Monday, July 26, 2021

Man versus feet, at Heart Lake

I hate my feet and they hate me. Our dysfunctional relationship was never more apparent than our recent backcountry cutthroat pilgrimage in Yellowstone National Park. I mangled them and they let me know how they felt about that. 

But my feet and I made enough peace to experience some of the best dry-fly cutthroat trout fishing a human can have at Yellowstone 's Mosquito Office: Heart Lake. 

I'll be brief for now:

The mosquitos were real bad. A photo exists of about 70 (no joke) suckling on my hapless shoulder. 

No one got eaten by a bear. We, including one party member who (carefully) seeks out bears for videos, didn't even see one. 

It was superb. Classic, cutthroat-trout fly fishing for specimens from 15 to 20 inches (and truly few smaller).  And we got some lakers. More to follow in the new edition of the Flyfisher's Guide to Yellowstone National Park, due out in a few years. 

A true delight. 

Heart Lake, Yellowstone
Still water. 

Heart Lake Yellowstone
Ant eater.

Heart Lake Yellowstone
 Bye Fishia. 

Heart Lake Yellowstone
Gotcha. Or did you get me? 

Heart Lake Yellowstone lake trout
Look at that vermiculation. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

An Angler's Coming of Aver-Age

 In the grand pantheon of the angling obsessed, I’ve liked to think that I’m among the fishy. I grew up out-angling my peers, I owned books, had magazines subscriptions, fish-emblazoned clothing,  and regularly fished alone. I decided I wanted to be a fishing writer at age 13 and I wanted to do all the kinds of fishing for all the species in the world. I even had a Babe Winkelman poster on my bedroom wall. I fished for whatever lived where I was, by whatever means necessary.

So... heavy... 

But as I age, I'm starting to accept my averageness (it’s okay, I’m good with it). And I question if I’m even in the top 25 percent of the fishing population in terms of obsession. The more books and articles I read, the more people I see on the internet living their fishing dreams, the more people I meet in person in the Yellowstone area, and the more anglers with whom I fish, the less fishy I feel.

I went steelheading in Idaho and all I caught was this lousy sucker.

But that’s okay. Imma still fish when and where and why and how I see fit. Imma still try to write and photograph as circumstances allow. Imma stop competing and trying to prove that I’m fishy, and Imma be happy with all of that. Because it turns out I think I’m a pretty average angler (and human, really). Most of us are. And that’s okay, if not fantastic. Coming to terms with average-osity is part of aging for many of us, and I’m just now maturing to that realization and acceptance. And honestly, it feels good to let go.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

With a little help from a friend

I was really feeling down the other day, so when a friend asked if I wanted to wake up at 5am to go fishing in Yellowstone National Park, I figured it couldn't hurt.

Around 6am that morning, while Brady was grabbing a sandwich for lunch, I read an e-mail that said that a road in Yellowstone had closed due to a fuel spill. I asked Brady if that would affect our day, and he said, "Yeah, that's the road we're taking."

So we drove down the valley cursing anything and everything -- gasoline, truck drivers, YNP maps, roads, combustion engines -- while trying to figure out a plan B. Yellowstone has a ton of fishing options, but we had a quick decision to make. We could still go to our original location, but our drive time would triple. We could go somewhere else that would still be good, but it wouldn't be the specific goodness we'd yearned for.

We ultimately planned to do the long drive around, but the ranger at the gate had some intel: we could get closer to our original target, on the original route, than we'd read.

So we drove as far as we could and started hiking, fishing the promising water while looking for trout to cast to. And after a couple of hours and a few miles, we'd actually arrived at our original destination. 

And so had the fish. And because the road was closed, other people did not. Most days, we'd literally have seen hundreds of people here; this day, just each other.

Float a stonefly nymph or Pheasant Tail under an indicator through the buckets and hold on. I was grateful that a different friend had advised that I bring my 5-weight Sage Z-Axis switch rod, that fishes more like a 7-weight. We took turns netting, snapping photos, and bumping fists. Twelve or 13 large native cutthroat later, we figured we'd head back before the bears got us. 

