I wish they all could be hopper season 2019. 
So unemployment is going okay. Actually, I'm living my best life, and trying to figure out how to tell Liz that I'm retiring for good. Any thoughts?

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Hopper plague of 2019

Every hopper season is a special snowflake, but this year's is going down as one to remember. From the North Platte to the Upper Madison, the reports are historically good.

A fishing-guide friend told me that the hopper fishing on the Upper Madison is the best he's seen in the nine years he's guided it. Which is exciting as the Upper Madison isn't typically one of the best hopper rivers, in my opinion. He showed me some pics - many 20- to 24-inch fish on dries. The Yellowstone River has been excellent as usual, and on the North Platte - even though it was anticipated since last year's was so good - has been epic. They don't even have time to put up new online fishing reports down there: 

But the real secret at this time of year is the small stream hopper and attractor-dry fishing. The fish-size-to-fishery-width ratio is much better on these waters - 20-inch trout are possible in some 10-foot-wide creeks. Some of my favorite hopper rivers are the Yellowstone River, [REDACTED] Creek and [REDACTED] Creek. Some things too look for are grassy banks, meadow sections and connectivity to big-fish mainstems.

Salmo trutta selfie, from a 20-foot-wide creek.
A wet winter, spring and summer is most often cited as the reason for the huge hopper numbers, but there might be other factors at play, such green fields stretching well into August and a wonky haying season (both of which are really just other effects of the wet year).

There is still time to take advantage - we should still have at least a month of good hopper fishing in the Northern Rockies. Go fish!

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Guided and dined in Wyoming's flatland

I've heard Casper called things like "Wyoming's butthole," but had I never known that, I'd never have guessed.

I and a media crew were recently dispatched to Casper and the North Platte River upon invitation from Visit Casper. The team was me, Tia Troy, our gracious liaison and wrangler, Mike Sepelak (you might know his blog), and Kent Danjanovich who does Sportsman's Warehouse's in-store magazine - he said he travels 160 years a year on trips like this!

I'll get to Casper, but we were there to fish.

The North Platte River doesn't exactly have Casper's notoriety and it was poised to surpass its reputation, as Wyoming fisheries do.

To me, the North Platte is like a mini-Missouri River - an industrial insect mill loaded with 15- to 22-inch rainbows, though smaller water than the Mo'. Mix in the occasional cutthroat and 20-plus-inch brown, scuds and sowbugs and blanket hatches and you can see why it's one of the West's best trout rivers. There were excellent baetis hatches throughout the weekend we attended, but virtually no fish rising. We caught so many 16- to 21-inch trout (like the one below) on P-tails, Periwinkles and wire worms. Our guides from the Reef Fly Shop worked hard to get us into that many fish - innumerable slight depth changes, subtle split shot adjustments and upstream oar strokes. My only regret is that we did not fish the Miracle Mile or Fremont Canyon, which looked so ripe.

On a media trip, you can count on a paparazzi scene now and then

Baetis weather!

Eric from the Reef Fly Shop floating us down.


Fremont Canyon. Ooh la la.

Some say that the North Platte is becoming a bit crowded, but that seems like an overreaction. A few boats of course, especially at Grey Reef Dam, but it's pretty easy to spread out on the myriad sections.

Casper seems to have plenty of money to fund arts, culture, history and restaurants. There's a tasty brewery making novel beer, a distillery that stands out for it's creative designs and cocktails, an unexpected modern art gallery, an awesome last-of-its-kind western store, and the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center was truly fun and engaging with all of its life-size dioramas and interactive exhibits.

Aged men looking more authentic than Sam Elliot approached to tell you
about the store or ask about your hat, at Lou Taubert's Ranch Outfitters. That leather smell... 
The National Historic Trails Interpretive Center is all about the
Oregon, California, Mormom and Pony Express trails, and is very cool.  

And everything but the guide tip was comped. Yes, I am a big deal, and the dream of fishing for a living feels one step closer.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Fishing the vortex's aftermath

It was my birthday on Thursday so a friend reached out to see if I wanted to play hooky and go fishing.

My first reaction was excitement to spend river time with a friend who I don't get out with much anymore. My second reaction was doubt that we'd be able to find fishable water on a week that barely got above zero, including a day that hit -46 degrees. My third reaction was dread - is this even going to be fun? But my fourth reaction was yeah, this'll be good.

Somehow, we did have a few options as there is almost always somewhere to fish in Montana. We could hit a Paradise Valley spring creek, the upper Clark Fork at Warm Springs, maybe the Ruby, and the upper Madison was still flowing.

We decided on the upper Madison, which apparently hadn't seen temperatures quite as cold as elsewhere, and even had reports of dry-fly action. I was ashamed to admit I wasn't even sure if I had any Rubberlegs in my box, which speaks to my fly-fishing zeal this winter.

Driving upstream from Ennis, we watched the truck's thermometer climb a degree every half mile or so until it stopped at 38 degrees at 9:06. Winds were light to medium and the snow was deep - getting to and from the river was a bit of an adventure.

Fishing was excellent - about as good as the upper Madison fishes, according to my fishing-guide buddy. Between the two of us, we probably landed 35 hungry and feisty fish from 12 to 18 inches including one on a dry. I was a bit of an out-of-shape, out-of-practice shit show, but it was a superb, two-moose birthday.

I can't decide if I am grateful to have friends that will drag me out fishing in this weather, or resentful that I could be expected to brave the water after this bullshit weather. But life's too short, as they say, and I've settled on grateful. Very grateful.

So here's to the 2019 Montana fishing season, to friends who are probably a little crazy, and to another trip around the sun with four more crazy seasons. We should have good flows all summer long (despite what my previous post says :)).

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Early birds get the cutts and graylings

*UPDATE 2/23: Nevermind. 

If you think my co-worker Larry is crazy for beginning his mountain-lake exercise regimen in January this year, you might miss this boat this summer.

As predicted by some weather outlets, El Nino has given the Northern Rockies a warm, dry winter. While we are enjoying the mild weather, it has negative implications for our fishing summer.
Here in southwestern Montana, expect an early and brief runoff. Our low snowpack (see below) coupled with expected continued warmth and dryness indicates that relatively little water is in the mountains to melt into streamflow when the mountains thaw in April and May. In good water years, runoff in valley-bottom mainstems can last well into July, but in a year like this, it's not uncommon for it to be over in early June.

It doesn't look too terrible, but these numbers are expected to get worse as we proceed into spring. NOTE: When looking up snowpack data, tis better to use the "snow-water equivalent" snowpack data than the current-year precipitation data. It more accurately reflects the amount of water that will melt into the streams. 

Also expect many rivers to go under Hoot-owl Restrictions by late July/early August. Hoot-owl Restrictions are rules put into place by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks that legally limit when anglers can fish in a given river or drainage. Once announced, the affected rivers are closed from 2pm to midnight. This affects vacation schedules for tourists, income for guides, outfitters and fly shops, and plans for resident anglers. If you plan to fish Montana's famous rivers this summer, consider coming in late June or early July.

But of the most interest to types like me, expect mountain lakes to ice off early and maybe be too warm or dewatered in August and September. Exact timing is always a crapshoot and depends on several factors beyond snowpack and ice thickness, like elevation, sun exposure and amount of tributary inflow. But, I will guess that we will be about two to four weeks ahead of the ice-out schedule from my book. And it could be even earlier. Larry told me that in the El Nino year of 1988 (the year Yellowstone burned badly), mountain wildflowers were said to be in bloom in April, about two months early.

Sawtooth Lake in the East Pioneers near Dillon, Montana. Go early. 
In 2019, don't wait for the date that the lake was great last year. Go early, maybe absurdly so.