My feet were blistered and my legs were tired but I was smiling. The healing power of fishing was apparent that afternoon. That's what friends are for, I guess.  

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Like a kid

Maturing in your late 20s while discovering fly fishing in Montana makes for some incredible days and better memories. Every hatch is new, exploring desolate fisheries, so many high fives, grip-and-grins, views, reminiscences ... But over time, the excitement can actually start to wane. Careers take precedent, kids need nurturing, and life "happens." The roaring inferno dwindles to a glowing ember. 

But this past Monday, a friend helped me rekindle the flame. 

On the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park, we found challenging but good fishing for rainbows, cutthroat, brown trout and whitefish up to about 17 inches (except for the alleged 21-inch cuttbow Brady claimed to land). As we were leaving, we circled back to the holes where we'd started while dark clouds expanded over us.

"That's a green drake," I said. We weren't expecting to see green drakes, but as Brady was telling me earlier, it can be bay-nay-nays when green drakes are out. But they're generally a late-June/early July thing, and this was August

"Ooh, that's another, and there's another!" he said. 

Fish exploded around us like cannonballs from afar. Like a hailstorm. I was well into my next knot before I realized that I hadn't been this excited on the river in years. The fish were not so dumb that they'd eat anything, but after 20 minutes when the hatch ceased, we had landed three beautiful trout, including a marvelous down-river-chased 18-inch cuttbow.  

Within minutes, as the overhead lightning blew up and the rain down poured down, we slogged back to the truck. Then toasted, and smiled all the way home.

Then on Friday, another friend and I went to investigate a rumor that access was allowed at a private-land gate, that would let us on a section of river that is basically off limits. But it was well-posted, and while you could esoterically argue that the placement of the posts implied access is actually allowed here, we decided that it wasn't worth it. We traipsed back to the public access and fished upstream for a couple hours, finding a handful of hopper-eaters. But my heart was pounding like it was 2010 thinking about the opportunity to get on that upper stretch. 

I'm so grateful to feel that joy of fly fishing in Montana like I hadn't in years. The forced free time afforded by COVID has presented an opportunity to relight a fire and feel like a kid again. At least for a few minutes among these anxious days. 

Say what you will about 2020. Some days, it's pretty fun. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Silver linings (with orange slashes)

Go home 2020, you're drunk.

But amidst the illness, anxiety, unemployment, and unrest, there exists opportunities for us to recapture some small goodnesses. To take some time to breathe and have an excuse to simplify.

I've found myself nerding out on my dust-covered entomology books, reading about the nuances of pale morning duns, and how they swim and hatch and what eastern mayflies they're related to. Last night I dug up my corny old fly fishing DVDs and watched Kelly Galloup and Denny Rickards chase trout on Ennis Lake, and Gary LaFontaine and Dick Sharon goof off on the Big Hole and Upper Clark Fork. I've even been tying some flies - leeches, Princes, chironomids, Clouser Minnows - and actually enjoying it.

Friends and I have more time to social distance on the river, and to visit some places we haven't for years. On these trips, it feels like we're unmarried 20-somethings again, without the pressures of adulthood.

During the aforementioned escapes, I feel good and hopeful and grateful - feelings that have been elusive this year. I'm given confidence that we're going to be okay, with a little help from public land, clean water, and wild trout. And looking forward to more silver linings. 

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

Deciding in September

It's the time of year when the trout 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. Then we had to decide which beer. Meanwhile elk bugled, leaves turned, the sun fell and we drove home.

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

Wyoming flatlands trout

I'd heard Casper called things like "Wyoming's butthole," but I thought it was lovely.

I and a media crew were recently dispatched to Casper and the North Platte River to fish and spread the good news. Beyond me, it was the wonderful 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 usually 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.